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The Country/The Country

By Bob Knox All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Scifi

25. 'Our Sympathies to the Family'

They needed cars, apparently. Checkpoints were set up at major intersections. Cars were stopped. The drivers and passengers climbed awkwardly out of them, with men standing by, hurrying them away. Taking the keys from the driver’s hand.

Keel detoured down a side street. Then paused, to watch.

People stood at the side of the road looking confused and distraught. Children shouting questions in frightened voices.

Other vehicles passed through the choke points unmolested. Perhaps their vehicles were not so desirable, or were the wrong size. The drivers stared ahead at the road, averting their eyes from the dispossessed car-owners, the unlucky ones, who lingered at the roadside in a daze.

Nobody stopped to ask them what was going on, or offer help. The lucky ones seemed, by some primal instinct, to know.

Later, Keel imagined, the dispossessed would see their own vehicles, driven by campaigning Pigglies, go by.

They would take to staring at their images in store windows or mirrors, to see whether their lives had been taken from them as well.

Smoke continued to linger in the capital district that night. Amplified music could be heard throughout the city.

When Keel arrived back at his small, tidy house, the dog still plastered beneath his bed, he sat in the winged back chair in his bedroom, unmoving, not even able to take his shoes off, and tried to find a place to put his thoughts so that he would not have to review them constantly. Solid dark had fallen.

Various noises still sounded every minutes in the distance. Alarms, helicopters, or amplified P.A.; he was not always sure which.

When it was time for the evening nooz, he went downstairs and turned on the TV.

In the studio of the local nooz station, everything looked the same. The lead story, of course, was the arrival of the Pegasso campaign in the capital zone of Monro. A few quick shots of tents with people stooping to go in or out, or standing around holding cans. None of these showed the flagpole in front of the Capitol Building.

Of course, why should they point their camera on the flag pole? What could be more mundane?

Then the nooz-desk guy -- suit jacket, fleshy face, square shoulders; yet Keel still could not think of his name -- offered the timely reminder that tomorrow was voting day in Monro, capital of the District of Monro.

Coverage of the big day continued. The screen showed flashes of canned footage that purported to show the mayor greeting the Pig entourage outside City Hall, but camera was positioned to show only the backs of the men gathered on the building’s portico and nothing of the lawn where, as Keel had seen with his own eyes, fires were burning and effigies swaying. No aura of smoke or noise or displacement, or images of riot or invasion or casual violence appeared in the footage (or supposed footage) of the leading candidate’s arrival in the Capitol Zone.

Seconds later the screen showed a campaign spokesman reading a prepared statement thanking the mayor and district officials for their courteous welcome and hospitality.

The Pig campaign had many spakesmen, Keel noticed. They were all men, and they all wore suits that were a little too tight, as if they shared the same slightly myopic tailor. Or else the tensions of the campaign had been overcompensated for by its indulgences. This spakesman had steely eyes and thick hair cut short that looked ironed into place.

“The candidate is overwhelmed by the hospitality shown him and his assistants by Mayor Bourqe and all the fine people at city hall.”

The spakesman’s blunt-edged bonhomie rang metallically in the microphones.

His mouth smiled.

Then the ritual repetition of the statement the campaign had issued every day for the past two weeks expressing the candidate’s hope that the Supreme Electors of the Sacred Commission would promptly announce their decision on the choice of a new archon to rule (within, of course, prescribed limits) the greatest nation in the world, The Commonhope of UZ.

And then the nooz hour moved on.

A bank merger, or perhaps takeover, sent jitters through the markets. A change in the weekly trash pickup schedule. The science fair winners at a secondary school. The search for a nursing home patient who had disappeared from a rehabilitation facility.

What? Keel thought. Again? Was he hearing things?

No elaboration followed. The screen shifted abruptly back to the scene in the Capitol Zone.

Here it is now, he thought: Finally. The true picture. Keel longed for others to see what he had seen. To hear truths spoken aloud: a confirmation, even by bland media sources, of the noise and fires and smoke and criminal depredations.

But the screen showed the same images as before. Almost identically.

Stocky men bending from the waist to pass through a tent opening, as if going to a pub crawl. Suited officials shaking hands.

Is that all?

What happened to the sirens? The ear-splitting pandemonium of the unmuffled motorcycles? The fires on the green! On the Capitol Building lawn! Keel didn’t expect to see everything on the news but he was stunned by all that he did not see: Traffic stopped; families pulled out of cars.

And that ‘something else’ he’d seen -- something very disturbing. Swaying in the breeze. An image so disturbing he had temporarily forced it out of his mind.

What was it? What was he forgetting?

A body. Limp. Swaying from a flagpole.

One of the two nooz-readers assumed a rueful expression.

“And a sad note, Darlen,” the male one observed, as if the desk-readers were alone in a room somewhere. “To mar the festivities down at the Capitol Zone. A little, at least... Unfortunately.”

Darlen arranged a suitable expression.

“Noel Barnep,” the male nooz-reader continued, “the mayor’s longtime aide for cultural affairs, succumbed to an apparent heart attack while driving home and perished in a single-car accident. He was sixty-three.”

“Our sympathies,” Darlen said, “to the family of Noel Barnep, veteran mayoral aide.”

Is that it? Keel asked himself. Is that what he saw?

The sad body of truth. The disturbing thing.

Had he dreamed it all up? The encounter with Pig’s hangmen? Hallucinated it -- out of disorientation? noise? shock?

On the screen appeared a photo of a sixtyish mayoral advisor whose job was to encourage the city’s cultural life.

The camera moved in on the photo. Keel recognized the face. For the second time that day he felt sick.

Later, in bed, staring into the dark rectangle of a second story window, Keel saw the flares of distant fireworks.

It was a myth, he realized. They were living in a myth -- or what would become one. Some ancient story.

A myth: then a legend: then a line or two in a history book.

All this marching through the land, gathering irate supporters, making huge fires, scaring the bejeesus out of everybody else. The “barbarians‴ long march to the city.

He could look through his books later, perhaps find an original version for this dream slipping out of the closet of forgetfulness to disturb his rest.

And, frankly, he was disturbed. Should he seek some sort of assistance?

Was there a text that his subconscious was dipping into from some long ago piece of reading that the conscious, wakeful Keel could no longer summon by memory and reflection alone.

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