It’s not the fire either. By the time I finished high school last year, Class of 2058, the countryside had been on fire for years. When the fires range within a hundred miles, there’s a glow at night. They burn toward us from out past Leavenworth or Topeka, sparked by lightning or agricultural machinery. Every dawn and every sunset carries the orange-red hue of smoke in the air even when real clouds gather.
Uncle Dan’s old Dodge truck vibrates as we sit at the stoplight. The thrum of its engine comes up through my shoe soles, through the worn seat to penetrate my body. My edgy feeling gets bigger in his truck. If I was driving, I’d slam my foot to the floor and drive as fast as this old beast would go. That’s what I mean—this isn’t about the mission.
The light changes and the engine noise increases as he accelerates. Other people in their quiet little electric cars look at us. That used to embarrass me, but I don’t care now. We’re the ones who know the truth, and that’s all that matters.
To the west, past the city lights, the night sky gleams orange. This burn is running south along the far side of 435, forcing people to evacuate to the old speedway or Wyandotte Lake. Or into Kansas City proper. It’s safer in town. Pavement and concrete don’t burn like timberland, fields, and crops. Like old farmhouses built out of wood. Old neighborhoods burn, but new buildings are mostly concrete with metal roofs.
Granddad Carter’s house was wood. So were his barns, outbuildings. Uncle Dan told me how it was when all that burned. Even Granddad’s rigged up water system couldn’t stop it. The fire came in on a strong wind, jumped the fifty-foot fire break he’d plowed. Afterwards, they made the best of things, went out into the blackened prairie and harvested burned deer. That’s the family story. My dad Victor, Uncle Dan, Amos, and Granddad cured over three hundred pounds of venison jerky from that. Before I was born.
We drive along in the hot wind tinged with smoke scent. Bits of music break through the engine noise, pealing out from shops and street cafes, nightclubs and dance centers. Crowds throng the sidewalks now that the sun has set, families with eager children, groups of enthusiastic young people, loving couples staring into each other’s eyes. You’d think, looking at them, that the world wasn’t in its last days, that we’d just go on living like we always have rolling around in our desires, our appetites. I used to think I wanted that, what everybody else had. I know better now.
“Look at them, boy,” Dan scoffs. He nods toward a line along the sidewalk waiting to enter a store. New Shipment! the signs announce in big letters. Level II Meat, Dairy. “They ain’t got more sense than to spend all their money on a lie.” He glances at me. “You’re damn lucky, Josh Carter, you know that?”
“Yes sir,” I reply. Because I do know it. I’m among the few who see, the few who hold to the old ways, respect the truth. The rewards will be ours.
Only, since I got this feeling, this shivery sensation that runs up the side of my neck a few times a day, it seems like the world has tilted a little. Used to, knowing I was special, knowing the way things were headed, I had the energy of five people. I’d do my morning run, go to work, go to school, get everything done and be ready for the evening workout like I’d been resting all day. Lately, since this feeling started chewing on me, everything I do is like clawing through a layer. Like a clogged pump straining to drain. And I don’t even have school any more.
I stare out the side window as we drive along. We pass through residential districts. There’s a long stretch of apartment buildings, those big complexes they build for all the people that keep coming here. I don’t know why they come. Kansas City isn’t that much better than anywhere else. Maybe every place is this crowded. But I haven’t been anywhere else, so I don’t know. I’d like to know. I’d like to think that I’ve seen everything and made the choice to be here. But I’m going on nineteen, so I guess I’ve still got a few things to learn.
It’s hard to face what I’m facing and only be nineteen. I’m not afraid of what I have to do, of the challenges that lie ahead. Even before my father died when I was little, I always knew I was in line for a mission. That’s what the menfolk of the Brotherhood do. Until this strange feeling started, I didn’t worry about it at all.
We’re in another district now, housing thinning out to commercial—places to buy things. They’re always crowded at night. The distant glow of white light reflects up from the sports arena. If Dan turned off the truck, we could probably hear the crowd from here. The Royals, home game.
I keep my face turned away from Uncle Dan. Even as well trained and dedicated as he’s raised me, I can’t stop my feelings. There’s excitement in that crowd, in all these throngs along the streets. It travels through the night and hits me in my chest. Makes my stomach tight. Just once, I’d like to mingle in those crowds, smell the tobacco and marijuana smoke, the beer. I’d like to hear the laughter up close, stare into the colorful lights and video displays. I’d like to know how it feels, that pleasure, that freedom to sin.
But I can’t. I’m one of the chosen ones.
Because that’s how things are.
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