Unknown – Wendy Higgins

It’s nearly time, Bahntan.” Bahntan. Keeper of the people. He was the first male leader of his kind, raised for one single, monumental purpose. And the time to fulfill that purpose was upon them. The Bahntan lifted his heavy chin from where he stared out of the window into Nevada’s night sky; his every thought a betrayal of his life’s work. On the outside he appeared handsome and capable in a crisp Italian suit, but on the inside he had never felt more broken, his thoughts scattered. “You have reservations,” his female comrade remarked. The Bahntan focused on the stars and imagined what lie beyond them, too far for his eye to see—places humans had never been—places he could scarcely imagine himself. “We knew it would be difficult for you,” his comrade continued. “Being forced to live as one of them. But we are beyond the point of turning back, Bahntan.” The woman put a hand on his shoulder. “You have been chosen. Do not doubt one hundred years of careful planning.

You are honored.” I am cursed. The Bahntan turned, not daring to voice the thought. His comrade had lived in hiding all her life, surrounded only by other Bahnturian people in one of many subculture camps hidden on every continent on the earth. This woman was well-trained, well-manicured, to speak any language and fit in to nearly any culture, but she did not have the firsthand knowledge that he had. He met his comrade’s eye and gave a stiff nod. “Of course.” “Earth, its people, need our cleansing. They beg for it in their despair; the soil and sky cry out for it. And yet they are not willing to do what is necessary.

” The Bahntan closed his eyes. “But five and a half billion people . ” Then he clenched his teeth and shoved his hands in his pockets, turning away again. “It is the only way.” The woman of Bael took his shoulder and forced him to turn again. This woman, who should have been leader, planted her hands on the Bahntan’s shoulders. “In every nation they are poisoned. They abuse their own bodies, their own lands. Their minds are rotted by evils of murder and hatred and all manner of perversion.” “Not all,” he whispered in response.

The woman gave him a firm shake. “Too many.” Never had he questioned his people and their ways. He knew the earth wept, and drastic changes were the only way to set things right, but five and a half billion souls were a great many to carry on his shoulders. “Bahntan, do not doubt,” she said gently. “Those who perish will be at peace. And those who live will be thankful and embrace their new life.” “As slaves?” The Bahntan gave a dry laugh. “I fear they will not bow to us as easily as you assume.” “History says otherwise.

They will succumb. They will adapt. Slavery of some sort has been in these lands since the dawn of time. It is the nature of the masses to be led by those stronger than them. And humans are no strangers to genocide. In the end, our ways will be good for them. There will finally be equality for all. No petty reasons for war. No differences to overcome. They will come to see that—if not in this generation, then the next.

And our people will finally be free. Don’t you see? The cost is great, but the cause is greater.” The Bahntan swallowed down every argument on his tongue. This was the only way. He had to believe the end justified the means, otherwise what was to come might destroy him. Humanity had its good and bad attributes, its weaknesses and strengths. When he concentrated on the bad, on those weaknesses, he knew this was the only way for his people to have a chance. He couldn’t allow himself to fear what was right. “Please,” the Bahntan said. “Ignore my reservations.

I am ready.” The woman smiled and rubbed his shoulder. “There now. You make us proud.” Even in retrospect, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where we went wrong. After the bombings, things were . confusing. Chaotic. I’m not sure if it was hope or desperation or simply naiveté that caused us, the United States, to sit back and watch as an eraser was taken to our Constitution. Perhaps it was fear.

Whatever the reason, we handed over our freedoms, allowed everything to be stripped away for the sake of supposed safety, even when it felt wrong. Because we didn’t know who we were fighting. We only knew who we were protecting. Us Tates and the Fites. Rylen Fite. Oh God . Ry. I feel like I need to talk about him before I can explain the dismal state of our world. Because for me, he’s the core strand around which everything else in my life is woven. He’s more than just my older brother’s best friend.

He’s more than our neighbor on the potato farm with a screwed up family. He’s an integral part of me . and I’d die if he ever knew I said that. Without electronics or electricity, I find myself reminiscing a lot. If I let myself get lost in those safer, sweeter memories, the horrors of the present momentarily dissipate, and I’ve come to crave that. So when I close my eyes and try to sleep, I think about the day we moved to Lincoln County, Nevada. The day I met Ry. I was six. He was nine. Dad got stationed just outside of Vegas as an Army recruiter, but he wanted me and Tater to grow up in a small town.

Hence Lincoln. Home to Coyote Springs Golf Course, spectacular mountain ranges, green valleys, brown deserts, cattle ranches, wild horses, and UFO folklore. It was the middle of nowhere, but still a lot prettier than Ft. Bragg, North Carolina where we’d been stationed last. The younger me stared out from the porch of our new one-story rancher at the acres of potato fields with a rundown house in the distance, flanked by a series of sheds, a chicken coop, and a leaning barn. Beyond those eyesores were the mountains, glorious, rocky, and snow-capped. Dad put his hands on mine and Tater’s shoulders and said, “I want you kids to stay off that property. From what I hear, it’s owned by a family called the Fites, and they’ve got a lot of problems.” “What kind of problems?” Tater asked, nosey, know-it-all nine-year old that he was. “Problems with the law.

” Dad’s face was stern, but Mom walked up, looking softer, pitying, as she stared out at the property. “They’ve had a lot of tragedy,” she explained. Tater looked to her with wide eyes. “You met them?” “No, Jacobcito.” Little Jacob. “Small town.” Mom ruffled his brown curls. “People love to talk. A lot.” They left to unpack and we raced to the tire swing.

Tater beat me, as usual, and we were fighting over it when we saw a boy watching from between a couple orange trees at the edge of our property. His hair was so blond. Overgrown like a yellow helmet. His jeans were an inch too short and his Tshirt a size too big. A hound dog puppy with oversized ears sniffed the tree and hiked a leg on it. Tater let go of the swing like he was going to go talk to him. “Daddy said to stay away!” I hissed. “He said for us not to go there,” Tater corrected. The thing about Tater was that he would talk to anyone. He didn’t have a sense of ‘stranger danger’ like I had.

So he walked right over to the boy and I followed, wary. I expected to see meanness in his eyes after what Dad told us. But as we got closer, the boy stayed real still, watching us, just as wary. A weird sense of calm overcame me when he looked at me with thoughtfulness, all serious, like he was taking me in. The puppy came running over, tripping over its ears and paws. I bent down to pet him, but he slobbered a lot. We’d never had a dog. Mom was allergic. “Hey, I’m Tater.” “Your name’s Tater?” The boy’s voice was soft.

No judgment. “Well, no. Our last name’s Tate, and everyone calls me Tater.” “His real name is Jacob Lee Junior,” I chimed in, wanting the boy to look at me again. And he did. And I felt that weird calm again, this time laced with an even weirder tingle of gladness. “Are you guys Mexican?” the boy asked. Tater pursed his lips. “You got a problem with Mexicans?” “No,” he said easily. Tater deflated a little.

“Oh. Well, we’re half-Mexican. Our dad’s white.” “He thinks maybe he has some Native American in him ‘cause he gets real tanned in the sun, and he has brown eyes and hair—” The boy nodded, but my stupid brother cut me off. “What’s your name?” “I’m Rylen. I live over there.” He pointed to the old house on the potato farm where we weren’t allowed to go. “This is Roscoe.” He nodded down to the pup, who ran after a lizard that darted around the tree trunk. “How old are you?” Tater asked him.

“Nine and three quarters.” “Shoot, I’m nine and a half.” They compared birthdays. Rylen was two months older. “Well, I’m six and a quarter,” I said. Tater nudged me. “Nuh-uh, you just turned six like two weeks ago. You don’t even know what a quarter means.” I shoved him and he laughed. I hated when he tried to humiliate me in front of other kids.

I waited for Rylen to laugh like most boys did when Tater teased me, but he just gave a little smile. His teeth were really white against his dirty skin, and his eyes were a dark bluish gray. “What’s your name?” he asked me. I felt pride when he acknowledged me like an equal or something. “Amber Maria Tate.” “That’s pretty.” I stared, and Tater eyed him. The boy’s cheeks turned a little pink and he looked down, scuffing his toe in the grass. No boy had ever given me a compliment. From then on I’d do just about anything for his attention.

“Hey man, wanna swing?” Tater asked. Rylen nodded, and the three of us ran for the hanging tire. The smell of cigarette smoke clung to Rylen’s clothes. Tater tried to elbow me out of the way, but Ry spoke up. “Let’s let her go first since she’s little.” I frowned at the ‘little’ part because it felt like a jab, but he was serious. Again. Tater looked baffled, but said, “Okay. Yeah.” And together they swung me super high; I clung to the rubber tire, screaming, filled with joy, while Roscoe ran around us in a circle, barking his head off and tripping over his ears.

That night I told mom all about Rylen while she was tucking me in. “He’s the nicest boy I ever met. I don’t want him to have to stay away.” “Ah, pequeña princesa.” My mom was the daughter of migrant workers in southern California. Dad met her when she was working at a taco truck outside of his base, and he was starving after PT. He swears he knew he would marry her when she laughed at him as his mouth was on fire from squirting on too much green hot sauce. “I’m glad he’s nice. He can come here any time, but the grownups at his house . that’s who we want you to stay away from.

” I remembered what she’d said earlier. “What bad things happened to them?” Mom sighed. “Rylen had a little brother and a little sister last year.” She paused, and my stomach filled with dread. “They’re both in heaven now.” My heart started beating super hard. “Why?” “They were in a car accident. The boy was a baby and the girl was six, like you. Their aunt was driving, and she didn’t make them put on their seatbelts.” Mom kissed my head.

I’d never heard anything more terrible. I thought about Rylen, and how nice he’d been to me, and how he didn’t have his little brother and sister to play with anymore, and I imagined losing Tater. He was annoying, but I did love him. And if a little boy and girl died, that meant I could die too. The exhaustion of the move and the sadness pummeled me, making me shake. “Why do bad things have to happen? It’s not fair.” Mom lifted me and held me close. “I don’t know, baby. Life is filled with good and bad. We have to appreciate the good while we have it.

Some people, like little Rylen, have learned that the hard way.” She’d stroked my wavy hair, murmuring gentle things until I fell asleep. Growing up in the shadow of two older boys was a challenge, but I was up for it. I wanted to do everything the boys did: skateboarding, rock climbing, rope swinging into the lake, fishing, digging trenches, shooting the bb gun, playing Army. Tater always tried to make me be the nurse, but I wanted to be a soldier too, with a Nerf gun of my own. “Just let her,” Rylen would say in that steady voice of his. And Tater would roll his eyes and grumble, “Fine.” As I got older, I agreed to play a medic soldier because I kind of liked bandaging and fixing. Blood didn’t gross me out. When me or one of the boys would get hurt, I would watch every step of how Mom cleaned it up and sealed it.

She’d be grimacing the whole time, looking pale at the gorier cuts as I openly stared with fascination. “You’d make a good doctor or nurse someday,” Mom said when I was eight, and those words stuck. Rylen came to our house almost every day. Roscoe would follow him over, and then Ry would pat his rump and say, “Go on home, boy.” He’d sometimes spend whole weekends with us and even weeknights. I learned about his family by eavesdropping on grown-ups. A lot of people lived in the Fite house, most unemployed with addictions. Aunts, uncles, cousins, his parents, and his grandfather. His dad and grandfather worked the land. They hired immigrants to help during harvest.

I mostly overheard my mom talking quietly on the phone with Abuela in California, giving her updates on us. Three of Rylen’s cousins had been taken away by social services from his aunt. The dad was out of the picture, but a boyfriend lived with them. His aunt and her boyfriend would get jobs as gas station attendants, then find ways to get fired to collect unemployment. “. can’t believe Len Fite lets those leaches live in his house,” I heard Dad saying to Mom. “They’re his family,” she responded with a sigh. “They’re trash.” “Sh, baby, don’t let the kids hear you say that.” Too late.

“I’ve got no tolerance for people without work ethic. They’re lucky Rylen hasn’t been taken away yet.” Cold fear sliced through me. Could Rylen be taken away? “I wish we could keep him here.” Dad mumbled his agreement. He always sounded so angry when he talked about the Fites, and Mom just sounded sad. “His father and grandfather are the only ones who have their acts together, but even Lenard’s a loose cannon. That man’s got a temper, and when he drinks, he drinks hard. I know he’s done jail time.” Mom stayed quiet.

I’d seen Len Fite from afar, and also the couple of times he’d shown up at our house to get Ry when he needed him to work. Len was a huge man with a scruffy long beard and he never smiled. His arms were covered in faded tattoos. He smelled like dirt and chickens and sweat. He had that same seriousness of Rylen, but where Ry was gentle, his dad felt dangerous. But Rylen’s devotion was obvious in the way he looked at him. His mom never came over to get him. I only saw her when we were out. She’d be coming out of the liquor store while we were coming out of the little studio room Mom rented to give dance lessons. Mom would say hello and Mayella would halfheartedly wave her cigarette at us.

“Self-medicating,” Mom told Abuela on the phone, always in Spanish. “The woman needs help, but she won’t talk to me or anyone else. There’s no getting through.” It was always a relief to have Ry with us. Just like the day we met, I’d still do anything to impress him. Including trying hot peppers and hot sauces that Tater wouldn’t dare put in his mouth. I put my tongue to a ghost pepper on a dare until my nose and eyes ran. And then I hurled a pepper at Tater when he said I looked gross. Rylen followed suit, trying the peppers too, but he had to spit and chug a glass of milk. Honestly, I think he only tried it to make me feel better.

And seeing him with runny eyes and a red nose did help. “You’re kinda like a hot pepper, too, you know that?” Rylen told me after I jumped on Tater’s back to try and force a pepper to his lips. “Feisty all the time.” He took to calling me Pepper after that. I pretended like it was no big deal, but to be given a nickname, something special that was just between us, was the best thing in the world. Rylen never missed a Sunday supper with us. I began to think it was less about the supper and more about what happened after we ate. The dancing. Mom was a dance instructor. Salsa and Tango were her specialties, but she could do just about any ballroom style.

On Sundays she would turn on her favorite Mexican band CD and her hips would move like POW, POW. Daddy would grab a beer and sit back in the recliner, watching Mom with a grin. Rylen would sit in the corner of the couch, eyes soaking us in with that small smile of amusement. Me and Tater had the moves like Mom. Tater was especially funny because he really got into it. When his hips started to swivel fast, Daddy would shout, “Go, Pit Bull!” The three of us danced until we were sweating and out of breath. Mom took turns leading us, spinning us, sashaying us hip-to-hip. Sometimes she would implore Daddy to get up and join, but he’d laugh and say, “You know I’m just a gringo, baby.” Rylen would let her pull him to his feet, but he’d just stand there, red-faced, while we danced around him. I still dreamed about those nights, longing for that easy laughter and togetherness.

But those days were long gone.


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