The President is Dead
“Ma, I wanna go outside.”
The mother’s head whipped up from its place bent over the counter and the cutting board, the chopping knife nearly slipping onto her brittle knuckles.
“Oh, no, you don’t. I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again: it’s not safe out there.”
“But the crickets like it just fine. They go chirping out my window at night and they don’t seem hurt by it.”
“They’re crickets, Louie.” She frowned, makeup-caked brows folding up like fabric wrinkles. “Crickets aren’t people. They’re like roaches. You could step on them and they’d bounce right back.”
“I saw squirrels too, up by the trees. They look fine.”
“Looking fine doesn’t mean they are fine.”
“How ‘bout the birds and the frogs? My books say frogs get sick and die really easy, but they keep me up at night. And birds don’t seem strong like bugs are. Wouldn’t they be dead if outside was bad like the President said?”
“Your books-” The mother huffed, setting the knife down. “Darling, you read too much. Why don’t you run around and break things like boys are supposed to, hmm?”
“My books told me the frogs get sick and die if it’s not good outside-”
“Louie, that’s enough. I don’t want to hear any more of this frog nonsense from you.”
“But Ma, they said-”
“I said no more! You know people can’t go outside. The President said so.”
Outside, there was birdsong and sunlight and all the spring flowers poking up from the ground, wildflowers strung over the grass like silly string. The lawn was trimmed so neatly that someone must have taken scissors to every stray blade.
“Did the President lie, Ma?”
The mother shook her head, arms folding across her perfect checkered dress.
“Of course not. He’s the president, darling, he can’t lie.” She pressed her lips together for a moment. “Or, well, he wouldn’t. He’s an honest man. You know he wants to keep us safe- thank goodness he beat out that other nutjob in the election or we’d all be dead in all sorts of horrible ways now, wouldn’t we? The birds are just lucky.”
“But the frogs-”
“Louie, stop with the frogs. I’ve heard more than enough out of you about that. You’ll stay inside until the President comes on the television to tell us it’s all okay again. Aren’t your toys enough for you?”
“It’s not the same. Horsey wants to go racing in the yard with Mr. Soldier.”
“I know, darling, but they’ll have to wait. The President knows best.” She smiled stiffly. “Why don’t you make a racetrack in the hall in the meantime? I bet they could have some great races there. Maybe they could even go wrestling afterwards.”
The mother went back to chopping the cucumbers, knife clack-clacking on the wood board. Louie glared at the back of her dress for a moment before heading off to the hall and piling blankets into a little hill for the horses to leap down.
Outside, the wind whistled through the tree boughs and sent little helicopter seeds spinning down into the dirt. The mother diced up the cucumbers, eyes cast away from the curtained window, then slid the cubes down the board into the old Tupperware she kept in the bottom drawers. The fridge cracked open and out came the carrots and the vinegar.
Three little knocks came on the front door, and the mother paused. The carrots were set down on the counter. Four more knocks came, barely audible, then three again. She let out a breath and went to the door, cracking it open and peering through to see the clothing-wrapped man on the other side. Every inch of his skin was covered in fabric and plastic, even his face; a broad, smiling mask smothered his features and hid his eyes. He reached up and tugged it down just enough for the mother to see his skin. The mother stared at his freckled forehead for a few seconds, then let the man into the house.
“Hey, Sammy,” she said, wrapping her arms around him for a moment before taking his cap and jacket to hang in the closet, folding the jacket’s stiff shoulder padding down to fit it on the coat hanger. The man’s mask smiled back at her. “Louie’s getting restless,” she said. “He kept asking about the frogs- frogs, of all things! Said his books told him they’d die if it wasn’t safe for people.”
“The frogs?” The man chuckled, slipping his perfect black shoes off and tucking them into the doorway. “The kid’s smart. I didn’t even think about the frogs.”
“I’m serious. He’s getting too antsy about it. I don’t think he believes my President excuse anymore.” Her hands found their way to her belt and worried at it, sliding the end in and out of its loop.
“Well, why not tell him the truth? He’s old enough, isn’t he? Big boy oughta know what’s expected of a man when he’s going on ten before you know it.”
“If I told him, then he’d act out. You haven’t seen how he gets- he still plays with his sister’s Barbies when he thinks I’m not looking. He wouldn’t listen. I don’t want him getting hurt out there.”
“Then we oughta lay down the law. He’s not a baby anymore, love. He can behave himself well enough to keep the enforcers happy. He just needs some good old fashioned discipline. You know he’s-”
The woman huffed, stepping away from the man. “You’re not listening to me. You know he likes to test the rules. You remember when we told him not to peek out the curtains, and here we are with him telling me he saw the squirrels outside and they looked fine.”
“So we oughta give him better consequences if he’s not listening. No kid’s gonna fall in line if he thinks it’s worth his while. Heck, my mum had to beat some sense into me growing up because I didn’t fit right with the others. I got stuck on my quirks. Maybe-”
“No.” The mother turned sharply to the side and went to the kitchen, the man trailing behind her like a lost duckling as she went back to the chopping. “You’re never here. You don’t know how Louie gets.” The knife cracked through the carrots and into the cutting board.
The man ducked his head, sidestepping and putting his arm around the mother’s hips. She stiffened, but she let the man pull her close, his masked face nestling into her shoulder.
“Sorry,” he said. “You know I’d be here if I could. Breaks my heart being away from the kid.”
“I just wish you’d spend more time with us.”
“I know, love. But hey, I might get off on break this week if I’m lucky. Boss said he’ll let me off on Tuesday if I take some overtime.”
“I don’t like thinking about you out there. What’ll we do if you don’t come home one night? What am I supposed to tell Louie?”
“Nothing- give me some credit! I’ve got myself handled.” The man laughed and pulled the mother closer, squeezing her shoulder. “I’ll be fine. I didn’t go through combat training for nothing.”
“I’m not telling him his father got killed by criminals.” Her grip tightened around the kitchen knife.
“I made it out of that mess in D.C., didn’t I?”
“I don’t want you taking a risk like that again. You know you scared me half to death.”
“Alright, love.” The man sighed. “But whatever happens, Louie’s gotta know someday. Kid’s going to grow up thinking the President’s still alive at this rate.”
Outside, dandelions poked up through the concrete driveway and waved in the breeze, scattering puffs of white down the street. The neighborhood’s ratty cat slipped between the flowerpots and nestled itself in the corpse of a strawberry plant, purring as it curled up in the late afternoon sun. All the bugs and worms eating up the weeds in the garden shrank away from the shadow.
Louie crept up to the window at the end of the hall, glancing behind him now and then. The window was up high, but there was a little table at the end of the hall covered in tidy knickknacks and photo frames that he clambered onto, nearly sending a brass statue of a soldier to the floor. He paused to steady it, then looked behind him one last time before reaching for the windowsill and wiggling his torso under the curtains.
He could see down the street and almost around the corner, down to the little shop that used to sell candy but now had blacked out windows and crossed out signs. A man stood on the corner, dressed in sleek plastic padding and cradling a rifle to his chest. Beneath him, the weed-choked asphalt was cracked open and crumbled to the point of being a tripping hazard, but the people walking over it managed without so much as a stumble.
They were dressed all the same. They wore hats and jackets and perfect black shoes, their bodies all wrapped up in plastic molding that pressed them into uniform shapes. Not an inch of skin could be seen, not even their faces. There was no way of telling most of them apart. One or two people carried books and bags, but most tucked their hands into their pockets and hurried along in exactly the same way, heads ducked down and shoulders raised up. None of them looked at each other, and none of them went near the man and his weapon. The people scattered like startled birds when he shifted his grip on the gun.
Slowly, Louie backed out of the window and back onto the floor, eyes wide. He sat down in front of the blanket hill he’d made and stared at the plastic toys strewn around it, skimming over the toppled form of Horsey at the bottom. His gaze landed on the little green soldier perched at the top of the hill. He reached out to hold it tight in his hands, his fingers clutching at the soldier’s rifle.
“The President lied,” Louie whispered.