God's Spies

By Kevin Griffith


Today, it’s a toxic spill drill.  Sam Nickerson is lying on his back in front of the playground structure, trying not to giggle as two guys from the National Clearinghouse  for Educational Facilities Management and Control, or NCEFM, attempt to enclose his body in a ventilated plastic bubble.  The two guys, both dressed in yellow Hazmat suits, are attempting to adjust the oxygen intake valves of their oversized helmets, while the rest of the students from our eighth-grade class watch with a mixture of humor and boredom.

It’s a classic overcast fall day, and the reds, oranges, and yellows look especially bright against the gray background.   Our school is located at the end of a tree-lined street that intersects with one of the busiest streets in town.  The sound of semi-trucks downshifting cuts through the still air.

One of the guys is now trying to reach behind his back to turn a valve knob, an almost impossible move because of the poor design of the suits, hard rubber jobs that someone probably manufactured in China on the cheap.

“Bob, you want to give me some help here?”  Hazmat Guy #1 says, his voice hissing through his helmet microphone.

“Ike, if you can’t get the hang of that thing yet . . . Oh, hell, just let me finish up here.”

Hazmat Guy #2 reaches down and inflates the bubble around Sam, who, now securely “housed” (trapped, really) inside, tries to poke his finger through its clear plastic skin.

“Not gonna work, son. We’ve tested the density of that particular polymer with eighteen different kinds of pointed objects, including a gen-yuu-eyene World War II bayonet. Nothing’s been able to breach the seal.” After his little speech, Guy #2 turns to #1, who is flat on his back, frantically pawing at his helmet’s dark shield as he runs out of air.  “Dang, Ike, this is the last time . . .” As he flips some clips at the neck of Ike’s helmet, he turns to our class and says, “That’s all for today, kids.  And take a lesson from old Ike, here.  Be prepared. Always test your equipment first!” He yanks Ike’s helmet off, and Ike’s mouth explodes with loud gasping noises.

Meanwhile, Sam has indeed managed to poke his index finger through the plastic bubble.

* * *

Just about thirteen years ago, right before I was born, in fact, the government of the United States outlawed death.  Well, I mean people still died, of course, no doubting that, but no one was allowed to hold public funerals, take pictures of the dead, or even mention death.  The ban on death started during the war in Iran (“Operation Flaming Turban”), when pictures of soldiers’ coffins were prohibited.  That was just the beginning.

You see, also right before I was born, a “massive breach of the security network designed to protect the homeland from internal and external threats” occurred.  Nobody knows what government experts and White House spokespeople really meant by this, but something really really bad happened out west.  No civilian could fly or travel by car or train to points beyond Las Vegas anymore. California, Oregon, and Washington essentially ceased to exist, and because their votes were no longer included in presidential elections, an ultra-conservative president easily won re-election and immediately invoked National Security Directive 51, effectively making her president for life.

But what does all this have to do with death?  Well, let’s face it, death is depressing.  And the president is a relentless optimist, a patriot of the first order.   So she, with the help of a smaller Congress, passed the “Eternal Optimism Act,” which, “first and foremost promotes healthy, positive thoughts, and directly confronts and eliminates cynicism, criticism, and the ‘fixation on death’.” We have to recite this line as part of the Pledge of Allegiance now.  Thus, basically, people were ordered, under threat of prison or worse, to swim in the river of denial. 

And one of the sub-clauses of ROA established that all K-12 schools in the homeland, both public and private, would execute daily disaster drills, “encompassing the entire range and spectrum of possible security threats, both natural and man-made.” That’s why every day we spend at least 90 minutes at my school, Lower Elm, preparing for the worst, in whatever form it may take.  The order, I guess, was designed to ensure both parents and children that they were being protected, while maintaining a constant state of fear and anxiety.  The combination worked like a charm.

Well, at least it did with most parents and children.  The reason I know all this stuff is that my parents have never bought into any government propaganda crap.  I may go to school, but my real learning has always been at home, where my mom and dad have made sure that I know the truth and that I keep my mouth shut around the other kids and their parents.  Right now, my dad, Carl, is looking over my shoulder at a map in my social studies textbook. “Your mother and I used to visit Portland all the time when we were first married.  Funkiest city around.  They had a donut shop there that made maple cream donuts topped with bacon slices.  No kidding.”  My dad rubs his chin, which is covered in whiskers.  He is a heavy man, and I watch as his eyes glaze over in a moment of reverie. Those bacon donuts must have rocked. 

I look at the map in my textbook.  There is just a big, tan-colored amoeba-like blob west of Nevada.  It’s labeled “Freedom Zone.”  It doesn’t have a capital.  I won’t need to worry about it for tomorrow’s test. 

* * *

Today we have a “Large Vehicle Impact Emergency” drill.  Gas is, under our current president, really cheap and plentiful, a fact that helps with the whole “eternal optimism” thing. But my parents have told me that there’s always a chance a tanker truck carrying gasoline might run out of control and smash into the school, causing an inferno.  So far this year we have had 38 drills, ranging from a simple fire drill to a tsunami drill (even though were are a thousand miles away from the ocean) to, even more weird, an “Illegal Immigrant Sexual Predator Surge”drill, which I still can’t figure out, but involved lots of white guys wearing sombreros, faking Mexican accents and trying to tempt us with candy.

We are quickly ushered outside, while our principal, Mrs. Tooley, yells through a bullhorn, commanding us to “get away from the building and stay with your emergency peer pod!”  Meanwhile, about a half-dozen firefighters wearing silvery heat-resistant suits race into the building and then come back out, each holding a life-sized stuffed animal that has been set on fire.  They quickly cover the animals with silver blankets, snuffing out the flames, and proceed to place them on stretchers.

“Kids, this may look scary, but let me assure you, no one here was seriously hurt today.”  He lifts an enormous pink cat into the air.  “We are taking Mr. Fluffy and the others to the hospital merely as a precaution.  They will be given treats and be as good as new before you know it.  Let’s all give a big cheer for our brave fire fighters!”  The commander of the team raises his silvery arms as if someone has just scored a touchdown, and about half of us give a less-than-enthusiastic “Yeah!” 

“That’s not loud enough!” Mrs. Tooley screams through the bullhorn.

 

Later, back in class, Bobby Zindell and I are both staring at Henry Fulding’s empty desk.  We are in the middle of taking the social studies test, but I was done about ten minutes ago.  Bobby hasn’t even started his test, and is just quietly crumpling it, over and over, with his right hand. 

Henry Fulding was Bobby’s best friend.  And Bobby didn’t have many friends.  Bobby’s father is a pastor in the Eternal Church of Forever, a parish of about 200 families, located on the outskirts of town.   As you can imagine, when death was banned, the separation between church and state got really blurry--and not in the way churches wanted.  Instead of dying, people just “disappeared,” and instead of being resurrected, they were “re-patrioted” to a place where the government needed their services more.  Bibles now contained pictures of smiling men, women, and children holding hands with Uncle Sam and Jesus as they walked through smoking battlegrounds assisting the doe-eyed wounded.  (No one with a brain really believed this, of course, but then again this is American in the mid-21st century, where now over 80% of the population tunes in every Thursday evening to watch a quiz show called “You’re Smarter Than a Sub-Human” and eat at restaurants with names like “Nothing But Meat!” I’m not kidding.)  So the gist of every sermon that Bobby Zindell had to suffer through went something like this:  Be good, because only the best people disappear and get to do the most special work of the government.

But both Bobby and I were having a hard time believing that Henry had been re-patrioted.  He had disappeared all right. Last Tuesday he just didn’t show up, and then on Thursday, Mrs. Chugney, our homeroom teacher, made the official announcement that Henry would no longer be with us, as he was now attending a special government school.  She didn’t know all the details, though, she told us, and we were gently warned against asking any questions.

If we were allowed to ask questions, they might have been ones like these:

“Why did most of Henry’s hair fall out?”

“Why couldn’t he hold down food at lunch time?”

“Why wasn’t he allowed to go out for recess?”

I could tell that there were a lot of questions Bobby wanted to ask. But it was always obvious to most of us that Henry was really sick, most likely with something like leukemia. 

I watch as he tries to smooth out his test and fill in a few blanks. He points to a red spot just below the mitten shape of Michigan and looks at me with those sad eyes.  “Columbus,” I whisper.  He quickly writes it down.   He writes down a few others, and then Mrs. Chugney calls “Time.”  Everyone slams their pencils down in unison.

Later, after lunch, I find Bobby sitting by himself on the balance beam, kicking his legs back and forth as he stares into space. 

“So, test sucked, huh?”  I say.

“Yeah.”  He continues swinging his legs back and forth.  He is wearing black pants, shiny at the knees, and a white polo-shirt, the official uniform of our school, of every school in fact.  Small microchips are sewn into the seams of the uniform to trace us if we are ever abducted by immigrants, aliens, whatever. 

“Looks like you’re kind of messed up about Henry.  Don’t worry, he’s probably helping the government right now.  Maybe training lab rats or something.  Remember that time he brought the mouse to school?”  My words of reassurance ring so lame I can’t even believe I uttered them myself. 

“That’s bullshit,” Bobby says.  He’s right.

“Yeah, I know.”  I kick at some weeds growing through a crack in the specially designed rubberized asphalt under the balance beam.

“How do people just disappear?  Doesn’t anyone ever show up again?” Bobby spits a big loogey to the side of the balance beam. He slouches his shoulders.  He looks like a shrunken version of his father.  Dark haired, freckled, with a mean overbite. It seems like that instead of growing up, he’s just continuing to shrink—he’s growing down.

“I don’t know.”  I do know, though.  My parents have told me the truth about death, but have warned me that I am absolutely not to discuss it with anyone for any reason.  One day at home, when my father was giving me one of his regular “truth-based” history lessons (as he called it) he pointed out that the penalty for mentioning death was the same as that for refusing to give the Nazi salute in Hitler’s Germany:  imprisonment in a concentration camp.  And if a kid mentions death, they go right after the parents.

But unlike in Germany, where signs posted everywhere pronounced “A True German Says ‘Heil Hitler’,” America faced a problem of semiotics (at least that’s what my dad said)—you can’t post warnings about mentioning death without mentioning death.  Thus, signs promoted disappearing.  “Remember Those Who Disappear!”  and “Support Our Disappeared” appeared as bumper stickers, magnets, billboards, you name it.

Bobby and I stare at each other in silence for a while, and then the bell rings.  It’s time for math.

* * *

At home, my Dad is making my after-school snack.  “I’m cutting the cheese right now, Ivan.”  We both snicker.  That one never seems to get old.  I sit at the dining room table and glance at the headline of the newspaper Dad has left scattered all over.  “Economy Roaring!” it says.   A picture shows people carrying armloads of clothes and toys to the checkout lines at a super store near here. 

“So, how was school?”  Dad asks that age-old question and sits down, the chair creaking under his weight.  I stare out through the large windows that provide a great view of our street.  The sun is shining, the leaves are floating to the earth on gentle gusts of wind, the sky is a deep blue.  On a day like today, it would sure be easy to believe that no one dies.

“Dad, is it ever okay to tell someone about death?”

Dad picks up a cracker topped by a slice of cheese and places it in his mouth.  He chews thoughtfully, looking past me to a distance spot somewhere. His eyes are a little glassy.  It’s hard to tell whether he is just joking around or is seriously considering my question.  Then he suddenly slams his hands, palms opened and down, on the table, with a loud slap.  I jump in my seat.

“No, Ivan.  Never.” He says this in a firm, but not loud voice.  As if he has practiced it.

“What’s all this about?”  It’s Mom.  She has hurried up the stairs from her home office in the basement.  She is a regional manager for an internet inventory assessment service, a job that allows her to spend almost all her time at home.  The downside is that she is constantly on the phone.  We rarely see her without the black head-set that sits nestled in her red hair. 

“Ivan was just asking me if he should ever mention ‘the D word’, Brenna.” 

Mom sits down at the seat to my left.  I noticed that she is still wearing pajamas, the pink ones with the white flowers on them.  “No, you shouldn’t.  Ever. Your father and I want you to know the truth, but we also want you to learn to be responsible enough not to share that truth.  There are consequences.”  A little red light flashes on her head-set and she yells “Not now!” into the microphone.

Dad eats another cracker.  “So, how did this whole thing come up?  Something happen at school?”

Boy, this is awkward.  I stare at my plate of cheese and crackers.  I was so hungry just a minute ago. “It’s Bobby.”

“Knipper?”  Mom asks.  “Isn’t he the one who is always getting into trouble?”

“No, Mom, not Knipper.  Zindell.  Well, actually it’s about Henry Fulding.”

Mom and Dad both look at each other knowingly.  The Fuldings live on our street, three houses away.  We’ve gone to a couple of neighborhood parties there. Every Halloween the Fuldings have a little gathering where they make pumpkin soup for the parents on our street who are tired of chasing their kids from house to house.

“Well,” Mom says, “We all know that Henry died.  Let’s all be honest about it.  But . . .”

“But,” Dad says, cutting her off. Mom shoots him a glance.  “But, there’s the kind of truth we know and the kind that, well, helps you get through life without going to prison.”

“Carl, let’s not talk about prison.”  Mom rolls her eyes. The light blinks on her head-set again and she yanks it off her head and throws it on the table.  “But your father is right.  Life is knowing when to say what. So don’t talk about Henry Fulding with anyone.  He’s disappeared and that’s that.”

My father smiles at me.  “Listen to your mother, pal.  Hey, how about watching something from my vintage Godzilla collection?”  My dad always has a knack for changing the topic of a difficult conversation in just the right way. 

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster?”

“Oh, man, is that one lame! But sure, anything for you, man.”

We head to the living room while Mom races back down to the basement.  As Dad loads the Godzilla file into the television, I wonder why we haven’t had a “Large Monster Attack Drill” at school yet.

* * *

Just a plain old flood drill, today, and the class is outside, learning how to fill sandbags in the most efficient way.  We stand side by side, each holding a scoopful of sand and then run to a line of sandbags a few feet away.   “That’s right!  Scoop, run dump!”  Mrs. Tooley yells through the bullhorn.  The sun is hot for late fall, and one of the chunkier kids, Gavin McNeeker, who always buys two lunches, except when it’s bean burritos, is using his white uniform shirt to wipe off his face.  The shirt is coated with brown sand. 

Mrs. Chugney is sitting under a tree, weeping.  Sydney Goings is crouched next to her, holding her hand, while Mrs. Chugney just keeps saying “I can’t believe I lost the color-coded HVAC shut-down protocol.  I’m such an idiot.”  She is in charge of shutting off all the major electricals in an emergency, a big responsibility, and we are just lucky that no one from the government is visiting today, or she might be reprimanded or forced to attend a weekend “refresher retreat.”  Principal Tooley has reported other teachers for lesser offenses, but she’s cutting her some slack because Mrs. Chugney is six months pregnant. 

Bobby Zindell has been completely silent all morning, staring into space mostly, and he is now just going through the motions with his scoops of sand.  It’s hard to prepare for imaginary disasters, I guess, when your personal life is a disaster.  I wonder how many others there are out there who can’t just shrug off loss.  Bobby and Henry had naturally gravitated toward each other and had been close in that peculiar way you find between two outcasts.  Henry was about six inches shorter than most of the other kids, and his skin was so pale, he looked like someone who was born a mime, especially under the blue-ish fluorescent lights of the classroom.  He was a natural target for bullies, especially since he wore an emergency data gatherer around his wrist, a black device about an inch thick. The data gatherer is a device used by people who are likely to need prompt medical assistance and contains medical and genetic information.  It screamed “Dork.”

But, some things never change, and Bobby, who was a big dude, became Henry’s protector in exchange for Henry allowing him into his world. 

Bobby and Henry were big into collecting insects, and one time they caught a European praying mantis, a spectacular thing, almost six inches long.  It’s in an aquarium in the science lab, so the whole class can admire it, and Bobby and Henry were generally left alone to find bugs to feed the mantis or to hunt down other big game insects.

After the drill, we file back into the classroom and take our seats.  We are doing a unit on the Civil War, and Mrs. Chugney, who has pulled herself back together, is writing something on the computer board about slavery.  The mantis is still going strong, and Bobby watches it as it suddenly lunges and traps a moth in its front arms.   The one thing about mantises is that they will eat only living prey.  If they drop even a part of their food, they simply abandon it and look from something else living. For Bobby, it’s just the opposite.  He can’t let go of the dead.

* * *

On my way home after school, I decide to stop by the Fuldings’ house.  Both Mr. and Mrs. Fulding are out of town at some religious convention. I know this because a few days ago Mr. Fulding was asking my dad while we were outside raking leaves if he could pick up their mail for him.   The Fuldings live in a big old white house, with wood siding and a front porch so wide you could play half-court basketball on it.  I walk up the front steps and press the door bell, just to make sure no one’s there.   When no one answers, I open their unlocked front door and walk right in.  The government, in spite of its requirements for relentless drills at schools, discourages locking doors, as leaving the doors unlocked “harkens back to a simple time, when people trusted each other and had nothing to fear.  And that time is now, again.”  This line, from the president’s State of the Union speech, is another one we’ve had to memorize.

Once inside, I head to Henry’s room.  I walk up steps carpeted in brown shag, follow a little hallway, and step lightly through his doorway.  As parents often do when their kids leave them, Henry’s parents have kept his room exactly the way it was when he was alive.  His bed is made, a blue comforter printed with great white sharks smoothed neatly over its surface.  On the wall hangs a glass display case containing at least fifteen large butterfly and moth specimens pinned into a Styrofoam backing.  A partially assembled laptop computer rests on the top of his bookshelves.   His parents have even left a pile of some half-finished homework on his desk as if someday, somehow, he will come back from the beyond and complete it. 

I walk to his window and look out into the backyard.  His swing set is still sitting under a massive willow tree, the plastic seats dotted with mildew stains.  I head back downstairs and out the back door. I don’t swing that much anymore, and the set is really too small for me, but it feels good to pump my legs and try to reach the low-hanging willow branches with my toes. I wonder what Henry thought about during his last months.  Did anyone tell him the truth?  Did he really believe, as weak and sick as he was, that the government would have any use for him?  When did he finally know that he was going to die, that it would be the end? 

As I let myself sway to a stop, something catches my eye.  A little mound of dirt behind a lilac bush near the back of the Fuldings’ garage.  Because of the lilac’s branches and the angle of the willow’s trunk, it’s something you could really only see if you were sitting on the swing, just the way I am.  And probably just the way Henry sat. 

I get up from the swing and walk over to it.  I have to crawl on my hands and knees to get into the space where the mound is, between the lilac bush and the back wall of the garage.  The low branches of the lilac scrape against my cheek as I work my way through.  There is a little silver cross on top of the mound.   I carefully remove the cross and start digging.   Not too far down, my hand touches something.  It’s Henry’s emergency data gatherer, still attached to the wristband.  I shake the dirt off.  Its tiny screen is completely dark now.  Farther down, something shiny catches my eye.  It’s a bronze-colored lid and beneath it is a jar.  I open the lid, and find that that jar is filled with ashes.  Henry’s.  My father has told me all about cremation.  I carefully put the jar and the data gathered back into the hole and gently replace the dirt, placing the cross on top. 

* * *

As I walk back home, I wonder how I am going to ask Dad about what I saw at the Fuldings’.  Well, not exactly that.  I wouldn’t want to get them in trouble.  But I want to ask him how someone gets to keep remains.   Do they cut a deal with authorities?  Do they give you remains in return for keeping quiet?  Did the Fuldings just plain old defy the government?

As I approach my house, I notice two black SUVs in the driveway, with the Federal Government seal painted on their doors. 

Four agents dressed in black suits and wearing dark sunglasses are standing with my parents on the front porch. One of the agents, a dark-haired woman with very red lips is telling my parents to smile as she takes pictures of them with a tiny digital camera.  Another of the agents turns and spots me, and says, in a loud voice, “Carl, hey, is that Ivan?  Get him up here with you.  That way we can get the whole family.” 

My dad sees me hesitate and begin to turn away, but he says, in a surprisingly calm voice, “It’s okay, Ivan.  Come on up.”

I step onto the porch and the female agent says, “Ivan, you should be proud of your mom and dad.  They are getting an award today.  The President’s Special Recognition of Vigilance.”  She points to a framed certificate my dad is holding, which has a large gold seal prominently displayed in the bottom right hand corner.  “Step right there next to Mom and Dad and let me get a picture of the whole family.  Smile!”  

I fake a smile and she snaps a few more pictures.  “These will look great on the agency’s website, won’t they, Todd?”  Another of the agents, a large man with a crew cut, nods his head and says nothing.  I can tell that he is giving us a cold stare, even through his darkened glasses.  I want to ask what this is all about—my parents would be the last people, in my opinion, to win an award for vigilance—but I know to keep my mouth shut, at least until the agents leave.

“Well, let me shake your hands once again, Carl and Brenna.  And you too, Ivan.  The female agent vigorously shakes our hands, a well-practiced smile plastered to her face.  “Keep up the good work.”  She turns to leave, and the tall agent, Todd, says, in a low voice, “Yeah, keep it up.”  The agents step off the front porch and pile back into their SUVs, doors slamming.  

Mom and Dad smile and wave to the agents as they drive away.  When they are completely out of sight, they both exhale loudly and plop down onto the porch swing.   

“Your mother’s head set,” My dad says to me.

“What?”

“Remember when you were asking about you-know-what the other day? And your mom told you not to ever mention it?”

“Yeah?”   And then it hits me.   Mom had left her head-set on.  Someone heard our conversation in the background and reported us.

“My ‘award’ was the government’s little way of letting us know that they know.  It’s for ‘vigilance,’ all right.  We better be vigilant in the future or it’s all over,” Dad says. He puts his arm around my mother, who now has her face buried in her hands.  She’s not crying.  She just seems exhausted.  Me too, but for some reason, what has just happened makes me even more determined to let Bobby know what happened to Henry. 

* * *

Bobby doesn’t hesitate when I tell him about the Fuldings’ back yard.  He wants to get there as soon as possible.  But I warn him that we needed a plan.   I know that tomorrow will be another drill.  And this time we have been warned in advance that it will be something called a “Mass Hysteria Drill.”  We are to bring comfortable sneakers  and expect to “do some running.”

“That means were probably going to get to wander off school grounds?” Bobby says. 

“Maybe, or maybe we can slip out for a while during the chaos.  There’s probably going to be lots of chaos, and they’re training the teachers on how not to panic. That will buy us a bit of time.  The Fuldings’ back yard is only like a five-minute walk from the edge of the soccer field.”

Bobby looks at the ground for a moment, then tilts his head back up and looks me in the eyes.  Hard.  “And we will get to see Henry, right?”

“Yes.  If everything goes right.”

“I need to know that he died.  That I know the truth.”  Bobby grabs the front of his shirt and pulls up on it, stretching it a bit.  It’s like he’s trying to save himself from drowning.

* * *

The “Mass Hysteria” drill is orchestrated chaos—Mrs. Chugney tells us to “run as wildly and as chaotically as possible,” and Bobby and I slip away and hustle over to the Fuldings’.  It looks like we can make it back to school before the drill is over, and, if we can’t we can just say we got confused and thought we were supposed to be testing the “Missing Child Alert System.”  

And so here we are, both on our knees, looking at the little mound of dirt behind the lilac bush where Henry’s remains lie.  Bobby does the digging this time, first rubbing a hand over his crew-cut head and then plunging both of them into the soft dirt.  He finds the data gatherer and holds it tightly in his fist for a moment, his eyes closed.  Then he gently places it on the ground and lifts out the urn.  He pulls the lid off, stares at the ashes, then pinches a bit of the ashes with two fingers and places them on his open left palm, then closes his hands together. He looks like someone praying.  He is someone praying.

 

Kevin Griffith's latest book is Denmark, Kangaroo, Orange, a book of prose poetry (Pearl Editions, 2008).  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Pank, Hotel Amerika, and Eclipse. He teaches creative writing at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

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