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June 17, 2024


By Joe Albanese

I didn't know they were coming for me, but I should have. I had heard the stories, we all had. I even told some of my own. The rumor was it was like an alien abduction. You'd be asleep in your bed one minute, then a bright blue-green light would devour your bedroom. The furniture would shake. The bed. The dresser. You'd hold on to your bed for dear life, maybe even scream for help, but knowing there was none coming. And then the shaking would slow to a stop. The light would disappear into darkness.

And you would be gone.

The truth is it was nothing like an alien abduction. No, this was military. Most kids are probably full of shock just coming out of their slumber. Disoriented. It was harder to fight back this way. But not me. I was still awake when they broke down my door at 5 a.m.

Me and my chick Gloria always lived by the night. Phones were off limits if you had them. Emergency broadcasts only, since television sets were obsolete nowadays. We had to signal another way. Her house was five down from mine on the same side. Just out of eyesight. Thankfully my bud Tug had my back, albeit to his dismay. Tug was a good student and a good kid I was always trying to drag down to my level. One of my failures I'm grateful for. Now I just wish he had tried a little harder to bring me up to his. Tug was scared of getting caught. Fear is a basic survival instinct I wish I had more of. Accessory to breaking curfew was just as bad in their book. It took some convincing. Less by me and more by Gloria's friend Stef, the girl we all had a crush on since she developed larger and faster than the other girls. Just took one tug on Tug before he was putty. He'd do anything.

Tug's house was three houses down, but across the street. He could see her window. So when Gloria needed her beau caller, i.e. me, she put a candle outside on her window sill. Tug would see it, and like the true gent he was would light a candle of his own. I could make his out from a mile away. I'll tell you what, like Pavlov's dog, seeing that candle sparkle in the night would get me hard like you wouldn't believe.

I had to pick my window lock. I got good at that. What used to take fifteen minutes of prying was down to eight seconds of muscle memory. Had that been a valuable skill to society, I may not have ever gotten into this mess to begin with. After working the latch on my own window, I'd sneak through the bushes -- past the Hendersons' house, past the Taylors' rusted boat in their driveway, over the Huffs' bushes, hop the Youngs' scum pond, and climb Gloria's drainpipe. But damn, it was worth it. Breaking through a government licensed lock is tough. Breaking it from the outside is even tougher. But with my direction and Gloria's help from the inside, we'd manage it just fine.

Nights in Grover would be a ghost town. Adults worked during the day. Shops closed at seven p.m. sharp. That was the rule. Most closed quarter-of just to not cut it to close and risk a fine, or worse. Kids had school until four. Homework usually lasted another two hours if you did it. Three hours if you did it well. Curfew was at eight, whether you were adult or child; we were all treated like kids. We expected it was like this in most towns. Adults worked, kids learned. Family and friends were more a description than a feeling.

Not me and Gloria. We were something else. Special. I suspected she loved me and was just waiting for me to be the first to say it. I didn't. It was a game. Who could hold out the longest? You don't realize the need to tell someone "I love you" until you actually feel it. Then it's like a balloon stretching inside your stomach. If you don't say the words the balloon will stretch too much, your stomach just can't hold it anymore. They say love comes from the heart, but you feel it in the stomach. That night I was going to finally tell her the magic words that would let the air out of our balloons.

I took her to the high school. Not the most romantic place, but Grover wasn't exactly Paris. From stories and rumors I heard, neither was Paris anymore. We'd usually bring a blanket and lay out in the soccer field. If the groundkeeper hadn't mowed it in a few weeks we'd lie down on the carousel, at the kids playground, spinning softly as we made love. Whatever beauty there was left in the world was kept in her eyes. A cache of light in a sea of darkness. I could see her blue eyes dance a mile away.

That night we didn't make love. I just held her. Two outcasts. Two rebels. Two lanterns that somehow found each other in a forest.

We'd look at the sky. We'd wait for the smog to pass so we could get a glimpse of the stars we were supposed to learn about in books but never did. But the smog never passed. The pollution only grew denser. I'd tell her what I learned in books. Distant galaxies. Nebulae. I'd draw constellations on her forearm. Orion -- the warrior. Cygnus -- the goose. Cassiopeia -- the woman. Gemini -- her astrological sign. Each night we'd sneak off together. I'd secretly hope the pollution would fade just enough so I could show her the constellations in person.

But we wouldn't see the stars. Not that night. Not ever. I didn't need them, I had Gloria's eyes.

"I love you," I choked out. I had planned a speech about how we were going to run away and spend our lives together. Get out of the hellbent town. But those three words were all I managed. Gloria raised her head from my chest. Her eyes were watering. Rain in a blue sky. I knew she loved me too.

"I can't see you anymore."

She waited for me to speak, but I couldn't. My confession and hers lingered there on the playground. I must have eventually asked "why?" because she started to explain it. Her grades were slipping below par and she needed to keep them up in order for the government to pay for her college.

"So fucking what?" I remember shouting. My grades went to hell too when we started seeing each other. I may have even been last in the class. I didn't care. We had each other. She held me.

You feel love in your stomach. Your stomach breaks.

I don't remember her last words and I don't remember mine either. I can't imagine they were kind.

She got up and left me there. On the playground at our school. Spinning on the carousel, without even the light of the stars to guide me home. I wandered the streets for what I would find out later was hours. It wasn't safe to wander the streets. Night patrol and cameras caught everything. I didn't care. Not anymore. What could they do to me?

I climbed back through my bedroom window around 3 a.m. If I fell asleep right away I'd have gotten my normal three hours. Then I could rest my eyes during Social Studies at eleven. But I knew there would be no sleep for me that night.

I stared up at the ceiling, trying to piece together what had happened hours earlier. Is there a way to go back? Could I get her to change her mind? Did I say anything that could be unsaid? The useless ramblings of a love lost teen. Of course in my mind these were the important questions, ones that had answers if I could only excavate them.

I met denial with great confidence.

I could win her back. I would win her back.

What may have been smile grew on my face. The last for a long time.

The light blinded me -- just like they said, like I said. But it wasn't blue nor green nor some combination of the two. It was white. Like the sun had our dying atmosphere not scattered most of her light. I sat up at an impulse. I squinted enough to catch a glimpse of my door flying across the room. Four guns were on me before I knew it.

Oh shit. Patrol followed me home. No, they would have grabbed me on the street. Must have been the cameras. Their facial recognition made me. If I didn't regret it while wandering the streets by myself I sure did with four guns pointed at my face in my bedroom.

Then one of them said my name. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was the last time I would hear that name for a long time.

"Brandon Gish, you are being detained for poor attendance, truancy, and poor performance. You are being sentenced to partake in the Evesham Learning Academy. Do you understand what is happening?"

I understood. It wasn't patrol. It wasn't even aliens. It was much, much worse.

Article © Joe Albanese. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-05-20
Image(s) are public domain.
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