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The Barcelona Review

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None of us know what happens to the men that are pulled from the line. Some are called out by name over the ancient PA system. Others get yanked from their place for breaking the rules. Regardless, none ever come back. Rico says he heard from a man, a couple of bodies ahead of us, that they are taken to the front, taken beyond the wall, and finally resettled. Travis calls this bullshit, saying rule breakers move to the back and others move to the front. Travis thinks that there will never be resettlement for us, just movement. He doesn’t believe in the resettlement myth, as he calls it.
       Rico stands in front of me and Travis behind. We are friends. I have none closer in the line. The earth gritty at our feet, we spend our days standing, waiting, out in the open. The endless waste stretches out from the wall, where we men are lined up, the rusty PA speakers near the top of the cement. We dream that over the wall is something called home, settlement, permanence. But the wall is too high for us to see over. Travis calls it all bullshit.
       “Look how gray the sky is today,” Rico says.
       “You said that yesterday.” Travis sighs. “You say it every day.”
       Rico ignores him. “The sun don’t set or rise no more. And it never gets high up in the sky.”
       He’s right. The sun hangs on the horizon, a white orb in gray smoke. It moves from ahead of us to behind us following the line where sky and earth meet. I would never tell Rico, but I don’t remember when the sun was ever high in the sky. Rico says odd things like this from time to time. We never talk about personal details because it is against the rules, but I’m sure Rico is not that older than me. We should have similar memories, especially about something as eternal as the sun.
       “Did you hear what happened last night?” Travis sits on his haunches, rubbing powdery dirt into his hair. He claims it makes it feel clean. “They took the Lumberjack away.”
       “They did?” I say.
       “Sure did. He was all blubbery and screaming.”
       We call him the Lumberjack because he is too far back in the line for us to know his proper name. He is big and broad, and we all daydream about being with him even though such thoughts are against the rules. But we are pretty sure they can’t read our thoughts.
       “Didn’t no one try and quiet him?” Rico pinches the black hairs on the back of his hand. He pulls a few together and twists them, nervous. He always does this when line etiquette is talked about.
       Travis dusts his hands off and stands. He looks out over the waste. Just rocks and dust and crumbling mountains. “Well, sure. But he wouldn’t shut up no matter what anybody said to him. And of course, they stopped trying to comfort him when the stewards showed up.”
       Rico shivers.
       If we are lucky, we see the line stewards twice a day when we get food and water. They always come in pairs, a man and a woman. The men wear pressed slacks and the women ankle length skirts, and both have wrinkle-free polos with the stewards’ pledge on the back: For Your Safety. I have always wondered whose safety they protect. Rico once giggled into my ear he thought they looked like missionaries, gentle and pious. Except for their tactical belts. Zip-tie handcuffs, pepper stray, taser, and a collapsible baton.
       Travis stands and stretches. “They tased him till he stopped moving and then dragged him off. Took two pairs cause he’s so big.”
       Rico begins to tug hard on the hairs. I take my foot out of the slip-on and place my heel on the ground, allowing my toes to rest on Rico’s bare ankle. Touching is against the rules. Rico calms and lets his hand to his side.

#          #          #

When the stewards bring food, we stand shoulder to shoulder. Today, it is a cup of water each and a packet of peanut butter crackers. I am happy for the peanut butter. Often we go weeks without a real portion of protein. Peanut butter keeps you full longer than, say, stale bread rolls, and it stops you from feeling lightheaded.
       The stewards hand each man a packet of crackers and give one long draw of water into our plastic cups. We each keep our own cups. If it is lost or damaged, the stewards do not replace it, pouring water into our cupped hands instead. The stewards always wear wedding rings. I wonder if they are married couples, each man and woman, or maybe they only accept married individuals into the service and then pair them randomly.
       Hamid, the man next to Travis, lies on the ground, curled in a ball. He has not stood once today. We do not know much about him, even less than we know about each other. He talks to no one in line. Though he does flirt with Travis on occasion. Travis calls him a lone bear. We are all nervous as the stewards approach because we are only permitted to lie down when it is time to sleep. Travis risks prodding Hamid with his foot in view of a male steward. But Hamid still does not move.
       The steward holds the cracker packet out to Hamid. “Stand. I said stand.” He pulls the baton from his belt, and with a gentle flick of the wrist, it expands full length with a soft click.
       “I think he’s sick.” Travis steps toward Hamid. He does not place himself between Hamid and the steward, but the intention is clear.
       The steward’s gaze remains fixed on Travis as he walks, baton raised, toward Hamid. I feel Rico’s anxiety like a punch between the shoulder blades. But the signs are subtle: fingernails between teeth, right foot twisted inward, slight hunch of the shoulders. To me, they are screams and yelps and tears. I want to comfort him but will not risk a secretive touch this close to stewards, for both our sakes.
       The steward brings the baton down onto Hamid’s exposed side. He gives a soft yip but does not move. So the steward hammers him with three more hits against the skin of Hamid’s calf. It leaves red welts behind. Hamid still does not move. The steward tosses the crackers at him. They bounce off his skull and land at Travis’s feet.
       “Stand.” The female steward holds the ladle of water out to Hamid. The male steward glances at her with a look of boredom and annoyance. “I said stand.” It must be a protocol to give two warnings. However, she does not remove her baton; instead she pours Hamid’s portion of water directly on the ground. The stewards move down the line.
       Their backs are to us. “For Your Safety” is embroidered in gold. I imagine if the sun was shining, rather than trapped behind dreary gray, silver threads in the stitches might catch the rays. It might even be beautiful. But they are dull in the diffused light.
       Travis waits for the stewards to get several hundred yards away, and then he bends down to collect Hamid’s crackers. I watch him work as I savor each bite of my own, moistening the mash in my mouth with tiny sips of water. He opens Hamid’s packet and gently twists the tops off each sandwich, collecting the peanut butter into a growing ball. He repeats it with his own packet. He wets the tips of his fingers in his cup and works the water into the peanut butter ball. He takes care not to work too much of it into his skin.
       “Watch out for me,” he says.
       On occasion, we must break the rules, if only for a moment, and in those moments, we generally watch the line for patrolling stewards or line snitches. As Travis sits next to Hamid, Rico taps his toes softly in quick succession. With no steward in sight, I allow my leg to press next to Rico’s.
       “You keep a look out down that way.” I point down to my right. Rico takes in a deep breath and stares with vigilance.
       Travis tips Hamid’s head back. “I think he has a fever.”
Hamid moans and tries to bury his face back into his crossed arms.
       I break out in goose bumps as I witness Travis brushing hair out of Hamid’s face. He pinches a bit of peanut butter off from the ball and holds it under Hamid’s nose, but the man will not take it. So he leans forward and whispers in Hamid’s ear. His free hand runs along Hamid’s jaw, and his thumb parts the man’s lips in order to feed him the peanut butter. Once it is gone, Travis gives him little sips of water from his own cup. The touch is so gentle and forbidden and intimate and desirable.
       I ignore my post for a moment to glance back at Rico. Fingers in mouth, he is nervous but also dedicated, never breaking away to look at me or Travis and Hamid. I want to reach out and feel his hair, maybe brush it aside. With Travis’s bold actions, such a small gesture between Rico and me would probably go unnoticed. But I let the moment pass and go back to watching the opposite direction.
       That afternoon, or at least presumably what would be the afternoon, Travis asks me, “Why won’t they come and help him?” He now sits on the ground with Hamid’s head in his lap, and I see the man has broken out into a sweat with flush skin.
       I don’t answer Travis because I have no answer for him. I wish I had the answer. The only thing that comes to mind, and it envelops every thought, is the dull embroidered “For Your Safety.”

#          #          #

I wake up to Travis’s sobs. He tells me that Hamid has died. He holds him in a tragic pose: head slumped back, left arm outstretched, palm open, cold glassy eyes. He looks as if he was struck dumb, frozen by the desire to move away from the line, his hand pointing towards the waste.
       Men around us begin to wake up. I try to quiet Travis, but nothing I say to him works. He cries not only in grief but also in anger. Little bursts of explicit language erupt in his sobs. While I feel for Travis, I struggle to understand the well of his pain at the death of Hamid. He hardly knew the man, and while Hamid expressed interest in Travis, he never truly reciprocated. It isn’t just the rage either. He is also breaking numerous rules.
       The stewards come two by two, three pairs in total. They want to take Hamid’s body away, but when a male steward steps forward to do so, Travis stands, placing himself between them and the body. I sit up, not daring to stand, and Rico rolls to his side, facing away.
       “Stand aside.”
       The clicks of the batons as they open. A female steward unholsters a can of pepper spray. Travis does not move.
       “I said stand aside.”
       My hands ball into fists, picking up dirt and loose gravel. Several other men are watching the confrontation. We have seen its type before, where a man can no longer stand the constraints of the line. The rules, the nutrition, the slow progress. But we never talk about it, and not only because it is against the rules to express dismay about the line. I think deep down we all understand the fragile state we exist in, and one tiny shift in perception, to look just beyond the rules and the stewards and the constraints, would expose our rage, leading to chaos and possibly our own ruin.
       I want to look away as the baton is raised, something I have done a number of times. But I have stood so long next to Travis that despite my desire not to see him injured, I feel it a duty to witness it, so someone would remember.
       The baton hovers in the air for only a moment, and then Travis punches the steward in the jaw. The steward falls to the ground. The baton flies far from his hand. A line of spittle and blood streaks across the dirt.
       No one moves.
       I scoot back from the group of stewards and resist turning to lie on top of Rico. The stewards’ faces are so intense that I worry they will beat us all, and I want to protect him. The other men around Travis also back away. The stewards do not waste time in trying to fight him or beat him. Instead, they all pull their tasers and shoot him at once. As soon as his face is in the dirt, a female steward, the one who pulled the pepper spray, zip ties Travis’s hands behind his back.
       Two stewards grab Hamid by the arms and drag his body toward the front of the line. The remaining four attempt to stand Travis on his feet, but he flops back down landing on his face. I see that he is dead. It is not possible that he survived that many shocks. So the stewards drag his body away, too, Travis’s loose feet following in the trail left by Hamid’s.
       Rico quivers. I know he didn’t see what happened, but the mood in the line is electric, like a streak of fear through a rabbit warren. With the stewards distracted, it seems relatively safe, so I place a hand on Rico’s arm. I feel him shake and then calm.

#          #          #

I wake up to the sound of yells, and at first, I worry. Such noise is not common in the line, unless there is trouble. Trouble like there was the day before with the stewards. Rico is already standing, trying to see over the heads of the men ahead of us.
       “What’s that?” I stand up next to him.
       “Don’t know.” He pulls on the hair on the back of his hand.
       I hear the refrain, first only faintly. The wind is strong today, and the scraping of the rocky dust across the ground nearly drowns it out. The words aren’t clear for a few minutes, but the collective sound of men’s voices is rousing, even without any linguistic meaning. The deep and resonate, the fey and feminine, the young, the old. They are disharmonious but still a chorus. It brings a tightness to my chest to hear so many of the men in line voice together. Rico drops his arms to his sides as the words reach us.
       “Down with the Line! Silence is Death!”
       The chants pick up voices closer to us.
       Eventually word starts to be passed along. The story of Travis and Hamid has reached the far reaches of the line, front and back, maybe the ends, if those even exist. It is a passionate love story, a tragic passionate love story. Rico and I do not correct the others when they describe the secret affair between the two men. The story of the men and the images of their bodies being dragged away by stewards is a volatile mix. Soon, there is talk that men near the front are starting to grow angry, truly enraged, and when the stewards come to quell them, it only adds to the growing dissention. The men fight the stewards. And when more stewards come, more men join the fight until the stewards stop coming. Rumors circulate. Men have taken stewards’ batons, pepper spray, and beaten them back. A steward has been kicked to death, left to bleed out by his fellow comrades. Men are bolting from the line into the waste. Of course if this were true, we would be moving forward.
       New chants reach us. “Stewards Are Murders!” and “For Whose Safety?”
Rico’s eyes are bright. The new energy brings him to life. But still he flicks them back and forth when new voices join the fray, his head shrinking down in fear.
       The first food service does not come, but no man cares. I had pocketed the plain crackers discarded by Travis. I offer a few to Rico, who only nibbles at the corners. Close to us, I hear men laugh, and I think it is the most beautiful sound I have ever heard. It is not an uncomfortable chuckle or secret and soft. Instead it is an act of joy and release. The laughter replaces the chanting as the men forget about the stewards. Focus slips away from the line and the violence and the subjugation and turns to the men themselves.
       Rico starts eating crackers with a deep hunger when we see two men, first, touch and then hug each other. He turns to me with a reddened face when two men kiss. His goofy grin is innocence but also marked with a devilish bent. I think it is the way his lips are curling up at the corners. It is lust.
       I swear that even the sun celebrates with us as it reaches the night horizon. The gray haze burns away, and we all watch the hot white orb touch the edge of existence. Red bleeds into orange with hints of gold. Rico claims to see ribbons of silver in the edges of thin bars of clouds. And it continues to dip, lower than it ever has, so that the curve of the horizon takes on a purple glow. I try to remember the last time I’ve seen a color so rich, but I can’t.
       Rico’s head rests on my chest, my arm around his body. His weight grinds my elbow into the grit, but I don’t complain. I don’t say a word about it, afraid he might move away from me.        “Why do you talk about the sun being high in the sky?” I ask.
       “You always say that the sun used to be high up in the sky. I don’t remember that.”
       Rico chuckles. “I just imagined it, you know. Like made-up images in your head.”
       “Cause sometimes I need to think about something good. Even if it isn’t real.”
       He quivers, pulling into himself slightly, so I hold him tighter, hoping he feels safe.

#          #          #

I have a dream. Rico and I live in a house, and we are asleep in our big bed with good sheets and soft pillows. There are no feeding times. I wake up each morning still holding him and am able to go into the kitchen where the cupboards are full of food. Whole jars of peanut butter. We drink cold water out of actual glasses. There is grass, not gritty dirt, and real sunrises and sunsets, and in the middle of the day, the sun is so high in the sky that it burns down on the top of your head. Around us, our neighbors are the other men from the line.
       In the brief moment between dreaming and waking, I feel the pressure of Rico’s body against me, and the euphoria of the dream makes life finally feel right. The four walls and cold water and lazy mornings are real. The line is the dream.
       It takes me only a moment to realize that Rico’s body in my arms is a phantom weight. He is standing. And then I hear what woke me from my sleep in the first place. Gun shots. I jump up. It isn’t just the solitary discharge of a single round. It is the rapid crack-crack-crack of repeated fire. Men scream. More guns fire, at least two or three at once. Dust rises ahead of us. It drifts in a big cloud up over the line and then moves out over the waste. It is silent again, and the line begins to move.
       We are lucky to move a few yards over the course of weeks. But now our feet move in a steady flow. Rico holds my hand until we see the line of stewards ahead. I let my arms fall to my side and move back into single file. Rico’s hand moves to his face, and I know he is biting his nails.
       The stewards remain still, shoulder to shoulder, and they hold rifles to their chests. Rico cries out. He tries to keep his tears silent, but every few moments, a gasp of sadness bursts out. The gritty earth has gone rust colored with their blood. Men lay splayed where their bodies fell, arms buckled underneath, legs bent in unnatural angles. We must walk over them as they are directly in our path. Most of those in line try to look at the dead men as little as possible. But I look at their faces. The first killed have wide eyes, stuck in expressions of fear and bewilderment. Those struck down later are compact, pulled in, eyes closed. One man still stands curled into himself leaning against the wall, trying to hide. The stewards watch and make sure the line moves forward. I lose count of the bodies.
       Once clear of the dead, our shoes leave faint red tracks in the dirt. One whisper moves down the line that the men killed were the instigators, creators of the first chants, those that struck out at the stewards, stole their batons, and fought back. Another whisper says it was entirely random, punishment for us all.
       Rico shakes. I can do nothing. Sometimes moving forward doesn’t feel like progress at all.

#          #          #

The stewards carry handguns now. The food services resumes, dirty water and stale bread, and each steward has a sidearm strapped to their tactical belts. They don’t remove the bodies, which already stink. Rico cries, silently of course.
       When it is time to sleep, no man in line breaks the rules. Expect for Rico. I am shocked when his face appears across from mine. He has turned around rather than his head resting down by my feet. He doesn’t touch me though. His body worms closer to me without making contact. I turn my head and face the gray sky so he can whisper in my ear.
       He tells me he is going to explode. I want to tell him not to worry, that I am always beside him, but I can tell from the tone of his voice that he needs to speak and only for me to listen. He wants to run. Into the waste.
       Rico rolls onto his back, and I move to my side and tell him about the dream I had. We will never find that in the waste.
       “Being together is all I need from that dream.” He speaks aloud, full volume. The man next to him looks over and then rolls to his side to face away from us.

#          #          #

We will run before the first food service. The stewards are too busy preparing to make their movement down the line, coordinating the pass, in order to pay attention to two men running into the waste. Rico has plucked all the hairs off his left hand. I take it into my right hand and hold it tight. He almost screams out at my touch.
       Rico thinks, staring at the ground. He swallows hard and then nods his head.
       “Rico Valdez.” The PA system squawks. “Rico Valdez.”
       Rico looks at me with desperation. I already have a hold of his hand and could pull him out of line, but the stewards might use their new guns to shoot us in the back as we try to escape. It doesn’t matter as the stewards are already approaching. I drop Rico’s hand.
       “Rico Valdez?” The woman steward motions to him to step out of line.
       Rico doesn’t move.
       “Step out of line.” The male steward backs up the woman, his hand already resting on the butt of his gun.
       “Go,” I whisper.
       The woman steward jerks her head toward me. Her gaze frightens me. It is full of anger, full of fire.
       Rico steps out of line. A steward on each side, the three of them walk back the direction the stewards came from. I hope he is about to be resettled, given a home, live out my dream. Soft beds, unlimited food, security. Rico’s body seems so tiny between the man and the woman, stuck between the twin phrases “For Your Safety.” I watch until they disappear in the distance.
       Maybe they can read our minds.
       I turn to the man behind me. He looks nothing like Rico. Even though he was just behind Travis and Hamid, I know nothing about him. Behind his head, the night horizon is dark with swollen black clouds. Though they look pregnant, it will not rain. The sun still needs to swing around the rim of the sky and rest there to give it a faint gray illumination. The wind carries fine grit. Dust devils whirl in the waste. Above the heads of the men behind us, a swarm of black flies has gathered where the bodies are.
       I try not to think about touching the man’s face, caressing his cheek, comparing it to the softness of Rico’s skin. I try not to consider taking his hand and locking our fingers together. I try not to memorize the shape of his lips, so they won’t invade my dreams at night. “The sun is never high in the sky anymore,” I say to him. “Do you remember when it used to be?”

© Thomas Price 2018

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Author Bio
Thomas PriceThomas Price is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans and an associate fiction editor at Bayou Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Inscape, Mania Magazine, and The Chattahoochee Review.