A black Nissan hatchback with its lights off rolls down the street. Troy is at the wheel, and he and Brandon listen through the open windows for community unrest. But it’s dark and quiet. The lights go off at 11:00, inside and out, whether you’re ready or not.
Utopic villages like this one have sprouted up all over the country, segregation as a result of a rigorous application process. Troy had tried to be admitted just hard enough to know it was futile. These communities were designed to keep out gimps like Troy and minorities like Brandon. If discovered, how they’d snuck in would cause a panic among the residents.
Aided by light from the moon without the hindrance of light pollution, Troy slowly navigates the hatchback toward the main gate through the flat neighborhood landscape without having to rev the engine.
At the end of the drive, the main gate is closed. Brandon gets out to test the fence, but it’s locked and he doesn’t have a code. It’s dark here, too, except for the faint glow of the keypad. The sturdy double-layered fence appears primed to prevent little putt-putt Nissans like theirs—chosen not for its strength but because it was cheap and black—from driving through it. Troy hobbles to the gate. How many digits could it be? Probably four or five. He picks five, and punches in 6-7-1-9-4. It doesn’t work. 1-4-3-9-8. That doesn’t work either. 8-7-8-0-2. Nope.
“You’re guessing,” a staticky voice sounds through the intercom next to the pad.
“Excuse me?” Troy says, jumping.
“Did you forget your code? Or are you simply shooting in the dark?”
“We were just visiting,” Troy says. “I was given a code, but I can’t remember it now. Can you let us out?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“We were at the Millers.”
At that, Brandon shoots Troy a look. The Millers? Troy shrugs. Good bet that somebody in a waspy community like this is named Miller.
“All right,” the voice says. “I’ll be right there.”
Troy and Brandon look at each other in the moonlight, wide-eyed, and together they glance upward to the top of the fence. Falling over each other, they rush for the back of the car. Troy unlocks the hatch and Brandon picks up the bag.
“Over here,” Troy says, gesturing to a bushy side of the gate. Of the two, Brandon is much bigger and stronger. He heaves the bag high into the air, but just misses the top, and the bag falls back to their feet. Troy cringes to think of the damage. “Hurry!” he hisses. “Try again!” A flood suddenly turns on and illuminates the entire area. Brandon heaves the bag harder, and this time the bag clears the fence and lands with a heavy rustle in the shrubs on the other side.
A moment later an SUV rounds the corner and pulls up behind the Nissan; Troy is mortified to realize that the hatch is still open. Clayton steps out of the SUV, flashlight in hand, and peers into the open trunk. The back hadn’t been open when he’d left his monitor to join them at the gate, but he doesn’t spot anything.
“Your memory must be worse than my grandfather’s,” Clayton says, “and he’s ninety-eight years old with Alzheimer’s.” He walks over to the two strangers; the big bald one is even larger than he had looked on the screen. “It’s a six-digit code, not five. Everyone has a personal code,” he goes on. “And no one should be giving theirs out. We’ll talk to the Millers about that.”
Brandon cracks a smile.
“I don’t want to get them in trouble,” Troy says quickly.
Clayton nods. “Of course you don’t,” he says. “Follow me. We’ll get this sorted out.”
“We’re in a bit of a hurry,” Troy says. “Stayed too late. I’m sorry for causing any trouble, but it would be really helpful if we could just be on our way.”
Clayton nods some more. “This won’t take long. Follow me.”
He gets into the SUV and pulls ahead of the Nissan to wait for them along the side of a road parallel to the fence. The fence, Troy knows, covers the entire perimeter of the community, and is equally effective at keeping the unwanted out as keeping people in. The main gate and a rarely used emergency-only gate are the only ways in or out. Even if they ran for it, it would only be a matter of time before they were sniffed out.
They had gone unnoticed until arriving at the gate. Clayton wonders how they’d gotten in in the first place. The two strangers take a minute to get into the car and turn in the right direction. Driving slowly so they don’t have a chance to bolt, Clayton leads the way to a vast parking lot next to a warehouse and some offices. The security offices are in front, closest to the housing, off to the side of the cafeteria where only a few overnight warehouse workers are taking breaks. The residents, guaranteed work and protection, would be restless if they knew of this breech. At this hour, the coffee shop is open, but nothing else.
Brandon and a limping Troy follow the guard’s lead to his office where they are seated in front of a desk. Because of the blackout mandate, the complex should be the only lit building in the community. Under the fluorescent lights Clayton takes them in, the confident façade of the little one, the darker complexion of the big bear who has not gone bald, he observes, but shaves his head, a habit Brandon hasn’t broken since discharging from the army. He is an imposing figure, hair or no, and the other one looks harmless at his side.
“Do you guys want some coffee?” Clayton asks, his nametag now visible in the light. “I’m going to get some for myself.”
“I’ll take mine black,” Troy says. He looks at Brandon, who shrugs. “Two blacks,” he tells Clayton.
“I’ll be back momentarily,” Clayton says. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
Considering the ease of getting in, neither Troy nor Brandon had been overly concerned with getting out. And what Troy had said about being in a hurry wasn’t smoke. Brandon has a flight to catch in a few hours, and before that they will need to pick up his suitcase at their hotel. The goods they threw over the fence will need to be unloaded.
“Your flight is at 6:30, right?” Troy asks with Clayton gone. “To Pensacola via Atlanta?” Brandon nods.
Once Troy’s favorite conversationalist, Brandon has been mute since returning from the war. In Pensacola, Brandon had been set up with a nice gig cooking at the VFW where he rarely saw anyone who hadn’t dealt with similar trauma. But outside of the VFW, things had gone badly, and it was no longer safe for Brandon to live there. Nor would it be safe for several others if he wasn’t able to tie up loose ends, loose ends that hinged on the contents of the bag they’d thrown over the fence. But a couple of loyal friends were going to get him onto a boat that would set sail into the gulf at midnight, fewer than twenty-four hours from now and a thousand miles away. He would leave the country forever.
“I’m not going to mention the boat to this guy,” Troy says. “But we need to get you out of here. Even if I have to stick around; I don’t care; no big deal. But you need to get on that flight. This guy seems nice enough, but if you’re still here when people start waking up, you’ll get torn to bits.”
Brandon turns his head toward Troy and nods.
The community directory is on a bookshelf next to the door.
“Keep a lookout, will you?” Troy says.
Brandon pokes his head out the door while Troy pores through the book. There is a Miller, but just one, a single guy, and elderly. They could say they were visiting a grandfather or a great-uncle. Troy decides against that. He flips the book some more. Wilson—Melissa and Stephen, and three kids, Danielle, Reese, and Lyle. Troy decides that Clayton heard incorrectly before. The Wilsons will work much better. In real life, Troy has a cousin named Melissa, and he prefers his lies to have some truth to them.
Brandon violently snaps his fingers. Troy quickly memorizes the first names of the Wilsons and shoves the book back onto the shelf with seconds to spare, putting pressure on his leg the wrong way, stifling a whimper.
Clayton re-enters holding three coffees in a four-count disposable carrier. “Two blacks,” he says, handing two cups to his guests. “And for me,” he says, taking the third, “lots of cream, lots of sugar. I ordered some sandwiches, too. She’ll bring them to us.” He notices Troy’s face trying to conceal pain. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I have a bad leg,” he confides.
They all take sips. Brandon, who doesn’t usually drink plain black coffee, briefly chokes. Troy whacks him on the back.
Clayton is amused to see the big one take a hit from the little one. “The Millers, huh,” he says, smiling. “How do you know them?”
“The Wilsons,” Troy faux-corrects. “She’s my cousin. Melissa Wilson. Her husband’s name is Stephen. Steve, really. They’ve got three kids.”
“You said Miller before.”
“I don’t know any Millers. Melissa’s last name is Wilson.”
“You sure. Could’ve sworn you said Miller.”
Clayton’s office is small for being part of such a gigantic complex. Since he hadn’t wanted to share an office with the other security directors, he volunteered to take this little offshoot of a room, formerly a storage closet. During the day, thousands of workers filed through the turnstiles and mill about the complex warehouses, comings and goings meticulously tracked. At lunchtime, between 11:30 and 1:30, it is nearly impossible to find a place to sit. Fewer than one hundred employees worked overnight.
He yawns. He doesn’t usually have anything to do at this hour.
“So you’re sticking with Wilson. Well, let’s give Melissa a call,” he says, grabbing the directory from the bookshelf, noticing that the directory has been slightly misplaced in his brief absence.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Troy said. “It’s so late, and she and Steve went to bed before Brandon and I even left. I’d hate to wake her up and get on her bad side.”
“That doesn’t give us a lot of options, then,” Clayton says, putting the directory back, this time correctly. “Short of sitting here together for the next few hours until the morning bell goes off.”
“Well, it’s not a big deal for me to wait,” Troy says, confident in his ability to weasel out of this. “But my boy here’s got a 6:30 flight, and they say you should get to the airport two hours ahead of time. Plus, he’s got to get his suitcase from our hotel, so that’s another two hours to get from here to the hotel to the airport. It’s after one now, so he really needs to hit the road soon.”
“Where you going?” Clayton asks Brandon.
“Pensacola,” Troy answers.
“The panhandle! What are you going to Pensacola for?”
“He lives there.”
“Does he always speak for you?” Clayton asks, intently directing his question at Brandon.
Brandon doesn’t say anything, and after a few seconds he glances at Troy for help.
“Not exactly the loquacious type, huh,” Clayton says.
“He doesn’t talk since Iraq,” Troy explains.
“Oh,” Clayton says, sympathetically. “I’m sorry to hear that. Thank you for your service.”
“He cooks at the VFW down in Pensacola.”
“Very good,” Clayton says. “Well, I can probably get you a ride to your hotel, and then to the airport—” Clayton stops abruptly and sits up straight. His intestines churn and gurgle loudly enough to be heard on the other side of the desk. “Excuse me,” Clayton says, carefully rising from his chair and waddling out of the office, clenching his rear end as he goes.
Brandon looks at Troy, accusing him of tampering with the guard’s coffee.
“I didn’t do anything,” Troy says. “When could I have possibly done anything? But listen, if he sets you up a ride, don’t forget to find a way to pick up the bag in the bushes. Knock out the driver if you have to. All our heartache will go to waste if we don’t come out of here with that bag. I can deal with whatever as long as you get away.”
Always the biggest kid in school, Brandon was an outcast like Troy, but he was rarely picked on. He could knock out anybody; it was always only a matter of deciding to.
They sat silently in the windowless storage closet turned office, under the buzz of the fluorescent lights.
“Knock knock,” says a college-aged woman standing in the doorway. “Where’s Mr. Wilson?”
“Who?” Troy asks.
“You’re sitting in his office, silly,” she says.
“Oh. He ran to the john.”
“Ah, well, here are the sandwiches,” she says, placing the three wrapped sandwiches on the desk. “I assume not all three are for him.”
She winks at them and leaves. Troy and Brandon haven’t eaten in twelve hours. Lured by the smells of the hot sandwiches wafting through the air, they opt not to wait for the guard to return.
“Chow down!” Clayton booms when he comes back and sees they’ve eaten half of their sandwiches already. “Boy, this looks good,” he says, unwrapping his. “So, listen, I’ve got some good news. I made a phone call while I was sitting in the oval office, and, Troy, if you’re willing to stick around while we sort this out, I’ve got the big fella an escort. Plenty of time to get him to and fro, plus the airport is small, and a half-hour lead time will be fine, if it comes down to that. Comply?”
“That’s fantastic,” Troy says, putting his hand on Brandon’s shoulder, more relieved for his buddy than disappointed to be left behind. “I guess I’ll write down the address for you now since you won’t be getting it out of him later.”
A second guard appeared at Clayton’s office door, Brandon’s escort.
“Looks like this is it,” Troy says, painfully struggling to his feet, gesturing for Brandon to stand as well. “Take care of yourself, brother. Don’t be a stranger.” He gives Brandon a hug, standing on his tiptoes to get his arms around the giant’s neck, lingering not only because he doesn’t know if he’ll see him again, but also because returning to his flat feet will hurt. “Don’t forget the rest of your sandwich.”
Brandon gives Troy’s back a thud with his palm and leaves the office, following the second guard’s gestures. No surprise, Brandon is bigger than the guard. They go outside and get in an SUV, similar to Clayton’s. Brandon remembers that he’s supposed to knock his escort out. But when the guard starts the engine, Brandon notices two more men sitting behind him in the backseat.
“You know,” the driver says. “Someone as dark as you sticks out like a sore thumb around here.”
Back inside, Troy finishes his sandwich.
“Tell me about your cousin’s family,” Clayton says. “What did you do all evening?”
“We had dinner, and just talked,” Troy says, quickly reminding himself of everyone’s names. “Danielle recited some poetry she’d written, and I wrestled with the boys before they went to bed.”
“Yeah, Reese and Lyle. Lyle is the little one. Spunky little kid.”
“The boys,” Clayton repeats. “And after they went to bed?”
“Just talked to Melissa and Steve for a while. Nothing in particular. Just catching up.”
“Which of them is your cousin again?”
“Melissa. I’ve never gotten to know Steve very well before tonight.”
“Got it. How do you and the big fella know each other?”
“We grew up together,” Troy says, relieved to mix some truth in with his lies. “Went to school together. I don’t remember not knowing him.”
“You called him brother a minute ago, but you’re not actually related, right?”
Troy gauges the seriousness in Clayton’s expression. Besides the extreme difference in size, he and Brandon differ in the color of their hair, eyes, and skin. “Not related,” he says with a smirk, having decided the guard was joking.
Clayton smiles in return. “So, wrestling around with the boys, Lyle, and, uh, Reese, huh. That sounds rough.”
Troy laughs. “It was a workout. I’m going to be sore tomorrow, that’s for sure.”
The guard leans back in his chair and loosens his belt to aid his shaky digestion.
“Well, make yourself comfortable,” he says, putting his feet up on his desk and closing his eyes.
Recognizing the long haul he’s in for, Troy leans back, too. Anxious, he entertains fantasies of Brandon’s freedom in lieu of subconscious dreaming amid the occasional distant footsteps and clatter from elsewhere in the complex and the hum of the light fixtures. He dozes off anyway, however, and is wakened by the loud ringing of the phone on the guard’s desk. Clayton’s feet slide off the desk, taking some papers with it, and groggily he answers the phone.
Troy glances at the clock and sees that an hour has passed. He straightens himself in his chair and rubs his eyes. Clayton says little into the phone, listening instead.
“Bad news, Troy,” Clayton says after hanging up, now fully alert. “Your buddy got to the hotel, but he was arrested before getting to the airport.”
Troy’s heart begins to pound. He swallows hard, aware of how wide his eyes have gotten but unable to adjust them.
The guard clicks the mouse on his computer, and Troy hears his own voice say, “I was given a code, but I can’t remember it now. Can you let us out?”
“Where are you coming from?” the intercom voice, Clayton’s, replies.
“We were at the Millers.”
“See, you did say Millers,” Clayton says. “That wasn’t a bad guess, actually. There is a Miller here, but only one. Keith Miller. He’s eighty-six. I don’t know him very well, to tell you the truth.”
Troy forces a shrug.
“By the way, that was my daughter earlier,” he continues. “The girl who brought you your sandwich. She’s back from college for the summer, and I got her a job here. Her name is Reese,” he says, watching Troy’s reaction. “Those unisex names. I hadn’t anticipated any confusion when we settled on naming her Reese; naïve of me. But there’s no confusion with her siblings’ names. Danielle and Lyle. Lyle is the youngest, but he’s not a little one, as you referred to him earlier. No, he’s seventeen, and already taller than me.”
Troy would not have wrestled with someone taller than the guard, that’s for sure, bad leg or no.
“And as for Mr. Wilson,” Clayton says, and stops. Troy bows his head as he recalls that the coffee shop girl had referred to the guard as Mr. Wilson earlier; he’d been too distracted by the arrival of the sandwiches to notice. “Looks like you’re putting the pieces together,” the guard says. “Clayton was my great-grandmother’s maiden name, which became her first son’s middle name, which continues to be passed down. I am Stephen Clayton Wilson the Third. I’ve been called Clayton since I was born, though, to avoid confusion with my father. My parents gave me hell when we named our son Lyle instead of Stephen Clayton the Fourth.”
The guard clicks a few more times on his mouse, and turns the computer monitor around to face Troy. “Here’s the full video,” he says.
The video is of the main gate. With a night vision filter on the camera, Troy watches the boosted Nissan hatchback roll up to the gate, and he watches Brandon first get out of the car, and then himself. The camera zooms in and he sees pretty clearly the incorrect keypad codes he’d tried. He watches himself lie to the voice on the intercom, followed shortly by Brandon’s attempts to heave the bag over the fence.
“Heck of a score,” Clayton says. “That bag is here, by the way, a few rooms down the hall. The officer who fished it out of the bushes got a horrible scrape across his face. Poor guy. But we forgive you for that. Anyway, I’m sure you can guess what we want to know next.”
Troy can guess.
“Yes, this is quite the jam you guys have gotten yourselves into,” the guard goes on. “And what incredible luck that of all the names in the directory, you picked mine. Otherwise, you’re not a bad liar. So. Who’s the bag going to?”
Tears flirt with Troy’s eyes as he stares at his shoes, thinking about Brandon, who is as good as dead. Troy will give up everything, but it will take time.
“Yup,” the guard continues. “Quite the jam.”
Joshua Britton is the author of the short story collection, Tadpoles, the novella, Heart Decisions, and editor of music anthology The Notes Will Carry Me Home. His short fiction and non-fiction have been published in many journals including Tethered By Letters, Nymphs, Cobalt Review, Bodega Magazine, and the Tarantino Chronicles. Joshua lives in Louisville. Follow him on Twitter @JP_Britton and on the web at www.joshua_britton.com.