Home of the Brave
By George Underwood
All the colour has been drained out of the city, anything not the President’s blue-and-white having long been stripped away. The people who dare come out, walk slowly and don’t talk, hoping to avoid the attention of the soldiers who patrol the streets.
The buildings, though, they’re immaculate – clean, grandiose and full of busy workers. Travis can’t help but smile as he walks past them. It’s a show for the rare occasion they have visitors, but they’re trying too hard. It feels as wrong as the broken, dirty ghettos he finds as soon as he turns off down a quieter road.
It’s odd for him here. He’s half reminded of TV shows he saw as a kid, now banned in most of Europe. The scenery is the same, the accents too… but it doesn’t feel like America. There’s a hollowness here.
It doesn’t take him too long to reach the suburbs, and a row of houses mostly abandoned. Their lawns are overgrown, their once-colourful walls faded. There’s a white one, conspicuous only by its boarded-up windows. On the porch, he knocks at the door three times, then three again.
“Name?” says the man who answers.
The man pats Travis down. “You’re clear.” He ushers him inside.
“You’re pretty quick to trust.”
The man points up to the ceiling above the winding stairs. There’s a blackened corpse hanging there. “That was our other Travis Wilks,” he says. “He was pretty convincing, but he put on an English accent. They think that if they use an American one like you’re doing, we’ll just suspect them right away. They try too hard.” He leads Travis up the stairs.
Travis almost gags at the stench of the corpse as they climb, but he’s quickly led through a door towards the other side of the building. The floorboards creak and the walls are cracked, and the only decoration is a faded poster that seems to be from an election.
“That must be old,” Travis says.
“Not that old. They still have elections here. The same person always wins, though.”
He’s taken into what was once a bedroom. Now it’s just faded wallpaper and the broken remnants of expensive furniture. A man sits by the window, waiting for them.
“Travis?” he says.
Travis nods. “You must be Ahmed.”
“I used to be.” He stands up. “Tell me, why does some agent of the British government want to speak to me?”
Travis tries to ignore his bluntness. “Four months ago, a friend of yours came to us in London and said you could be useful to us. I’m here to take you to Europe.”
Ahmed raises an eyebrow. “That’s impossible, and even if it weren’t I wouldn’t be so selfish. Millions of people like me suffer here every day. Why should I be the one who is saved?”
“Because most of the others are in prisons and camps, aren’t they?”
There’s a silence, suddenly broken by the wail of a baby coming from the next room. The man who answered the door leaves, and Travis hears his sharp voice, “Keep him quiet!”
“You hide families here?”
“Yes,” says Ahmed, “and you want me to abandon them.”
“I never said that. You can still help them from Europe. You used to be in the government, I’m told, but you have more than that… You have stories. We could use you to mobilise Europe against America.”
“You should be careful, Wilks,” says the doorman, re-entering the room. “I’ve been all over this country trying to help people, and I don’t just see a bad place to live. I see a weapon, pointed at the rest of the world. You’d be wise not to provoke it.”
Travis looks to Ahmed. “You can’t honestly want to stay in a place like this, though.”
There’s a furious knocking at the door below. The doorman swears and rushes out the room again. “Stay quiet and still,” says Ahmed.
Travis hears the door open.
“We’re here to inspect this building,” comes a harsh voice, muffled by distance.
“Idiots. I’m one of you,” says the doorman. “Here, my ID.”
There’s a brief, sickening silence. “We heard this house was hiding enemies of the state….”
“There’s one three streets down I was investigating, but I think they’re planning to move soon. I was going to let them lead me to others, but if you’re that interested in catching them…”
There’s some quiet mumbling as the visitor speaks to his companions. Then the door shuts and footsteps come back up the stairs. The doorman pokes his head into the room. “We have to move.”
Ahmed nods, and as the doorman disappears he looks to Travis. “I’m not going with you.” He points to a large, ugly scar on his left arm. “I got that when I was first detained. They came to my house, shot me without saying a word, and next thing I know I’m in front of a judge. Believe it or not, it was only then that I realised we weren’t a democracy anymore. I still seemed to know before everyone else…
“The point is, I’ve been through a lot. You’re right, I hate it here, but it’s things like that which give me reason to keep on fighting.”
Travis regards the scar. “The public just took that? Or were they already censoring the papers by then?”
“Oh, the papers were free to print whatever they liked,” says Ahmed. “They still are. It’s just that editors aren’t fond of life sentences.”
“We’re going,” comes the doorman’s rough voice from behind the wall, “end of story. Stay here and die if you like, but I’m not going to stick around.”
“You have to come with me Ahmed,” Travis says. “I’m not here because of my government. They laughed at the suggestion that anyone could find you, but I said I’d go anyway. I just couldn’t stand all the miserable news reports anymore, wondering what was happening over here, and when it was going to affect us. I’m here because I want to help.”
“I don’t have to come to Europe for you to do that,” says Ahmed.
The doorman walks past the door, followed by the family. They stop briefly and gaze into the room, first at Ahmed, seeming to beg him for even more help, then at Travis, giving looks of pure terror to this man they don’t know. The father has a scraggly beard covering sun-reddened cheeks, the daughter wears the dirty jumper of some once-proud high school, the son carries an electronic toy battered from its long journey, and the smartly-dressed mother has her baby strapped to her chest. Travis would guess from their clothes that they had been plump once, but now their skin is stretched over their bones, their backs hunched from exhaustion.
“Go,” says Ahmed. “Go on. Follow him. I’ll catch you up. Go!”
They reluctantly shuffle away.
“Why are they running?” asks Travis.
“They’re war criminals.”
“America isn’t at war.”
Ahmed shrugs. “That’s not what the President says.”
Travis can feel the family tugging at him. “Will they be alright?”
He sighs. “You wanted to meet here so I could see them, didn’t you?”
Travis feels his anger rising… but it’s oddly muted. “You know I can’t stay.”
“We could use a man like you, Travis. Most of the others are in the employ of the President. Besides, no matter how easily you got in, there is no way out of this country.”
“I know a way.”
“It won’t work.”
“Leave him Ahmed,” says the doorman from the corridor, “he’s a lost cause. An idealist. The kind of person who thinks they can wave their hand and everything will be back to normal. We know that our little experiment with democracy didn’t work, and that it’s time to move on and help those we can. He’ll always put the politics first, not the people.”
Ahmed looks at Travis. “I don’t believe that.”
Travis turns away from him and walks to the window. The family are huddled together in the back yard. It’s so much worse than the news reports here. People like them were never mentioned in the news reports.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of NewsLabBU. This is a platform for students to showcase their own creative work.