In Which Ebola Ravages America, and the Priest Travels to Khartoum in Search of the Immunity

The priest is huddled in the tall grass, beyond the tarmac. Waiting. Watching grasshoppers flick from stem to stem, in dissatisfaction.

After time, he notices a hum building in the air and crouches lower in the grass. Above him, a plane is bearing elegantly down to the runway. As it sweeps in, he can read the blue AEROLINEAS ARGENTINAS lettering across the side, and the roaring high-bypass turbofan engines press him to the ground, hands clapped over his ears.

The jet drags to a manageable pace by the end of the runway, where it turns westward. It taxis past the gutted carcasses of other aircraft. Their scattered remains. The quarantine canceled all outbound flights; fuel will be siphoned out soon after they land, and the wings and tail gradually torn away for scrap. Not this one –not if he can get to it in time.

The jumbo jet comes to a halt on the open concrete, about a hundred yards from the terminal. The priest checks his watch, and crawls in the grass to the edge of the runway. There, he settles down to wait again. The sun is high overhead, and far away to the south he can see gray smudges on the horizon. From here, barely visible. From the plane, as it circled before landing, the billowing plumes of smoke blotted the landscape like pinpricks, hemorrhaging the murky blood of America.

The priest checks his watch again, twenty minutes later. Gunshots, ringing from the plane, have begun to taper off like a bag of popcorn at the end of the microwave cycle. He stands, and checks the horizon, then moves fast and low across the broad hot expanse of tarmac toward a parked movable staircase.


Fourteen hours later, the jet tears across the sky with a roar that echoes away and dies on the vast African savanna below. The priest is sitting alone in the cockpit, idly attending to the dials and gauges. A smaller plane would be more efficient, but he prefers the 747 for simplicity. It more or less flies itself, holding steady on a high subsonic cruise velocity without much need for active piloting. When they designed the jet, they thought it would soon be rendered obsolete by the looming specter of supersonic air liners. They planned it for a smooth transition into future service as a shipping freighter. The entire nose cone actually folds down, for easy front loading, and the cockpit is in a bubble on top, a safe distance from the cargo hold below.

The Ebola outbreak awakened a morbid nationalism in Americans living abroad. Images of decay and death, broadcast around the world, inspired a dormant sense of kinship, rooted somewhere in the accumulated genetic memory of the American people. An urge to return home to die among their brethren. In this case, a group of expatriates living in Argentina had pooled together, hired a pilot, and commandeered a jet home.

It became a uniquely American endeavor, walking the tightrope of cognitive dissonance in arranging the logistics of mass suicide. They prepared fastidiously: settled any remaining financial obligations, placed their affairs in order, packed food and drink for the journey. Most importantly, their inalienable right, endowed by their creator – a firearm, primed and loaded, for every man, woman, and child. No other supplies; no intention of even disembarking. Enough to absorb the view of the dying country from above, steeling themselves for the final return to their native soil.

When the priest climbed aboard, the plane was a tomb. Upstairs, he unstrapped the pilot from his seat and pulled some papers from inside the flight jacket. Then he dragged the body out of the cockpit and shoved it down the staircase.

Now, approaching his destination, he eases the jet towards the dusty plains below, reddening as the sun dips below the horizon.


The plane wheels, and begins the approach for landing, ignoring the radio advances of Khartoum International Airport ground control all the way in. It touches down jarringly. By the time it comes to a stop the end of the runway and the entrance hatch swings open, a small band of Africans in fatigues are standing below. They keep their weapons trained on the priest as he drops a rope, and lowers himself to the ground. The nearest African steps forward.

“Point of origin?”

“Argentina,” he says. “Cordoba.”

“Not US?”

He produces a green and gold embossed passport and flashes it across.

The African nods. “And inside?”

“No people. Electronics.”

“What cargo?”

“Electronics. iPods.”

Eyes narrowed. “Real? From US?”

He nods.

“Could be infected.”

He shakes his head.

“Could be.”

He says nothing.

“Can't let in.”

“Destroy it,” he says. “I don't care. Burn them.” He turns and walks away. The guards watch him for a few paces, then lose interest and turn towards the jumbo jet.

The priest wanders until he reaches a road. It is poured black across a wide tract of pale dirt, stained with receding puddles from a late afternoon rainstorm. Now the light is fading. He is passed by few cars, which rush past in shimmering air. The road is lined by concrete apartment blocks, packed tightly along the sides of the road. The dwellings shoulder closer and closer, until the way is too narrow for a car to pass and the black road fades into a uniform dusty brown. By the time he enters the city, night has fallen. Food vendors line the roadside and crowds swarm between them, softly illuminated by bare light bulbs swaying overhead like fireflies.

Set back from the roadside, a painted sign reads ENGLISH WINE & BEER SHOP. He drags a rusted metal stool up to the counter, sits down, asks for a beer. The shopkeeper gestures at the stacked crates of bottles behind him. The priest frowns, looking back down the road, towards the airport. Vaguely, the dancing light of a bonfire glimmering in the distance.

He looks back to the shop. “Got anything American?” he asks.

The shopkeeper looks, and points to a faded case of Corona on the dirt floor. The priest sighs. There's another customer, sitting a few seats down the counter, who looks like a fellow compatriot. Thickset guy, wearing a rough gray shirt and blue jeans, and steel-toed work boots. He should have a cowboy hat to complete the look, but he's black, and a hint of irony may emerge. The cowboy finds irony unbearable.

“I'd go with bourbon,” he advises, indicating the bottle and tumbler set out before him, and the priest nods. The shopkeeper retrieves a bottle, drops broken chunks of ice into a glass and splashes some whiskey on them. The priest slips a large bill across the counter, and the man leaves the bottle.


“How long since you left home?” the priest asks.

“Less than a year,” says the cowboy. “Feels like longer.”

“Any family?”

“Not out here.”

“I don't suppose you're still in contact with them.”

“No. Power died in their area a few months back.”

The priest lets his gaze droop and stares at the ground, rubbing his earlobe between thumb and fingers. “I'm sorry to hear that.”

The cowboy shrugs, and takes a sip of bourbon.

“They seemed all right, last I spoke to them,” he says. “Told me Funkadelic was getting back together. Farewell tour.”

The priest leans his head back and breathes deeply. Overhead there is no sky, just the reaches of space, crossed by a starry lattice. “I think,” he says, “that George Clinton has passed away. The southeast was hit badly some weeks back, and Mississippi in particular.”

The cowboy swears, “Christ!” with surprising violence. Then he shudders, and breathes. “Should have expected it, I guess.” He reaches forward and drains his glass. Signals for another. “What about Sly Stone?” he asks. “Is he dead too?”

“I believe so.”



“Michael Jackson?”

“Yes,” the priest says. “But that was earlier. Not Ebola.”

“Oh, that's right.” The cowboy offers a faint, faraway grin that lingers as he drinks deeply and swallows hard.

The moment passes. Now the cowboy is all business. “Who are you looking for out here?”

“What makes you think I'm looking for anyone?”

“Everyone comes out here looking for someone. You know, Osama bin Laden used to hide in Khartoum at one point.”

“The Sudanese authorities are an optimistic lot.”

“Yeah. It's an Islamic state, right. But,” he says, looking up, “they have a cynical take on Islamic morality.”

The priest studies the cowboy, like a poker player reassessing the strength of the hand he's dealt. “From what I hear, there are still some pretty interesting characters hiding out.”

The cowboy waits.

“I'm looking for a kid with the immunity.”

The cowboy looks long and searchingly. “Why?”

“He's here?”



“The construction projects near the Nile Delta. North of here.”

“And you've met him?”

“Yes. He knows about the virus.” The cowboy eases forward on the bar, rubbing his shaved head. The priest leans in, to listen. “There were breakouts before, you know.”

“That's right,” says the priest. “But they never spread very far, because Ebola was so deadly. It killed everyone faster than they could spread it.”

“He told me that it burns too brightly. Devours its own fuel.”

“This time it's different,” says the priest. “People always died within a couple of weeks after the symptoms first appeared. Now, sometimes, we can last much longer. Three months. Three hellish months, to infect everyone we can breathe on. So what changed?”

The cowboy doesn't know. “Mutation?”

“No. Ebola stayed the same. We became stronger.”


“Americans, specifically. Our emphasis on medical technology. Advanced to the point that no matter what, our bodies can fight, and that's our mistake. If we went down easily, we'd be spared. By fighting, we doom ourselves to the truly evil virulencies of nature. Do you follow?”

The cowboy nods, slowly.

“Ebola was always there. It was always waiting. So long as men respected their place in the world, it posed no danger to us. Only at the vicarious heights of our society were we susceptible. We flew too close to the gleaming peak of immortality.”

The cowboy's eyes are wide. Then he blinks, and takes a sip of bourbon. “Sure, old man,” he says. “Whatever you say.” Each turns back to the bar, lost in thought.


The silence is broken when a skinny, floppy old man walks up. He looks Arab, but he sits at the bar between them and points fearlessly at a pile of cans on the floor. The shopkeeper snaps one open and clunks it down, and the old man takes a long, lithe pull. When he looks up, the shopkeeper is waiting expectantly. Delicately, he begins rummaging through the folds of his robe. After a time, he withdraws a wad of wet paper, from which he peels two notes, and places them on the bar.

“Will you take Euros?” he asks. “They are covered in vegetable oil.”

The shopkeeper looks down at the soaked bills. They glisten on the polished counter. He shakes his head with distaste, and the old man thrusts the bills back into his robe.

“Racist,” he hisses. He turns to the black cowboy. “So much for the first black president, huh?”

The cowboy sips his whiskey.

“Yeah, so much for post-racism.” He is rummaging around for more money, and he pauses, and exhorts the cowboy again. “Does it bother you,” he asks, grinning with maniac innocence, “if I refer to myself as colored?”

The priest takes a gulp from his drink and swallows a small chunk of ice. It slides frostily down his throat and he closes his eyes and shivers. He imagines the cowboy gripping a whiskey bottle by the neck and whirling it out in a tight arc. At the point of impact, the bottle shatters and the old man's neck snaps back and he slowly careens off the stool in a languid parabola, glittering amber whiskey and shattered fragments of glass spraying away.

The old man is still talking. “What do you mean, fifty dollars on my tab? At what interest rate? I don't have fifty dollars.” He takes another long swig of beer. “Where's my bailout?” The old man brays, head tossed back uproariously.

“That's enough,” says the priest. “Show some respect.”

The old man plows on. “For who? The bailout? The guys that ran the bailouts?”

“That's right.”

“Like who? Ben Bernanke. Is he dead?”

“He's dead.”

The cowboy interjects. “What about Barack Obama?”

A pause. Both looking at the priest, but the priest says nothing. His eyes are closed and he refuses to speak. The old man begins to laugh again. The harsh nasal tones ring in the priest's ears and he opens his eyes and leans across the bar, grabs a nice solid bottle and clocks the old man right under the nose. The shameless laughter cuts off sharply. There's a small chink as the glass impacts his front teeth, blasting them out of the bloody upper gum, and his nose crumples back. The bottle doesn't break, it just smacks in with a wet thunk. By the time the old man topples, the priest is up and walking away. To the north, towards the Nile Delta.


Khartoum is bordered to the north and west by two major tributaries, feeding the Nile River. The White Nile, which flows up from deep within the jungles of Uganda to the south, is traditionally thought to be tinged with some essence of the dark, mysterious soul of the African continent. The Blue Nile, which twists around from its sacred source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, is purported by certain scholars of the Old Testament to be the actual Gahon, a river named in Genesis as one of the four ancient waters emerging from the Garden of Eden. It is at Khartoum that the two merge into the mighty Nile, vital current of civilization and fertility through the northern deserts. Post-colonially speaking, the delta at Khartoum is the confluence of African mythos: the primal, savage birthplace of humanity.

The priest slows his pace, drawing near to the river bank. Shrouded, the skeleton of an unfinished skyscraper towers above him in the dark, and beyond it the moonlight dances over the chaotic surfaces of water. His eyes travel briskly up the skyscraper, mentally numbering the stories, until he settles at the faint blue glow, spilling out from the seventeenth floor. He approaches cautiously, anticipating security around the construction site. But there is no personnel, nor equipment in sight. The skyscraper has been abandoned in its partially completed state. The priest stalks around the tower, guided by an entrenched instinct for reconnaissance. Halfway around, a rickety metal staircase runs up a scaffolding. He ducks under a chain draped across the stairs and begins climbing.

Seventeen stories up. He's not cut out for this sort of thing. By the time he stumbles out onto the occupied floor, he's gasping for air.

In the center of the floor is the source of the electric blue glow. Four plate glass walls enclose a small chamber. Inside, computer monitors shine, casting their faint aura on the floor. The priest moves forward, and inadvertently snaps a sheet of plywood, and it coughs up sawdust. He holds his breath. Through the dust, he sees the chair swivel around inside the glass room. The entire level is empty. Nowhere to hide. A silhouetted figure is fumbling around in the desk drawer. Then, he pushes open a panel of glass and steps out. Now, he is bathed in the bluish light, and the priest can see that his features are smooth and youthful.

“Who are you?” asks the kid.

“I'm Priest Macallan.”

“A priest?”

“No,” says the priest. “That's just my first name.”


“What is this place?”

“An abandoned construction project,” the kid says.

“Abandoned for what?”

The kid rolls his eyes, but actually he doesn't mind talking. “If you really want to know,” he launches in, “it goes back to Darfur. The genocide. You know what I'm talking about? Those celebrities used to campaign for it. George Clooney and Elie Wiesel. Bono. Are any of those guys still around?”

“Bono, probably,” says the priest. “Isn't he Irish?”

“Oh yeah. He's probably fine.” The kid drags up a stack of cinder blocks and leans on them, tentatively. Trying to look suave. “Anyway,” he says, “look. Darfur was a perfect storm, as far as charitable causes are concerned. Really terrible, and Sudanese government wasn't doing a damn thing to stop it.”

The priest shifts his weight, but he doesn't move his feet, and the boy seems not to notice.

“And the Janjaweed,” the kid continues, “were roaming around on camels, raping everything in sight. Gruesome stuff. The whole thing was begging the UN to get involved, whatever that means.”

“Send peacekeepers,” says the priest.

“Yeah, that. The other thing is, Africa is a big draw for charity types, you know? It's useful to have up your sleeve. You're at a dinner party, right, and you want to talk some shit about, say, the Iraq War. You say, what about Darfur? Morally upstanding Americans should want the US government involved in something like Darfur. Better than some over-hyped weapons of mass destruction bullshit that's really all about oil, anyway. So everyone got caught up in it, and the money came pouring in.”

“It helped?”

“Not really. Sometimes. A lot of it just went into the massive refugee camps. That's no good. No real authority. I mean, it's just not a permanent solution. And a bunch of Nigerians turn up and start selling guns and drugs. It gets pretty ugly.”

“You've been there?”

“Briefly. Only, look. Sometimes the money helped. When they put it into infrastructural things. That's what this building was. A lot of money was coming into Sudan for the genocide, and they'd send most of it south, but some stayed in Khartoum. At the same time, Dubai was going bankrupt. I don't know if you remember that. Some big developer bailed on a project over there, and started some major construction here. If the oil money is running out, might as well go for blood money.”

“But that ran out too,” says the priest.

“Pretty quickly. Something else happened. A coup in Thailand, I think. Thai kids are cuter than African kids. And Dylan even wrote a protest song about it, as some kind of throwback. Hey, is Bob Dylan still alive?”


“Jesus. But Bono is. Ain't that a bitch. Like Lennon and McCartney, it's always the wrong ones that die.”

“But the sickness will take us all, in the end.”

“Not all,” the kid says, smiling cherubically.


“You live up here?” the priest asks.


“And your family?”

The kid shrugs. “I get along without them.”

“Ah. Adolescent angst.”

“It's not like that,” says the boy. “It just isn't a phase, it turns out. I'm genuinely too cool to hang with my parents.”

“I see,” says the priest, barely amused. “How long have you been here?”

“Eight months.”

The priest frowns. “The quarantine was in effect by then. How did you go?”

“They just let me,” smiles the boy. “Everyone seems to have a pretty good protective instinct around me. It's something in the genetic memory, I think.”

“Genetic memory?”

“Like, subconscious memories passed from generation to generation. Living in society, people build up instinctive guidelines for how to behave. The way we venerate rock stars, for example. We've learned to protect them, because they're so valuable to society. They're the talented few that provide something beautiful. I think it's all stored in our glial cells, actually.”


“No, I mean, that's where we store genetic memory. Glial cells are these brain cells that aren't actually connective neurons. They're partly structural, to hold the neurons in place. You know how sometimes people used to say we only use ten percent of our brain? That's why, because by mass, most of the brain is glial cells.”

“Okay,” says the priest.

“So,” he says, “I mean, that statistic is bullshit. Glial cells are functionally important, probably. I think it's where we store our genetic memory.

“Think about whales,” he suggests. “Right? Their brains are almost human-sized, even though they're nowhere near as smart. They've got a ton of glial cells. That's why they're so, like, ancient. Timeless. Because they've got all this aggregated genetic memory of the whole species, going back millennia, probably.”

“You think we're smarter than whales?” asks the priest.

The kid's eyes bug out, and he splutters.

“Fine,” says the priest. “So you think you're some kind of rock star.”

Now the kid grins, despite himself. “I didn't say that.”

“You're not a rock star,” says the priest. “You're an aberration. A mistake.”

The grin fades. “That's a little harsh.”

“It's the truth. No one is meant to escape. America is dead.”

“Whoa, man. You've got it all wrong,” says the kid. “I'm the next step in human evolution. Sorry if that's hard to swallow. The fact is, you're outdated. You're last year's model.”

Now the priest is forceful. “Where did the sickness came from? Did it just come about by random chance? No. It's always been here, and now it has destroyed America. That's not random chance. Civilizations are not just wiped out at random. It is part of Divine Order.”

The kid steps back. He is frightened. “What about the dinosaurs? They were wiped out.”

“And none survived. His Will leaves no exceptions. Particularly not for arrogant children.” The priest takes a step. “You've put a lot of stock into genetic memory. But I feel no protective instinct. I am driven only by Divine right. What protection have you?”

The kid raises an arm, and in his hand is a revolver. “Look, man, I'm not stupid–”

The priest charges forward with astonishing ferocity. Too close, coming too quickly for the kid to aim or fire. He can only stumble back as the priest cannonballs in, low and fast. The kid loses his step, his arms swinging wildly forward to counter the momentum and regain balance, but he is falling, and his eyes are filled with terror. The point of impact crushes the air from his lungs. But the butt of his revolver, still swinging around, connects. A glancing strike to the back of the priest's neck, and the broad shoulders are no longer driving him back. His ears are suddenly filled with the sickening crack, and the priest goes limp under him. The kid looks down in surprise, and they collapse onto the concrete floor.


When the priest opens his eyes, he is flooded with light and the shocking intensity of sensory awareness knocks him back out of consciousness.


Later, he begins again, more carefully. The sunlight still, is bright and unrelenting. He is sprawled face-down on the dusty floor. He forces his leaden body over, and tries to sit up. A hot wind carries wisps of sand through the air, and he narrows his eyes and shields his face from the whirling grit and dirt. The kid is gone. The priest is alone on the seventeenth floor of the abandoned, skeletal skyscraper. It is the first time he has felt the breeze through Khartoum.

At the center of the floor is the small glassed-in room, sealed and sheltered from the sand. The priest begins crawling to it, stabs of pain shooting down his spine. His long, coarse hair is matted across his face and forehead, sweaty, dirty. When he reaches the room, he presses against the glass until a panel gives way and he slips through. The air inside is still and hot, but clean. He pulls himself into the soft leather chair, wincing as he straightens his back. On the desk, the computer is humming. The priest touches the keyboard and the monitors blink awake.

“The Book of Genesis,” they read, “tells of a great flood. At a time when the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, He said, 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am grieved that I have made them.' 

"And He selected Noah, whom He knew to be a righteous man, to build an ark to carry Noah and his family safely through the flood. He instructed Noah to take aboard the birds and animals of earth – seven pairs of the birds and clean animals, and two of the unclean animals. But what about the animals that live in water?

“We did not go aboard the ark with Noah. We remained on land as the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain was upon the earth. And as the waters rose, we walked to shore and swam with the ebb tide until we came upon whales, who carried the ancient wisdom of the world. We spake, and the whales understood. We asked that they bear us, and riding out upon them, we traveled the land, now flooded with water. Even the highest mountains were covered, fifteen cubits deep. In this manner, we rode across the world during the Great Flood.”


Wind is whipping past the glass outside now, peppering the walls like a fine mist of rain. The priest rises shakily to his feet and pulls off his shirt, wrapping it over nose and mouth. Then he forges into the arid air, walking to the northern face of the building. Shimmering below him is the thin band, the Blue Nile, flowing over the dirt.

Beyond, the desert stretches interminably, and a dust storm is building in the distance. The haboob is a common phenomenon during summer in Khartoum – a massive wall of sand that builds from collapsed thunderstorms deep in the Sahara Desert and advances upon the city with terrifying speed. The priest can see nothing beyond the dust storm. The rolling wave of sand is fifty miles across and nearly a mile high.

The storm is approaching, churning violently through the desert like a plague. Somewhere out there is the kid with the immunity, and the priest is tingling at the prospect of the chase ahead. He steps forward to the edge of the building and stands with arms outstretched, held back by the buffeting wind. The lives of men, he feels, are brief, jarring and acute. Gazing out from the seventeenth story of the skyscraper, the priest considers the rise and decline of great civilizations.


Key to the City

I sank into the broken corduroy armchair, sipping coffee. A cool gust caught the gauzy curtains, and early sunlight filtered through the open window. An infomercial was playing on the television, but the sound was drowned out. Carmina Burana boomed through the bathroom door behind me in muffled apocalypse.

"What ever happened to Saturday morning cartoons?” I asked. The girl on the sofa leaned forward and tapped a bit of ash into her cup and blew a stream of smoke that mingled with the steam from the shower, curling around the edges of the bathroom door, and the room smelled sticky and soapy. She turned to look at me with big, sympathetic eyes. The music rumbled into a crescendo.

“Boy, those little speakers can really belt it out,” I said. She blinked and looked away. She was wearing a pale yellow dress and the strap had slipped off her right shoulder. Another gust of wind slipped through the window and rustled her hair gently. She glowed in the morning light. I wondered what her name was.

“It's Sunday,” she said.

The bathroom door burst open and O Fortuna crashed out in a steamy cloud and Pierce stood in the doorway, wrapped in a gold and white striped towel, hair swept wetly back. The ornate silver key hung on a chain around his neck and the girl gazed up at him, moist lips slightly parted. I rolled my eyes and turned back to the television and took a bitter sip of coffee, burning my tongue.


Down the hall, I could hear the girl being tenderly hustled out of the apartment, and then Pierce tromping back to his room. He emerged a few minutes later wearing jeans and a red flannel shirt. The silver chain glinted where it poked up from under his collar.

“Let's go,” he announced.

“I'm busy,” I said. The television was still on. The infomercial pitchman radiated enthusiasm, but it wasn't infectious.

“Well, hurry. We're going to Ted Epstein's fundraiser, and I want to get breakfast first.”

I ignored him.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Thinking about buying a blender.”

A phone number was blinking on the screen. Five easy payments of just $12.99.

“That's a good idea,” he said. “We can make strawberry banana smoothies.”

I frowned and twisted around to look at him, and he smiled benignly. I slid out of the armchair and snapped the television off.

“Let's get food,” I said.


The strip mall parking lot bristled with suburban aggression, so Pierce slid the car around the outskirts and pulled up to the curb, right in front of the entrance to the bookstore. With a self-satisfied grunt, he shoved the gearshift forward and cut off the engine. He always parked illegally. Even before they gave him the key to the city, I mean. Most of the time nobody bothered to do anything about it, and when he did get a ticket, half the time they took down the wrong plate number or something. I don't know what he did when the fines actually stuck. Paid them, I guess.


We sat down at a small table in the Starbucks that took up a quarter of the bookstore with two cups of black coffee and croissants. The café was full of women in running shorts and sneakers. Standard morning attire. As far as most people are concerned, there's nothing remarkable about drinking black coffee, but in a sea of syrupy mocha lattes it made Pierce feel rugged and austere. That's why we came to these stupid Barnes and Noble coffee shops.

After a few minutes, Pierce got up and wandered through the bookshelves for a while, and came back with a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. He flopped it open to a random page so he could glance at it between bites. I sat back, daydreaming a simpler existence. A cold gray morning, legs dangling off the pier and the fishing pole wedged between the wooden slats. Waiting for a nibble.


Within about ten minutes, I caught whispered excitement on the periphery of my attention, and when I looked around, some girl was bouncing over in black tights and a bright red top like a sexy bowl of Jello. Good god, what an ass. I glanced across at Pierce, but he was frowning in earnest concentration as Ivan Fyodorovich reflected on morality. When she got to our table, she hesitated.

“Um, excuse me? I'm sorry to bother you, but are you... Edward Pierce?”

He reluctantly turned away from the book, looked up into her eyes, and smiled quietly. “Just Pierce is fine.”

She bit her lower lip, tremulous. I could see her melting. Honestly, I doubt that things would have ever turned out this way without the good fortune of having a hotshot name like Pierce. He needed something flashy, now that he was such a goddamn hero. Before they gave him the key to the city, he used to go by Ned.

“Wow,” she breathed. “I.. It's such an honor to meet you.” She thrust her hand forward and Pierce reached up and for a second I thought he was going to kiss it, like he was some kind of prince. But he just held it.

“This is Scottie.” He introduced me without breaking eye contact.

“Nice meeting you Scottie,” she echoed. I grunted. I used to hassle Pierce about introducing me as Scottie, but I ended up sounding petulant, and I guess I don't really care anyway.

“Pierce,” she said, “I know people must ask you this all the time, but... what was it like? I mean, what was going through your head?”


People did ask him that all the time, but he never seemed to mind. I remembered when the mayor asked him, before the ceremony where they gave him the key to the city.

“Ah, Pierce, my dear fellow.” The mayor talked like that sometimes, like he had forgotten his top hat and monocle at home that morning. He had a blue bow tie, though, and he was packaged up in a gray suit that could barely hold him in when he was all puffed up with civic responsibility. The heat was sweltering, and out on the steps of City Hall the mayor huffed around, aggrandizing.

“Come now, my good man. Tell me, what was it like?” I think that was when it first occurred to him to call himself Pierce.


They went on flirting for a while. It was more of a formality than anything else, but Pierce was too much of a professional to deliver any less than a virtuoso performance, even when she was his to lose. He wasn't sleazy about it or anything. I mean, he was really a charming guy. I was half listening when she said, “My son Arthur is such a big fan of yours, too.” She gestured at a tiny droll looking kid with curly brown hair and glasses, who was sitting alone in front of a chessboard. I gawked at him.

Pierce took it in stride. “Hey there, Arthur,” he waved in camaraderie, “why don't you come on over here?” He had a vision of tousling that hair, probably. Boy, he was a real pro. Arthur didn't look like he had any intention of coming over, though.

“He's very shy,” his mother explained. “But he's really such a big fan of yours.” We nodded. “Would you mind signing an autograph for him?”

This was familiar territory. We patted ourselves down for a pen, but all came up empty.

“You know what,” said Pierce, “I think I've got one out in the car. Why don't we go out and look for it?”

That was really weak, I thought, but she seemed to go for it. I excoriated them silently with pursed lips. “Excuse me,” I said. “I'm going to play chess with Arthur.” This was a lovely idea, everyone agreed.


I sat down in the empty chair across from Arthur. The chessboard was set up for checkers, with pawns in the first two rows and bishops and knights across the back ranks.

“Hi Arthur,” I said. “I'm Scott.” He peered at me, eyes magnified by the round lenses. “Scottie.”

“Where'd my mom go?”

“They're looking for a pen.” This seemed to satisfy him. “Want to play?”

He examined me briefly, considering. “Okay,” he said.

“Do you know how to play chess?”

“No. Will you show me?”

“Sure,” I said. “But let's play checkers first. You can be white.”

We played for a while in silence. He was pretty good, but that's not saying much, since we were only playing checkers. Still, I figured he was probably older than he looked. After I jumped one of his pawns, he asked, “Is Pierce your friend?”

I said he was.

“Are you his sidekick?” His feet didn't reach the ground sitting in the chair, and he swung them back and forth under the table.

No good could come from getting pissed off at someone else's kid in a coffee shop. “Sure, I guess so. But not a sidekick like Robin. More like... Well, I don't know. A Sancho Panza figure.” He nodded, and then leaned forward and jumped three of my pieces, ending up on the back row. I swapped his pawn for a king that was lying on the table. Arthur grinned at the king, which towered regally over the rest of the board.

“Do you know who Sancho Panza is?” I asked.

He nodded again. “Yes. He's Don Quixote's friend.” He pronounced it “donkey ho-tey.”

“How do you know about Don Quixote?”

“My dad told me about him. He charges at windmills.” He looked up at me for confirmation, and I nodded.


Pierce didn't exactly charge at windmills, but that wasn't so far off. Back before they gave him the key to the city, he dabbled in activism. A utility company had proposed building a few space-age wind turbines up on the ridge of hills to the west. There's always wind crashing up over the ridge, and around early November it builds into a shrill, piercing intensity and the sharp gusts cut across the tree line and down into the city, and it gets miserably cold for a month or so. But usually the wind breaks on the hills, so it's only a light residual breeze that makes its way down to us.

The windmills were a good idea, I thought. Mostly everybody thought so, until Ted Epstein decided to turn it into a campaign issue. Epstein's a seasoned political veteran, and I guess the usual angle of snidely referring to the mayor as a fat-cat politician wasn't up to his standards this time. Instead he launched into all kinds of fire and brimstone about the sanctity of nature and the pristine landscape. Now, I'm no hippie-dippy treehugger, he said, and that was true. He went at these windmills with a righteous indignation generally reserved for Scientologists and child pornographers. He dug up a copy of a contract between the utility company and City Hall, and sure enough, there on the bottom was a scribble that very plausibly might have been the mayor's signature. (“I say,” said the mayor, “what's all this, then?”)

I didn't think much of the whole charade, but Pierce got swept up in it. He claimed he used to go camping up there when he was a kid. Maybe that's true. He also said he'd always been passionate about the great outdoors, which was definitely not true. But he stuck with it, at least for a few weeks, until the wind up on the ridge started winding circles around the partially-built turbines and the whole thing came crashing down. He went up there a few times with a group of protesters, and they'd dance around with angry picket signs and generally make life difficult for the construction workers. Not in my backyard, he maintained adamantly. That was his mantra. Not in my backyard. The ridge was nowhere near our apartment, though. You could barely see it from the roof of the building.


My checkers play was getting a little spotty. I was distracted, trying to keep an eye out for the car, so by the time I saw Pierce pull in front of the store again, my troops had taken heavy casualties. I eyed Arthur from across the board. He was leaned forward on the edge of his seat, elbows on the table and cheeks resting on his fists, surveying the situation. He looked only vaguely pleased, not willing to acknowledge that his four kings (king, queen, and two upside-down rooks) gave him an insurmountable advantage. He was still cooking up plans to induct the rest of the court into royalty.

I didn't see any sense in dragging things out any further than necessary. The doors swung open and Arthur's mother strolled in, still bouncy and no worse for wear. I moved one of my pieces forward, where it dangled juicily. Arthur pounced, jumped my two remaining pawns, and promptly thrust his arms upward, beaming in glorious triumph. I bowed my head and offered my solemn congratulations. He was still swept up in victory when the girl planted a kiss on top of his head.

“Hi there honey. Did you have a fun game?” Arthur looked slowly up at her, fists still clenched in the air, and nodded.

“That's good,” she said. “I'm glad you had fun. Sorry I was gone so long.” She looked at me. “Thanks for keeping him company. Pierce is waiting outside.”

I got up. “See you, Arthur,” I said. “I'll teach you chess next time, okay?”

“Okay,” he said.


We drove along in silence. After a while, Pierce turned on the radio, so I rolled down the window and leaned my head out. All I could hear was the rushing air in my ears. I thought about the constant battering wind up on the ridge. I had only been up there once, tagging along with Pierce and the other activists. It was warm in town that day, but by the time we had hiked up near the construction site, I was freezing and so was everyone else. Everyone just milled around, and the posterboard signs flapped frantically in the wind. A couple of college kids tried to get a kind of chant started, but their voices were whipped around into the gusty air and we could barely hear them.

It was always windy up there, and I didn't know why. I've never really understood how wind works. I leaned back into the car and pulled out my phone to look it up.

“Wind is caused by differences in pressure,” I read aloud. “When a difference in pressure exists, the air is accelerated from higher to lower pressure.” Pierce turned down the volume on the radio. I repeated it and he nodded.

“Right,” he said. “Differences in pressure.”

I shrugged. I felt sort of silly to have googled “wind”.

“Do you think you're ever going to see that girl again?” I asked.

Pierce looked around at me, and raised an eyebrow. “I don't know,” he said. “Maybe. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Just wondering.” The air outside was chilly, and I cranked the window back up. “I told Arthur that I'd teach him chess.”

Pierce chuckled. “I guess I'll have to see her again, then.” He chuckled some more. “That was pretty bad, huh?”

I shrugged again.

“If there's no God, there's no morality,” Pierce intoned. “Dostoevsky.”

“That doesn't sound like Dostoevsky,” I said. “I don't think he puts it so bluntly. Maybe you picked up the Great Illustrated Classic edition.”

“I was paraphrasing, obviously.”

I turned and looked out the window. When he got tired of the silence, Pierce asked me if I had any new ideas to write about.

“I'm going to write about you,” I said. “I'm following you around and taking notes so I can write a gritty memoir of your sordid affairs.”

“You should write a contemporary reinterpretation of Moby-Dick,” he said. “About a guy who's into fat chicks. He could be traveling around America, looking for true love.” I waited. He had developed a weird comedic timing, like everyone was waiting breathlessly for his punchline and he wanted to build the tension as long as possible. I didn't want to throw him off. About a minute later, he said, “Trying to harpoon a white whale with his Moby-Dick.” I laughed a little to appease him, and then we continued on in silence.


When the car rolled to a stop, I looked around. Up ahead, a wrought iron gate opened onto a mansion on a hill. Earlier that day, a big green riding lawnmower had churned across the lawn in a tidy cross-hatch pattern. The car idled on the gravel shoulder.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Ted Epstein's place.”

“What are we doing here?”

“He's hosting a fundraiser,” he said. A big silver BMW trundled past us and pulled through the gate. “It's a barbecue.”

“Oh. Why are we sitting out here, though?”

Pierce was looking up at the big house with trepidation. “All the construction guys' wives will be there,” he said. “The widows, I mean.” He drew in a breath, shivered slightly, and exhaled. “Let's sit here for a minute.” There was always a small group of widows at these things. Everyone understood their value in political capital. Pierce drummed his fingers on the top of the steering wheel, and I adjusted my hair in the side mirror. Then he turned off the car and we walked up the driveway.


In the white marble foyer, a small crowd had gathered around Ted Epstein. He was brandishing a tumbler of whiskey and expounding.

“Oh, it's no secret that there's always a little dirt swept under the rug, here and there. That's politics. It's a dirty business. And I'm not pretending I'm so pure and lily-white. I'm not pretending that I'm some kind of saint.”

The crowd thronged conspiratorially around him. They were watching his glass, which came close to spilling onto the thick cream-colored rug each time he finished a sentence.

“But let me tell you – this time, they've gone too far. This time, that fat cat down in City Hall has simply gone too far.” Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he whirled around to see Pierce and me standing in the doorway.

“Aha! Our guest of honor!” He strode forward and draped his arm over Pierce's shoulders. “How are you, you son of a gun?”

The whiskey hovered under Pierce's nose, and he eyed it nervously. “Ted.”

“You fellas all know Mr. Pierce, of course.” The crowd nodded. “I'll tell you what, son, it sure is a relief to see a fresh face like yours up here. Here I am, sounding off about who knows what, and you were were the real visionary behind that turbine business. You knew those crooks were up to no good, right from the start.”

Pierce smiled. “Well, I had my suspicions.” Then the smile faded, and he looked solemn, and swallowed hard. “But I never imagined it would end up the way it did.”

The crowd hushed. Epstein looked thoughtful. “Sure, son. Nobody could have predicted a tragedy like that.” Nobody moved. I shifted my weight back and forth. Then Ted switched the glass of whiskey to his other hand and slapped Pierce on the back.

“It's lucky for us that you were up there when it happened. Let me tell you, son, bona fide heroism like that only comes once in a generation.”

The crowd broke forward and swarmed around Pierce, and he grinned and started shaking hands. I sidled past and went into the house to find a drink.


I missed the good old days. In the stories I'd read, parties like this would serve champagne in big finger-bowls. I had a hard time picturing a finger-bowl, but presumably it held a lot of champagne. Here it was all served in flutes, which had the endurance of a Capri Sun. I downed a couple before the waiter realized what I was up to and started steering the tray to other parts of the mansion. The unstated dress code in the place called for bright flowery sun dresses and pastel-colored polo shirts. There was nothing significant or elemental or profound about any of it.

I wandered through the house for a while, until I ended up on the big wooden deck out back. There was a pool in the backyard, and a horde of kids playing in it. They were the progeny of the sun dresses and polo shirts, I figured, because all the bathing suits were printed with appropriately gaudy and colorful patterns. As far as I could tell, the whole pool area was an isolated region of chaos, little bodies in constant motion as they fluidly transitioned between water and land.

The whole scene was straining under the weight of reality. Highly-paid landscapers had designed the place, envisioning the backyard as a quaint pastoral. The pool, we were meant to imagine, was a natural lake, and the little hut where they kept towels and noodles and long-poled nets was painted red and white like a miniature barn. There was even a little replica windmill, right in their backyard. But the landscapers hadn't accounted, in this picturesque vision, for the presence of real people, and the maelstrom of screaming kids was destabilizing the whole thing. They were chasing each other around the windmill, and I wondered how much torque the thing was designed to withstand, and what kind of angular velocity they could generate playing tag.


Lounging drunkenly on the grass, I thought about what Ted Epstein had said. Bona fide heroism. Up on the ridge, you wouldn't have expected any bona fide heroism from our pathetic bunch of protesters. The construction guys, maybe. They kept rolling their eyes at the group of us, huddled together against the cold. Flaunting their toughness. And the gusts kept coming faster and colder, whipping by, twisting convoluted spirals around the turbines. The wind was building with orchestral grandeur, and then suddenly the crescendo pushed beyond some threshold and the sound changed. It began to hum. A flowing stream of pitches, wavering into a hesitant melody that charmed the windmills into a slow, swaying dance. Pierce and I watched, mesmerized, as the turbines began to lean and shift like long-slumbering giants, stirring awake. They are dazed and groggy. They are too clumsy for their huge bodies, and when they fall they will crush the peasants below. Pierce saw the giants, saw them coming to life. Then he saw that the construction workers were in danger, unaware of the oncoming chaos. And he jumped up and charged toward them.

Charged heroically toward them, I guess.


When I got tired of sitting in the sun, I went back inside and tried to endear myself to the pimply teenage kid who'd been conscripted into bartending duty. We chatted for a while about the good old days, and after a few drinks, I excused myself. I was looking for a restroom, but instead I turned a corner and discovered Pierce and Ted Epstein and a number of women dressed in muted tones. The women ignored me entirely. Their attention was focused on Pierce.

They were in mourning, I realized. But their grief didn't take any form that resembled anger or frustration or anything like that, even towards Pierce, who hadn't been able to save their husbands. They accepted loss with a stoic resolve that probably came from being wives of construction workers. The same thing happens with loggers and deep-sea fishermen, and soldiers and criminals, probably.

Still, they were drawn to him. There was nothing sexual to it. That would be easy for Pierce to understand. Pathetic adulation. Pierce was standing before them, and in his outstretched arm he held the key to the city. They gazed up at him with thirsty eyes. But they weren't really seeing Pierce. He was just a placeholder, playing the role of the hero in somebody else's ceremony. It made me sick to watch him standing there like a well-trained puppy, giving them what they wanted. Something had to change, to break out of the pattern. I walked up, swiped the key out of Pierce's grip, and took off.


I didn't know where I was going. I made turns at random, and suddenly burst out into bright sunlight on the deck. The kids were still playing in the pool. I'll find a small kid with glasses, I decided, and give him the key. But as I ran forward, I couldn't make out any of their faces. They were blurs of motion, like a dust storm. Wind is caused by differences in pressure, I remembered. Air is accelerated from higher to lower pressure. And I understood all that. But I couldn't connect it with the constant whirling gusts up there on the ridge. I've always thought of the atmosphere as basically stationary, somehow, but it's not like that at all. It's constantly in motion. Like all the currents in the sea, but even more chaotic. It could have been anyone up there – Pierce, or anyone else. And the gusts can be so powerful, and unpredictable, that as soon as you try to control them, they can tear apart everything you've made.