Fiction: All that I Got
By Geoffrey Marshall
“Johnny, please, don’t go.”
His truck idled in the driveway, heater pegged to the max. “Bren, you know I gotta.”
“Gotta what? Gotta go be an action hero?”
He stuffed random shit into a bag by the door, “You know where I’m going.”
“All I know is they don’t need you. Me and Billy do,” she went to the kitchen.
Johnny stopped to watch her. A crash from the kitchen shook him back into action. He grabbed his hat and jammed it on his head.
“Jesus Christ,” once more from the kitchen, and then, there was Brenda, thermos full of hot coffee in her hands. Her hands. Her fingers flexed and tangled and twisted. Nervous energy. She always said. She handed over the thermos.
Their son’s face peeked from his bedroom door, his face cloaked by shadows.
“Go back to bed Billy,” Johnny said.
“Baby, we’re sorry,” Brenda ran over and cradled the boy’s head. Johnny watched but said nothing. She stared back and smoothed Billy’s hair.
“It’s cold in my room.”
“Give the kid some blankets would ya?” Johnny grabbed his parka from the hook.
She settled Billy in their room, the bed still warm.
“Don’t go. We need you more than the resistance does.”
Johnny had his bag full of random shit over his shoulder, the thermos in one hand, the doorknob in the other. “I’m doing this for Billy, so he can be free someday,” and there were real tears that fell, “besides you’ve kept me safe before.”
“You won’t come back this time,” she said and caught his sleeve, “I got a feeling.”
“Babe.” He held out his hand.
“Fine. Just leave. Whatever.”
He opened the door. She heard the clock. His mother gave it to them. Tick. Tick. Tock. Billy started to cry. She stepped outside. The forty below wind chewed her up. A blast of cold, the truck’s loud idle, a whiff of exhaust.
“Come back,” she called, “just come back to us,” but Johnny was gone. Come back to me. She went inside, closed the door and slid to the floor. He hadn’t heard her. That bastard. Tick. Tick. Tock. She had an hour. With a deep breath she got up and went to the kitchen. Billy liked home fries. That would be make up for what happened.
About an hour later, Billy put his fork down, “Will Daddy be home tonight?”
She forced a smile, fake but she was pretty sure it looked real (or close enough), “Why do you ask?”
“Just ‘cause you were fighting.”
She waved a hand, “I just wanted him to stay home today, you know how much I miss him.” She popped her cold Maxwell House into the microwave.
“He’ll be home, right Momma?”
“Of course baby,” she would make sure of it, “of course he’ll be back.” Ding. She popped the door. Tick. Tick. Tock. Burned her fingers on the cheap ceramic mug.
Her little car sputtered to life and she cranked the heat. She clambered out and unplugged the engine block heater and set to scrape the window. Her breath hovered around her in a visible vapor cloud and her nostrils froze when she inhaled. Ice crystals flared in the sharp sunlight, each unique, beautiful. Short lived.
Billy was there, and she bundled him into the car. They clattered along while the heater struggled to keep the frost at bay. The school wasn’t far.
“Promise what baby?”
“Promise Daddy will be home?” They were parked in the drop-off zone.
She knew it was wrong. How could she not say the words? “Yes, of course I promise.”
She watched him walk through the doors. She would find a way to keep her word. No matter what. She pulled away from the school.
She arrived at the office (Christine’s Cleaning).
“Bren, grab Frieda and get over to Councilor Buckler’s.” This from Janet, the owner. She bought the outfit a few years back from Christine — yes, the Christine — the founder, whose smoke stained portrait still glared from the wall behind Janet’s desk like a disregarded saint. Smoke stained because Christine herself chain smoked religiously beneath it until the government came along and banned indoor smoking in the workplace.
“Damned Buckler,” Christine had said at the time. She connected Buckler with the government she represented. Correctly in this case — she had voted for that law.
“Damned Buckler,” Brenda said, echoing Christine’s curse against the long standing local Councilor. Her house was the biggest in town. “Ok but I need to be done by three.”
“For Billy huh? Where’s your husband?” Janet asked.
“Yes for Billy, Johnny’s working at — ” Brenda didn’t finish.
Janet held up her hand, “Whatever girl, just get going, you got time.”
Brenda ran to find Frieda and left Janet looking up at Christine as if for divine guidance.
When they arrived at Buckler’s the place was a disaster. Buckler’s children were long gone but everyone had come home for Christmas and this was the first cleaning since then. On top of that, her husband — long retired — fancied himself a dog-lover (yorkies) and he now possessed five of the little beasts, who he routinely neglected. As a result they shit all over the basement floor. Brenda shuddered when she thought of the small, dried surprises she would find in the dark corners. Better to let Frieda handle the basement.
Brenda staggered up the stairwell with her vacuum. She had just started when a hand grabbed her elbow. Buckler.
“Brenda right?” she said, “Can you skip the vacuum today? I’m working from home.” She indicated the now open door to her home office. Brenda apologized. Sorry ma’am, didn’t know you were home.
“Why don’t you dust my office now,” Buckler said, “I need to get something from the kitchen.” Brenda agreed, whatever you say ma’am.
She entered the office. Buckler’s laptop sat on the desk — a carousel of yorkies marched across the locked screen. She emptied the wastebasket. She glanced at the desk. There were only a few papers beside the computer.
She lifted the sheets and gave the desktop a quick wipe, then moved the laptop to clean underneath. When she set the papers back down, she happened to catch a few lines. Her breath caught in her throat.
Her heart beat had tripled. Oh-my-fucking-god Johnny. What to do? She pulled out her phone. Her hands shook so bad. Somehow she managed to get a pic of the top sheet. She jammed the phone in her pocket, grabbed her gear and the trash bag and headed for the door.
Buckler was at the top of the stairs, “All finished?”
Brenda felt her heart thump in her throat. She couldn’t trust herself to speak so she settled for a quick nod and hurried to the stairwell. Buckler watched her go down the stairs. After a small pause she entered her office and closed the door behind her.
“Bren, are you ok?” Only Frieda.
“Bathroom,” she sprinted for the powder room, flipped the fan on and sat down. She pulled up the pic on her phone. Confidential. Committee For Public Safety, an order to deploy an armed task force. Signed by the Federal President, countersigned by local jurisdictional authority, Councilor Buckler. The ink waved like a serpent, her scrawled signature. Target: blockade on route 44.
Johnny. She called. Come on, pick up baby. Pick up.
“Don’t go, it’s a trap.”
“What are you talking about?”
She hung up, opened up messages, sent him the pic.
Bang, bang, bang. Thumping on the door. “Everything ok in there?” Just Frieda again.
“I’m ok, ok, just cramps,” her eyes were glued to her phone, “gimme a minute.”
The reply came. Delete this.
She did. Then she flushed the toilet and splashed some cold water on her face. Frieda looked concerned when she emerged.
“I’m ok, really.”
Frieda looked doubtful but they went back to work. They finished an hour later, Buckler never once left her room while they were there.
Back at the office. They all sat under Christine’s portrait — Janet, Frieda and Brenda. Janet’s favorite station played songs from when they were teenagers. The hosts were too young to remember the songs the first time around but they fluffed the air with banter.
“Go pick up Billy,” Janet said.
Brenda looked at the clock. Tick. Tick. Tock. A quarter to three.
The station went off the air with an abrupt squeal, the signal for a public service announcement. The President, under authority of the Public Safety Amendment, had temporarily turned over all executive powers to the Committee For Public Safety (naturally he was the Chairman). The protests and blockades that raged across the Nation were not peaceful. They were, in fact, domestic terrorism and a threat to the Nation. New measures were needed.
“I want to be very clear: the scope of these measures will be time-limited, geographically targeted, as well as reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address. This is about keeping our citizens safe.”
Brenda just stood, Janet and Frieda staring at her. They all knew where Johnny was.
Janet repeated herself, “Go pick up Billy.” She grabbed her coat and ran for the door. Two Committee officers were there beside her car.
“Ma’am, you need to come with us.”
They grabbed her and she fought. Her tear streaked face slapped on the hood of her car. She felt the handcuffs tighten. They hoisted her upright and her wet face stuck to the cold metal, where it clung briefly, her last act of resistance.
Her advocate (government appointed) sat across the table from her, hands folded, lips a severe dash. He watched her as she spoke.
“All I did was tell Johnny to stay away from the ambush,” she said, her hands clasped, white knuckled. Nervous energy.
No reaction from the advocate. No change on his expression. “That’s not quite true is it?” She started to answer but he held up his hand, “You sent a copy of the entire first page of a confidential document, a document that you obtained, I will add, by means of an act of theft.”
She hung her head. She just stared at her hands. Just stared. How did she end up here? Billy. Johnny. She felt sick to her stomach.
He snapped her awake, “I believe the government’s offer is fair. More than fair. Generous even, given the seriousness of your crime. I recommend you accept.”
“Six months? How can I be away from Billy for six months?”
“We can petition the Councilor for alternative arrangements. Perhaps you can serve your sentence on weekends, but that will have to come after.”
“Is there a chance I can do that?”
The advocate nodded, “Absolutely. As you know, government is fair, and while you must serve your punishment, it serves no one’s interest to punish your family. I’m sure the Councilor will agree.” For the first time he attempted a smile, “Brenda, just sign the statement of facts.”
The next day, Councilor Buckler stared down at her from the judicial bench, “Do you disagree with any statement of fact in the statement of facts?”
“Are you entering into this agreement voluntarily and of your own free will?”
“Yes,” she said. She knew Johnny was behind her. She could feel his eyes on her back. At least he was safe. That was worth six months to her.
The next day. The advocate again. His face was pale. Bloodless. She remembered a story from Sunday school. A bloodless hand and a message on the wall. He took a seat and looked away. Maybe he thought if he stared at the wall hard enough he would find his own message.
She wanted to grab ahold of his shoulders and shake him but the shackles restrained her. Shackles? Christ. She ran her hands through her hair and waited. How had it come to this?
“Can you tell me what is going on?” she finally asked and then, he did meet her eyes.
He swallowed. He inhaled deeply. He spoke. The Committee for Public Safety had assumed power (as she undoubtedly was aware). They had declared the protesters to be terrorists. Again a known fact.
Any person who shared privileged information with a terrorist was now subject to the Treasonous Act Memorandum (one of those temporary, targeted measures). The fact was, her case now hinged on these new regulations.
“The thing is —”, he began.
Under the Memorandum, the death penalty was reinstated for anyone who treasonously shared sensitive information with enemies of the state.
And there it was.
She was to be executed. Tomorrow morning.
There was a way out. If she would only hand over the names of all those who received her message then she could walk out of prison a free woman.
She couldn’t process his words. The blood drained from her face.
The advocate called for the guards. She was hysterical.
Oh Billy. Johnny.
The next day he came to her. The guards allowed them time. He held her and blubbered.
I confessed. I begged them. They wouldn’t listen. This is my fault, he said.
She slapped him. Wake up Johnny. For me. For Billy. Just leave the resistance and be a good father. That’s all I ask.
He quieted and they just held on to each other until the guards pulled them apart.
Her cell was cold that night. So cold. Like she was already in her tomb.
The next day she was led from her cage into the frozen morning, her hands cuffed behind her back. Guards stuffed her into a prisoner transport and she was carted to the courthouse.
A crowd had gathered. She heard them chant, accompanied by the relentless click of cameras, like a swarm of locusts unnaturally active in the dead winter air. Reporters shouted questions and shoved their microphones in her face.
“Last words Brenda?”
“Do you feel remorse?”
“What do you say to your victims?
What victims? she wondered absently. None of this made any sense. Councilor Buckler stood in front of the courthouse, her face framed by the hood of her parka. Beside her a newly installed wooden post rose about eight feet high in the morning sunlight. She waited calmly while Brenda was led forward.
The Councilor raised her hand to quiet the crowd of reporters, “People have said the Memorandum is an attack on our freedom and constitutional rights. Nothing is farther from the truth.”
She paused as the cold winter wind swept through the crowd. The guards dragged Brenda forward and cuffed her hands behind her back around the post.
“Friends, the attack on our freedoms and way of life doesn’t come from government. No, it comes from people like the prisoner before you.”
Brenda shivered in her thin prison jumpsuit. The steel handcuffs numbed her hands and the cruel wind bit at her face.
Buckler continued, “You have already admitted your guilt,” she faced Brenda now. “To preserve our collective freedom and keep our homeland safe from the threat you represent, government has seen fit to instate capital punishment as the mandatory penalty for your crimes.”
The crowd was silent. Even the reporters held their breath.
“However,” she looked out among the crowd, “the Memorandum allows for clemency.” She turned to Brenda once again, “Give us the names of your co-conspirators and you can go free.”
Brenda stared her down. The wind drew water from the corners of her eyes, water that froze as it trickled down her cheek. The crowd, silent, the locusts still.
“Go to hell,” Brenda said at last.
Buckler turned to the crowd, “Citizens of this nation will not accept this attack on our liberty. That is why government has provided the national and local police forces with new tools, to strengthen their ability to impose fines or imprisonment. Far from limiting our rights, the Memorandum safeguards our freedoms and safety.”
Brenda heard the speech through closed eyes. She was numb now. At last the Councilor finished. Brenda looked up in time to see a guard approach. He drew a blindfold around her head.
The Councilor’s voice rang out, “The sentence is death by firing squad. One last time I ask you, give us the names of those you sought to assist and save yourself. What say you?”
Brenda said nothing. She simply stood, held in place by the unforgiving post. The wind rustled her loose hair.
After a full minute Buckler again spoke, “Then you have sentenced yourself. My hands are clean. I cannot contravene the will of the people.” She bowed her head and a tremor shivered through her voice at those final words.
Five police officers lined up and faced Brenda, faces hidden by the masks they wore. Brenda heard the Captain give the orders from a million miles away. They readied their guns, hoisted them to their shoulders. The order was given.
She felt the shots land like hammer blows. No pain. She had expected pain. Instead there was only these massive impacts, as if she was a rag doll in the hands of some monstrous child.
Behind the veil of her blindfold she noticed she could see the stars, the moon, the planets. She slid to her knees and looked to the heavens as they unfolded for her. Please God, look after Billy. Please keep him safe. The darkness came quickly and she knew no more. As if it was all nothing more than a dream in the mind of God.
Geoffrey Marshall is a writer in Aurora, Canada. He knows just enough to be dangerous (mostly to himself) in several different fields. You can find his work in The Ansible, Academy of the Heart and Mind and the September 2022 issue of MoonPark Review. His education never really took, through no fault of his instructors (debatable) but he did manage to acquire a BA in English Literature from Carleton University.