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A Ride to Remember
There was nothing she could do. It had begun. Knives flew across City Hall; glass shattered into shards as people ducked for cover. Somehow a cool, translucent mist was released into the air, poisoning the lungs of all the citizens. Ephemeral shots echoed in her ears as the foundation planks of the building tumbled to the ground. Debris sprinkled itself over the landscape. Aubrey could see an inferno sparking her hometown to doom. Thick, gray smoke and fog clouded her vision, but she recognized the faint sound of a chopper in the sky. She leapt onto the ladder, not picking up on its harsh, dilapidated edges. Her gaze fell to the city, the very empire she’d worshipped, and she saw it enveloped in a blaze, collapsing. The buildings that once had the luster of diamond were now carbon. Aubrey sat in the helicopter, shaking, still inhaling the rising smoke. She hung onto the door for dear life. Her breaths grew more and more shallow until she was coughing hysterically, rolling in a fetal position, falling unconscious.
Aubrey woke up hyperventilating. She saw she was gripping the airplane armrest, just like in her hallucination, just like she had in the air mobile. These nightmares wouldn’t stop for days, would they? The experts had said she was having these hallucinations because even though she’d witnessed the massacre, she’d been sleeping on a bench in City Hall. Her mind was compensating for what the eyes had missed. She didn’t even know why the massacre occurred. She wasn’t aware of any war. What did it matter? There was still nothing she could do.
They were all perched precariously in the pristine crÃ¨me jet, motionless, forbidden to look out the window. It didn’t matter, anyway. There weren’t any portals to the outside world. Stella airily sipped a frozen latte as the gentle white noise of the engine hummed along. Others had tuned it out, but she’d embraced it, seeing as how it was the only remaining constant amidst the flashing string of light bulbs on the floor, the shuffling overhead playlist of techno pop, the evolving buffet as more and more items appeared. She glanced around at the others. They were stiff, probably frightened. No one was eating; no one was conversing. She couldn’t blame them. They’d been taken away from their families and didn’t know why. They’d lost the last week from their memory. She turned to her partner in crime, Jersey.
“We should lighten them up. Turn up the music, get out the Supersoakers, the Slip n’Slide,” she suggested.
Jersey shrugged from his seat behind her. “Come on, they’ve just been witnesses to one of the most brutal murders in our history. Give them a break, huh?” He returned to his weathered paperback copy of The Fountainhead.
“Yeah, but they don’t remember,” Stella retaliated.
“It’s in their subconscious,” Jersey dog-eared a page.
“You’re no fun. Where are they taking them? And for that matter, us?”
“I don’t know; I’m just here for the paycheck,” Jersey said.
“I was too, until I found out there was a plane ride. You know something, don’t you?”
“Eh, if I do, it’s nothing of great consequenceâ€””
Just then, a young man dressed in a classic navy and white baseball uniform, with a Chicago Cubs cap, came over to Jersey.
“Excuse me...what do you want? I’m pretty sure no one in my family has committed a federal offenseâ€””
“Boston, we just want to take a little trip,” Jersey doled out the phrase he’d been instructed to say from day one of training.
“But no one knows where I am! I was supposed to be at Wrigley Field, on a field trip.” So he’s from Chicago, Stella noted. “I’m pretty sure this, this plane jacking, is illegal! Where are we going?”
“Yeah, where?” Stella looked expectantly at Jersey. “You’re the one Denver briefed on everything.”
“Classified,” Jersey recited another old catch-all phrase.
“You’re determined to make this hard, aren’t you?” Stella smoothed out her aqua-tinted sequined dress as soon as their first questioner left.
“Look, we’re all supposed to hold a different piece of the puzzle. If we all share, then someone could ruin the plan. You didn’t tell me what your part was.”
“No, you’re right,” Stella said curtly, turning to the window. Strangely enough, each row only contained one seat. However, there was plenty of room to move around. A door in the front opened up to a parlor and a Jacuzzi was set up in the main lobby of the jet. A jukebox relaxed in the back and tables were set up so people could play a rousing game of cards. Flat-screen TVs dangled from all four walls, with HBO available. Only happy movies, of course. No one knew what time it was. Even though they’d been flying for twenty hours, replicated “sunlight” beamed down from the jet’s ceiling, creating an illusion of heaven. It was like Air Force One, mutated.
“What is up with all of these costumes?” Stella muttered, referring to the Subjects. “Aubrey, over there. With the white blouse and cargos and beret. Obviously the foreign sophisticate. And Jonathan, the video game nerd, with his Pac-Man shirt and all. There’s Zac, I think,” Stella indicated his t-shirt that deemed “California rocks”, black swimsuit Bermudas, and surfboard by his side. “The surfer from L.A. And Cairo, the blonde in the ruby cocktail dressâ€”a socialite, of course.” She compared their faces with the pictures she’d received earlier, pretending to dig through her BCBG bag for some Snapple.
“Yeah, I know,” Jersey straightened his own leather jacket and silver-tinted rocker jeans. “See that cluster over there? With the Ralph Lauren polos? Classic nerds.”
“You shouldn’t talk. You read more than anyone I know.” Stella knocked Jersey’s copy of Oliver Twist (that he’d been grabbing out of his backpack) to the very sanitary stained-glass floor. He just scowled. I was reading that, he seemed to say.
“Yeah, well, sometimes I need an escape,” Jersey said stolidly, avoiding eye contact. The Subjects were now mingling. Some were experimenting with the Slip n’Slide, using it as a platform for a game of tug and war using a defunct hose. Cairo and a few of her new friends were enjoying sips at the complimentary zero proof bar.
“When do we tell them?” Stella said softly. Jersey had gotten out a pad of legal paper and was etching notes arduously. He didn’t reply.
A few hours later, Stella’s limited-edition Juicy watch/bracelet beeped. It was time; she and Jersey had another twenty hours to go. They’d need that time, to carry out the next step. She sighed, unlocked her seatbelt, and stood up in front of the lobby. If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. Once she’d gathered everyone’s attention (wrestling those nerds for that hose was no small feat), the Subjects sat at the card tables with mocktails (mixed by Cairo, of course). Jersey was the only one who remained in his original seat, buckled in.
“We didn’t do anything!” Boston leapt up with a baseball bat, speaking for the group.
“How did we even get here?!” Courtni, a brunette with lengthy, glossy curls, frowned at her t-shirt depicting the Italian flag. “I don’t even remember buying this shirt. And these jeans, these jeans, are so…casual.” She said casual the way some people said unintelligent.
Stella took a deep breath. “No, you didn’t do anything. It’s what you saw. The eight of you have witnessed one of the mostâ€””
“Don’t lecture them,” Jersey held a hand to his head, covering his eyes and half of his signature dark caramel, spiky hair.
“A massacre in Chicago’s City Hall,” Stella shot a glare at Jersey. “It was part of the war between Chicago and Boston.”
“You mean the war that started back in 2175, when all the States separated? When the rivalries began?” Andrew, one of the nerds, was ever the history buff. “That was decades ago.” A dead silence hung in the air.
“Andrew,” Stella said slowly, “It’s 2177.”
“What did they do to you?” Jersey whispered, his leg shaking perpetually.
“The National Government must have screwed with their sense of time,” Stella said.
“National Government,” Andrew stood, as if in school. “The conglomerate established in 2176, designed to bring the States together again. Modeled after the U.N., minus the problems in the old peace agency.” The other Subjects nodded in agreement.
“We work for them,” Stella said. “Jersey and I. After the Chicago Annihilation, the Nation,” she paused at the mention of the Government’s affectionate nickname used by many employees, “decided to protect the youth of prominent families of both Bostonian and Chicagoan descent.”
“There were some Boston people in City Hall, too,” Jersey expanded. “When the people of Bean Town invaded, they took down some of their own. That’s why it was such a big deal for the Nation to take over. The adults were lifted to hospitals, while those safely watching in the â€˜Teen Government in Action’ room were taken to the O’Hare airport for examination and transportation.”
“How can you two work for the National Government?” Cairo raised an eyebrow, nearly tipping her virgin pina colada into Zac’s lap. “You only look a few years older than us.”
“Of course no one ever informs the citizens of the civilian operatives,” Jersey was sardonic. “We’ve been stationed here for awhile.”
“We came from London,” Stella said. “We started out as altruistic volunteers, when we heard about the States’ breakup, but we ended up staying because our families had traveled with us and loved Californiaâ€””
“The most peaceful of the States.”
“Yes, Andrew,” Stella rolled her eyes. “We’re full-time employees now.”
“Why do you have to tell them all that?” Jersey breathed.
“Forget all this!” Boston interrupted. “Where are you taking us?!”
“When you were taken in for examination, the Nation temporarily erased your memories of the Annihilation,” Stella revealed.
“I actually had a vivid dream about it when I was napping,” Aubrey admitted. The others nodded, as if they too had experienced this. Stella knew it hadn’t been a dreamâ€”only their memories returning.
“It’s wearing off, then,” Stella paced. “We were told to make sure you boarded the self-flying plane. It’s important that you enter the Witness Protection Programâ€”the new one, of course, the one stationed on the island of Capri, Italy.”
“What about our families?” Jonathan nervously caressed his portable video-game player, his emerald eyes matching the dots in his latest game.
“They survived, with modern technology,” Stella began. “However, the Nation needs them in the States; they’re prominent leaders! They’ll be in New York, safe yet effective. It could be years before they join you in Capri. But you need to go. The Boston Tea Party, the murderers, knows you were the first generation to have your hometown maps imprinted in your mind. If they captured you, they would know every nook and cranny of Chicago. You’d lose the home advantage.”
“She has a point,” Zac lifted his root beer. “I don’t want to return to that war-torn area. Wrigley Field is full of erupting geysers. It’s like a minefield.”
“Marshall Field’s has been taken over by identity scams,” Cairo ruffled Zac’s platinum blond surfer hair.
“Who wants Snapple?” Jersey lifted a crate.
“Don’t! Jersey, what are you doing?” Stella cried. Jersey pulled a tranquilizer gun out of his jacket pocket.
“We need to erase their memories,” Jersey stated.
“They already agreed to go!” Stella refuted. “Why erase?”
“You don’t meanâ€”” Andrew began. He and Polo, another nerd, lit up in awe.
“Yeah. I’m part of the Resistance.” Jersey stood on the lobby’s stage. He glanced at Stella. “We can’t afford to have these Subjects retaliate against Boston. Everyone get down!” He ordered, his hand shaking.
Stella closed her eyes, remembering when she and Jersey had first been assigned to this operation. “Would you grab one of those laptops for me?” She had asked in the research room as they were working.
“No, not really,” he’d grunted as he spent hours mulling over the Resistance’s website, emailing their leaders. Infiltration, he’d said.
Stella should have known then. She mentally replayed the last day in her mind, finding her answer.
“You’re with the Boston department?” She said. Jersey nodded, almost remorsefully.
“Massachusetts…Massachusetts,” Jersey reiterated, “is stronger. It was one of the fourteen origâ€””
“Thirteen,” Polo corrected as Jersey put Boston in a headlock.
“Thirteen original colonies,” Jersey laughed maniacally. He pointed the tranquilizer gun at Boston. “See this kid here? Everyone see him? His name’s Boston. He’s the only one of you that’s not a purebred. His mother’s Bostonian, his father is Chicagoan. The Nation hoped to breed him as their next leader.”
Before Jersey could stun Boston and erase his memory of the past 17 years, Zac charged full-speed at Jersey. They engaged in mortal combat. Zac and Jersey tumbled off the platform as Zac delivered his best uppercut. Jersey thrust his legs, inadvertently pulling the buffet’s tablecloth and knocking over a glass of shrimp cocktail. Zac borrowed Boston’s baseball bat, delivering a few blows to Jersey. The melody of Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise” furthered the awkwardness. Zac and Jersey started “fencing” in a way, Zac sticking with the bat, Jersey utilizing a golf club. Everyone sighed as Zac pummeled Jersey’s head onto the door leading into the parlor. Jersey got up and throttled Zac towards the juice bar as shards of glass burst everywhere. Everyone ducked. Jersey joined Zac underneath the table as the fight continued. After about half an hour, the noise ceased. Stella lifted the tablecloth to see the boys were conscious, but beat. Jersey had a black eye, a bruised head and a slightly dislocated-looking shoulder. Zac had many open wounds, a popped knee and a twisted neck.
It was a technical stalemate, though Zac had the edge.
“Snapple?” Jersey said an hour later when he and Zac had cleaned up. They rested on opposite sofas while the others remained at the card tables. The Subjects gingerly accepted. “I really am sorry,” Jersey said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I had doubts, but my family’s been part of the Resistance forever. Tell you what, I’ll do my best to get your families over to the island as soon as possible. I’d been working as a double agent, pretending to work for the Nation, when I started doubting the Resistance. But they threatened me…I know that’s no excuse. I’ll go back to the States; I’ll make things better between the States.”
The Subjects nodded, gurgling the drinks. “Why is it fizzing?” Cairo inquired about her Mango Madness drink, which now resembled orange soda. Stella gasped; all the drinks were like that.
“Don’t drink that!” Jersey screamed out suddenly, his pupils dilated. “They’re…they’re designed to make one more susceptible to the air in Capri Island. It could swipe your whole memory once we land!”
“Now you tell us that?!” Boston slammed his titanium baseball bat on the tiled floor.
“Jersey!” Stella reprimanded.
“I did it when we first got this assignment,” Jersey breathed. “I was going to throw the Snapple out, but Bay, the Resistance leader, threatened me to keep it on board. I tried to confuse her by putting an actual crate of untainted Snapple on board. She must have switched them back. I didn’t know about it, honest.” His breaths grew more and more shallow.
“How long do we have until we lose…?” Aubrey took everyone’s drinks and poured them into the sink.
“We land in twelve hours,” Jersey estimated. He rubbed his spiky head and was reminded of a minefield. Excruciating pain throbbed throughout his cerebral cortex. He felt nauseous. He was still bleeding; Zac had hit one of his veins and it hadn’t stopped gushing.
“How could you, Jersey?” Stella had been safely imbibing Perrier, watching from a distance.
“I’m sorry, Stell. We were supposed to be a team; I shouldn’t have let you down. I was afraid…I swear I didn’t know about the drinks. Iâ€”I asked Zac to take care of me if I succumbed to the Resistance’s threats; his grandparents are part of the Resistance.”
“Believe me, I know what’s it’s like to be pressured into joining,” Zac said.
Jersey turned to the Subjects, focusing on Boston. “I’m so sorryâ€”” He felt something pushing in his body now. He hurried to get his message out. “Go to Capri. Find the water painting.” The Subjects and Stella furiously scribbled notes. “It’ll all come to you.” Jersey drifted into a peaceful sleep. He didn’t try to fight it.
“He’s in a coma,” Polo went up to check Jersey’s pulse. Stella tried to place him. Polo: blond crew cut, indigo Lacoste polo, crisp white trousers…one of the nerds. He aspired to be a doctor.
“We should get to a hospital!” Cairo scrambled for her cell phone.
“Don’t worry; he always wakes up from those. He’s gotten into so many worse fights,” Stella reported. “Riots, casinos, New Year’s Eve Times Square brawls, bars…all of his assignments have been rough.”
Abruptly, Cairo fell to the cold floor and began snoozing; the Subjects joined her. Polo and Andrew slept near the vending machine; Courtni’s face fell into a pile of poker cards; Aubrey’s French beret slipped off as she rested her head against the Jacuzzi; Jonathan leaned against the jukebox; Zac remained at his navy leather sofa; Boston nestled himself with his bat in a gigantic baseball-shaped bean bag.
Stella smiled fondly. They might be massacre witnesses, and sons and daughters of prominent leaders, but they were still growing teenagers who never had enough sleep. She knew they’d awake a little bit more confused. The poisoned Snapple was taking effect.
Stella spent the next few hours doing Sudoku and crossword puzzles.
Out of nowhere, a pleasant yet obnoxious sound of chimes proliferated in intensity. It came from the navigation area and woke the Subjects up.
“What’s that?” Courtni twirled her braids.
“The auto-navigation system,” Stella rushed over to it. “It says we’re landing in thirty minutes. You’d better gather your stuff.” They obeyed.
“Let’s take bets on who forgets first,” Zac joked with Boston and Jonathan.
“Yeah, right. When we smell that island air you’ll lose for sure,” Boston said. They playfully jostled each other all the way down the aircraft’s steps.
“The island looks so pretty,” Cairo simpered to Courtni and Aubrey. “Look at those flowers. They look like little grapefruits with petals!”
“The sun is rising!” Courtni soared down the stairs. The fireburst had exploded, creating a stellar hue of coral, orange and violet. The shades interspersed over the island, the magenta reflecting on the airport, the lavender bouncing on the incoming clouds, the crimson kissing the dewy grass, the citrus watching over the Subjects and diffusing its energy into their hearts.