He was just shoving a pair of pants into his backpack, when he heard the dreaded “ding” that preceded the television turning itself on.
“You will be seated, neighbor,” the television requested sternly, with digital ebullience, “and enjoy the programming selected for you.”
He continued to pack, ignoring the perma-grinned face of the perky newswoman on the screen. His apartment was much too small to escape the bubbly detachment of her voice, however.
“Thank you for tuning in to another installment of Neighborhood Voice,” she said. “Our top stories of the evening: Neighborhood Watchdogs apprehended six teenagers attempting to scale the Perimeter Wall earlier this afternoon. Judging the youths’ intentions to be hostile, the Watchdog commander ordered her people to arrest the teens. They were brought to the Internment Center, where they will serve a mandatory sentence of forty-eight hours rehabilitation time, after which they shall be remanded to the custody of their parents.”
“Yeah right,” he muttered, rooting through his closet. “Two days of vicious beatings, followed by house arrest, simply for not wanting to live in a Patrolled Community.” He found the boots he was looking for and pulled them on.
“A fourteen-year-old boy was discovered by his parents in possession of a guitar,” the newswoman continued, her tone of distant apathy punctuated by small bursts of pique. “The dangerous weapon has been confiscated, and the boy has been taken to the Internment Center for re-education.”
He laughed, pausing in the act of loading his gun. “Ah yes, the re-education process. Rather difficult to play the guitar with your fingers sewn together.” He slid the gun into a holster strapped across his chest. He had been told he’d liked to paint once. He couldn’t remember for himself, and the record had been shielded. Until this latest offense was brought against him. So, he’d liked to paint. His boss at the market told him so, right before the rubbery-faced slug fired him.
“The mayor met with the Vice-President of the Neighborhood Watch today, in answer to the mayor’s request to allow town police into the neighborhood.” The voice took on a note of zealous pride. “The Vice-President assured the mayor that any police force sent would be met at the gate by members of the Watch.”
He shrugged into his trench coat. “Emboldened by a lucky victory twenty years ago,” he said, in a booming announcer’s voice, “the Neighborhood Watch declares war on the police, damning their ‘neighbors’ to senseless bloodshed.” He slung on his backpack, and was about to open the front door, when the voice from the television stopped him cold.
“A special live broadcast tonight,” the woman said haltingly, with a way of speaking adopted by newscasters who find themselves reading unrehearsed copy off of a teleprompter, just as they realize they left their eyeglasses in make-up. “Michael Watson, probationary Watch member, residing in the Partitioned Sector, has been found guilty of possession of illicit contraband. A Patrol of Watchdogs has been dispatched to his apartment, and our cameras take you there live.”
He had the distinct sensation of hearing the pounding on his door first-hand, and through the television.
“Neighborhood Watch!” a voice shouted, again from both directions. The front door began to splinter.
Mike bolted for the back room. If he could reach the cellar, there was a slim chance. . .
As the front door crashed open, Mike was tearing down the rickety staircase behind the cupboard, hoping the Watchdogs made enough noise to cover his escape. A quick crawl through some ventilation ducts, and he was sprinting away from the house through backyards, vaulting each fence with fervent hope that there wasn’t a dog on the other side. Fortune favored him all the way to the library, which was in the process of being closed up by a mild-looking young man in an out-dated suit.
“Adam!” Mike hissed, as the mild-looking young man walked toward the street.
Adam turned, shielding himself with his briefcase. “Oh. It’s you.” He looked about, clutching his briefcase closer. “They didn’t follow you, did they?”
Mike moved closer to the shadows of the library. “I doubt it. They’re probably still searching my apartment. I went out through the cellar.”
Adam smirked, lowering his briefcase and stretching out his hand. “Good to see you again, man,” the two men shook hands. “I warned you about that stuff, didn’t I? How’d they finally bust you?” He led Mike back to the library, going through the back, so as not to be spotted by the neighbors.
Mike grimaced. “I was reading one and my landlady came in. She didn’t say anything; she just stared at me and left. I started packing soon after.”
Adam shook his head. “Couldn’t you have at least hidden it in a book? Why’d you have to be reading it out in the open?”
“I don’t own any books that aren’t on the condemned list,” Mike laughed, tossing his bag on the couch in Adam’s office. He sat down heavily next to it. “I usually read down in the cellar, but I had come up to make something to eat, and I accidentally brought it up with me.” He shrugged. “I think she mistook it for a magazine at first, because she didn’t react until she’d looked at it twice.” He leaned his head back, rubbing his eyes. “The rest of them are in the cellar, so as long as they don’t find the door behind the cupboard--”
A muted banging came from the front door of the library, followed by a faint, “Neighborhood Watch!”
“Stay here,” Adam whispered on his way out of the office.
Mike stayed there.
He tapped his feet.
He drummed his fingers on the arm of the couch.
He picked up his backpack and set it on his lap, then felt silly and put it back down. Then, feeling silly about having felt silly in the first place, he picked it back up again.
Adam came back in.
“I don’t think they found the cellar,” he said, sitting behind his desk. “It looks to me like they’re doing a wide area search.”
“What did you tell them about being here so late?”
Adam smirked. “I told them I was organizing tomorrow’s Youth Fair.”
Mike sat up, his bag tumbling to the floor. “The Youth Fair? You’re hosting one of those?” He made a disgusted grimace.
“Hey,” Adam held his hands up defensively. “The only way the library stays open is through the grace of the Neighborhood Watch. I play nice with them, and they don’t poke their nose so deep into my basement.” He fixed two mugs of thick, black tea. The last of the coffee had run out ten years ago, and this was the closest thing the tea gardens could produce. “Besides,” he handed one mug to Mike, “every so often I spot a bright one among the drones, which inevitably leads me back to parents who don’t entirely embrace the communal spirit of the Neighborhood Watch.” He sipped his tea. “There’s a resistance, and it’s growing. Mostly parents of kids that I’ve picked out of the Youth Fairs, but a couple of teachers, and the doctor as well.”
“The doctor?” Mike gasped.
Adam nodded. “The doctor’s been opposed from the beginning. He actually remembers the days before the Wall, when this was just another neighborhood.”
Mike opened his mouth to reply, but a knock at the back door made him shut it. Adam rose from his desk, opening the door slightly. “Yes?” he said.
The door was slammed open, knocking Adam back and bloodying his nose. Three teens clomped into the office in heavy, black boots, ripped t-shirts hanging off of their bodies, and their knees poking through torn jeans. Adam slid himself backward across the floor, pressing a handkerchief to his bloody nose.
The lead punk stomped forward, so far ignorant of Mike. He looked down on Adam. “There was Watchdogs here tonight, librarian,” he growled. “Me and the guys,” he gestured at his companions, who postured stiffly, “we think Watchdogs come here a lot. Me and the guys, we think maybe the Watchdogs are friends of yours.”
“That makes you our enemy,” another punk informed him, in the event Adam had not made that particular logical leap himself.
“You idiots,” Mike said, stepping forward. “Adam is--”
Adam shot him a warning glance and said, through the handkerchief, “You punks clear out of here, or I’ll call the hotline.”
That brought the kids back a step, and they turned to file out, the leader shooting Mike a hard stare before saying to Adam, “You watch yourself, librarian.” The door shut behind them.
Mike rushed over to Adam, helping him to his seat. The librarian waved his friend away. “I’m fine. They do that once in awhile, to scare me.”
“Then why don’t you tell them about yourself? About the resistance? They--”
“Punks like that would ruin the resistance inside of a month.” Adam wiped his nose once more and sipped at his tea. “They’re too loud, too overt. Half of them are usually in Internment, and the other half are constantly running from Patrols. Still,” he mused, “they keep the ‘Dogs busy, so we can get away with more.”
He sighed. “Unfortunately, their arrival necessitates a call I’d hoped to avoid.”
He picked up the phone and dialed. After a moment, he said, “Yes. This is Adam Barrister, over at the library. Mike Watson is here. He broke in as I was getting ready to leave, and held me at gunpoint while his punk friends came in and trashed the place.” A pause, at which time Mike’s brain began working, and he vaulted for the door. The click of a hammer being drawn back gave him pause, and when he turned around, Adam was holding Mike’s own pistol on him. The librarian stared his friend coldly in the eye. “They ran off, but I managed to disarm him, and then I called you. Could you send someone--thank you.” He hung up. “Sit back down, Mike.”
Mike stared, horrified. “How could you. . .”
Adam sighed. “It was the punks that forced my hand. They saw you here, and would have told the next Patrol to pick them up all about it.” He shrugged. “Sorry, man. But you should have known not to come here. Not with the red hand on my window.”
Mike was forced to laugh, though harshly. His mother had told him that a red hand in someone’s window once meant that house was safe, because they were a member of the Neighborhood Watch. Children were once encouraged to go to a house with a red hand if they were in trouble. His mother had laughed when she told him that, saying something about irony. At the time, Mike hadn’t understood. The schools no longer taught an understanding of irony. It was the Neighborhood that taught him that. His first lesson had come five years later, when the old woman next door, the one who’d baked him cookies on his birthday, drafted a Petition to have his mother beaten to death for turning away the “Charity Drive” when it came to the door. More lessons followed. He was still learning them, it seemed.
“So that’s it, then.” he sat down on the couch.
“I’m sorry,” Adam looked weary, “but the resistance must survive. If you have to be sacrificed to ensure that survival, then so be it.”
“Resistance?” Mike snorted. “What resistance? What are you people doing to put a stop to this?”
“Stop it?” Adam laughed. “We can’t stop it. We can only wait until the Watch destroys itself.” His tone became more serious. “And it will. When that happens, we’ll be ready; or, our descendants will, anyway.”
“You realize,” Mike said, “that I know enough to expose you, despite this dramatic display.” He gestured to encompass the gun, Adam’s nose, and the books scattered about the floor. “And I can tell them that you got me the comic books.”
A knock at the door silenced Mike’s potential reply.
Adam rose, slowly, and crossed the room to the door. With slight reluctance, he opened it, admitting an orange-smocked Patrol, their tasers at the ready. The tasers were turned on Mike the moment they came in.
“Relax,” he said, raising his hands. “I’ll go quietly.” The last word was emphasized with a glance at Adam. He was hustled out the door by the Patrol, but his gaze never left the mild-looking librarian.
It was weeks later, and Adam was organizing the propaganda rack in front of the library, when the door opened. Adam looked up, and recognized Mike, dressed in a deep blue blazer bearing a large button.
“Good Afternoon, neighbor,” Mike chirped happily, “I’m collecting funds for the Neighborhood Watch Charity Drive. The money will go to help support our local Patrols, which of course makes everybody feel safe.” He beamed, and Adam came closer, examining the large button.
It read, “Protecting our neighbors from each other . . . and themselves.”
Adam smiled sadly. “Yes, of course,” he reached into his pocket, drawing forth a few dollars, which he tucked into Mike’s coffee can. “In fact, I feel safer already.”