The Plain of Bitter Honey
The golden rule is, to help those we love to escape from us.
Friedrich von Hugel
At the dawn of the twenty-first century A.D. the United States of America lay dying.
Death permeated the stagnant air: never more visible than when Christian families painfully pretended to keep alive their faith—as though by rouging the face of a corpse they could somehow bring it back to life. The frequent visits to sterile churches, the heart-felt Amen to sermons on the Christian channel, the loud chants of brotherly love and family values and freedom—above all, freedom—had all become purely decorative, a senile grimace before a cracked mirror.
A malignant stench hung in the air, even though the throngs at Dodger Stadium, Madison Square Garden, and the Super Bowl still roared with pleasure.
The specters people witnessed, from the comfort of their cozy living rooms, in Iraq, the Sudan, and Burma became projections of their own tortured souls. But the vast majority of Americans, souls already dead, saw nothing, and had no premonition of the changes already in play.
The fall of the World Trade Towers at the beginning of the century brought a sharp change in the political climate. Politicians still boasted of the country’s military might, the benefits of technology, and increased corporate wealth. CNN still claimed the country was the land of freedom, but outsiders asserted that the U.S. was dying of iniquity, pride and vanity. The people were more concerned with Hollywood’s latest scandal than how many people were being killed in order to keep the nation’s troughs full. But a predatory economy can only flourish for so long. Wars bled the country into feebleness and debt while parasitism ran rampant, eating into the country's vitals. The blinded eagle could neither seize new prey nor remove the maggots feasting in its own flesh.
Countries once allies turned hostile. The very people who profited most from the crumbling culture were also the first to escape. The rich gathered their wealth around them like cloaks and fled to other countries. The middle class who had once made America great, now overburdened by their debts from wars, the astronomical cost of raw materials, the need for Hummers in every garage and flat-screen TVs in every room, defaulted to their creditors, causing a collapse of the world banking system. Desperate people on the fringe became homeless, forming lawless bands of marauders roaming the countryside, seizing what they needed to survive. Inside the cities alcoholism and drug addiction became the norm while outside it was every man for himself. Farmlands went fallow, the cost of food skyrocketed, and the rate of obesity actually fell for the first time in America’s history.
Those who could afford to flee the country did, so in 2035 when Congress sought to outlaw further exodus, they were talking to empty air.
Public works were visible in the colossal municipal buildings, empty shopping malls, and power plants. Large-scale expenditures for new Christian cathedrals, sports arenas, military spying technology, and monuments to the fallen heroes of war were widespread. These projects were paid for by budget cutbacks in infrastructure maintenance, which hastened decay, and the country began to crumble.
In the face of steady deterioration, the remaining population’s belief in the opiates of “the American way of life” and “a benevolent God who loves and protects us” remained unchanged. They were convinced there would always be a United States of America, that technology and Christian ideals would keep them at the pinnacle of human culture.
So they thought until one man came wandering out of the wilderness, wielding words and ideas rather than guns, to lead them toward a true salvation.
The Armenian held out a mirror and a rolled up C-note. His shaved head nodded. The mirror held four sculpted, chalky lines. As he offered it to Aaron, he said, “Boss, we should split and grab some Z’s at my place. They’ll text us when they show up.”
Aaron stared at the cocaine, knowing it would heighten his anxiety. He glanced out the window, along the empty street. The only signs of life were rats scurrying among the heaps of garbage in the gutters. From his angle, he could see all the way down Russian Hill to the bay. Even though the night was warm and muggy—now typical of San Francisco in April—cooler air off the Pacific ripened into fog smothering the water like a down quilt. Clouds above, backlit by a waxing moon, made the fog on the bay shine like satin, reminding Aaron of bed and how desperately he needed sleep.
“Seriously, Boss,” the Armenian persisted. “They’re three hours late. Something’s wrong. The longer we wait, the dodgier this place gets.”
“Fuck off,” Aaron snapped. He pressed the C-note to his nostril, taking a long line in a single snort. His nose burned with an acidic rush. He switched nostrils and inhaled another. He leaned his head back as a familiar lightness penetrated his skull. The Armenian’s pimply face took on a sharp edge. “If you want to split, fine.”
The Armenian scanned the dim living room, making eye contact with the other cell members sprawled over the ratty furniture. The only lit lamp had a jade-colored shade over it, giving the room a green cast—an all-clear signal that could be seen from outside. He hesitated, obviously wanting to leave but not having the courage to be the only one. “How long do we wait?”
“Until they’re slurping snow cones in hell,” Aaron said.
The Armenian glanced out the window, as if hoping for snow. “Something must’ve happened or they’d be here by now. Somebody tipped off the Homeys.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Aaron growled. He cleared an area of the coffee table with his forearm – pushing cigarette packs, his brown-leather wallet and a half-empty bottle of weapons-grade, black-market vodka to one side. He placed the mirror and C-note on the cleared space.
“They’ll come. I know it,” Aaron muttered to himself. “Maybe they’re afraid of being followed.”
“Aaron,” Maggie said, “someone’s coming.”
Aaron swiveled back to the window and saw two figures crouched on a motorcycle rumbling up the hill. Aaron snapped his fingers at Maggie and she leaned close to pass him the binoculars. He was rewarded with a whiff of her body odor, reminding him how he longed for the mission to be over so he could curl up with her and alleviate the stress tying his gut in knots.
He fixed the binoculars on the motorcycle, bringing both heads into focus. “Shit. It’s my brother and some dude. I told him to stay away tonight.”
“Should I head them off?” the Armenian asked.
“No. They’re in it now. Let’s hope we get lucky.”
Before the motorcycle reached the end of the block, two HumVee-Xs rushed out and blocked the street. Four men leaped out and flagged the motorcycle to a stop. The officers wore Homeland Security uniforms—urban camouflage shirts and pants, flak jackets and helmets, combat boots. ID cards were presented, scrutinized, and scanned. A minute later, with a perfunctory gesture from the senior officer, they jumped back into their vehicles and opened a lane letting the motorcycle continue on.
“Fuck,” the Armenian spat. “We’re being staked out.”
“Thanks for the revelation, Einstein,” Aaron said.
Zack whispered, “How did they know?”
“If they know,” Maggie said, “why are they waiting?”
Aaron waved a hand, motioning for her to turn off the green-shaded lamp, but the lamp went off on its own before she could react. The room sank into shadows. At first, Aaron didn’t know if the Homeys had cut power to the building or if this was another of the sometimes hourly blackouts. Officially, both electricity and water were guaranteed for two hours each morning and six hours each evening, but nobody bet money on it. One look out the window at the lights blazing across the street confirmed his vilest fear.
“They’re waiting for Landers and Marwick to show so they can nab us all together,” Aaron said. It was the only logical answer. He glanced at Zack, a tall, reedy nineteen-year-old who’d only joined a month before. “Zack, text Marwick the red-alert code, pronto.”
Zack already had his phone out. He shook his head. “Something’s still blocking the signal.”
By the time the motorcycle had parked out front, the HumVee-Xs had crawled back into hiding. The street fell silent again. Aaron heard the front door opening and Hayden bounding up the stairs. A heartbeat later, Hayden dragged his friend into the living room.
Hayden’s face shone cold blue in the shadows like a TV screen. Yet it was alive, and alight with gaiety. He stopped short, scanning the room while flashing a smile at once boyish and masculine. His smile faded. Under dreadlocks and a yarn hat, his slate-blue eyes found Aaron’s through the dimness.
Aaron couldn’t muster the effort to give him an encouraging grin. As Hayden reached for the light switch, Aaron said, “The power is out.”
A visible tremor nearly jolted Hayden back down the stairs. His arms wrapped around his chest.
Aaron and his brother were identical—the same shoulder-length, burnt-coffee-colored dreadlocks, same six-foot-two athletic frame and strong-boned facial features, and because they were mixed race, their skin tones held the warm color of old copper. Twins, their only physical difference was Aaron carried a bit more weight and definition from martial arts training, and Hayden’s blue eyes had tiny specks the color of emeralds gleaming in bright sunlight. Yet on the inside they were earth and sky. Aaron was serious and stoic--Hayden was a dreamer. He had uncommonly quick reflexes while Hayden was only quick with a smile. He was a fighter, Hayden’s only weapons were words and ideas.
It’s why I love him so. He’s almost everything I crave to be—what I would have been had we lived in a different time.
Aaron made the stipulation almost everything because Hayden was gay. Aaron accepted his brother’s sexuality, but he preferred the company of women in his bed.
Hayden led his friend to Aaron, moving with his usual graceful precision. The friend’s more mannish lumber accentuated Hayden’s gentleness and traces of effeminacy.
“Aaron, this is Julian Stoller,” Hayden said.
The way he said Julian’s name surprised Aaron, each syllable tumbling off his brother’s tongue like pure water conjured from stone, telling him Julian was someone special. That made Aaron happy, but also afraid. If anyone in the government were to find out Hayden was gay, the result would be a pink triangle tattooed on his forearm, an identification chip planted under his skin, and a one way ticket to the walled in area south of Market Street where all known or suspected gay people were forced to live in a ghetto.
And it wasn’t only gay people victimized by government paranoia and suspicion. African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and non-Christians all fell into the category of ‘Restricted Freedom,’ and any caught gathering in groups of more than ten were also sent to the ghetto.
Enough streetlight spilled though the front window for Aaron to see Julian was a year or two older than Hayden, maybe twenty-eight or nine, with dark features and a coffee-au-lait complexion. Julian was not gorgeous in the typical Hollywood ideal, nor was he Aaron’s idea of ruggedly handsome. Julian had broad shoulders and a wiry build.
Aaron stood and shook his hand.
Julian gave Aaron a nervous grin. “Aaron’s a Biblical name, right?” Julian asked. “He was the brother of Moses, who led the slaves out of Egypt?”
“I’m a third-year medical student, not a prophet,” Aaron said.
“This doesn’t look like a study group.”
Several snickers pierced the shadows.
“Stoller,” Aaron said. “Did I recently hear about an up-and-coming painter named Stoller?”
Julian dipped his head, grinning.
Did Hayden love this man, this painter? Do people still fall in love, or is that obsolete, quaint? Aaron felt out of touch. How could this have happened without me knowing?
“What’s going on?” Hayden asked. He dipped his head, high hat and dreadlocks shivering.
“Hayden, I told you to stay away tonight.”
“You said you and Maggie wanted some alone-time. I was going to slip Julian into my bedroom and stay out of your way. Does all this have anything to do with us being stopped by the Homeys?”
“Look, we’re hip deep in some serious shit. Dammit, you should have stayed away.”
Hayden glanced around the room, taking in the seven members of Aaron’s cell and the mirror holding the cocaine. He sighed. “Brother, you brought this shit into our home?”
“I had no choice.”
“Right, you never have a choice, I should know that by now. Your insensitivity reigns supreme; the universe is only about you, your wants, your needs. You don’t care who you hurt as long as you get what you want. Someday you’ll learn other people’s needs are as important as yours.”
“We’ll talk later. Right now you need to get Julian out of here.”
“No, dammit. I’m sick of this bullshit, and you’re going to hear me out.”
“Okay, two minutes. Then you go,” Aaron said. “Let’s go in the back and talk in private.”
Hayden fell in step behind Aaron, who led the way to his bedroom and closed the door behind them. They sat on the bed, facing one another. Aaron pressed his forehead to Hayden’s and they closed their eyes. The world fell away and they drifted into a familiar space where they fused, where neither brother existed separately, a place where they communicated with joined emotions rather than words. Their beings came together like two drops of water. That’s how it sometimes happens between siblings who were born joined at the head. A fourteen-hour surgery had managed to separate them physically, but by then nothing could keep them from being one entity. Early on, they had created a joint structure—a vast glittering internal chamber—where they merged, where they could still merge.
Aaron had read much about the psychic link between twins, of being connected across great distances or experiencing pain where the other was injured, but nothing he read came close to describing the depth and complexity of the bond he shared with Hayden. When they came together like this, they were one being—indivisible.
Aaron felt his brother’s desire. This new, fiercer love could only be for Julian. As Aaron directed his attention on the feeling, he realized Hayden was deeply in love with this painter, Julian, and the glow of affection coming from Hayden warmed Aaron’s heart. It’s true , he thought.
Mixed with his brother’s desire was the outrage at Aaron’s betrayal. Hayden had known about Aaron’s underground activities—how could he not?—as it was nearly impossible for them to have secrets from each other, or so Aaron had thought. But their apartment was sacrosanct. They held a silent agreement that Aaron would keep such activities well away from their life together, and Aaron had broken their contract.
After a few tense minutes, their joined energy oozed into a relaxed and pleasant glow. Aaron knew he was forgiven, and Hayden knew Aaron would never again break their trust. The rest of the world didn’t exist for those brief minutes. Only the glow mattered, the feeling of being one, of not only knowing each other’s intimate thoughts, but feeling and living them. Hayden experienced Aaron’s violent hatred of the Fundamentalist Christian government and his desire to destroy it and put an end to the widespread misery it inflicted. Aaron experienced his brother’s need as a writer to shoulder that misery, to plunge into its depths, and to cognize every nuance of pain so wisdom could grow out of his bitter involvement.
Aaron opened his eyes to find himself staring into eyes disturbing in their clarity. Those eyes seemed to dissolve all questions and all answers within their depth.
“I’m sorry I’ve put you in danger,” Aaron said. “I’ll never do it again. Pax?”
“Because you’ll give up these underground activities?”
“Because I’ll keep this shit far away from you.”
“Okay, pax.” Hayden hooked his little finger through Aaron’s and gave it a tug. He leaned forward and kissed Aaron on the lips. Aaron didn’t resist. Considering our circumstances, Aaron thought, this might prove to be our last chance to show affection.
Hayden pulled back. “No matter what, I love you.”
“Yes, but I wanted to say it out loud, just once.”
Hayden squeezed Aaron’s hands with icy fingers. “What about this Julian? Does he make you happy?” Aaron asked, already knowing the answer.
“Brother, have you forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: call no man happy until he is dead?”
Aaron nodded. “You writers are so full of shit.”
They kissed again before Aaron led his brother back into the living room. All eyes turned toward them.
“Listen up, people,” Aaron said. “It’s time for a hasty retreat. We’ll go over the roof in pairs, three minutes apart. Hopefully they’re not watching the alley. Stubbs, you take Maggie. Hayden, you and Julian can leave the way you came, but you’d better hurry. We’ll meet up at the safe house in the Castro in three days time.”
Stubbs and Maggie checked their handguns, both clicking off their safety.
The Armenian hissed, “Van coming. Looks like Marwick’s.”
Aaron rushed to the window. A black van was too far down the hill to identify. He’s guessing, Aaron thought. He snatched the binoculars and waited. Seconds ticked by until the van moved close enough for him to check the license plate. His heart fell. He turned back to the room to see Stubbs and Maggie still standing at the doorway. “Go dammit--go now.”
Stubbs took Maggie by the arm. They disappeared into the hallway.
“Hayden, Julian, change of plans,” Aaron said. “You both go over the roof.”
Aaron pulled a Glock from his belt and held it out to his brother. “Things might get dicey. Take this.”
Hayden shook his head.
They glared at each other, and Aaron saw emotions churning behind his brother’s eyes.
“Shit,” Aaron hissed, returning to the window. He dropped the Glock beside the mirror and his wallet. He wiped the sweat from his forehead before training the binoculars down the hill.
The van chugged up the street. When it reached the end of the block, the two Homeland HumVee-Xs dashed out of hiding to block the road again. The van stopped. Two officers converged on the driver’s door, one barking orders and the other standing off with his gun drawn. The other two sauntered around the van, their M4s held at the ready. One officer walked to the driver’s door and shined a flashlight on the driver. The driver’s window slid down; red flashes burst and shots rang out. The van sped backward, spraying more shots. From the rooftops on both sides of the street, spotlights sprang to life, casting theatrical beams on the van. Machine gun fire cut the air, pelting the van with red tracers from above.
There was no way to help them. Aaron waved at his team still standing in his living room. “Everybody! Go now, over the roof! GO!”
They all rushed out the doorway, except for Hayden.
“Aren’t you coming?” Hayden asked.
“I’m right behind you.”
“Brother, I’m simple, not stupid.”
“Look, dammit, they’ll be here any second. Now go. Hurry!”
A crashing sound yanked Aaron’s head back to the window. The van spun out of control, smashed into a parked car, and flipped on its side. Bullets peppered the van for another half-minute. Then the shooting stopped, leaving a stunned hush. No sign of life registered within the van. Two officers lay on the street, motionless. Smoke rose through the beams of spotlights, a shifting pall between the borders of light.
Another noise cut the silence—the throaty growl of an engine starting below Aaron’s window. Aaron glanced down to see a man straddling his brother’s motorcycle. The lean figure and dreadlocks were unmistakable. Hayden gunned the engine to get everyone’s attention. The spotlights turned on him. He revved it once more and flew up the street in the opposite direction.
“What the…?” Aaron whispered to an empty room. On a hunch, he glanced at the coffee table, and his heart imploded. His brown wallet, which held his I.D. card, was missing. In its place was Hayden’s calfskin wallet.
The screeching of tires whipped Aaron’s attention back to the street. Two HumVee-Xs now blocked Hayden’s exit. Uniformed men leaped from the vehicles with rifles drawn.
Hayden slid into a tight turn and gunned the engine, rocketing him the opposite direction. He bent low over the handlebars. Barricaded in from both sides, Hayden came to a dead stop in the middle of the block. The searchlights zeroed in on him, yellow and brilliant. Someone shouted in a throaty voice. Two officers on each side of the block dropped to one knee and raised their M4s to a firing position.
Aaron knew his brother was drawing all the attention on himself to give Aaron a clean getaway, but before he could move the front door burst inward. Officers rushed in with weapons held at the ready.
The apartment lights were still off, but the glow of the spotlights outside filled the room like artificial moonlight. Five rifle laser-beams aimed at his chest. He raised his hands slowly.
Two of them held their weapons on him while the others searched the apartment.
Aaron didn’t hear the car pull up to the curb below his window, but did hear the double thud of an expensive car door opening and closing, followed by quick footsteps coming up the stairs. A man—dressed in a black, double-breasted designer suit, hand-stitched cowboy boots, and a cartoonishly large, silver cross at his throat—strolled through the doorway toward Aaron. Emblazoned on his lapel was the insignia of the Christian States of America, the red circle encompassing white stars and a blue cross, which never failed to turn Aaron’s stomach.
“Aaron Swann?” he asked.
Aaron recognized his sleek and pale features: Deputy-Chief Whitehall, head of Homeland Operations for the Western Division, and junior member of the Holy Council. Maggie had assembled a dossier on Whitehall, his photograph on the inside cover and all the details of his meteoric rise to power. So, Aaron thought, the big dogs are here. That’s a very bad sign. Rumor had it that Whitehall always came in on huge successes. His forty-year-old face was scrubbed, shining and animated. He pushed his shades up to his platinum-colored hair. His eyes glowed with excitement.
“No,” Aaron managed to say, having no idea of how he would pull off the bluff.
“Very slowly, show me your I.D. card.”
That’s when it hit him. He swallowed. “In my wallet, there on the coffee table.”
Whitehall picked up the wallet, removed Hayden’s I.D. card, and scrutinized the picture and the information it held.
“You’re Hayden Swann?”
Aaron swallowed again. He lived by the motto ‘look out for #1,’ but his brother was the sole exception to that rule. They were two halves of the same person. The decision seemed to flicker before Aaron like a candle-flame held close to his eyes, and in spite of the fact that he knew he was putting a noose around his brother’s neck, he whispered, “Yes sir.”
A silence followed.
“Am I to believe that would be your brother, Aaron, on the motorcycle?”
Aaron hesitated. He felt a drop of sweat slide from under his armpit. He closed his eyes.
“Not to worry,” Whitehall said, “Jesus protects us all.”
Aaron opened his eyes, blinked twice. Had he heard right?
“Yes,” Aaron said.
“Where are the others?”
“Stubbs, Maggie, the Armenian? And your boyfriend, Julian Stoller?”
Aaron wasn’t surprised Whitehall knew them all by name. Whitehall and his team had obviously had them in their sights for some time.
Whitehall used his flashlight to illuminate the Glock sitting beside the cocaine. He seemed on the verge of saying something else, but changed his mind. He flipped open his communicator and barked a coded order Aaron didn’t understand.
At that moment a shot rang out in the street. Aaron half-turned to see his brother jerk forward. The second shot thrust Hayden backward. But he still moved, still straddling the bike. He gunned the engine and the bike leaped forward as officers fired more rounds. Hayden sagged over the handlebars. The motorcycle went down, sliding before an array of sparks.
The spotlights bore down on him again. His body lay motionless in the cheap yellow light. Aaron felt shattered, and through the shards of what had once been his life, he mumbled a bewildering cry.
For Hayden’s sake, Aaron prayed his brother was dead.