We would never forget. We'd remember where we were when it happened. We were watching ourselves on the televisions in the window of the electronics store. The news cameras panning across us, our bodies quaking, our fingers fingering our mouths. The seven second delay on the televisions frightened us. Told us we could've become a blood bath at any moment.
That's me with my head in my hands. Answering the newscaster's questions. Dressed for work but never made it there. An ordinary day. Look at how young we were. Those haircuts! What were we thinking? We couldn't help smiling just a bit; after all we were being watched by millions. Someone would call us a hero for the simplest thing.
It began a warm spring day. Birds chirping in budding trees. Through the rain soaked branches, the sun was a ball of molten iron, set out to cool on the horizon. Then came the government trucks, dun colored and heaving smoke. Heads bobbed from the canvas canopies as they stopped in our town square. A tailgate banged. Five families unloaded and then the trucks went away.
It was just like the radio said, but we thought it would happen somewhere else. We weren't listening closely on what we were to do. They were twenty in number, hair clipped short over their ears. Olive drab coveralls, work papers sewn over their hearts in laminated sleeves. The burlap sacks that were slung over their shoulders rose and fell with each breath.
The town barber gazed at them as he swept in front of his shop. "This is the beginning of the end." Each word sounded as if he was trying to stamp it into tin. "Just wait and see." He spat on the sidewalk, a sliver of ice.
Calm and assured, the visitors staked tent poles into the dirt. They lit a hatful of fire, its smoke coke grey, twining skyward in billowy ribbons.
They cooked rations unwrapped from foil packages. They drank deeply from canteens and shared with the two bums who inhabited the square. The statue of our town founder rose from the fountain, saber drawn and his knee lifted. His eyes like grapeshot. His shadow slowly circled the visitors as the sun climbed.
A news team arrived and set up its gear. People lined the square to watch. There was the baker covered in flour coming to have a look. The banker yelling into his cell. They shut their doors for the rest of the day. Schoolchildren came to taunt the visitors and no one scolded them.
A car pulled up at noon and the town veterinarian walked out with two paper bags.
"Stop her!" The barber said. Nearly everything he'd held in his life could cut. He'd put razors to our throats, but he only took the whiskers. "Don't feed them!"
The veterinarian didn't break stride. The visitors stared at the sacks of food as she set them on the grass.
Someone called the newspaper an hour later. My assistant and I ran to our office window and drew the blinds. We watched the banker pick up a rock. He'd voted against the New Plan, a tiny box in the corner of the last ballot. Had we checked it too, I thought, as his rock tumbled through the air and struck a child in the head?
Then the visitors drove around town. Seven packed in the banker's luxury sedan, arms dangling out. They cruised our streets, and soon there were more of them in the park. We warned our children not to speak to them. We bolted our doors.
The next day, my assistant and I went by to cover the girl struck by the rock. The family had taken an apartment with several others. The child lay on the floor beside a teenage mother. There was barely a nick on the girl. Had she not been held down by the blankets she might have been dancing around. Their lawyers had come from their country. Dressed like us.
The visitors took jobs at the gas station, the convenience store. They worked for nothing. When they cut our lawns they looked in our windows. At night we dreamt them: heathens with boiling cauldrons, faces painted with our blood. They came running at us, holding out their hands, filled with our still beating hearts.
More government trucks came and unloaded in the town square. Our doctor said the visitors might be carrying unknown diseases. Our mayor said they were taking up all the jobs. This didn't stop the farmers coming, ball caps low over their eyes, to pick up the visitors. We learned the sacks the visitors carried were full of seed only they knew how to sow. Soon we saw the usual field help leaving town.
"We can't keep up with those guys," the field hands told us. "And whatever that stuff they have is, it grows like wild mint."
Trucks soon came to take away the visitor's crops. Bales of a plant we'd never tasted. They shipped it back from where they came. They stayed in the town park. Soon litter blew down the street. Some went to the fishing hole and caught all the fish and ate them.
We ran an editorial in the paper: New Plan Plagues Town
Those lawyers came to see us. They cited libel; they showed us the visitor's rights under the New Plan. The lawyers said they would press charges unless we gave them jobs. Soon they had a column in our newspaper. They began to assemble, picket in front of our offices. We couldn't understand what their signs said, but we got the idea.
Our neighbor lost his house to one of them in a card game. The wife stayed and her husband took the children. The visitors had late night parties. We heard the woman's moans at night through our open windows.
This morning, the two bums sit in the park, their beards long and wispy, watching us, until they too are driven out, back to their shack near the swamp. The visitors spill from the plaza now. Hundreds walk our streets. We stand watching as our town statue is removed on a flatbed, the saber pointing at the sky. The newest visitors don the same uniforms that our soldiers wear.
A government helicopter flies overhead, a visitor sitting in the doorway with machine gun. NP freshly stenciled on the dry paint of the helicopter. We see the visored pilots looking straight ahead. The leaflets glitter as they fall. A television plays loudly in the electronics store. We are listening now, the announcer's voice rushed and breathless.
The newscaster says they are beginning to evacuate nearby towns. We stand in the plaza, looking at the visitors in the bank. The banker is gone. So is the baker, the barber. The visitors come out holding money, pastries, razors. It feels as if some gnarly bush has taken root in my stomach.
The leaflets scatter and fly and we catch them from the wild breeze. The librarian knows their language and reads the message on the back of their leaflets: Stage One of The New Plan Complete—Engage Stage Two
Gunshots and more trucks move in. Someone screams and we run as fast as we can down our streets. We push one another, we stumble and fall. Is anyone getting this on tape? I feel like I could be brave.
Visitors are sitting on lawns, reading the leaflets and hugging one another. My children are playing with some of them in the yard. I pick up my daughter and son and tuck them under my arms. Their legs kick as I run across the lawn. I fling open the door to our house.
A visitor is standing in my kitchen. My wife sits on the counter, her legs crossed, her head tilted back laughing.
"Baby!" she throws out her arms. "This man wants to buy our house." Her eyes twinkle and her calves rub one another seductively. I order the children to their rooms but instead they speak to the visitor in his language. They pull at his coveralls. He gives them biscuits from a foil package. He looks at me as my children gobble them up.
"I don't have to give you anything for your house," he says, clear as day. "I can take it. I can take everything."
"Get out of here!" I yell.
My wife jumps from the counter to block me as the visitor slithers out the door. I chase after him, shaking a rolling pin. Outside, government trucks roll down our street in a caravan. I see the faces of my friends bobbing from the canvas canopies. I shout to them. The trucks slow to let more people on and my neighbors beckon us.
"Come. They're taking us someplace safe." They reach out to offer me their hands. "There will be more of them coming." I pull back when I see them chewing the plants the visitors grow. Their eyes look like they're full of sperm. "Trust us," they say.
The visitors watch us from their lawns. I pull out my friends' grasp and go back into the house, picking up the newspaper off the lawn. Inside, my wife is on the sofa and the children are playing a game.
"What does this say?" I hold up the headline of the paper.
"Everything and All at Once!" they chant, then look back at the television.
I sit in the den that night, my family asleep on the floor. The doors are locked. I've found my old gun and it sits on my lap. The late night news is calm, peaceful. Chew the plants and they will forget, a commercial assures me. You will too. Outside, I hear the visitors' laughter, pressing in on us.
They come sometime during the night. No struggle. The lights they have are bright and stun us. A ride in a truck. Faces like mine nodding in the moonlight. Cool night spring air against our bodies.
I awaken in a barracks filled with other men.
"Where am I?" I say to the man in the bunk next to me. It's the barber. He holds his head in his hands.
"Somewhere just outside town. They're holding us here."
He shakes his head.
"I don't feel so good," I say.
"Those plants they're growing. They made you chew it. You'll feel better tomorrow."
"Where's my family?"
"They're on the compound. You'll see them soon." He stands and grabs my shoulder firmly. "Just rest."
I stand anyway, the grass cool and wet beneath my feet. I pass by the other sleeping men, some sitting, their eyes bloodshot, and come to the doorway. A sentry stands guard.
I see the other barracks across the way, the children's faces pressed against the soft plastic windows. In the center of the compound stands the statue from our town square. He looks down at us, the shadow of his saber casting a thin moon shadow.
"Can we leave?" I say to the sentry.
"Then I'd like to take my family and leave now."
"You can't." He turns away from me. "You have to wait."
I move to pass and he presses the tip of his rifle into my chest. "Back inside."
The men moan as they sleep. I lay in my bunk thinking of this new kind of war. The whole country must be like this. I'm hungry and the plant is wearing off and I look about the barracks. The barber is asleep beside me. I walk to the window and see a train of children being led in the dark, past the statue and into a pit where a fire burns.
"Where are you going?" The barber's eyes glow like lava with the light coming from outside. I throw a blanket over my shoulders. My hands shake and I'm filled with a craving I've never had. "Here," he hands me the fronds of the plant from under his pillow. He tears off a piece and grinds his up in his hands. "Take it. No sense fighting. We're already dead."
I pull out of his grasp and run past the sleeping guard and past the children, looking drugged and orange. I can't do anything for them. There are no heroes left. I climb a gate and run across a field, letting the woods embrace me. I know where I'm going, to the only place I know where I could be safe.
Someone is tracking me. I can't see them but I can them breathing, deep and pulmonary. I walk along a railroad trestle back towards town, the sun rising through the trees. My family is lost, gone. There's nothing that can be done. I come to the road at dawn and walk along it, ducking when a vehicle passes, blood in their wheel arches.
I come upon the swamp at daybreak. The air smells spoiled and moss hangs from the trees. I hear footfalls in the woods not far behind.
Ahead, I see the two bums outside their shack. They stand on a rotted stump. Their voices creak like trees in winter, like stones rattling and pushing from frozen ground. Broken leaves in their beards, twigs in their hair. Their hands are mud and clay, their mouths like footprints, their eyes like stone. Above the steaming swamp the trees and a ragged cloud join. They call to me as a helicopter sings low and shakes the putrid water. I see a visitor in the helicopter point at me, and I watch it circle and lower.
The bums open their cloaks and their arms outstretch and reach. There are others like me inside them, their eyes slick like fish eggs. The bums step into the oil black water and I follow. Everything is clear now: we are the swamp, have always been. We are the rings of the cypress, the layers of mud. We are the fossils that will tell of ours final pains. As the machine guns in the helicopter crackle, the bullets snapping by, the bums pull me to them so I am ensnared in the thatch of their bodies and the cold, damp smell of their breath.