“Red Alert”

On the day of their deportation, the Family raised the terror alert to red. They left quietly, with just a suitcase each, and boarded a bus with blacked out windows while police and soldiers monitored them.

The Government said it was for safety. The country would be safe from the enemy and its spies, while those with the face of the enemy would be safe from the anger of the country’s people.

The Family had worn their best clothes to make a nice impression and shivered under the flimsy fabric. The bus stopped somewhere in the middle of the desert. Barbed wire and silent guards in watchtowers surrounded them. They waited in a long line, behind other people with faces like theirs, squinting from the dust. Then they were given numbers to identify themselves that would replace their given names.

Their new home was a long, narrow barrack crammed with four other families. Though there were green mountains in the distance, they didn’t notice them because all they saw was people—strangers who showered and defecated and ate next to them. They caught them staring sometimes, and quickly looked down, pretending they hadn’t noticed and that they hadn’t been staring, too.

The alert stayed red while they were in the camps. A three-colour system doesn’t allow for subtleties, though the Family managed a little life: 1 and 2, the father and mother, worked while their children, 01 and 02, the eldest daughter and younger son, went to the school in a one-room building with other children. There were baseball games and marriages, and even a store where they could buy things and wait to read the few outdated magazines that had news from the Outside. It was hard to know what to make of this fleeting happiness; it seemed a little like betrayal. Miserable, they felt they had more right to complain.

The one thing the Family knew for certain was that they were not the enemy. They protested so often—“Not guilty! Not guilty! Absolutely 100% not guilty!”—that it sounded hollow and suspect.

*

When they left the camps, the alert stayed red. By then, the Government’s pretext that it was protecting them had come true: beyond the perimeter fence and the desert surrounding them, the Outside was a foreign and dangerous place. They weren’t sure they wanted to leave. But the Government was done paying for them—it had moved on to another, bigger enemy—and the camps had to be shut down before the next budget.

 

We are innocent, the Family said. It was their mantra and they repeated it often. They viewed it as a binary: innocent or guilty. Innocent equated goodness. Whatever happened, they could not be seen as bad, which could justify their incarceration.

 

They took any job they could—picking apples, cleaning houses, chopping wood. They worked night shifts at supermarkets and restaurants, trying to blend in, even though they never would because the features of the enemy marked their difference.

*

1, the father, began to drink. He was nothing in the eyes of the Government—just another broken man.

 

Someone had to take the blame. The kids knew better than to protest.

 

The Family moved back to the city they had called home before the camps. “The Family’s got to stick together,” 02, the son, said. How they really felt about each other didn’t matter. It was insurance. Together, they had a better chance of survival.

 

They tried to do things that would make people well-disposed toward them and forget they had ever been the enemy. A PR campaign of goodness required a relentless public face. No one was allowed close enough to see beneath their mask-like smiles to the cold, red fury below.

*

Slowly, the alert dropped to orange and then yellow. Yellow meant it wasn’t emergency anymore, so there could be a little change.

 

01, the eldest daughter, was born female and beautiful and had suffered for it. But it was her way out, too: she had attracted an older man, also with features of the enemy. 01 didn’t know him or particularly like him. But that didn’t matter. Marrying him was the only way she could leave the house.

 

The husband turned out to be just like her father, but he also liked to talk. Whenever he started up, she just turned up the water from the faucet to drown out his voice.

 

Soon she was pregnant. They hoped for a boy. To the Family, boys were always better than girls. But it was a baby girl who they called 001.

 

001 and her sister, 002, were born into orange.

*

The mother, 01, had an angry smile. Within the closed space of her own household, her rage emerged. The trigger was 002, whose main fault was being another female, which the Family saw as 01’s failing.

 

002 seemed to think she had a right to exist. She opened her mouth and bad words poured out. 01 would wash 002’s mouth out with soap, beat her with a wooden spoon, and lock her out of the house. But 002 just climbed back in through the window.

 

002 irritated everyone, even 001, the favourite, who was a pretty and mild, stupid girl. Once, when 001 was ten and 002 was eight, 001 chased 002 through the house with a sharp pencil. Right after 001 stabbed 002, 001 started to cry, wailing so much that 002’s pain from the broken lead in her back was forgotten.

 

A person wouldn’t go after someone with a pencil for nothing, the Family reasoned. It must have been 002’s fault.

 

Scapegoat 002 felt this injustice acutely.

 

When an opportunity came for the Family to send 002 away to a boarding school in the desert on scholarship, they did and were relieved.

*

002 had learned from the Family that a child is not special or loved. A child gets in the way, annoys and exasperates, even while it bestows power with the title of mother.

 

Mother meant that you had your own small subjects and were never questioned. Mother meant you had a role in the Family.

 

002’s husband, and then ex-husband, was a passive man, who abdicated any responsibility.

 

For the children of 002—a girl, then a boy—the terror alert was red, though there was no threat of being sent away. There was just 002 and the Family for whom they existed and whose endless crises and needs dictated the rhythms of their days. The Family was their excuse for whatever was wrong and whenever they were criticized.

 

I’m sorry, they would say, eyes down, while they burned under their guise of meek goodness that the Family had trained into them. That’s what the Outside saw. They assumed now that people with the face of the enemy were nice, untroublesome people. Not anyone they had to worry about.

 

The children often imagined how much they could accomplish in a parallel life with a different family. Or what it might be like if they didn’t have the face of the enemy. It was all tied together. Video games helped a little. They were always the good guys who had to kill the enemy. They watched the bad guys with monstrous, dark faces die in pixelated red fire.

 

The Girl left when she was old enough. The children of 002 didn’t need numbers—they were inconsequential, unwanted children of an unwanted child, though they were the only children left. 001’s child had died. There was no reason to keep the Family together anymore other than it was what they always had done. 02, Girl’s great uncle who had insisted that they should, had been gone a long time.

 

She moved away to the desert. When she had pictured it before, she had imagined a dead, nothing place. But it was very much alive. There were shrubs and trees and cacti, sprinkling the sandy, red dirt with green.

 

The terror alert didn’t change for her that quickly, no matter how much she tried with self-help books and affirmations that she’d repeat to herself in the morning in the mirror. It fell slowly, from red to orange but never far below yellow. She lived most of her life alone in the shadow of the green mountains with adopted animals, whose whims and personalities ruled her life. They made a kind of family, though none of them really belonged to each other.

 

The Boy stayed. He had tried being away and had travelled for a time, but found that somehow he always was pulled back to the Family.

 

After years of video games and aimlessness, he got a job as an ambulance driver. The screaming sirens and flashing lights made sense to him. Even if a call was a let down, there always would be another. It was better doing something than waiting, knowing that terror is out there but never knowing when it would strike. Red is so much better when something is happening. When, at the end of the day, he was tired but could say he’d fought in his own way—against traffic, against time—and he had survived.

 

But now—just for now—it was over.

About Emi Benn

Emi Benn lives in Hamilton, Ontario. Her fiction has appeared most recently in Monkeybicycle and Jellyfish Review.




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