Deleted Chapters

Two chapters were deleted from the novel before release. They were mostly backstory, so it made sense to remove them since they weren’t directly tied to the plot. But, they provide important information about Rachel and her journey. As well as more narrative to understand Ann and Dale’s life on the farm.

Rachel in Morroco

Rachel pucked her mouth, she never did like fruity wine like the kind that her dad and sister would make from the cacophony of plants on the farm. Her sister and father would harvest and ferment to make all sorts of sweet and spicy concoctions. People would rave about their beverages, but Rachel only drank it to be polite. Nowadays anything else was too expensive or hard to find and she appreciated her sister’s gifts since their dad had died. 

Rachel sat on the back porch and listened to the sound of the wind blowing through the tree next door. She raised her glass of yellow dandelion wine and took another sip. “A hot planet has not been kind to fancy wine grapes. That’s for sure.” Rachel had lost touch with Lauren and felt angry and confused. She’d given her fifteen bottles at Christmas before Lauren cut her out of her life. Contact with Lauren had always sporadic, but now Rachel’s calls always went straight to voicemail. Her texts unread. Rachel was worried about her, but kept her distance. She wasn’t sure what she could do to make things right with them because she didn’t understand what was wrong. Their last conversation hadn’t gone well.  

Decades before, gained an appreciation for crisp dry wine while in college. At first she and her friends were playing dress-up and going to wine tastings at bars or liquor stores. They’d feign sophistication, “Can you taste the oakiness? And, “The mouthfeel is exquisite.” They’d lean into each other and shriek. It was after one of these events when they’d had a little too much to drink that Rachel hatched her plan to travel after graduation. She’d almost finished her four-year degree and wanted to see the world beyond the Midwest. Going right on to graduate school would have been the safe choice for her. The Rachel choice. But all night, they’d been trying wines from one far flung place after the other – Italy, South Africa, Argentina. Rachel had never been anywhere. She wanted to see everything, but her budget wouldn’t cooperate. She applied for a number of jobs overseas and was lucky enough to get one with a women’s micro-credit project in Morocco. She flew out a week after her graduation commencement. Her father was excited, her mother beside herself with worry and her sister too little to care.   

Rachel flew into Tangier. She was glad to board a train to leave the harsh city with a trash filled coast line. The train was thrilling and comfortable. The other passengers were friendly and welcoming. They bought her tea and pastries, which was awkward since she wasn’t accustomed to people she didn’t know buying her things. Five hours flew by and the train was pulling up at the station in Fez. Night had fallen and Rachel made her way through the deserted streets to her hotel. 

In the morning, Rachel dressed as she’d read that she should in the guidebook, choosing a long thin blue skirt with a tan blouse, a floral scarf was tied over her straight brown hair. She looked at herself in the mirror and tucked in the wisps of brown that had escaped the scarf. Rachel felt the pangs of loneliness slip in. She was so far from home. Rachel wished that she could show her family a picture of her, but figured it would just stress out her mom. 

Outside the hotel, Rachel took in the ghastly relics of French colonial rule lining the streets. Pale peach and green paint faded on the sides of the buildings. Heat shimmered off the concrete baking in the morning sun. A handful of old cars drove through the streets, and small groups of young men wearing jeans and loose shirts chatted here and there. Stepping inside the small cafe just around the corner, Rachel realized that she was overdressed. 

The only other customers in the restaurant were a pair of young flirty couples, late teens, all tight jeans and tank tops. As Rachel sat down, she imagined that if a picture were to be taken of the scene, they could easily mistake the kids for American and she for a pious Moroccan woman. She jotted the observation down in her journal. When the waiter brought them their breakfast, they prayed. Which again took her aback. “In the name of God and with God’s blessing.” But in Arabic,“Bismillahi wa ‘ala baraka-tillah.” Rachel didn’t understand Arabic. Or pray before her food anymore. But she admired the sentiment. Rachel had let religion slide right along with much of the rest of the identity she’d grown up with. 

After eating, Rachel grabbed her stuff from the hotel and hailed a cab to get to the office. The organization’s space was a small room in the ancient walled city that butted against modernity. They call this style of building a medina, and this particular one was built during the Idrisid dynasty over a thousand years before. The city’s history was tangibly present in Rachel’s mind. Studying the past had never been about regurgitating sets of facts and figures. To Rachel it was about understanding the art and science and the engineering and poetry that people still revere. The innumerable societies that have flourished or faded held lessons that Rachel considered important to grasp. A sense of adventure pulsed through her as she sat on the rumpled back seat listening to blaring Egyptian ballads pouring from the taxi’s speakers.

When the car stopped, Rachel handed the ill-tempered driver a few dirhams. “Shukraan,” she said as she climbed out with a bag her bag. A massive blue-tiled mosaic wall with ornate arches towered over her. It was the gateway. At least the French had built one beautiful thing here, she snarked to herself as she stared in awe. 

A short thin guy with dancing eyes strode up as she was taking everything in. “Rachel? You must be Rachel? I recognize you from your picture. Brown eyes, brown hair. Like me!”

Rachel was startled to hear her name. “Hi! I hadn’t expected that you’d meet me. You must be Ali.”

“Yes. That is me! Well, it’s really Mohammed. Mohammed Ali. You know, like the boxer?” He jumped around and threw a few punches in the air. “But you can just call me Ali. Meeting you was no problem at all. The medina can be hard to find your way around. I’ve just been having tea there in my friend’s shop and waiting for you to come. Let’s go somewhere nice. Not this shit.” He gestured to the place he’d just been. Then he flashed a smile and projected out some friendly words in their dialect of Moroccan Arabic to his friends. He winked and said to Rachel, “Gotta keep them happy.” Rachel liked him already. 

He called a kids over who grabbed her bag, and she followed them through the massive passage into the ancient city. A narrow plaza was brimming with energy. Women wearing bright hijab gabbing together with plastic bags of goodies and stacks of round bread in their arms. Children scurried about. A man stood off to the side gesturing wildly while shouting to himself. Everyone ignored him. Another man dressed in flowing white robes was carrying a beautiful brass water jug on his back. He was selling drinks of water to the locals, Ali explained. Tourists sat at the cafes surrounding the square and the Moroccans funneled off through the narrow, convoluted streets branching in every direction. Rachel and Ali sat down at a dented wood table on the outside veranda of one of the shops near the gate. A worn-looking waiter brought two tall clear glasses, each with a sprig of fresh mint. He held up the kettle high and poured a long stream of steaming water into their cups. Rachel felt the sweat pouring off her as she thought of drinking boiling tea. Ali must have observed the incredulity on her face. “It’ll cool you off,” he said. The loud man continued to shout nearby. 

Ali asked lots of questions about her travel, her family, her life. She questioned him the same. After a while, Rachel found that she was feeling more comfortable. She asked, “I’m not so hot anymore. It felt like the new city was going to bake me. Or, is that tea working?” She grinned.  

Ali’s face lit up. “You noticed. Good. Good. Absolutely, the tea is working.” He chortled. “But it is also our brilliant architecture. These winding twisting passages stopped our enemies, but they also create shadows. When the sun can’t seep in everywhere, the space stays cool. Fresh. Our buildings are tall, and our streets are narrow. Our lines are curvilinear. The sun has no chance!” He slapped his knee.   

Ali jumped up and beckoned to Rachel. “The natural brick stays cool, too. Please, come feel it.” They stepped inside the building and she pressed her hand against the worn smooth surface. It was deliciously chill and she wanted to press her whole body against it. She thought of a millennium of people’s lives passing by. She closed her eyes to imagine the scene. Rachel could never imagine building to suit the climate, rather than the other way around. 

Ali chortled, “We like to stay cool. We are smart people. That we are. Did you know that Fez has the oldest library in the world? Right here. It’s in disrepair, of course. They’re supposed to fix it one of these days, or so they say. I will take you there later and we can see the ruins.” 

Rachel had not anticipated having so much fun right out of the chute. It was unlike any first day on the job she’d had before. They talked and drank tea all morning. Ali called a boy over to bring them soup and bread from a nearby stall for lunch and introduced her to friends. He seemed to know everyone. Eventually the conversation wandered to what had brought her to Morocco in the first place. 

Ali explained, “In this microfinance project, the women have banded together and pooled their money. When someone wants to invest in their business or hits hard times, they can take out a loan. We have nearly a hundred-perfect repayment rate. The money then goes back to the pool for more loans. You might wonder what difference this makes. Well, it’s huge!” He splayed his fingers like twin fireworks going off. “With these projects they have a back-up plan when things go wrong. Plus, the women have a lot more freedom and control over their lives. When the women are in charge of money, they make choices that benefit everyone in the family. Not just themselves the way we men do. The women don’t need much from us. Just helping keep the books, mostly.”

Ali made Rachel’s heart flutter; he was effervescent. She felt herself falling for him.

The next day they set out to the villages where the program was operating. A Swiss non-governmental organization was funding them to work at seven sites. The subtle beauty of the sand-colored hillsides stretched out into the horizon as they whirred by. Farmers with buckets of water balanced on sticks slung over their backs, were painstakingly watering their thirsty crops. Small boys herded big flocks of fluffy sheep. She thought about how different these farms were from her own family’s. They had an hour’s drive to the first village, and she and Ali never had a lull in the conversation. He told her the story of Morocco and how proud he was of his country. He spoke of the Berbers and the Arabs and the colonial forces that had shaped the nation. Ali told of how they got a King, and that one of them had refused to hand over Jews during the second World War. He talked of how his country had mourned when so many left for Israel, anyway. Though he understood why. He obviously adored his country, but he also spoke honestly of Morocco’s problems as he saw them. He hated to see his people suffer. He blamed the government. Ali was faithful to his King. But he loved his country more. He reminded Rachel of her dad.

Ali said, “So much of what’s ruining this country is corruption. From the King on down, everyone expects their little piece of the action. When a job needs done, the government doesn’t figure out who can do it the best. The cheapest. No, it’s whose cousin or friend owns a company. Or who’ll give them the biggest wad of cash. Al’alma!” He blushed, “That’s a swear word. I’m sorry. But it means blindness. And it is true that they are blind to what they do to us. Or don’t care.”

“I think they don’t really care. It’s more important that they get theirs.” 

“It’s not just the big powerful guys. They’re the worst. But it’s all the little guys, too. The whole government. You can’t get a license or good job unless you pay first. Some of these problems are with how close we stick with our families, for sure. Family is everything to us. And that’s good. But this corruption, it’s not about family. If your cousin messes up, you fire him and hire your other cousin. You don’t just keep letting it go on, year after year, until everything gets worse.” 

“When it comes from the top, how do you even stop it?”

“That’s the problem. Without freedom, you can’t. We just work around it. I pay bribes all the time. I have to. You can’t live here and not deal with corruption almost every day. You’re so lucky to be from a country where you have liberty.” His expression was grave, “You know that you can’t talk about this to anyone else. Right? It could cause an arrest.” 

“No. Sorry. No, I wouldn’t.” 

Over the months, the grift became routine. She’d see it in the streets and hear the stories of the women. One was saving to replace her roof, but instead had to get her son out of jail for working as an unlicensed tour guide in the city. But really, it was because he didn’t have the cash to pay a bribe to either get a license or pay the cop on the street. She loved Morocco and the work, but was being worn down by how hard life was for ordinary people. She questioned whether or not she was making a difference because the whole system seemed to be stacked against them ever getting ahead.    

Ali and his family made her time there as magical as could be, though. By and by, Rachel and Ali became lovers. Halfway into her eight month contract, they started talking of marriage. His cousin offered to build them a house in the little village of Sefrou nearby. Rachel felt absorbed by their clan. Ali’s little sister Hannan would hold her hand and say in flawless English, “Stay, please. You’re part of our family now.” But Rachel knew that she wasn’t. Though goodness, was she tempted to marry him and melt in with them all. They were generous with her in every way. Once she’d accidentally broken Ali’s family’s prized vase when she turned around too sharply. Rachel was mortified. She had cried and apologized, but they seemed to not give a second thought to the object. They didn’t want her to be sad. If they still wanted her after that, Rachel figured that they were the real deal. And Ali was far better than nearly anyone she’d dated up to that point in her life. Both in bed and out. He was thoughtful and kind. But Rachel had come to Morocco to find something that had been missing in her life, and she had. It was absolutely not what she had expected, though.

As the time to decide on signing another contract drew near, Rachel began longing for the States. She’d come of age in a generation when cynicism was fashionable. When the Constitution seemed like an old piece of paper that enshrined the Three Fifths Compromise and failed to enfranchise women, among countless other issues big and small. The United States of America was an imperfect model of democracy, but among the most functional in the world. Rachel’s father, Dale, was patriotic like Ali. Not nationalistic and fervent, but solid and passionate. Rachel and her friends couldn’t see anything past America’s failures, particularly with the Bush era foreign policy disasters. Rachel went to Morocco with jarring cynicism. When Ali spoke of his country, he’d almost tear up with devotion. It wasn’t so much love of the spot on the map that was Morocco. It was his love of the people. His pride in his history and what they’d achieved. Rachel realized that patriotism wasn’t draping yourself in the flag and performing a pledge of allegiance; it was having the back of those who made up your country. 

Rachel had also absorbed enough of her dad’s politics to know what Ali was talking about with the way Morocco was run. She wanted to live somewhere with a functional government that would take care of its people better. At least a lot of the people much of the time. America had dirty politicians getting busted and crime syndicates challenged. It was as much self-governance as our nation could muster. While so many were working hard for impartial justice. There was the opportunity to speak out and participate in democracy to make things better, mostly without worry of arrest. Particularly for a white lady like Rachel. America wasn’t ruled based on the whims of a king. Or the insidious dysfunction that follows unveiled kleptocracy. Or rule by those who take power to line their own pockets. Ali provided an emotional roadmap of sorts for Rachel to be both proud and real about her homeland.  

Rachel came to adore the Moroccan people and to her surprise, her own country’s people. Whenever she’d see another American or Canadian, there’d be this magical swirl of cultural dust that surrounded the encounter. She’d spent most of her time there with Moroccans. And she’d had cultural exchange friends in high school and known international students at the university. She’d never felt like what it was like to be on the other side of that equation, and what it must feels like to be far from home. When embedded with unfamiliar language and ways of living, the fit with someone from your land is soothing. 

Ali’s family brought an intense feeling of belonging. Acceptance. After being with them all so much she came to know in her bones that people are just people no matter who they are. We all eat, love, sleep, dream, want security and a better life for the children we know. We want success and happiness, however that’s defined to us. These are universal. Our ways of moving in the world as individuals are primarily driven by these motivations. But our cultures and our natures as individuals form a delicious layer of interest on top. Moroccans were vibrant. Particularly Ali’s tribe, the Bedouins. They were loud at times, somber and serious at others. They held those they adored close and knew how to have fun. Nearly everyone she encountered knew lived up to the African tradition of generosity. But as a person, Rachel couldn’t see a way to make all the pieces fit in order to stay. She considered bringing Ali back to the States, but he’d made clear that his family and his country needed him and that’s where he wanted to be.  

***

The last night that Ali and Rachel spent together, they slept on the roof of Ali’s building. Rachel came to realize years later how scandalous it was that she’d spent so many sultry evenings there with him. Rumors had spread through his conservative old-city neighborhood. But Ali’s family owned the building, and he was in charge after his father had passed some years before. He did as he liked, within reason. Rachel soaked in the shadowy winding city for the last time. Ali had paid his brother to arrange the area with thick wool rugs and blankets. Big embroidered pillows were framed by squat lanterns. The night was hot and dry, but a cool breeze feathered over them. They laid together, passing joints back and forth, and listening to music play low on her little compact CD player and portable speakers. Bob Marley crooned – Redemption songs…Redemption songs…Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but our self can free our minds. They had already processed her leaving and there was an ease of acceptance between them. 

As the night wore on, they kissed and stroked. They undressed without hurry. Rachel said, “I hope you know that do I love you.” 

“I do. I love you, Rachel. I think I always will. I will miss you.” 

Grief and intimacy entwined as he slid into her and they ground their hips and savored the energy of each other’s flesh. They made love and talked for hours, but knew it was time to sleep. The haunting echoes of the late night call to prayer rolled out from the ornate minarets. The next morning, she drug herself down the narrow stairs to clean-up and say goodbye to Ali’s family. They gave her pottery and baskets, that she still cherishes. Ali accompanied her to the train station where he finally had to say goodbye. His hug was warm and enveloping. They didn’t kiss in public as it was considered ill mannered. Rachel could see the pain in his eyes, but in her heart she was already gone.   

It was nearly impossible for Rachel to imagine what her life would be like, had she married Ali. The irony of course is that now America that had fallen to bits and Morocco was looking like a beacon. Their King had seen the nearly unstoppable populist winds blowing as climate emergencies made the food, water and housing stocks abruptly and radically more unstable. Their Queen had been studying the modern Kurdish philosopher, Öcalan, and urged her country toward reforms. They instituted a universal basic income, invested heavily in climate adaptation and ocean water desalination. The royal family brought forth gender equity as a centerpiece of their experiment. Öcalan believed that the domination of women was central to humanity’s demise. He was a lonely prisoner on a Turkish island until Qatar secured his release. Before then he’d smuggled out his writings disguised as court papers, which laid out his system of thought and governance. A number of smaller countries had followed the lead of the country of Rojava that Öcalan led before his arrest.     

Many years after leaving Morocco, Rachel was moving home to Rochester from Des Moines. She was leaving a job she loved because of her dad’s illness. She wanted to be near him. She pulled out a dusty bin from a closet she never used. At the bottom was that CD player that she’d listened to that night on the roof. She thought of Ali and how much she still loved him. Her face flushed with considering her biggest regret, though and that was how foolish and selfish she’d been when she was young. She’d tried her best, but had bumbled her way through his culture and felt the shame that follows such truths. They’d been so generous and the music would have meant so much. She’d bought them gifts that she bought locally, but what she should have given them was harmony. Music is a word that’s recognizable in both Arabic and English. Rachel pronounced, “Musiqaa,” and giggled. She’d lost touch with Ali long ago. She hoped he’d married a kind woman. Rachel had a string of short and long-term relationships, but none that evolved into marriage. Now the only gentleman in her life is her boy, Ben. Who she wouldn’t have met had she stayed overseas. She also wouldn’t have met him if America hadn’t gone to pot. 

On the deck that night, Rachel gulped the last of her dandelion wine and said a final goodbye to her time alone before crawling in bed with Ben. She was plotting a way out for them both. 

********************

Ann and Dale on the Farm

Fear ripped through Ann as she looked around and rubbed her thin hands together. She had realized that she had no idea where she was. “Where’s Dale?” she muttered to no one in particular. There was a group of disheveled old women huddled on even-more disheveled furniture in the large open room. Several other residents shuffled around. Stench hung in the oppressive air. 

That portion of her mind that recognized her space was intact for the moment, and she wandered down the hall to her room. Ann’s mind was in and out of levels of consciousness. She entered the moderate familiarity of her fraying but tidy room. It was empty. She felt a scratch in her throat and turned to the tap for a drink. Ann picked up the chipped and smudged silver mug sitting on the narrow counter and fumbled with the tap. Foul red water splashed into the cup. Her nose crinkled as the smell hit her nose. She slurped enough to wet her throat. Ann searched about for answers as to what to do next when she spotted the  

Her throat was parched and scratchy. She looked about and grabbed the chipped green mug next to the sink. The rusty, foul tasting water from the tap made her nose crinkle. She only took a small sip, then found her way to the aged rocking chair in the corner of the room. She moved toward the chair as memories began flooding in. The fog in her brain lingered thicker and longer each day. The blank spots were filled with the dread of knowing that she didn’t know. In her more lucent moments she’d observe the other residents who were passed recognition. She’d think that they must be more at peace. At least she’d hope. They didn’t seem upset or scared. Just gone. As if their souls had already crossed over to Heaven, but their bodies hadn’t caught up yet. 

Ann smoothed her gray knit pants and looked around the room. The family portraits on her dresser brought forth a blaze of realizations. Ann was in a nursing home and had dementia. Dale was dead. Lauren and Rachel were grown, and she had a grandchild. Ann looked around the room again. Her eyes searched the room, while she already knew the answer. She was alone. Walking over and picking up the picture of Dale, Ann ran her finger across the dusty glass. She squeezed the frame to her chest. 

Ann was smitten with Dale Hansberry from the first. He was leaned up against a shelf with a brown ponytail cascading down his back. To Ann’s surprise, he was a farm kid, too. The zeitgeist of the seventies had pulled them both to that particular aisle at that day. Ann had become fascinated with astrology and wanted to look up more about her sign, even though her father told her it was all ridiculous. Dale had come looking for something to occupy his mind amidst the discomfort of living with his parents again after so many years away from home.

He smiled at her, and after a bit he struck up a conversation. They talked among the books, then moved to some chairs near the window. A walk followed to the diner down the road.  

The interior was bright with cherry red booths and glossy white formica counters. Dale called over the waitress, “Hey Alice! How about a couple of coffees and slices of that dutch apple on the counter.” 

Alice hollered back, “You betcha, sweetie.”

Ann bristled. She’d have liked to see a menu, but she said nothing. 

Alice brought their pie and coffee, “Anything else I can get you? 

Dale answered without looking at Lauren, “I think we’re good. Thanks. Keep the change.” Ann almost asked for something to prove a point, but didn’t. Instead she asked, “So, if your degree is in accounting, why would you want to farm?”

After I finished school, me and my old girlfriend hitchhiked our way around Europe. Mostly what we did was find places that would feed us and give us a roof over our heads and we could play the rest of the time. A lot of these deals were with funky little vegetable farms or goat farms, or something. Because of where I’m from, I was really wanting to learn about what they were doing.” Dale huffed a sad puff of air. “We actually broke up because she was mad about how serious I was with learning and talking. She wanted to party. I get it. Just wasn’t where I was at.”

Partying was not one of Ann’s struggles. Her father was rather strict. “That’s too bad. But how did that lead to farming?”

“I just realized how much I liked it. That it had always been in my blood. I like the animals. I being my own boss. Growing food for people. It was just all really nice, you know?”

“Then why aren’t you farming now? What did you tell me, you’re working at the feed store?”

“Yeah. The owner doesn’t care if I have long hair, just so I keep it under my hat. I’m just not ready to sit in an office all day. My dad and brother-in-law are running the family farm, and they say what I’m talking about won’t work here. There’s no government support for it. And people don’t want the kind of fancy food like they grow over in Europe. I don’t know. Maybe they’re right. But maybe people just don’t know what they’re missing. But there’s no denying that they’re right about the farm policy, though. I started looking into it. Over there, their whole way of helping farmers do what they do is different. They’re trying to help keep small farmers on their land and they pay them to do things that are better for the water, soil and all that. Here, we only pay for farmers to grow a couple crops that are what the big food companies want us to grow. They’re not looking to feed America as much as sell America a bunch of processed food that’s really not good for us. It isn’t so much what the farmers chose to grow, or what people have the chance to eat. It’s what people who are getting really rich off the situation are pushing it toward.” 

“What do you mean? My dad’s always going on about how he’s feeding the world. How it only takes this many farmers now compared to what it used to. And, I like our food.” Ann was peeved. 

“Food here is good, that’s not what I meant. This pie is amazing! It’s that farmers are boxed in. They only can to grow a few things or raise a few kinds of livestock to get the insurance and the government help if things go bad. And you know, this is farming we’re talking about. Things always go bad.” He chuckled and took a bite of his pie. He was worried that he was dominating the conversation. His old girlfriend told him that he did.

“I don’t know. Farming is so boring. You could get a good job. I don’t understand why you’d want to work that hard. My dad works so hard. All the time. And it involves a lot of shit.”

“It is hard work. And yep, it does involve a lot of shit. But it doesn’t have to be that gross toxic mess like the huge enclosed barns make. Thats gross.” Ann was about to be offended, because her dad had several huge turkey barns on their place. But Dale saved himself when he said, “Your dad is right. Farmers are just trying to feed the world. It’s not about what farmers want to grow or what people want to eat, it’s about what these big companies want them to do. And the government backs them up by having the kind of programs and all that that work better for them than for farmers.” 

Ann wasn’t sure what to think of what he was saying, she only knew that he seemed passionate and that he was hot. And that they’d connected strong right away. She wished they’d stop talking and go make out in the alley. Dale continued talking, “Someone grew these apples, the flour used in the crust, the sugar.” Ann gazed down at her pie. The apples and perfect cinnamon crunch top taunted her. She took a bite. She wasn’t thinking about what Dale was going on about. She was recalling the admonition that had been ruining women’s meals forever – a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips. She vowed to only have two more tastes. Dale went on, “Somehow it all had to get together for the restaurant to make it. Or you to buy it in the store. But it started with people like your dad and my dad. Farmers.”

You ever heard of that guy, Earl Butz? He’s our secretary of agriculture right now. He’s out to lunch. Not long ago I heard he was making fun of the Pope. For his accent. I don’t know your take on religion. I shouldn’t assume, but I hate all that crap. This kid in elementary school had transferred over from a Catholic school when his parents got a divorce. A few little jerks gave him so much hell for it. I don’t even know if the kid actually was Catholic or not.”

Ann was considering what Dale had mentioned earlier, that part about him being serious. He certainly was. And direct. Ann had been accused a time or two of being too blunt, herself. She wanted to be careful about how she worded her thoughts. She didn’t have a feeling one way or the other about Catholics. But she thought that would sound empty. So she said, “I grew up Lutheran. We go to a country church with a couple hundred people. It’s nice. How about you?”

“Me, oh, I don’t think I’ve quite figured it out already. For myself. But, I wanted to tell you about what this Butz guy is doing…”

Ann stopped herself from rolling her eyes. Government wasn’t her thing, and though she’d grown up on a farm, she knew little about most of these things he was talking about. Her chest heaved and she pushed a small smile onto her face. What followed was another hour of Dale describing the intricacies of American agricultural policy. And Ann finished her pie out of boredom.  

“Butz was the one who really got going with the idea that farmers had to either get big or get out of farming. They’re making it so there isn’t any room for the little guy.”

And…

“Farmers are on a treadmill. We make so little money per acre and per animal that we have to keep getting more and more to make enough to live. The machinery and everything costs so much to take care of all that, we get into so much debt. And need to make more to pay for that. Every year folks are slipping further behind, it seems. This Butz fella talks about efficiency, but all I see is families going under and being pushed off the land.”

And…

“People want clean water and all that, but they don’t realize that farmers barely breaking even can’t afford all that. Growing food is a public good and so is taking care of the land. The country needs to step up and help with paying for all this stuff that they want us to do. It’s not fair to put all the burden on our backs. It’s driving us into the ground and no one seems to care.”  

Ann had seen so much change on her dad’s farm, it was like Dale was describing their history. When she was young, theirs was still the type of farm imagined in slick advertisements by food companies. Where farmers were content, our food is safe, and the animals are happy. You know the type of farm – chickens scurry about and cows nibble grass in the pasture. Mom dusts the flour from her hands on her apron and dad’s out on his bright-green John Deere, sunup to sundown. But times had changed and her dad adapted as best he could. 

The chickens went away, and the cattle got moved into a big dirt feedlot. Ann’s father, Martin, would say, “Turkeys. That’s the future. I’m telling you.” He’d pull out the glossy brochures of pole barns and the ones explaining the advantages of raising turkeys on contract. He wanted to buy Ann a shiny new car when she graduated high school, just like those rich people in town did for their kids. So Ann’s daddy did something he never thought he’d do – applied for a big loan to make his dreams come true. Banks were eager to make those huge loans, in the day. Ann’s father had four massive corrugated metal pole barns built and filled them to the brim with turkeys owned by the company he contracted with. And he fed them and medicated them with everything he bought from that same vast company. The masses of identical white turkeys, breasts so large they’d nearly fall forward, stared out from the doors in the buildings. Vacant and stressed. 

Ann told Dale some things about her life between his policy points. “I’m an only child. So, if you want to farm, you’ll just have to marry me.” She giggled. “Relax, I’m just kidding. But, yeah, it’s just me and my dad Martin. My mom died when I was little.” 

“That’s sad. I’m sorry.” 

“It’s okay.” It wasn’t, actually, but that’s what people were expected to say. She changed the subject. “Didn’t we need to modernize though? So, like you said, we can grow enough food to feed the world?”

“I don’t know. I suppose in some ways, yeah. But it doesn’t really seem like making sure that no one starved was the goal. Well, guess it was for the farmers, probably. But not so much for the government or the big companies. There are a lot of ways to grow more food that don’t mean poisoning everyone and killing everything.” 

Ann and Dale continued talking for quite a while longer that day. Though Dale tended to weighty subjects, for sure, but Ann decided that he was more complex and ineresting than boring. He also had a kindness and generosity that drew her to him. They never did make out that night, but did the next time they saw each other. And each time thereafter. They weren’t serious at first. Dale kept working at the feed store, while Ann finished up a certificate in secretarial science and took a job at an office. Dale eventually became a fixture for Sunday suppers and Martin warmed up to him, despite his initial reservations. Dale and Ann’s father talked a little about farming, but Dale steered clear of too much opinionated commentary. Dale continued to talk to Ann about his views, though, and in time she came to understand more about what he was saying. He’d talk like farmers could save the world if they just planted the right crops, and Ann found that inspiring. He was so different from everyone else she knew. 

Martin saw that his daughter was happy, and that was enough for him. He liked Dale, even though he didn’t always show it. Martin was carrying heavy secrets that were pulling him under and he felt too much shame to share with Ann or his friends. One night he decided to confide in Dale. As the cottony Milky Way floated across the sky, Martin caught up with Dale just as he was headed home. The air was cool and punctuated with dust from a passing car. 

“Hey, uh, Dale! I wanted to catch ya quick before you took off.” After a handful of smalltalk, Martin got to what he was wanting to say. “Yeah, I…I was just wondering if you could hold a confidence? Actually, you know…I don’t want to bother you, to put this on you. It’s okay. Never mind.” Martin started to walk away. 

Dale had never seen him so distressed. “No. Please. You can talk to me. What’s happening?” 

Martin took off the rumpled red hat emblazoned with his herbicide’s white logo. He scratched at his mosquito bite. “Well, son…My turkeys ruined me.” He gestured to a hillside south of the house where the round metal buildings sat. “The company’s been hard to work with. Real hard. They started some problems with me. Said too many birds were dying. But I did everything they told me. I’m a good farmer, dammit.” Martin said it as if trying to convince himself. Dale murmured agreement.  

“Now, they’re also saying I owe them for a bunch of extra fees that I don’t even understand. They cancelled my contract after this last batch goes to market, and I can’t find anyone else to sign on with. I’m not gonna be able to make my payments.” His shoulders slumped and he squeezed his hat.  

“I’m at a loss for words, sir. Is there any way I can help?”

“No, son, there’s too much debt. There’s nothing anyone can do. I talked to the bank. My wife used to teach him in Sunday school. He was so snotty. I wanted to sock him one. They won’t extend the loan.”  

“Do you know what you’ll do?” Dale was irate that things had turned out this way. Martin had worked hard his entire life. He worried about what would happen to Ann. Dale may have understood the intricacies of the system screwing farmers, but that didn’t mean he knew what to do about it. Dale felt way out of his league trying to give Martin advice. 

“Darned if I know what I’m going to do. Something…” Martin turned his weather-worn face and wiped a tear. “I owe millions. Me?” He tapped his chest with his pointer finger. His eyes were sad and wild. “Who would have ever thought it? But that’s most of us farmers now, I suppose. It all kept adding up, year after year. They all kept saying that we had to do these things to get ahead. All of ‘em said it. The universities, the government, the salesman. What a joke.” An expression of anguish washed over him. 

Ann’s family had farmed that section of land since the 1870s. The U.S. Cavalry drove out the Dakota Sioux, Ojibway, and Winnebago who passed through the area seasonally as game and understandings between the tribes allowed. Hardly anyone’s imagination goes back long enough to consider those original people who lived with this land, other than to paint a new-age romanticized portrait of them. But memories should extend back, because this was an inflection point. The genocide fueled another catastrophe that was unfolding unbeknown to most everyone. Even as Martin considered his options about the farm. The interplay between the native people and their land resulted in vast prairies and forests stretching from coast to coast. The original inhabitants were eliminated, it was reasoned, because America was manifestly destined to plow, cut, extract and build. In doing so, they unleashed a swirl of element number six on the periodic table. Carbon. And helping prime the pump for the climate emergency. Martin did not know anything about all that, though. He only knew that he was the third generation to own that farm. He could not tolerate the thought of being the one to lose it. 

A few weeks after Martin spoke with Dale, he’d made his decision. He got his affairs in order, fixed everything he could think to fix on the farm, mowed and trimmed every square inch and hired an extra man. Long after midnight, Martin sat in the big empty kitchen. Scotch and soda in hand. Bundle of papers laying on the enameled table. He drained the glass and looked hard at the emptiness. Ann would be okay, he reasoned. Dale was a good man. Martin forced down the lump in his throat, then stepped out into the dark of night. The crickets sang their chorus as he climbed into his cleanly-washed Chevy. He headed up to the turkey barns.  

The barn’s exhaust fans roared into the night as Martin closed the door on his truck and took out his hunting rifle. It was the same gun his dad had given him for his twentieth birthday for deer hunting. Martin sneered at the massive barns. All steel and stench.   

The turkeys clustered around the screened door in the front and stared at him. Martin sulked into the shadows between the buildings. He sat down in the fresh grass and ran his hand along the blades like he did when he was a child. He’d wanted to walk Ann down the aisle one day. He wanted her to marry Dale soon. He grimaced as he realized that he would have made a better grandfather than he did a father. It had been hard to raise Ann by himself. He loved her and was so proud, even if he’d never told her. Martin wasn’t about to let those banker vultures near their home. He pictured the scene of an auctioneer sputtering as attendees casually flashed their signs to bid on Ann’s things.

“Just do it, you coward!” he yelled out over the din of the fans. Martin focused on what he needed to save, not what he was about to destroy. He wept as the echo of the gunshot reverberated across the fields. In the morning, the man discovered the note Martin left in his dashboard. They found the scene and called the police. Then called Ann. Just as he’d been instructed to do. 

Red and the Russian

Election Day wore on and hunger gnawed at Lauren’s belly. She’d been running on adrenaline and caffeine. When the lunch rush wrapped up, she took her break. Lauren inhaled a burger and fries, with just enough time for a smoke break. 

Out back dumpsters divided each store’s boundaries in the strip-mall’s alley. The asphalt was smooth and bright black. The smell of the new pavement hung in the air. Laughter from two women a few stores down drew her attention. They looked to be having fun, but Lauren had been on overload with other humans and needed a second to herself. She fished in the pocket of her rumpled black hoodie and pulled out her cigarettes. She popped one in her mouth and dipped her hand in her pocket again, finding no lighter. “Dammit,” Lauren huffed. She turned to the women and called out as she got closer, “Can I get a light?” 

The older of the two had flaming auburn hair and a ready smile. “Sure, darlin’,” she responded. “I’m Lana, but you can call me Red, and this is Marie. I’m cell store, she’s at the taco shop. I see from your name badge that you’re Lauren. You must be a server at the restaurant?” Red watched her lighter like a hawk until it was safely back in her hand.

“Yeah, we’ve been swamped! I’m really surprised. It feels like there’s an energy in the air. But, please, don’t talk about the election!” That’s all she’d been hearing all day as the televisions blared punditry and predictions.

Red chortled, “Actually, sweetheart, we were just trying to remember the names of those Russian bears. So, kind of about the election, but not about today, if that’s any help.” 

Lauren didn’t want to be rude, though it was not any help. Can’t they talk about music or something? She sighed, “Of course, carry on. What are you talking about? Bears?”

Marie blew out her smoke as she giggled, “You know! Those bears that were behind hacking the 2016 election? They were Russian KGB-types. They hacked into the President’s opponent’s email accounts and used it against her. Then gave it to Wikileaks. We were trying to remember the name of the names the Russians used for hacking. They were silly names, I remember that.”

Lauren looked at her dwindling cigarette and wished that she hadn’t needed to use the lighter. She didn’t give a fuck about the Russian bears. 

Red shouted, and Lauren jumped. “Hot damn! I remember. It was Fancy and Cozy. I don’t recall which was which. But, that was it – Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear. They sound so sweet, don’t they?”

Red’s chest rattled as she laughed from years of tobacco use. She started coughing and took a moment to regain herself. Lauren took another drag from her cigarette, ignoring the obvious. Red wasn’t healthy, but it wasn’t only the smoking. She’d battled breast cancer on and off for nearly a decade. She lost her health insurance when she had to quit her job managing a chain of gas stations because of her illness. It had been a downhill economic spiral since. Her husband contracted COVID and never recovered fully after, there weren’t many construction jobs for him anyway. 

After Red caught her breath, she joked, “Give me another fucking cigarette, right?” Mocking herself. She seemed to have that same fatalistic attitude toward her addiction that Lauren would recognize in herself years later. After Lauren no longer felt young and invincible, but carried on with it anyway.  

Marie said, “The Russians been putin’ out those deepfakes this time around again.”

“What the hell are deepfakes?” Lauren asked. 

Marie responded, “They’re those manipulated videos and recordings that started coming out before the last presidential election. They’re people either on video or on recording saying whatever the fuck people making the video wanted them to say. They use little bits and pieces of public speeches from whoever they were targeting. If you’re only paying half attention, you just think it’s real and move on. And people ignore the fact checkers, because they’re boring and probably biased. Right? Ridiculous. You don’t have to make people believe something. You just have to make them confused.” 

Red declared, “You’ve probably seen a bunch of deepfakes and didn’t even know it. They made it real tough on that guy running against the President. The Party was riding on a mountain of cash that poured in from his patrons – all the gentlemen and ladies he gave those huge tax breaks to. The President offered a service based approach to governance.” A mischievous smile on her face she said,. “His donors serve his need for reelection money and he serves them whatever fucking piece of the American pie he has the power to give ‘em.” She paused, “You get it? He’s a service president?” 

Marie rolled her eyes. “You think you’re funny, bitch.”

Red added, “I am funny. But you know, they’ve sure kicked the hornet’s nest with those fake videos. Holy fuck. It’s scary. You know they first developed that technology for the porn industry?” 

Red broke out in uproarious laughter and slapped her side, “You bet it was, those sonsabitches. Nasty bastards.” 

Lauren was surprised to find herself delighted at the two of them. Though she wished they were sitting around a campfire instead of a dingy alley. She had probably seen deepfakes. Most likely they had talked about it on the TV when she was working. But she had seen so many political ads and memes and bullshit online that she wanted to vomit. She didn’t vote for the President, or anyone for that matter. Politics was too contentious and frustrating. One side with this. The other side with that. 

The President’s trick of obfuscation worked on Lauren and countless Americans for his election and for his re-election. He was doing the same thing for the midterms, though his tactics weren’t as effective. After George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police, protests and activism unfurled around the world and across the US. The President’s people doubled-down on their racist tactics, and large majorities of Americans finally saw that their emperor had no clothes. If it had not been for widespread voter suppression and foreign interference, the President would have lost.  

Red added, “All the President ever did was tear his opponent down. He couldn’t sell his own clown show! They’re doing the same with this election to try to take back the Senate. The Opposition controlling it is the only thing stopping him from full-on kingship. His supporters would love that. Have you seen those ridiculous memes of the President’s fat ass painted all young and hot? He’s all muscles and hero, waving a flag. It’s truly nauseating.” She pretended to gag. 

They all chuckled. The conversation was heavy, but Lauren was pleased that the mood was light. It reminded her of an easy version of her dad and sister where there were no emotional entanglements and lots of swearing. Her dad didn’t even laugh anymore. She thought about Rachel’s text and had pangs of guilt for not having responded with more. Anxiety tightened her stomach as she dreaded going back to her shift. Her manager said that the place can get rowdy during elections, depending on how the results come out. Lauren rationalized enough time for another cig. “Hey, can I see your lighter again?”

Red pulled out the yellow Bic and held it up. “See.” Her shoulders jiggled and she handed it to Lauren.

“Very funny. The people who like him think it’s cool that he’s such an asshole. It’s like instead of them trying to be better people, they have a leader who says it’s okay to act like jerks. They feel like he’s one of them. So if you criticize him, you’re criticizing them.” She was pleased with herself to have something to add to the conversation. Nearly all Lauren’s friends either followed the President or stayed quiet. Lauren wasn’t the kind to bring such things up or be able to offer much when it was. She’d built a wall in her consciousness to separate the scary part of the world from the rest. But Lauren understood how the President’s people thought. 

Red had the presence of someone who was continuously waiting to put in her opinion in any conversation. She blurted out, “Do they know that he’s shitting on gold toilets, when they can’t even pay their bills? Or he used to before he got this president gig that he didn’t even want. He was using his candidacy to promote his failing businesses. He actually said the White House was a dump when he first got elected. What a dipshit if he thinks his tacky ass fake Roman crap looks nice.” Red craned her neck at Lauren and said, “You’ve got a sweet face. I think we assumed what side you were on. Here we’ve  just been going on and on.”

Lauren raised one eyebrow, “Fuck, girl. I don’t have a side. It’s all good.” 

Red’s expression remained placid as screams echoed in her head. In these times, not choosing was making a choice. 

Marie wrapped her arms around her chest. She shivered, “I’m getting a little cold. We’ve been out here forty-five minutes already. Maybe we should go home?”

Red poked her, “You baby! It’s still like sixty degrees or something. Come on! Stay with me a while longer. Eddie’s fine and your kids are big enough to make their own damned dinner!” She assured Lauren, “We’ve always talk like this. Don’t worry. We’ve known each other forever.”

Marie’s mouth curled down in the corner as she addressed the accusation. “I know…I spoil them. The world is just so harsh, I wanted to create a bubble of good for them. I think I did go a little far, though! Eighteen year olds really shouldn’t expect dinner served to them every night.” 

Red said, “No they shouldn’t. They need to grow up. I’m sure you’ve got plenty to eat.”

Lauren reached out and gave Marie a quick squeeze on her shoulder. “I’m sure you were a good mom.”

Marie managed a weak smile. She was slender and fragile. “Thanks. Okay, let me text them. Red, you’re right. I’ve been trying to resist their bitchiness. They got themselves in a snit once when I was out and they ran out of toilet paper. I’m like, go to the store! Jeesh! I’ll catch hell for this, but that’s okay. Give me your hat, though. I’m chilly.” She pulled out her phone, wrote her kids and turned it to silent. Red threw the hat and Marie grabbed it against her stomach. “You whore,” she said. They all laughed again. Emergency vehicles blared in the distance. 

Lauren thought both politics and conspiracies were bullshit, though, her mind kept picking at what they’d said about the Russians. She ventured, “I’ll probably regret asking this…But I’ve heard a lot of conspiracy theories, but nothing about these bears. Why would they want to steal emails?”

Red coughed, “Well, hon, this isn’t a conspiracy theory. There were major reports, people testified before Congress and all that. There were lots of news stories. You must have heard, working there.”

“When was it?”

“I don’t know, about three or four years ago maybe. Hard to remember. The news is like a motherfucking firehouse coming at you constantly.”

“I didn’t work here then. I’ve been here about a year. Otherwise, I stick to entertainment news. Cat videos. Social media. That sort of thing.”

Marie said, “Cats, bears, what’s the difference!” The three of them chortled. “Here’s the deal, the President was colluding with Russia so he could get dirt on his opponents. That’s why. A lot of people suspect the President has mafia ties, too. He’s certainly friends with a lot of mobsters. And we all know what they say about the type of company people keep! He’s probably laundering their dirty money through all his properties and this German bank that’s shady as fuck. He also probably owes Russia a ton of money loaned through this bank, since no one would give him shit after his last bankruptcy. All I know for sure is that he was colluding with them then, and he’s still doing it. No matter what Herr Gropenfuror tweets out about witch hunts.”

“I still don’t get it. Why does Russia care what happens with our country?” As the sun was setting, a cool breeze kicked up. Lauren soaked it in, since she’d been broiling inside the restaurant. 

Marie and Red both started to answer at the same time, then did the “no, you go” with each other. 

Finally Red proceeded to answer, “They didn’t really care that much about who won at first, because they didn’t think the prez was going to get elected either. We were far easier to manipulate than the Russian dictator Putin could have imagined in his wildest wet dreams. He just wanted to stir up shit here and weaken the person who finally won. Russia is a country that was once a superpower, but has been fading. Putin wanted to throw his weight around on the world stage. He loves his useful idiot now, though. He’s not giving him up. Fucking Putie Pie.” Red pretended to gag. 

Marie added, “Putin is a criminal. He’s running his country like a mafia state, and he’s robbing his country blind. He wanted to make the US look shitty so that his own people didn’t have a model to strive for. You know what I mean? Like, if his people saw that the rest of the world was fucked, maybe the Russians wouldn’t care so much that their own country had gone to hell. ” 

Lauren chuckled. “But why would this guy think any of it would work?”

Red said, “Honey, they’ve been doing this for years. We go way back with the Russians. Right? The whole Cold War and all. They planted fake stories in newspapers back then too, but especially during the civil rights era. They helped us pick at our own wounds. They’d get us to hate each other a little more than we already did. They’re doing the same thing now only on a grand scale through our phones and computers. Shit we’ve never dealt with like whether or not Black lives really did matter, or whether women should be able to control their own bodies. As a country, we let this stuff fester. So, all they have to do is throw out a whole bunch of crap that’s at least half true enough of the time that they can slide in total and complete bullshit other times. They even funnel money to pay people to cozy up to politicians through American organizations like the fucking NRA. And don’t even get me started on how they’ve played guns against us! Fuck. If they tear us down by tearing us apart, Russia suddenly looks a lot more attractive and stable to Putin’s people. Russia did the same goddamned thing all over, with Brexit and screwing with elections. Putin’s a little man, who’s probably got a little dick. He wants to throw the whole world into chaos so he can fuck his big pile of money.” Their uproarious laughter echoed through the alley.  

Marie added, “Race stuff was one of his favorite things to fuck with us about. For sure. Remember all those riots that went down a few years back? They really poured fire on that. Playing both sides to get everyone everyone even more worked-up. Didn’t help that all the crazy white supremacists and the goddamned drug cartels got into the frey.  They were burning buildings and looting, blaming Black people and Antifa for all the destruction. I’m not saying there wasn’t some of that, but most of it with people out of town creating trouble. Burning those people’s communities. Pisses me off. But, the President’s supporters ate it up and blamed Black people and liberals. Such shit!”

Red threw in ominously, “ There’s so many links between the Russians, the mafia, and all these white nationalist. And our President is in the middle of all of it. Scares the shit out of me.“

“I don’t know, ladies. This is sounding crazier and crazier. If what you say is true, we don’t need conspiracy theories. This stuff is bat shit.” 

Conspiracy theories had reached their zenith at the time. Not long after this smoke the women had together, the government infiltrated news stations and paid off or intimidated journalists to do their bidding. They also planted enough false stories that no one could believe anything anymore. 

Before then, most conspiracies could be proved or disproved by a few clicks of the mouse. But instead people filled the spaces left where education and will to learn left off with whatever crazy thing that sucked them in. People who believed bonded together in an alliance that gave them a sense of knowing and insight. They had taken the proverbial red pill that gave them infinite more understanding than all the sheeple who didn’t partake. This created an in-group bond that filled a similar void in the hearts of Americans that the President himself filled for some. And that cults, gangs, hate groups, extremist religions or codependent relationships did for others. There was an emptiness in modern people’s souls that only genuine connection could fill. Though these other things could soothe wounds in the short-run, they all shared in common that they left people shattered. Even if those adherents never woke up. Where we go one, we go all – was the enticing message of the most popular online conspiracy group that supported the President. Q Anon purported that the he was fighting a global cabal of evil to save the world from pedophilia and greed. Contrary to being the raving buffoon most people saw, Q said that the President was a very stable genius who was playing three dimensional chess, while his opponents played checkers. Q’s followers believed deep down in their hearts that their President was good, decent, and competent. Despite all evidence to the contrary. 

The problem with dismissing all conspiracy theories out of hand was that some were indeed real. The Tuskegee Syphilis study. Poisoned alcohol during Prohibition. Lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction to justify war. And on… Americans knew that there was something fundamentally wrong with their country, and they turned themselves into pretzels looking for answers. And buying into conspiracy theories took much less time and personal introspection than unraveling the underlying real conspiracies that were right in front of us. These crazed ideas served to divert America’s attention from the rich, the powerful and the connected who were robbing the country blind and sending us down a rabbit hole of dictatorship. All while the planet that was burning alive. The Russians understood this phenomena and aligned their misinformation campaigns to match and amplify. Lauren had little patience for any of it. News. Fake news. Conspiracies. Politics. Since she could not distinguish among them, she ignored them all equally.      

Red took a final drag from her cigarette and blew out her smoke as she said, “The Russians did the same goddamned thing during the pandemic. Pumped out a whole fuck ton of false information from their internet troll farms they set up in these poor countries. Cheap labor, right? Assholes. They throw a bunch of stuff onto Twitter and Facebook. It’s mostly reposting fringe views to make it look like more people think that way.  So, if they’re fifty people with a hundred fake accounts each in God knows how many locations… You do the fucking math at how easy it is to get shit trending!” Red huffed. “They cover the same stuff on their propaganda cable news station and radio stations. RT and Sputnik. Even a lot of my friends watch it! Say it’s more trustworthy than the American press. Unfucking believable, is what it is. Information warfare is what they call it now. Who was it who said something about the best way to control someone is to get them to think what you want them to, then they do the work of holding themselves back all by themselves. Like those anti-vaxers who’ve been spreading measles and telling people not to get the corona vaccine. Russia fired up that shit, too!”

Lauren snorted, “What?!”

“Yep. Anyway, there’s a whole bunch of countries hacking us now, like China, North Korea and Iran. And there’s terrorists, and rich fucks and freaks doing all this same stuff with misinformation. They saw how easy it’s been, and that’s the way they meet their goals. It’s like Americans forgot that what goes on in the rest of the world comes home to us. The President didn’t care and never put resources toward fixing our vulnerabilities. Prick!” Red started laughing and hacking.

Lauren said, “Red, this is sounding crazier and crazier. I don’t know if any of what you said was true, but if it is we don’t fucking need conspiracy theories. Cuz this is batshit.” Lauren stomped out her butt and put it in her pocket. “It’s been way fun, but my manager is going to kill me if I don’t get back inside. I should have been in there ten minutes ago. If I see ya again, I’ll wander over. But, I’ll try to bring my own lighter next time.” Lauren could hear the car doors slamming outside as customers were coming. She hoped she didn’t stink of smoke too bad, but knew she did. 

Red finished her cigarette at the same time and tossed the plastic filter into the clog of trash in the bushes between the strip mall and the store next door. For all Red knew about Russian election interference, she knew little about how that country was trying to dominate the Arctic, since the sea ice was clear most of the year round now. There was fierce competition for these shipping lanes and the vast supplies of oil and gas that lay beneath. Even as Russian and other scientists were seeing methane boil out of the oceans, gas and oil companies conspired for years to deny their own data showing that the world was getting hotter. The companies quietly shored-up their oil rigs to manage the ever-raging storms that they were largely responsible for creating. They reinforced their pipelines, built roads and adapted to the realities of a hotter world. All the while lying their asses off to everyone else. They were the ones who wrote the playbook on how to execute an alternative fact campaign. The ad men and women grew richer along with their patrons as they sowed doubt in the minds of Americans as to whether climate chaos was real. And they painted a greenwashed picture of their toxic legacy. The best PR money could buy claimed uncertainty when they long realized there was none. Then they went to work for another killer – Big Tobacco. 

The cigarette manufacturers were facing their own crisis of data, one that told a clear picture of the harm. And just like big oil, they had known for years what their products were doing and said nothing. Still they rolled out their doctors and convinced a good many of the public that smoking wasn’t all that bad after all. That cigarette butt that Red threw out was emblematic of their campaign of deception. It was ingenious, as it drew people into believing that there was a cleaner way to breathe in the noxious smoke. There’s no clean smoke, whether it’s burning from the end of a cigarette, a car’s gasoline engine or a smokestack.  

As Lauren was headed to the backdoor of the restaurant, she heard Red cackle, “I hope we didn’t scare her too much.” Lauren thought that Rachel might actually have liked them. They were about the same age and seemed to share the same politics. Though, Lauren was still a bit puzzled by it all. Rachel probably couldn’t have gotten past all the smoking and free flowing profanity. Especially Red. REd and the Russians, Lauren thought. Boy, she was a firebrand! For all Rachel’s worldliness, she couldn’t get comfortable with so-called white trash. Lauren wondered if that’s how Rachel saw her. She washed up while her manager scowled. The restaurant was filling again.  

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