Early Tuesday morning, Stuart Wilson would remember, carried no hint ofanything out of the ordinary. His eyes skimmedthe cloudless sky, as blue as a dream, he thought, almost falling into a reverie. The air came with a light chill. The 29-year-oldSenatestaffer was happy to be away from D.C. politics for a week. HeambleddownChurchStreetwith his girlfriend, searching for a breakfast spot. Wall Street stragglers bustled past them, slipping into different glass and steel high rises, another long day ahead. After breakfast, around eight forty-five, what sounded like a sonic boom froze Stuart on the sidewalk. His equally mystified girlfriend whispered, “What the hell?” Moving cautiously down Church Street, their eyes fixed on a glowing orange hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center, maybefifty floorsup.Peopleweregatheringonthesidewalkinsmall,confused groups, barely talking as their necks craned up. As if from a chimney, heavy smoke was billowing from the gaping wound and sweeping leisurely over LowerManhattan. On the street level, tenants and visitors were rushing out of the tower’s revolving doors that seemed to move in fits and starts. Stuart’s mind went telegraphic. Firefighters would come any minute. No need to panic. Was this some accident, or an act of terrorism? His girlfriend tugged on his arm to leave. He realized they were too close to the building, that the fireinside could spread, or there could be another explosion, but Stuart couldn’t pry himself from the spectacle. Sheets of printer paper began to flutter out of the gash, sailing downward likepirouettingbirds.Thebelchingsmokegrewdarker.Then he witnessed something that he knew would stay with him forever. From a blown-out window, a man and woman, arms circled around each other, jumped silently to their deaths. Stuart turned his head and wondered. Were they total strangers or friends? Had they had time to call their loved ones? Were they petrified by fear, or had they somehow found peace? Stuart took his girlfriend’s hand and hurried with strangers through a gauntlet of hastily erected barricades and police officers with megaphones. In the near distance, sirens began throbbing against the sky. He listened to someone claim that a small plane had crashed deliberately into the 110-story edifice, but if it was an act of terrorism, Stuart questioned, might not a bomb or a missile have been more effective? He needed more information. As they kept running, the fear of the unknown trickled into his stomach, sour and indigestible. He was a rational man who was now freaking out. Stuart knew that disasters, the kind that history remembered, often seemed to descend out of nowhere, like an avalanche. But that was an illusion. There were usually clues and foreshadowing, plenty of them, when you examinedthingsinthe passage of time. For now, whathadoncebeenanimpregnablesteel fortressloomed, in Stuart’s imagination, like a wobbly castleof Legoblocks. As they ran, Stuart and his girlfriend helped an older couple find shelter in the lobby of an apartment building. Peeking back at the inferno, his thoughts flipped to a Gothic painting he’d seen in Europe, Massacre of the Innocents, by the sixteenth-century Dutch artist Bruegel the Elder. It was a canvas of astonishingbrutalityofyoungchildrenbeing butcheredbysoldiers.The paintinghadrepulsedhim, yet hecouldn’tfreehisgaze from it so easily.Terror had lodged in his mind like a fish hook, and maybe it could never be pulledout cleanly. The two flagged a taxi. At Grand Central Station, people were getting news from radios and flip phones. A little after nine o’clock, he learned that a second commercial jet had struck the south tower. Stuart helped his girlfriend, who lived in Philadelphia, board an Amtrak train for 30th Street Station two hours away. A separate train ferried him home to D.C. The news came in waves. Or were they rumors? People were saying things that Stuart suspected were exaggerations, or outright false. One of history’s worst enemies was fear, he had learned in graduate school, because fear allowed you to distort or rationalize almost anything. Despite wild stories to the contrary, a third plane actually slammed into the Pentagon. Still another, targeting the White House, crashed in a Pennsylvania farm field. In the end, both towers collapsed. Early estimates of the dead were reported to be 10,000, until the truth settled on a number closer to 3,000. In his Washington apartment, little could erase the memory of the couple leaping to their deaths. Stuart wondered if he had the courage to do something desperate like that. At least the man and woman had the dignity of choice, of exercising free will. “Jump before you get pushed,” Stuart remembered his father telling him, years ago. Their family had chosen to leave their foreclosed home voluntarily, before the sheriff could throw them out. Watching the news, fresh insights tumbleddownonStuart. Using passenger-filled planes to destroy the towers was far more effective than a missile or bomb., he began to see. The terrorists were playing with your head, stoking the idea that next time you would be on one of those planes. Stuart was already feeling survivor’s guilt. He listened to one idiotic commentator claim that the horrific tragedy was the fault of the dead, and those running for their lives. The real victims, the commentator added, were the perpetrators, martyrs for their religion in a war with their oppressors. In most wars,Stuartknew,moralblamewas often propaganda, and adistant second in importance tothephysical, psychological andeconomictollonbothsides. The next day, Stuart dug out a book he’d last read in high school in Des Moines,Iowa,duringa self-describedmysticphasethatstillimpacted his thinking. The book was first published in 1555 by Nostradamus, a French apothecary and self-proclaimed prophet. Stuart felt disdain for charlatans, yet something about Nostradamus’ prophecies riveted him: The great fire of London in 1666. The French Revolution of 1789. The American Civil War. The rise of Hitler. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Then, among still more tragedies, he referenced what many would come to interpretastheannihilationofthetwintowers.
“Two steel birds will fall from the sky on the Metropolis / The skywill burn at forty-five degrees latitude / Fire approaches the great new city / Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up / Within months, rivers will flow with blood / The undead will roam the earth for littletime.”
“In the City of God there will be a great thunder. Two brothers torn apart by chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb. The third big war will begin when the city is burning.”
Stuart questioned how a self-proclaimed oracle, 450 years ago, had intuitedsomuch.Luckyguesses?BecauseNostradamuswroteinflowery stanzas,hisdetractorssaidhewaspurposelyvague,andthushispredictions were a hoax. But the seer had his defenders, especially his contemporaries who wrote about his genius in mathematics and earlyastronomy. Days later, in a Washington bookstore with overcrowded shelves, Stuart found a scholarly paperback dotted withfootnotes.Nostradamus,echoedtheauthor,believedthe alignmentofstarsandplanets,includingEarth,foretoldthedistantfuture. TheauthoralsoclaimedthatNostradamushadpredictedoneevent thathedidn’tdarepublish.Hisideawasblasphemousintheeyesof the Church,and he knew that heretics had been imprisoned for lesser offenses. The censoredpredictionwaspasseddownword of mouth over the centuries. In the year 2048, Nostradamus claimed, a string of politicalassassinations would push the world toward chaos, godlessness, and possible extinction. People would be imprisoned by their own fears, and their helplessness would allow others to strip them of their humanity. Were prophecies, Stuart wondered, any more reliable than wanton rumors? Throughout history, both attracted the political fringes. He had doubts about the 2048 prediction, especially the precise year, but it made him think about the possibility of a future of manipulated emotions. He began to see his PTSD as more than deep-seated anxiety; it was perhaps a harbinger of a very nasty world to come. Terrorism might take a break now and then, but it would only grow more sophisticated, and perhaps become a new way of waging war. Rather than keep score by wiping you off the face of the planet, your enemy would brainwash you to become one of them. Monthslater,Stuart movedfromD.C.,determinednevertoliveagain inadenselypopulatedcity. The aftershocksof vulnerability andgriefseemed as numbing as theattacksthemselves. Pursuing a career in politics began to lose its allure for him. Over coffee, unfolding a map, Stuart stabbed his finger at a small blue dot in the Midwest. He had never heard of Hawthorn, Indiana, but he guessed it was quiet and out of the way, and insulated from the dreams of unpredictable fanatics.
Over breakfast, Matthew Navarro’s mother recited the day’s headlines from her tablet. It was Hazel’s morning ritual. “Automation continues to wipe out American jobs. Medicare and SocialSecuritypaymentscutbyanotherfivepercent.Twenty-thirdcountry joins international ’nuclear club.’ Fire twisters ravage Australiaagain…” Sometimes, the high school senior thought, his mom’s despair seemed bottomless. He understood the importance of theheadlines,and sympathizedwiththose caught up in a world of chronic uncertainty, but mostly he worried for his mom. Was her fixation going to accomplish anything, other than make her more anxious? Something was always exploding somewhere on the planet, he had told her. It was already the fall of 2030—the Arctic was gone; so was most of the Amazon rain forest; lowland populations everywhere were fleeing to higher ground to rebuild their cities. On the chaos spectrum, things had been haywire since the day he was born, if not well before. You had little control over the roller-coaster of seemingly man-made disasters, Matthew conceded,but how you lived your life in times of danger was a choice. “Mom, it’s Wednesday,” he said mindfully, leaving a hundred dollar bill on the kitchen table. “Mani-pedi appointment, right?” “I don’t need that much money, sweetie. God provides.” His lips curled upward in resignation. God, as best Matthew knew, was Hazel’s monthly government assistance check. He didn’t mind that he had to supplement it with his own money. “Treat yourself to something afterwards, mom. You love chocolate. Who doesn’t?” “You’re the best thing in my life, better than chocolate!” Afrosted blonde with large, red-framed glasses, Hazel, in addition to fretting abouttheworld,enjoyedbridge, reading romance novels, and popping Hershey’s kisses in her mouth in lieu of cigarettes. Matthew told her she was going to live forever. “Who wants to live forever?” she replied, like immortality might be overrated. I do, Matthew thought, half-seriously. He was careful about whathesaidaroundhis mother,and atschool.Therewerepartsof his life that he knew were best kept a secret. He always walked the mile from their apartment to Hawthorn’s only high school. There, he lingered by the flagpole, expecting to meet Nathan. Expecting, he thought, gazing around, but not counting on it. “Nathan time,” as Matthew described the clock in his best friend’s head, rarely coincided with anyone’s watch or smart phone. He was a strident, often annoying computer geek, but Matthew knew he could never get mad atNathan. They had too much history together. The rope of the flag snapped repetitively against its pole as gusts of wind descended. Matthew hurried alone to first period. His mind wandered to football, where he always ignored crazy weather like this, the pain in his hip or knee, overdue homework, girls, and even the latest election he was running in. Once in his endorphin zone, he felt like a superhero, able topenetratedefensivelines orpass60yardsforatouchdown.Cheering fromthebleacherswassometimesdeafening.Ifthecrowdwastooquiet, he thought, that meant he wasn’t trying hardenough. Football had begun for Matthew in seventh grade. His dad attended every game, not so much from a parent’s love for his child or even a feeling of obligation, Matthew later figured, but a bond with his own athletic youth. Lettering in every major sport at Hawthorn High, his dad’s achievementsmade the sports section of multiple news outlets. Loyalty to your school, Frank Navarro liked to say so often that Matthew had tuned out the message, was everything. Otherwise, the car mechanic was a quiet man, a ghost who slipped in and out of rooms without seeming to use thedoor. As Matthew was entering eighth grade, his father began talking about needing some “personal time.” One Saturday morning, he departed with a large suitcase on a bus for Mexico, promising Hazel and Matthew to return soon. Matthew didn’t get it. Was his dad possibly mad at him or Hazel? Was there something sketchy going on in Mexico? Had helosthismind?OnceinMexicoCity, hissocialmediaphotosshowed him at famous landmarks, sometimes with women friends he said he had made along the way. Hazel’s mood drifted from befuddlement to sadness to slow-boiling anger. She had run through the same emotions years earlier, when her oldest son, Jacob, Matthew’s brother, packed a suitcase and left home after he turned 18. “Trying to escape my shadow of loneliness,” he had ended his farewell letter to Matthew. Jacob was never good at looking anyone in the eye, Matthew thought, but he was pretty honest when putting words on paper. His sympathy for his brother didn’t slake his anger at Jacob’s secrecy. Matthew had believed the two were a lot closer than they apparently were. When Frank didn’t return after a month, texting that his trip to Mexico would be extended, Hazel said the writing was on the wall. Like oldest son, like father, she observed. She compared her husband to an old sweater with holes in it, and declared she had no use for his deceit. Matthew, thirteen years old at the time, promised to always be there for his mom. He understood her emotions and she understood his. They needed to think of themselves as survivors now, he said, and everything would work out. A year or so later, as a freshman quarterback at Hawthorn High, he led the Bulldogs to a perfect season, a feat unmatched by the school in a decade. Even a bigger miracle, the team won the state championship. When Matthew was named an “Underclass All-American,” national media picked up on the freshman phenom. In Indiana, people fawned over their homegrown sports talent. Matthew was called by some a celebrity, a cliché bandied about universally, but what did it mean? How, exactly, did a star behave? There were so many different expectations for him that Matthew had no clear idea. If his father had found out about his successes, Matthew figured, Frank would have given him some advice on the subject. But Frank failed to be in touch, and when Matthew tried to reach him, his emails bounced back with the deadest of echoes.
The day passed quickly. By sixth period, the winds had become sharp and stinging, and football practice was called off. Disappointed, Matthew knew he at least had time to rendezvous with Nathan. Knowing the importance of keeping their strategy a secret, they spoke quietly in an uncrowded café on Oak Street, referencing notes on their laptops about the upcoming election. Everything was falling in line, promised Nathan. As Matthew’s chief of staff and campaign manager, running a political team of 14, he made sure everybody did their job. In about 35 days, Nathan predicted, Matthew wouldbethenewstudentbodypresident,andhissocialmediafollowing wouldgrowfasterthanaswarmofarmyants. Matthew didn’t start home until dusk, his backpack bouncing between his shoulder blades. With the wind ebbing, he glided over the sidewalk,pretendinghewasinvisible,thathecouldseeeveryonebutnoone could see him. Passing a gas station, he did a double take at a gangly, dark-skinned man, his curly hair turning salt-and-pepper. He was putting gas in a beat-up Ford while talking to a woman in the front seat. Matthew couldn’t peel his eyesaway. No, he finally acknowledged, he was wrong. The man at pump seven had a different voice from his father. His dad was probably still in Mexico, no longer communicating with anyone in Hawthorn, perhaps living on the streets, or maybe finding good work and remaking his life. At times Matthew felt hurt by his vanishing father, but he also had sympathy for the man who felt overlooked if not cheated by life. Of course, Matthew realized, he wouldn’t completely understand himself if he couldn’t begin to solve the puzzle of his estranged father.
A little after three o’clock, Brit Kitridge opened an app on her watch and punched in the new code for her locker: 1836, the year of the Battle of the Alamo. Only last week, her code had been 1964, a landmark year for civil rights. Every day, students had to march through metal detectors and past uniformed guards, and fortunately there hadn’t been serious campus violence in a decade, a small miracle considering that in Indiana almost every family owned a firearm or two. However, there was zero protection from kids spying over your shoulder, gazing covetously into your locker. One freshman’s locker had been broken into three times, as if it was personal. Other kids found their jewelry, watches, phones, or even textbooks missing. God forbid if something sensitive was stolen because anyone could be buried under a mountain of gossip. Lots of parents, Brit’s included, referred to the petty lawlessness at Hawthorn High as an epidemic. Perhaps, Brit considered, but it was no different from othercitiesthatkeptslashingbudgetsforschools,libraries,policeandfire departments. Despite the rising cost of living, Hawthorn High teachers got paid ten percent less than what they’d made three years ago. While they kept their focus on teaching, Brit had watched videos of other faculties striking overteachingjobsbeingreplaced by computer networks. Brit couldn’t imagine getting inspired by a screen with high-tech imagery and monotonousvoice-overs. It didn’t cut it for her. Behind Brit,kids stampeded off to sports, band practice, chess club, and an advanced computer science lab, all thankfully spared from budgetcuts.Many kids hadtheirpodsin,listeningtoplaylistsorpodcasts, barelylookingwheretheyweregoing.Britstayedclosetoherlocker,like a pedestrian hugging acurb. After the human train had moved on, she gazed at a near-empty hallway, imagining that the building itself was catching its breath. The school’s motto was in large gold letters on the wall across from the administration offices.
HAWTHORN HIGH BULLDOGS OUR TRADITION, TEAMWORK OUR LEGACY, EXCELLENCE
ThewordshadimpressedBritfromthedayshe’dfirst visitedthe school with her parents. Underneath the motto, trophy cases in need of a coatofstaingavewitnesstoyearsofathleticachievement,includingthe Matthew Navarro-led football state championship of 2027. There was also a photo gallery of alumni dating from well over a hundred years—congressmen, generals, corporate CEOs, authors, actors, professional athletes, and an astronaut who’d just been chosen for America’smaiden flight to Mars. An amazing history of success, Brit acknowledged, for a city that had shrunk over the years into an urban outpost surrounded by patches of farmland. One hundred and eighty miles from Bloomington, Hawthorn was once three-quarters white. After World War II, as jobs and small factories sprung up, the demographic pie added slices of blacks, Latinos, and immigrants from EasternEurope. Around 1990, with jobs drying up due to international trading trends, Hawthorn’s population began tilting the other way. Other things had changed, too, Brit thought. It felt like half of Hawthorn, even half the country, was afraid of something you couldn’t always put your finger on. It was more than the fear of losing your job or putting food on the table. Somewhere in your psyche was an indestructible seed of pessimism. Understanding its long-term consequences was like reading a rumbling sky: You knew it was going to rain and rain hard. You just didn’tknowwhere, when, andforhowlong. Catching her reflection in the trophy glass, Brit pushed strands of hair behind her ears. Until last year, she’d always had a crop cut. Friends, even strangers,hadcommentedonhowmuchsheresembledacertainteenage actress with her five-foot-six body, bouncy ash-blonde hair, and eyes the color of a shiny riverbed stone. She had a pensivemouth, straight as a ruler, unless,whenshe wasin good spirits,it formed a contented smile. One night, looking in her mirror, a switch flipped. Cute was for middle school. She would let her hair grow to below her shoulders and return to being a brunette. As for tattoos, piercings, and fluorescent hair, they had never been her thing. Some kids considered her dull, but she simply chose not to put her private life on social media. An interior smile broke out whenever she THOUGHT OF the Oscar Wilde quote, “Be yourself. Everyone else is alreadytaken.” Brit coaxed a half-dozen rolled-up campaign posters from her locker, unveiling the six-foot-three, broad-shouldered Matthew Navarro with his unruffled smile and searching brown eyes. Most kids running for office used Canva Pro, an inexpensive design tool, to create their posters. The sharp quality of Matthew’s image and the art design didn’t come from an inexpensive app. He was dressed in a pinstriped navy suit and a patterned tie, arms folded over his chest and his thick, black hair parted stylishly down the middle. Of mixed race, his skin was the color of honey. He had won a squeaker of an election for ninth-grade president, and then crushed the competitioninsophomoreandjuniorclasspresidentraces. Hischoicebetweenrunningforseniorclasspresidentorstudentbody president had been a no brainer. Brit thought, why settle forsilverifyoucouldwingold?Onthesocialladderofstonertostraight arrow, Brit had seen a photo of Matthew from eighth grade, wearing a Boy Scout uniform. Though they attended the same middle school, she hadn’t known he was in the scouts. His infectious smile showeda mixofhumilityandambition, what some people might expect of a Boy Scout. Brit couldn’t forget her own stab at running for office, a year before Matthew got into politics. She had announced her bid for eighth-grade treasurer believing that a math whiz like her had the right skills to win. Most kids considered Brit a play-it-safe brainiac who never got into trouble, never did anything controversial. Wasn’t that a good thing, Brit asked her mom. She was a trustworthy choice for someone to watch over class budgets. Yet her motive for running ran much deeper. Steeping herself in books on American history, she had been inspired by a world of fluttering flags, stirring speeches, and fighting for a righteous cause. She began fantasizing about standing behind a lectern in a school auditorium, leading the whole school in the Pledge of Allegiance, the first draft of which, she had learned, had beenwritten by a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy. History was made of details as myriad as stars in the Milky Way. It gave Brit a context to understand the world. Eventually, she coined a phrase for her campaign—“the astronomy of fate.” As clever as she found her words, students said they didn’t know what the expression meant. She wasn’t sure either, but she thought the phrase rocked. As the campaign unfolded, Britwentoutofherwaytosaypositivethings about her competition, whileignoring any putdowns. She didn’t have many friends, but all of them predicted she wouldwin. When results appeared on the school website, she had finished last. She bounced back emotionally, but considered how badly she had misjudged her chances. Friends hadsimply told her what she wanted to hear. It also struck her that her personality sucked and competence wasn’t the only criterion for winning. Why couldn’t she have been born with a 24/7 smile, or at least a 12/5? What othertalentsdidshelackinvoters’eyes? It was all a confusing blur. Forherownsanity,she took a permanent break from running for office. Fouryearslater,as she watched the Washington, D.C. world of powerandinfluencegrowmorecomplex, Brit changed her mind. She had stopped Matthew a few days after their senior year began, asking if he might need another hand on Team Matthew. The two were hardly friends but they weren’t exactly strangers. There was the matter of a short-lived romance—in Matthew’s eyes, more of a hook-up, she imagined—toward the end of their sophomore year. She had fallen hard for Matthew, giving up her virginity for him, before discovering there were other girls he was seeing too. Furious, she dropped the relationship in a hot minute, but later wondered if feelings of jealousy and betrayal were a good enough excuse for running from intimacy. Was she drawn to Matthew for other reasons besides his leadership and confidence, and if so, why didn’t she hang around and explore those feelings with him? Or was the problem with Matthew? Some girls called him a commitment-phobe; to others he was just a player. When Brit confided everything to her parents, they spared her the lecture that she was too young for a serious relationship, instead urging her to move on, to grow emotionally and intellectually in otherways.Therightrelationshipwouldcomealongattherighttime,her dadsaid. Brit’s request seemed to catch Matthew off guard. Maybe he was thinking that she had no sphere of influence, just a few close friends, and zero political experience at Hawthorn High. Brit avoided looking too closely into his eyes, flashing back to their sophomore year romance. She hoped Matthew would barely remember their relationship. Politics was supposed to be all business. Matthew finally spoke, “Brit, everyone knows how bright you are. What other ways can you be an asset for us?” She rattled off her virtues—tireless worker, team player, quick thinker, and problem solver. Her mom might have encouraged her to say more but italreadyfeltlikeshewasbragging. MatthewlistenedcarefullyuntilBritwatchedhisfriends come over and pullhim away. Sherecognized the faces of Matthew’steammates,asusuallookingself-absorbedandpurposeful, and ignoring an outsider like her. Matthew’s parting words to Brit were that Nathan would be in touch with her. She feared not making the cut. Nathan was a moody kid who lived day and night in front of a computer, and had managed all of Matthew’s campaigns. She only knew him by reputation. Supposedly, he had twenty-one folders on his phone, each brimming with apps. Nathan knew a lot about branding—images, slogans, blogs, and catchy sound bites that dominated internet feeds—so maybe she could learn a lot from him. The problem was he had never gone out of his way to say hello to her, even when she had reflexively smiled at him on occasion. That night, however, a text from Nathan confirmed that Matthewhadcreated aspaceforBrit.She’dbenumber fifteenontheteam,ifshewaswillingto settleforgruntworkandattendearlymorningmeetings.Brit texted backthatshedidn’tmindbeingthelowestpersononthetotempole.She explainedshewasjoiningtheteamtolearnpoliticsfromthegroundup. Sofar,allshehaddonewas pass out“Vote for Matthew”buttons,put up posters, and bring boxes of donuts to TM meetings. Thecool stuff,like strategy and marketing, was orchestrated by Nathan. Ifsheworked hard, she reasoned, her responsibilities would increase, especiallyafter Matthew was elected. Taping posters to walls wasold-fashionedbut itreflectedMatthew’shomespunstyle.Phraseslike“Trust the leader you know!” “Meet your next student body president!” and“Winnerskeep winning!”weretossedaroundlikeFrisbeesatthe park.Britthoughtit wasanoverloadofinfo—toomanyexclamationpoints, and too manysocialmediasymbolscrammedatthebottom.Matthew’s poster, when she studied it, was trying too hard. Both rows of his teeth were exposed, like in atoothpastead. “Come on, Brit, stop being critical. You’re hardly theexpert,”she chided herself out loud.Shetoreoffpiecesoftapewithherteethasshedashed around campus, giving herself fifteen minutes to finish her job.Thatwould allow seven minutes to catch a city bus home,andstill havetimeforhomeworkbeforedinner.Being responsible and efficient gave her deep satisfaction. Her dad quipped that in a world moving at lightning speed, therewasnolostandfound for wasted minutes. 3
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