What stories do you tell yourself, and why?
by P. Orin Zack
Bookkeeping. Endless columns of numbers that never add up right. It wasn’t the first time she’d had the dream, either. Barbara McNair switched on her bedside lamp and stacked the pillows behind her. Five-thirty. A light breeze ruffled the curtain, chasing her cat from ledge to bed. She was too keyed up to get back to sleep, and it was still too early to bother getting ready for work.
“I wonder whose dream that was, Merlin?” she asked the cat, now a furry line across the foot of the bed. “Well, at least I didn’t dream I was in Chicago last month.” She leaned over to pet him, and turned her head to better hear his purr.
It had been only three weeks since suicide bombers laid waste to a good size chunk of the Chicago waterfront with a coordinated blast of suitcase nukes. The government said there had been three bombs. One was placed near the captured WWII German submarine U-505 at the Museum of Science and Industry, a second was brought into the underground mall of Illinois Center, and the third was set off at the old water tower on Michigan Avenue.
The newly elected president immediately interrupted all broadcast and cable networks to alert the public and institute a nationwide state of emergency. After explaining what was going to happen and why, he used the executive powers acquired by previous administrations to declare martial law and take control of all levels of government. He didn’t want people to panic, and that seemed the best way to manage the situation. A week later, with the shock abated through the assistance of the various networks, control was returned to state and local governments, and martial law was lifted, albeit with some new security measures.
What didn’t return was normalcy. The disruptions centered in Chicago rippled across the country in so many ways the news services had given up trying to track them. Even seemingly inconsequential details, like the destruction of the lock on the Chicago River, had far-ranging effects. The few feet of Lake Michigan that sped down the Mississippi tore through dozens of flood control safeguards on the way to New Orleans. The Big Easy would have been destroyed by Old Man River a second time if the Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t dug him a channel to Mobile back in the 80’s.
Barbara didn’t have any family in Chicago, but the headquarters of many of her employer’s corporate customers were there, and that put a big crimp in the plans of an awful lot of people. Her company tried to help out in the way that made the most sense, running weather projections for the refugee centers to help coordinate the flow of supplies, and social projections to gauge the wisdom of suggestions made by congress and various experts about how to adapt.
For the past week, she’d been interviewing people, gathering raw data for the social projections. She had another full day of it ahead of her, the prospect of which had kept her tossing much of the night. Busying herself with multiplayer Internet games until it was late enough to start breakfast, she worked up the nerve to report for work.
Her first appointment of the day, a thirtyish guy with a decided preference for Navajo jewelry, was already waiting when she pulled her hybrid into the parking lot at Calfran Metrics. She poured coffee for the two of them, and invited him into the conference room.
“Thanks,” he said, taking the company mug. “This may take a while.”
Barbara stirred in some creamer. “Oh? Why’s that, Mr. Rudd?”
He took a breath and glanced down at his hands. “Well, they asked me here to tell you about my cousin Leo, who was among those killed in Chicago. Problem is, I’ve never met him. In fact, I only first heard about him recently.”
“Then what’s the problem? We ought to get through this in minutes.”
“It’s not that simple. As I understand it, your company is taking depositions from the relatives of people killed in Chicago. They’re trying to characterize the effect of that loss on various economic and social segments of the population.”
She shrugged. “So? If you don’t know much about him, this shouldn’t take too long.”
Rudd took a slow sip of coffee before speaking. “So this: I don’t believe he exists.”
“I don’t believe he exists. I think someone invented him.”
“Why do you say that?”
“A number of reasons. For one thing, nobody bothered reporting his death to the Social Security Administration. He’s not in the Death Index. For another—.”
She held up her hand. “Hold on. What?”
“The Social Security Death Index. Whenever someone dies, it’s got to be reported to the SSA. If it’s not, the ID’s ripe for identity theft.”
“But you’re his only next of kin. You’d have to do that yourself.”
He jiggled his cup. “Exactly. But I can’t. I have no reason to believe that he even exists. I’d never heard of him until last month. Then I get this email from Homeland Security telling me that my mother had a brother she never told me about, and that he had a son who was in the Loop that day. Why should I believe it?”
Barbara stirred her coffee nervously, then took a drink. “Let me tell you a story. I lived in New York on 9/11. I wasn’t downtown that morning, but I saw it all on TV, and walked through the dust myself afterwards.” She blinked rapidly, and caught her breath. “I was an only child, and both my parents are dead. They were killed that day. One of them worked in each of the towers, and it was my duty to make sure that they were not forgotten, just like it’s yours to report your cousin’s ID.”
Rudd slid his chair back. “Don’t you threaten me. I have no intention of being manipulated by someone’s psyop. After all this time, we STILL don’t know who was really behind the destruction of the World Trade Center, and there are plenty of questions hanging about Chicago, too.”
She motioned for calm. “Psyop? What makes you think there’s some kind of psychological operation going on?”
He chuckled humorlessly. “Simple. I know you. I know that your name is not really Barbara McNair. I know that you weren’t an only child, and that your parents weren’t killed by fictional terrorists on faked video of nonexistent jets.”
“What?” She shook a fist at him. “How dare you! How dare you accuse me of lying. How dare you insult my parents. Thousands of people died that day. Do you think someone made all of them up, too? And what do you mean, I’m not really Barbara McNair? Give me one good reason to not call security and have you thrown out right this minute.”
“I’ll give you two. One: I’m your brother. And two: you were involved in setting up the hit on Chicago.”
Barbara stood so forcefully her chair rolled into the wall. “You’re my brother? I have no brother. I’m an only child, remember?”
“Sorry sis. I know better. They may have brainwashed or hypnotized you, but I doubt they fixed the eardrum I broke when we were kids.”
“What are you, a stalker?”
“I’m your brother. It took me quite a while to track you down, too. This company you work for is deeply involved in the cover-up. Both of them. They couldn’t afford to risk you spilling the beans. After all, it was your access to the financials that enabled them to cover the payoffs. That’s why they brainwashed you, changed your name, gave you a new identity.”
She snorted. “Now I know you’re nuts. I can’t stand book-keeping. I even have nightmares about it. Now get out of here.” She opened the door. “Say one more thing and I press charges.”
He eyed her for a moment, then rose and strode into the hallway.
She watched him turn the corner near the elevator before closing the door. Still gripping the handle, she turned around and leaned heavily against it. “This was supposed to be an easy job,” she told herself, “a walk in the park. I don’t know. Some days I just wish I were a cat.”
There was time before her next appointment, and the conference room was hers for the day, so she fell into one of the big chairs by the window and dozed off. Startled awake a short time later by a noise in the hallway, she wondered briefly why Merlin was playing with the turquoise stone in that guy’s ring, then checked her watch and headed to the waiting room to collect her next interviewee.
The rest of the day was a blur. Barbara drifted through it on automatic. Talking to people, writing reports, even making small talk over lunch. Still, part of her just couldn’t let go, kept repeating his words over and over. ‘I’m your brother. I’m your brother.’ He seemed so certain. It was almost scary.
That night, she found herself wandering back into that pit of confusion while watching Merlin lick a treat from the spoon she held out to him. “What if he’s right?” she asked the cat. “Could he really be my brother? But that’s crazy. If he was, what happened to our folks?”
She turned on the news to get her mind on something else. Something real. The President had ordered that Chicago be evacuated to protect people from the radiation, and the media had launched into an extended eulogy for the city. The talking heads blathered on about how critical Chicago had been to various aspects of the economy, to politics, and to social causes. They pulled up old footage now and then to make some point or other. The Columbian Exposition. Al Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Jane Addams’ Hull House. The first Mayor Daley’s political machine. The legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Chicago fire. Trouble at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Chicago 7. And on and on. But the stories they told were all bits of a larger tapestry, too. The Windy City was part of a national mythos, a story we told ourselves about us.
And that brought her back to the stories we tell about ourselves, and to her confrontation with Rudd. She switched off the TV and climbed into bed. “What if he was right?” She wondered. “What if my memories were planted? But that’s impossible. All those people in New York. Faked video? Who would do such a thing? And Chicago. They blew up the city, made it a dead zone. For what? How would they benefit… whoever they were?”
Merlin joined her on the bed, and rolled over for a belly rub. She reached out, without thinking, to stroke him. Then she caught herself, and looked at her hand. “You’re really something, Merlin. All you are is a cat, and somehow you manage to get me to do what you want. Without so much as a word. Some kind of feline psyop, I suppose. What could you do if you could speak?”
Merlin looked up at her and meowed.
Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack