you are made free
It started with the toast, and then my brother, of course, but first the toast. I tried to put them in, and they just wouldn’t fit in the machine. The machine wasn’t to blame, you know, it’s just a toaster. So I went to the bakery and I asked them about it. It’s a nice bakery, you have to pay a little extra, but I have the money and why shouldn’t I eat nice bread? That’s what I say when my brother complains. Why shouldn’t I have nice things, Leon? It’s a good argument.
Anyways, at the bakery they said it wasn’t their fault, the middle slices of sourdough get big, maybe try the smaller slices on either end? I don’t like the smaller slices. When she wasn’t looking I dropped some Canadian dimes into the tip jar, and she’s probably emptying the jar right now and discovering that all the coins she thought were real money are just Canadian, and I hope it ruins her day. When she was looking I smiled one of those just-between-us-girls smiles that people do on TV, because I thought she might give me a refund for my defective sourdough, but she just smiled back in the same way, even though there was nothing just-between-us-girls, and she said that it wasn’t her job to make bread according to my individual toaster’s specifications. So I gave her fake money, and I hope it ruins her day.
That’s the first thing, and it led to the second thing, which is my brother, who was sitting on my doorstep when I got home.
“Hey sis,” he said.
I got worried, because he’d just been sitting there looking like he looks, with that ratty backpack and jacket and everything as usual, and nobody had cared enough to call the police. That shows you what kind of neighbors people are.
“You can’t come inside, Leon,” I said.
He shook his head and pitched his big heavy hobo bag up onto his shoulder. “Susan.”
“It’s my gold. Dad left it for me because you’re crazy.” I tried to put my hands on my hips while I said this, but I’m not really built for intimidating matriarchal authority.
He just waved his arms in the way that he does and waited for me to open up the door, then he came in behind me even though I said he couldn’t come in. Leon has problems with property like that.
“You look like a hobo, Leon,” I said, and then I told him about my bread problems and he took the other person’s side like he always does, even though he doesn’t like the expensive bread.
He put his bag down on the tile, which was good because I could mop there later. “These are the things you worry about?” he said.
I turned on the TV and we fought over what to watch at first, and then when Leon couldn’t win he just asked me to turn it off, but I found a true crime show instead.
“Do you still have the gold?” he asked, and I pretended not to listen. A voice on the television said, “You just peeled the skin off the skull and disposed of the bone and other material that was in the head, is that it?”
“That’s right,” another voice replied.
“The preparation of the flesh?”
“In some of that skin, probably – you know, from that one woman – I probably put some oil on possibly, that’s all, to keep it soft, you know.”
“What kind of oil?”
I turned to Leon. “Isn’t that terrible?”
Leon was taking things out of his bag. “Don’t pretend like you didn’t hear me.”
“In removing the head, did you first cut through and then snap the bone?” the TV asked.
“I guess that would be snapping,” the TV replied.
I wasn’t happy with Leon for taking his stuff out of his bag, whatever it was. Maybe clothes. It better not be clothes.
“Would you work the head back and forth in the same fashion as you would when you attempt to break a piece of wire in two?”
“That’s a good description of it. I never took any saw to the cemetery.”
I turned around. “Leon, this is terrible, did you hear? It’s terrible.”
“You turned it on,” he replied, and he was putting things from his bag onto my counter.
I turned off the TV and walked over to tell him not to do that, but then I saw that it wasn’t clothes or anything, it was lines and lines of toy soldiers.
“These are for you,” he said.
The soldiers were arranged in columns of five. “I spent a little of the gold and I keep some here and the rest I put into the bank, but in the way that they keep it as gold.”
“Dad wouldn’t like that.” Leon sat on one of the stools, plucking more soldiers from the crater of his palm.
“I know, and, when I spent it I was just seeing if I could, if anyone would take gold. No one had heard of Liberty Dollars before, but a jeweler agreed to trade me a gold necklace for some of the coins.”
“Gold for gold.”
He finished with the soldiers and walked over to the couch and sat. “You use a lot of chemicals on your fabric,” he said. Then he turned the TV back on and started watching a show about how bad the economy was. “Dad would have loved this,” he motioned toward the screen.
I sat down next to him, but the show was boring. “I don’t know what to do with the gold. Should I invest?”
“No,” he rolled his eyes.
“Dad would hate that, huh?” I joked.
Leon sighed and muted the TV. “Listen. I don’t want the gold if that’s what you think, I just want to make sure you’re okay with it, because I know when you have things you turn them into devices to amplify your suffering and to cause damage to innocents.”
“I’m happy, Leon.”
On the screen there were brightly colored graphs showing different kinds of decline.
“In America, happiness is the highest echelon of suffering.”
He grabbed a book off the end-table. “This was one of dad’s. Are you reading it?”
On the front there was a small gray alien, the kind you mostly see everywhere, and behind him a kaleidoscope of colors and the words “You Are Made Free.” He was wounded and he had his arms open. “It’s good,” I said. “Did you know that the Egyptians knew about aliens?”
“Bullshit,” Leon tossed the book onto the cushion of the couch that was between his cushion and my cushion. “Just reactionary New Age sophistry. Unlocking forgotten ancient wisdom, life energy stored in crystals, sci-fi reaffirmations of Christianity.”
“I like it, it makes me feel good about myself.”
“Exactly, because it doesn’t make you think about yourself.”
Leon always made me feel bad. “Leon, you always make me feel bad.”
He stared silently at the TV for a while. There were a lot of numbers and pictures of different people that ran banks. “Remember when we were living in Arizona and Dad took us out to watch for UFOs and as we were waiting he’d tell us about the Federal Reserve and how the whole world was going to end?” “But we were going to survive.”
“Because dad had his gold, and plenty of food and water buried in the desert.” Leon changed the channel. A woman on a commercial was buried in an avalanche of clean, fresh-smelling clothes, and the company’s mascot slid down the clothes afterwards. I was worried for the woman who had been buried, because it must be just as terrible to be trapped under hundreds of feet of fabric as it would to be in a real avalanche. “He was right about some of that stuff, you know,” Leon continued. “He just never carried it to its logical conclusion.” At the end of the commercial everything was okay, because the woman had dug her way out of death casually, like it wasn’t hard at all, and now she was smiling with the mascot.
“Sometimes there were UFOs,” I mumbled, thinking of the peaking lights at the edge of the desert. Everybody had been quiet as we watched them, like they were animals we could scare away, and I think we would have if we had moved.
“Yeah,” Leon said quietly.
The way that Dad would talk about the central bankers made me think that they were to blame for there not being any UFOs most nights. And when there were UFOs, I remember the cold feeling of the car underneath us, like the metal was breathing on me.
“I need to go to the store,” I told Leon.
He got up and looked inside the fridge and the cabinets, which I didn’t want him to do. “These are completely full. Most of this looks like you just opened it and didn’t eat any, you just broke the freshness seals. Do you do this to everything?”
— At the store I didn’t know exactly what I wanted except for one thing, so I grabbed different diet foods – things that told me they were good for me and for other people, packaged mostly in light, non-threatening colors. Leon made fun of the organic produce, but I didn’t listen. Over the intercom an electronic voice called for help in the front.
The store seemed to make one big sound all around me, and I couldn’t hear anything in it. A child threw a bright rubber ball over the tall shelves and there was a pause and then the ball was thrown back, presumably by another child in the neighboring aisle. I wondered if they knew each other or if they were just strangers who had figured out that if you threw the bright red ball over the jars of spaghetti sauce at the top of the shelf it would come soaring back to you always.
“You’re being taken apart right now,” Leon said.
“I’m buying things.”
He hoisted a sack of Skittles up by its corner and rattled the candies inside. “There are glowing rays of color being cast through your body and they knock off small chunks of you and carry them away to the place where the prism spools itself into a single, white light.”
I put some of the Skittles into my cart. Around me the noise flexed itself, and I suspected that Leon could hear it too, only differently, maybe in manageable parts, rather than as one big thing.
“You have to get rid of that gold, Susan.” He fumbled with the straps of his bag, which he had brought with him. “It has shackled you to something monstrous.”
“I’m not like Dad,” I mumbled.
I remembered how on Saturdays he would use the garage for his “safety meetings,” which meant mostly his Liberty Dollar friends and the ex-cons that worked for the furniture moving company all in small metal folding chairs talking about the Constitution. But sometimes they exchanged UFO stories too, and, when they did, I would come in to listen. There was one ex-con who would cry every time he told his, at the part where he was trying to tell how the lights looked, how when you saw them you were inside them for a second but how it was also like the lights were kind of in the middle of your eyeball, so you were seeing it backward as it shot out of you. And all the time he would be crying more and more until it became impossible to hear the rest of his story and soon it was just this big tattooed ex-con sobbing into the empty air of our garage, and the other grown men listening with lowered heads.
“What the gold does is create a dissonance. You start to hear the noise crowding in but you’re tethered, you can’t get closer or farther away.”
I grabbed a toaster off the shelf and put it in my cart. The box was blue and it said that the toaster was good, it had specific settings and many different slots for toast, in case I needed a lot of things toasted simultaneously.
“I don’t like my old toaster.”
Leon jabbed the box with his finger. “You can’t put those middle pieces of sourdough in here either, they won’t fit.”
“It’s not the machine’s fault, Leon.”
When we got in line there was a girl thumbing a text message into her cell phone and Leon created a socially awkward situation by asking her who she was texting. Her eyes were like shiny puddles. I felt bad for her because Leon must have seemed like a migrant or a predator or something, and she seemed surprised at first but then there was something else, maybe in the way he had asked and she just told him, like it was an okay thing to tell a stranger who you were messaging.
She said, “It’s my friend in Hawaii. She lives on one of the smaller islands and she says that it’s beautiful, but she’s also lonely.”
Leon nodded. The cashiers slid people’s things across the scanners in the forceful manner that I had come to expect. They probably had special muscles just for that motion. Leon told the girl to tell her friend that she was not alone, that nobody is alone. I knew that if the cashiers had handled my things too tenderly I would be offended, because my things should be special for me only and to everyone else they should just look like things.
“I know you see it,” Leon said to me. “The ruthlessness. Look at the weight of it in the plastic, listen to the noise of the scanner, the shivering of the bags as they swallow that for which they hunger.”
I paid the person I was supposed to pay and we went outside onto the hot parking lot. I’ve heard that parking lots shoot heat up into the sky and birds catch the currents to gain altitude. That’s what birds are doing when you see them flying in circles above big stores.
“I think I want to spend the gold,” I said on the walk to the car. Leon pushed the cart for me, which was nice. “What you do with the gold determines everything. You can get farther from the noise and maybe forget that it’s there or you can enter into it.” The asphalt was so hot that I thought I could feel it through my shoes. “I want to spend it. There are things I’d like to buy, and I can always invest.”
“I know that from where you are it looks unbearably bright, like you can’t even follow it with your eyes, like every layer is all burning light.” I had trouble finding the keys in my purse, and it was so hot that my hand was sweating and the car burned my elbows accidentally. “It’s loud and you think your ears will bleed if you get closer, and they probably will, because at a certain point everything converges and all of your organs become wounds which are simply open to the grinding of the world against them.” I found the keys and they plugged into the socket with a mechanical sound. Leon helped me take the groceries out of the cart and put them into the back of the car. “Destroy the gold, Susan, or donate it to something worthwhile.”
“Leon,” I said. We closed the back. The empty cart started to roll away on its own, but Leon caught it so that it didn’t do any damage.
“From there you can start,” he said, putting the cart away in the cage that they keep the carts in until an attendant comes to bring them all back inside together. “And you’ll be able to see things and to listen for once. There are signals hidden everywhere, and violence.”
I opened the door but Leon didn’t move to open his. “Are you coming with me?” I asked.
He adjusted his ratty backpack. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the heat, even though he was carrying something heavy. “When the time comes you’ll be on one side of the gun or the other, and if you’re where you are now I won’t hesitate. None of my people will hesitate when it comes to your people.”
I got in the car and closed the door and turned on the air conditioning. Leon walked to the edge of the parking lot. He crossed the street. I saw his backpack bobbing up and down through the rows of cars waiting for their light, which finally changed. After that I couldn’t see him, there was just traffic and dust.
phillip neel is a young writer from the Klamath region of Northern California. He has previously had his work published in A Cappella Zoo.