Number Seventeen

by J.R. Heatherton

The smell of toast and jam and lilacs filled the dining room creating an aromatic frame around the morning’s breakfast table. This was home. And there sat Father and Mother, seated opposite each other at their own respective heads of the table: Father’s attention behind the pages of newsprint while Mother needled the contents of her plate, quietly worrying about what they would do to her figure. Parallel to the wall and along the table’s side Jim’s two younger siblings huddled together, centered like the focal point of a Rockwellian portrait. It had been his seat before they were born, and now it was their position, though Jim recalled that he tended to sit much closer to Mother, a security measure for those times when Father’s scornful nature showed.

It wasn’t that Father was a particularly angry or abusive man, but it was when those inevitable irrelevant statements that tend to rise in a young boy’s mind were blurted out that Father showed little to no patience. By his own hand Father was more than happy to expound upon the intricacies of life without needing any provocation—subjects ranging from religion to politics, love, death, literacy, why certain races were inferior; subjects in which Father was an expert of unparalleled bona fides. Yet, here at the burgeoning age of nineteen, just shy of twenty but not far away, Jim had come to think of Father’s wisdom as more of an arrogance that disguised ignorance. For Mother’s sake, he tried to not argue with Father. But Jim couldn’t help that he had become more vocal, more emboldened through the group and his own rebellious, youthful thoughts.

Father himself, in a way, had become more reticent when Jim was around, except when it came to his unflinching support of the State. He was a State’s Patriot, an informer to the Authorities, and fiercely proud of it. Unlike all these confused sissies and whiners, whose stress of living in these times when things seemed so uncertain to them and who were easily provoked into unpatriotic thoughts, Father was made of more solid stuff; though even in his stolidity the embers of a seething fire were easily stoked given the right poker.

On such days, Mother was typically vague during Father’s soliloquies, and incommunicative during Father’s admonishments. When the coals of his heart burned hot she would smile and nod and mouth noncommittal words of consensus and make encouraging sounds. When the fire spread to his eyes she would refrain from any sort of interaction that might undermine his authority. It was her way. She had never disagreed with Father while Jim was growing up, a practice that continued with his two younger siblings. As Jim passed from grammar schoolboy to middle-teenaged years, and he became more and more aware of her tendency not to question or interject an alternative point of view, he wondered whether she was unwilling to do so or was incapable of questioning his facts. Was it that she agreed with him and his motives wholeheartedly like a good wife and woman should, or was it that deep down she truly wanted to disagree though to not do so was the best policy? Why would she not want to speak out, to make her voice be heard in opposition to Father’s tyrannical behavior? Jim often wondered these questions, now that he was old enough to question, a full ten-years older than his twin siblings. Tyrannical—was Jim being too dramatic? Maybe she agreed with him. Or was it simply the safest alternative to favor complacency over nonconformity?

Complacency. That’s precisely what it was. The whole world had fallen into complacency, in Jim’s way of seeing things, that mimicked a drug-induced happiness only the most immoral of pushers wouldn’t shy away from. It’s why Jim had joined the group. They were the alternative that fought to expose the illness rising up from within. And the illness wasn’t just the plague—

But none of that mattered right now. It was breakfast time. It was time for toast and jam and the smell of lilacs. This was home. Nothing would change that. Jim closed his eyes and breathed in deep allowing the aromas to soak in, a little smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He began to hum lightly. Nothing would ever change the feelings of safety found behind the walls of one’s own home.

***

“Shouldn’t we say something?” Mother whispered. She had leaned forward, accidentally rattling Father’s cup of Earl Grey, trying to catch Father’s attention from around the edge of the morning’s newspaper; her eyes followed Jim as he sauntered past the table humming a light tune. Father gave his wrists a little flick, allowing the newspaper to sag into a sloppy V.

“Doesn’t he know what has happened?” Mother continued, her voice low and clipped, the spoon in her hand clenched tight until her knuckles had turned ivory. “This can’t be healthy!”

Through the clearing of black and white newsprint Father watched his eldest son. The evening before, Jim had left the house without offering any information regarding his soon to be whereabouts. But his secrecy was not the issue, for Father already knew that Jim was meeting with those friends of his again. They were the issue. That group.

Subversives more like it, Father thought, a pang of disgust twisting up inside of him. For months now all seventeen of them had been going on about some silly notion of a spreading plague. What utter nonsense, a plague. Plagues were something that happened in the middle ages, and in uncivilized countries where the savages ran things. Any self-respecting citizen knows that there is no such thing as some plague being covered up by the authorities. Besides, if there were such a thing then surely the authorities would have informed the populace and would be in the process of taking appropriate actions.

Father envisioned Jim’s little group of rebels tossing around their outlandish theories of doom and gloom. They were at it again last night. They were out causing trouble again, plotting unrest; and it was sometime during those unsupervised hours that something had gone wrong. Jim shouldn’t have come home.

For some reason, he had.

Doesn’t he realize what his actions could do to this family? The earlier disgust quickly became rising anger. He’s willingly put us at risk! What questions the authorities will have! The stoicism in his face hardened into a mortar of contempt as he laid the paper aside and rested his arms on the tabletop. His rancor became more apparent and the family noticeably avoided eye contact with Father. It wasn’t that they had anything to fear; it was just sometimes easier to avoid.

In the kitchen area, Jim had opened the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of milk before settling onto one of the barstools that rung the edge of the kitchen’s countertop. He nonchalantly flipped through the pages of some old circular left lying around.

This is incredible! He’s sitting there drinking milk and reading a magazine like nothing has happened. Father exhaled a huff. All of these years teaching him to be proper—to be right—wasted! We’re people of society, for God’s sake. We’re better than this. What would the neighbors think if they found out about this—this—deviant behavior?

Around the table the family waited in Father’s vague silence, which hung in the air like a guillotine’s blade temporarily stayed as he evaluated the situation. He eventually drew his attention away from Jim and silently considered the two youngest children, Michelle and Joey, wondering what impact this event might have upon them. He doubted either of them truly comprehended what was going on. Even if they did, they were very young and would eventually forget given enough time. Father’s thoughts turned back toward Jim. Given enough time, all situations such as this will correct themselves. That’s all that matters now, the passage of time. Soon they will be at the front door. They know where to look for the boy, where to find him. It is just a matter of playing the waiting game before they arrive and this little problem goes away.

“Father—” began little Michelle, her soft, unsure voice broken and barely audible. But Father lifted his right hand, cut her off, indicating comments were not appreciated.

“Everyone should finish their breakfast before it gets cold,” he said. It was a small cue to the family that an unspoken rule had taken effect, one that discouraged any further discussion. And maybe the neighbors will never find out. He winced irritably, then without further thought immersed himself back behind the erected pages of State-approved information, creating a barrier against what he no longer wanted to see, and resumed sipping his cup of Earl Grey. It was just a matter of time before the knock would come and all this went away.

Mother withdrew back into her own quiescence, carefully probing the end of a spoon into the flesh of a freshly halved grapefruit, noting to herself just how lovely the blue hues of the lilacs were set against the white and red pinstriped vase she had placed in the middle of the breakfast table: so homey. The twins stared quietly at their slices of toast and jam.

The paper’s headlines were always the same; Father had read them so many times before he almost didn’t need to see the print: more deaths, more terrorist activity, more operatives being rounded up. And everyday the papers reported that more and more people were buying into this self-perpetuating lie of a plague, the same one that Jim and his cronies had fallen into. Theirs was a movement that did not believe terrorists lived among the populace, that these deaths were due to some indefinable plague that was slowly spreading across the homeland like a cancer. It was a message of fear mongering, an inexplicable social disease that needed no human contact. But, every thinking person knew that it was terrorists; and to think otherwise was unpatriotic. What was the old saying, Father thought, eliminate all facts and whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. And the truth was terrorists were here and needed to be rooted out. The State would even post snipers outside places of interest if tipped off. It had gotten to that point.

And little groups of opposition like Jim’s were not helping matters.

The authorities frowned greatly on these people—these rumor spreaders, these muckrakers with their plague theory—for their interference and abject behavior. Their biased judgments were not fair. Their activities greatly hindered a fair and balanced pursuit of the truth. Terrorists are on this soil, and terrorism is tearing this country apart in more ways than one, Father’s grip tightened on his paper. And there are countrymen who are not loyal to the State in its time of need. And his son was one of these people. Something had to be done.

Minutes continued to drift away, and still no knock came at the door. Father found his attention wandering back towards Jim sitting at the counter and nonchalantly leafing through the pages of a magazine, a nearly empty glass of milk poised at his lips. Father’s anxiety for a decisive end was quickly becoming more than he could stand.

He cleared his throat and announced, “It says here there were seventeen deaths last night.”

The spoon slipped from Mother’s hand with a clink against the fine bone china as she stole a glance toward Jim. He still held the glass to his lips, but no longer flipped the pages.

“The authorities—”

By now, Mother had retrieved her spoon and was dribbling small words of acknowledgement between nervous spoonfuls of grapefruit, “Seventeen, you say—yes—seventeen—” all the while keeping a watchful eye on Jim’s reactions.

Father gave the newsprint a ruffle at the interruption before continuing. “I was saying that the authorities—”

“Must be those terrorists again,” Jim expelled after downing the last swig of milk.

Father, at this second interruption, slapped the newspaper against the table, sloshing his Earl Grey as he did so, the pages soaking up the tea and staining the print into one large splotch of runny ink. Mother continued pushing jagged bits of fruit into her mouth.

“Then again, it’s always terrorists, isn’t it,” Jim said, wiggling his fingers around the word terrorists. “Everyday there’s another batch of dead turning up in print and it’s never an illness. Or a virus. Or a plague. No! It’s always those terrorists.”

Jim paused, waiting for Father to jump into the conversation, who usually leapt at an opportunity to express his views, especially if they were contrary to Jim’s. Instead, Father remained silent.

“It’s like that whole anthrax scare a couple years ago,” Jim continued. “Remember that? The authorities were so certain it was terrorists, so they began rounding up suspects.” Once again, he wiggled his fingers in the air at the word. “But in the end, it all turned out to be a complete hoax dreamt up by some chemical engineer who was angry over the loss of a government contract. There was never any anthrax, yet the government kept reporting all these people dying—and did so for weeks! How could they have died of anthrax if there was never any anthrax?” Jim gesticulated, throwing his hands up in the air.

He felt, more than caught sight of, Father’s stare cutting into him.

“And do you know what I find to be the more interesting part,” Jim continued, “if not the most disturbing? It’s the fact that to this day nearly everyone still believes it wasn’t a hoax. They’re offended if you remind them it was reported as being so! Granted, it was only posted in the media for one day. But still, the information was out there. Can you imagine that? Even with proof that it was just some whacko bent on revenge, people still believe there’s this vast syndicate of terrorists spreading anthrax around.”

The table remained silent. Joey gingerly sampled his toast and jam, while Mother fussed with the grapefruit. Even little Michelle, who under normal conditions would merrily chime in with her childish logic in complete admiration of Jim, stayed mute.

Jim looked around at the faces of silence. No one returned his gaze.

“Well,” he said, relinquishing his perch from the barstool and walking to the door, “this has been stimulating, but I need to get down to the library.”

Father watched as Jim’s hand touched the doorknob. Just a turn of the wrist and he’ll be out of this house and this will all end.

“A few of us are getting together to—” but an apprehensive voice cut him off.

“Jim,” Mother said, “do you remember last night?”

“Stay out of this, Mother. We don’t need anymore questions here,” chided Father.

Jim dropped his hand from the doorknob and turned with a perplexed expression. “What do you mean?”

“Well the authorities—”

“Mother,” said Father, glaring at her, exigency reverberating in his voice, “we don’t want this.”

“What are you two going on about? What’s this about the authorities?”

“Dear, we have—”

We have nothing more to say in the matter,” shot Father. But Mother didn’t want to stop, not now after finally mustering the courage to speak. Jim needed to know. He obviously didn’t remember what had happened last night. This was her son. She felt that this was her duty, as a mother, to inform him. Not the State. It showed in her eyes, silently asking for Father’s consent. “Fine then,” he gave in, folding his arms in resignation. “Speak to the boy if you must. But I have nothing more to say.”

Mother sat down her spoon and pushed aside her plate, the remnants of the grapefruit twisted into a grotesque form that resembled a deflated ball. “Jim, dear, this is very hard for all of us to come to grips with. It’s…it’s so hard to understand how you, well, why you—” she glanced over to father, but he was turned away taking sips of Earl Grey.

“What’s so hard to understand?” Jim pressed. “What do the authorities have to do with anything?”

Mother subconsciously fiddled with the edge of the black and white checkered tablecloth. The lilacs were indeed the perfect compliment to the table. She had done well. “Well, Jim, the authorities came here last night. They told us about—about—such shocking information about you. We’ve just been beside ourselves since hearing it. It’s one of those visits a parent could never imagine getting in the middle of the night. But we just have to put our trust in—”

She felt the touch of Joey’s fingers gently burrowing into the crook of her elbow and smiled down at him, placing a loving hand to his cheek and quivering chin, swabbing a tear from the corner of his eye with the pad of her thumb. “It’s okay. There’s nothing to be afraid of. They’ll be here soon.”

What information? And they who?”

“You don’t remember anything about last night?” Mother replied, her hand falling from Joey’s cheek.

“No! I went out. I met with my friends. We made up some literature. I came home. The end. And now I’m here playing twenty questions.”

“And that’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“And you know nothing about the deaths last night?”

“Why would I?” exclaimed Jim in growing frustration.

“Think about it for a second, son. The authorities were very clear about this.”

“My God! They don’t think I know anything about those deaths, do they?” Jim exclaimed. “They don’t suspect the group, do they? I’ll never give up any names. So, they better not ask for any.”

Mother allowed her head to sink to her chest, no longer able to meet Jim’s eyes.

“Would someone please tell me what this is all about?” Jim pleaded with the silent gathering at the table. “Won’t any of you say anything? What did the authorities say?”

“That you are number seventeen.” It was Father who had finally said what needed to be said, the want to put an end to all this nonsense overcoming his desire to stay the course.

“I’m what?” Jim reacted. He must have heard Father’s words wrong for they didn’t make sense. It was unusual for Father to speak inexplicitly.

“It’s true, dear,” Mother bobbed her head up and down agreeing, still looking away. “The authorities were very clear that you were number seventeen.”

“Okay, so I’m number seventeen. What does that even mean?” Jim said not grasping the accusation.

“It means you’re dead,” Father stated flatly, as if the obvious were standing in the center of the table, kicking over the lilacs and waving a banner.

Jim was dumbfounded for an instant, trying to determine if he had heard what they were saying correctly, and then tilted his head back and roared with laughter.

“Oh my God, you all had me going! For a second, I thought you were being serious.” Jim giggled with delight at the joke. “I mean, how did you all manage to pull that off with a straight face? Especially you two,” he said pointing at Joey and Michelle, “sitting there all quiet and solemn. Wow!”

Father and Mother calmly watched Jim while he spoke, while he shook his laughter away. Jim came over to the empty chair at the table and flopped down into it.

“Ugh! I’m dead!” Jim exclaimed, placing his hand over his heart, rolling head back and hanging his tongue out his open mouth.

“This is not a time for levity,” Father stated flatly. Jim noticed Joey and little Michelle ever so slightly scoot their chairs away from him.

“Oh, come off it. I mean a joke is a joke, but you can carry things too far you know.”

“This isn’t a joke,” Mother said soothingly. “You died last night, dear.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Jim with a chuckle. “How can I be dead when I’m sitting right here in front of you?”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Father.

“What do you mean that doesn’t matter?” replied Jim, the joke beginning to wear a little thin.

“What matters,” said Mother, “is that the authorities were here and told us—”

“Told you what? That I’m dead?”

“Well, yes,” Mother nodded.

“And you believed them?” Jim exclaimed.

“Yes, of course, dear,” answered Mother.

“And you still believe them?”

Mother nodded.

“That’s crazy!” said Jim incredulously. “How can you just believe something that was simply told to you?”

“Because the authorities said so,” stated Mother. “We have proof,” she said digging into a bag next to her seat and handing over an official death certification signed and notarized by the State.

“There’s a problem with this, though,” he said, holding the paper at length. “It’s obvious that I’m not dead. I’m sitting here breathing and talking.”

“But the authorities—”

“I don’t care about the authorities!”

“Don’t you dare speak that way in my house,” Father roared, jumping to his feet, knocking over the remainder of his Earl Grey. “How dare you question the authorities in this house!”

“I’m not questioning the authorities. I’m questioning your sanity,” Jim barked back.

Joey and Michelle absently pushed their now cold slices of toast and jam around their plates, their faces pale with fear.

“Look what you are doing to your brother and sister by arguing with us,” scolded Father. “Your behavior is unacceptable.”

My behavior? You two are telling someone who is perfectly able to sit, listen, and comprehend what another person is saying that he’s dead.”

“Because you are, son,” said Mother.

“I’m not dead, for Christ’s sake!”

“Oh, but you are dead,” guaranteed Father, his anger in his voice now bordering closely on rage. “We have the proof.”

“Because the authorities told you so? Is that it? Because you have some signed scrap of paper!”

“You cannot defy the authorities,” said Father. “The fact is you died last night.”

“You need to start getting used to the idea, dear,” suggested Mother.

“But it’s simply not true. I mean, can’t you see the reality with your own eyes? Isn’t my presence here in front of you proof enough?”

“My God, boy, it’s time to grow up and take some responsibility for your actions,” lectured Father.

“I am being responsible! I’m a living, thinking, breathing, and responsible person. No matter what the authorities say.”

“Enough! I told you before not to question the authorities in this house, and you would do yourself well not to let it happen again.”

“Do myself well? By going along and saying, ‘Oh! Okay, I’m dead. Some more jam, please.'”

“Dead people don’t eat jam, silly,” Michelle piped up brightly.

Jim stared at her completely bewildered for a moment before adding, “Nor do they sit around talking about it.”

“Don’t confuse the girl,” uttered Father. “This has been hard enough for them to come to terms with.” He gestured toward the two younger siblings. “Think of what you are teaching them by being so obstinate.”

“Obstinate? You’re telling me that I’m dead just because some petty officials told you so, and I’m being obstinate.”

“Look. We’re getting nowhere here,” huffed Father, standing and slamming his palms against the surface of the table, covering them with spilt tea and jam. He stomped off to the kitchen sink, jerked on the tap and scrubbed his hands under the lukewarm water. “See if you can talk some sense into the boy,” he said to Mother over his shoulder.

She gazed silently for a few moments at the flowers in the white and red-pinstriped vase. The lilacs truly were beautiful. Each flower was like a tiny cross with a watchful eye in the middle. Yes, they were the perfect compliment. She knew her duty to the family, her duty to the State. This was her moment to shine, to win one for the family and for Father. Failure was not an option; and this needed a mother’s delicate touch.

“Jim, you say you’re not dead,” Mother began. “Fine. You can believe that if you wish.”

“Mother,” Jim shook his head, closing his eyes, “just look at the facts. Think about this logically.”

“Son, open your eyes and look around you. Look at how we live. We have to follow the rules; it’s what keeps us safe. We can’t just start questioning the authorities. If we did that then how would they be authorities? We have to trust what they tell us. They are all that stands between truth and fiction.”

Jim remained still. This couldn’t be happening.

“You can go on and on about facts and logic all you want,” she said, “but in the end—and you must remember this—the truth is what sets you free.”

Mother watched her son’s expression for a moment, looking for clues.

“Unbelievable,” Jim whispered.

“Just ask yourself, why would they lie to us?” she continued. “What would they gain from not telling the truth? Have you ever stopped to consider that? Now, son, we love you. But, fact is fact. And, more importantly, truth is truth. And the truth is that, no matter what facts you can muster up otherwise, you are dead. We know this is the truth. We have documented proof right here in our hands. The only thing preventing you from seeing this is you.”

“Madness,” Jim said, looking away and shaking his head at no one. “This is utter madness. You all truly believe that I’m dead.”

“We know you are,” said Father, still facing the sink. “You just need to know it yourself and see things our way. The right way.”

The doorbell rang.

“Please, son,” Mother begged. “There isn’t much time. You have to realize the authorities know what’s best.” She paused. “You have to realize that we know what is best.”

The doorbell rang again.

“Jim, in a world of lies you have to ask yourself: Who is lying to whom here?”

Jim pushed away from the table and stood up. He looked at his family, looked from face to face; half hoping still that this was all some sort of joke; looking to see if he could spot any tells like a good poker player, but instead only saw resolve in a world gone mad. Without further word, he left the breakfast table and began ascending the stairs. With each step, his mind raced with thought of escaping this nightmare. Was he even awake? Maybe this was all a dream. Maybe it was a fever. Maybe he was sick with the plague.

But he wasn’t sick. And he was definitely awake. Fully awake. Maybe truly awake for the very first time in his young life. And all he wanted now was to get away, to keep his eyes open forever, to run away from this juryless death sentence.

I’ll get out of here through the upstairs window. That’s it! I’ll run off to a different city, maybe even a different country. I’ll run off to anywhere, anywhere away from these lunatics and their State.

Each footfall was filled with thoughts of fleeing this impending demise conjured up and conscripted by people who he had never met, who never had any personal interaction with him, and would never mourn his passing. He reached the top of the stairs. Across the landing, the door hung open to his darkened room. It seemed much darker to him now than earlier this morning, like a waiting crypt in which all he needed do was step inside to enter eternal bliss.

I can meet up with my friends, he thought. Yes! That’s what I’ll do. The group! There’s a dozen plus people I know right there. Any one of them would be willing to help….

Then it dawned on him: Number seventeen. No. There would be no escape.

He stood framed inside the doorway. From behind he felt a slight tug at the base of his shirt.

“Jim, I picked these for you,” said little Michelle as she held up a small bouquet of dianthus from Mother’s garden. “Flowers are supposed to make you happy when something bad happens.”

Jim took the flowers from her tiny hand and bent down to give her cheek a small kiss.

“I’ll miss you,” she said with a crooked smile, then turned to start padding her way back down the steps. Before her head disappeared behind the banister, she stopped and glanced back at Jim with a puzzled look. “Why did you have to die?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. I guess I just had to,” he said. “Sometimes the truth isn’t subjective.”

“That’s a funny word,” then she was gone.

“Yes. Yes, it is,” he said to no one and entered the vault.

***

They rang the doorbell a third time, and were greeted by a stern, yet solemn, man who led them up the stairs through the smell of toast and jam and lilacs.

At the doorway of a darkened room he left them to their business.

They flicked on the light switch and stretched out a long black bag along side the length of the body lying across the bed, pushing aside a small bouquet of flowers.

They rolled the body into the bag’s waiting snarl and pulled the zipper tight, placing the now full package onto a backboard so it could be carried down stairs.

They left the house at 21 Baker Street, leaving behind the aroma of home, stepping over a late edition of the morning’s news waiting patiently on the front porch.

The headline read: Body of Seventeenth Terrorist Recovered.

They safely secured the body inside the back of the hearse and pulled up the street. Only then did the body let its breath out.

About the Author

J.R. Heatherton lives in mid-Michigan where he loves to write about any subject other than himself. A middle-aged devotee of the absurd, he is currently working on a novel about a young Mexican man who comes to America to find his version of the American Dream, but instead finds porn.

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