Prompt Images

Cate rakes her fingers through the short shag of the carpet, the turquoise and lavender pieces soft and plush against her skin. She remembers when she first got it five years ago, wanting to make a change and refresh the drab palette of her gray bedroom. She cleared the floor, swept away dust bunnies and musty detritus, before rolling it out and taking her first steps across it, her feet sinking into its fibers. She sighed in contentment.

She paid too much for the rug probably, but that sensation made it all worth it, she decided, and she reaffirmed that belief through its lifetime. Like the night of her best friend breakup when she used it as a Kleenex; or the afternoon when she laid across it and watched the a lightning storm play out in shadows and reflections; or on so many days like this, when she stared up at the ceiling, the fan whirling above her, as she listened to the life around her. The sweet tweets of the birds in oak outside her window. The gentle whoosh of the wind rustling leaves in the green peak of their cycle. The oblivious chatter of children, hooting and hollering during a game of what sounds distinctly like Red Rover.

Cate wants to commit it all to sense memory, something she can hold onto long after this floor, this house, this world are gone, or at the very least, irrevocably changed. Because while she has done this dozens of times, this time is not at all like the rest.

Because the birds don’t know what Cate does.

That while they continue to chirp, the chatter of others has gone quiet, no errant tweets or comment dings.

Some may find the silence peaceful, believing it’s a sign that the long-touted plans have fallen apart and maybe the radicals are fading away. But that’s a naive thought, and they’ve gotten here because of too many naive thoughts.

This is a different kind of silence, one that breeds panic.

In silence, the terrorists do not pause, but plot. “Leaders” pacify and politicize. Advocates are persecuted, their voices lost in torture, and abuse, and threats, and death. The people are paralyzed, afraid of what is to come next.

The radicals’ presence may have all but disappeared, but it hasn’t left recent memory or ceased inducing fear of when and where it will return. According to sources independent of the infiltrated government, it will begin any day now, most likely in the early hours of the night, with militias striking around the country to “protect their rights.”

People are ready to defend against them, knowing that this war is as much about the militias protecting their rights as taking those of others. The writing has been on all the wall for years, if only they would’ve taken it as more than just joking graffiti. Maybe they could’ve stopped it before it came to this: stockpiling weapons; people fleeing the country to avoid dying in formerly safe places; institutions on the brink of collapse; her place in the social order questioned.

Cate looks to her left, where her turntable spins a record waiting to be played. She had held off, wanting to savor each sound bit by bit, and now, she’s ready to save this as well. She drops the needle onto the edge of the vinyl, and after some scratching, the music pours from the small speakers, a pure voice backed up by jazzy instruments, a saxophone here, a snare drum there. It has the fuzziness of age, produced in a time when the artist would’ve been segregated from others on his record label because of the color of his skin.

Hope and solidarity, he preached, as if Cate and all his other listeners were listening to him from the pulpit, and right now, she’s ready to genuflect to him, as his words offer her a glimmer of salvation. He may have sung this years ago, but the history of his time and hers doesn’t feel too different, marked by hatred and violence and, of course, resistance. If they could weather that then, she wants to believe they can now as well, but this present moment feels worse, the progress they’ve made since the crooner’s era unraveled in demented discourse that has led them to the riverbed of the Rubicon. As soon as one militia moves, there is no going back. Maybe it’s already too late to go back.

What will happen to music like this, and art, and all the other landmarks that made this country special in a future in which it no longer exists?

Will it ever be seen again? Heard in the same way? Based on what Cate knows about empires, including that on average, they last 250 years before they decline and her country is right in that sweet spot, she finds comfort in the fact that many of their works survive even when they don’t. The Romans, the Greeks, the Mayans, the Egyptians, their legacies sustained in statues and monuments and writings. But in the artifacts, she also believes she finds more questions, namely how a nation that created such vibrant, beautiful, moving empathetic art could at the same time govern themselves in such black and white single-minded terms. She wishes she knew the answer.

The record turns until the needle hits smooth black resin, the birds no longer chirping as loudly and the children moving on to another game, possibly the quiet game. Cate glides the needle back onto its support and closes the plastic turntable lid, hoping that she’ll be able to reopen it at least once more before the end begins. Because that’s what it is.

No matter how this wraps up, as the end of the nation or the end of age, it’s the end all the same.

Behind her eyelids, Cate imagines what that day will look like, when this is finally over, but no images of this room, her home, appear. It’s someplace new, a country across the sea she visited once as a kid with her parents, weighed down by overpacked luggage. When she gets out of here, if she gets out of here, what will the people who welcome her and so many others think of them, Cate wonders. How did this happen, they’ll ask, and she’ll have an answer, formed over months of rumination.

“People tried to warn us, to stop this from happening, but instead of treating them like the prophets they were, we found reasons why they shouldn’t be believed, labeled them as crazy or hysterical, and turned towards an answer that we liked more. It wasn’t that we couldn’t believe it, it was that we didn’t want to think that what they predicted for us would ever come true. It was a tale as old as time, empires crumbling but not realizing it until they’re standing amongst the rubble, and like so many, we chose not to believe that could be us, too. We didn’t listen.”

That will be the question she asks, Cate decides as she pushes up from the floor, carpet fibers pressing into her palms, no more time for reminiscing, only preparing. She won’t ask how they got there, or what’s to come. It will boil down to one sentence, four words long: why didn’t we listen?

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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