He was looking forward to a real bed, to some privacy, his computer, reliable cell phone service, dinners out, and, most of all: time alone with his wife.
Fishing his cell phone out of his pocket, he checked his messages for the umpteenth time. They were minutes away from the anthem, from fifty stages blasting the same tune—for once, thank God—and then the flyover from the 141st. He had also heard someone mention fireworks to start the convention off with a bang. Donald worried they would be unimpressive unless they came after dusk.
His phone showed that the last half-dozen messages still hadn’t gone through. The word Sending throbbed by each one, a circular arrow spinning around. He had plenty of bars—the network was just clogged. At least some of the earlier ones looked like they’d been sent. Helen would probably get the rest in a flood and think he’d lost his mind with worry. He scanned the wet banks for her, hoping to see her making her way down, arms out as she was careful with her balance, a smile he could spot from any distance.
Someone stepped up beside him. Donald looked away from the hills to see that Anna had joined him by the stage.
“Here we go,” she said quietly, scanning the crowd.
She looked and sounded nervous. Maybe it was for her father, who had so much to do with arranging the main stage and making sure everyone was in the right place. Glancing back, he saw that people were taking their seats, chairs wiped down from the morning drizzle, not nearly as many people as it seemed before. They must be either working in the tents or off to the other stages. This was the quiet brewing before the—
“There she is.”
Anna waved her arms. Donald felt his heart swell up into his neck as he turned and followed Anna’s gaze. The relief was mixed with the panic of Helen seeing him there with her, the two of them waiting side by side.
Shuffling down the hill was certainly someone familiar. A young woman in a pressed blue uniform, a hat tucked under one arm, a dark head of hair wrapped up in a crisp bun.
“Charlotte?” Donald shielded his eyes from the glare of the noonday sun filtering through wispy clouds. He gaped in disbelief. All other events and concerns melted away as his sister spotted them and waved back.
“She sure as hell cut this close,” Anna muttered.
Donald hurried over to his four-wheeler and turned the key. He hit the ignition, gave the handle some gas, and raced across the wet grass to meet her.
Charlotte beamed as he hit the brakes at the base of the hill. He killed the engine.
His sister leaned into him before he could dismount. She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed.
He returned her embrace, worried about denting or soiling her neat uniform. “What in the world are you doing here?” he asked.
She let go and took a step back, smoothed the front of her shirt. The gig line of her belt, pants, and top were all militarily straight. The Air Force dress hat disappeared back under her arm, every motion like an ingrained and precise habit.
“Are you surprised?” she asked. “I thought the Senator would’ve let it slip by now.”
“Hell, no. Well, he said something about a visitor but not who. I thought you were in Iran. Did he swing this?”
She nodded, and Donald felt his cheeks cramping from smiling so hard. Every time he saw her, there was this relief from discovering that she was still the same person. The sharp chin and splash of freckles across her nose, the shine in her eyes that had not yet dulled from the horrible things she’d seen. She had just turned thirty, had been half a world away with no family when it happened, but she was frozen in his mind as the young teen who had enlisted, and it relieved him every time to see that she hadn’t morphed into something else, not all the way.
“I think I’m supposed to be on the stage for this thing tonight,” she said.
“Of course.” Donald smiled. “I’m sure they’ll want you on camera. You know, to show support for the troops.”
Charlotte frowned. “Oh, God, I’m one of those people, aren’t I?”
He laughed. “I’m sure they’ll have someone from the Army, Navy, and Marines there with you.”
“Oh, God. And I’m the girl.”
They both laughed. One of the bands beyond the hills finished their set. The discordant mix of noise suddenly morphed into actual music as only one other stage was left performing. Donald scooted forward and told his sister to hop on, his chest suddenly less constricted. There had been a shift in the weather, these breaking clouds, the quieting stages, and now the arrival of family.
He cranked the engine and raced through the least muddy path on the way back to the stage, his sister holding on tight and squealing with delight. They pulled up beside Anna, his sister hopping off and into her arms. While they chatted, Donald killed the ignition and checked his phone. His messages were still sending. And then he saw that an incoming one had arrived.
Helen: In Tennessee. where r u?
There was a jarring moment as his brain tried to make sense of the message. It was from Helen. What the hell was she doing in Tennessee?
Another stage fell silent. It took only a heartbeat or two for Donald to realize that she wasn’t hundreds of miles away. She was just over the hill. None of his messages about meeting at the Georgia stage had gone through.
“Hey, I’ll be right back.”
He cranked the ATV. Anna grabbed his wrist.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
He smiled. “Tennessee. Helen just texted me.”
Anna glanced up at the clouds. His sister was inspecting her hat. On the stage, a young girl was being ushered up to the mic. She was flanked by a color guard, and the seats facing the stage were filling up, necks stretched with anticipation.
Before he could react or put the ATV in gear, Anna reached across, twisted the key, and pulled it out of the ignition.
“Not now,” she said.
Donald felt a flash of rage. He reached for her hands, for the key, but it disappeared behind her back.
“Wait,” she hissed.
Charlotte had turned toward the stage. Senator Thurman stood with a microphone in hand, the young girl, maybe sixteen, beside him. The hills had grown deathly quiet. Donald realized what a racket the ATV had been making. The girl was about to sing.
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Democrats—
There was a pause. Donald got off the four-wheeler, took a last glance at his phone, then tucked it away.
—and our handful of Independents.
Laughter from the crowd. Donald set off at a jog across the flat at the bottom of the bowl. His shoes squished in the wet grass and the thin layer of mud. Senator Thurman’s voice continued to roar through the microphone:
Today is the dawn of a new era, a new time.
He was out of shape. Or was his chest pounding from the time apart? From missing her and worrying all day? He flashed back to summer camp when he was a kid standing by the road with all the other kids, emotional farewells between new and supposedly eternal friends, but all he wanted was to see his mom and dad, to get home. He remembered nearly wetting his pants or bursting out in tears from trying to hold all the longing inside.
As we gather in this place of future independence—
By the time the ground sloped upward, he was already winded.
—I’m reminded of the words from one of our enemies. A Republican.
Distant laughter, but Donald was concentrating on the climb. The hill was steepest in a direct line toward the Tennessee bowl. Glancing to one side, he saw a crease in the hills where they had been pushed together, sealing up the path that once lay between them. That’s how he should have gone.
It was Ronald Reagan who once said that freedom must be fought for, that peace must be earned. As we listen to this anthem, written a long time ago as bombs dropped and a new country was forged, let’s consider the price paid for our freedom and ask ourselves if any cost could be too great to ensure that these liberties never slip away.
A third of the way up—and Donald had to stop and catch his breath. His calves were going to give out before his lungs did. He regretted puttering around on the ATV the past weeks while some of the others slogged it on foot. He promised himself he’d get in better shape.
He started back up the hill, and a voice like ringing crystal filled the bowl. It spilled in synchrony over the looming rise. He turned toward the stage below where the national anthem was being sung by the sweetest of young voices—
And he saw Anna hurrying up the hill after him, a scowl of worry on her face.
Donald knew he was in trouble. He wondered if he was dishonoring the anthem by scurrying up the hill. A few faces from the crowd were indeed trained his way. Everyone had assigned places for the anthem and he was ignoring his. He turned his back on the angry faces and Anna and set off with renewed resolve.
—o’er the ramparts we watched—
He laughed, out of breath, wondering if these mounds of earth could be considered ramparts. It was easy to see the bowls for what they’d become in the last weeks, individual states full of people, goods, and livestock, fifty state fairs bustling at once, all for this shining day, all to be gone once the facility began to operate according to its true purpose.
—and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air—
He reached the top of the hill and sucked in deep lungfuls of crisp, clean air. On the stage below, flags swayed idly in a soft breeze. A large screen showed a video of the girl singing about proof and still being there.
A hand seized his wrist. A fierce hand.
“Come back,” Anna hissed.
He was panting. Anna was also out of breath, her knees covered in mud and grass stains. She must’ve slipped on the way up. He wondered if the anger in her voice and her narrowed eyes were related.
“Helen doesn’t know where I am,” he said.
—bannerrr still waaaaave—
Applause stirred before the end, a compliment. The jets streaking in from the distance caught his eye even before their rumble arrived. A diamond pattern with wingtips nearly touching.
“Get the fuck back down here,” Anna yelled. She yanked on his arm.
Donald twisted his wrist away. He was mesmerized by the sight of the jets approaching.
—o’er the laaand of the freeeeeee—
That sweet and youthful voice lifted up from fifty holes in the earth and crashed into the thunderous roar of the powerful jets, those soaring and graceful angels of death.
“Let go,” Donald demanded, as Anna grabbed him and scrambled to pull him back down the hill.
—and the hooome of the...braaaaave...
Miles of applause bubbled up together. The air shook from the grumble of the perfectly timed fly-by. Afterburners screamed as the jets peeled apart and curved upward into the white clouds.
Anna was practically wrestling him, arms wrapped around his shoulders. Donald snapped out of a trance induced by the passing jets, the beautiful rendition of the anthem amplified across half a county, the struggle to spot his wife in the bowl below.
“Goddamnit, Donny, we’ve got to get down—”
The first flash came before she could get her hands over his eyes. A bright spot in the corner of his vision in the direction of downtown Atlanta. It was a daytime strike of lightning. Donald turned toward it, expecting thunder. The flash of light had become a blinding glow. Anna’s arms were around his waist, jerking him backward. His sister was there, panting, covering her eyes, screaming, What the fuck?
Another pop of light like being punched in the face, starbursts in one’s vision. Sirens spilled out of all the speakers, a grating noise compared to the sweet voice they replaced. It was the recorded sound of air raid klaxons.
Donald felt half blinded. Even when the mushroom clouds rose up from the earth—impossibly large to be so distant—it still took a heartbeat to figure out what was going on.
They pulled him down the hill. Applause had turned to screams audible over the rise and fall of the blaring siren. Donald could hardly see. He stumbled backward and nearly fell as the three of them slipped and slid down the bowl, the wet grass funneling them toward the stage. The puffy tops of the swelling mushrooms rose up higher and higher, staying in sight even as the rest of the hills and the trees disappeared from view.
“Wait!” he yelled.
There was something he was forgetting. He couldn’t remember what. He had an image of his ATV sitting up on the ridge. He was leaving it behind. How did he get up there? What was happening?
“Go. Go. Go,” Anna was saying.
His sister was cussing. She was frightened and confused, just like him. He had never known his sister to be either one.
“The main tent!”
Donald spun around, his heels slipping in the grass, hands wet with rain and studded with mud and grass. When had he fallen?
The three of them tumbled down the last of the slope as the sound of distant thunder finally reached them. The clouds overhead seemed to race away from the blasts, pushed aside by an unnatural wind. The undersides of the clouds strobed and flashed as if more strikes of lightning were hitting, more bombs detonating. The air growled with the force of the earlier blows. Down by the stage, people weren’t running to escape the bowl—they were instead flowing into tents, guided by volunteers with waving arms, the markets and food stalls clearing out, the rows of wooden chairs now a heaped and upturned tangle, a dog still tied to a post, barking.
Some people still seemed to be aware, to have their faculties intact. Anna was one of them. Donald saw the Senator by a smaller tent coordinating the flow of traffic. Where was everyone going? Donald felt disembodied as he was ushered along with the others. It took long moments for his brain to process what he’d seen. Nuclear blasts. The live view of what had forever been resigned to grainy wartime video. Real bombs going off in the real air. Nearby. He had seen them. Why wasn’t he completely blind? Was that even what happened?