The Removals, Part One
by Nicholas Rombes
As we went along they killed a deer, with a young one in her, they gave me a piece of the fawn. And it was so young and tender, that one might eat the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it very good. When night came on we sat down; it rained, but they quickly got up a bark wigwam, where I lay dry that night. I looked out in the morning, and many of them had lain in the rain all night, I saw by their reeking.
–From “The Fourteenth Remove,” in A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, by Mary Rowlandson, 1682.
They took you to the first house, and then, later, to the second. By the time they had removed you to the third house you knew the process was underway. Each house presented its own puzzles and, ultimately, its own terrors. They tried to make the windows thick enough to obscure the sound of the drones, but you could always hear them, the distant, mosquito-like hum as they passed through the upper echelons of the sky. They said that you could distinguish between ours and theirs by the texture of the sound, but in truth the drones were all the same.
They were all ours.
I am writing this from the second house. I do not want to go to the third. I have been there before, many times. Not the same third house, but one just like it. I have seen what goes on in that house, behind its corrugated metal shell, and because I have seen, they keep cycling me though the circuit. That’s my theory, at least, for why I always find myself back here, at the second house, dreading the third.
Back in the day they would have called us assassins, but nobody assassinates anyone anymore. Targeted subjects are either excluded or removed. To be excluded is to disappear, to vanish. I play no part in exclusions end of things, but I do know it’s better to be removed than excluded.
The puzzle about the second house has to do with sound: if I walk to the window that looks out onto what I assume is an enormous high-definition screen showing a meadow swaying in golden light in the breeze, I can hear the drones. They sound impossibly close, and I wonder if this is part of the puzzle. I tilt my head slightly to pick up the sound better, and the intercom on the wall snaps on.
“Bronson. Are you there Bronson?”
Of course they know I’m here; they put me here. There is no obvious need to ask whether or not I’m here, other than to make me answer, to transform me yet again into a subject. I am hailed, interpellated, reminded that I am never the one to initiation the communication.
I choose not to answer right away, and instead simply move closer to the chrome intercom which looks like a partially melted object left over from an abandoned science fiction film set. Although it remains silent on the other end as they await my reply, I can detect something, some presence. A very low-frequency hum, almost, like the soft breathing of a machine.
“Bronson here,” I answer finally, depressing the “talk” button as per the script.
“Ah, there you are. Finding everything in order, order, are you? You haven’t unsealed the instructions yet, have you?”
I am, in fact, holding the unsealed instructions in my hand.
At one time, soon after what happened to my daughter, I came to believe that our training had one purpose only: to make us unsuitable for the very sort of new world we were helping to build. A world of imagery analysis depots and data silos, buried deep in the earth. In the science fiction stories of my childhood, everything happened in outer space, on different planets. But it turned out that the future looked vey different when it finally arrived: rather than journey outward, we tunneled inward.
The instructions, of course, call for me to proceed to the third house, where another packet of instructions await. At the third house I will find a photograph of the person I am to exclude.
My memories of Evelyn are not static. I wish I could remember her the way she really was, not the way I remember her as being. Sitting on my lap at a picnic at the edge of a meadow, and how she would jump down and run into the cool forest and we’d pretend she was lost and I’d call out her name. How terrifying that game was for me, how much I dreaded it. Dreaded how play-acting it might conjure and bring about her loss which, in fact, it did.
I refuse to go to the third house.
“Bronson. Be reasonable,” the voice says over the intercom. “There’s still time.”
This is how they threaten. Outside, the drones are closer, lower, bolder. I take a pale green pillow from the couch and push it against the intercom, but I can still hear the voice.
“Bronson. Don’t. It’s not too late. Be careful. The third house.”
I don’t answer.
Time passes. How long? A hour? Two hours? An afternoon. It’s dark outside. A new voice though the intercom.
“Please answer. It’s me.”
This time, it’s a girl’s voice.
It’s a world where information is useless. A false commodity. It’s no longer of value if everybody has it, is what they told us in training, over and over. And: while they are chasing information, we will be chasing them. This was their mantra. House zero is where we trained. Some of us had volunteered out of sorrow. Or self-pity. The desire to give ourselves over to a purpose so much larger than our individual grief. This was during the second year of Evelyn’s disappearance, a point at which, the detectives said, finding her was statistically impossible (that’s the phrase that one of them used, the one with the shiny, penny-shaped scar on the top of his left hand). He patted my shoulder as he said it, as if I had lost no more than my dear cat. He left behind his white Styrofoam cup that had held, of course, detective coffee. It was only after he was gone that I noticed the capital letter E scratched—probably with a thumbnail—into its side.
In the past, my removals had been from the second house to the third. That was how things progressed, from house one to three, in sequence. But I decided now that I needed to go back to house number one. I understood that I had very little time, that it might already, in fact, be too late. I went into the bedroom and unzipped duffel bag that had been left for me for my removal to house three. I took out the weapon, the ear plugs, and the proxy face putty. In the bathroom, in front of the small mirror above the sink, I applied it, smoothing it with both hands from the ridge of my nose back to my ears and down to my chin. I washed my hands, shut my eyes, and counted to sixty. When I opened them, it was me in the mirror, but not me. As always, the shock of misrecognition. No matter how much you prepared for it, you could never really be prepared. You had to force yourself to absorb it and to somehow lock it down—this new face, this new image—into your mind. Force your brain to reconcile what it knew from what it was seeing. The question was: did it even matter? Could I trick them with the very tools that they themselves had provided?
Rather than a photograph of Evelyn, I carried with me a small map she had used as a bookmark. A map that never made sense to me, its territories covered with overlapping, spider-legged words, as if there was secret warning right there before your eyes, obscured. Some of it outlined in blood.
Or so it seemed to me.
The gravel path that led between house two and house one had never been traveled in this direction, at least by me. Above, a screen-blue sky. Tall pixilated pine trees on either side of the path. The whining of the drones at a terrible, resurrection pitch. I put the earplugs in and make my way toward house one in silence.
Evelyn at age eight or nine dashing across the hot sand at the Jersey beach, the bottoms of her feet hurting, saying “ow ow ow” with each step. Evelyn trying to catch her eyes move in the mirror. Evelyn listing the names she preferred to Evelyn. Evelyn mumbling about a lake monster during her fever on the camping trip. Evelyn with the cat, flicking its ears. Evelyn screaming to me for help in the forest, and me not being able to find her.
The closer I come to house one the more difficult it is to breathe. I have to stop every few steps to catch my breath. It’s as if gravity is stronger here. Soon I’m forced to grasp each leg around the knee and lift it forward to keep going. I see house one in the distance, around the bend in the path. I pause, then take a few steps. Then pause. I am leaning forward as I stride, as if into a wind storm. I turn around and walk backwards to use different leg muscles. The pixilated pine trees fibrillate in and out of clarity. Their boughs twitch in color between a hundred shades of green. I turn back around and face the house, the grooves of its corrugated metal roof and siding touching only at right angles. I am crawling now, barely able to move forward, as if being pushed back by some ridiculously impossible force.
I take out my ear plugs. They turn to ash in my hands. There is no more sound. No drones. I stand up now and face house number one. Why did I want to come back here? Why did I think that house number one was any safer than house number two. Because I wanted to get as far away as possible from house number three. That’s why.
I am on the porch now of house number one. There is the windowless door, and the familiar, terrifying intercom. I push the talk button and say, “It’s me.” A moment passes, then another. I hear the drones again, growing louder. There is a pop of static from the intercom, and then a voice.
“Come in,” it says. The door latch clicks open.
I want to push the door open and step in but I can’t because the voice on the intercom . . . it’s my voice . . .
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is the author of Cinema in the Digital Age, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, and Ramones, part of the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum. He is a professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, Wigleaf, and other places. His digital home is The Happiness Engine.