The Removals, Part Two


by Nicholas Rombes

It’s my voice, but not my voice. And yet how to be sure?


I myself have used the voice putty, but it requires training and practice.

“Come in,” the voice says again. I hesitate. “Oh for God’s sake, Bronson, you’ve come this far. This is what you wanted.”

It’s true of course, and so I step in to house number one, if for no other reason than it’s the farthest away from house number three that I can hope to be, at least right now. I’m in a white room not unlike the entry room to house number two, from where I have just fled. There is a simple cot on the floor, with blankets. A metal table with aluminum canisters labeled not with words but with colorful symbols. A red star. A blue triangle. A yellow X. Beyond the table, a doorway into another room.

And in the other room, a man sitting in a lawn chair on a wooden floor, another lawn chair facing him. He’s smoking. His hands are large. He’s wearing dark jeans and heavy black shoes and a white shirt.

“Go ahead. Sit.” He motions to the empty chair. He’s still speaking in my voice, but it’s fading, cracking. The putty’s wearing off, and when he speaks again it will be in his own voice.


How does one remember a voice? Its texture, its tone, the soft way it can enter your ears. I struggle to recall Evelyn’s voice. Dad, she used to say, Dad can we go to the Dairy Queen. In those days, as silly as it sounds, the DQ was one of the last public places you could go and not be surveilled. I don’t know if Evelyn knew this, but she must have sensed a safety there, the fast-disappearing comfort of being with others in public and not being watched. The thinnest spider web thread of Evelyn’s voice, a fractal memory. One of the last things that is mine alone.


“If you’ve read the Mason Tract, then you’ve read me,” he says, as if I care. He knows I have a weapon, because he provided it. So this is Mason. He’s got a small scar that creates a gap in one of his eyebrows. He holds his cigarette loosely between the knuckles of his middle and ring finger. The Mason Tract is a field manual, an elaborate set of procedures that provide the bureaucratic framework for the exclusions and removals. It could hardly be said to be written by anyone:

In the body of a combat order, an annex or appendix should be referred to by giving both its letter or number and its subject, as—App I, Circuit Diagram, to Annex C, Signal.


The theory of completed staff action usually results in more work for the staff officer, but it results in more freedom for the commander. In addition, completed staff action protects the commander from half-developed ideas, voluminous memoranda, and immature oral presentations.

“I want to go back to house zero,” I say to Mason.

“Of course you do Bronson. Don’t we all.”

Outside I could hear the drones again.

“And . . .?”

“And,” he says, “I can’t let you. Why did you come back here? What did you possibly hope to gain?”

“Hope? Hope doesn’t enter into it. I just want to go back.”

“To house zero?”


“Believe me, house zero is the last place you want to go.”

“You can help me go back there. Why won’t you?”

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you, Bronson,” says Mason, leaning forward and letting his spent cigarette drop to the floor, “that you can’t go back? No one can. It’s not possible. Even if I were on your side—which I’m not—I couldn’t help you.”

“But you already have,” I tell him, lunging forward and pressing the weapon to his neck. He grabs my wrist and for a moment I worry that I hadn’t loaded it, but then his grip relaxes and he crumples into the chair, his eyes rolling back into his head, just like the rest of them.


Mason’s help came indirectly. From, of all things, the Mason Track, which those of us recruited for deployment in the removals and exclusions units came to know so well. In fact, the very instructions that I had with me now contained, embedded in the Track’s stock phrases, the guidance I needed to proceed to house number one.

Aggressor ideological pressure during removals requires vigilant signal blocking to maintain objectives and discount Aggressor ideologies.

I had spent too much time trying to convince myself that I was not in the process of, for lack of a better word, defecting back into the very society I had been employed to repress through my expertise in removals and exclusions. But in fact, I was defecting, back into the ranks of the oppressed.

More than that: I was defecting back to my old self.


You can’t go back. No one can.


I had entered through the front door of house one, and I would exit through the back door. There were, unfortunately, others in the house, unaware of my presence until now. The first one entered the room unprepared, and I used the weapon on him inefficiently, causing a scene of suffering that I will forever struggle to erase from my memory. The second one, alerted by the screaming, stayed in the next room, which I entered swiftly. The third and the fourth had been asleep, and were only beginning to fathom what was happening, and so I took care of them too.


What would Evelyn say not only about what I myself have done, but about my complicity in helping to build the precise sort of world that I wanted to protect her from?


Would she still call me father were she to see the aftermath of house number one?


Outside the house, a path snaking its way through a weed patch before disappearing into a firm line of pine trees. No sound. The trees in the near distance so still. I make my way down the path. I come across an arrangement of old bricks in the shape of a crooked cross. A enormous shadow sweeps across the field. I imagine it’s a drone.


I am deep into the forest now, in a spot where the tall pines grow so close together that I sometimes have to turn sideways to press myself between them. There is sap on my clothes and in my hair. I don’t know how I know that house zero lies in this direction, through the forest, just that I do. It’s getting dark. I stop and rest and think about the old world, the world with Evelyn in it. All I have are thin slivers of memory: the bright red roof of the Dairy Queen. The way cars sounded when you started them. The dim blue glow of computer screens on people’s faces at the airport. The feeling of the watch on my wrist, its enormous weight, when I realized Evelyn was gone. Can you ever pinpoint the moment when a new regime replaces an old one? Revolutions seem to happen over night, but really they are centuries in the making. By the time a revolution is complete, there is already a new order rising against it.

Those who guided us understood this.

You are helping to drain the world of information, they told us, in order to make it scarce and valuable again.


It’s night now and I’ve passed the forest and am walking by moonlight. The rough path continues to open before me. I hear the sound of my own footsteps and breathing. And Mason’s voice in my head, you can’t go back.


I sleep curled in an open field. In my dreams, the zero house is nothing more than a blank all with a bricked-in fireplace. In the mortar between the brick are terrible secrets. I wake before dawn and keep moving. In the distance there is a small yellow light. A fire. A signal.

Aggressor ideological pressure during removals requires vigilant signal blocking . . .

House zero, ahead in the distance.

Or so it seemed.

The third and final installment will appear July 6.

Read ‘The Removals, Part One’

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 AmericanThe Believer, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, Wigleaf, and other places. His digital home is The Happiness Engine.