The bumps of the road hiss and sway as we speed towards downtown Charlotte on I77 South. Bowed asphalt and potholes emerge here and there and Jess does what she can to avoid them. The three-black decked out SUVs travel as one carrying all towards answers—vague incomplete ones. The West fam and Max choose to share information sparingly. Grace, Gray, and Parker sit opposite us while Max sits between me and Alison in the middle longer vehicle squeezed between two others.
All total, the convoy carries ten security personnel. Alison calls them mercs from Blackwater. Parker winces every time she asserts as much until he no longer can.
“These are our people, not Blackwater,” he says it with such distaste I almost laugh. Then I realize what he’s saying.
Alison and I glance at each other then look back at him. “Are you telling me you’re acknowledging you run a private military, Parker?” She asks.
“There are lots of private military companies. Especially lately.” His snarkiness floats across the row past Gray and Grace who sit and listen without comment or correction.
This is all new to us. We knew there had been security ever since we met Nik. Not this though. Parker goes on to describe in as few words as possible how his and Gray’s little security company came to be that I only partly listen to since my mind churns under the weight of it all.
Again, no comment from Gray or Grace.
“We started recruiting in the service a long long time ago,” he says in typical Parker code normally meant there is a much larger and complex story beyond that pithy sentence.
“How have we never heard about this?”
“There are lots of things you haven’t heard about,” he says quietly. This is a thing I know that I should be wary. I dismiss it. For now.
“I gotta tell ya, Park, I find private militaries distasteful,” Alison adds.
I hear an unusual snort and a surrendered sigh from Grace as she looks out the window with a small smirk that says so much. Parker slips her his cantankerous side-eye that means they’ve likely discussed this many times before. Grace appears resigned to the fact that this is now and has always been her now our life.
Parker looks back at Alison. “I don’t like them much either. Nothing’s ever simple though, is it? Especially nowadays.”
“And what of the people that can’t afford their own private security? They can’t exactly call the police anymore now, can they?” I ask.
I hear a grunt from Ali. “So says the woke white people,” she says looking at each of us. “Like we ever could.”
I grimace—Max in between us smirks and nods—throwing a deferential glance at Ali and back at Parker: “What she said.”
I see the shame of their whiteness slide into their face, hold for a beat, then disappear. Their shame is a positive sign, I suppose. Shame is a step in acknowledging white supremacy. We must hold onto this shame and never let it go. Never let it disappear nor fade. We must nourish that shame, carry it not as that sinister white man’s burden, but as a duty-bound one; a constant reminder of iniquities past and present and futures beholden. Like Christ and his overly large cross. That sin and shame will keep our humanity united, preserve our compassion, our empathy, and allow us to move forward undivided into a strong social cohesion.
Right? That’s that plan. Or, as Ali would say: so says the woke white people.
Or, will it always stay the same?
The silence extends. That Parker and Gray operate a private security firm increases my confusion on how it is Nik could’ve been murdered so easily. Parker watches me and I turn away, out towards the window, uncomfortable with him reading me so effortlessly. I swallow the urge to ask those questions when he speaks in a low reverent guilt-ridden tone: “I know what you’re thinking, Willa. How could I do what I do and still let my own son be murdered?” He inhales and looks out the window. “I wonder that myself,” he mumbles.
The air stills and the waves of cars and trees and objects fly by the darkened bullet-proof windows like a blink and illusion. Parker continues looking out the window; Gray does not. He makes eye contact with me staring and drilling into my thoughts. Those eyes, so like Niky’s. “Ask your questions, Willa.”
I hesitate. Alison elbows me gently. “Do it or I will.”
I exhale. “Did he have security when he went up in the plane that day?”
“The threat assessment was low. The risk was moderate.”
I pause. I see that look in his eyes. The look that challenges me to charge forward without thought or concern. “Why really?”
Gray sighs—a long hard one filled with a lifetime worth of guilt and regret, concealing something heavier that I cannot get a fix on. His eyes continue to hold mine. “He asked me to pull his security. I pulled them back. So, you see, it wasn’t Parker or Presidium. It was me.”
The quiet didn’t last long.
“Your mercs are called Presidium? Isn’t that …?” Ali asks.
“Yes, and they’re not mercs,” Parker interrupts before she finishes. “Are you a merc, Jess,” he directs towards Jessie, our driver.
“Oh, I dunno, Park. Technically, I suppose if I was more arbitrary and less philosophical with no moral compass,” she says coolly.
I see that glint in Ali’s eye; the one when she’s behind the screen working through the code purposefully and patiently.
“Fair enough,” he says a small smile playing on his lips.
“Isn’t that what?” I ask Ali continuing the discussion.
“A kind of committee in the various communist countries. An epitome of Orwellian doublespeak and a bit provocative … and prescient, don’t you think?”
“That’s the point,” Parker says. “That’s always been the point.”
“Presidium. The origin is Latin meaning protection. We’re taking back that word and owning it.”
“Are you really.” Low and rhetorical, not expecting a reply, I glance back out across the dissolution of suspended road construction. This long stretch of interstate had been in an unending state of construction and chaos, it seems, since its creation. Now with the actual deconstruction of the state, the dusty dirt trails, with overgrown dead weeds, litter what was supposed to be extra much needed lanes into and out of the city. Having no need for the additional lanes as gas and autos and travel a luxury not many can afford, the space sits stagnate and silent. Like a graveyard.
The tension in the vehicle abates. Guilt is not an easy burden to own especially for the parent of a dead child, no matter their age. A volatility floats around Gray. A sadness and certainty unlike and greater than the grief that Parker and Grace hold. This is why. His guilt feeds his regret and the mystery of something more. Something murky and esoteric. I see it in those eyes. His eyes that hold mine. I know because Nik was the same. The tick in his cheek spreads to a wide smile and he changes the subject, deflecting, knowing I’m getting close. “Max is running for California senator. Right, Max?”
“Yes,” Max says tapping away on her tablet between us.
I meet Grace’s gaze. Another mission in a grander plan? The murky and esoteric spread and I sense a new enterprise in this long con.
“One can no longer be apolitical in this environment. We must choose a side,” Max adds.
“I thought we had,” I mumble.
“Which side is that?” Alison asks.
“The one that’s losing.”
The air, thick with smog, floats around and through the city slowly, like the sun in its first golden rays as it slides across pavement and buildings. Concrete and steel, metro landmarks, and graffiti and other art merge into one long blur. An occasional glimpse of militarized police roam streets in armored personnel carriers, carrying assault rifles, and wearing black helmets and masks to cover identities; not too many, but not too few; just enough to make a point without the direct threat. The subtext of freedoms slowly crumbling like the infrastructures around us.
Long lines of citizens stand idle waiting at bodegas, food banks, private charities, clinics, and churches to get medical care, medicines, and food. Waits for as long as six to ten hours. Even McDonald’s joined in to contribute charitable fast food. The line outside its doors stretches for a half mile back. No more government handouts. Most are young adults and parents holding skinny screaming kids barely covered in threadbare clothes. Their tears and sullen faces permanently marred by austerity. Their skinny limbs and asthmatic breathing a natural way of life for this small innocent generation penalized for their ancestors’ indulgences; choices and failures to act on something of massive importance and consequence. Some adults dressed in business attire—expensive second and third-hand clothing and bags scrolling through their smartphones tapping their feet in the ugly dance of impatience.
This world no longer cared for the struggling, the vulnerable, the impoverished.
Did it ever? Was there ever a moral obligation to take care of others? When did brutal selfishness prevail?
The cruelty is the point.
A few wave as energetically as their empty malnourished bodies can when the three-car team pass still, after everything, bewitched by the bling of wealth and extravagance, while others stare hard and unforgiving. Arriving in Uptown, people tend to appear healthier and more richly clothed, while their eyes convey exhaustion and decline and their slow grim walk screams discouragement. We reach our destination disappearing into the underground parking garage beneath the five-story concrete and steel structure and the North Carolina headquarters for The West Foundation.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins