“What if it was all real?”

“What do you mean?”

“The stuff. You know, the Q Anon stuff.”

“Fuck dude, do not go there on me. You going to buy a hat, too?”

Denver absently flips me the finger and goes back to his computer. I take a drink of my tepid coffee and go back to the crossword, looking at the twenty-nine down clue for the fiftieth time, not wanting to admit I didn’t know what perspicacious means. Denver makes some hand gestures in front of his computer screen, like he’s having a conversation, but he’s not. He weighs an idea with his left hand and then turns around to reengage.

“Did you ever think why Burt Reynolds never had any kids?”

“No.”

Denver knits his fingers and takes a deep breath. He speaks in a measured tone, so I’ll know that he has spent some time thinking.

“First of all, Burt Reynolds did have a son, but he was adopted. Loni Anderson, his wife for a short time, also had a daughter from a previous marriage, but that’s beside the point. When you think about an actor who is an absolute stud; kind of the American ideal- a real man’s man- who is it?”

“Steve McQueen.”

Denver considers this for a moment.

“Okay granted. He was pretty awesome.”

“There’s also Clint Eastwood.”

“Sure. Dirty Harry and The Eiger Sanction are hall of famers.”

“I mean, you also got Kurt Russell. ‘Call me Snake,’ and The Thing. And you can’t forget  Bronson. I mean, his movies were trash, but he had a thing going on.”

Denver begins to look frustrated with me.

“Those guys are all good, but what about Burt Reynolds?”

“He’s okay, I guess. I mean he’s more of a comic actor. Smokey and the Bandit. Cannonball Run. Uncle Paul liked him a lot, but he was really more of a comedy guy.”

“What about Sharkey’s Machine? And Gator?”

 “OK, I guess. What point are you trying to make?”

“Burt, with the centerfold and his movies and his reputation as a ladies’ man, you would think that he would have wanted to have a kid.”

“Or not. Maybe he didn’t want to be tied down. Or maybe he was secretly gay.”

Denver looks genuinely perplexed by the notion and returns to his laptop. After fifteen minutes of what passes for research, he returns.

“I can’t find any evidence that Burt Reynolds was gay.”

I shrug.

“I have to say that until I brought it up, it never even occurred to me to wonder if Burt Reynolds was gay or not. Not sure that it matters all that much to me, really. It seems like an outdated conversation. You need to separate the man and the roles he played, though it might be better if you start over and just maybe attack a subject that’s a little more worthwhile.”

“Don’t you understand? The Burt Reynolds thing is just a small part of the whole picture.”

“What picture of any importance could there be that has Burt Reynolds in it?”

Denver gets an a-ha look on his face and waves his finger in the air.

“What about if Burt Reynolds didn’t have any kids because he knew what might happen to them?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know.”

“No, I really don’t. What is it you’re talking about? You sound like a lunatic.”

“Come on man. You don’t know anything about pizzagate? About what Hillary and her aide did to those kids?”

“Denver, are you serious? You know all of that shit is demonstrably false. Tell me you haven’t been reading that garbage.”

“That’s what mainstream media is telling you, but what if it’s not?”

“‘What if it’s not?’ isn’t a response. And forget all of the stuff about the media. That’s a separate issue. Do you really believe that a candidate for President of the United States, not to mention someone who has been both first lady and a senator is secretly in some kind of satan cult? That’s not possible. Just shut up about that stuff, because it’s not true.”

Denver looks deflated and then frustrated.

“Can you for one minute step away from being a total sheep and admit that there could be things going on in the world that you don’t know about?”

“Sure. But not that shit. It’s stupid. And what does it have to do with Burt Reynolds?”

“You have to find the anomalies. Why wouldn’t somebody with money and a reputation want to have kids? 

“Do you want to have kids?”

I ask this knowing full well that the only interaction Denver and I have with the opposite sex is liking the big titty pictures that girls we went to high school with put on Facebook.

“That is beside the fucking point, and you know it. Don’t try to change the subject. Why won’t you admit that it could be possible?”

“Because five minutes ago we were talking movie actors and now you’re trying to tell me that Hillary Clinton eats kids to get their power.”

“It sounds stupid when you say it that way.”

“It sounds stupid any way you say it. I expect more out of you. I mean, to even bring it up, you sound insane. Have you seen the video that all the tin foils talk about?”

Denver huffs and looks at his shoes.

“No. I wouldn’t want to see something like that. It’s illegal, for one, and also just monstrous. I mean, do you want to watch something like that?”

“No. But don’t you think that if there was actually a video, or any evidence at all of something like that, it would be on the news? There would be nothing that anybody could do to cover something like that up. She would be in jail or up for the death penalty. The reason that she’s not is because all of that stuff is just horseshit- stories from the Internet. People got bored and made it up one day, and doofuses like you ate them hook, line and sinker.”

Denver looks sad and I am immediately sorry for calling him a doofus. A lot of people have called him that over the years, and it never felt good to hear it.

“You don’t need to bring names into it.”

“I know. I didn’t mean it, but you’re talking crazy.”

“Maybe the stuff about Burt Reynolds. That was a little bit of extrapolation on my end. But the other stuff. What do you really think?”

“I don’t. I could care less about any of them. I certainly don’t think there are a bunch of Democrats out there eating babies, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re also not doing a damn thing for us. Neither are the Republicans. And all that mess is just a way to keep people distracted from the fact that they can’t even afford to go to the dentist.”

My teeth hurt all the damn time.

“What about if I found proof?”

“You can’t find proof for something that isn’t true, Denver. That’s not how proof works.”

“No. If I can show you something real, would you believe me?”

“There’s nothing real about it.”

“But if there was?”

“There’s not.”

And he gets that look on his face again, and I can see that however ludicrous this whole thing is, on some level he needs it. His teeth probably hurt too, and there haven’t been as many good pictures on the Facebook since everybody’s been home together for the last few months.

“Okay, man. If you can find something, I mean, I guess.”

Denver smiles for a second and then gets really serious.

“Are you absolutely sure? It’s one thing to believe, but once you know, you’re not insulated anymore.”

At this point, I’m just tired so I don’t poke a hole in his argument.

“Ok, buddy. Hit me with what you got.”

“I don’t have it yet. But if it’s there I’ll find it.”

—       

I don’t really think about it anymore, other than just being kind of extra sad for Denver on top of the malaise and boredom that is part and parcel of living out where we do, working nights at the store, and generally feeling like most of the good stuff in the world is passing us by.

It was a particularly bad shift- had to clean the restroom and some hophead hit one of the pumps requiring a call to the world’s slowest police force- so I am ready to hit the hay the minute I’m near it.

But Denver is waiting for me, and he looks extremely happy. My mind tries to come up with a list of things that could have elicited this mood, but there is only the low hum of work fatigue.

“Daniel, I did it.”

“Did what?”

I try to beat down the hum and think about what Denver possibly could have accomplished. He hadn’t been working since the Long John Silver’s shut down; it could be a job. We had also been looking for the DVD remote for a long time. Either alternative would be attractive.

I see instead that he’s holding the laptop again. The drone of work plants the seed of a headache.

“I found it.”

I know that I am too tired to watch a badly photoshopped video or worse spend thirty minutes listening to a former Amway distributor lay out ninety minutes of thick exposition on a thin premise.

“Denver, I know what I said, but I had to call in the police at work today and somebody blew up the bathroom. I want to give this the attention it deserves.”

That last bit was a lie, but it served a two-fold purpose of getting me out of listening to whatever Denver was trying to show me and sparing his feelings. This had become a common practice for me once I had to come back home. Because I couldn’t get by out in the world, I had to find ways to do it here. Half truths usually fit the bill. Denver or the people who knew me from a while back are usually all too happy to play along, and I just don’t have the sand tonight. I put up my hands and begin to unspool my big beg-off, but Denver somehow gets too big for me to walk around and jams his laptop in my face.

“Do you see it?”

I see something, but I don’t really understand what I’m looking at. I rub my eyes, hoping that will bring some clarity, but my eyes are too tired to focus.

“Looks impressive, Denver. What is it?”

“This is it. This is the proof.”

“What?”

“You said that you wanted some proof. I found it.”

The bottom drops out of my exhaustion. I immediately picture Denver on a scavenger hunt to the worst parts of the Internet, skinned clean of every piece of personal information and separated from what little property and cash he had left from our parents.

“What did you do?”

He looks at me like I’m the one with the problem, which in some ways I guess I am.

“The other day you said that I needed to go out and find proof that there were some awful things happening.”

Denver shudders and I wonder what he could have seen to shake him up so bad. I should have been harder on him at the beginning and now we wouldn’t be here. And he still might have signed over the deed to the house.

“Are you OK?”

“Are you OK with what they’re doing to those kids?”

“C’mon. Don’t start in on that again.”

“Daniel, damn it, you need to see this.”

I shrugged. I sighed. I do that a lot.

“Okay. Let’s go and sit at the table to look at it.”

Denver looks relieved. I close my eyes and pinch my nose.

There is an e-mail open on the screen.

Order of the Eagle

Protecting America’s Freedom

Since 1776

Dear Patriot,

Thank you for your interest in our important work. The radical left seeks to make this great nation another socialist puppet nation, but true patriots like you are willing to stand up and be counted among the few brave souls willing to hold the breach for the American dream. Please sign up for our exclusive e-mail list to receive information about the depths of the corruption and depravity of the far left that is eating away at the roots of freedom in this great nation. Act quickly! The fate of the nation depends on the willingness of the few brave souls like yourself to step forward!

In Freedom and Strength,

Gerald Lincoln

“Did you join some kind of group? Did you spend money?”

The questions don’t register with Denver.

“Daniel, did you read it?”

“What am I supposed to be reading here?”

“This is it- the proof you wanted. Just keep reading.”

I skipped down to the next message.

Dear Denver,

Thank you again for your interest in our work and willingness to help our beautiful democracy from being perverted by the forces of leftist socialism. I also see that you have come into some sensitive information. I applaud your bravery in seeking out my organization, but the topics you have brought up are extremely sensitive. It is best to keep this sort of information private. Send me your information, and we can make contact in a safer environment. If you need anything until then, you can send a message to one of our other outlets. Please be sure to include the exact member you are sending the message.

In Freedom and Strength,

Gerald Lincoln

“Daniel, can I trust you? Like really trust you?”

“Of course, Denver. What do you want to tell me?”

My fatigue has bloomed into a full-blown headache, accompanied by the fits and starts of my brain trying to picture what Denver’s done.

“That part about including the exact member, that means I should send any messages about the other side in code.”

“The other side? Do you mean the Democrats?”

“Daniel, if it was only the Democrats, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s next level.”

“What do you mean, next level? The e-mail just talks about the liberals.”

“That’s for a cover. The Order hides in plain sight, you know.”

I don’t want to know, but I need to.

Denver takes a deep breath and then moves to the window. He scans the empty yard and then draws the curtains.

“You’d better have a seat.”

He motions to the kitchen table. I pour myself some cold coffee and sock in to hear what he has to say.

“Daniel, I’m going to go ahead and tell you that what I’m going to say is plenty upsetting. And please, let me finish before you ask any questions. You need to hear this.”

He sounds halted, like he is trying to deliver a canned speech.

“Our great nation under assault from forces that seek to cripple it. I know what you are thinking, the liberals have always tried to bring down the government and have never succeeded. Well this is different.”

Denver stops to take a breath and recall the next part of the speech.

“The left has become so tired of losing that they have joined up with an entity so awful that it is almost not to be believed. Daniel, I have to ask you this. Are you sure you want to hear this? This information might change your life.”

Even if this wasn’t almost certainly the work of an outright charlatan, there weren’t many things that I could hear that would make my life any worse.

“Denver, I think I can handle it.”

No matter what ruinous thing might have happened, I have thirty minutes at most before my body powers down completely. I can’t muster the level of emotion that Denver expects. He moves close so he can be sure he what’s left of my attention.

“Are you absolutely sure? This is serious, Daniel.”

I nod as solemnly as I can manage.

“OK, so what’s going on is that after realizing that they will never win legitimately, the Democrats, led by you know who, entered into an agreement with the ancient blood cult already running Hollywood in exchange for world domination. The Democrats get to enact all the new world policies and the cult is basically in charge and gets to operate with free rein in the borders of the United States.”

“Denver, are you talking about Jewish people?”

“What are you talking about? I didn’t say anything about Jewish people. This is just the Democrats and a blood cult. There are a lot of good Jewish people. The ones is Israel, they know what’s up. They just want the holy land back.”

We’d been to vacation bible school maybe once or twice growing up, and now Denver was a religious scholar.

“That’s a lot to take in.”

“Can you believe it?”

“No.”

“I know. But there’s more.”

“Of course.”

“The only thing the cult couldn’t plan for was the rise of Trump. You see, Clinton was supposed to win the election. That would have cemented the relationship. But in order for her to win, there would have needed to be a very weak Republican candidate. The cult had paved the way for Jeb Bush to win the nomination. Do you remember how all the hype was for him at the beginning of the election?”

Denver didn’t remember this, and neither did I. At that point in history, politics were boring. Washington might as well have been on the moon. I nodded anyway.

“That’s because the Bush family joined the conspiracy.”

“Before or after George W. was president?”

“I don’t really know. I think it was after. Definitely before McCain’s funeral, because he was sitting beside them, you know.”

“Denver, are you scared to say Obama?”

“No. I just don’t want to say that name out loud. Once I tell you what he’s brought upon this country.

“Come on Denver, this is just the same junk. Bored guys with computers making up stories.”

“That’s the easy thing to say. This is different. You said you’d listen until the end. You’ll see then.”

“Denver, there is nothing you can say that will make me believe all of this garbage.”

“Then you don’t have any reason not to listen to me, do you?”

“Okay, but make it quick.”

“I’ll try, but you have to hear all of this.”

Denver gets deadly serious again and I resolve to sit quietly so I can at least get some little bit of sleep tonight.

“So the left has made a pact with the cult, but Trump comes out of nowhere to win the election. They have to go underground. They burn some of their assets. Epstein gets arrested and then murdered in jail. They made it look like it was something Trump wanted done, but he had been working to expose Epstein. They threatened all the Democrats, so that’s why Clinton didn’t protest the election, even though she knew that she was supposed to win. And that’s why the former president has kept his mouth shut this entire time. Not only did he know that he would be taken out, he figured that Trump’s election was only a setback to the overall plan. These people are real operators after all.”

Denver pauses. I nod so that he knows that I am, if not absorbing the full import of his story, at least paying attention.

“And the overall plan is still in play. There have been some minor incursions so far, like when Wayfair was exposed and they burned down the room in Comet they were using for the trafficking.”

“Denver, we talked about this.”

“I know, and you told me you’d hear me out.”

“I said I wanted proof. This is just more stories.”

“The proof is coming. Just you wait. Even though we were making some headway on the smaller fronts, the larger plan hadn’t gone anywhere. Trump has tried to subvert it, but he’s only one man and people he thought he could trust have turned against him. He also has to protect his own family, so a lot of the heavy lifting in the storm is going to fall to those of us who don’t have families. Wives and kids. You know.”

It didn’t seem kind to point out that these would also be exactly the kind of people with time enough to go down an Internet rabbit hole.

“What are you talking about, storm?”

“We’re taking them out, Daniel. They’ve failed once, and so this time is it. These people are coming for our kids, for weapons, and for our freedoms. The United States as we know it will be gone. That’s why we have to do something.”

“What are you talking about, Denver? This seems kind of scary. I know what I said about finding proof and listening to you to the end, but I need to know if you’re planning on doing something stupid.”

“Daniel, my eyes are opened for the first time. I see that I’m needed. It’s not stupid. I’m going to a meeting to plan what happens next and do my part to save the country.”

“People aren’t taking kids and there’s no cult trying to take over the government. The government is just a bunch of rich people trying to get richer.”

“That’s just what they want you to think. The plan is so big and so awful that it sounds like it can’t be true. It has to be lies and garbage, like you say. And that’s all the space they need. I’m not going to let it happen. Mr. Lincoln and his group aren’t going to let it happen either. That’s why I’m going to officially join the movement. I believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Too much stuff lines up. Trump is laying the groundwork every day. From the moment that he won, he said that he was going to make America great again. And how he means to do it is by stopping this before it goes any farther. If you really want to know, you can come with me.”

“Denver, why would you want to go to one of those things. You hate stuff like that.”

“This isn’t one of the public meetings. Those are just for appearances. This is a group that actually gets things done.”

“Some of these people are crazy. Like those guys who were going to kidnap the Michigan governor or that guy who ran down the protestor in Virginia. Is the Order one of those type of groups?”

“Daniel, I’m not going to do anything against my code. But you have to realize that sometimes patriots break the law. Think about the Boston Tea Party. Those were patriots who were breaking the law.”

“Denver, that was a different time. And if you want to go dump some tea in a river, that’s fine. I don’t want you blowing something up.”

“I don’t think that’s what this is about. It’s about stopping a cult. I suppose there might be some violence, but these guys seem like they know what’s happening, Daniel.”

“How can you say that? You’ve never met them. You just showed me two e-mails.”

“If you would read all of their posts and pages, you’d see, but you’re not interested in that. You’re too comfortable in the life that that has been created for you. Stepping outside of your comfort zone isn’t possible, because you’d have to realize that so much of what you accept isn’t true or healthy. The government isn’t here to help you.”

“And what is happening is some kind of cult?”

“You say that like it’s so far out there. What’s more believable, that a country with severe racial divisions just happens to elect its first black president, who is an unknown, pliable to special interests, and connected to all kinds of leftist terrorists, or that there is a group working behind the scenes to manipulate the levers?”

Denver isn’t taking any breathers at this point, and I see that these points have become ingrained over time. I guess I assumed that since we lived together and had variations of the same life, that we had the same outlook on most things.

“I can’t really deal with this right now, Denver. I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“You don’t need to say anything. You don’t need to do anything. This is something I’ve made my mind up to do. If you want to join me, I think that would be okay, but if you don’t that’s fine too. The order doesn’t want anybody who doesn’t fully believe.”

“And by believe, you mean all this stuff about Obama and cults? And this is stuff that this order has told you?”

Denver nods.

“I wish I could show you, but part of protocol is to delete anything sensitive from your hard drive immediately. Shit.”

He hits delete on the two e-mails he showed me and then breathes a sigh of relief.

“That’s crazy. Do you think that people are watching the computer?”

“You think they’re not? Google and Apple funnel everything straight to the government. Nobody has a landline anymore.”

“But how would they find you? It would be like finding a needle in an infinite haystack. I don’t want to hurt your feelings again, but don’t you think that the government, or even this blood cult, should it exist, has slightly bigger fish to fry?”

“You’re out of the loop, Daniel. It’s all about crawling for the little bits of information. It could be safe nine hundred and ninety nine times out of a thousand, but as soon as one of their data miners gets a hold of a single piece, the thread starts to unravel. So, no, I don’t think I’m Neo or anything, but I’m also not going to provide any information for an NSA bot.”

“How long have you been thinking about this?”

“I don’t know. When I was out from work that time.”

“How did you find it? I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Denver’s eyes flash.

“You don’t know where to find it because you don’t want to see it. But YouTube, I guess. I just started with some Joe Rogan, and then he had some guys on his show, and I watched a couple of their videos. They talked about a few other things, and eventually I started finding some message boards.”

I’m impressed and confused, having idly tried to find some of the Qanon drops when they were on a podcast. I’d run into a total brick wall. It made me a little angry and embarrassed that Denver had succeeded where I had failed. That, though, was pettiness for another time.

“And you started following it?”

“No. Not at first. A lot of that stuff is like you said, shit posters trying to get attention, but if you look at enough of them, you see something come out of it. Some of the stuff just seems more real, like whoever is doing it has some real knowledge. I just learned to find those posts more often than not. Most of them make a lot of sense, at and there has to be something going on. One you start putting all the stuff together, there’s a pattern. And that pattern is the smoke that shows the fire.”

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure. I knew that you would eventually have a lot of questions. I did too when I started out. I also had a bunch of doubts. The media is connected. They are invested in making people question anything other than the mainstream narrative. That’s why there’s so much negative coverage. They want you to think that people like me are stupid.”

The phrase ‘people like me’ hung in the air. I wondered what Denver meant- did he identify with the conspiracy crowd because he’d had it rough at school and had to get a GED, or maybe since there weren’t any decent jobs to be had and he’d ended up on disability and then laid off from the mine. Maybe he thought that he’d been cheated out of something; all of the doctors at the emergency room talked with foreign accents and the news channel showed an endless loop of brown skinned women shrilly demanding that the police be defunded. These images were all over the place- the billboards with aborted fetuses calling for God’s retribution, TAXATION IS THEFT painted on the side barn with COME AND TAKE “EM beside a skull and an AR-15. I knew those people were out there; they were in the store and weren’t really quiet about their opinions.

“You really feel that everything these Order of the Eagle people have is real information? You said that it sounds crazy, but you still think it’s true?”

“I told you, it’s really not that crazy. When you really consider some of the things our government has done over the years, it’s not that far a leap. And if you want to know what the Order has to say about things why don’t you come to the meeting with me?”

“I don’t know, man.”

“I’d like to think you’re with me.”

“Denver, you know that I’m always with you. I don’t know about these other guys.”

“Okay. I know that. No matter what happens, we’re good. And I know it’s an awful lotto take in. You want a beer?”

I know that this simple action would mean a lot to Denver, but I just haven’t got the sand.

“You’re not leaving before tomorrow, are you?”

He grins, forgiving me my weakness.

“I’ll probably be around. Can’t eat inside the McDonald’s anyway.”

I hear Denver snoring when I walk by his room in the morning.

I fretted for a little while about what he was doing on the computer, but exhaustion overtook me and I slept anyway. The ancient laptop was sitting on the kitchen table. I know that I should trust him, but I don’t, and that this fascination, despite his seeming commitment, probably wasn’t anything more serious than when he was into fantasy football or wanted to become a day trader. I can’t really trust that either. I hit the switch on the coffee pot and weigh my options. I flip the screen open before the first drips hit the bottom of the carafe.

The computer is from the high school. Denver brought it home years ago as part of an initiative to turn all the underprivileged kids into coders. He had dropped out slowly over a couple years, and, surprisingly, nobody ever came from the school to pick it up. When I’d come home from school, I wasn’t in the mood for an online existence, but I used it periodically to spy on some old classmates or pay whatever bills we could cover that month. I waited for the ancient machine to wheeze to life. When the screen finally illuminated, it was not the familiar background of our high school seal, but a login screen requesting a user name and a password. I pushed the screen closed and waited for the coffee to finish and Denver to awake. I needed to talk to my brother.

—       

“It’s my computer.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t. But first you tell me you’re joining this group, and then you lock me out of the computer.”

“It wasn’t you I was locking out. If, for some reason, that computer falls into the wrong hands, I want them to at least have some trouble getting in there. It may be just the little bit of time I need.”

“Need for what? Bruce Willis to come and rescue you, or maybe Burt Reynolds?”

“You laugh, but you have to put up every obstacle possible.”

“For who?”

“I told you, Daniel, these are some bad guys. All of a sudden, a patriot can become an illegal citizen. Them black helicopter boys from the C.I.A. scoop you up, and they never hear from you again.”

“Again, do you really think that the government or some faction within the government has time to come and find your computer? You told me yesterday you’re deleting everything from it anyway. You sound nuts, Denver.”

“I’m not nuts and I’m not stupid and I’m not paranoid. What I am is aware, finally, of what’s really happening here in what we thought was our country.”

“Denver, I don’t think any of that is true.”

“Daniel…”

He’s balling up his fists. The best possible outcome is that we hash out the same conversation and at worst I catch a beating.

“Wait. Now, I don’t believe any of it. You said that’s okay, right?”

“I can’t tell you what to think, but you can’t tell me either.”

“And I don’t want to. I just see that you are getting really involved in something that might be pretty dangerous. If I came home and said I was joining the Marines, you’d want to talk to me about it, right?”

Denver rolls his eyes. It’s an irrefutable point.

“Yes.”

“And you’d probably wonder how I came to want to join the Marines, given that I hadn’t expressed a whole lot of interest in being one, right?”

“I guess.”

“You might even want to talk me out of it.”

“You’re not going to talk me out of this.”

“I know that. But would you want me to go off and join the Marines, even if my interest was really unshakeable? You’d worry about me getting hurt, maybe having to go somewhere and fight?”

“Sure, and you know a lot of those Marines can be crazy. Smart guy like you would be better off in the Air Force.”

“Can you see where I’m coming from then? This could be dangerous, and it’s not exactly the Marines.”

“I guess, but sometimes people have to stand up for what’s right. And if it’s dangerous, it’s dangerous. And if you’re wanting to be a Marine for the right reasons, I guess I’d support your decision. I’m your brother.” 

“But you’d at least know that there was something in place to protect me? There’s like a chain of command. It’s not like I’d be going off to join a bike gang or something.”

“Bike gangs have a chain of command.”

“That’s beside the point. If I was doing something dangerous, you’d be worried. If I was doing something dangerous that you didn’t know a lot about, you’d be even more worried, right?”

“Right.”

“Well that’s where I am. I don’t want you to go off and get hurt or arrested.”

“I’m ready to do what needs to be done. I’m not going to get hurt, but if I do it’s in the pursuit of something I believe in, so that’s okay with me.”

This is where the conversation begins and ends. I can express concern and Denver can acknowledge it, but I can’t see any argument that will turn him back. Time was, whether it was learning to play guitar or starting at the junior college, whenever the going got tough, Denver got moving straight for the couch. Sheer inertia kept him playing video games and watching football, because the alternative seemed too daunting. The same was true for me. Navigating the maze of higher education proved too much after a short while; it was easier to come back here and carve out what little existence was left. I thought that Denver and I had made the same decision, but something had dislodged him. He seemed energized, different from the vaguely distracted, dulled version of my brother that I had grown comfortable running out the clock with.

I nod in recognition of his victory.

“Okay, man. If this is going to happen and there’s nothing I can say to talk you out of it now, you were serious about me being able to come with you?”

Denver ponders. He had never considered that I would want to come with him, just like I had never considered he took any of this stuff seriously.

“You have to take it seriously. No cutting up or anything.”

“I can do that. I will tell you that if the talk turns violent or racist, I’m leaving. I hope you’ll come with me.”

“Daniel, these guys are not the racists; that’s the media making them look that way. And mostly because they were standing against the agenda of the former president.”

I swallow the words. We’re past that now.

“All right, so they’re not racist. Fine. And I understand that you’re an adult and can do what you want, but will you promise to at least hear me? You’re all I have left.”

He looks like he’s going to cry. I’m holding it back too. This is the end or the beginning of something. We just haven’t decided which one.

—       

The day crawls by. Denver is busy, alternating time between the computer, which he subtly but thoroughly blocks from my view, and making countless little travel adjustments that people who rarely leave the house will do before going on a car trip to the beach. Denver walks by in long pants, which I haven’t seen him wear in months. He’s been laid up for a while; they don’t really fit and I can tell from his walk. He settles on a pair of Wranglers that he irons on the counter in the kitchen, working slowly to wrestle the wrinkled denim into something that resembles acceptability. He hangs them carefully over the back of a chair and moves to making sandwiches and a pot of coffee for the thermos. Then it’s back to the computer for a while and into the shower. He emerges, puts on the jeans and sits on the couch. He checks the clock periodically then pronounces we need to be ready to leave in an hour. I take my cues from Denver, get showered and put on some decent looking clothes. It’s hard to know what to wear to a fringe meeting.

“Which vehicle?”

“I think we should take the truck.”

Denver grins and I can see that there is a hint of fun in this mission, despite its seriousness.

“Are you sure it’s running?”

“Yeah.”

He looks sheepish.

“I’ve had it out a couple of times. Put some gas in it and stuff.”

Denver probably looked like Dad behind the wheel, trolling around town from Wendy’s to the bank. I’d wanted to sell it, but Denver spun a story about doing some yard work on the side and needing something to haul his mower. I accepted this explanation and didn’t say anything as it sat rusting beside the house. He’d washed it periodically, but it remained in the yard as a more conveniently located tombstone. Maybe he had been driving it all along, but if there was going to be a silver lining from this shit storm, maybe Denver would get out a little bit.

“Cool. I assume you’re driving, then?”

“I suppose I do know where we’re going. And you’re used to driving that golf cart.”

Denver had always made jokes about my car, a red Prius with a taped up bumper, of which I was the third owner. I had kept it even when I could have used the truck; it was my car, and I had made the payments on it. The car also, as it fell apart around me, reminded me of the pretensions that I’d once held for my success. Every time I had had to hit the dash to activate the radio stuck on right wing AM news, the action drove home how far I had ended up from my goal. I had always considered the jokes from Denver and Dad good natured, the ribbing of family members reminding a loved one not to forget their origins. I’d felt this way mainly because I knew on most levels that I was making the right moves, that eventually, even though I’d be the bigger person and not point it out, the car, the college, and my aspirations to leave would work out to my benefit. Standing in the mud outside the manufactured home that was in about as good shape as my car, waiting to go to a meeting of conspiracy theorists, I had never felt further from any of my aspirations to success.

“Sure. And between you and Dad, poor truck wouldn’t know what to do if someone actually shifted it correctly.”

Denver puckers his face and then grins, shooting me the bird. Maybe it is all good natured. He’s not totally lost to me, and this conspiracy stuff is just an unexpected side effect of unsettled times. We’ll go, listen to some disgruntled old men grumble for a while, get bored, maybe hit a drive through on the way home.

—       

The truck is cold, but I don’t dare open the thermos until we hit better roads. I fasten my seat belt and huddle into my jacket. Denver fiddles with the mirror, punches the first preset on the radio and eases the truck down into the muddy driveway.

“What, are you so outside the mainstream now that you don’t wear a seatbelt?”

Denver wants to make a snappy comeback but it dies somewhere on the way to his mouth.

“No. I just forgot.”

He snaps the clasp and I know that he forgot because he’s excited to get on the road. This is part of his personality. He got excited about going out for football and needed to start running seemingly at that exact instant. He returned about fifteen minutes later and relieved himself of his recently finished lunch in the front yard. He tried to clean it up with the hose. Dad always reminded him of it. He’d played for a couple of seasons but didn’t have the killer instinct needed to move up. One day he was at home watching television instead of at practice, and that was it. The pattern repeated here and there. He wanted to play guitar, purchased an old Honda motorcycle that rusted against the back of the house. He talked sometimes about getting a dog, but never seemed to remember to save the gas bill for proof of residence.

We ride in silence for a little while, letting Bob Seger fill the silence. I thought maybe Denver would want to listen to talk radio, but I don’t mention it. The creek road is dark and Denver, despite his excitement, drives carefully. Ending up in the ditch would be a quick end to the evening.

Denver waits at the turnoff for the main road, making sure no one is flying around the turn before easing out into his lane. I give him a few minutes to get settled, wait to make sure that the song is nothing either of us want to hear.

“Do you know how this is going to go tonight?”

Denver sits is silence for a while. I wonder if he’s so focused that he hasn’t heard me.

“I’m not sure, really. I don’t know how formal it is. I don’t think we’ll pray or sing the anthem or anything. These guys seem like they’d just get down to business. I suppose there will be coffee. There’s usually coffee, right?”

“I don’t know. Are we going to someone’s house or like a Holiday Inn or something?”

Denver turns toward me. His eyes are narrowed. I don’t even have time to chide him about looking at the road.

“Why are you asking that question?”

He’s serious again, like he was last night.

“I was just wondering. I’m coming with you. What’s it matter if I want to know where we’re going?”

Denver grunts and turns back to the road. A tense minute passes and he snaps off the radio.

“Why did you all of a sudden decide to come with me?”

“We talked about this. I just want to see…”

I catch myself before I say what he’s gotten himself mixed up in.

“…what you’re so passionate about.”

“Okay. And you didn’t tell anybody where we were going?”

I don’t know who I would have told. I see Denver on a daily basis and a rotating crew of teenagers and working moms at the store.

“No. You might have noticed that I pretty much haven’t been out of your sight all day. You don’t need to be paranoid.”

“You don’t understand. I have to be careful. The bad guys are everywhere, and they don’t want us to succeed. They will stop at nothing to get their power back, and that makes them desperate.”

Denver is white knuckling the steering wheel. It’s uncomfortable.

“And they were drinking blood even when things were good.”

Denver shoots daggers at me, grips the wheel hard enough to snap it in two.

“You don’t know the half of it. Laugh all you want, but you’ll see tonight.”

“Denver, man, can you take it a little easy? You look like you’re sitting an inch off the chair.”

“Just keep your eyes and ears open tonight. You can’t not be angry about it. And I didn’t mean to snap at you, but nothing can screw up what’s happening tonight. This is a chance to end real evil. This can’t be screwed up.”

Denver exhales and relaxes a little bit. He flips the radio back on.

“How about we just listen to some music for a while?”

This might be his attempt at an apology or it could just be him acknowledging that he’s way too keyed up to have a conversation with someone not on his exact wavelength.

The road rolls by and we sit in silence. Eventually the exits start to get closer together. The big box stores and fast food joints repeat. We eat the sandwiches and finish the coffee, still rolling.

We pass an exit and Denver starts checking the rearview mirror periodically. Is he so far gone that he thinks someone is tailing us? Is someone tailing us? I have to shake that thought out of my head, but it keeps eating at me. That’s the problem with the logic of conspiracy. Just because you know it’s not true doesn’t mean it’s not. There’s not a fact that can’t be questioned when reason is put aside.

What I try to read on Denver as we dip over at the last possible second to take the ramp is why he stopped asking questions when the prospect of blood drinking Democrats came up. What about this particular version of the truth hooked him? There’s the obvious stuff, but no matter how simple that is, how often it’s on the television or on display in your town, the fact that it could be in your own home is beyond belief. Other people fall for the lies and embrace the theories.

But somebody had to be at Jonestown.

Manson wasn’t alone when they arrested him.

I’m lost in creating meaning. Denver is still driving. He checks the mirror and makes a right hard enough to push me against the passenger door. We’ve turned off the main drag and are driving back into a maze of industrial buildings. It’s past business hours. There’s no other traffic visible. One more mirror check and Denver switches the headlights off. I want to protest, but after our last exchange I decide to keep my mouth shut. I try to focus on exactly where we are going, but Denver is, by design, driving in circles.

He pulls off in a parking space shadowed by a building. I look for signs of life, but all the windows are dark.

“We walk from here.”

Denver isn’t waiting for me, so I jump down out of the cab and double time it to catch up. He doesn’t acknowledge me, but instead scans the area, looking for whoever wasn’t tailing us in the truck.

Denver hops a curb and heads across the parking lot of a warehouse. He moves quickly to the dark area on the side of the building and beckons me to join him.

“Come on!”

He gives me the loudest whisper possible. I’m still trying to make sure I don’t break an ankle, so he gives me an exasperated look.

“You need to move fast. Those cameras are everywhere.”

I forget that I’m keeping my mouth shut for a second.

“Wouldn’t the cameras also catch us going across the parking lot?”

Denver’s exasperation turns into pity. He shrugs and moves down the side of the building. I shrug at what I consider to be a valid point and follow him.

He stops and so do I. He checks the area and takes off again. I try to keep up, but nearly die on another curb. Denver, already in the shadow of the next building breaks a little and giggles at me.

“Always was extremely graceful. God damn, son. Stealth.”

He leans against the brick and puffs his breath out into the night air.

“You going to make it?”

“Least I’m not falling all over the place. I’m built for this shit.”

He drops his arms to his sides and straightens his body. He’s far out of shape, but he looks confident and involved, things I haven’t seen in a long time.

“You going to keep up?”

“Yeah. I’m good.”

He takes off, full of purpose, having a ball despite the studied seriousness.

—       

Denver stops in front of a garage and goes over to a key pad by the side of the door. This is a far cry from the ballroom at the Holiday Inn, but probably better than someone’s basement.

He hits the call button. A voice comes back.

“You here for a delivery?”

Denver takes a breath to calm himself.

“I have the two by fours and one by eights.”

“Those aren’t supposed to arrive for a week.”

“It was a rush shipment from the Richmond plant.”

The speaker goes silent. A look of genuine terror crosses Denver’s face. I don’t know what a trip back to the house will be like if we’ve come all this way for nothing. It would probably be for the best, but he’ll be crushed.

There’s also the chance that he’ll never see how big of dopes these guys are. Never knowing, he’ll think they are out there on secret missions and he just didn’t make the cut. Maybe he’ll think it’s because he brought me along. I can deal with a little resentment, if it saves an arrest.

The intercom brings me out of my thought spiral.

“Richmond is always willing to put in the overtime. Are you ready to put in the overtime, patriot?”

Denver makes a fist in triumph, like he’s hit the fifty hole in skee-ball. There’s a pit in my stomach because my imagined problems suddenly seem a lot easier to solve.

“Yes. Yes sir. I am.”

Denver sounds earnest and excited- the perfect recruit. I know better than to try and stop him now.

The door lock clicks and Denver pulls it open a crack. I try to look past him, but the hallway is just darkness.

He looks at me and I just wait. Denver nods at me. We go through the door. We make a turn onto a hallway that at least has some safety lights burning. There’s a door at the end. Denver stops. His excitement has evaporated.

“Dude. I’m kind of scared.”

“What are you talking about? You’ve been telling me all day about how you knew what you were getting into.”

“I don’t know. I just thought it would be more like, I don’t know…”

“A regular meeting?”

“Yeah. I mean I at least thought there would be lights.”

“We can go back. There’s nothing keeping us here.”

I look Denver in the eye so he knows I’m serious and that he has an out. He shakes his head.

“It’s normal to be a little scared before you change your life, Daniel. I know you think I’m crazy, but this is proof that I’m not. If I was one of those guys who’ve gone really around the bend, I wouldn’t think about that at all. But I know what we’re going to see in there is scary. I think I’m more scared about not going in, though. If you want to leave, go ahead. I think this is the right thing for me.”

“No. I’ll go.”

“Okay. But realize that nothing’s going to be the same after this.”

“It’s not like things are so great, right? But let’s not get arrested.”

“They don’t arrest patriots, one way or the other, Daniel.”

Denver pulls the door the rest of the way and goes through. I take a last look at the the parking lot, which is exceedingly normal and boring, before following him. We move slowly down the hallway, guided by security lights.

The hallway seems to go on forever. I want to stop, but Denver keeps walking. There are no doors or windows. I don’t see anything on the walls. I’m thoroughly creeped, but I’m also not letting Denver out of my sight.

After an eternity, the hallway ends in a small room. There are two doors on the opposite end. I look for a light switch, but there doesn’t seem to be one.

“Welcome patriots!”

Denver and I both jump about a foot. The voice is coming from an intercom mounted above the second door. My heart is still beating fast, but I think it’s just that I’m startled. It’s just a normal school announcement speaker. This is probably a machine shop, and a few hours ago it was used to tell someone to call the wife. Nothing to freak out about.

“You have been summoned to join the Order if the Eagle. If you truly believe that the United States is in grave danger from the threat of the socialist left, and that most precious gift, our human rights and democracy, are being stolen from us even as we speak, then walk through the first door to your destiny.”

Denver takes a deep breath, rolls his shoulders back, and starts across the room to the left. He barely makes it a step when the voice stops him cold.

“Halt. Before you open that door, you must ask yourself, is there really a chance that any of these insane conspiracies are true? Are these stories not just appealing to the absolute worst parts of your privileged, bigoted existence? You should feel embarrassed and ashamed that you’ve come here. If you want to truly make the world a better place, go through the second door. The soul you save just might be your own!”

Denver turns around and looks at me. I shake my head and try my own loud whisper. 

“I don’t know what’s going on. Is this something they talked about?”

Denver shakes his head. He looks away from me to the speaker. As if in response, it crackles to life.

“You haven’t moved? Not ready to accept the mantle of the patriot or admit that you need to do some serious soul searching? Pathetic. Make a choice!”

We both continue to stand, dumbfounded.

“Typical white American males- too scared to take a stand, too in love with their own privilege to admit they need to change. Chicken shit, are you? Then turn your yellow bellies down the hallway and go back the way you came. Forget you were ever here! Live like the sheep you are, you limp dick bastards.”

“Denver, let’s get the hell out of here. This is insane. We need to go.”

“Wait for a second. Maybe this is the last big test. If I can be swayed by someone yelling at me from a speaker, what are the odds I’ll be there when the shit really hits the fan?”

Denver raises his index finger to the speaker.

“If I’m ready to be a solider, it shouldn’t matter what’s coming out of that box. I need to know. There’s always a trial before the mystery. Like in Indiana Jones.”

“FUCK!”

It flies out of me primally. Denver stops in his tracks. I’m surprised that the speaker box doesn’t comment.

“Fuck this, and fuck you! I’ve humored you since your stupid god damned Burt Reynolds theory. I worry about you, because all you do is sit around and apparently look at this stupid shit all day. This is not exciting. This is not important. This is pathetic. All of it. The thoughts that brought you here. The fact that you’re willing to believe it. If you want to go through a door, go through the one where you admit you have a problem. Fucking solider! You’re a stupid little baby.”

Denver gets his hurt look on his face. I can’t care anymore.

“Daniel, wait.”

“I don’t want to wait. I want to go home. I want my brother back. I want this shit to be over. If you have to see what’s on the other side of the door, so be it. Just make a choice.”

I think for a minute that he’s going to deck me. Instead, he exhales through his nostrils and makes his decision.

Ending One: Leaving out the back

Ending Two: The First Door

Ending Three: The Second Door

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