They Came For Tennessee
The May air is thick like syrup this side of the grasslands. It clings to you as you walk, swarming with the hum of dying mosquitoes and crickets. This is deadland, the local folks call it, everything the color of hunger and bone. Nothing to eat but the long dry grass and the hot red dust that burns into your tongue when you speak. That’s why we moved here, David had told them back in twenty two. No one bothers you in the land of the dead.
After the first pandemic, everyone had left the cities. Not because they feared another disease, particularly one as mild as that, but because they feared the hysteria. They longed for a place where they weren’t being watched, shut up, guarded and controlled. Open land, long walks and neighbors too far away to go calling the police from behind net curtains. As the carcasses of cities drained of the blood of their people, the price of land rocketed. The good lands, up around New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, were the first to go. Billionaires bought up 200 miles of forest and set up camp in gated communities, far away from the rules and restrictions of the plebeians locked up in Detroit and Chicago. The millionaires, too, did what they could with their Colorado ranches and the middle classes grappled to buy what dilapidated farmhouses they could find in the swamps. Soon, anyone with any sense had a good 300 feet from the nearest neighbor. America became terrified of a new epidemic of unseen deadliness; the watchers. We had become afraid of eachother.
David was smart enough, as an economist, to know which way the winds were blowing. He had carefully plotted out a graph of demographics across the US, state by state, county by county, red line after red line ticking off his list. “Where are we going?” I had asked, packing up the last of the boxes from out little apartment in Tiburon. I had loved it here, with its kitsch boulevards and leafy canopies over quiet cafes. Before the pandemic, I would never have left. I had imagined pushing some imagined child around, stopping to chat with innocuous neighbors over burnt coffee and crepes. But that was all gone now. I had expected him to say; Miami, or Florida. Maybe Minnesota, where he had grown up in the nineties. He circled Todd County, Tennessee, and grinned at me.
“That’s it, baby,” he said. “The place where we’re safe from Them.”
Perhaps Them was the government. Or maybe the local authorities, or the police. Maybe Them was the name of the woman who films you on her phone when you stop to talk to a friend in the street. Maybe that’s the name of the neighbor who reports you for holding your mother’s hand while she’s dying, or the person who calls for capital punishment for those who leave there homes in a lockdown. When this began, you had to be a selfish, irresponsible fool to be afraid of Them. Now, you just had to be human.
“The west of Todd County,” David had told me triumphantly, “Is so remote, so bone dry and so dead that no one will buy land there. No one will want their babies around rattlesnakes and mine shafts. We’ll be safe. No informer settlers for us, baby.”
Standing in the long hot grass that cuts your calves and rattles with the remains of cattle, that was certainly still true. Everything was dead here, bleached white and hard, unfeeling. This was our very own planet, an alien sun rising over a featureless horizon, not even a road winding up into somewhere. Nowheresville used to be an insult, now it was our utopia. David had swung me round on his shoulders and kissed me when we arrived, calling those words out again and again;
We’re free, we’re free. We’re finally free.
We thought we would be, back then. David was right about the settlers at least; they would never come here. We would never face neighbors informing and politicking about restrictions and laws. This land would remain flat, barren and ugly, scars running through the dust where the hares and lizards ran, nothing interrupting the whip of the wind but our old radio. We had deleted our accounts on social media, got rid of our emails. David had smashed up his iPad in the bath, bottle of liquor in one hand, hammer in the other. They couldn’t control us, not out here. If they wanted to send us a letter in the mail fining us for standing close to eachother, to hell with them. We had thought that would be enough. It would have been enough.
I swat a drone away from my face. It’s no bigger than a finger nail, a gleaming locust against the blue sky. They get so close now, trying to gauge your symptoms, expression and mood. I regret it instantly, as three more appear as back up. They watch you, constantly. “There’s no need,” I say aloud. “I’m alone now, aren’t I? Who could I possibly infect?” Maybe They can hear me. They must be recording, by now. Why take images if you can’t take sound? The drones hover there, watching, until I turn and make my way back to the shack. They follow, slowly, beeping to remind me to let them in before I shut the door. Privacy, remember that? A glorious right, an impossible fiction of a bygone era.
One flickers in front of me, watching. “You know where David is, don’t you?” I ask it. “Is David coming back? Do you let people come back?” They aren’t real people, I know, but it’s a question I want Them to know I’m asking. I haven’t forgotten him. I’ll never let them make me forget.
“People punished under The Restrictions Act are not eligible for public freedom,” the drone recording plays, for the hundredth time. “You can avoid losing your public freedoms by following The Restrictions Act. Stay Alert, Save Lives.”
“Did you save his life?” I ask it scathingly. “I’d have thought it would have put more people at risk, sending all those officers down to the deadlands to arrest him.”
The drone paused. “The Restrictions Act is in place to save lives.”
The recording cuts off, and I lie back and watch the weeds that have grown through the rafters drift against the fan. I like focusing on that one spot in the room, the one place in my vision that could have looked the same as before all this happened.
“Is anyone still living?”