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I can see her every day. I close my eyes and she appears out of the darkness, a brightness that I simply don't deserve. I can still picture her on that day. She wore a white tank top and capri pants, although it took me months to remember that was what they were called. She stood in the light, its beams touching the soft skin of her cheeks and the heart-stopping strength in her eyes. Her dark hair was pulled back, highlighting the lines of her face and classically long neck. She looked like a runner and a leader, a mother and a timeless beauty, at least to me. And I saw the ring on her finger, silver and simple. Her name was Julia. Julia Swann.
On the day it happened, she sat on her back porch with two neighbors, Evelyn and Tara. Their kids played out in the yard with large and expensive water guns. Their excited screams echoed throughout the tight-knit, established neighborhood nestled in the countryside outside Philadelphia.
"Can you believe the riots last night?" Julia asked.
"Crazy, right? I don't get it."
"Me, either," Evelyn said. "These protests are sort of like the wrestling my brother used to watch when he was a kid."
Julia laughed. "Yeah, but that was fake. This is real."
"I think they should just arrest them all," Tara said, her tone sharper than the others'. "They're full of it. Screaming about promises and that damn wall! No one even seems to care that so many people are losing their jobs."
Evelyn and Julia didn't say anything for a moment. They knew full well how charged this topic could be, especially with Tara. Yet Julia also knew how worried her friend was. And she wanted to give her a chance to let it out. Maybe it would help.
"Over a thousand layoffs?" she asked, her brow rising and her glass of chardonnay tipping in her right hand. Tara nodded. Her eyes reddened as she looked away. Most of the neighborhood knew that she and her family probably would have to move if her husband couldn't find a new job.
"It's just so messed up," Tara said. "I mean, I thought he'd work there for his entire career. That's what my dad did."
"Everything's so different now," the third mother, Evelyn Chase, added. She had short dark hair and wore coordinating Athleta running clothes.
Julia leaned back and watched the children. Her boys, Evan, 12, and Thomas, 8, were close friends with Evelyn's oldest, Brady. At that moment, they stood with their heads close together, like they were planning the perfect coordinated attack on the other children.
"Is it definite?" Julia asked.
"I think so, but they haven't announced who's getting cut. I guess there was a big meeting today, but I haven't heard anything yet."
"Can he find something local?"
Tara shook her head and laughed. "I doubt it. He's a plant geneticist. The jobs, if there are any, are going to be in the Midwest." She laughed again, but this time a tear ran down her cheek. "Can you just picture it? Me in Iowa?"
"It's really nice out there," Evelyn said. "That's what I hear. Frannie Goode moved there a few years ago and loves it."
"Really?" Tara asked.
"Yeah," Evelyn said. "You'll be okay. It'll be hard at first, but any change is. And you'll see, the kids will be great. I mean, look at them. They get along with everyone. And with their sports, it'll be great."
"What if they don't make a team?"
Julia shook her head. "Yeah, right."
The three of them stopped talking for a second. They sipped their wine with a practiced synchrony. The kids continued to laugh and call out as a neighbor drove by, honking her horn in greeting. The three smiled and waved.
"She just started working at the library," Julia mentioned, absently.
"At the school?"
"No, in the borough."
"That's great," Evelyn said.
Julia's phone vibrated. It sat on the arm of the Adirondack chair she and Michael bought when they went to the beach in June. She glanced at the screen and saw the call came from her husband.
"I have to take this."
"No problem," Evelyn said.
Julia shot a quick glance at Tara, finding her watching the kids. It looked like her friend might cry at any moment. As she rose from the chair, phone in one hand and wine on the armrest, she touched Tara's shoulder. Their eyes met and Julia smiled. The movement of her mouth was subtle and kind. Tara's eyes lowered, and she placed a hand softly atop Julia's, for just a second. As Julia walked back toward the house, the pit of her stomach lightly rolled.
"Hi," she answered the call.
"Hey," her husband, Michael, said.
She heard thick noise in the background. "Where are you? It sounds like a party."
"At Penn Station. Just walking down the steps."
She took a breath. "How'd it go?"
"It went great," he said. She heard the tone he used. It had recently become more recognizable in the way it sounded, as if his words were meant more to convince himself than anything else. "I think it did. The questions were pretty standard. I think I did really well answering them. The HR rep took me to lunch. You would love her. She's got two kids just a little younger than ours."
Julia touched her belly and looked out the window. "Did you like the offices?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"Pretty much?" she asked.
"I mean, it was-"
The world outside took on focus when one of the boys screamed. She saw her younger son, Thomas, holding his forehead. His shaggy blond bangs nearly swallowed his thin fingers. But she saw his eyes wide-with pain or anger, she couldn't tell.
"Gotta go," she said.
"Yeah, Tara and Evelyn are here. I think Thomas hit his head or something."
She laughed. "Probably not."
"How's Tara doing?" he asked.
She sighed. "Doesn't look good. She's pretty sure they'll have to move."
"That sucks," Michael said.
No one said anything for a moment.
Thomas pushed open the door into the kitchen. His cry echoed through the phone connection.
"Whoa," Michael said. "Take care of him. I should be home in about three hours, assuming the train's on time."
"Love you," she said.
"Love you, too."
Julia hung up just as Evan came through the back door and reached Thomas. He bent and spoke softly to his little brother, a hand on the smaller boy's shoulder. In moments like that, Julia noticed so much of his father in Evan, with his red-blond hair and blue eyes. He was a baseball player, like his dad. In the moment, her son's maturity caught her off guard.
"They're growing up so fast," she whispered.
With a smile, Evan returned to the kids outside and Thomas came to Julia. He was no longer crying, but she took him in her arms and kissed the top of his head. The coarse hair there smelled of the sun, and a surprising heat touched her lips.
"What happened?" she whispered, holding him tightly.
His words stuttered like a chronic cough. "Brady hit me in the head."
"On purpose?" she asked.
Julia turned her head, resting her cheek on the warmth of her son's head and fighting back the urge to laugh. A wide smile crossed her face and she rubbed his back.
"Guess what I bought yesterday?"
His sobbing stopped on a dime. "What?"
"Those popsicles you like with the cream inside."
He pulled back and looked up at her. "Can I have one?"
"Only if you bring some out for everyone."
His bare feet danced on their porcelain-tiled floor. "Okay."
"Is your head okay?"
The feeling Julia had in that moment was hard to describe. She had it often, but mostly at the oddest of times. Silently listening from the other room as her boys discussed something trivial with the absolute earnestness of the young. The way Evan's brow furrowed when he worked on his math homework. Or when Thomas stomped around the house in his father's size-thirteen shoes. In a way, that feeling, a flutter high in her midriff, might be called a physical manifestation of pure love. Yet it seemed at once more and less than that. It felt primal to her, utterly undeniable but far too fleeting. The rest of the day she never truly thought about it, yet its absence lurked, waiting for life to slow down just enough for it to flare up once again.
Regardless, it felt simple and good. She tousled his hair and opened the freezer. She was about to hand the box to him, but she stopped. Feeling light for no particular reason, she dug through the popsicles until she found a red one, her favorite. She took that for herself before handing the box to Thomas.
"Remember, share," she said.
"And start with the adults."
Julia followed Thomas out. He scurried over to Evelyn and Tara and offered cream-filled popsicles with the utmost politeness. The two women thought to protest. With big smiles, they saw Julia, her lips already a deeper red and a childish sparkle in her eyes, standing behind her son. Giggling, Evelyn took a purple one, Tara a green. The three women shared popsicles and chardonnay as they watched their children play under the hot summer sun.
The truck rolled down a narrow access road at approximately 4:10 p.m. The man driving knew he was early. He'd driven the road three times in preparation. He followed the same path, about half a mile from where the road ended, replaced by a vast meadow of dry hay grass. When he coasted to a stop, he had already decided the spot was perfect for two reasons. One, it was absolutely remote. For the weeks he'd watched the entrance, not a single vehicle had traveled in or out on that road. Two, that particular bend came within fifty yards of the Amtrak rails. He got out and looked east toward the tracks and the dry grass between that spot and where he stood.
He did not smile. His face remained set in a hard yet emotionless expression as he walked around the side of the truck. He released the tailgate and leaned forward, his hands reaching for two red canisters of gasoline. Straightening, he stepped to the edge of the grass and placed one on the ground. The second he carried as he moved off the road toward the tracks. The hay swayed around him, brushing his thighs and waist. His one hand reached out slightly, and he let it trail atop the blades. Dry. Perfect.
He spoke softly to himself as he uncapped the canister and slowly poured out the gasoline as he walked a serpentine trail along the tracks.
"When the time comes," he said, his tone strangely flat despite the slight accent, "I'll be remembered as the patriot that made things right again, not that liar. I'm the real American. They won't get it at first. They might see me as the bad guy. That's okay. History will see it differently. I am the one . . . versus the one hundred. That much I know."
When the last drops fell from the first canister, he proceeded to seed the field with the second. When that was done as well, he walked back to the truck. Leaning against the side panel, his hand slipped into the front pocket of his blue jeans. His fingers wrapped around the matches. When he pulled them out, the summer sun reflected off the stars and stripes on the top of the box.
Before pulling out a single match, the man licked a finger and held it into the air, testing the wind. Dry and hot, it blew east, toward the distant Atlantic Ocean. He nodded and removed the match.
"God bless America," the man said, striking the red tip.
A tear of flame licked from the frail wood. Left alone, it could only burn for an instant before running out of fuel. Instead, though, the man flicked the match, the careless gesture of a man who worked with his hands. Maybe he had lit hundreds of charcoal grills in his backyard, grilled up thousands of burgers for his family. The match turned a lazy arc through the air, landing five feet into the brush. In the blink of an eye, a larger flame whipped into the air. It widened, running the path the man had walked a moment before. Thick gray smoke billowed into the air. The man watched it for a second before returning to his truck.
Before driving away, he leaned to the side and entered a combination into a leather briefcase on the passenger seat. It popped open and he looked at the contents, nodding. Then he drove away, back onto the turnpike and toward the Lincoln Tunnel.