Politics of Distraction

Politics of Distraction

Politics of Distraction

Part I

Memories of America before the Great War distract my mind as Annalisa—my chief of staff—slides the after-dinner briefing book over the warm oak desktop before me. The picture of a woman at the border—draped in a red satin sheet holding a sign overhead reading “You’re no Obama”—rests just inside the cover of the materials. She catches my eye and confirms for me why the American experiment had to end. Or, at least, why the theory behind it had to deviate. Even in the drone photograph, her scarlet face spews rage and frustration—her lower lip stretched tight, her bottom teeth exposed, her eyes squinted. Her yelling, her voice, ring through loud and clear in the picture, as I assume she is one of the poor, left in the new country to pull herself up by her bootstraps. And she is not alone, as thousands of others join her to express this same sentiment at the border between the United States of America and Morland.

As a Black girl growing up in the Midwest, summer days, wide, blue skies, and fluffy clouds resembling something in my imagination seemed in endless supply. My brother and sister were forever off on one adventure or another, leaving me with my books and my thoughts. Always Mama’s creative one, my eyes could squint and find something recognizable in any cloud floating across the heavens. But on this day, as my chief of staff and cabinet advisors talk through and debate one proposal after another, the clouds in my view are not borne of my imagination. They rise from the smoke billowing up from garbage cans around which Morland residents huddle to keep warm. Or planes reduced to ashes in the sky by surface-to-air missiles for no reason other than dropping aid. Nowhere even in the darkest recesses of my childhood mind could I have ever envisioned the Great War of 2020 or its aftermath. All started on election day, when my husband and I woke early to vote and found the National Guard occupying our neighborhood.

Election Day 2020 arrived eighteen months ago, the day when democracy, and our constitution, demanded that the country elect its president. But democracy was in short supply the day that my husband, my neighbors, and I left our homes to cast our ballots. Up for re-election was incumbent Eustas Morla, a slippery and opportunist bully for whom no slight was too petty, running against Senator Ryan Kenner, a so-called coastal elite liberal and the candidate selected by my party after a long and bruising primary fight.

“No one in, and no one out” was the order repeated to all of us gathered next to the tan Humvee blocking the street. Although my Secret Security detail had departed abruptly the night before, Damon and I dressed and left the house to go vote without them. The guardsmen stretched shoulder to shoulder across the street, rifles clutched to their chests, faces pointed to the sky just above our heads as we asked questions that they had no liberty to answer. The only communication coming from the men and women in uniform was no one in, and no one out. Until I asked the young almond-colored soldier who took a step to his left and blocked my path down the sidewalk.

“You realize that I am the Speaker of the House, Guardsman?” I asked as he sucked his cheeks and took a deep inhale. “And you’re deployed here to keep everyone from voting, is that correct?” He blinked again, a long one this time as he wrinkled his nose and inhaled some congestion. “And you’re ordered to detain us, by force, if necessary?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he finally responded as the crowd began murmuring.

“I’ll get it sorted,” I promised my neighbors as I implored them to be easy. Every single member of my staff, every person in my party, making the same calls to the same people and getting the same answers throughout the country. Despite publicly casting his own mail-in ballots from both his primary and secondary residences, despite being the best evidence of the concern he was trying to address, President Morla had signed an Executive Order under the cover of darkness, and strategically deployed the military into neighborhoods like mine nationwide to root out and stop voter fraud. The television revealed these same scenes taking place from sea to shining sea. Guardsmen nationwide shot and killed eight people that day, nine if you include the little girl struck in the head by a flash grenade who died after ten agonizing days in the hospital. And Senator Kenner lost the election by a landslide as accounts of military deployment in neighborhoods similar to our quiet street started circulating on cable news throughout the country.

The day after the election, the almond-colored guardsman from our neighborhood, with hundreds of his military compatriots and an armed militia, stormed the White House and sent them all underground. Morla, with his vice president and cabinet, traveled tunnels until the entire contingent surfaced in a friendly safehouse somewhere in what was formerly Kentucky. He and his cohorts took over the statehouse, gathered an insurgent militia, and took up arms against the United States.

As that was happening, I sat feeding my daughter Sydney in her highchair and balancing a phone on my shoulder. Annalisa, long my trusted chief of staff, was on the line when the commotion began at our house. It sounded like the five-thirty freight train running straight through our living room. Damon answered the door holding his weapon of choice, with his long, chicken legs rooting to the floor from the bottom of his robe. As if he and his commemorative Washington Nationals bat could stop whatever it was coming inside.

“We have to go, Madame Speaker. Now,” a man in camouflage and fatigues ordered.

“Go with them,” Annalisa said calmly into my ear as I pulled my daughter from the highchair and clutched her to my chest. “Trust me,” she implored as the men and women in camo piled on top of themselves through the door. My son Jack—standing in his cartoon pajamas—froze in the middle of our small living room, wailing for me with fat tears streaming down his cheeks. Damon wrapped our four-year-old in his arms, cradling our perfect boy against his heart as he turned in circles surveying the madness.

“Annalisa, what’s happening?” I pushed out in my deep, breathy calm voice that shook at the end.

“Ma’am,” she said over the telephone, “they’re taking you to the White House. I’ll meet you there.”

My husband, children, and in-laws rode in armored cars to a secure location while my Secret Service detail rushed me into what looked like the same Humvee from the day before. Waiting inside was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. “Madame Speaker, in accordance with the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, with the President and Vice President elect, um, removed?” He was asking me what happens after an incumbent steals an election and gets handed his walking papers by the military as a result. I had no idea. “Interpretation of the law’s sort of your thing, Mr. Chief Justice,” I reminded him. My husband would later take issue with this, but we were where we were. “Let’s say removed and/or incapacitated, and get on with it, then,” he said with a certainty belying the moment, “it is my duty to administer the oath of office to you, Ma’am.” A guardsmen stuck a Bible in front of me, and as the Humvee rolled along, the Chief Justice nodded towards the holy book. “Please, Ma’am,” he urged when I looked around more than once. As the quasi-tank rumbled the streets of Washington, D.C., dressed in my nightgown, a winter coat, and my personalized camo helmet, I placed my hand on the Bible and swore to faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States. And, to the best of my ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. When it was all over, and I slipped my hand away from the Bible, I swore in an entirely different way.

“Congratulations, President Washington,” he chuckled as we finished, and he shook my hand. “I think.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Here’s hoping I don’t end up in the Potomac.”

Annalisa met me the second I reached the White House with my favorite navy-blue skirt suit, followed closely by every General in the United States Armed Services and high-level career advisors from each federal agency. Explaining in rapid-speak the coup and why I could not have prior knowledge of it. There was no time to soak in the majesty and the importance of this day—me, in the Oval Office, behind the Resolute Desk—as members of the National Security Council waited for me to sign the piece of paper in front of me.

“Mr. Chairman,” I said to the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as my pen glided over the Declaration of War. “Godspeed.”

Every day during that winter, news of casualties crossed my desk. Pictures of young men and women from both sides of the front accompanying descriptions of lives unfulfilled. Some with plans to attend college, to be doctors or anthropologists or kindergarten teachers. Some found a cause in lives that had no direction. Some fought for unity, others for division. Every picture a death, despite who, and what, they fought for. At the end, all blood running together into the same soil.

My brother died when his unit tried to infiltrate Morla’s headquarters, and we buried him in the frozen Arlington ground just after the New Year. I choked on my own tears explaining death to my children in the limousine back to the White House, Damon’s hand circling between my shoulder blades. As the permanency of his uncle’s loss crossed my four-year-old’s face, Morla appeared on television celebrating the loss of my only brother, promising imminent victory for his supporters and vowing to keep fighting until I joined Ahmad in the ground.

Many in his frenzied crowd cheered with tears glistening their cheeks as they raised their hands in elation at the death of my brother. But in the limousine, my children cried tears of loss. For their beloved uncle. Out of fear for the war. For fear of the bad man on television saying he wanted me—their mommy—dead. I tried to explain to my kids that none of what Morla said was based in fact. That the United States gained ground nearly every day, pushing the front almost to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. That the casualty rates presented by my advisors showed disproportionate numbers on their side of the line. And that dozens of Morla supporters awaited trials for treason after being caught trying to sneak behind enemy lines. But kids don’t understand casualty rates and fronts and treason. They barely understand fear and loss.

Three months after the war began, with a government largely installed and priorities long ignored getting attention, Vice President Allen Johns and I strolled the Rose Garden, past the head gardener unfurling plans for the upcoming vegetable patch and the Easter Egg Roll.

“What if we separate?” I asked Johns.

“What if who separates, Ma’am?” he asked as he slid his thumbs up and down behind his suspenders.

“What if we strike a deal, giving them, I don’t know, ten states. Give people a month to choose the United States or move. Anyone relocating receives a stipend to cover costs, but the choice is final.” He chortled and stopped walking, his thick thumbs resting behind his suspenders at the shoulder. His eyes looking for a joke in the air between us and finding only my glare. In our few short months working together, so much daylight had grown between our positions on matters of war and peace that we never found ourselves in the same time zone.

“You can’t be serious,” he said. “We’re all Americans. Lincoln fought to preserve the Union. You’re talking about permanent secession. Two governments. Two sets of rules. What about the Gettysburg Address? ‘Four score’ and all of that,” he spat out, the unwelcome civics lesson crystalized on his breath in the early spring condensation. He ran his thumbs up and down again, this time, with fervor.

“We’re spending a fortune on this war, and people are dying on both sides. There are people who want him to lead them. Let them have what they want,” I shrugged. “We’re winning and have control of the Executive Branch. Which means the Treasury. We set the terms here. They secede and we move on and continue working on behalf of the American people. In peacetime.”

“But Audrey,” he said as he reached for my elbow and I pulled it away, narrowing my eyes at this man, too accustomed to such affectionate gestures for my liking. Blood crept into his face as he drew his hand back and hooked his thumbs behind his suspenders again. “Like you said, we’re winning.” Only Johns had yet to visit Walter Reed. Had yet to take a single step through the sliding doors onto the gleaming tile, had yet to travel the blinding hallways guided by the sharp, sterile smell of industrial-strength disinfectant blended with the musk of death and decay. Had yet to stand at the bedside of a single service member lying bandaged, tethered to machines that monitored and beeped and allowed no rest. Had yet to hold the hand of a single man or woman in bloodcurdling agony, grievously injured, dying, for their service to country and continued belief in our democracy. Had yet to witness a single salute to their Commander in Chief as family sat by with angry, tear-stained faces directed at the destruction of their loved one’s body. These visits assured me that no one was really winning.

The sight of my brother’s casket, draped in the American flag, came to mind as we talked. Fifty stars and thirteen stripes. We’re fifty no longer, had traveled my thoughts as I watched them fold the colors and present them to his wife. But really, we hadn’t been fifty for a long time before the war.

“Call it what you want. Strategically, yes, we’re winning, but what does that truly mean for the people? We’ll find him, try him for treason, and remain a nation divided after a bloody and costly war. This isn’t 1776 England. Let’s set them free, end it, and get on with the business of governing.” Now, it was my words hanging in the condensation between us. And unlike his, mine were not a suggestion. He raised his chin, glared at me with steely, defiant eyes.

“He’ll never go for it,” Johns said with conviction, making me wonder whether it was only demographics they shared. “You heard him. He’s vowed to fight you to the death.” I shook my head, chuckling as we reached the door to the West Wing.

“He’ll take the deal. He knows we’re closing in.” Johns nearly fainted when I instructed him to start arranging negotiations and asked Annalisa to schedule an advisors’ meeting for the next day. “And we keep the name,” I said as she took my overcoat from my shoulders and slid a briefing book into my hands for my next meeting. “They can call themselves whatever they like, but we remain the United States of America.”

Each agency head sat behind thick binders of information less than twenty-four hours later, making me feel a twinge of guilt for the people tasked with turning the tomes around overnight. I’ll send them a note, I told myself, about the federal workers too long maligned under the prior administration. They’ll be proud to know their efforts contributed to ending this war. In front of my seat, copies of each folder piled to the ceiling with secession analyses prepared by thoughtful, diligent, and now bleary-eyed, Feds. I chose Johns as my Vice President because of his wealth of government experience and his prior service in a wartime administration. But at twenty-five years my senior, the way he stood behind me, pointing his overstuffed fingers at the paper for me to follow, attempting to steer me towards the cons of the analyses, reminded me of the way my father used to put his fingers over mine as he taught me to play the piano as a child.

The Interior Secretary voiced concerns about the logistics. “We have borders with Canada and Mexico. Just build a wall,” I said. The Chairman of the Federal Election Commission expressed concern about holding an election on such short notice. The Treasury Secretary, as usual, and as is her job, worried about the money. Different agency heads had their own thoughts. But not one of my cabinet secretaries voiced opposition to the idea.

“And there you have it,” I said to the Vice President as I closed the last of the binders on the table in front of me. Damon regularly reminds me that I’m a terrible winner, and I did my level best to stay eyes forward as the notion of Johns’ stricken face warmed me inside. “Arrange the negotiations with Morla or resign.” My advisors’ eyes followed whatever silent gestures Johns made behind my head, all widening as the defense secretary rose from his seat and started towards the Vice President.

“I resign,” Johns sneered. “You’re going to go down as the worst president in American history,” he promised as he left the conference room.

After two rounds of negotiations—during which I was satirized as a monkey, accused of bloodthirsty Black revenge, and burned in effigy on a daily basis—Morla folded when he realized he could form whatever government his heart desired. He could be president, or king, whatever he wanted. He could appoint his family to do whatever he wanted. Just not for all of us. I punctuated my position with the reminder that the alternative was to face a military tribunal for treason. And that, in the United States, we still execute people convicted of treason.

“You’re losing,” I interrupted his stuttered rebuttal. “And I trust your people have explained what happens when we find you.” Over the phone, he had the gall to demand half of the soil and treasury of the United States. A thunderclap of trapped laughter ached within my chest as tears of amusement rolled down my face.

“You’ll get nothing from the Treasury,” I forced out. “And one state.” We finally settled on five states’ worth of land area, agreed to a ceasefire and referendum on secession, and payouts from the Treasury for every citizen wishing to relocate from one country to another.

So began the end of the hostilities. A few random insurgents attacked their own polling places or tried breaking the truce as we prepared to move forward. The antics on our side of the front earned these traitors all-expense paid trips to Leavenworth. But after thirty days of no sleep, the citizens of the United States properly elected me as the president, with ninety-four percent of the electorate voting for secession. Citizens had another sixty days to select their citizenship, collect relocation checks, and move.

Part II

As the crisp, gray sky promises the kids’ first snowfall of 2021, they stand outfitted in snow pants and puffy coats celebrating the District of Columbia statehood parade. With their grandmother, Jack and Sydney dance along with the go-go music clapping, ringing, and swinging down Pennsylvania Avenue as I stretch my legs across the couch, a folder on my lap and cup of tea, secretly wishing they’d close the door a little to keep the cold out. Since the separation, the United States has enjoyed falling unemployment, declining poverty, and one of the most productive legislative sessions in history. Instead of interrupting family dinner with briefing books about the numbers of dead or the people’s waning support for the war, Annalisa now waits until I finish meals with my family to report on the country’s domestic progress. Our baby is finally starting to walk and our son’s nightmares about “the men in green” have begun subsiding. But the end of the Civil War outside of the White House has done nothing to end the one inside.

My husband ordered pepperoni and mushrooms on his pizza the night we met. I envisioned spending the rest of my life with this bespectacled, ebony man in a tweed blazer with whom I shared the same pizza palate. Those were his law school days, back when he was an opinionated and self-important student who visited the dive where I worked at least three times a week. Each time, wearing a tweed blazer. He kept a closet full of those jackets, some even with patches on the elbows. Sometimes, he argued with friends. He also argued with me, his form of awkward flirting. Now, he teaches constitutional law at a local university and writes briefs to the Supreme Court in his spare time. He’s an advocate and a scholar, passionate about his ideas with a head full of good intentions. The kind paving the road straight to hell.

On this night, my husband tries again to appeal to my better angels. “I’m worried, Audrey,” he says just as I barely drag myself across the threshold of our bedroom at one a.m. The Nats are in the twelfth inning as he sits among a stack of legal briefs, newspapers, yellow notepads, pens, sticky notes, and highlighters making me feel like I need to get up instead of lie down. I sigh and arch my eyebrow at the mess encroaching my side of the bed, and he pulls it so vigorously to his side that much of it goes tumbling to the floor.

“I wish you’d use the laptop I gave you,” I sigh as he leaps out of bed to wrangle the floating papers before it becomes chaos even he can’t order.

“Bluelight,” he mutters as he squints and shuffles papers together, pausing to keep an eye on the next pitch. “But,” he exhales as a long foul ball sails towards left field, “I’m worried. This secession business,” he says, finally giving up on the pile and throwing it into a teetering mess on the desk, “it’s not good for the country. And more importantly, I think some of these lawsuits have merit. It could all be undone.”

“Then let it be, Damon.” This conversation makes my right eyeball throb as the nails of my migraine began driving into the socket. I’ve read the lawsuits. Of course he thinks they have merit. At least two have his ghostwritten signature all over them. “But until we lose in court, it’s done.”

Other than for the law, Damon is not a fighter. He’s a pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword sort, not the kind to jump in and defend my honor. But when it comes to the constitution, he strikes with the sword and the stone, guarding the rule of law so jealously that I’ve named it Gertrude in our house and threatened to have her sent to Mars on the next rover should she continue to interfere in our marriage. But this was the same flavor of argument we’ve had since the declaration of war, and although my spirit is uplifted by our progress, my limbs feel heavy from the effort. “I’m in no mood for Gertrude tonight,” I warn as I kick off my shoes and climb into bed fully clothed, my makeup smearing against the pillow. “Remember,” I say as I turn my face to him and draw a deep breath. I know that I hold the ultimate card and have yet to play it until this night. “Just because you share a bed with the President doesn’t mean you’re entitled to the ear of the President. Goodnight, my love,” I say to his slumping shoulders, his frown, his worried eyes, as I pull the covers over my head, turn my back on him, and close my eyes.

Long after Damon sits wordlessly finishing the Nats’ fourteenth-inning loss, my eyes refuse to stay closed, and my mind refuses to slow. He lies like that—one arm over the covers, the other behind his head, breathing slowly—when he’s restless through the night.

“Are you asleep?” I ask. Through the darkness, the sides of his glasses reflect the moonlight streaming in through the windows as his head rolls wordlessly from side to side. “Okay,” I say, “tell me your thoughts. Again,” I sigh with too much playful indignation. His face eventually lands in my direction, his glare piercing me like a high beam through the night. Point by point, we agree on everything but the result. The United States as a two-party democracy, with checks and balances, an independent judiciary. The right to disagree, peacefully assemble, worship as we please, and love who we might. The substance of our fight reminds me of those slow nights in the pizza joint, before he saw me as anything but a cute girl wowed by his intellect as he talked through his schoolwork. Until I started asking questions and arguing back. But here, his only right result is an intact union, to undo what is done. And mine is secession. We debate until a sliver of sun spreads across the horizon and thaws the remaining chill from between us completely.

“But this is all academic now, or at least, with the courts,” I wink as I crawl into his arms and take his glasses from his face, reaching over him to set them on his night table. “It’s done, my love.” I kiss his weary smile and settle in for a few short blinks of sleep on his chest.

Not enough hours later, we are both hunched over cups of espresso as our daughter chatters breathlessly about zoo animals and our son sits—his fist clenching his pencil, his tongue poking from the side of his mouth, and his brow furrowed—making the invitation list for his six-year-old birthday party. Annalisa slides my briefing papers in front of me without any of the recent post-war enthusiasm. Before secession, many of the country’s superrich—enticed by the promise of paying no taxes—committed to leaving the United States for Morland. Without tax contributions from the wealthy in an economy younger than my toddler, Morland has little money coming in to pay its war debt and support itself. Reports of rampant corruption and the potential for civil unrest across the border had, until now, only peppered earlier briefings.

But this morning, only a few blinks after going fourteen innings with my husband, moments after I sit down to breakfast with my family, Morla’s security detail begins mowing down the protestors at his compound who forgot that they no longer enjoy the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly. Breaking news squawks in the background, cameras panning the carnage. The dead, lying in pools of their own blood yards away from the seat of Morland government. The frightened, running screaming in terror from the hail of bullets raining down from the roof of their capitol. People who had voted for this man, voted to secede, now living in poverty and squalor. They are starving and destitute. And now, they are running for their lives.

After the nearly eight months since secession, the only portions of the Morland constitution finalized and in effect are the responsibility to bear arms and provisions granting, and protecting, landowner rights. Our drones capture photographs of people getting thinner as food resources become scarce. People sleeping with their children in the streets as bulldozers raze affordable housing at the command of Morland oligarchs. Stories of people getting sick and dying from preventable, and treatable, ailments began filling my briefing books as hospitals close and medical supplies evaporate. We send the children away from the dining room, and Damon, Annalisa, and I watch as the protests march from the Morland capital towards the border.

“Let us back in,” they cry.

“We’re desperate,” the signs read.

“We’re Americans, too,” they yell at the cameras.

“No,” a voice, deep and determined inside, reminds me. “You are not Americans. The sooner everyone understands that, the better off we’ll all be.”

Part III

After a few days of failed diplomacy with Morla about the border protests, Annalisa wordlessly drops a package on my desk. On top sits a letter, a plain sheet of white paper scrawled in what could have been Jack’s same hand, accompanied by an intelligence report containing photographs and analysis declaring its authenticity. “Ma’am,” she finally says, her voice low and wavering as a knot pulses at the back corner of her jaw, “you should read this.”

Help. Brought here to work but can’t go home. Please help. My family is in different country. I am scared to not see them anymore. They say I never see them again. Please send help.

“What am I looking at?” I ask as I pore over the report. Annalisa’s words mirror those on the pages. Or at least I believe they do, because my heart beats so hard in my ears it drowns out her voice as I read. Article I of the Morland constitution is at the top, granting land ownership rights to a select few. Underneath, maps of land carved up for distribution to those landowners, like steppingstones crossing the terrain, much of it formerly untouched and federally preserved. A blank and spartan form titled “Opportunity Visa” sits next, promising immigrants the right to work in Morland, with the ability to travel back and forth between their homeland as they please. A separate, binder-clipped list of infractions that jeopardize the visa sits as thick as a telephone book behind the application. And finally, the report. It details the lives of visa recipients once they arrive in Morland. No phones, access to email, the internet, and even traditional mail. No pay, as nearly all the visa recipients are charged with some petty crime as soon as they step off the plane. A crime that subjects them to indefinite imprisonment working for the landowners. Copies of invoices for food, housing, and clothing sink the new workers further into debt, and, judging by their appearance in photographs, do not reflect any of the true resources afforded them. A projection of astronomical financial growth among these farms because of these new workers. And intercepted communications between these farmers, members of government, and the international community about new legislative initiatives to shore up the program and set up a supply chain for the goods.

“They’ve legalized slavery,” escapes my mouth as I finish flipping the pages in the file. Annalisa nods as my breath catches and the word bounces back to me from every corner of the room and slaps me across the face. You can do whatever you want, was the deal I struck with this man. When Morla was President of the United States, he and his team had perfected the politics of distraction. Working with him had been like swimming towards the bottom of a murky pond into the darkness among the soft mud and the slick rocks and the decomposing fish and plants. As I read the documents and look at the pictures, I realize that the protests had been a false bottom. The starvation and abject desolation of Morland citizens was the worst I could ever dream possible. But looking into the eyes of the new slaves, I understand that the bottom of anything was an illusion. Checking him as our president for those years proved difficult, and sometimes, impossible. But as I get to the last picture—Morla with a landowner, both pointing over a field of the enslaved—I know that it will take an entire community to pull back this curtain.

“Well,” I say to start the emergency cabinet meeting less than an hour later, “what are our options?”

We first decide that I should call Morla and extend an offer of assistance to the new government, to remind him that some of the ideas circulating around Morland have been tried and failed throughout the course of history. To encourage him to reverse course on slavery while still in its early days. Annalisa and several advisors surround me with books of paper, notes, charts, maps and photographs of the new territory. There are growing plantations with pictures of the new slaves—all from places where people are Black and Brown—reflecting the beginning of hundreds of years of oppression back at me.

On the fourth day, as Annalisa and I sit waiting for my assistant to tell us—again—that Morla is unavailable, he instead patches the call through.

“Here goes nothing,” I say to her thumbs-up as I pick up the phone. The familiar voice on the other end instead apologizes for Morla’s unavailability and offers to assist me instead. I wonder immediately whether he still runs his thumbs up and down behind his suspenders.

“This is an urgent matter,” I demand. “When will he be available?”

“Audrey, he’s a busy man,” drips Johns, dragging out both syllables of my name with too much familiarity.

“You’ll address me as ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Madam President,’” I remind him. “Although you shouldn’t be addressing me at all. Tell your boss that I’m calling to offer a way out of the legalization of forced labor in your country. It’s unwise to continue avoiding me.”

“But Aud—” he stops to correct himself just as I feel myself grasping the phone so tight that the plastic crackles under the pressure of my grip. “Madam President. The terms of the deal were that he can do whatever he wants with his government. Besides, we don’t use words like ‘forced labor’ or ‘slavery’ in describing our new visa program.”

“I didn’t utter the word ‘slavery’ to you.” His deep, slow chuckle confirms for me that the architects of this program absolutely refer to this as slavery behind closed doors. He assures me that the Opportunity Visa program is quite popular with all parties involved and says that applicants should familiarize themselves with the detailed requirements before entering Morland. As the words flick from the tongue of this snake, this abomination crystalizes in my mind as his idea.

“Put him on the phone, Johns.” My patience is wasting away with every word.

“That’s not necessary, Ma’am,” he oozes to the President of the United States. “I can provide any information you need. I’m sure, at the end of our conversation, you’ll agree—” Click.

When one door closes, another opens, or so the saying goes. Over the next few days, we do a version of this in the White House. When a landline disconnects in my office, a cell phone begins dialing in my hand. My staff schedules meetings, and I attend meetings on the way to those meetings, building an international coalition to wage a different kind of war with Morland. The German Chancellor chuckles over the phone when he hears me praising my daughter for using her potty, and the Nigerian Prime Minister is in my ear when the dog takes off with my shoe again.

Within days, the United Nations issues a condemnation that goes unheeded by the new government and Morland withdraws its application for admittance. Several months go by as international prosecutors try Morla, his government, and the landowners from afar for crimes against humanity. Morla’s face turns from a marshmallow to a bruised apple as he rails against “the foreigners” on television, charging that he will not stand for the world oppressing the new nation with its arbitrary rules.

Meanwhile, intelligence reveals that slavery continues to spread across his country. Many more arrive despite the sanctions, rebukes, and prosecutions. Smuggled in from places around the world. Children are being born into this system, and the news reports every day of brutal beatings and executions when the enslaved try to escape.

Nearly three years into my presidency—as Morland’s citizens have stopped revolting and wear their suffering like a death shroud—a video surfaces of a young, Black girl. Maybe eleven or twelve, she’s swinging from a flowering tree branch. Without the rope around her neck, she could be swaying herself to sleep in a gentle spring breeze. The video ends with the sound of gunshots and the videographer fleeing, making sure to capture a sign outside of the fence that reads: Those who hang here are condemned to hell. It is that video—played on endless loop over cable news—that causes the international community’s demands for the United States to reabsorb Morland to grow from a whisper to a yell.

“I have no more authority to annex than I do with Canada. Nor is it in the interest of the American people to do so,” I reiterate to my three closest international allies on the secure line.

“They’ve all been convicted, but there is no authority to arrest them on sovereign soil,” argues the French President. “You can extradite all of them if they become part of America once again.” Others on the phone trip over themselves agreeing with him without uttering a single word acknowledging the role that their governments and citizens play in this crisis. This moment reminds me of the times, in the pizza parlor, when Damon thought he had me cornered. I sink deeper into the plush leather chair, lean my head back, cross my arms, close my eyes, and listen to each of their lectures over speakerphone until the words stop coming.

“One of the main smuggling rings operates out of Paris, according to my intelligence,” I remind them. “And all of your economies are buying goods prepared by slave labor. There are many heads to this dragon, gentlemen. We have to be more strategic in our thinking than annexation.” The way they now jump over themselves trying to redirect culpability reminds me of Jack and Sydney pointing fingers at each other after one of them broke a plate once belonging to Martha Washington. “So you see, no one here is immune.”

Before Morland revived the slave trade, the United States had gone to great lengths to repair its international relationships. Damon and I had twice hosted the French president and his family in the White House, my husband delighting all the children with his amateur magic show, and intriguing the First Lady with his knowledge of French civil rights law. We’d hosted state visits with leaders around the globe, from Spain to Japan to South Africa. But on this issue, the world seeks to paint Morland as an American territory, making it an American responsibility, because it engages in a formerly American abomination. So I remind the contingent that slavery is a problem that will again become an American problem over my dead body.

“And say we collectively oust its leaders. Who, then, becomes the head of the new government? Who is willing to lead the new country to end slavery?” I acknowledge that it’s a fair question that keeps me up every night like the monsters under Jack’s bed. My briefings give me names, those of men whose mouths never publicly utter the word slavery as they tout the gains of the Opportunity Visa program. Johns is among those drafting the laws that strip the workers of these visas for exiting the plane without speaking English as a first language or touching the wrong bag in the luggage carousel at the airport. The faces of reasonable men and women do not present themselves easily. “But this is an international problem that requires an international solution. Some of your economies are benefitting from the rebirth of this peculiar institution, so all must play a part in its demise.” The line falls so silent it feels like a vacuum until slowly, one by one, they grumble their assent.

As the crisis worsens, the international community begins dropping food aid and medical supplies from the sky. Militaries from around the globe spirit people from bondage and return them to their homelands. Morland targets aid planes and shoots them from the sky with large-caliber guns and missiles, claiming the drops of food and medicine amount to acts of war. The pilots who make successful drops witness human beings descend upon the crates and splinter them in seconds, leaving nothing behind. Thoughtful, articulate letters continue crossing my desk from children and adults alike begging for annexation so that they can live free. And I say “no” because I cannot invite that harm on the psyche of our healing nation.

“Would it be wrong to give you another piece of cake?” I ask the kids at dinner. They shout “no” as their little bodies shudder with excitement over the prospect of Mama Pearl setting another slice on their plate.

“You’ve had enough,” says Damon. “You’ll get sick if you eat too much sugar.” Both of them frown at him, little Jack crossing his arms in a pout, as they unwittingly take part in our ongoing social experiment. I smile at my husband as his mother pops him gently on the back of his head and slips them another sliver of her 7-Up cake in exchange for baths and pajamas right after they finish.

“Morland is sick on cake right now and you’re gloating,” he says.

“Even children understand the value of negotiation,” I say as they finish their crumbs, hug and kiss us both goodnight, and leave the dining room with their grandmother. Now, it’s his turn to cross his arms in pout. “What about the people who stayed in the United States, Damon? My obligation is to do the right thing for them. We’re rebuilding our nation. Our progress is real, but fragile, and absorbing Morland has the potential, not just logistically, but in every way, to threaten that progress.”

Damon smirks in thought for a second before he shrugs his constitutional scholar hat off and he rises from his seat to come sit next to me. On the way, he asks the Secret Service to keep everyone from the dining room and he stops to cut a hunk of cake from the platter. As the door closes, he makes his way to my side with the plate and two forks, knowing I have a soft spot for the magic in Mama Pearl’s baking.

“I could have you charged with bribery,” I say as he feeds me a chunk and I sink my fork into the delicate crumb to do the same for him. He smiles as he chews and shakes his head.

“There’s no one around, Audrey. There are no polls. No media. No advisors. No ears. No calls on the secure line,” he says as he puts another piece of cake on my tongue. “And no lawyers.” I roll my eyes. “Why are you doing this?” he asks. After our many years together, he still looks at me like his solar eclipse, watching me chew and thumbing a crumb from my face. My head leans back, and my eyes tilt to the ceiling as I think about those days lying in the grass when I was small, not any bigger than Jack. I tell him a story I’ve never uttered to him, the man who believes that most people are inherently good and principled. A man who lives his academic life preaching from the gospel of equality and democracy.

I tell him about the summer I was afraid to leave my backyard, the summer I stopped swimming. The summer I learned about racism when a thirteen-year-old boy held me underwater at the local pool to prove that Black people can’t swim when I dared contradict him by swimming. My first memory after blacking out was of the violent feeling of water erupting from my lungs as the lifeguard performed CPR on my seven-year-old body.

That feeling of being imprisoned underwater as the liquid filled my nose and lungs followed me everywhere I went as a Black woman before secession. Even as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Because even as Madame Speaker, people still closed doors in my face, clutched their handbags in the elevator, asked to see my receipts when I left a clothing store, or spewed epithets at me as I rode my bike. He grabs me and holds me tight as I finish my story, the physical pain of the day I nearly drowned long gone, but the scars ever-present.

“This is all to get the water out of our lungs, Damon,” I say as he presses me against him, his fingers digging into my hair as he holds my head against his shoulder. “Because our country was drowning.”

About the Author

Jamila Minnicks

Jamila Minnicks is a civil rights lawyer in Washington, DC, where she has worked to fight discrimination in employment, housing, and voting. She currently works for the Federal Government, and writes to highlight the absurdities and challenges of living as a black woman under a system of racial inequality in the 21st century. She is the 2021 Winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

Read more work by Jamila Minnicks.