Never Knows Our Names
Everyone on the bus got busy when Carnival
announced that we were crossing the state line. Snowball reached for the
leather satchel in the adjacent seat and pulled out a set of pistols as the
overhead lights dimmed. Ever Ready and Divinity were inspecting the fuses on
the explosive devices cradled on their laps. Eight Ball and Consequence hovered
in the back, unzipping the Kevlar cases on the luggage rack and reaching for
the automatic rifles stacked beneath the false bottom. Carnival called out to
remind me to check the spare batteries for the video equipment.
I was Hopscotch.
None of us knew
each other’s names, the names we had before becoming members of the Democratic Front.
It was safer that way. Security in ignorance: that was the group philosophy. We
were all dressed in identical sets of black hoodies, jeans and work boots. Once
we had our masks on, there would be no way for a witness to tell us apart
except for the crudest traits: height, bulk, flashes of skin tone. The only way
to distinguish us would be by our actions, whether we did what we had been
trained to do or whether one of us would fuck up.
Now that we had crossed the border, I had
fifteen minutes at most to decide if I wanted to admit that I was the traitor.
I had no way to be sure that the Feds were tracking us but I had activated the
GPS just as they had taught me to and there was no reason to believe anyone had
suspected me of betrayal. As far as the rest of the team was concerned, our
real worries involved random encounters in the shadows along the highway.
Carnival was huddled in the front of the bus
next to Chance, the driver. He was peering though the shaded windows, looking
for the sudden emergence of headlights in the darkness. It was well past
midnight and we had the only vehicle on the road. If state troopers had set up
a speed trap in the grassy field adjacent to the road, there were no grounds
for suspicion. Our bus had been legally purchased and the local plates were not
likely to draw any attention. The police should not have known who we were or
why we were coming. The team had been especially careful to keep team
communications off the grid. Instructions delivered in person, by voice only.
No email, no text messages. Certainly no Facebook. As far as the law was
concerned, we should have been invisible.
Which was a familiar condition for me. I had
spent a lifetime inhabiting the various degrees of invisibility. The youngest
of five children, I grew up the boy who couldn’t figure out how to catch a
football or land a punch. Staying concealed in the corners of existence was
always my preferred strategy of getting from one day to the next. My video work
had been a logical outgrowth of my disposition, my way of interacting with the
people who used to scare me. It would be a cliché to say I hid behind the
camera. The more accurate way of putting it was that the camera allowed me to
stare at things I ordinarily wouldn’t be able to look at without getting
knocked on my ass.
I shifted in my seat and watched the graduated
shades of blackness and shadow pass by the window—silhouettes of trees and
shrubbery, the narrow path of roadway. Carnival said that there wouldn’t be
another town until we reached the destination. No settlements of any
significance until we had gotten twenty miles in. Our choice of towns was
strategic on both ends: no advanced warning when we came in, limited
opportunity for a roadblock when we got out. We would have a complete tactical
advantage in our operation, Carnival told me, as long as no one knew we were
I pulled a rumpled curtain over the window as Eight
Ball and Consequence started down the aisle to hand off the rifles. The two men
were an unlikely pair. Despite the rumors that they came from opposite sides of
the world— one with family from Vietnam, the other from Guatemala—they could
have passed as twins. They each had bronzed skin, thick flattened noses and
cleanly shaven scalps. Eight Ball handed me an AK-47 with the same indifference
that you might lend someone a pencil or pass the salt at dinner. I had no doubt
he would have that precise look on his face if I confessed about my betrayal and
he was assigned to kill me.
clambered into the seat in front of me, leaned over the headrest and asked me
if I was locked and loaded. His face, as always, was a scar-ravaged blend of compassion
and calculation, red tattoos of barbed wire emerging from the matted curls of
soft blonde locks. He smiled when I inspected my rifle and told me to keep my
weapon on safety unless we ran into some resistance. My job, he said, was to
stay close to him and get as much video footage as I could before getting my
ass back to the bus.
coverage would not be a problem. I had already earned a reputation as an online
documentarian ever since I had dropped out of art school, filming everything from
anarchist attacks at college campuses to KKK rallies on suburban streets. The
more disturbing the situation, the more I wanted to be there. It was a way of
overcoming my own tepid nature. Politics didn’t matter to me. All I cared about
was witnessing the convulsions of history as they unfolded in front of my lens.
Carnival was offering a chance to film the equivalent of the first shots fired
at Lexington and Concorde. At least that’s the way he saw it.
stood in the front of the bus now, gesturing with his gloved hand as though he
were pulling a visor down over his forehead. I reached into my pocket for the
black nylon mask and fastened it over my face, adjusting the straps to make
sure it was tightened properly. Carnival had told me at the first training
session that there was nothing like operating behind a mask. You felt
liberated, free to act on your most basic impulses without fear of either
reprimand or reprisal. When you wore a mask, he told me, you discovered who you
As someone who
had incorporated modes and methods of invisibility into the very essence of his
daily life, I should have loved being behind that mask. As soon as I slipped
that black fabric across my face I was gone, absorbed in the tightly stitched
fibers. But instead of experiencing either the relief or the release that
Carnival had promised, all I felt was a dull throbbing ache behind my exposed
eyes. I was a ghost with a migraine, a haunted visage trapped behind the folds
of a black façade, agonizing at his imminent demise.
The Feds seemed
to understand my own fear of vanishing all too well. The two agents made that
much clear to me when they hauled me into their office last month. The room was
innocuous: wood paneled floors, hand crafted desks, plenty of potted plants. The
chairs even had soft cushions. Both agents stood there smiling at me, a bald
one with a mustache and a curly-haired one with glasses, each man dressed like a
commuter late for work. It was the bald one who finally told me that I could
either do a great service for my country or disappear behind bars.
The agent with
the glasses asked me to picture what life would be like in prison as they
showed me how they had linked me to over a hundred online videos showing acts
of political violence. I was being accused of participating in a criminal
conspiracy as well as being charged with incitement to imminent lawless action.
The bald agent told me that they had enough to put me away for more years than
I had been alive. They would bury me.
My first thought was that they were bluffing.
The agents were trying to scare me into giving them information about the
people they were really after. I wanted to believe there was no legal risk in
being a mere documentarian but so much had changed since the last election that
I couldn’t be sure. When the state lawyer finally showed up, he encouraged me
to make a deal and I agreed mostly just so that I could get the hell out of there.
I can’t spend too much time being cooped up in the same place.
forced to wear a mask.
As I adjusted
the nylon over my face, the bus had become remarkably quiet. I hadn’t realized
just how much ambient noise had been hovering in the background—cartridges
being loaded, beats escaping from headphones, bodies shifting on the aching springs
of plastic seats—until it had all stopped. All I could hear was the straining
of suspension cables and the wheezing rumble of the engine as we made our final
approach to the target.
was silent. Ordinarily, he was a man in constant motion, checking this and
that, always offering a last-minute piece of advice or a good word. A control
freak with manners, he liked to call himself. I would have expected him to be
conferring with Chance until the very last minute but instead he had retreated
into his seat cushion as the headlights extended across the empty road.
If it weren’t
for Carnival, my decision would have been a lot easier. I don’t think I would
have even considered walking to the front of the bus and announcing that I had
compromised the mission. That our only chance for escape—and possibly
survival—was to evacuate immediately, abandoning our equipment and heading off
in separate directions through the forest. I knew if I opened my mouth, it
would mean a bullet through my brain. For Carnival’s sake, I was willing to
consider that possibility. I did not want him to suffer for my sins.
From the first time we met, in a blackened
basement beneath a downtown rave, Carnival seemed to know my mind better than I
did, sizing me up like a lost little brother or a missing son. He had seen my
work and told me that I had the heart of a revolutionary. I tried to explain
that all I wanted to do was take pictures of things burning down. Carnival showed
me that I needed to get closer to the flames.
squeaked slightly as the bus turned into the empty parking lot of a shuttered
liquor store. I could hear the metallic clink of a bullet dropping onto the
floor and then Eight Ball muttering a curse. Carnival stepped into the aisle
and clicked off the safety on his rifle. He said that this was it. We were
finally going to get a chance to serve our country, to show the reason we were
Those were the
words he had used last night as we shared a final joint at the base camp. We
were sitting on at the edge of the forest, watching Eight Ball and Consequence
throwing knives at targets on the wooden wall of the shelter. He watched the men
tossing their blades from twenty feet and took a long hit of the joint and told
me that a lot of people would die tomorrow.
He said that it
sounded much cleaner in our mission statement, much more antiseptic. He recited
how the Democratic Front utilized dramatic methods to radically increase the
stakes for parts of the country that failed to vote in their own best interests.
Then he took another hit.
Dozens would be
killed at the polling site if everything went according to plan, he said. Maybe
more. And each one of those people would have done nothing more to deserve to
die than either of us. He took one last hit and passed the joint to me.
On their own,
he told me, these deaths would be nothing more than murder. But these killings
would not be in isolation, without meaning. Enough strategic action by both
ourselves and the other cells that were sure to follow in our wake would lead
to a revolutionary realignment in the so-call swing states. On a county-by-county
basis, elections were determined by incredibly small margins. Just the word of
our actions this morning, just the threat of violence hovering over the polling
booths for the rest of the day, would be enough to turn those margins in our
favor. Overthrowing the entire system was a romantic fantasy. Bending the
system in the right direction was not just possible but necessary, a
requirement of history.
The lives of a
few thousand voters are insignificant, Carnival said, when you consider all
that will happen if they’re allowed to vote again.
reached for a can of beer and watched another knife toss. It wasn’t clear
whether he expected me to respond or simply to listen, to take it in as part of
my own personal documentary. I stayed quiet as Consequence fired his knife at
the wall and knocked Eight Ball’s blade to the ground.
to be king, Carnival told me, and you’re never going to be a prince. In the end,
the world may never even know who we were or what we were trying to do. But as
long as what we do helps bring about the changes we need for ourselves and the
country, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter if the world never knows
I activated the
GPS as soon as we got on the bus that night.
It had been
planted in the same video equipment I was holding now as I got ready to step
into the crowded aisle. The bald agent with the mustache had shown me how to
set it off by clicking the power button three times and then holding it down
for five seconds. He told me not to activate the tracking system until I knew
there was going to be some action. When I asked why I needed to wait, the agent
brushed the stray hairs above his lip and sighed. Partially, he told me, it was
to make sure that no one would be tipped off that I was transmitting a signal.
Mostly, he said, because the Feds wanted to catch us in the act.
I cradled the
camera in my arms as Ever Ready walked past me down the aisle and then Divinity
followed. If I ever saw them again, it would be from a witness chair in a
Federal courthouse. Consequence stood just behind my seat and Eightball gave me
a gesture with his chin, indicating that I should go ahead of them. I knew that
they would never find themselves on trial. They were not the type to allow
themselves to be taken alive. I would never see them again. My only concern was
that sometime in the future on a poorly lit street, one of them might see me.
The front doors
of the bus opened and we made our way down the aisle. There would be the sound
of alarms soon. Sirens and flashing lights. The federal agents had shown me how
to drop my weapon and fall to the ground, placing my hands behind my head.
There was no guarantee that I would not be shot in the ensuing chaos but that
was a risk I would have to take. Assuming I made it through the initial rounds
of gunfire, I would be brought into custody with the other survivors until the
agents came to secure my release.
As I got to the
front of the bus, Ever Ready had gone ahead to scout a path to the main streets
beyond a grove of oak trees and Divinity had taken up his position along the
shaded metal overhang at the entrance to the liquor store. Carnival was
standing on the asphalt just outside the door. He gestured towards the store
with his rifle, asking if I was ready to go.
I listened to
the agitated breathing of Chance and Eight Ball hovering just behind me as I
lingered on the bottom step of the bus, staring at the crinkly lines forming at
the corners of Carnival’s eyes. I thought I could see a smile forming under his
mask. He watched me standing at the doorway and asked if I was having second
thoughts. I told him I would let him know in a few minutes.
Carnival just laughed
and said I’d better get my shit together.
I adjusted the
camera under the crook of my arm and twisted the lens cover. It was all I could
do to stop myself from running my gloved fingers across his mask and feel for
the scars hidden beneath the black fabric, the lurid marks that divided that
brilliant and awful face. I wanted to thank him for inviting me to earn wounds
of my own. If he had let me, I would have explained how after our conversation
yesterday, I stayed up most of the night in a canvas lean-to and listened to
insects chirping in the darkness as I considered his vision of a world that
never knew who we were or what we were trying to accomplish.
As much as I
tried to picture the new society that Carnival wanted to create, all I could
actually see was myself disappearing. I would vanish—either from death in a
fire fight or life in prison. One end, perhaps, would be more glorious than the
other but either way I would amount to nothing. For the sin of being born, I
had been condemned to be a watcher and now I would have nothing left to see.
There were only
shadows and darkness ahead of me as I scanned the asphalt expanse of the
parking lot and then turned back to Carnival. As it turned out, he would be only
partially right about our place in posterity. After tonight’s raid, people
would remember us. They would remember us because of me. My raw footage would
keep the memory alive, the final hours of the Democratic Front appearing on
high-definition screens during the trial. And I would be there to narrate the
action. There was no way out: I had to agree to testify under oath as part of
the terms of my deal. My face might remain hidden beneath a blur of pixels but
my pseudonym would make headlines across the country. I would be the hero and
villain all at once, the voice of a failed revolution.
And I would
suffer for it, I would suffer for my betrayal. Perhaps not in the stark manner
that Chance and Eight Ball could have arranged. Perhaps not even in a way that
would satisfy Carnival. But I would suffer, nonetheless. No matter how well the
government attempted to keep my identity hidden, word would get out about the freelance
videographer whose only allegiances were to his equipment and his ass. One way
or another, this would be my final documentary. If I dared show my face at another
political event, I ran the risk that someone would see me and know exactly who
One way or
another, I’d have something new to look at.
Carnival gave me a tug and told me to get the fuck off the
bus. I clambered
out the door, plodding across the parking lot towards my safe spot. Ever Ready
and Divinity were locked and loaded, setting up a line of fire from behind a
stone fence. Bracing the camera on my left shoulder, I crouched behind a
dumpster and squinted through the glass for the first hint of vehicles
approaching from the back roads, tiny flashes of red or blue light piercing the
silhouette of forested hillside.
Fishbane is the
author of the short fiction collection, On the Proper Role of Desire.
His work has also appeared in New World Writing, the MacGuffin,
Lunch Ticket, Hobart, the New York Quarterly and The
Sean O’Keefe is an artist and writer living in Roselle Park, NJ. Sean attended Syracuse
University where he earned his BFA in Illustration. After graduation, Sean moved to New
York City where he spent time working in restaurants and galleries while pursuing various
artistic opportunities. After the birth of his children, Sean and family move to Roselle
Park in 2015. He actively participates in exhibitions and art fairs around
New Jersey, and is continuing to develop his voice as a writer. His work
can be found online at www.justseanart.com and @justseanart on Instagram.