2: We Are Undecided
(Book Three of The Estelle Series)
Mj’s mother, Trudy, and her sisters Lizzy and Sunny, made us a big dinner and then William, Terran, and I, along with Mj and Adam, rode in the truck the couple of miles to the hostel for our meeting. We drove alongside fields, down tight lanes, and past rambling farmhouses, into a place that called itself a town, though it only boasted one general store, a thrift shop, a post office, and a place for travelers to stay—the hostel. The hostel was big, two stories, four, if you include the basement and the attic. It had seven bedrooms, three of which sported bunk beds. As Jack had put it, “Strangers are expected to sleep stacked, like a shoe collection.” He had been irritated ever since they moved in.
“Terran is here” I announced as we walked down the stairs to the basement parlor, a small room with a big wooden table at the end, dining chairs around, and a sofa in front of a fire. Jack and Terran shook hands coolly. We introduced Terran to Kate and Denise, whom he had met briefly, months ago, when he was the subject of a Daily Style story. Then we introduced Terran to Coren. Finally, Terran unrolled a stack of papers onto the table.
He said, “I hoped everything would erupt into protest, that people might get really, really angry after your arrest on TV, Jack, but, pbbthft, nothing. Not a thing. Our mother, Sylvia,” he gestured toward me, “left to go to her office. The streets were quiet except for the menacing, chest-thumping police.” Terran leaned against the table, with his arms folded. “I checked every channel, but they had all returned to style news and commercials, like the hours before were a dream. It was unsettling.”
“Frederick returned to his office, and I headed back to my farm. Guards were stationed all along the border between New City and Old Town. A jerk in full body armor carrying too many weapons, stopped me, totally intimidating, wouldn’t even let me pick up a few of my things. Kept asking me what I needed, and I kept asking him why he needed so many guns, which didn’t win him to my side. It’s just as well, I planned to disappear into Old Town. Instead he forcibly turned me away, so I returned to Sylvia’s place.”
I said, “I think that’s the last time I spoke to you.”
“Yep, on the way back they stopped me no less than three times and the streets were dead. You know how the streets of New City are always quiet after dark, but cars are zipping around and people are going in and out of buildings? This time it was nothing, nada, zip, it was eerie.
“So I hung out at Sylvia’s place trying to figure out what to do. Frederick came back in the evenings and went to work in the mornings, pretending like nothing unusual had happened. Ultimately we decided that I should walk here, and once we decided, Frederick gathered intel that I smuggled out in my backpack. Like a spy.” He grinned around the room. “Why all the long faces?”
William said, “Happy you’re here, but this is a lot to take in.”
“True, and yes, it sucks. Pardon the smile, I’m glad I escaped.”
Kate said, “So our story was good, gripping, emotional, fraught with danger, and it still wasn’t enough to get people into the streets?”
William said, “It’s not that the Daily Style story wasn’t enough, this is manufactured control. The only thing that explains the quiet is medicine in the water. Has to be.”
I said, “Angela told us the Oversee developed Lapseine for ‘targeted docility,’ we’ve wondered if New City would dare use it, now we know, they dare.”
Terran said, “Absolutely. That’s the only explanation for New City citizens ignoring what they’ve seen and heard and going about their day. It’s like everyone is sleepwalking. Frederick and I drank filtered water and we might have been the only people awake in the whole city. He and I are one hundred percent sure that the water is medicated, and Sylvia practically admitted it.”
I asked “She did?”
“You know how she is, she thinks everything is fine, and the Oversee is never wrong, but she was upset and wouldn’t deny it.”
Jack leaned forward, agitated, even though he was in the best, most comfortable chair. “We’re the only people anywhere who understand what’s going on, what’s happening. It’s down to us. What do we do?”
Terran patted the stack of paper beside him. “That’s why Frederick gave me these, blueprints and schema for that new water treatment plant.”
William rushed to the table. “Whoa, Frederick got these?”
William scanned the whole page. “That was risky.”
Terran nodded again.
We gathered, murmuring, reading, and pointing out interesting parts, until Coren asked, “So are we going to bomb it?”
I turned, startled. “Bomb it? Um, no, not bomb, but some—”
Jack said, “Of course we’re going to bomb it.”
I looked from Jack’s face to Coren’s, surprised by the suggestion.
Coren said, “Definitely, how else do we force it offline?”
Denise spoke up, “Something else. Disruption, vandalism, I don’t know, sabotage.”
Kate said, “Bombs are the quickest sabotage there is.”
Denise arched her perfectly drawn brow. “What are you even talking about? Do you even know how to make a bomb?”
Coren said, “I can figure it out,”
Denise said, “What you’re saying is too dangerous, something, anything could go wrong.”
My head spun watching this conversation unfold. William was rubbing his side with a pained expression, staying out of the discussion. Was it because standing bothered him or because he agreed? Did Terran agree? How could Jack, New City, Daily Style Jack, think of bombing a building? I searched out Adam and Mj, standing off to the side, whispering to each other, not interfering at all.
Was it up to me to talk sense into Jack?
“How did we get here—what, bombs? Sabotage doesn’t have to mean bombs. We have to have more better ideas.”
William said, “So let’s put bombs on the back burner for a second. How else can we sabotage this thing?”
Adam and Mj returned to our circle. Mj whispered, “Bombs?”
I whispered, “I know, what the—”
Adam pointed at a grouping of shaded circles on the blueprints, “These are tanks, here. That’s probably where the poison is being added.”
Denise said, “It’s not a poison, Estelle said it’s called—”
Adam said, “The government is adding a substance to the water supply to change behavior. It’s not supposed to be there. I’m calling it poison.”
Jack said, “Sounds like the perfect place for a bomb.”
William said, “Look, we aren’t planning a bombing, were looking into the million other options we have.”
Terran pointed out, “There’s pipes here, moving through there. Could we interrupt the flow somehow?”
Coren said, “Also, see this smaller containment area? That seems like a good place to hold the Lapseine, or whatever, poison.”
Jack said, “Bomb, bomb, bomb,” and when William looked in his direction, he returned the look with a practiced glare.
Coren said, “I agree with Jack, a well-made bomb is quick and relatively easy.”
I said, “That’s not a good selling point. It’s also dangerous and chances are good that someone will get hurt.”
Jack said, “Well, what’s your plan?”
“I don’t know, we literally have had these blueprints for like, five minutes. Does that mean we build bombs—what does that even involve anyway?”
Coren said, “My career path was engineering, product development, and design. All I need are instructions and I can build anything.”
I held up my hands, “But still, because we can build it doesn’t mean we ought to. Is that what we want to be? That’s serious trouble. There’s no coming back from that.”
Jack said, “You know, until you have a plan I don’t think you get a say.”
Terran rounded on Jack. “She gets a say—they’re my plans, she’s my sister, and our dad risked a lot to get them for us. She definitely gets a say. In fact, she and I get final say, because if something drastic occurs because of these plans Frederick could get in real trouble for giving them to me.”
Jack said, “Exactly. He gave them to you. He risked everything to give you the plans to the water treatment facility. He wants you to sabotage it or else why would he? You can’t just sit on them and do nothing.”
William said, “Jack has a point.”
“You think we should bomb something? I thought you were a pacifist?”
“I am a pacifist and that’s why I’m sitting here quietly, because my ribs hurt, because I still can’t move well from the beating I got on the fifth day of my incarceration. They disappeared me and they starved me and they beat me. I want to bomb them all. I want to kill somebody for what they did, but that’s why I’m keeping my mouth shut, except, you know, to say, he has a point.”
I rubbed my hands down my face. “You wrote a pamphlet based on principles of nonviolence—an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. You wrote that.”
“That’s Gandhi, and precisely.”
I huffed, irritated with everyone.
Adam said, “Mj and I are here as representatives of the Jones family We came because we wanted to help, however we could, in the rescue of Terran. If the plans evolve into something this big and possibly treacherous and treasonous we can’t come to more meetings.”
I said, “I’ll keep your family out of it, I promise, but come on,” I looked around at everyone, “we don’t have to do something so big. I’m sure we can come up with another idea.”
Jack said, “A way to sabotage the water treatment plant and bring the government of New City to its knees and —”
I said, “And allow us to return to our farms and our families.”
Jack looked at me with narrowed eyes, “Well I think this is more of your crazy wish-magic, and I, for one, am not willing to sit back and let you fancy-magical-wish us into submission. We need overthrow, and now.”
There was a long and complicated pause. Terran adjusted the plans. Denise tapped her foot. I twirled my hair. Never one to get a bright idea under duress and stress, I knew one wouldn’t come now. Not while a room full of revolutionaries waited for me to persuade them not to Do Something Big. They wanted the Something Big. How would I talk them out of it? This situation almost required a bomb at this point. William was right. Jack had a point.
Kate said, “Estelle, New City has a drug they add to the water supply and quickly, quicker than it’s possible to believe, the citizens become catatonic sheep-people. That’s scary. The required response might frighten us, but it’s necessary.”
Denise asked, “Like a necessary evil? Because I still don’t know, I want to go home. My husband is probably worried about me. I would have a baby next year. It’s all planned.”
Jack said, “He probably doesn’t even notice you’re missing.”
Denise scowled. “Thanks Jack. My point is we need to go home. Once we bomb buildings it doesn’t seem like we go home afterward.”
Jack said, “We’d make sure we did it at night, we’ll plan it out so no one gets hurt.”
Coren added, “I can build it, whatever you need.”
I said, “What we need is to come up with a different plan.”
Jack said, “You just don’t have it yet.”
“But I will.”
Terran nodded. “Let’s go around the circle and say what we think so far. We’ve heard from Jack—”
Jack said, “I think we need to strike big, level the place, and then sweep in and tell them how we want them to fix it all. Brand marketing. Public relations. Turn off the meds and tell the people how it’s going to be.”
Terran smirked and turned to Coren, “And what was your name?”
“Coren, I agree with the bomb, it seems fast and easy. I can build it.”
“Okay, your thoughts?” He looked at Kate.
“I’m with Jack.”
Denise said, “That sounds very drastic. I need time to think it over and maybe with more details…”
Mj said, “I agree something big has to happen, but if there’s violence you have to count my family out. We’re nonviolent on principle.”
Adam smiled, “And that whole moment earlier, where I pointed out the containment tanks and called it poison, that was me forgetting that I’m happily married to Nonviolence On Principle.” Mj gave him a playful thwack with her elbow.
Terran asked, “William?”
William had settled into a chair and was leaned back, thoughtful. “Ever since Estelle brought up the ‘Eye for an eye until the whole world is blind’ quote I’ve been mulling it over. That idea. It must make perfect sense during times of war. I think that’s what attracted me to it—if their side attacks us, then we attack back, until we’re all dead. It’s stupid, anyone can see that. This issue is bigger though, A government is—as someone here, I can’t remember who—” William smiled at Adam. “A government is poisoning the public drinking water. I’m sure the government doesn’t see this as an attack, it probably sees it as good governance. But it’s an attack on the physics of our bodies, our personhood, to our core. What they’re doing is so big that I could argue that a small bomb in the corner of a building taking out a tank or two is not that big a deal. I could easily argue that, but the Oversee will see it as a big deal. One charge against me was treason. Imagine the charges if we bomb the place. What you’re talking about Jack, is escalation.” Jack looked incredulous. William added, “I think we should be able to come up with something else.”
I raised my brow. “And what would that be?”
“I have no idea, that’s where you step in.”
I said, “There’s another something to do, I just need time to…” I was not confident that there was a better solution, there just had to be.
Terran said, “I agree with Estelle, and frankly she hasn’t led me wrong so far. I think she’s a safe bet. So how about we take a week—” I shook my head. Terran continued, “Or two and come up with some alternatives to the Blowing Things Up idea. Research, bring as much info as you have next time we meet.”
Terran rolled up the blueprints. Coren asked, “Can we have access to those?”
“I’ll take them with me, but come see them anytime. Oh and—” He unzipped his pack and pulled out a shiny tube with hoses sticking out of it. “Frederick also sent these water filtration systems. I’m not sure how the water is—”
Adam said, “Trudy had it tested, two days ago, it’s fine. We plan to test it every week.”
Mj said, “Though considering your story perhaps we should test it daily.”
Terran said, “I’ll leave one here and take the rest to the farm, just in case.”
Coren turned it over and over. “I’d love to figure out how it works.”
Terran handed him a schematic for the filtration system. “Dad was hoping someone here would say that.” Coren’s eyes lit up with excitement, he was like having a mini-Frederick around.
Terran closed up his pack and slung it to his back. “So we’re decided, that we are undecided.”
A few people answered with “yeahs.” Jack mumbled something under his breath, and we adjourned for the evening.
3: responsible for them all
On the way home Terran and I stretched out in the bed of the truck. William rode up front in a seat because the day had been long and the bouncing truck was making him, in his own words, want to scream.
Terran said, “Jack is problematic, huh.”
I looked up at the black night, the sky flung with stars. “Has he ever not been?”
“True. He continues to be useful though. A fact that drives me crazy.”
“Just remember, he’s been through a lot, and also, I’ve put him through a lot.”
Terran said, “True that, and now that a girl threw me over, I feel for him. At least Angela had the decency to leave so I don’t have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. You, on the other hand, are right here in front of him. I changed my mind, you’re the one who is problematic, but this is nice.”
I put my head on his shoulder. The night air was crisp, cool, the sky, epic. “We’ll sit on the porch tonight and talk more.”
Terran yawned. “It’s late, I might head to bed.”
“You only have one first night. Only one, Terran.”
“You are so bossy.” He looked up at the sky. “William looks awful.”
“You should have seen him a few days ago.”
“Ouch. I can’t imagine it. I’m glad you got him out. You’re amazing, I hope you know that.”
“It’s good to be reminded. I don’t feel amazing; I feel kind of confused. Speaking of, thank you for having my back at the meeting.”
“Of course, and it was easy, because you’re right and they’re wrong, and I really, really, really can’t wait to hear your big awesome plan. No pressure.” He laughed as the truck pulled beside the Jones Farm and jostled down the driveway bumping and sputtering. Everyone dropped from the truck to the ground.
Adam said, “Mj and I will sit on the porch, want to join us?”
“I told you,” I said, bumping Terran’s side.
It was late. The rest of the family had tucked in for the night. Little Bea, though she wasn’t very little anymore, was in Mj’s sling, fast asleep, arms splayed, chubby legs poking out, top of her head sleep-sweaty. She barely woke up, though Mj had picked her up from the bed, put her in the sling and carried her downstairs. Once Mj sat down, Bea nudged and wiggled, meaning she wanted to nurse, so Mj lifted her shirt in mid-sentence, without a thought. I laughed to myself that I used to find that shocking and now it was so commonplace I hardly noticed it. William must have been thinking the same thing because I glanced at him and he winked.
Mj said, “Terran you’re the only one who hasn’t heard, I’m having another baby!”
“Wonderful!” Terran jumped up, crossed the porch, and hugged Mj, careful not to jostle Bea, and then hugged Adam too, and said, “Oh man, it will be good to have another baby around!” I beamed. Terran as always was perfect, and I was so happy he was here, so that when I failed at something—like congratulating my friend—at least he could do it well and make me better by association.
Adam said, “So that was some meeting you guys put on. William apologized in the truck, profusely, but I get it. I want you to understand though that we can’t go back to the meetings unless they calm down a little.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” I said. “And I’ll try to calm them down.”
Adam said, “You have a tough job ahead of you, but you ought to. Whatever they do, it will implicate you, Estelle and William. Any action they take will affect your lives. You have to take them seriously and act accordingly.”
“Yes, I know.”
Mj said, “You could talk to mom and dad, they might have thoughts.”
“I’ll ask if I can help them tomorrow with chores, get them talking…” I turned to William, “Thank you for your last speech. It was perfectly said.”
“It’s not that hard to override my anger.” William sat for a second, holding in a breath, then burst, laughing. “I couldn’t keep a straight face for that one!”
Terran said, “For a second I wondered if the beating jiggled your brain.”
“I’m trying something I call: Patience through Deference. Whenever I want to punch Jack or build explosives, I take a deep breath and then do what Estelle tells me to do.”
I laughed, “So I’m your moral restraint? No pressure, huh?”
“Just until the bruises heal, and then I’ll go back to my own self-restraint, limited as it is.” He traced a finger along the back of my hand.
Terran said, “I’m glad to be back. Though it’s some place totally new. What do we do tomorrow?”
Mj said, “Tomorrow you help me in the—”
Adam interrupted, “Oh no you don’t. I’ve got a huge project in the back fields and I’ve been eyeing Terran all day. He’s competent and capable and I want him on my team.”
Mj laughed, “Okay, okay, you get Terran in the back fields, fine. Until dad decides he needs help and takes him for the day.”
Terran laughed, “So it’s farm work with whoever thinks I’m the most useful? Okay, I’m good with that, but now I have to go to bed. I’ve been walking for days, I’m exhausted.”
I pointed. “Trudy has a tent for you over there. Don’t forget to look up at the stars on your way.”
“What about you and William? You have a tent too?”
William said, “We get to sleep in the house. Like civilized people.”
I explained, “William’s ribs need a soft mattress.”
Terran teased, “I see how it is. I suppose he doesn’t have to do chores either?”
“I’m living the life of a gentlemen writer.” William tried to lean back with his arms behind his head to show his ease, but raising his arms caused him to spasm forward, groaning and clutching his side.
“Okay, you milk that injury and lie around while me and sister do all the work.” Terran stood and patted William on the shoulder. “Seriously, I’m glad you’re back.”
I stood, hugged him, gave him a goodnight kiss on the cheek, and was so happy to have him back that tears welled up a little. I couldn’t help myself. I sat back down and nuzzled in under William’s good arm and felt him kiss me on the crown of my head. I closed my eyes, content to sit here forever, swinging with William. Terran safe. Surrounded by family.
Only trouble was—some of my own family wasn’t here and I had a group of people I was responsible for who were right now planning a revolution. And sadly, though almost everyone would disagree—they would be lying—I was responsible for them all.
4: my influence
The next morning I woke early-early and headed to the front yard to help with chores. Terran was already there, smiling, ready to go. “Good morning, sleepyhead. Cj says you and I are to help him and Adam with some fencing.”
I was glad for that, I needed to speak with Cj and having Terran and Adam around would help.
Cj gave us gloves and tools and then sent Adam and Terran in the truck for the lumber and asked me to walk with him to the fields. His beard was braided and tied with small colorful bands, but lacked flowers because it was early morning. He would pick flowers and add them as the day went on to lighten the mood. He wore a plain T-shirt and big loose overalls, rolled up at the bottom exposing ornately patterned socks sticking up from his work boots. The day before I had asked about his socks and he said, “They’re camouflage so the plants in the fields aren’t scared when I walk through them.” He winked and added, “There’s nothing more disgusting than the taste of terrified broccoli.”
We walked about five paces, me trying to decide how to bring up the meeting, when he did it for me, “So I hear your meeting got pretty wild last night.”
“Yes, it did. With Terran’s arrival we thought it would be casual, but instead it turned into a—I don’t know what you’d call it.”
“Adam and Mj told me all about it, I think you’d call it a serious situation. I heard you tried to talk the troops out of violence—”
“I wasn’t very persuasive. I just bought myself some time.”
“You did good, that’s exactly what the situation needed. When someone is acting out of anger, a cooling-off period is often the best idea. You gave them that.”
“Now I have to come up with a better idea, something other than Sabotage by Explosion. It sounds crazy to even say it.”
“Do you think that’s what Frederick wanted when he sent the plans?”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like him, but he sent them. Why else would he send them?”
“Why indeed?” We walked for a few more paces. “The thing about war is it’s a battle to win, but almost everyone loses.”
“Is this a war?”
“It’s an escalation, war is where it leads. Whether it’s the Big Scale War that gets us what have right now, here, in our current world—almost nothing left and rebuilding from the destruction, or a small scale one that disrupts everyone and everything—makes life paltry. War is where escalation leads.”
“I don’t want to escalate. The government is poisoning the water system and Jack wants to break the water system. It seems like the losers in that scenario are people who need water. Everyone. No one will forgive us or side with us if they’re thirsty.”
I continued, “And they might side with the government against us.”
Cj nodded again, “True.”
We walked in silence. Ahead of us, at the end of the far field, Terran and Adam leaned against the truck. I slowed my pace to finish my thought. “So even if we are successful with sabotaging the water plant, we lose.”
Cj nodded, watching the side of my face. “You have to find a way to solve this without escalating it.”
“A third way.”
Cj smiled. “You know, when we first met, you were kind of a mess, but now I definitely see the girl Mj told me about.”
“Really? I feel like someone else entirely, and kind of tired actually.”
“Well, Mj has a way of seeing—not just who someone is, but what they plan to become. That’s why she’s an awesome mom.”
“I still don’t know what to do though. A third way—but what? I have to dream up something and I have a deadline.”
Cj squinted at me. “You just did.”
“Dreamed up a plan.”
I thought back through our conversation searching all the bits and pieces. “All I said was a ‘third way.’”
“You said three things. One, a Third Way. Two, you don’t want to escalate. Three, the citizens of New City won’t side with you if they’re thirsty.”
“Whoever gives the citizens water wins.”
Cj tapped his finger on his temple. “Now you have to figure out how to implement it.”
We turned and went to meet Terran and Adam at the truck to begin our work.
At noon I walked back to eat lunch with William. He was waiting with sandwiches at the roughhewn table situated at one end of the porch. I tried to make myself a little more presentable by running my fingers through my hair and wiping sweat off my brow. There was a big muddy smear on my forearm. Either I had just smeared it onto my forehead or transferred it there from my forehead. I was a mess. William was accustomed to my messes, but usually he was smear-covered dirty too. I decided to smile widely, to distract him.
He kissed me on the cheek. “It was boring here this morning. I must be getting better, because I didn’t want to sit around, wanted to be with you and Terran.”
“We had fun, like old times, but with two wisecracking Beyondians instead of Frederick. Cj and Adam were joking almost the whole time. I wanted to remember the silly things they said to come back and tell you, but it was all so silly that—trust me, it was funny at the time—doesn’t translate.”
“I made your favorite, creamy cheese with olive chunks on crusty bread—not toasted.”
“Thank you, sir.” I sat down to tuck into my meal. “I had a long talk with Cj today.”
“Oh really, about what?”
“Very funny, you know exactly what, and you know I’m here to tell you about it.”
William said with a smirk, “Oh, right, that long talk.”
“I came up with a plan, or not a ‘plan’ plan, but more like a seed before it grows into a plan—here let me tell you—as you know we can’t do what Jack wants to do because it’s an escalation.”
“Funny that’s where you’re starting, Mj came to me this morning talking about the dangers of escalation. She brought a stack of books for me to read.” He pulled a small stack of books up from the seat beside him and dropped them to the table. “I read this one, first.” He held up a very battered, faded, torn and taped, picture book, called The Butter Battle Book.
“She gave you a kid’s book?”
“It’s about escalation.”
“Ah, I see, the Jones family is coming at us from every direction.”
“They’re escalating their position of peacefulness.” William grinned.
“So I was thinking, if the government poisons the water and then we break the water system, the end result is that people go thirsty. I would guess that thirsty people are angry people, and whoever gives angry thirsty people water wins.” I took a big bite of my sandwich.
William asked, “So you’re saying we should give the people water?”
I chewed and swallowed. “Water that isn’t medicated, water that isn’t broken. If we want to win.”
William nodded. “Okay, how do we do that?”
I chuckled. “I have no idea. That’s why it’s less a plan and more like the seed of a plan.”
“It’s more than we had this morning, I suppose, but I’m not certain it will convince Jack. You need to come up with a strategy. Win allies.”
“Coren might be good. I could talk to him. I think he’ll listen.”
“Maybe I can talk to Jack, get him to come around to my way of thinking and—”
William raised his brows. “I don’t know Estelle. Jack has been living under your influence for a long time. Perhaps you need to give him some space, let him come to some conclusions without your help. I think you’re half the reason he’s so angry.”
“Oh please, my influence isn’t that big. He’s mad because the government kicked him out and locked the gates behind him. His feelings are hurt.”
William leveled his gaze. “Sure.”
“Seriously that’s all it is, nothing to do with me.”
“Okay, what do I know?” William bit into his sandwich and said chewing, “I’m the kind of guy who lies around reading kid books all day.”
“Speaking of which, I need to get back to the fields, while you…?”
“Nap, after Trudy changes my head dressing and makes me feel all better.”
I kissed him on the cheek and left to meet Terran for afternoon chores.