Thankfully, Good Hope Road was not on fire when the black luxury vehicle stopped at its destination: the Anacostia Red Roof Inn.
Nico, Asher, and Raymond exited the car and walked towards the hotel’s entrance. They were not greeted as they entered nor did they find anyone manning the front desk. Asher located the desk’s bell and attempted to ring, but found it was out of service. So they resorted to yelling.
“Hello!? Excuse us! We’d like three rooms, please!” Asher called to the grimy corners of the dimly lit room.
Silence answered, followed by the clattering of what sounded like metal pans and the scuffling of heavy feet. A large, light-skinned black man in a stained Red Roof Inn uniform scurried out of a back room and took his place behind the counter.
“How mayeth I helpest thou, good sir?”
“We need three rooms, please.” Asher repeated.
“Doth thou prefereth smoking or non-smoking accommodations?”
“Non-smoking, all three please.”
“Very good. Jackqualenya shalt lead thee to thy chambers forthwith. Jackqualenya! Comest thou out from thy hole to showeth these gentle folk to their quarters!” the man shouted roughly, directing his voice up the central staircase.
“Mindeth thy barbed tongue, Nooroozeleff, before I plucketh it from thy mouth,” came the surly response from a morbidly obese woman making her way down to the group one painful footstep at a time. “Forsooth, tis not commoneth to looketh upon folk of yonder shade standing within our halls.”
“We have come from across the river seeking refuge from chaos,” Asher explained.
“This land of Anacostia containeth its own chaos, thou shalt find no respite here,” warned the clerk.
Nico spoke plainly, “We prefer the known chaos of Anacostia to the unknown chaos of the neighborhood we just came from.”
“Very well strange travelers, we knoweth not of what thy speaketh, but if thy coin is good we haveth rooms for succor,” Nooroozeleff conceded as he created their bill, “How longeth shall thy be resting with us?
The group looked around in confusion, having not yet considered this question. Asher spoke for everyone, “Indefinitely.”
“Very good, sir. Thou canst payeth byeth the weeketh. Jackqualenya, taketh our guests to yonder master suites oneth the second floor. “
“Righteth this way,” called the chambermaid as she struggled back up the stairs to lead them to the rooms.
The accommodations were not much to speak of; the beds were lumpy in the wrong places, the smell of stale cigarettes betrayed the meaninglessness of the non-smoking designation, and the lights hummed with a faint but noticeable buzz. But there was running water, small refrigerators that worked in two of the three rooms, televisions that received the major news stations, and, most importantly, an internet connection. The group settled in, familiarized themselves with the peculiarities of their quarters, and met in Raymond’s bedroom to watch the news.
Broadcast news was blaring more of the same, with two major headlines bleating on about violence “no long working” and how predominantly affluent youths were engaging in widespread heavy “political demonstrations” through looting, robbing, and terrorizing the populations of most major urban centers. Across the world, the situation was the same: in countries with large power disparities, society was destabilized and cities were burning. But in nations “run by peasants,” as one talking head elegantly phrased it, the populace remained remarkably calm, with only a slight uptick in the destruction of property on a mass scale.
The cohort of professionals occupying their screen was at a loss to explain this phenomenon. Fortunately these luminaries were saved from their public stupefaction when a representative from the National Rifle Association pointed out that if the United States had more guns in the hands of more citizens the entire situation could have been avoided. This comment went viral and triggered a firestorm of debate, with every news channel playing it on a seemingly endless loop. This helped channel the attention of their pundits to an issue they were much better versed in shouting about.
Turning the television off in disgust, Raymond faced his confidantes. “What a pack of idiots. If it were poor people or minorities looting they’d be quick to condemn the culture, system, people…whatever. But god help us if it’s the powerful or the whites who are out of control. We can’t even process that as a society!”
“That’s fairly self-evident,” Nico added, “But the real mystery is why these groups? What’s specifically motivating these demographics?”
“I’ve been giving that a lot of thought ever since we met that jackass MB outside…” Asher started.
“MB? What’s an MB?” Nico interrupted.
“Oh, right. Sorry. It’s a term Raymond and I used in college to describe all our favorite people. It stands for ‘myopic bourgeoisie.’”
“I appreciate your permission. But what I think it might be is that the privileged are the most repressed group in this country…”
“What’re you talking about!? Repressed!? They’re the historical oppressors…” Raymond broke in.
“Calm down, race traitor,” Asher said, preventing the boulder of Raymond’s indignation from tumbling down the mountain of his self-righteousness, “I know how eager you are to prove you aren’t ‘one of them,’ but just listen for a second, okay? I’m not talking about you…entirely.” Asher smiled as Nico patted Raymond’s head condescendingly.
“There, there, snowball. We know you’re one of the good ones.”
“Watch out, members of historically oppressed minority groups, if you keep on with this type of talk I’m liable to start stripping your lands of trillions of dollars in resources and labor and classify you into tiered ethnic categories between which I’ll sow strife until it’s politically and economically expedient for me to leave. Of course I’ll do that anyways regardless of your actions, then blame you for your broken economy and culture and failed governments and offer token ‘aid’ and loans. These will serve to further sink your economy into recession and debt after the poorly targeted/distributed aid stifles economic growth and is plundered and invested in our art and real estate markets by your corrupt elites, who I’ll tolerate so that my people can loot whatever fruits your anemic economy produces with poorly structured trade deals. The political demands I thought would be best for your nation based on my own economic ideology and attached as a qualification to the aid and/or loans will stymie the development of a strong and competitive domestic industry while interest builds, precluding reinvestment until your country goes bankrupt. After you’re bankrupt, we’ll buy everything and control your land and lives remotely, again. All this while I pretend, validated by a global media I control, I’m a charitable saint for helping out this regrettably and inexplicably destitute people,” Raymond joked.
“…Thanks, Raymond. Alright, so the privileged, other than our dear Raymond here, are the most repressed group in this country because of the social pressures placed on them by the necessary authoritarianism of political correctness…”
“What? Political correctness? Why would we consider that a negative social pressure?” interjected Raymond once more, “The only people with an issue with political correctness are people who want freedom from the burden of censoring the shitty thoughts caused by their shitty culture or upbringing!”
“Are you done?” Asher asked, “Because I wasn’t, so shut up and let me finish.”
“Sorry…” muttered Raymond, disgruntled.
“Okay, so political correctness is not a negative thing, as you pointed out, but it is a restraint that constantly suppresses people who do have the desire and tendency to say things that traumatize other people. When you place a person in a society where every thought they have is labeled “offensive,” it tends to build up pretty powerful repressed rage and resentment. When the threat of violent reprisal is removed, all of that resentment is unleashed and we get…well, this.” Asher concluded proudly, gesturing towards the now blank television.
“I can accept that there might be a lot of repressed offensiveness in the privileged class, but isn’t there just as much repressed anger in oppressed populations who’ve been oppressed for generations?” Raymond probed.
“Of course they’re oppressed,” Nico interposed, “But if I understand Asher’s theory correctly I think it manifests itself in a different way. When you’re the historical oppressor class and are forced to repress, within one or two generations, your true thoughts and feelings towards those who both history and your own socialization places beneath you, it’s arguably a more intense personal repression than the anger caused by the everyday insults endured by demographics who’ve borne them throughout their existence and already have psychological and cultural mechanisms in place to cope with the trauma.”
“But how could a privileged oppressor class possibly face a more intense or detrimental societal repression than the oppression caused by the accumulation of hundreds of years’ worth of violence inflicted on the oppressed by both institutionalized and systematic means created by those very oppressors you claim are so oppressed!” Raymond exclaimed, willing himself to disagree with their conclusions.
“Look, we’re not saying it’s correct or just,” Nico responded, “But I think Asher’s theory makes a lot of sense. The intensity is amplified by the minimal amount of historical time dominant cultures have had to adjust to this new politically correct order.”
“Right,” Asher agreed, “it seems like every day a new word, expression, or cultural touchstone is revealed to have controversial roots. The screws keep tightening faster and faster and the more privileged a person’s been, historically, the faster the ground disappears beneath them.”
“But that ground wasn’t theirs to claim in the first place! I’m a white male and I don’t feel that at all!” Raymond continued.
“Well you don’t identify with your racial or gender group, do you?” Nico asked.
“No… I suppose I don’t.”
“Then it’s a little difficult for you to say how a privileged white male feels when you don’t feel like a white male,”
“Besides, we’re just talking about a theory. The fact remains that the privileged, many of them white, many of them male, many of them coming from means, started rioting after violence stopped existing. If you can think of a better theory, let us know. Until then, this is the best we’ve got.” Asher concluded, “So what now?”
Nico answered, “We need to find somewhere to stock up and purchase a few creature comforts to help us settle in.”
They left their retreat at the Red Roof Inn to explore their environment and search for supplies they’d need to survive as refugees.
According to Nooroozeleff, who they consulted before they set out, there was a single market where the entire neighborhood shopped for daily goods. However, when the group arrived, they found little more than a corner store with a paltry selection of frozen meals and slowly rotating processed meats stocked from an undisclosed source and filled with undisclosed ingredients. The attendant appeared confused by their presence, but not enough so that it disturbed his professional demeanor.
“How mayeth I helpeth thee?”
“We’re looking for somewhere to buy groceries and computer supplies,” Nico said.
“We haveth food aplenty here, as thy eyes can bear witness. But if automation thy seeketh, maketh thy way one blocketh down to the emporium of that jumped-up rascal, Frankie Sublime. Looketh upon yonder sign,” the man instructed, shuffling from behind his counter to point down the road to a gaudy red neon sign fashioned into a crude, smiling cowboy’s face with the words “Francis Sublime’s Computer Exchange Warehouse” inscribed on the brim of the wiry 10-gallon hat.
“Why a cowboy?” Raymond wondered aloud.
“Thou shalt haveth to asketh Frankie himself. Steel thyself for that encounter, a verbal assault thou shalt have if thou doth chooseth to parlay with the cur. Yonder purveyor of electronic goods is queer.”
“Thanks for the warning. So…is this all the food you have?” Raymond asked.
“The selection pleaseth thee not, white one?” came a gruff voice from the back of the store.
A rail-thin man with vitiligo-splotched skin and a lazy left-eye staring in all directions stepped out from behind the Slim Jims and walked up the aisle with a threatening saunter.
“Constantine, thou wouldst do well to respecteth mine own customers,” the clerk chided, his hand slowly making its way beneath the counter.
“Do not troubleth thyself by reachingeth for thine impotent weapon, cur. Hath thee not heardeth the news? This sorry lot hasteth recently escapethed from the madness of the whites. How for thee, snowflake,” he turned to Raymond, “art thou hereth to burn?”
Raymond blanched, “No, sir, not at all, I’m not one of them. I know I’m white, but I can’t help that and do understand that I benefit from being part of the historical oppressor class, and so I can never make up for what my ancestors…”
Asher stepped in before the situation got out of hand, “We’re not looking for trouble, man. Yes, we did just come from the burnings, but we’re running from them, not taking part in them.”
“And thou believeth Anacostia is the propereth place to flee? A place of safety?” the man laughed, revealing a mouth full of dying teeth, “This world hath truly gone mad. Thy presence is not welcometh, but thy presence is not unwelcometh either.”
With these words he bought his pack of Nutter Butters and exited the store, the metal bell on the doorframe jingling as he left.
“What did that mean?” Raymond asked the room.
“I think he just meant people will notice us, but maybe no one really cares? Maybe? I didn’t really understand either,” Nico said.
“Do not bothereth thy minds with Constantine. The man recently losteth his partner to the scourge of overdosage,” the clerk explained.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Raymond replied.
“It was hardeth oneth poor Constantine. The Christian medical facility attendingeth to the dying body of the partner, Gabriel, wouldst not recognize the right of Constantine to visiteth before Gabriel expired. Eveneth direr, the bank hath seizethed their domicile, though the couple hath occupiedeth the structure together for nearly one score years. Though I ameth a devout man, something appeareth wrong with yonder circumstance.”
“Wait, Constantine is…” Raymond began, “That’s horrible! This is just one more reason why we need to normalize non-traditional relationships and make the law more flexible right now!”
The clerk’s tone and demeanor shifted abruptly, “Homosexuality iseth a sin. What happened to Constantine mayeth not be righteth, but that changeth naught in the eyes of our Lord.”
“Ahh…well that’s one opinion,” Raymond stumbled, his mind jostled by the man’s unexpected statement, “I guess we’ll just…”
“’Tis no opinion, sir. ‘Tis God’s will. Thou wouldst do besteth to remembereth it as such in these end times. Our toleration of the sodomites has broughteth about this calamitous ruin,” the attendant preached, his voice swelling.
“I wouldn’t exactly call being unable to use violence ‘calamitous ruin,’” Raymond laughed, looking to his uncomfortable companions for support.
“Raymond! Let’s go!” said Nico sternly as she attempted to grab his arm and drag him towards the door, though her grip that felt more like a caress.
“The heathens shall be purged! It is his will!” railed the corner-shop clerk.
“Purged using what? Violence doesn’t work anymore!” Raymond shouted as Nico and Asher forced him out onto the sidewalk in front of the store through the sheer force of their combined disapproval.
“What’s wrong with you?” Nico berated.
“What? What do you mean? How could I leave a bigot unchallenged?”
“Nothing you could’ve said was going to change his mind, Raymond. It just caused a scene,” she sighed.
“We have to shine a light on the dirty crevices of humanity to ferret out the cockroaches!” Raymond huffed passionately, “Asher, you know what I’m talking about! We used to do this all the time at Trotsky!”
Asher shifted his weight awkwardly as they stood on the chilly gray sidewalk flanked by rows of dilapidated buildings pasted with disingenuously optimistic real estate advertisements. “We were young, Raymond. We’ve got to be pragmatic now. I mean, I think that was the only store selling any kind of food in this whole area.”
“How does getting into shouting matches with crazy people qualify you for your self-anointed ‘Champion of Righteousness and Truth’ title?” asked Nico testily.
“Why is it that whenever I do or say something you’re both so quick to point out how wrong I am? I’m getting tired of being in the minority!” Raymond said, wounded.
“Get used to being a minority, we’re in Anacostia now, buddy,” Asher joked in an attempt at levity.
“You know what I mean!”
“I respect you too much to coddle you, Raymond. When you’re wrong, we’re going to disagree with you.” Nico told him, frankly, “Maybe you’ve been wrong a lot recently. Just be right more and we’ll be on your side.”
“Do you want us to start being fake with you, Clocky?” Asher put more delicately.
“No, I suppose you’re both right,” Raymond conceded, “Sorry. I don’t mean to be so touchy.”
“There, there,” Nico cooed condescendingly, patting his arm, “Anyways, we need to check out this computer place so we can get you two online again and I can video-conference into my board meetings.”
With everything patched up, they walked to the blinking neon cowboy head in silence.
Entering the grungy interior, they were greeted by March to the Scaffold blaring from a stereo system behind a heavily fortified counter. A tall, well-built man with his back to the door was conducting an imaginary orchestra.
Asher began, “Excuse me, sir?”
The man whirled and paused the music in one swift movement, plunging the room into a vacuum of noise.
“Yes, hello there, we’re looking for some laptops. Basically just for word processing and video calls.” Nico inquired.
“Yep. They’re right there,” the man motioned to a stack of boxes in the far corner of the cluttered space.
“I see…thank you,” Nico intoned as the trio moved towards the computer pile.
“They’re $600 each. If you want a mouse and speakers and all that shit, add $100. If you’re buying more than one, I’ll give you a 5% discount for each additional system you purchase,”
“These kind of suck,” Raymond whispered to the others. His attempt at private criticism proved futile in the stillness of the claustrophobic space.
“They’re the best you’re gonna find in Anacostia, but feel free to browse the other stores.”
“We’ll take three plus the extras you mentioned,” Nico responded blithely, her eyes willing Raymond to behave.
Asher made small talk with the man as he gathered their items, “So…why a cowboy?”
“Why not?” the man replied.
“I mean, it seems a little strange for the neighborhood…”
“Because I’m black and this is a predominantly black neighborhood and the cowboy is an American icon of white male dominance and imperialistic tendencies through your quasi-spiritual founding myth of manifest destiny?”
“What? Yeah! It is!” Raymond chimed in enthusiastically.
“Now look what you did,” Nico said in wearied amusement.
“What did I do?” the man asked.
“Raymond here is very excitable when it comes to proving his non-white bona fides,” Asher explained.
“You?” the man turned to Raymond, his voice shifting slightly, “You’re into racial theory?”
“Yes! It’s actually one of my favorite things to talk about!” Raymond leapt at the words, ignoring the backflips Nico and Asher’s eyeballs performed.
“I must admit it’s refreshing to talk to someone who knows what the hell I’m talking about,” the man allowed, “This country’s an intellectual wasteland.”
“Yeah, I know how you feel. It’s all I want to talk about, but people either don’t care or find it pretentious. But it’s so important and infinitely interesting, and there’s always more to learn because the situation is constantly shifting!”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, man. I’m Francis Sublime and this is my shop.” As he offered his hand to Raymond, he visibly paused before continuing, “I assume you’re Raymond Clock then? What circumstances conspired to bring Nico Leftiè, Asher Rose, and yourself to my shop in Anacostia?”
The three friends’ eyes darted to one another, caught off-guard by the man’s unexpected knowledge. Raymond answered after a moment, “You…you know who we are, all of us?”
The man laughed, “Sure! I’m a pretty avid reader and, at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, my memory is perfect. You and Mr. Rose look exactly like your site’s bio pictures, and Ms. Leftiè has a fairly well-photographed face; certainly not one it takes someone with my memory to recall. But don’t think I’ve got you at too much of a disadvantage; I’m sure you know me as well. You cite me enough that I should probably earn royalties from most of your posts.”
“What? I don’t believe I know a Francis Sublime, do you guys?” Raymond asked Nico and Asher, who shook their heads.
“No, probably none of you knows Francis Sublime. But I’m sure you’re familiar with Francis DeMasters.”
“Francis De…Francis DeMasters is dead! He, whatever pronoun is right, died in Liberia like four years ago! There were like…pictures of his body and stuff!” Raymond stuttered.
“Yes, well that was the result of some creative engineering on my part and no small amount of money passing into the hands of some well-placed Liberian officials. I got a new passport as Francis Sublime of Liberia, cut my hair, lost weight, and here I am,” he explained in a matter-of-fact voice.
“I…this is unbelievable…do you guys believe this?” Raymond turned once more to Nico and Asher.
“I can see it now, Dr. DeMasters. It’s truly an honor to meet you,” Asher said, offering his hand after spending a moment studying the man’s face.
“You’re the closest we have to a modern hero,” Nico remarked, “I was horribly upset when I read about your death.”
“But why, Dr. DeMasters? Why did you fake your death? Your work was so important and inspiring! Your thesis on systemic post-modern suppression, commoditization, and acquisition of racial and gender identities in hyper-capitalist societies changed my life!” Raymond gushed.
“Thank you, I appreciate your kindness, but I’m not a hero or even someone to be admired. You must understand,” Dr. DeMasters implored.
“What do you mean? Your campaign to equalize educational funding, student demographics, and quality teacher distribution across the nation’s school districts was amazing!” Raymond fawned.
“Did it work? Is it equal now?” DeMasters responded bitterly.
“Well…no…but you were trying! And you got the DeMasters Educational Fairness and Equality Act passed!” Raymond encouraged, “Of course it had some problems, but everything that goes through Congress is compromised. It’s amazing you got anything that progressive and forward-thinking passed at all!”
“That’s some politico double-talk bullshit. Complicated problems need complex, carefully crafted solutions. Making idiotic compromises so the opposition can have their political pound of flesh is one of the many reasons this democracy failed. As the problems our nation faced became more convoluted, the compromised half-measures from the white male elite didn’t cut it anymore. We let this country rot to hell and there was nothing we could do about it because of the type of system we let ourselves become.”
“Isn’t there still hope though? We can always change it around!” Raymond urged.
“No. We’re finished as a civilization. Our elite Caucasian patriarchy never deserved to survive in the first place. Shay’s Rebellion would’ve been a fitting end to prevent the subsequent 250 years of war and violence that’s only spread and metastasized as we seized the role of imperialistic hegemon from our former colonial masters.”
Nico, Asher, and Raymond were visibly uncomfortable. DeMasters noticed.
“If you need an example, look no further than my legislation. It did more harm than good and discredited the entire movement. They destroyed the most crucial features, like building public transportation infrastructure and housing for displaced students. What was left was an unfunded mandate for students and teachers to pay their own way to attend or work in schools scattered across different states and cities! It was an unmitigated disaster!”
“It was,” Asher agreed, “But it wasn’t your fault, sir. Between the Teacher’s Union and the privatization caucus, you never really had a chance.”
“It wasn’t their names on the bill,” Dr. DeMasters spat.
“That isn’t fair to you, sir!” Raymond objected, “People knew what happened. You killed yourself because of that?”
“I figured it was the only way to move on with my life. I was receiving daily death threats from Parent-Teacher Associations, and frankly, I was ashamed. I’d never failed before in my whole life, and this failure was so massively spectacular that I didn’t see any way to recover. So I threw in the towel on all the ‘change the world’ bullshit and now I’m just trying to keep my life simple and happy.”
Nico answered coldly. “How could you just quit when so many people were depending on your guidance?”
“Why should I exist for them to depend on me? Why can’t they stand up and depend on themselves? I came from nothing and gave life my best shot, accomplishing more than most human beings could ever dream. Unfortunately, this reality isn’t going to be fixed, so I made the choice to go back to nothing, having learned my lessons. I don’t owe anyone a damn thing.”
“Why are you telling us this if you’re living this great new simple and secretive life?” Nico continued to probe.
“What’s the point of keeping this a secret now? Violence doesn’t exist anymore, what can anyone do to me? And I’m sure none of you want your identities widely revealed around here, so it seemed like a safe bet. I figured at least I could squeeze a decent conversation out of you lot, but it seems I’m just going to be prosecuted for my faults instead.”
“No, no! I would love to chat! We all would!” Raymond glared at Nico, who returned his ire with equal ferocity.
“Then answer my question. What brings two political writers and a philanthropic heiress to Anacostia?”
“We’re refugees.” Asher admitted, “We just came across the river earlier today. It’s complete insanity over there.”
“Nothing can hurt you.”
“That’s true, I suppose,” Asher replied, “but our homes were burned to the ground. How could we get any work done in that type of instability? ”
“Fair enough,” admitted DeMasters, “this is everything, right?” he motioned to the large heap of electronics.
“Should be,” Raymond answered, “thanks, Dr. DeMasters.”
“I’m just selling you some shitty computers, Mr. Clock; but you’re welcome. The total comes to $1,890 with your bulk discount. Ms Leftiè, can you afford it?”
Nico produced her credit card and smiled, “I’ll manage. Thank you for your concern.”
As they gathered their haul, DeMasters addressed Nico once more, “It’s strange, you’re not at all as I expected. You’re very precise and official in your interviews, but it’s always belied by a warm undercurrent. Now, however, I don’t sense any warmth coming from you at all. What’s your true self, Ms. Leftiè?”
His direct questioning stunned Nico. Asher interceded, “I’ve heard of your reputation for decanting souls, but I’m amazed to see it in action. Ms. Leftiè has had a fairly troubling day. Watching one of her buildings burn down and being cut off from her board meetings has been…”
Nico broke in, annoyed, “I am perfectly capable of answering for myself, Mr. Rose, but thank you for your effort. As for your assessment, Dr. DeMasters, I must say I’m disappointed. All you’re detecting is fatigue and hunger. We’ve just moved into a new home and haven’t eaten anything substantial since lunch, and it seems the prospect of getting a decent meal is rather remote given the rather limited selection at the local ‘market.’”
DeMasters’ face clouded with anger. “And why do you think that is, Ms. Leftiè? Why do you think every reputable store in this neighborhood has folded up shop? Why do you think the only food sold here is subsidized, processed shit with little nutritional value, resulting in epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental illnesses, and innumerable other illnesses within our population? I apologize your organic grocery is not catering to this broken down corner of the city, but maybe you should think about the cause of an issue before you complain about it.”
Nico was embarrassed but resolute, “I’m sorry; I spoke without weighing the full content and context of my words. Of course you’re right about the social ills plaguing this place, but I would appreciate it if you check your tone in speaking with me. I think you might find the way you’re addressing me differs from how you speak to my male colleagues here.”
“Why…I’m just…” DeMasters blustered.
Nico cut him off, “I’m sure it’s unintentional. I know you as a champion for the rights of the oppressed, so I’m sure this is a simple slip-up.”
Asher looked at the impassive Nico and fuming DeMasters, “So…we should probably get back to settling in. On that subject, what do you eat here, Dr. Demasters?”
“Food. It’s not gourmet, but it’s what people who don’t know anything about health call regular. And if you’re going to be part of this community, you’re going to have to settle for that. There’re good rib and chicken places and the rest of the stereotypes, and fast food chains occasionally make a go of opening a business every once and a while. Mostly I just eat shit, but not too much, mostly plants when I can get them, and then exercise to make up for the rest.”
“Thanks for the help!” Asher said, intent on concluding the conversation.
“I would love to get dinner sometime, Dr. Demasters! Are you free?” Raymond burst out.
“I’m sure I can squeeze in a dinner. Give me your number and I’ll let you know.”
Raymond scrawled his contact information on a scrap of paper and joined the others in bidding farewell to Francis Sublime. They left the store and walked their newly purchased essentials through the darkened neighborhood.
When the group reached their room at the Red Roof Inn, they settled on pizza as an appropriate first meal for their new life, a dish they’d not eaten in a combined fifteen years. They ordered pepperoni because they didn’t know how to order anything else. Raymond volunteered to retrieve the pie, leaving Nico and Asher with enough time to resume their extremely delayed conversation from that morning.
“I don’t know if I can keep this up, Asher. I’m so exhausted.” Nico lamented from her prostrate position on the uncomfortable bed.
“You’re performing splendidly though! It’s exactly what he needs!” Asher encouraged, striding over to sit next to her.
“DeMasters saw right through me! I’m so sick of being this stereotype!”
“Do you want Raymond to improve?”
“Yes, of course I do!”
“Then you have to continue like this. He’ll never be happy with someone who’s nice to him. This is the only way he works: abuse him mentally and his love and respect for you will grow.”
“I don’t understand! Wasn’t he hurt today by our constant berating? He’s pulling further away.”
“No, that’s not true. Hurting his pride like that is good for him and for you. It might be a strong negative emotion at first, but if you remain mentally abusive but emotionally supportive, the strong negative emotions will transition to strong positive emotions.”
“And this helps you with your project?”
“Does it matter to you how I feel about him?”
“It’d be better if you loved him, to be sure.”
“I’m not sure I can. I feel more connected to him than any other person I’ve ever met, but that isn’t translating into love.”
“What’s your complaint?”
“He’s a challenging person to tolerate all the time.”
“I know, but just remember what we’re making sure he experiences. That alone should help you empathize.”
“I don’t lack empathy for him, just patience.”
“Fall in love with him, you’ll gain more patience.”
“Sounds like circular logic to me. I think the only way I can fall in love is to turn it into a project.”
“Do you think you can sustain when you’re finished?”
“Do you really think Raymond will ever be a finished?”
Asher laughed, “No, I suppose not. I’m sure he’ll find some new existential crises to fret over.”
“He will, and I have my other projects to consider.”
“Those things are trivialities compared to what we’re doing.”
“Compared to what you claim we’re doing. I’m going along with it for now because it makes sense, but I promise you, Asher Rose, one whiff of self-aggrandizement or personal power plays and I’ll come after you with everything I’ve got.”
“Slow down there, Ms. Leftie.” He emphasized her unaccented name for effect, “You ramped that up pretty fast. From Raymond to targeted assassinations in two seconds flat.”
“We’re tinkering with the world, Asher. I’m not interested in your bullshit.”
“Nico, do you have a problem with me?”
“No more so than I ever have.”
“I’ve grown up a lot.”
“Haven’t we all.”
“I don’t deserve this and you’re being self-righteous.”
“I’m tired. You’re not the one who has to keep up…”
Raymond strode into the room carrying a pizza.
“My card was declined! There’s some issue with my bank account. I told the pizza place my room number and they said I could take it home on credit…Do you think it’s because I’m white, like subconsciously they classified me as less likely to steal because I’m from the historical oppressor class? Or is me thinking that an unconscious bias where I’m classifying white people as less likely to steal and so that’s what I think they think? I’ve felt horrible thinking about it the entire walk back.”
Nico looked up from the bed, “Shut up and just give us the food; we’re starving. Here, take my card and go pay.”
“Alright then, I’ll be back!”
“You’re a natural. Even I can’t tell you’re faking,” Asher praised once Raymond was gone.
“Thanks. It’s a little easier when I’m really hungry and he sounds like such a jackass. I just don’t want to get used to acting like this, though I admit it’s more efficient than being decent.”
“It is. It’s also the best way to make civilization uncivilized. Where would we be without our contrived social niceties and the buffer of our politically correct manners?”
“Burning down houses in Georgetown, obviously,” Nico quipped as she opened the box to observe puddles of orange grease pooled inside burned pepperoni slices, themselves floating on whitish goo and tomato paste. “Do we have any forks?”
 In a single breath
 It was fortunate that the fortunes of both Nico and Asher were held in private overseas accounts and invested in industries unaffected by violence. Luckily, the international financial system had remained largely intact thanks to the vandalism almost exclusively targeting non-corporate, locally owned and operated businesses and charities. Raymond, who’d insisted on investing what money he’d saved into regional art projects, was rendered destitute when the organic co-op and art gallery where he owned a 25% stake was burned to the ground and its fields salted during an inebriated re-enactment of Sherman’s March to the Sea performed by the nearby town’s high school lacrosse team.