Follow the Leader
by Zilla Jones
Leader came home on a cloudy day during the wet season, when the noon sky was as dark as midnight and the rain rattled down like pebbles, tearing the palm leaves from the trees. It puddled in the trenches lining the island’s main roadway that ran between the airport and the capital. It bounced off the shelters built from corrugated iron that huddled beside the lanes of traffic.
Desmond and his mother went to the airport to greet Leader, along with a brass band, a crowd of people waving the island’s flag, and a mass of young women bearing flowers. Leader wasn’t Leader yet, but it was all but certain that he would take on the role, one way or another. A red carpet had been rolled from the runway to the terminal, and a podium had been set up from which Leader was to speak. All of this had been arranged by the Party, who had followed Leader’s exploits abroad. The undergraduate degree from Cambridge; the masters and doctorate from Harvard; the well-received, professionally published, best-selling thesis on economic self-sufficiency for post-colonial nations; the series of speeches delivered alongside leading Black Democrats entitled, “Black Lives Matter Everywhere,” in which Leader, barely thirty years old, advocated alongside seasoned politicians for more equitable policies towards the developing world.
Leader spoke to Black people in every country, but he also spoke specifically to the realities of the Caribbean, a region once essential to the accumulation of wealth in Europe and America, but now ignored by the world powers. Ignored, that is, until the island was said to pose a Communist threat when America invaded it almost forty years ago.
Leader wasn’t even born then, but he had reopened the wounds from that time and promised to heal them. Desmond wasn’t born then either, but Ma was. Ma watched every one of Leader’s speeches on TV. Ma and Desmond lived in one of the metal dwellings beside the highway, and their TV was an old one, one of the boxy, wood-paneled ones that rich people had thrown out years earlier and Ma had scavenged from the dump. Their electricity came from a connection to the government building on the other side of the road. Ralph, who Desmond had been told was his father, and who lived further down the road, had run the cables for them.
“The war never ended,” said Leader one evening. “They left our territory, but they never left our minds.”
“He’s right!” said Ma to Desmond. “I was in the militia, and we fought the Americans when they came. All them had planes, them had helicopters, and all we having were the guns them Cubans gave us, and them never gave enough a those, and then the weapons our people abroad sent us, smuggled in barrels with rice and butter. But we fought, my boy, we fought. It took them five days to take this tiny island, and them with the most powerful army in the world. We could have held them off longer, but you know what broke us at the end?”
“What?” Desmond asked, as he knew he was supposed to.
“Them started telling we that we government was bad. Them dropped papers from they helicopters in every village. ‘Beware the Communists, they go take your land and kill your wife.’ And everyone get scared, and many of we stop fighting.”
Desmond had never known of his mother’s military background until then. All his life, she had been a housekeeper. She worked for Leader’s parents, cooking their meals, doing their laundry, sweeping and polishing at their house. Desmond knew her with a scarf knotted around her head, not a helmet. Cradling a broom, not a rifle.
The day that Leader came home, Desmond and Ma were in the crowd, waving the country’s flag. “Do you see him? Do you see him?” Ma asked. At fifteen, Desmond was now taller than Ma, and taller than most of the people in the crowd.
The roar from the crowd greeted the first sight of Leader, striding down the red carpet in a dark suit, the beard he had worn at his last speech in Chicago now shaved clean. He mounted the steps to the podium, raising his dark fist to the sky. The Party officials spoke first, welcoming Leader back to the island, speaking of the high hopes they had for him and the new day that would be dawning upon the island in the second decade of the new century.
No one heard a word. They all wanted to hear Leader. They waved their flags, they chanted his name. And Desmond, too, felt the excitement filling him, swelling him up like a soccer ball being inflated. At last, it was Leader’s turn to speak. “If I am in charge,” he said, “if that is the will of the Party, I promise that I will bring real democracy to this island. Not what we have now, where foreign banks and companies and their governments call the shots and those people up there in Hummingbird House who supposed to be representing us just look at them like they making bo.” The reference to sex, in the island dialect, elicited ripples of laughter, and Desmond laughed, too. “No more making bo, you understand?” said Leader. “We will govern weselves.”
Desmond had been born on the island and lived all his life in the corrugated iron shelter. He had dreamed of going to America to see Disneyland and the Empire State Building and Los Angeles where movies were made. He imagined himself joking around, and asking out, and eventually sleeping with a parade of pretty women, like in the TV shows he watched with his mother on their flickering TV screen. Most kids on the island had the same dream and, like them, Desmond had no plan to turn it into a reality. At the same time that he envisioned himself, suave and confident in his designer jeans sauntering up to a giggling blond, he also recognized his likely much less glamorous future as a fisherman or estate worker.
“We will make we own food,” said Leader. “No more import this, import that. Back to traditional eating. We local fish, we local fruit. We have all we need, right here. The Caribs didn’t import any food. They didn’t need any white people. When the white people come, them Caribs tried to run them off the land. They failed, but we will not fail.”
The crowd roared again. Desmond’s eyes were fixed on Leader. In his suit, with his air of easy authority, he glowed with the sophistication of England and America. The worldliness for which Desmond longed. But then, Leader had come home. He was still comfortable in the local dialect. And he made the island seem like a place to be proud of. A place that was on its way up. Leader could have stayed in the States and made a lot of money, but instead, he had returned, and now he radiated the peace and the joy of home. It almost made Desmond want to stay, too.
Ma nudged Desmond. “We need to go,” she said. “We have to get the taxi bus up to Miz Hattie’s, to have everything ready when he comes.”
Desmond helped Ma bring the dishes to Leader at the dining room table where he sat alone at its head, his jacket and tie discarded, even his parents declining to sit with him on this momentous occasion. Normally, Desmond resented his mother’s insistence that he perform tasks like cooking and serving food; things that girls should do. Desmond had no sister, and so he had to fill the place where one could have been.
Leader sniffed at each dish. “Ah, stewed breadfruit,” he said, and then he addressed Ma, who had retreated to the doorway and stood fiddling with her skirt. “Do you know how long it’s been since I had decent breadfruit?”
The unspoken rule was that servants did not speak to bosses unless spoken to. Ma was unable to answer, her jaw glued shut with awe. So Desmond spoke for her. “No,” he said, “I don’t know.”
Leader looked at Desmond with interest. “It’s been years since I tasted cooking this good.” Leader’s eyes fluttered over to Ma. Convention was that Leader’s mother get the credit for Ma’s cooking, as the person who hired and supervised Ma. “New York has every kind of food but ours. Even in Miami, the breadfruit is no good.”
Desmond was just a few feet from Leader, and he might never again get the chance to express himself frankly to Leader. He tried to decide; was now the time to profess his own love for the island or to speak his wildest desires? He decided to take a chance on his dreams. Remaining on the island was the default, but leaving would require some help. “I would love to see New York,” said Desmond. “Or Miami. Or California.” He willed his voice not to shake with nerves.
Leader smiled. “And a young, bright boy like you surely will.”
Bright? Desmond thought. He had never looked at himself as bright. In fact, he struggled in school. He was not like Leader, who had won all the prizes at the Queen’s School, the top boys’ school on the island, before moving on to further glory. But with Leader’s gaze upon him, Desmond’s chest expanded, his shoulders rose, and he thought, What if I am more than I thought I was?
* * *
Three months later, Leader was unanimously elected as head of the Party. The night after the meeting, he sat at the kitchen table, his eyes duller than usual. His head was heavy with the copious amounts of rum and local beer he had consumed, and he sat staring at a wrinkled piece of paper on the table in front of him. Ma brought the usual breakfast dishes to the table—tania porridge, johnny cakes, smoked herring, sliced papaya and melon drizzled with nutmeg syrup, fried ham, and of course, breadfruit. Leader closed his eyes and said, “I can’t eat none a this now. How about some toast and a cup of coffee?” Ma nodded to Desmond, and he cleared the plates away, to be brought back later for Leader’s parents.
As Desmond picked up the last dish, Leader said, “Well, son, looks like I am the leader now.”
Again, Desmond thought. Leader was speaking to him again. He remembered Leader calling him bright. “Yes, sir,” he said.
“People are very excited, sir.” He cursed himself for his lack of originality.
“Are they?” Leader’s voice sounded torn at the edges. He pulled a tie from his pocket and knotted it viciously at his neck. “Does this sound excited to you?” He pushed the piece of paper over to Desmond. “Pick it up,” said Leader. “Read it aloud.” Desmond felt his hand waver. He hated when a teacher called on him to read in class. Under the gaze of his classmates, he stumbled and they snickered. But to Leader, he forced his voice to remain sure. It helped that the page was printed in block letters. “Call an election or die. We must live in a democracy. Stop killing our freedom or you will die too.”
Desmond stumbled over a couple of the words, but that could be passed off as his reaction to the boldness of the threats. His hand still shook, but now in recognition of the danger Leader faced. The person who wrote this could be anywhere on the island. He—Desmond was sure a woman had not written this—could work in Leader’s parents’ fields, or deliver milk and butter to the home each morning, or pass the house on his way to work in town. Everyone loved Leader, so how could it be that this letter had been written?
Leader took a cigar from his pocket, considered lighting it, but then replaced it. He said to Desmond, “A man has to leave his parents’ house some time, don’t you think?”
“When he gets a woman,” said Desmond, repeating another of the island’s conventions. No reason to leave home if you were single. Desmond would stay with Ma until he was overwhelmed by the desire to make bo on a regular basis.
Leader laughed. “Something else they want for me.” There were whispers, entirely true, that Leader had many women and showed no inclination to marry. He was said to like them young, brown-skinned—neither too light nor too dark—and well-educated. Since most women who fit that description had already gone abroad, the pool was relatively small.
“I am vulnerable, living here,” said Leader. He plucked the paper from Desmond’s hand and screwed it into a ball, as he had already done when he first received it.
Desmond wasn’t sure what “vulnerable” meant, and he frowned as he tried to figure it out.
“It means, I am a target,” said Leader. “Anyone could walk up here and do anything to me.” He pulled out the cigar and stared at it again. His cell phone, mixed in with the pile of cutlery that Desmond and Ma had brought to the table, beeped. Leader picked it up, glanced at it, and threw it down again. “I need to get my own place and design it to have maximum security,” said Leader. He looked up at Desmond, almost coquettish, lowering his lashes and smiling a half-smile. “Do you think you’d like to do that? Live with me and be a security guard?”
Desmond blinked. Surely Leader was joking. But Leader’s smile grew broader, and Desmond’s imagination broke open in a flurry of stars. Desmond living with Leader in a big house, like Leader’s parents’ place, only even bigger and more extravagant. Flushing toilets, running water, and satellite TV. Desmond carrying a gun. He didn’t know where that image came from, but there it was—a belt of ammunition slung over one shoulder and his weapon, polished and shiny, resting on the other. “Would I have a gun?” he asked.
Leader’s smile became a laugh. “Of course.” He picked up the crumpled ball of paper. “This situation demands guns.” The clouded look returned momentarily to Leader’s eyes and he rubbed his forehead. “You must still go to school, though. Leader don’t want no dumb-dumbs working for me, eh? You will work the evening shift.”
“But how you go get the guns?” Desmond asked. The Americans had never left after the invasion. They maintained a small base on the northernmost tip of the island, where the citrus farms were, and one of their rules was that no one but them could have firearms. An American presence at the airport examined every box and package mailed to the island for contraband weapons.
“You mean the Yanks?” Leader’s smile became a snarl, his polished teeth gleaming beneath his stretched-out lips. “Don’t you worry about them. They will be gone soon.”
Ma bustled in with Leader’s coffee and toast, and Desmond felt the hope and excitement rush out of him like stale breath. The shining vision of a gun shivered and popped. He couldn’t leave Ma alone. He looked from Ma to Leader and he told himself, You must choose Ma. Ma had raised Desmond all on her own, with little help from Ralph. She had no one else.
Leader said, “I will need a cook at my house, too. I think it’s time my parents found someone new. You,” he nodded at Ma with a small dip of his head, her future decided without her input, “will train your replacement before you come to my place.”
* * *
The Party meeting was held in the bulletproof boardroom at the back of Leader’s palace, as all Party meetings were. Leader rarely used Hummingbird House, the official residence of the Prime Minister; the roof there leaked and there was no central air-conditioning. Desmond had stayed home from school to help with the usual sweep for bombs and listening devices. He rarely attended school any more. He wasn’t sorry, he had an important job, as a trusted member of Leader’s security team. His classmates were such kids. They cared about useless things like their Algebra grades and who was going to the dance with who. Ma had been busy all day cooking for the meeting, along with the junior cooks. She didn’t make everything from scratch anymore—there wasn’t time, not when the whole Party needed to be fed so often. The fruit came cored and squared in plastic packages purchased from the supermarket and the chicken for the turnover pies came from cans.
After the sweep, Desmond and his colleagues stood in the hallway awaiting further direction. Desmond thumbed through the music list on his iPhone. He was still amazed that he had such a device, and it had almost, but not quite, supplanted the affections he bestowed upon his AK-47. Desmond could not shake the sensation of stepping into a warm bath—a luxury discovered at Leader’s palace in the Security Forces washroom—when Leader put his hand on Desmond’s shoulder and called him “son.” Ralph was Desmond’s father, but Ralph had left Ma and Desmond alone for the most part, turning up now and again to patch their roof, run their electricity lines or drop off a wild pig he had gored out in the bush. Ralph had never patted Desmond’s shoulder and called him “son.”
Desmond didn’t want to think about Ralph. He pressed a tune on his phone. It was a song by a local group, Bullets for Bread, called “Goodbye Yanks.” It celebrated the eviction of American forces from the island. The new American President said that their departure had nothing to do with Leader’s constant threats and the crowds of protestors who had besieged their base since Leader’s return. Memos were released showing extensive discussions that had begun with Leader’s predecessor, negotiating a scheduled withdrawal of the troops. But it mattered not: Leader had forced the timeline to accelerate and therefore he was the one credited with kicking the Americans out.
We won’t say thanks
Goodbye Uncle Sam
Run as fast as you can
Desmond sang to himself even as his eyes were everywhere, searching for threats. They had been trained by a security firm from Canada; Leader didn’t want to use Americans. The trainer had singled out Desmond for praise, and Leader, too, had told him many times, “Des, you are one of my best, son.” Even though he was only sixteen, Desmond had been put in charge of a unit. He spent hours a day lifting weights in the palace gym to hone his new muscles, or running around the compound to build his endurance. He brought the dedication to his conditioning that he had never shown in his studies. Desmond no longer dreamed of going to America. Life in the palace was more luxurious than anything America could offer, Leader had told him. Security guards in the U.S.A. barely made enough to live on, and most of them had to pay for their own food and accommodations.
Desmond spotted Leader walking down the hallway. He nodded to each security guard, but his eyes latched onto Desmond. Leader approached and jerked his thumb towards the boardroom. As soon as the door clicked shut, Leader reached into his pocket. Desmond sensed a wildness in Leader, an anger. When Desmond saw the paper with the printing, he felt his bladder pinch beneath the tightness of his belt.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. CALL AN ELECTION. GIVE US DEMOCRACY OR YOU WILL DIE.
Desmond read it to himself this time. He felt spasms through his belly, radiating into his thighs, a creeping sickness. With all the precautions they were taking, someone had still got to Leader.
“Where?” asked Desmond.
“It just came through the mailbox. What should I do, Des?”
Desmond paused, thinking back on his training, wanting to give the correct answer. The security consultant from Canada had stressed that where there were criminal acts, private security should not try to fill the role of police, but should contact law enforcement, hand over the evidence, and let them deal with it. Threatening to kill someone was surely a criminal act. “Call the police, sir.”
But Leader pursed his lips. “No, son. I don’t trust those police. Frankly, I think they’re in the pocket of the Spear of Freedom.” The Spear of Freedom was an opposition group that had sprung up recently to defy the Party. “It’s probably the Spear who sent this, don’t you think?”
The consultant had said not to jump to conclusions. “Possibly, sir.”
“So what should I do, then?”
Desmond licked his lips. “Well, sir, whoever wrote this—”
“The Spear wants an election. So if you had an election—”
Leader’s mouth twisted and his eyes flared hot. “We will have an election when it can be done without foreign interference. Not until then. There is no point having elections unless they are grounded in our cultural traditions. That’s what these people who are out to get me don’t understand.”
Desmond changed course. He wasn’t even sure what an election was. “Yes, sir. Well then we will have to step up the patrols, perhaps hire more people.”
Leader’s face returned to its normal affable expression. “You’re a good man, Des. I need more people I can trust. People like you.”
Desmond felt his muscles unclench, and he smiled back at Leader. He was determined to find the person who was upsetting Leader. “I go patrol now, Sir.”
Desmond patrolled with Nate, who was twenty-three and talked constantly about women; what he was actually doing with them and what he pretended to be doing about them. There was little distinction between the two. “So, Des,” said Nate, hefting his gun onto his shoulder, “when you coming down to the beach disco to see the nice-nice girls with the big bottoms?”
Desmond knew it was time he got interested in girls. He was sixteen, and he had a good job now. But Desmond didn’t want to be like Ralph. Nate already had two children, and he complained often about their mothers. “Always with they hands out, Des, crying how them poor.” Desmond thought of Ma, how she would often serve him a meal with none for herself, claiming not to be hungry. How Desmond would hear the laughter and the clinking bottles from Ralph’s dwelling at night, while Ma was trying to sleep before waking up before dawn to catch the taxi bus to work at Leader’s parents. Desmond wanted to commit to a woman and make a home together, before they had children. Like Leader’s parents.
Sensing Desmond’s lack of interest in the topic, Nate switched tack. “You hear what they saying about Leader and this palace?”
Desmond perked up. “No, what?”
“Them saying Leader stole the money to build it from the people.”
“But how he could do that?” Desmond was horrified at this obvious lie. “The palace is for the people.”
“Them say he have Hummingbird House already, then him taking people taxes to make this place.” Nate glanced around, then said, “I ain’t saying I agree, all right?”
“You can’t agree. We must support Leader.” Desmond pulled all the authority he could into his voice.
“I know,” Nate said quickly. Too quickly. Desmond ran his eyes along Nate’s body—his biceps puffing out his shirt sleeves, his dark face almost insolent beneath his camouflage cap. He wondered about Nate’s security checks.
Before Desmond could decide whether or not to say something else, there was a shout from outside the security perimeter, and Nate began running toward it. Desmond followed. They were met by two more security guards, Nash and Tom, who held a squirming figure between them. A thin shoeless figure in a torn T-shirt. As Desmond grew closer, he realized that he recognized the figure. Ralph.
“We found this man coming through the fence,” panted Nash.
Ralph found Desmond’s eyes. “I come to see my son,” he whined. “To look for work. To see if you all need builders.”
“Him your father?” Nash asked.
Desmond noted the bars of Ralph’s ribs, visible through his shirt. The dusty leather of his bare feet. All his life, Ralph had been looking for work. Desmond felt shame on Ralph’s behalf. At sixteen, Desmond had already gone further than his father ever would.
Desmond remembered a comment Nate had made before. “Him my father, but not my daddy.” He addressed Ralph. “We done the building. You too late. No work here.” Desmond felt a growling, gnawing sensation in his belly. It felt like hunger, even though Desmond ate well at the palace. The feeling hardened as Desmond looked at Ralph. “How you even know I here?” he demanded.
Ralph said, “You and Bernice isn’t at the old place no more. I asked.”
“Well, I ain’t want you here.” Desmond pointed the muzzle of his weapon at Ralph. With it, he pointed all the lean years, all the empty plates. “You go, and don’t you come back.”
Nash and Tom began dragging Ralph toward the electronically-controlled gate, and Desmond followed, the gun trained on his father. When Nash and Tom let go, Ralph ran down the road, churning up so much dust that he was soon invisible. Desmond felt plastic peeling off his heart. A lightening.
* * *
A roar of voices from the street, and the sound of smashing glass, pulled Desmond and Nate to the fence. Peering through, they could see the crowd surging past.
“Where they going?” Nate asked, but Desmond already knew. He had interrogated a woman only yesterday—a girl, really. Close to Desmond’s age. She had cringed, tried to shrink into her school uniform and away from the whip Desmond brandished. He wasn’t going to use it. It was just for show. Just to get Leader the information he needed.
“We going to take over Hummingbird House,” she whispered.
“Take it over? For what?” Desmond curled the whip’s tongue around his fingers.
She trembled harder. “For…to live in. For the poor.”
“You can’t live in Hummingbird House! That is Leader’s property.”
“But he ain’t using it! He is here! And it belong to the people.”
Desmond spat onto the ground and elongated his spine. He tried to think of a response, but every word he tried sounded wrong. So instead he flicked the whip against the tree where he had pressed the girl, making her scream. “Go then, go,” he grunted.
That evening, he told Leader about the plan. Leader paced up and down in his study, his eyes bulging, white foam poking at the corner of his mouth. “Hummingbird House is mine,” he said.
“So what we do if they take it, sir?”
“You have guns, don’t you? You use them!”
“But, sir,” Desmond said. “They are our people, not the Americans.”
“They are the enemy!” Leader shouted. “Invaders!”
Invaders? wondered Desmond. They were islanders, just like Desmond. People who not long ago had been his neighbors. If Desmond were still living in a leaky metal shack, he too would jump at the chance to live in Hummingbird House with its running water, electricity, and room. So much room. But he had his orders, and he would follow them.
The security forces roared in their Jeeps up the hill to the seat of government. Some of the rioters had taken a blowtorch to the gates of Hummingbird House and they swarmed the grounds, yelling, breaking windows. Desmond jumped out of his Jeep first, pointing his firearm upward. Leader had said to shoot, but Desmond fired into the air, hoping that those warning shots would scare the crowd away. I didn’t fire on any of my people, he told himself.
It didn’t matter in the end. When the rioters heard the shots, they fired back, and then the security forces responded, and when all was said and done, eleven people were dead and dozens wounded. Without the American ban on firearms, Leader’s security forces could own guns, but so, too, could the Opposition.
* * *
The palace was now more like a fortress. Additional electronic monitoring stations, barbed wire, electric fences, and control booths had been added to the perimeter. Since the confrontation at the Hummingbird House, protestors had taken to coming to the palace, demanding shelter. In the confusion, a few more threatening notes made their way through the fence. The notes annoyed Leader, but they no longer scared him. There were much bigger threats now.
Desmond buzzed a delivery truck through the gate and climbed up into the back to examine the goods. The boxes contained the palace’s usual orders from the grocery store and the bakery. One box was full of fry bread, flat and pale between rustling sheets of tissue paper. Desmond remembered Ma’s fry bread, golden and sizzling in the pan. The imagined smell made his mouth water. Ma used to smile with satisfaction when she flipped the fry bread onto the plate. Now, her mouth was a grim, unwavering line as she slapped butter onto the store-bought version and loaded the slices onto a tray. Ma always looked at Desmond with that disgruntled expression these days. She had been very angry with him when she heard the palace gossip about how Desmond had run Ralph off, and while the anger had cooled, the distance between Desmond and Ma had not yet been mended.
“He’s still your father,” Ma had insisted. “You must do right by him.”
But Desmond had Leader now. He didn’t need Ralph.
A text lit up Desmond’s phone. It was Elvis, another security supervisor. Situation at Gate 11. Desmond jumped out of the truck, buzzed it through, and sprinted to Gate 11. As he drew closer, he saw Elvis and his partner Alex holding a struggling figure between them. From a distance, it almost resembled a monkey or a manicou, plucked from the bush, coated in dirt and leaves. But as Desmond drew closer, he recognized the curve of the shoulders. The permanent defeat. There it was in the lowered head, the feet turned in toward each other. Ralph.
Desmond took his time. He poked the tip of his gun between Ralph’s ribs as he walked around him in a slow circle. “I thought I told you not to come back,” he said. Ralph was a symbol of all that was wrong with the country. No one listened, no one had any respect. “I should shoot you now,” said Desmond. He nudged the gun deeper into Ralph’s flesh. There was the rushing sound of water, and Ralph’s urine splattered over Desmond’s boots. The sound brought an unfamiliar feeling to Desmond. Shame. He stepped back. “Just go,” he said.
Ralph stuttered, his tongue working at some words. Then Desmond saw the corner of a piece of paper sticking out of Ralph’s pocket. “What’s this?” He pounced.
Ralph covered the pocket with his hand, but Desmond leaped forward and pried Ralph’s fingers away. His arm swept upward as he plucked the paper free.
OPEN THE PALACE TO THE PEOPLE OR DIE.
Desmond’s finger stroked the trigger of his gun, but he realized that he could not shoot all the rebellion on the island. The best he could hope for was to gain intelligence. “Where did you get this?”
Ralph trembled so hard his teeth chattered. “Man gave it to me.”
“Just someone. Paid me. Said bring the paper here.” The man had cornered Ralph in the jungle near his home. He had waved an American bill. Promised more. Ralph’s woman and son worked for Leader. If he was caught, he could say he just wanted to visit them.
Desmond’s finger tightened, but a commotion at the gates interrupted. Flames erupted as a loud sawing noise tore through the air. The crowd had blowtorches. They had metal cutters. And they were coming in.
They swarmed past Desmond, chanting, singing. They ran toward the palace. And Desmond ran, too. He ran to Leader. Leader’s safety could no longer be guaranteed, and he must be moved.
Leader was in his bulletproof bedroom, stuffing things into a small suitcase. He entered a safe behind a panel in the wall and came out with fists full of American dollars. “The capital has fallen,” Leader told Desmond, his eyes round and unblinking. The pupils had dwindled almost to slits. “The Spears have taken over. We have to go.”
“Yes, sir,” said Desmond. “Where to?” He was thinking a safe house. He was thinking somewhere near the coast, away from the crowds in the city.
“Miami,” said Leader.
“The USA?“ The pain in Desmond’s chest was so sharp, he found it hard to breathe. Of all the memories floating through his mind, he chose to focus on the speech Leader had delivered on the day the last American left. “We are steadfast in our commitment to our land. Our air. Our water. Our people. And our struggle. As long as there is breath in our bodies, as long as we remain on our land, the struggle endures.” Desmond spoke the words quietly, his hand rubbing the barrel of his gun. How Leader had shone on that day. How the island had grown in Desmond’s heart, enlarging it, gilding it.
“The USA isn’t all bad, you know,” Leader said. “Lots more opportunities for Black people now.”
“But the struggle.” Desmond’s collar felt tight. It was hard to breathe.
Leader lifted the suitcase. He spoke without inflection. “If I leave, it gives the struggle a chance,” he said. “I have to leave to let it continue.” But Desmond knew this to be untrue. With Leader gone, there was no Party. Leader reached into his pocket. “This is your passport. I need you with me, for protection. Keep an eye out for snipers.”
“I going to Miami?” Even as the old thrill ignited, Desmond thought of Ma. She was somewhere in the palace, trying to evade the rioters and looters, concealing that she worked for Leader, attempting to blend into the crowd. “But…my mother.” Desmond had to at least say the words. At least pretend to remember her.
“My parents are here, too,” said Leader. “It can’t be helped. We must go now. There’s a helicopter waiting. The crowds will rush to the airport at any moment.”
Desmond’s gun cleared a path for Leader down the stairs, to the waiting car, and to the roof of a building commandeered by the Party to distribute food; a building that had long sat empty. Desmond emptied his heart, cleared his mind. He had a job to do and he would do it. The helicopter lifted off with Desmond’s gun trained on the pilot, to make sure he did as directed. Desmond turned his head to the window so he would not miss the last glimpses of the island. There in the middle was the city, the palace rising from its midst, the crowds of scrambling figures visible as they smashed their way in. The same thing was happening up the hill at Hummingbird House. Then the city gave way to the highway. The rows of lopsided shacks; the one where Desmond had grown up must be down there somewhere, Ralph’s further down the road. And then they were flying over jungle, the dark wet greenness that coated the hills, followed by the coast. The white sand that glinted in the sun like jewels, the pale blue waters, still and calm today. The bright ball of the sun they seemed to be flying towards, its edges blurring in the tears that clouded his eyes. Desmond saw it all. He was leaving his birthplace for the first time, he was going to Miami, he alone had been chosen by Leader, but it was for the island that he wept. Leader sat impassive, neither outwardly nor inwardly troubled by any emotion.
Desmond was the only person who was armed, and so he could afford to speak the words that bubbled from his mind to his throat.
“Why,” he asked Leader, “why did you come back, anyway?”
Leader could have answered, because he wanted to do good. Because he missed home. Because he saw the island’s potential. But he spoke the only words that made sense in that moment. “I don’t know,” Leader said.
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