Castle Roland


by Rilbur


Chapter 1

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © 2012 - 2015 by Rilbur and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.

All Rights Reserved

"No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots." Barbara Ehrenreich

Monday Nov 5, 2012, 11:48 EST

Charleston, West Virginia

Resistance LogoMathew Peterson ran the whetstone slowly and carefully over the edge of his pocket knife. Despite his best efforts, the knife was growing old. A vigorous application of vinegar and oil had helped clean out the hinge, and he'd always kept the wooden handle well-oiled, but the blade was slowly wearing away. Even the finest whetstone scraped away material over time, and this blade had been kept razor sharp since it had been given to him for his tenth birthday, just over nine years ago.

The slow, even strokes of his blade against the whetstone were a ritual that helped calm him. Calm was important. Tears carried salt, and salt would ruin the blade. If a single tear fell on his whetstone, he'd have to throw it away. As his father had taught him, there should only be water on the stone. Just enough to help carry away the microscopic flecks of metal he was slowly grinding off.

It didn't need sharpening today, not really. He hadn't used it in over a week. But he still sharpened it, every November fifth without fail. It had to be razor sharp before noon, because come hell or high water, at precisely one eighteen he would be at the cemetery. He could still remember, just a few weeks after his birthday, when his mom had shown up at the school to bring him home. He'd been confused. Mother never got off work early. Dad had been the one to show up if anything needed parental attention.

Mat put the whetstone away, and laid out the leather strop to finish the process and give the blade it's final razor edge. His mother had run a little late, picking him up, and her eyes were red. As soon as he'd gotten into her car, he'd known something was wrong. And then she'd told him.

Putting the leather strop away, Mat wiped the blade down with a clean cloth, careful of the blade's deadly edge. He carefully tested the folding mechanism as he slid the blade shut, then stood up. Slowly, carefully, he slid the blade into the belt holder he'd put on when he'd dressed. It was old, and even more worn than the blade he put in it, and he checked and double checked every movement before he made it. The knife was the last thing his father had given him. The holder was the last thing he had that his father had owned. Both were beyond precious to him.

As he slipped out the door, he grabbed a jacket to wear. The door closed behind him with an authoritative thump, and he walked down the corridor in his best slacks and dress shirt to slip into the restroom.

Piercing green eyes met his own in the mirror, with his short, brown hair brushed neatly back, beaten into ordered submission for a little while. Even today, the dimples on either side of his mouth made him look like he was smiling, granting him a mildly mischievous look. Carefully, he checked each button down his shirt, and that the buttons lined up with his belt buckle. Taking a step further back, he looked himself over for any sign of stray lint or loose threads. He knew there wouldn't be any, but he had to make certain.

The sound of the door made him turn around. "What's going on," Eric, one of the other boys on his floor, asked with a grin, "a hot date?"

"Visiting my father," Mat answered as he started to walk past the guy.

"Huh, I thought you didn't have any family in the area," Eric asked.

"With my mother out to sea, I don't have any living family in the city," Mat replied as he slipped out the door. A muffled 'oh shit' almost made his mouth quirk in a smile as he walked away. Almost.

Nine years ago, to the day, at eighteen minutes after one, a high speed pursuit had gone horribly, horribly wrong. The injuries his father had sustained in the crash left him in the hospital, comatose, for months before finishing him off.

Mat visited the grave site four times a year. Two of the visits had no fixed dates. But he always went today, with the knife sharpened just as his father had taught him, to a perfect edge. 'A sharp knife is the most important tool a man can hold in his hand,' his father had told him, that perfect birthday nine years ago. Mat had solemnly promised to care for the knife properly, and for nine years it was a promise he kept religiously.

He also remembered the rest of his father's lectures. For eight years, on his birthday, an officer had shown up at his doorstep. Never the same officer twice, but always one of his father's friends. In addition to some random gift, probably chosen by his mother, they always carried something more painful. A home video of his father, who'd done as he had always taught Mat to do, and planned ahead.

Slipping into his car, he carefully pulled his seat belt on before pulling out of his parking spot. Traffic, strange as it always felt to him, was always good for this drive. It always went by so fast, without the accidents that some part of him insisted should be there.

Arriving at his destination, he turned the engine off and looked at his watch. He had fifteen minutes to kill, so he looked up at the sky and watched the clouds roll by. There was no reason he had to be precisely on time, but he always was. Time, which had moved so slowly for the rest of the day, had sped up now. The drive somehow freed the clock to speed ahead.

It was a nice day out. The sun was shining, the clouds were light and fluffy. The wind barely a breeze through the trees. Checking the time, Mat pulled out a handkerchief and cleaned up his face a little. He couldn't do anything about the red eyes, but at least his cheeks would be dry when he stepped out of the car.

As he stepped out of his car, someone rushed up to meet him. "Hello, are you with the Wilsons?" the man asked, smiling as he reached out to take Mat's hand. "I didn't see you at the service yesterday." His black suit was perfectly cut, and it somehow suited his personality. Mind already on the conversation to come, Mat considered how to describe the man.

Wilsons? Mat blinked, glad his sunglasses would help hide his complete confusion. Was there a burial going on today? "I'm Mathew Peterson, here to visit my father's grave," he introduced himself, taking the offered hand. He waited a moment for the man to return the favor before continuing. "The funeral," Mat hesitated for a moment before finishing, "was a long time ago."

"Oh, my apologies," the mousy man let go of the handshake, pulling his hand up to his mouth in shock. Fussy. That was the term Mat was looking for to describe him. Fussy. "I just assumed... the service doesn't start for another hour. I wouldn't ask you to cut your visit short, but if you could be gone by then, I'm sure the family would appreciate privacy."

Mat checked his watch. "I usually only stay about a half hour. And if you'll excuse me, I'm nearly late."

"Late?" the man asked, blinking. "Oh, is someone else coming? I promised the Wilson's I'd help make everything perfect for the funeral. They loved the man very much, you see. Want everything to be perfect, for his memory. You wouldn't want to make their day any worse, Mat."

"Don't worry, Mr.?" Mat turned the statement into a question. This was taking time he could ill afford to lose, but the man was beginning to annoy him.

"Oh, dear me, I'm Archibald. Archibald Foster," the mousy man answered, reaching out for a moment as if to offer his hand again. "Forgive me for not introducing myself."

"Mr. Foster, I have no intention of interfering with any funeral," Mat reassured the man. "I called ahead last week, let the caretaker know I'd be coming. I always do, ever since one year there was a funeral near my father's plot. I have every right to be here, and if you were so concerned with making everything perfect, you should have talked to Mr. Ortiz."

"Oh, that just wasn't possible this time," Archibald told him. "He and his... partner... were murdered a few days ago. His replacement still hasn't been chosen. My company had to pay to handle some last minute landscaping."

"Jacob's dead?" Mat asked, shocked. The man wasn't exactly a friend, but they'd come to know each other over the years. That first summer after his father had passed away, Mat had come almost every day to tend the grave. The grass had to be clipped, just so. The flowers positioned, just right. If he could have changed where the leaves on the nearby trees grew, he would have done it. Mat couldn't have done it during the school year, but during the summer he had the time. And during the summer, the other kids wouldn't tease him over the tears that he couldn't help but shed.

Jacob had helped pull Mat out of his depression. The man had been friendly, but standoffish, at first, but as Mat came day after day, the man began helping out a little. His stern injunctions, delivered with a suspicious twinkle in his eye, to never to call him 'Mr.' had drawn the first laugh from Mat in months.

"Have the cops caught the killer?" Mat asked after a long moment.

"No," Archibald shook his head. "From what I hear, they don't even have any leads."

Mat closed his eyes and bowed his head in a moment's prayer. "In that case, I'll be on my way. You have my word of honor that I'll be gone within the hour."

"Thank you," Archibald smiled. "And while I suspect it's a little late, my condolences on your grief. If you'll give me your contact info, I'll make certain that the new groundskeeper has it and can contact you if any decisions need to be made about the continued maintenance of your father's grave."

Mat looked at his watch. "I... need to be up there in a minute. I'll find you once I'm done, if that's alright."

Archibald gestured Mat on, then fell into step behind him. "I believe you said you'd be done in half an hour?"

"Yes," Mat nodded.

"I'll be waiting by your car in exactly half an hour then," Archibald offered. "Exactly," he repeated as if in warning.

"Then I'll be by, in about half an hour," Mat told him, emphasizing the word 'about'. "Don't worry, I'll be gone before the funeral."

"Thank you for your consideration," Archibald smiled, then turned away.

Mat had to walk a bit on the fast side, but he made it just in time.

"Hey Dad, it's that time again," Mat said into the air, leaning over to straighten the flowers his mother had sent. Breathing them in, he managed a wan smile at the fragrance.

"My birthday was a few weeks ago," Mat continued. "As much as it always hurt to have one of your lectures arrive, one of your little 'letters through time', I was shocked how much it hurt to not have one arrive. Not to have you say something more about what it means to be a man, or what growing up is really all about."

Mat's father couldn't answer, but Mat always poured his heart out on these trips. And, somehow, whatever the issue of the day was, he felt better afterward. Today, however, he didn't get the normal sense of peace. The murder of Jacob Ortiz was part of it, he knew, but the other half was the slow, grinding sensation that his father wouldn't approve. The political situation in the United States had been going downhill lately, and he hadn't done anything to help. He'd avoided being seen at any of the rallies or demonstrations, kept completely out of the entire political process.

"The problem is, I just don't know what to do," he tried to explain. "I mean, Jack Bryce was a great president. But now he's a terrorist? I just... I can't wrap my head around it. Nothing seems to add up. Ashwood can't be lying; the media would be all over him like flies on..." Mat hesitated a moment before substituting a more appropriate word. "Like flies on poop. If there were anything going on, they'd be ringing the alarm bells left, right, and center, and they aren't."

Mat sighed. "I chose my major this year. I decided on history. If you don't know the past, you're doomed to repeat it and all that. One of my professors is having me study the French Resistance from World War Two, just to help me understand the field I've chosen. If I really don't like it, I can still change it."

"I've actually been enjoying it quite a bit," Mat added. "I don't really need to know about all that in my daily life. But it's kinda cool to read how the French screwed with the Nazis. And it's fun trying to learn more about it. The professor has me helping him go through some letters to see if there is any new information in them. They've already been searched through once or twice, but he likes to be thorough. And even if they aren't new information, it's fun to see what it was really like in those days. The way the propaganda sticks out like a sore thumb... it's kinda amusing to watch people get taken in by utter lies, and not even realize it."

"I think that's about everything, actually," Mat sighed. "Not much to show for the last three months. Oh, I got a girlfriend. She broke up with me last week. Wanted more commitment than I was willing to give her. She was nice, just..." Mat shrugged. "You build slow to last. She wanted stuff right now. I think she was actually offended when I wouldn't..." Mat blushed. "Well, never mind. I was interested, but it was just way too fast. When the time comes, I want it to be for real. Just like you told me."

Mat looked up at the sky. "I'll see you again soon, Dad. I know you asked me not to re-watch those videos, but... I think I might. I just think I might. I need your voice. See ya."

Stretching, Mat lifted himself to his feet. He walked away, glancing back once when he reached the gate. "Thank you," Archibald seemed to spring out of thin air. "If you have a moment, I'll give your contact info to the new caretakers." Mat took the proffered clipboard and glanced at the form.

"Very funny," he growled. "I'm not signing anything that gives away my rights to visit the grave."

"It's just a formality, the groundskeepers will-" Archibald started.

"Take this contract and shove it," Mat pushed the clipboard back into Archibald's hands before storming off. "Besides, you probably need my mother's signature on that for it be valid. And she won't sign any more than I would!" he shouted over his shoulder.

Archibald's failed attempt at legal trickery infuriated Mat, and completely ruined the mood he'd managed to find. But it had felt good to be able to yell at the source of his anger for once. All to often it had been some bureaucratic idiot in some distant cubbyhole ruining his life, or the cruel unfairness of life in general. Or his father. Or his mother.

Looking at the time, he flipped a coin in his head. He pulled to the side of the road, parked, and pulled out his cell. After dialing the number in from memory, he waited for the other end to pick up.

"Hey Gran, it's Mat," he greeted her.

"Mat, it's good to hear from you," she replied. He could hear her smile in her voice. "You visited your father already?"

"Yes ma'am," Mat agreed.

"I have two steaks ready to go on the grill as soon as you get here," she told him.

"How'd you know?" Mat asked, smiling.

"You're predictable, sonny," she laughed. "You came over last year. You'd come over this year. You'll come over next year. After you graduate, well, we'll see if you come over then. I bet you will."

"Thanks Gran," Mat took a deep breath. "I'll see you around five?"

"I'll see you around two thirty, or I'll be warming my grill up with the heat coming off your rear end!" she threatened playfully.

"Sorry Gran, even if I sped I couldn't make it there that quickly," Mat told her. "Will three do?"

"Any chance of you dropping by the store on the way to pick up some fresh bread?" she asked.

"You didn't already pick it up?" Mat asked, surprised. The silence on the other end was deafening. "Gran?"

"It slipped my mind," she admitted. "Comes with age."

"Gran, you haven't forgotten anything since..." Mat shook his head. "You never forget. Anything!"

"Sonny, it's not polite to call attention to a woman's age," she said softly. "I'm old. I had a senior moment, that's all."

Mat was chilled. She never forgot anything. Ever. Old age was claiming his Gran.

"I'll grab some bread," Mat heard himself say. "I might be a bit later than three. The french loaf, right?"

"Yes. Oh, and grab yourself some sweets while your at it, saves me from baking a cake," she chuckled. "I have the ingredients, before you worry, but my joints are bothering me more than usual and frankly, I'd like some ice cream myself."

"Sure Gran," Mat said, smiling. "I can take a hint. See you soon."

"See you," she chuckled back before hanging up.

Mat rested his head on the steering wheel for a while. When his father had died, some childish part of him had transferred his belief in immortality to his Gran. Mother was a sailor, she could die just as readily as Dad did in the line of duty. But Gran was just a stay-at-home grandmother. She never went anywhere dangerous or did anything more exciting than a trip to some church function. Surely, surely his ten-year old mind had reasoned, she was safe. She'd always be there for him.

A tap at his window caused him to jerk upright. "Yes officer?" he asked as he worked the handle on the door, rolling the window down.

"Is everything alright, son?" the officer asked, leaning in. He was a bit heavy set, but the visor on his cap cast enough shadow to keep Mat from seeing anything more.

"Just needed a moment," Mat replied. "I had a rather disturbing moment."

"Disturbing how?" the officer asked. "This is a no parking zone."

"What?" Mat asked, looking for posted signs.

"There's a hydrant in your blind spot," the officer offered.

"Oh shit, I'm so sorry Officer... Brewster," Mat apologized, looking at the man's name tag. "I was just pulling over for a moment to use my cell, and I must have missed it."

The officer nodded. "And the cell conversation was the... disturbing moment? What was it, your girlfriend breaking up with you? Something more tragic, like your father dying in a car accident somewhere?" The man was clearly not serious, but his flippant tone on that particular subject nearly set Mat off.

"Please don't joke about my father's death," he cut the officer off. "It was in the line of duty, so technically it wasn't an accident, but he did die in a car crash."

"Oh shit," the officer swore. "Sorry kid. I hear so many sob stories, sometimes I forget they can be real. Officer?"

"Yes sir," Mat nodded. "The cell conversation brought my Gran's age up. She... had her first senior moment."

"Oh," the officer nodded. "I had that with my mother the other week. It can be weird, realizing that your parents are getting old."

"Since my father died, she's been the one who raised me," Mat offered.

"Well, I was planning to let you off with a warning anyways. I think I'll just leave off the warning until next time," Officer Brewster touched the brim of his cap for a moment before walking off.

As Mat pulled out, he had to admit that that last bit was a very effective way to give the warning, without actually doing it.

Monday Nov 5, 2012, 15:13 EST

Cabin Creek, West Virginia

"Hey Gran," Mat called as he walked in the door.

"In the back!" she called back.

"I got the bread. And some chocolate chip ice cream," Mat called back as he walked through the house.

"Chocolate? You know I can't eat that! " Gran complained.

"Oh, and some of the vanilla bean you love so much," Mathew smiled, holding the bag up for her to see as he entered the kitchen.

"You little scamp you," she smiled, working a spoon through a thick, dark liquid. "Put them in the freezer for me?"

"Sure," Mat smiled. "I thought you weren't going to make a cake."

"I'm not," she sighed. "This is brownies. I'm going to take them to church tomorrow, for the volunteers. I agreed to do it last week. Joints or no joints, I agreed."

"Let me," Mat grabbed the bowl and spoon from her. "You could have asked me to pick up something for them."

"I know your money is tight, I felt guilty enough about asking you to get the bread and ice cream," she shrugged. "How much do I owe you for that?"

"Why don't you provide the steak and salad and call it even?" Mat offered.

"Baked potatoes and grilled corn, actually," she smiled. "Just need to start everything cooking. I assume you'll run the grill?"

"For you Gran, anytime," Mat laughed.

"Aren't you a dear boy," she smiled. "How is school going?"

"Same as last week," Mat shrugged. "Professor Torres has me buried in my research paper. I'm still surprised the college lets undergrads take that course, but it's a great way to get a taste of what being a history professor would be like. My math course is still a rehash of high school, I know you hate philosophy, and let's not get into linguistics."

"That Brown woman still insisting that bad English is just 'their way of talking'?" Gran snorted.

"Yeah," Mat snorted. "I swear, if she tells me just one more time that I'm being 'chauvinistic'..."

Gran laughed. "They really need to start teaching proper English in schools. If I hear one more girl chatter at me about how she 'ain't doin' nothing wrong' I am going to bend her over my knee, trouble with social services or not!"

"They're still cutting through the back yard?" Mat asked, surprised.

Gran sighed. "Well, the fence you put up helped. But I can hardly fence in the front yard too!"

Mat laughed, "Let me guess, the neighbors." As much as Gran really loathed teens cutting through the back yard, and all too often leaving cigarette butts behind, she actually adored the neighbor's children. She liked having children around to spoil with cookies, cake, and lemonade.

Gran nodded, "I wouldn't mind so much if they watched their manners better," she admitted. "It's nice to have children around."

Mat smiled, knowing that other than their language, the children wouldn't step one toe out of line around Gran. She was grandmother to everyone in the neighborhood, blood relationship be damned. The entire block practically revolved around her. The fence that 'he' had put up had gone very easily. All he'd had to do was make certain to visibly stock up on fencing supplies, and half the neighborhood had turned out to do the actual work. And once it was done, most of the other half had come over, food in hand, to join the barbecue afterwards.

"So, you're taking baked goods to the voting polls tomorrow?" Mat changed the topic.

"Yes, bright and early, before the polls even open," Gran said cheerfully. After a moment, she added in a slightly sadder tone, "I'll try and stick around for a little while, but I may have to make two trips to the church so I can cast my vote."

Mat frowned. It wasn't that long a walk to the church, but two trips? "How early are you taking the brownies in?"

"Oh, the workers are supposed to show up at about five thirty. I figured I'd try to be there to greet them," she shrugged.

"Gran," Mat complained, "you're getting on in years."

"I promised they'd have my brownies there," she told him.

"I'll take them in for you," Mat told her without even thinking about it.

"Don't you have class?" she asked, shocked.

Mat almost winced at his mistake, but he manned up. "It's not until nine. If I don't dawdle after taking the brownies in, I'll have plenty of time to get to class."

"Just don't miss your class," Gran told him firmly. "I won't have that from you, your mom and I raised you better!"

"Yeah, and Dad..." Mat trailed off. His last 'lecture' had included a few words on college. More than a few.

"The man and I had our disagreements," Gran said softly, "but he was a good man. Deserved better than to be killed by some piece of street trash. I didn't... you were at school last year. You never really told me about the tape you got this year."

"Last year's was the last," Mat admitted.

"Oh, me and my big mouth," Gran gasped, covering the opening in question. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I just assumed, I mean, I never thought to check-" She cut herself off, but not before Mat could look at her sharply.

"Why would you need to check?" he asked sharply.

"He left copies of each of the tapes with me," she admitted, pained. "I was supposed to see to it that each of them was delivered, and if they weren't, make certain they got to you anyway." She looked away, clearly ashamed. "There are three left that I haven't destroyed yet."

"Three?" Mat asked, shocked. "I... why didn't you..."

"You didn't say anything on your birthday," she told him. "I just assumed..." she sighed. "I just assumed you'd gotten it. Never thought about it. Thank God I hadn't gotten around to destroying this year's disk yet."

"I didn't get it," Mat admitted softly.

"I'm sorry, Mat, I'm so sorry," she apologized. "You must have been so hurt."

"I thought, maybe, I'm nineteen now. I became an adult a year ago," Mat admitted. "But, why would you destroy it?"

Gran wiped her hands on a towel. "Your father wanted you to get them on your birthdays, and only then. He didn't..." She sighed. "He didn't want you discovering that I had all the backups. He was afraid you might try to find them."

Mat sighed, "I suppose I might have tried, once," he admitted. "I always was eager to find my presents."

Gran laughed, "You were a holy terror when it came time to shop," she told him, hobbling to the door. "As soon as I got the bag in the house, you were after it like a bloodhound. If I hadn't gotten the lock on my closet door, I doubt I could have hid a single present from you, ever."

Mat laughed, "Tell me, has the statute of limitations passed yet for my fourteenth birthday?"

Gran moaned, leaning her forehead against a hand on the door frame. "Don't tell me you got in."

"I certainly won't say anything until the statute of limitations has passed," he told her, smiling. Five years later, she'd be a little upset, but she wouldn't kill him. Probably. And he always loved explaining how he'd pulled off a trick.

"How'd you manage it?" she asked, turning to face him.

"Well, you remember how badly the door used to stick?" Mat asked.

"Oh Lord, do I ever, I almost couldn't get it open before Nathan fixed it for me," she smiled.

"Well, I stuck a small block of wood in the hole where the latch went," Mat shrugged. "You closed the door, locked it, and walked away. You never thought to check if the door had actually latched, just that the knob was locked."

Gran laughed infectiously, and in a moment, Mat joined her. "Oh, you always were clever," she told him after she calmed down. "You deserve more than a history degree. Do more with your life than study old books." Mat stopped laughing. "Oh Lord, there I do it again, putting my foot in it. Not today. I won't bring it up again."

"Thanks, Gran," Mat said softly. "I think this is just about mixed."

"When it's done, the pan is already greased and waiting, but don't put it in the oven," Gran told him as she hobbled away. "Feel free to clean the spoon and bowl before I wash them."

Mat laughed, "No neighborhood volunteers?"

"No," Gran called back. "I wanted you to myself tonight."

Mat smiled, then turned back to the task at hand. While he wasn't a jock, his young body was far more muscular than his grandmother's, and he had it finished in practically no time. Carefully pouring it into the pan she'd indicated, he scraped every last bit of batter he could manage into the pan. What was left was still respectable for clean up, but not really all that much.

Setting the bowl and spoon to the side, Mat leaned over and whisked a couple of dish towels out of a drawer. Laying them on the last remaining bit of clear counter space, he turned and opened the freezer. In moments he tracked down the gel packs he was looking for, and he quickly began wrapping them in the towels. By the time his grandmother began working her painful way back down from the attic, he had her favorite chair ready to go and a teakettle on the stove.

"I'll take that," Mat took the DVD case from her when she reached the bottom of the stairs, then helped her over to the chair.

"I'm not an invalid, child," she scolded him.

"I'm not treating you like an invalid, I'm treating you like a person I love deeply, who just happens to be in a great deal of pain," Mat told her. "Now sit, and let the ice do you some good."

"Ice?" she asked. "I don't want ice. Cold just makes arthritis worse, you know that."

"I actually looked it up last time you told me that," Mathew disagreed. "The myth about cold weather making arthritis worse is just that, a myth. And cold treatment is especially indicated for arthritis flair ups, which is what you're suffering from. I even talked about it with my anatomy professor, she was quite willing to teach me all about arthritis. Apparently she suffers from it herself, and none of her grandsons are quite so solicitous. I think she's jealous."

"I'll freeze to death!" Gran changed tracks, realizing that she was doomed to defeat on that subject. After all, when Mat knew he was right, he was willing to argue all day long if that's what it took.

"As soon as I'm done here, I'm going to make some nice hot tea, or cocoa if you prefer," Mat offered.

"Aren't you just a dear child," Gran sighed. "Fine, fine. When the oven preheats, stick the brownies in for me and start the timer. It's ready to go."

"Should I bring the bowl out here so you may assist with cleanup?" Mat asked.

Gran gave a short, barking laugh. "Child, that's your pleasure and responsibility. Just make certain to wash it afterwards."

Mat smiled as he made his way back into the kitchen. The batter tasted delicious as he scooped it up with his fingers and licked the spoon completely clean. The wash up after was a price he paid willingly for such pleasure.

As he was filling up the sink, the doorbell rang. "I've got it!" he called, quickly turning the tap off and running for the door.

"I could have gotten up," his grandmother pointed out as he raced past her.

"And now you don't have to," he responded, opening the door. "Hello."

"Hello!" the smiling man on the other side exclaimed, holding out one of his hands. Mathew took it, bemused, as the man continued to rattle on. "I'm with the local chapter of the Ashwood Campaign, and I'm here to make certain you remember to do your civil duty tomorrow by participating in the fine American tradition of voting. According to our records, there are two individuals registered to vote at this address?"

"My grandmother and I," Mat nodded. "I believe she's a firm Ashwood supporter."

"You bet I am!" she shouted. "I may not like what he's doing with guns, but by God he's got the right idea about fags!"

"And you, sir?" the man's intense green eyes seemed to drill into Mat.

"I am neither a firm supporter, nor opposed," Mat replied. "You might say I'm agnostic in the coming race. I don't like the idea of voting in a terrorist, but Ashwood's consistent failures to prove his repeated allegations make him seem almost like a liar, which I'd hate almost as much."

"I see," the man frowned. "May I ask which way you intend to vote then?"

"I'm undecided," Mat admitted. "I'll probably join with my Gran and the rest of the church in voting Ashwood, but I may just decline to vote for either President. Something about the entire race stinks, and I don't want it getting all over me by supporting the wrong candidate, if you catch my drift."

"I think I do sir, I think I do," the man nodded. "Well, I certainly hope you decide to do the right thing tomorrow."

Mat smiled coldly, "I have every plan to do the right thing, as soon as I figure out what it is. And I should warn you that I'm as stubborn as a stone. The surest way to make me not vote Ashwood, is to keep arguing I should without actually addressing my concerns."

The man opened his mouth for a moment, then nodded. "In that case, a very good day to you, sir."

"You aren't really going to vote Bryce!" Gran complained the moment the door was shut.

"I don't like being pushed around," Mat shrugged. "And as I said, Ashwood keeps saying terrorist, but never backing it up. Surely he can shake something loose from whatever evidence he's looking at, he just doesn't choose to."

"Well, I'd love to argue the point," Gran complained, "but I suppose your mind is made up."

Mat suppressed a smile as he nodded. 'Your mind is made up' wouldn't have stopped Gran from hitting him with any decent arguments she could make, and was actually halfway to saying he'd convinced her on the subject.

"What do you say about having dinner a bit early?" Mat asked. "Otherwise, I think I'll go check and see if I left any of my books in my car. Never too early to start studying for finals."

"Why don't you make that hot cocoa you promised me, first?" Gran asked.

"Sure thing," Mat nodded.

Tuesday Nov 6, 2012, 05:45 EST

Cabin Creek, West Virginia

As he walked home from the church, Mathew gently fingered his pocket knife through the stiff leather of it's holder. The crisp, chill air made him glad for his jacket, but the walk itself felt good. He wouldn't encourage his Gran to come out this early, but maybe a nice walk would do her good.

The people manning the polls had been extremely talkative when he showed up. They weren't allowed to encourage anyone to vote one way or another, but they could, and did, discuss matters amongst themselves before opening. And what an interesting conversation that had proven to be for Mathew.

Unfortunately, even if the reports were true, you couldn't find the information on the internet past the filters that had been installed. An interesting conundrum. You can't prove a negative, after all. For so long that had haunted Jack Bryce's campaign, and now the shoe was cleanly on the other foot.

Well, maybe not cleanly. Only two of the younger people at the polls had seen the reports, supposedly filtered in from some website in Russia. The alleged reports, Mat corrected mentally. And the story was patently preposterous. Media manipulation? Hit squads? 'Undesirable' lists? This was the United States of America, not Nazi Germany! That just wasn't possible!

And yet. And yet. Mat found his fingers running even more anxiously over the pocket knife. It hung together. Ashwood's consistent refusal to reveal more information. The way the press had simply been silent about Jack, rather than digging up actual dirt. The little things that didn't quite seem to fit together when he read foreign news articles.

Little bits. Little pieces. Nothing confirmed, nothing absolutely disproved. Without any clear answers, Mat would have to stand neutral. He wouldn't cast his vote in favor of either party. Not with this hanging over them all. Not without something else. Something more.

The house was nearly silent as Mat slipped inside. Gran had woken him up, but from the sound of it she'd headed back to bed afterward. Mat took a moment to drink a glass of water, and then wandered upstairs. Sitting on the desk next to his bed was the DVD he'd received last night. With Gran in bed, this might be a good time to watch it, alone. Grabbing his clothes, he took the quickest, sketchiest shower he could get away with and barely dried off before yanking his new clothes on. Quietly hurrying downstairs, he turned the TV on and set the volume low.

"Hello son," his father said across the years, his brilliant blue eyes piercing through time. His hair was the exact same shade of brown as Mat's, but cut close and combed neatly. One day Mat might try a beard on, it looked good on his father, but for now he simply lacked the gravitas to pull it off, unlike the man on the other side of the glass."Today you should be nineteen years old. Last year I told you about keeping your nose clean, keeping out of trouble, and getting the most of your college education. It was all important stuff. I hope you've remembered it, because it's time to throw most of it out the window."

Mat blinked in shock as his father waited a moment. "Now that you've had a moment to absorb that, I'll say it again. Yes, I'm telling you to throw that out the window." Randolph Peterson leaned back a little. "Your school work is important, but you aren't in college just to pick up book learning. Part of your job there, part of what college is about, is making friends. Learning to get along with other adults. That, of course, was also part of the purpose of high school. Learning to get along with people you hate, when emotions were pumping through your veins driven by the full power of your hormones. You still need to work on that lesson, though. In high school, they make you get along, they make you associate. In college, it's up to you. If you don't show up to class, you flunk out. They don't show up and make you do anything. It's all up to you."

"But knowing you, son, you've been good about attending classes. You've kept your nose clean and put it right to the grindstone. And that's the problem," Dad smiled. "That's what I wanted you to do, your freshman year. You needed to get into things, really learn to work at them. Without that, you could fail before you knew it. Now, you know how fine the line is, how easy it is to slip over it without someone standing over you with a stick."

"So, dance that line. Go pick fights with bullies. Go to pep rallies and protests. Explore what campus life is like. It's important for you to do this, it's part of becoming a man." Mat's father smiled again. "Oh God, I feel silly trying to reach so far ahead, to see clearly what might be nine years from now. I don't know if I'm giving you the right advice, what you already know, what you really need to hear. I've already said most of it, anyway. So I'm going to close with one last line."

"What makes a man?" Mat's father asked. "That question is the most important one you can answer this year. It'll have more effect on your life than any other. It's more important than you could possibly imagine, more critical than you can dream. You need to find the answer, but you can only find it by living the answer."

"I'll tell you what it's not," the man continued. "Being a man has nothing to do with what's hanging between your legs. It has nothing to do with the fact that you're an adult. The difference between being a man and simply being an adult male is something you'd find here," he thumped his chest, hard, over his heart. "It's something you'll find here," he added, tapping on his head. "By now, I know -- oh, son, I know -- that you'll have started your way down the path to being a man. A real man. The son is the father of the man, and all I have to do to see what kind of man you will be is look outside my window. Mischief incarnate, with a caring heart. I can imagine no better mold for a man than that, my son."

"I really only have one last piece of advice left for you this year. It's one that I think will help you. God, I wish I had more to go on than what I see outside my window. If I do die, if you do see this, I hope I'm right, that you can rise above the pain and horror. If you let my death destroy you, I will find a way to come back and kick your ass, son."

The man shook his head, trying to clear his thought. "I'm rambling. Hit the beer a little too hard today, I think. It's not every day your son turns ten. So, let me end this message as I'd planned. I haven't read her works, but someone read me a quote from a woman named Barbara Ehrenreich. 'No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.' Your duty doesn't lie in doing what you're 'supposed' to do, son. Find what you need to do. Find the fire that burns in your soul, and embrace that. Do this, and know I'll be proud of you for it."

"I love you, son," his father finished. "Destroy this disk when you're done with it, if you'd be so kind. Don't hold too hard to the past. Find your future."

The video clicked off, and Mat started sobbing. It hurt. Oh God, it hurt every year. "Thank you Dad," he whispered between sobs, resisting the urge to howl his agony.

Minutes, hours, days, years later, his gran tromped down the stairs. Mat grabbed some tissues and tried to clean up, but when he was back in the living room Gran looked at him with knowing eyes. "You watched the video?"

"Yes," he nodded.

"You OK?" she asked.

"Yeah," he sniffed. "I'll be good."

"In that case, I'll make us breakfast before you go," Gran smiled.

"Thanks," Mat smiled. "I'll help."

"No," she shook her head. "You go wash your face up, and take a moment or two for yourself. And get that video out of my player and into your car."

"Thanks," Mat nodded. "I'll just do that thing."

"And when you get back, we'll sit down and have breakfast while watching the news," she smiled.

Washing up and cleaning his face didn't take much time at all, but he did feel better for it. Tromping back downstairs, he grabbed the disk. He'd destroy it eventually, but he wanted to watch it a few more times. He wanted to memorize every gesture, every intonation. He wanted to drink in his father's face, one more time.

By the time he was ready to go, Gran had pancakes, eggs, and bacon all ready to go, set out on the little dinner stands she'd bought so she could eat and watch the evening news.

"Lets see what's on," she said, turning the TV back on.

"Good morning, my fellow Americans," President Ashwood said gravely.

"Oh!" Grandma gasped, turning the volume up as the President explained how Presidential Candidate Jack Bryce's plane, whose electronic gear had been tampered with to prevent anyone from tracking it, had crashed earlier that day.

"Well, I guess that's that," Gran said smugly. "It's a pity about his family, but God's judgement will fall where it might."

"Maybe," Mat said uncertainly, remembering what he'd heard earlier. "But I have a sudden suspicion that God didn't have much to do with it."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Gran demanded as the TV changed to a new scene.

"My fellow Americans, as you've just seen, I'm supposedly dead," former President Jack Bryce introduced himself.

Neither Mat or Gran moved so much as a muscle as the man continued to speak. When Gran's knife fell to the floor, neither of them so much as twitched.

When the signal finally cut, Gran raised a single trembling hand and turned off the TV. As if that was a signal, Mat found himself able to move again. "That no good, God-damned son-of-a-bitch!" he swore angrily before thinking.

"Amen," Gran said softly as he glanced over at her, blushing. "Damn him to the deepest pit of hell, Lord. Jack Bryce I might forgive, but their families?!"

Mat's ears weren't working quite right. Did Gran just agree with him instead of slapping him for cursing? "I'm sorry about my language, Gran, I-"

"Don't," she cut him off angrily. "I don't approve of casual swearing. But that was a justifiable prayer to the Lord if I've ever heard one."

Mat took a deep breath and nodded. "Amen."

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