The alarm startled me out of a deep sleep. At least I thought it was the alarm. The sound was, in fact, my doorbell: chimes, not bells. I glanced at the clock. It was 2:12 a.m., but light flooded through the windows of my house as if it were midday. That wasn’t the strange part.
I half tripped over both the couch and my cat on the way to the front door and looked through the peephole. I saw what looked like a dusty blue full brimmed hat, similar to what hipsters wore, but older and crustier. Then the hat spun around, and the visitor was facing me. A large mustache on a plump face. Two blue eyes framed by round glasses attached to his lapel by a thin golden chain. I’d seen the face countless times, but only in photographs. It was Theodore Roosevelt.
The strange part, however, wasn’t that a dead president was standing at my front door, but that he was dressed in an old Civil War uniform. Yet I knew that Roosevelt was an adolescent when the Civil War ended.
So, I did what anyone would have done. I opened the door.
“I say, good day chap!” He bellowed at me.
I strained to hear him over the commotion of soldiers gathered on my front lawn, the roar of airplanes overhead, and the rumbling of explosions in the distance.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Quadwallups, lad!” He shouted, waving a hand toward the sky. “They’re taking over the city. I dare say, we must fight back, and I need your help!” His glasses glinted at me and his large mustache twitched like a rabbit’s tail.
“Quad—whats? Are you sure you don’t have the wrong address?” I responded, but as I spoke, a large explosion deafened us.
“Sorry, son. You’ve got to speak up! Up, up, up!” He shouted kindly, waving a cigar the size of a sausage before taking a few hurried puffs.
“Sir! Sir! Quad—”A soldier shouted from the front yard but he was cut short when something incredibly fast swooped down and took him away as he screamed. The thing that took the soldier away was winged, multi-limbed, and the sickly blue color of varicose veins.
“What the hell was that?” I shouted in alarm. Roosevelt hadn’t even turned to see what happened.
“Quadwallups! I told you, I need your help! There’s no time for idle chit chat, my boy. There’s a war at hand. We must be off,” Roosevelt said, calm as if the whole thing was an elaborate joke.
A tremor ran through my body, but whether it was from the rumble of earth-rending machines or the bombs pulsing in the distance or the fact that I was terrified, I couldn’t be certain.
“I—I’m not exactly dressed for war,” I said uneasily.
We both looked down at my attire and I thought of how easily my velvety soft sweats, worn smooth from a decade as my favorites, would be disintegrated on a battlefield.
Roosevelt narrowed his eyes.
“Quite right. Where is your uniform?” Roosevelt asked.
“Uniform?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Those bloody devils! You mean to say it hasn’t been delivered?” Roosevelt growled and plucked the cigar from his mouth. Then he stuck two fingers between his lips and whistled loudly.
A moment later, a six-foot-something soldier, skinny as a fishing rod, came running up to us, holding a parcel in his arms.
“Sir, you called, Sir.” The soldier stood straight, looming over the two of us. He didn’t salute because his arms were occupied with the large box.
“Fine work, son! Excellent timing. Hand the package to the general, if you would.” Roosevelt said to the soldier in an official tone.
To my surprise, the soldier handed me the package. His eyes met mine for a moment before he nodded and released its weight into my arms. I nearly toppled into the entryway from its heft. After the exchange, the soldier saluted me, about-faced, and quickly trotted back to the others in the yard.
General? I thought.
“What,” I groaned under the weight of the parcel, “is this?”
“Your uniform, son! Hurry along, there isn’t much time to waste! Quadwallups will destroy everything if we don’t act fast!”
Without another word, I retreated into the hallway and set the parcel down on my living room floor. The cardboard box was held together with twine and neatly tied in a bow on top, with a square of paper attached to the end of one of the strings. Pull here, it read. So, I pulled.
Suddenly, the box unfolded on its own and I leapt back, afraid of what I might have unleashed. A coat rack grew from the center of the box like a plant until finally it stood gleaming in front of me, laden with a sparkling uniform.
On top rested a full-face helmet, shaped like a fish bowl. Below the helmet hung a rubber suit, gloves, and boots seamlessly attached. There was a compact rectangle attached to the back, which I assumed was some sort of breathing apparatus. On the chest of the uniform was a gold insignia, a single F. I hadn’t a clue what it meant.
I stood there, aghast and unsure what to do next or how to put it on, when Roosevelt hollered from the doorway.
“Hurry, son! We haven’t got all day.”
At that, I grabbed the suit, which to my surprise was very light. It didn’t feel like rubber but felt like some synthetic material I’d never touched before.
A zippered slit ran up the right side and curved along the chest to the neck, allowing me to pull it on. The suit was breathable against my skin and fit perfectly. Once zipped, I took the helmet and pulled it over my head. It attached securely to notches in the neck of the suit and, once connected, cool air flooded the chamber from the supplied oxygen.
At this point, I wished there was a nearby mirror, but I knew there wasn’t time to run to the bathroom. I hurried back to the front door.
“Ah, splendid! You look quite fitting. Yes, striking I might add.” Roosevelt said when I arrived. He gave me a once-over and I felt uncomfortable under his eye.
“Here.” He placed an object the size and shape of a large flashlight in my hands. It was smooth and black with a single red button on one side.
“What’s this?” I asked, moving my thumb over the button to test it.
“DON’T TOUCH THAT!” Roosevelt shouted and jumped to the side.
Frightened, I moved my thumb a great distance from the button.
“Sorry,” I apologized, not knowing why.
He wiped his brow with a crumpled rag, then stuffed it back in his pocket.
“It’s a An M-5, the latest edition. Highly potent, deadly in fact. It uses the same energy found in the enemy’s weapons, only at a much higher concentration. They won’t expect it, you know, fighting fire with fire. When the time comes, you’ll use it to defeat the Quadwallups, but don’t press that button until then. Do you understand?” Roosevelt said.
“You’ll get the hang of it soon. We must be off!”
With that, Roosevelt spun on his heels and walked off toward the front yard. I followed, hurrying to keep up with his pace.
The front lawn had been transformed from the peaceful place I once knew into a chaotic mess of soldiers and equipment. Many of the soldiers worked to set up sandbag walls at the edge of the road, while others stood in tight circles overlooking maps and diagrams. They wore World War II uniforms, C ivil War dress, fatigues of current times, and fighting clothes from the Revolutionary War. Machine guns, muskets, or revolvers slung from their shoulders or hung from their hips.
At the road, a tank rolled by, crunching the asphalt like graham crackers. Propeller planes roared overhead, soon followed by air rending fighter jets. More explosions, closer this time, in the direction of city center. People shouted. Guns clapped. None of it made any sense.
“What are you doing here?” I asked Roosevelt when we turned up the road behind the tank.
“Quadwallups! I already told you that, my boy,” he responded.
“I got that. I meant, what are you, Theodore Roosevelt, doing here?”
“Theo-who?” He shouted back at me.
“DUCK!” A soldier yelled from our side.
Just then, a whistle cut through the air, and Roosevelt tackled me flat to the road. A split second later, a missile sunk into my neighbor’s house and exploded. The structure went up in a showering plume of splinters. I felt my chest seize up. There was nothing left.
A pair of soldiers helped me to my feet. Then Roosevelt and I hurried forward, flanked by infantry. In front of us were two massive war tanks.
“Theodore Roosevelt. You died almost a hundred years ago. Dead presidents don’t go walking around in broad daylight.”
“You’re not making any sense, son.”
Clearly, it was me.
We turned down Maple Street, going downhill now, headed for the city center. I looked up to see a swarm of planes and jets circling the skyscrapers; they hovered and fired ammunition down into the streets at something I couldn’t see.
“You’re not Roosevelt, are you?” I shouted as jeeps screamed past us, turret gunners as stern as statues on top.
“Well, I wouldn’t quite say that. I am and I’m not at the same time, if you know what I mean.”
“Like a ghost?”
“No, not a ghost. Go ahead, give my arm a shove. You’ll see that I’m quite real.”
I shoved him. It was true. I shook my head and holstered the M-5 in a sheath at my waist.
“So you’re the real Theodore Roosevelt? This is crazy,” I said.
“Call me what you like, it makes little difference to me. But to label it crazy is far from the truth. Simply speaking, I’m a Filament.”
“A filament? Like fiberglass?”
“There are similarities, this is true. A Filament’s job is to hold things together, especially when something is in the business of tearing it apart. Under normal circumstancesI’m quite invisible. I blend in, you might say. But the state of affairs has forced my hand. Do you know what I’m getting at?” Roosevelt huffed.
“Quadwallups?” I asked.
Roosevelt nodded somberly.
An explosion hit, blocks away, and everyone on the road swayed. We continued on in the caravan of tanks and infantrymen, headed through the industrial district and heading north, on course for downtown.
I began to notice that most of the soldiers paused a moment as they trotted past, nodding with severity to Roosevelt and me. The soldiers looked at me like I was their savior or secret weapon; or worse, their martyr. The idea lodged like a softball in my throat. I realized then that I was the only one wearing a suit like mine or carrying an M-5. A trickle of sweat ran down my temple.
“Why am I the only one wearing one of these suits?” I asked nervously.
“Dear God. You have been debriefed, haven’t you?”
We were nearing the heart of the city and, just as Roosevelt began to respond, a screech, like someone dragging a nail on a chalkboard in front of a mammoth loudspeaker, shrieked in my ears. Following the sound was a pain that felt like my guts were being rearranged.
When I looked up, I saw many of the soldiers as they writhed on the ground, but most lay motionless. I glanced at Roosevelt in terror. He lay face up on the pavement, a sickly blue liquid trailing from his mouth and ears. I reached down and shook him, shouting his name, but he did not respond.
I stood, dazed, and looked all around me. Everywhere the soldiers were down, twisted like haphazardly thrown dolls. The tanks and jeeps had stopped, and smoke plumes rose from each of them. It was as if the entire force had been obliterated with the last blast. I was alone.
The distant echo of gunfire remained, but it was nothing compared to what had been. The city was nearly silent, except the crackle of fires bursting from building or crushed cars. I spun around, staring at the impossibly tall buildings, trying to peek between them for any sign of life, but there were none.
Suddenly, I heard a terrible, echoing groan, like steel being ripped apart. A shadow passed over me, but when I spun around to see what moved, it was gone.
Lights began to blink inside the clear part of my helmet, then a hologram came to life and it spoke to me.
“General, if you’re hearing this now, it’s because I’ve fallen. Which means there isn’t much time,” the hologram said.
“Roosevelt?!” I screamed at the image, but he didn’t respond.
The groaning sound came again. Another shadow. It felt like ice as it passed over my body. Still, nothing emerged from the building.
“The tactic of the enemy,” the hologram of Roosevelt continued, “is to use deceit and misdirection. It is not easy to overcome, my boy, and even more difficult to put your finger on. You must look past what it projects, if you are to see what truly lays beneath. If you can do that, you will find its weakness. If not, it is lost for us all.”
Something was moving behind the buildings, darting out into the road and disappearing when my back was turned. I could feel it. I knew it was there, but I couldn’t see it. The light on my M-5 began to blink red and beep.
“The M-5 will blink red and beep when they are close. Use it wisely.” With that, the hologram shuddered and faded out. Then, it was only me. Well, not just me. The shadow passed again. This time the groan was closer.
I began to move forward, darting between tanks and cars. The street curved left ahead and didn’t give me much of a view. The sun was hidden behind the skyscrapers, leaving everything in shadows. Whatever was out there was taunting me, waiting for the right moment to strike, and I knew any false move might be my last.
A screech, like the one that took out Roosevelt and the infantry, roared in my ears. Again, I felt my guts lurch.
At that moment, something fell from the sky and landed in the street ahead of me some hundred feet. I lay on the ground, grabbing my stomach, and waited.
I heard footsteps. Small, confident taps on the concrete. Approaching.
The M-5 was blinking madly, then it went steady red.
“You can come out, it’s alright.” A feminine voice said softly. It sounded like it was coming from inside my mask. I shuddered.
“There’s no point in hiding. I could have killed you already if I wanted to, but I haven’t, isn’t that enough? You have no idea what side you’re on. Roosevelt, as you call him, came to you because he knew you had the power to enact his plan but were clueless to its aim. He was using you like a pawn and still is, as long as you continue to believe him. Come now, I’m unarmed,” the voice said.
My eyes darted back and forth inside my helmet, hoping the hologram of Roosevelt would reappear, but it didn’t. I clutched the M-5 to my chest and ducked low so I could see under the car I was hiding behind. About twenty feet away was a pair of small and worn leather boots attached to slender ankles. They began to move in patient steps toward me. The voice came again.
“What he said was true. At this range, you could destroy me with what’s in your hands. It’s more sophisticated than anything I’ve ever seen. We knew Roosevelt was close, but we didn’t believe his weapon was here already,” the voice said, and the footsteps stopped. “This is as close as I’m willing to come. It’s your move.”
I closed my eyes and groaned. I didn’t have a choice. As I got up I gripped the M-5 in my right hand, thumb over the button. I moved, one step at a time away from the vehicle, and stood face-to-face with the Quadwallup.
“Not what you expected, was it?” she asked.
It was a woman, a few inches over five feet, with short brown hair, a grease-smudged face, wearing a tattered leather jacket and worn black jeans. She didn’t have a weapon and looked frail, almost sickly, but not a day over twenty-five.
“What is this?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. I expected she would transform into something heinous or sinister at any moment. Deceit, that’s what Roosevelt said.
“It’s what it looks like. What did he tell you, that we were monsters?” the girl asked, her head tilting to the side, eyes steady.
“I didn’t know what to expect really. He called you—Quadwallups.” I said the last word with hesitation.
The woman squinted, then tilted her head back and laughed. It was a sound full of irony and pain. I gripped the M-5 tighter, waiting.
“Quadwallups? What is that even supposed to mean? Are you sure he didn’t say codswallup, like nonsense?” she said, after containing her laughter.
When I didn’t respond, she sighed and began to speak again.
“It’s fitting though. If we weren’t in his way, then he’d get exactly what he wanted. We’re just trash. The ones who don’t matter. We’re only alive to either join the great machine or die standing in its path. We’re the ones who, if he only had a big enough shovel, he would launch into the earth and forget forever. That’s exactly what he wants, you know. He wants you to press that button. Do you know what happens when you press it? Have you tried it yet?” she asked as she folded her arms.
I looked down at the weapon and, when I met her eyes again, shook my head.
“I haven’t a clue what it does,” I said plainly. “Why does he want you gone?”
She pursed her lips and looked around. It was a long moment before she spoke again.
“Because we won’t get chipped. We either didn’t have the money to or actively resisted the installation in the name of everything that we hold sacred about our humanity. He invented the device ‘for the betterment of society,’ then quickly used it to control everyone. The Filaments, he calls them. Holding society together to usher in the next era of life on earth. Us? We’re just the space between. We’re in the cracks and crevices and fighting for our lives to hold onto everything we have, for love and compassion and freedom of choice. We’re nearly invisible, but not yet,” she said, and spat on the ground.
I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. Chipped? Was this all some elaborate lie? She looked harmless, fragile even. Could it be that Roosevelt lied to me?
“What does this do?” I asked her as I held up the M-5, its light glowing red.
“It identifies anyone who hasn’t been chipped.” She paused and said the next part darkly. “And makes them invisible. Forever.”
I looked at the flashlight-shaped object in my hand and wondered how it could possibly make someone invisible. It didn’t look like much.
Something moved in the corner of my eye and I turned to see what it was.
“Look out!” the woman screamed.
It was Roosevelt, only it wasn’t. His face was sliding off, revealing a bluish sludge underneath. His eyes were swollen and maniacal. He leapt toward me and knocked me to the ground. The M-5 fell from my grip and I watched as it slid across the pavement to the curb. The woman turned and fled. Roosevelt now had a death grip on my throat, crunching through my suit and closing my airway. I began to choke.
“I—” Roosevelt slurred, “told you—to press the button.” He picked my head up and slammed it down between every word. I fought back, tearing at him, but it was no use. His strength was too great. Then he jumped off of me and grabbed the M-5, grinning in my direction. His cheeks were hanging down from where they were torn and blue, as if his skin were sliding off of his body.
“I’ll show you how it’s done,” he groaned.
I watched, coughing from the ground, as Roosevelt glowered, and the woman ran away.
Invisible. That was the last thing I thought before something screamed in my ears and everything went black.
But the sound didn’t end.
When I opened my eyes, I saw the familiar popcorn ceiling of my house. I was laying on my back, in my home. The ringing in my ears was the alarm. It was seven in the morning and outside it was just getting light. I hurried from my couch to the front door and opened it. No one was there. It was just as quiet as any morning I’d ever known.
I closed the door. I was thirsty. My throat ached. My cat cried at me and pressed against my leg. It was all just a dream, I thought. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so real.
I headed for the kitchen and walked passed the couch. That’s when I heard the beep. Spun around. Froze.
About five feet away, my phone sat on the arm of the couch. The screen had blinked to life and was glowing steady red.