Late again. At this point, it’s probably better to think of my update schedule less as Monday and Friday and more as Tuesday and Saturday.
Dante spent the ride to the university silent in the back seat of Tweak’s car, his misgivings pressing down on him, choking him like some malevolent cloud. In the front, Tweak and Dympna chattered excitedly. Dante caught only small fragments of their conversation: how was she, how was he, I’m sorry to hear what happened, thank you, what are you going to do, I know a guy. They talked about glass bottles and cinder blocks and gas masks and fire and signs and oil and Dante did not hear them, his mind returning again and again to thoughts of the newspaper man, of that silent eerie figure who had been at the demonstration in the city, the protest at the university.
Something about the newspaper man unsettled Dante in a way that Tweak didn’t seem to appreciate. And of course, there was no point in even bringing it up to Dympna. She wouldn’t understand, and after the mess that had followed their break-up (delusional, she had called him,) the chance of inviting further scorn was all the more unpleasant. So he sat and he played with his phone, looking through photos and videos of the two incidents and trying to find more evidence of the newspaper man. There were plenty of photos taken at the university, but they were all taken at the same location, and the newspaper man did not move from the spot Dante had first noticed him in.
He was everywhere in the photos taken in the city. A blurry figure in the background, standing in the window of a store or an office building, walking along the street. In every photo with an impassioned, angry face, he was there, his dark suit, his silver watch, and that newspaper obscuring his features like a veil.
“Hey, what are you doing back there so quiet?” Tweak said. Dympna turned in her seat to face him.
“He’s playing games on his phone.”
“I’m not playing with my phone, I’m looking at pictures.”
“He’s social networking.”
“Pictures of the protests!”
“Why don’t you help us plan for the future instead of living in the past?”
Dante sighed and put his phone back in his pocket. “What’s up?”
“What’s a good way to incapacitate a riot cop from a distance?”
Dante said nothing. Tweak and Dympna were both silent. She stared into Dante’s eyes,
awaited his response. “Throw a rock?”
“No good. They’re armored, and even if they weren’t, they’ve got shields that could
“Jesus, man! We don’t want to kill anyone!”
Dante shrugged. “I’m out of ideas.”
The car was silent. Dympna turned around in her seat again. “Hey, have you seen the pictures from other countries’ protests?”
“Did you ever see that one I was telling you about back at the party? The car getting rushed by the angry students?”
“The couple going to the opera or whatever? No.”
“I’ll send it to you,” Dympna said. She smiled. “I think you’d find it neat. Or funny. Something.”
Dante smiled back, weakly. The smile fled from his face as soon as she turned back around in her seat, and when Dympna and Tweak resumed their conversation, Dante stared quietly out of the window.
* * *
Tweak’s guy lived alone in a small beige house in the suburbs. Tweak walked up to his front door and rang the doorbell twice in rapid succession, paused for a moment, and rang it three more times. Behind the heavy wooden door, Dante could hear the sound of someone walking around, pausing before the door, and undoing a series of chains and locks. The door swung open and an aging but still muscular man dressed simply in a white t-shirt and old khaki pants stood there, his head scanning the street from left to right. Content that there was no one watching, he looked at Tweak and smiled. “How are you doing, Joseph?”
“Been better, been worse. Fred, these are my friends Dante and Dympna.”
“My pleasure,” Fred said, shaking each of their hands in turn. He turned to Tweak, his face expressionless, and asked, “Are they–”
“I wouldn’t have brought them if they weren’t.”
Fred smiled. “Alright, then. A friend of Joseph’s is a friend of mine. Come inside, come inside!” Fred turned and waved for the trio to follow. Dante noticed that he walked with a rather pronounced limp in his left leg.
The old man led them into the living room, gestured for them to sit on the sofa. He himself sat on an old and beaten recliner. Dante looked around. There was a TV, a collection of movies, and little else. “What can I do for you today?” he asked Tweak.
“We need gas masks and filters.”
“Warsaw or NATO?”
“Doesn’t matter so long as they’re functional.” Tweak considered for a moment. “Something you can part with. We’ll be buying them off you, if that’s okay.”
Fred snickered. “What are you getting up to that you need gas masks?”
“Did you see what they did at the university, pepper spraying the hell out of those students?”
Fred frowned, nodded. “Bad business, that. Chicago all over again.”
“I had a… a friend that was there. Wound up in the hospital. I know there’s going to be more demonstrations now, and I want to be there in honor of him,” Tweak said. “And I don’t want some cop pepper spraying the shit out of me for no good reason, either. At least, if one tries, I want to be able to do something about it.”
“We’re not too partial to crowd control agents, either,” Dympna said.
Fred looked over the three of them. He sat back in his chair, took a deep breath, folded his hands in his lap. “You three kids aiming to do something stupid?”
“No, Sir,” Tweak said. “Just planning ahead.” He grinned. “You wouldn’t go to the beach without sunblock, would you? Well, you don’t go to a protest without a gas mask.”
Fred chuckled. “Alright, kid. Fair enough. Standard warning: I don’t know you, you don’t know me, you didn’t get anything from me, and if anything ever gets traced back to me, I’m going to play the doddering old man and say you stole them.”
Tweak smiled. “I know the drill.”
Fred leaned forward in his seat, returned Tweak’s smile. “You sure you’re not planning anything stupid?”
“Good,” he said. “But then, a little civil disobedience never hurt anyone.”
* * *
The crowd gathered outside of the university’s administration building was at least two-hundred strong by Dante’s best guess. They were arranged in two neat lines framing the path from the front door of the building to the Chancellor’s car. The crowd was largely students, but there were enough members of the community and outsiders like Dante, Tweak, and Dympna that there was a sense of universal outrage permeating the atmosphere. Very few seemed to have gas masks resting atop their head like the three of them did, though there was no shortage of strangers coming up to them and saying what a good idea it was and how they would have to get some for themselves.
“We’re sure she’s going to come out of that door?” Dante whispered to Tweak. “What if there’s another exit?”
“She’ll come this way. She’ll have cops escorting her for her safety she’s got to go to her car at some point. And besides that, she’s got to face the crowd sooner or later. It wouldn’t do for a university official to look to look frightened or weak, would it?”
Dante grunted. Dympna threw her elbow into his side. “Did you look at those pictures I sent you?”
He had. The three of them were sharing a single motel room with Tweak on the floor and Dante and Dympna each in their own bed. When he’d been in the shower, she had sent the photos, and when she was showering, he’d looked at them. Tweak had gone to visit Simon in the hospital immediately after seeing Fred.
She’d picked the most stylish photos. Lone protestors waving flags and throwing rocks. A wall of fire erupting in front of retreating police. Couples holding each other as chaos reigned all around them. An older woman staring down a squad of riot police armed with shields and batons.
And in every last one of them that had shown active conflict, not just a protestor throwing rocks at some unseen enemy or wall of police guarding a location but actual physical struggle between people, he had seen the newspaper man.
“Yeah. Yeah, I looked at them.”
“What’d you think?”
Dante licked his lips. She stared at him, waited patiently for a response. “I don’t know how to feel about it,” he finally said.
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
He chose his words carefully. “I look at those, and it’s like I’m seeing some kind of a symbol, but I don’t know what it represents. If that makes sense. It’s like… like art that you just don’t understand. You know that there’s something there that’s speaking to you on an instinctive, primeval level, but you can’t put a name to it.”
Dympna rolled her eyes, shook her head. “God, you and your art.”
Dante frowned. “I’m not trying to say that it’s art, alright? I know better than to bring that up with you. I’m just saying, I know I should be feeling something, but I don’t know what, and it’s leaving me a little uncertain, alright?”
“You’re impossible, you know that? What happened to being in the city and feeling like anything was possible?”
Before Dante could respond, Tweak hissed, “Will you two shut the fuck up? She’s coming, and the whole point of this is to give her a wall of silent, staring faces. Let her stew in her guilt.” He thought about this for a second. “In fact, put on your masks.” He pulled his down, and seeing no reason not to, Dante and Dympna did the same.
To the Chancellor’s credit, she presented a strong, unafraid face. She was flanked on either side by two police officers, but none of them walked ahead of her. The heads of the crowd turned to watch her as she went by, and to their credit, they were able to maintain their silent decorum.
The only members of the crowd that she turned to look at were Dante, Tweak, and Dympna, and perhaps only then because they were in gas masks. As she walked by, it seemed to Dante that she would not have paid them more than a moment’s notice, but instead she did a double-take. She looked away, looked back with wide eyes and gave a slight gasp. She walked a bit faster then, and before long, they could no longer see her.
“What the hell was that?” Dympna whispered.
“Guess she wasn’t expecting to see a couple of badasses in gas mask, huh?” Tweak said with a chuckle.
“I don’t think she was looking at us,” Dante said.
Tweak turned to him. “What?”
Dante pulled off the gas mask, pushed it up so it rested atop his head. “She saw us, and then she looked away, and then she looked back. I could see her eyes. When she looked back, it looked like she was looking past me.”
“So what was behind you?” Dympna said, pulling off her own mask.
“I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Tweak said. “It’s about sending a message, and that scared little look on her face tells me message received.”
Dante shrugged. “If you say so.”
A few minutes later, the word came back that the Chancellor had reached her car and driven off. Some of the crowd dispersed, some of them milled about, and a few approached the trio and asked them about the masks and where they had come from. While Tweak and Dympna answered questions and laughed and joked with the others, Dante excused himself and began walking away from the group. There was nothing behind them but trees, a bench and a single lamp post some fifty feet away. There was certainly nothing that would merit a gasp. Perhaps Tweak was right. Perhaps the Chancellor simply hadn’t been expecting to see three masked figures as she walked down the lines of the gathered crowd.
Dante sat on the bench, took a deep breath. He leaned back and looked at the people were still lingering, some young, some old. He smiled. It was a pleasant fall night, and from a distance, the crowd seemed less like a group of the outraged assembled for a common purpose and more like a group of friends holding an impromptu gathering. It was almost reassuring.
He looked around the campus. His eyes wandering lazily from one building to the next, when he saw it. There on the ground next to the bench, the thick grey pages of a newspaper folded into a neat bundle.