Divided we stand

Divided we stand


Short fiction

27th March 2017
Illustration by Mike Stout

Sara lets the Lyft park itself in the drive, lets out a sigh, and tweets wish me luck plus some emojis before slipping her phone into a hoody pocket. Curtains twitch, and before she can get her bag out of the back Mom is there, right there next to her, their hands touching on the handle as they compete for control.

"It's OK Mom, I got it."

"You should have let us come pick you up."

"It's fine, there was no need. I didn't want to put any-"

"But you shouldn't be wasting money, not with how much rent you pay and-"

Jesus. Not this already. "Mom. I can afford a cab ride. I'm not that much of a failure."

Mom sighs, shoulders falling, looks at Sara directly. "I'm sorry honey." She looks old, Sara thinks, watching a resigned tiredness flicker across her face in a way she'd not noticed before. Like she's exhausted by conflict, surrendered to it. "Now, don't I get a hug?"

Sara smiles. They hold each other for a few long seconds, rubbing and squeezing each other as the Lyft silently backs itself out of the driveway. When they part it's Mom's hand that's on the bag's handle.

Inside she unwraps herself from scarves and layers, the heat in the house almost a shock after the cold air. Michigan in February. Mom is already halfway up the stairs, bag in tow, headed for her room.

"Mom, just leave that and I'll…"

"Your father's in the front room," she says, just before she disappears from view. "Go say hi."

For a few seconds Sara is alone in the hallway, the smell of cooking meat coming from one doorway, the sound of rolling news from another. She shakes her head, kicks off shoes, tucks hair behind her ears. Braces herself.

He's sat in the living room, reclining in the Lazy Boy. He doesn't hear her enter - her socked feet silent on the pile carpet floor, his attention lost in the screen that fills most of the wall. Fox News. She braces herself again.

"Hey Dad."

His head jerks to look at her. "Hey! When did you get here?" He starts to push himself up.

"Don't get up Dad, it's fine. Really." She takes a seat on the couch. "I just got here, like two minutes ago."

"Good flight?"

"Yeah. Fine. Y'know. Same as always."

He smiles back at her, nods knowingly.

Their first words in nearly a year. Fine. So far. She relaxes. Of course it is. How bad could it be?

"I thought I was gonna come pick you up from the airport?"

"Ah, no. I got a cab. I didn't want to bother you."

"Bother me? You think I'm too old and infirm to pick my own daughter up from the airport?"

"No Dad, of course not."

The war spills out of Fox News, casualty figures scrolling across monochrome drone footage, attack helicopters circling over Caracas apartment blocks, pundits with bronzed skin and immaculate blond hair smiling from four-way split screens.

"So you just got a cab?"


"How much did that cost?"

"Not much. Really. I can afford-"

"Cabs are expensive. You shouldn't be wasting your money."

"It wasn't expensive. It wasn't a cab, it was a Lyft."

"One of those driverless things?"


Ad break. An elderly couple ride a tandem bicycle through a park, laughing and smiling in Instagram-perfect sunshine, as a calm, relaxing voice lists the potentially lethal side effects of a diabetes drug.

Dad shakes his head. "I don't know how you can use those things. I don't trust them."

"Dad, they're perfectly safe."

"That's not what I mean. They're stealing people's jobs."

There's a brief second, a fleeting moment, where Sara can bite her lip, let it go. She misses it. "But I thought it was immigrants that are stealing people's jobs?"

"You might think it's funny little lady, but let me tell you - you remember Kyle and Max, Bill Cooper's boys? Live up off Lafayette, past the Checkers?"


"Well let me tell you," He shifts in the recliner, with some obvious pain and effort, to face her. "Both of 'em lost their jobs just this last year. Both of 'em were truckers. Both of 'em been driving trucks since high school. Now the damn trucks are driving themselves and they're both out of work. And they got families to support. Kids."

"Well I'm sure they'll be fine." She regrets the sarcasm as soon as she hears it in her own voice, but she still can't stop herself, like it's expected, like it's part of the routine. Part of their schtick. "They just got to get themselves out there, huh Dad? Pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That's the American way, right?"

"I'm glad you think this is funny, I really do. But what you New York types need to realise is-"

"Ed!" Mom had appeared in the doorway. "Please! Both of you. No fighting today, please."


"No. I don't want to hear you two as much as disagreeing about anything today, unless it's about the game. And even then you'd better keep it civil. Otherwise you can both go hungry. Understand?"

Awkward pause.


"Sorry Mom."

Sara turns back to the TV, to watching the war, to trying to work out which one it is.

It had always been this way, ever since she was about thirteen. Up until then it just seemed like constant warmth, as though she didn't have any childhood concept of Dad apart from him getting home from work, then her sitting on his knee, eating cookies and watching football highlights until Mom came in and scolded them both for ruining their appetites before dinner.

And then everything changed. Suddenly there was rap music and nose rings, sneaking out of the house to see her friends and not wanting to go to church. Suddenly he was no longer this lovable bear-man that ruffled her hair and gave her candy and explained defensive plays to her, but this huge obelisk of injustice that just wanted to crush her high school life into dust. It was constant warfare; every opinion she had became a battle, every decision she made a conflict. Getting away to college gave her escape, but bred resentment too; he hated that she went to New York, even though NYU was a good school, and her decision to stay there after she finished made things even worse. And then politics got all crazy, weirder then ever, and it became impossible for them to talk without it erupting into fights almost instantly. It was bad enough when the smart, young guy she liked was president and Dad constantly spewed his hate for him at her, but somehow it got even worse when the old, racist, women hating war-starter he liked won. Twice.

So they didn't talk much now, barely online, never on the phone. Since her second year of school he'd never been to NYC to visit her. She came back when she could face it; sometimes for birthdays, sometimes for Thanksgiving. Maybe for Christmas. But somehow always, like now, for the Super Bowl. Like football was the one thing they still had, that one thing they could still sit in the same room together for. Shouting at players, screaming at the ref, laughing at the ads.

Dad is in the bathroom, and Sara has had enough of Fox and whichever war this is. She reaches over and grabs the remote from the arm of his chair, and tries to find something else to watch. The government had scrapped all the rules about how the internet worked, and for most people like her parents it had suddenly gotten a lot cheaper to get their TV through Facebook, so all she can find is Fox, Breitbart News, Family Values TV, Info Wars, The Rebel, Glenn Beck, The Voice of America, America First, The Bible Today and lots of hunting and sports channels she doesn't even recognise. It's signed in to her Dad's FB account, and the last thing she wants is to try and log in on hers before he gets back from the john. Yeah. There was no way that would end up with them keeping it civil.

In her pocket her phone vibrates, purrs against her skin, reminding her it's there, making sure she's not forgotten where her real friends are, that there's a world outside, beyond Dad and his TV. She takes it out and cradles it in her hands, the dark screen fleetingly reflecting back her face before it jumps awake at her very touch, opening up to bathe her in blue light, in comfort and warmth and the familiar. For the first time since she got home she feels herself relax.

Dinner is Mom's meatloaf, with gravy and mashed potatoes. Cornbread and broccoli. Every mouthful tastes like nostalgia, and Sara can feel herself being encompassed by a bubble, this barrier of warm air and long forgotten simplicity enveloping her body, protecting her from the confusion of the world outside.

"How's work, honey?" Mom asks.

"Yeah, going OK." Sara works for a non-profit in Brooklyn that helps big organisations to transition to renewable energy. The pay is lousy but it feels important. "We just got the last few schools in the city to agree to put solar panels on their roofs. Big deal for us. I've been working on them for the last two years."

Mom says nothing, just looks down at her plate.

Dad finishes chewing his mouthful, swallows, wipes his beard with a napkin. Sighs, barely controlled anger simmering behind his face. "Solar panels cause cancer."

Sara laughs, covering her mouth as she nearly chokes on chewed food. "What? No they don't Dad."

"They do. The material they use to coat them reacts to sunlight, and produces an airborne carcinogen. It's based on a particular kind of rare earth. It's a bit like teflon. The Chinese have known about this for decades but have kept it covered up, because they-"

"Dad, no. Just no. Trust me."

"-because they are the world's largest manufacturers of solar panels. But the research has been done. The scientific evidence is out there. Look it up."

"Look it up?" Sara shakes her head, not knowing where to even start. "Dad, who is telling you this stuff?"

"No one is telling me it, Sara. I read it. It's in the news. I mean, really, I'm surprised you've not seen it. It was all over Facebook."

"Maybe on yours, but it's not all over my Facebook." She doesn't have the heart to tell him she muted him six months ago.

"Well, I don't read the news and I don't know any science," says Mom, "But I do know this: after they opened that solar farm up near Mary, within just a few years her and two of her neighbours had cancer. I mean I don't know anything for sure honey, but given the risk are you sure it's safe to be putting these panels on top of schools?"

"There's no risk, Mom. None at all. Dad, I wish you'd stop believing everything you see on Facebook."

"Well, maybe you should read things yourself before passing judgement on them." He pushes himself up from his seat, steps away from the table. Sara sighs, thinking she's upset him that much that he's actually abandoning his dinner, but he stops to grab something off a nearby shelf. His iPad. He heads back and takes his seat again.

Oh, here we fucking go she thinks to herself.

He stabs at the screen, looks for a while, stabs again. Flips it over and hands it to her. "Here. Read."

Reluctantly, she takes it. His Facebook feed. Somewhere in the middle of it is the article, a very to the point CHINESE SOLAR PANELS CAUSE CANCER headline. But she can't even focus on it, because the rest of the screen is filled with distractions, looping videos and animated gifs, all adverts, and all for guns. Or security systems. Panic rooms. Back up power generators. Emergency rations. More guns.

"Jesus Christ Dad, these ads!"

"No blasphemy at the dinner table, please honey" says Mom.

"What about them?"

"Just… just look at them. They're terrifying. They're like… like adverts for the end of the world! You know they show you this stuff just to make you scared, right? Just to keep you paranoid."

"They show me this stuff because they've got products to sell. That's how the economy works. That's how we create jobs. Godammit Sara, are you telling me you hate advertising now? Do you just hate everything about America?"

Sara looks over to Mom, who looks like she's on the brink of tears. Suddenly she finds she's also lost the will to fight. Gently she closes the iPad and puts it down on the table, next to her plate.

"No, of course not Dad. Maybe I'll read this later, after the game."

After dinner she helps Mom clean-up, the two of them loading the dishwasher in near silence. She's leaning against the counter, scrolling through Twitter on her phone, when Mom finally speaks.

"You should go easy on your father, you know. He's worried about a lot of things."

"What things? Solar panel cancer?"

"Don't joke Sara, I'm serious. There's a lot that bothers him. The state of the world. The future. All these damn wars."

"We're all worried about all that, Mom."

"He's worried about his health. I'm worried about his health. Probably more than he is."

Sara looks up from her phone, genuine concern. "Is he OK?"

"I don't know. He won't go to the doctor. Hasn't been in months. He's worried about his insurance."

"I had no idea-"

"Yeah, well you know your father. Doesn't like to talk about it. Doesn't want to burden other people with his problems. Hates pity." She pauses, looks out the window into the yard. When she turns back to Sara her eyes are damp. "This is why I was so excited about you coming back. Why he was so excited! I thought it'd take his mind of all this. He was so excited to see you. You know he loves watching the game with you, Sara."

"I know. I'm sorry I-"

"And the ads! The Super Bowl ads! You know how much he loves watching the new ads with you. It's a stupid thing, sure, but he loves it. Talks about it all the time. It's like a tradition to him. That's why he got so upset over dinner when you got angry at his ads. It's something special he has with you, he doesn't want to lose it."

Sara slips her phone into her pocket, genuine guilt. Feels like a spoiled kid. "I didn't realise. I'm sorry."

Mom smiles, walks over and kisses her on the forehead. "It's OK honey. Don't feel bad. Just go. Just go sit in there with him and watch some TV. Please."

It's the second down on the Falcon's 60 yard line with 30 yards to cover, and the Lions need one touchdown to equalise. Sara and her Dad are sat in the front room, working their way through a family sized pack of Oreos, when the ad break starts.

Dawn. Red skies over the desert. A Chevrolet truck pulls up next to a large, trailer. Low shot next to the front tire, as a cowboy booted foot drops down from the door, disturbing dust.

Cut to: internal shot of the trailer, darkness split by morning light through the opening door. The figure enters, flicks on lights. The room is full of equipment, computers. The figure takes a seat, puts on a headset, thumbs on screens. Rests their hands on two large joysticks on the desk.

Cut to: airfield, the desert. The distinctive silhouette of a Predator drone taxis across the screen, rising heat shimmering the air around it.

Cut to: interior of the trailer. The faceless figure works controls, the joysticks, touch screens.

Voiceover: They say you need to get up pretty early to get past America's finest. But the truth is we never sleep.

Cut to: a uniformed guard on top of the border wall. He looks up and gives a salute to the drone as it soars above him, out and across the desert.

Cut to: drone footage. Grainy, monochrome. A group of figures move slowly through the desert. The camera tracks them. Zooms in. The pilot punches buttons. The figures become highlighted by a computer overlay, text appears next to them. ILLEGAL ENTRY ATTEMPT SUSPECTED. GROUND PATROLS ALERTED.

"Fuck this," says Sara, getting up from her seat.

"Sara!" says Mom.

"No I'm sorry, I can't. I can't sit here and watch this… this bullshit. This propaganda." She storms out of the room.

"Sara!" Mom makes to get up.

"No, just leave her," says Dad, gently, his eyes still fixed on the screen. "Just let her go."

Out in the kitchen Sara sits at the table and wants to scream. She's angry, mainly with herself. She should never have fucking come here. She should have known better. There was never any fucking way anything good was going to come from this. As much as Mom wants to romanticise things, to make them sound cute and adorable, the truth is shit with Dad has never been right since she was a teenager. Too much resentment, too much bad blood, too much control and rebellion. They hadn't agreed on anything - they hadn't managed to have a simple conversation that didn't descend into fighting - in 15 goddamn years, and no amount of eating cookies and watching fucking Super Bowl ads on the TV was going to fix that.

She sighs, wipes a tear from her cheek. On autopilot she takes her phone from her pocket, feels its reassuring warmth in her hand, and swipes open Twitter.

Everybody seems to be talking about the same thing.

omg im crying

holy shit that chevrolet ad /fire emoji

that was sooooo beautiful

who knew chevrolet were so woke

i can't believe they did that, so amazing

Hang on, are they taking about the same ad?

Hastily she opens her FB TV app, pulls up the game. The ad is just finishing. She hits the 10-second rewind icon a couple of times, then leans the phone on its side against a ketchup bottle.

Cut to: drone footage. Grainy, monochrome. A group of figures move slowly through the desert. The camera tracks them. Zooms in. The pilot punches buttons. The figures become highlighted by a computer overlay, text appears next to them. ILLEGAL ENTRY ATTEMPT SUSPECTED. GROUND PATROLS ALERTED.

Cut to: on the ground, in the desert. The group of figures are revealed to be a Mexican family, maybe two. Men, women, children. They look tired, hungry. They stop to rest, sipping the little water they have left from tattered plastic bottles.

A little way away from the main group sits a small child, a girl. Maybe 8 years old. She is drawing shapes in the dust with a stick. She's drawn quite a bit it looks like, but from our angle we can't see what.

Cut to: drone footage. The pilot is watching the group. As he tracks away from the main party to where the girl is sat, the camera reveals what she has drawn.

A large, child's rendition of the American flag.

Underneath it, it childlike handwriting, some words. 'I have a dream'

Text flashes across the screen. ALERT CANCELLED. ALL PATROLS: STAND DOWN

Cut to: the drone, banking and turning, flying away.

Cut to: exterior shot of the trailer. The still anonymous pilot exits, walks back towards his jeep.

Voiceover: Keeping America safe means never sleeping, but keeping America great means never forgetting who we are, and how we got here.

The jeep starts up, pulls away from the camera in a cloud of dust.

Fade to black. Chevrolet logo. White text against black.

'We know what really makes America great'

Sara finds herself in the front room, sobbing.


Dad pauses the TV, looks up at her. It looks like he's been crying too. "Sara?"

"Did you - did you watch it?"

"The Chevrolet ad?"


"Yeah, we did." Embarrassed, he wipes a tear from his cheek. "It was… it was very moving."

She falls on him, wrapping her arms around his neck, burying her face in his chest. "I'm sorry Dad. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to be so mean-"

"It's OK, honey. It really is."

"No, no it's not. We always fight. And I know that's mainly my fault-"

'Well, now, c'mon-"

"No, it is. It's my fault. I got myself into thinking we can never agree on anything, that we can never see eye to eye. That we've got nothing in common anymore." She lifts her head to look up at him. "But I know that's wrong. That I shouldn't assume things about you. That there's still things that can bring us together."

He grins back at her. "Like Super Bowl ads?"

She laughs. "I guess. But you know what I mean, really."

"I know honey. And I'm sorry too. I didn't mean what I said earlier. I know you don't really hate this country." He gestures to the couch next to him. "Why don't you sit down, huh? We can watch the rest of the game together."

She straightens herself up, wipes her eyes. Suddenly feels a little self conscious. "Sure. Let me just go freshen up first."

"Of course honey."

Mom and Dad watch Sara leave the room, and then look at each other.


"Well indeed."

"What did I tell you? You two just needed to spend some time together. Some quality time."

"I guess so. What did I ever do to deserve a woman as hot and as smart as you, huh Sheryl?"

Mom stands up and makes to leave the room, leaning down to kiss him as she passes. "I ask myself that question every day."

Alone, seen only by the TV, Dad smiles to himself. He picks up the remote, but instead of hitting play, he finds himself hitting rewind.

Cut to: drone footage. Grainy, monochrome. A group of figures move slowly through the desert. The camera tracks them. Zooms in. The pilot punches buttons. The figures become highlighted by a computer overlay, text appears next to them. ILLEGAL ENTRY ATTEMPT SUSPECTED. GROUND PATROLS ALERTED.

Cut to: on the ground, in the desert. The group of figures are all men. Dirty, scruffy, furtive. Like they mean business.They carry guns, pistols, and assault riffles. Bad hombres. One of them pulls open a bag, looks inside.

Cut to: close up of the inside of the bag. Inside are packets of white powder.

Suddenly, one of the party looks up, shouts something in Spanish. They all go to grab their guns.

But it's too late.

From three different directions, three different Chevrolet jeeps appear, screeching to a halt, kicking up dust. From them jump Border Patrol agents and Minutemen militia, guns drawn and ready.

The gang of men don't even put up a fight. They know they're surrounded, they drop their weapons and pathetically raise their hands.

All except one. The guy with the bag full of drugs. He's got nothing to lose. He reaches for his rifle.

Cut to: Border Patrol agents, opening fire.

Text flashes across the screen. ALERT CANCELLED. THREAT NEUTRALISED.

Cut to: the drone, banking and turning, flying away.

Cut to: exterior shot of the trailer. The still anonymous pilot exits, walks back towards his jeep.

Voiceover: Keeping America safe means never sleeping, but keeping America great means never forgetting who we are, and what keeps us strong.

The jeep starts up, pulls away from the camera in a cloud of dust.

Fade to black. Chevrolet logo. White text against black.

'We know what really makes America great'

Dad wipes another team from his eye. "I think we're going to be OK," he says to himself. "I think we're going to be just fine."


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