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Flyover Country

Garrett Highley is a writer who currently makes his living arguing with computers. For the moment, he lives and works in North Carolina. His online presence so far consists of a few scattered blog posts and a long-neglected Facebook account. This is his first professional publication.
Grandma used to say it was all a joke until it wasn't funny anymore. That man running for President was a joke, until he got elected. The Wall was a joke, until it was built. California leaving the Union was a joke, until they did. The grandson of a Dreamer taking a job with ICE was a joke, until a condom broke and the economy tanked, and I found myself in a gray uniform with a gray thirty-two star flag embroidered to my shoulder, a rifle slung across my back, shuffling back and forth with Dirk and Strickland over the gray concrete widow's walk of the Wall at four in the morning, blowing into our hands in the futile attempt to reclaim some feeling from the chill of the desert night. It was a paycheck.
Blooners were a joke too.
Dirk was going on about our role in history. "Spartans at Thermopylae," he was saying. "Roman centurions at the edge of Scotland." Dirk was new, Dirk was young; Dirk was excited to be here. "Ming warriors, keeping the Mongols at bay...." Dirk's team always won trivia night at the Down & Out. After two weeks, everybody wanted to throw Dirk over the other side of the Wall. "The thin gray line between civilization and--"
"Shut up," Strickland grunted, squinting at the horizon. The sun was just starting to bleed over, red and faint through the filthy air. Hanging above it was a new star, shining like a ruby in the morning twilight. Strickland turned to me with a grin. "Blooners."
The Wall was too steep to scale, too deep to tunnel under, too thick to breach with anything less than a nuclear blast. It was visible from space, spanning the entire border length of the CSA like a cartoon outline. Fifty years, ten trillion dollars. It couldn't do a damn thing to stop a hot air balloon.
"What do we do?" Dirk asked.
"Nothing," Strickland said, still staring at me. "Long as it stays on their side."
I stared back. "The fuck are you looking at?"
The old bastard said nothing. He smiled his little cross-burning smile.
"What if they don't?" Dirk was oblivious.
"Yeah, Esteban," Strickland said, "What then?"
There had never been many blooners over Arizona. Historically, they'd mostly just gone up along the Pacific Coast and straight into California. Since New Mexico joined the Sanctuary States, they were almost unheard of out here. I had paced this mile of the Wall from midnight to eight every morning for a year, and this was the first one I'd seen.
"We warn them off," I said. "And my name's Steven, asshole."
"But what if they don't listen?" Dirk asked.
"If they try to land, we arrest them. That's all."
"But--"
Strickland chuckled.
"Dirk?" I sighed.
"Yeah?"
"Shut the fuck up."
We watched the star grow into a pale orb. The balloon was blue, probably almost invisible in full daylight. Against the purpling morning sky it was a great periwinkle teardrop, swelling as the cold morning breeze blew it north towards us.
Something was off. In training I had seen blooner aircraft of all kinds. Biplanes, triplanes, gyrocopters. A homemade jetpack. An old lawn chair suspended from a swarm of pink Valentine's Day balloons. A canvas Zeppelin the size of a football field, driven by a dozen ancient diesel engines. Through my binoculars I could see the envelope was nylon, the seams straight and regular; the basket looked to be carbon fiber, maybe aluminum with a matte finish. A professional job, which meant skyotes. But skyotes wouldn't make such amateurish mistakes--flying this close, flying a camouflaged balloon at the wrong time of day. I stared at the basket, waiting for a face to peek over the top. I couldn't see anyone.
"I'm calling it in," Strickland said. I said nothing. Nothing. I wished for the long fabric steering vane on the side of the balloon to flare out. I imagined it turning in front of us like a massive pinball bouncing off an invisible sheet of Plexiglas, reflected away to safety. I wished for the breeze to shift. Anything.
An electric click echoed across the desert as the loudspeakers came on. "Attention, unauthorized aircraft. You are entering CSA airspace. Alter course immediately. You have been warned."
I could see now that the balloon was gradually sinking. Maybe it was empty. Sometimes skyotes sent empty balloons over as distractions, or to deliver drugs. Maybe that basket was full of cocaine. I wished it was full of cocaine.
A shot rang out. Another patrol group, a mile east of us. They were too far away to have any chance of hitting the damn thing, but what the hell. How often did they get an excuse to shoot these days?
Strickland unslung his rifle and took aim. I grabbed the muzzle.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"Nothing," he said, adjusting his sight. "Yet."
Another shot, from the west. I jumped. Strickland laughed. "Muy de miedo, eh hombre? Let go, unless you want to lose a finger."
I gambled. I wrenched the gun out of his hands. He reached after it, tried and failed to pry it back from me. For a moment, I could see just how old he was.
The balloon drifted silently overhead.
With a deafening bang, the propane tank over the basket burst wide. The envelope caught instantly, flames slithering up the nylon like rattlesnakes from under a rock, leaving trails of bubbling black filament in their wake. The basket came loose, dropped to the ground below with a screeching crunch of twisted metal.
"I got it!" Strickland and I turned to see Dirk holding his rifle up in triumph. "One shot! I--" His face fell.
We all looked down at the basket, laying on its side in the dirt. Broken, burning bodies had spilled from its mouth to the ground, a dozen at least, like grains of rice from a sack. Children. Every last one of them.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 31st, 2018


This story came out of frustration with the present and fear for the future, but it also takes some inspiration from my past.

I grew up on a border, though not the one this story is about. Half the kids in my high school had dual citizenship. We always flew both flags, sang both national anthems at football games. Nobody raved about drugs, or gangs, or stolen jobs. Nobody waxed philosophical about supposedly intractable "cultural differences." Nobody would think to build a wall between the United States and Canada; there isn't even a fence. The line separating the one from the other is invisible, save for a towering white Roman arch--a monument to two centuries of international goodwill. There's a symbolic iron gate inside, which has never been shut.

On the American side of the Peace Arch, the inscription reads "Children of a Common Mother." Eighteen years those words hung over my head, but it's only lately that I see why. They're not just a sentiment or an ideal. They're a reminder. For me, this story is about what happens when we forget.

- Garrett Highley

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