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Behind This Fence in Future Tense

Behind This Fence in Future Tense

Behind This Fence in Future Tense

by Brianne Holmes

My new neighbor is making a violin from a cigar box. He got the cigar box from a guard. The guard, presumably, got it from outside the Fence. He—my neighbor, not the guard—says he will give us a concert when he has finished his instrument and had a little time to practice. Maybe at the end of May, he says.

I first saw my new neighbor when I stepped off the bus after a long day at the groundwater treatment facility where we extract the nuclear component from the water and make it—the water, not the nuclear waste—safe for human consumption. It’s actually a fairly easy job that they give the older prisoners. The younger ones have to work at the reactor or on building the long-term storage site in Virginia.

To be honest, I like it when they bring in new prisoners. I know that sounds horrible, but I like news, and new faces bring new news. So when I saw my new neighbor shaking out a rug on the little porch of his mobile home, I rejoiced.

Later that evening, I brought a bowl of goat’s milk pudding to his door. It had been my day to milk the goat that eats our block of yards. When he opened the door, the first thing I noticed was his eyes. He has these little rectangular glasses, and his eyes are very large, sort of like walnuts, so the eyes seem too big for the glasses.

I told him my name was Jen, and he said his was Ron, and he invited me in. He forgot to offer me a seat, but I sat down anyway on a little loveseat with scratchy fabric, striped orange and sage-green (i.e., hideous). The furniture wasn’t his fault, of course. The government owns all the trailers and furniture and everything else, and they give and take away as they see fit.

Actually, since we’re all traitors of some kind behind this fence, they could shoot us any time they felt like it. The reason they don’t is that somebody has to clean up the nuclear waste from the Chesapeake Bay terrorist attacks. Of course, some civilians and guards work here too, but they work in shifts so no one gets too much exposure. We don’t leave.

But I digress. I was sitting on my neighbor’s decorative nightmare of a couch, and I said, “So, what’d you do?”

There were no other chairs, so he sat down across from me on the coffee table. It wobbled under him, even though the man looks to be made of sticks. I’d guess he’s about my age, mid-sixties, but I’ve never asked him.

He said, “How long have you been in here?”

I thought he was avoiding the question, but I answered, “Oh, the whole time. Since the attack in ’52.” I have a bizarre sense of pride in this fact. I was one of the ones who cleaned up the initial debris—translation: I’ve gotten high amounts of radioactive exposure—and I was one of the ones that built the fence that keeps us in. Something to be proud of? Well, surviving five years in the radioactive zone is noteworthy anyway.

“Then you didn’t see it,” Ron said. “Half the country saw me do it.”

I leaned forward in anticipation. This sounded like a good story. But he said, “If you weren’t there, it’s too hard to explain.”

“We get so little news here,” I said.

He said, “I was in Nevada for almost three years.”

I sat up straight. There is a running debate behind the Fence as to which is worse: the radioactive zone or the camps in Nevada. Here behind the Fence at least we’re accomplishing something. In Nevada, I’ve heard they give you pointless jobs like building walls and then knocking them down. Or maybe they make you work in some hazardous mine. Also, more interrogation goes on in Nevada, and I’ve heard they shoot you if they catch you saying certain things. Here behind the Fence, we can say whatever we want—we talk treason all day long if we feel like it—but there’s a catch: no one gets out, ever. In Nevada, they might let you go home eventually, but not here. I made up a rhyme about this once:

          Here we are and here we’ll stay,
          So what’s it matter what we say?

Since my new neighbor wouldn’t talk about his past, I decided to give some present-tense advice.

“It’s March,” I said. “You’d better plant yourself a garden.”

He looked startled. Of course, they wouldn’t have had gardens in Nevada.

“You see,” I explained, “we’re supposed to be as self-sustaining as possible. They provide some things: rice and beans and flour and sometimes sugar, but as for the rest, we raise chickens and grow vegetables and whatnot. Surely you noticed the goat?”

He asked me about seeds, and I said I would bring him some.

“Nobody knows anything about this place, not really,” he said. “Outside, I mean.”

“Of course not,” I said.

I did not tell him all I know about this place because what I know is the one thing we’re not supposed talk about. Most people think it’s just prisoners in here, and it’s true there are thousands of us. We live in the towns that used to be St. Leonard, Prince Frederick, Huntington, Dunkirk, Annapolis. I live in Edgewater. What we rarely talk about are the people living in D.C. All of D.C. proper and part of the suburbs lie within the fence. They say it’s because of contamination, but I don’t think so. I think the president fenced it off to upset the power balance and to create an excuse for moving his capital to St. Louis. But also, he needed somewhere to keep the people who were maimed and deformed in the Chesapeake Bay attack. I’ve heard that right after the attack, they showed off lots of these people to emphasize the need for the president’s emergency powers. But after that, those people disappeared behind the Fence. Some say they are a living reminder of the president’s greatest failure; others say that the president himself contracted with the terrorists to plan the attack. Either way, he doesn’t want these unfortunate people in the public eye reminding everyone of the attack.

Does anyone remember the victims of Chesapeake Bay? Does anyone care about their disappearance? Not many, I think. It’s so much easier to turn away and forget.



Everyone in Edgewater is over fifty (AARP-qualified back in the day!) and on the water treatment crew. Edgewater used to be a really nice town. Now the bay is crowded with enormous, empty houses waiting for time to collapse them. We aren’t supposed to go in the houses, and everything inside has been removed anyway. But sometimes, on the occasional day off, I go and walk through the wealthy neighborhoods with their overgrown lawns and cracking sidewalks, and I imagine myself and my husband Matt (he died years before any of this) and our children and grandchildren all in one of those houses together, maybe on Christmas morning, perhaps with a fire blazing on the hearth. I’m holding a mug of coffee, and Matt’s hand is on my knee, and our daughter is playing the piano. The grands are making firetruck noises on the floor. I like to imagine that time panned out differently.

Each morning before dawn, we board the buses and drive down to Dunkirk where the treatment facility is. Two armed guards ride the bus with us, wearing the hazmat suits they almost never take off, even in Edgewater, fifty miles from the reactor. Sometimes I imagine how easy it would be to overpower the guards and drive the bus to the Fence. I think we all think about this. I think the guards think we think about this. But there are reasons we don’t do it. In the first place, these guards would put up a fight, which means some of us would die. In the second and more important place, the Fence is heavily guarded, and they tend to be trigger happy over there. I think they believe our radiation is contagious. In the third place, if we got past the Fence, we wouldn’t get much farther. All you’d need is a Geiger counter to find us.

Ron boarded the bus with us the day after his arrival. When we got on, I saw that Michael was driving.

“Where’s Andrew?” I asked. He normally drives our bus.

“Isn’t feeling well,” Michael said, as if Andrew had a cold or the flu. We’d all seen the tumor on his neck. When the guards give someone a pass from work, he probably doesn’t have much time left.

Ron sat with me on the second-to-last bench. Down the aisle, the preachers started singing. I vaguely recognized a couple of songs but couldn’t have sung along even if I had wanted to. These are old songs now, but I think they were called “contemporary” when we were young.

I said to Ron, “If you ever want a preacher or a priest, we’ve got plenty here.”

Ron said, “We had an Anglican priest in Nevada.”

“It’s better here,” I said, “than in Nevada.” This is my opinion on the Fence/Nevada debate, primarily because I would rather die of radiation with the freedom to say whatever I want, than die of who-knows-what-torture for saying the slightest thing. Although, I guess you could say I already am dying for saying the slightest thing. One sentence was all it took to send me here.



I trained Ron at the treatment facility. I showed him how to operate the machinery, and I took him into a room with a TV to watch the safety videos. These videos were made way back in the twenty-teens, so everyone looks a bit ridiculous dressed in street clothes of flannel and tight jeans and in outdated hazmat getups.

“Why are we watching safety videos?” Ron said. “Aren’t we supposed to die of radiation?”

“Eventually,” I said, “but not too soon.” I laughed at a 20-something-year-old on the screen demonstrating a lack of vigilance and care. He failed to properly wipe up a puddle of spilled chemicals, and as a result slipped and fell on his back.

Ron just stared at me.

On the bus on the way back, the preachers and the priests were praying. Sometimes I wonder what they pray for. An extension of life? A change in regime? The end of the world?

“Jen,” Ron said. It was the first time he’d said my name, and I liked the way he said it. All day he’d just been saying, “Excuse me,” whenever he wanted to know something. I looked at him, and the deep lines of his face looked like valleys in the dying light. “Jen,” he said. “What will happen to us?”

I tried to decide what he meant. Was he talking about our deaths? Our lives? That thing people call life after death? Whichever he meant, the answer was the same.

“I don’t know, Ron,” I said.



The second time I visited Ron’s trailer, I brought him cherry-blossom tea (although I was out of sugar), and he showed me this violin-thing of his. The finger board appeared to be made of a split garden rake handle, and he told me he was carving the neck from a broken garden stake.

I said, “You were a musician, then?”

He nodded.

“You can always tell what people were,” I said, “by what they can’t do without.”

“I’ve done without for three whole years,” Ron said.

“And now, first chance you get, you’re back at it,” I said. “Do you know Sandra?”

He shook his head.

“She’s part of the reactor crew and lives in Prince Frederick, so we don’t see much of her. Anyway, she was a makeup artist. Now she makes cosmetics out of crushed up shells and wild berries and things.”

The trailer was chilly with the night air coming in around the windows. Ron had been here two weeks, and it was the first day of April. April Fools’ Day. Our whole lives are a very impractical joke.

“What were you before all this?” Ron sat carefully on his coffee table beside the cigar box and half-finished neck. Several wooden pegs rattled on the table.

“A mortician,” I said, which is a complete and total lie. “So this is paradise, right?”

Ron’s thick eyebrows drew together above his glasses.

“I’m joking,” I said. “I wasn’t a mortician.” I laughed, but I sounded like a fake. I don’t know why I said that. April Fools.

“I really don’t see why that’s funny,” Ron said, and I felt my cheeks turn red. I looked down at my hand, resting on the arm of the loveseat.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ve developed a morbid sense of humor. I didn’t used to talk that way.”

I looked up, and Ron was watching me as if he’d seen down inside of me, something even I didn’t know. He put his hand on top of mine, and it felt so strange. No one had done that since Matt.

“If you’re afraid,” he said, “you don’t have to hide it.”



It’s April sixth. I keep very careful track of time. Ron sits beside me on the bus, and he has fallen asleep sitting up. Red smears the horizon to the east, and the preachers start singing. Today, they sing very old hymns, most of them about blood: washed in the blood, power in the blood, fountain filled with blood, nothing but the blood. Death is always on our minds.

Ron stirs and leans forward, plants his pointy elbows on his knees. I want to say, “I miss how the sun lingers over the fields back home in Indiana. I miss going to the grocery store. I miss speeding down long highways with the windows down.” But this is not the sort of thing I say. So I say, “The sky looks like someone slit its throat.”

“Would you like to come over tonight and see my violin?” Ron says. “I’ve finished it.”

I say yes, I would, and so I do. This third time I enter his trailer, I feel strangely shy. He opens the door, and I hand him turnips that I canned myself last fall. He puts the turnips in the kitchen while I sit down on the loveseat.

The violin sits on the coffee table. It looks like no violin I’ve ever seen: boxy with a scrawny neck. Still, he’s managed to carve a sort of scroll on the head. I’m trying to figure out what he used for strings when he comes back and says, “What do you think?”

“It looks…” I say.

“Not that pretty,” Ron says, smiling. He sits beside it on the coffee table.

“So, Jen,” he says. He wobbles on the short coffee table, bony long legs half folded, knees almost bumping mine. “I really do want to know.”


“What you were before.”

“It’s not exciting.”


I sigh. Actually, I loved my job, but I don’t think it sounds as interesting as some of the others who were journalists, professors, activists, etc.

“I was a sixth-grade teacher.”

Ron grins. “I bet you kept them in line.”

“Well, yes. But I did this whole unit on the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. I took a traditionalist approach, which I knew was…risky. Then one day, I guess I went too far. I used the president as the definition of ‘absolute despotism.’ Some kids must have told their parents.”

Ron nods, considering this very seriously as he seems to consider everything. Then he says, “I played the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ at a presidential banquet on live TV.”

“That must have riled the president!” I say and start to laugh. I’ve heard that the rebels used that song during the coup in ’54, so I can only image how the president reacted to hearing it at his own banquet. I imagine his handsome face turning red, then purple, and I laugh harder. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m not making fun. It’s just so audacious.”

He doesn’t look angry about my laughter this time. He looks almost sheepish. I know it’s girlish of me, and I’m a little old for this, but I want him to put his hand over mine as he did the last time. But he doesn’t. Instead, we talk for an hour about ’90s pop music. I’d forgotten how much I remembered.



All through April and May, I hear Ron practicing his violin. Sometimes I wake up in the dark of the morning and hear it. Sometimes, I go to sleep to it. He will not let me watch him play. We weed our gardens together by the light of solar lanterns after the workday is done. Ron sets a date for the concert: May 27.

On the evening of the concert, we meet at the gazebo by the bay, about 30 of us. It’s Sunday. This setup reminds me of some ’50s movie—the 1950s I mean—a period decades before my birth. Sometimes I feel that I am slipping backward to a time before my time.

The evening is breathy and warm, and the gazebo’s shadow spreads long across the grass. The waters of the bay lap quietly. You could almost believe we are normal people.

Ron tunes his violin—he told me the strings are nylon fishing line and bicycle brake cable. His bow seems to be made of wood, maybe part of an old fishing pole, and—is that fishing wire? I hope he’s left us something to fish with. Ron clears his throat.

“It’s been a while since I’ve given a concert,” he says. “The last one ended abruptly.”

Some people laugh, and I figure they must know about the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” incident.

“What would you like to hear?” Ron says.

“‘It Is Well with My Soul.’ Do you know it?” One of the old preachers says this. He’s one that’s dying for sure. The rest of us are too, or will be, but he’s manifested signs. He can’t hold down food. He grows thinner while something eats him.

“Yes,” Ron says. “Let me see.”

He squeaks out a few notes of the hymn, finds the melody.

“Is that it, more or less?” he asks, and the preacher nods.

Ron starts the melody over, confidently. He looks as if he is sharing secrets with the strings, coaxing this strange instrument into the sounds he wants. I look over at the preacher, and his eyes are closed. That’s the spirit, I think, and close mine too. I remember some of the words from a very long time ago. It is well, they say, and I want it to be well.

I imagine that I am a bird riding currents of music. I am making a long trip and must conserve my strength to navigate these pockets of sound. At first, I am not sure where I’m going. Then the air gets cold, and I realize that somewhere along the way my compass has reversed. I’ve been migrating north for winter.

Brianne Holmes lives in Upstate South Carolina where she works in marketing and communications. In 2016, she earned a Master of Arts in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from East Carolina University. Her writing has appeared in several publications, including the North Carolina Literary ReviewReliefThe Twisted Vine, the Journal of Microliterature, and As Surely As the Sun Literary.