"God Bless America": A Shocking Tale of Criminal Hopelessness
Updated: Jul 6
I suspect that a marketing person would have urged me to use a title for this post that points to the fact that my new collection, The Wages of Crime, is now out and available here (or by clicking on the image above), but I think we can all agree that the title I went with is attention-grabbing in its own right. I mean, I do want you to click one of those links and buy my book. I worked extremely hard on it, and I'm proud of every story. If you have nearly as much fun reading this thing as I did writing it, you're guaranteed a good time.
But here's the thing. I've written a story that might have found its way into The Wages of Crime had I written it sooner. Hard to say. Either way, I like to think of it as a bonus story to the collection. I played around with the idea of giving it out to winners of various social media quizzes and games. I thought about recording myself reading it and sharing it that way. In the end, I've decided that it's a story best encountered on its own terms, in its intended form.
So here it is:
"God Bless America"
copyright © 2021 Pete Mesling
Unflappable. That’s what they’d called him during the campaign. There hadn’t been an article written or a newscast delivered that didn’t refer to how unflappable Senator Riordan was. Then he’d won the damn thing and was as surprised as anyone. He even trained himself to believe he wanted the job. The country had problems, sure, but problems had solutions if you dug down far enough. And were there obstacles to his ambitious agenda? Hell, that would have been the understatement of the biennium. But hadn’t he preached on the campaign trail that adversaries could be swayed, norms overturned, dreams made real? He’d believed it, too. Almost as much as his adoring would-be constituents.
There was nothing “would be” about any of those constituents now, and a horrific number of them were dead. As he moved a brass-eagle paperweight around on the desk of the Oval Office, images flashed through his brain, as they had been doing in the five days since New Year’s Eve—visions of carnage captured by various phones. The country and world looked to him to do something about what had happened in Times Square as the East Coast prepared to ring in its first New Year under freshly elected leadership. Some wanted stricter gun laws. Others clamored for more police on the streets. A vocal minority had even made the news for advocating for prayer in schools as a long-term solution to our deadly dance with violence. If that wasn’t desperation, he didn’t know what qualified.
It had gotten people’s attention, in other words. That was saying something, since it took real imagination to pull off a shooting that got people to set down their grievances and obligations long enough to pay attention to the disease running rampant through America’s bloodstream. The bar was constantly being raised for these kinds of crimes. President Riordan hadn’t expected to live to see anything worse than Sandy Hook. He still wasn’t sure that anything could get much worse than that, but shooters had scaled up their methods since then, Las Vegas being an obvious example. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando being another.
And now this …
He put his head in his hands but kept his eyes trained on the paperweight. The bald eagle. America’s symbol of might and freedom. Well, the president thought, today it will become the symbol for weakness and escape.
The Secret Service prohibited the president from carrying a weapon of any kind. They were meant to provide all the protection he would ever need. President Riordan was glad of that. If there had been a handgun in the top-right drawer of the desk, he might have used it, and that seemed especially callous and inappropriate given the circumstances.
Six men had carried out the attack, all of them US citizens. Half a dozen heavily armed Americans entered Times Square at different points and opened fire on their fellow countrymen, leaving hundreds dead. Their bloodlust satisfied, they blasted their own heads into fragments. Grim confetti, that.
He’d always had a dark sense of humor. He and Sheila had done their best to conceal that side of him from the voting public at the urging of his campaign manager. That didn’t mean it wasn’t still there.
The agent outside the door closest to him had eyes in the back of his head. Riordan was sure of it. The man had to keep most of his attention trained on the grounds, scanning for any potential external threats to the president’s safety, but once, when the president had bent over to pick up part of a bagel he’d dropped on the floor, Agent Driscoll was in the Oval Office like a shot, making sure everything was all right.
With that in mind, Riordan reached for the paperweight, slowly, slowly. When it was in his grasp he risked a glance in Driscoll’s direction. No sign of heightened awareness. Good.
The right wing was sharper than the left. When it comes to the eagle, he thought. Not the country’s political spectrum. So he brought that wing up to the side of his throat and pushed. He could have used the paperweight to slash open his neck, but that seemed more likely to draw Driscoll’s attention. The pain as he pressed the paperweight deeper was red, then white. First hot, then cold. Still deeper. He could feel warmth running out over his hands as stars filled his vision, but he had to be sure. The last thing he wanted was to come back from this. Surely the disgrace of it would only lead him to try again anyway. Now was the …
A kind of nothing swept over him. He became a warm breeze blowing through a sweet, silent emptiness, passing over his own existence, and that of the world.
A cry of, “Mr. President!!!” tried to reach him, but it was too far downwind to come across as anything more than the echo of a whisper.
Soon the president of the United States lay dead beside his chair in the Oval Office.
“Mr. Vice President, are you prepared to step in and serve as commander in chief?”
“Yes, Steve,” he said from the press-room lectern. “I’ve been sworn in and will be briefed on the most urgent matters immediately following this press conference. It might be a while before I’m able to make another public appearance, but know that we can bear this if we bear it together as a nation. We’ve come through great challenges in the past, and this will be no different.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you, and God Bless America.”
The usual tide of indiscernible questions hoping for answers followed Vice President McKern off the stage and through a side door. He knew he wouldn’t be left alone any time soon, so he followed a cadre of Secret Service agents along several corridors and into one of the conference rooms of the West Wing. He was asked to take a seat and await further instruction from the chief of staff, who would be joining him shortly.
Placing one hand on the back of a chair, as if to pull it back so he could sit, the vice president began to gag. It grew into a heavy, retching cough. He clutched at his throat with one hand, then the other. The nearest agent reached for him and called out for someone to get help. McKern used the moment of disruption to go for the service weapon he knew he’d find inside the agent’s suit jacket. In a single fluid movement, he had the gun in hand and was rolling across the smooth top of the conference table.
Jumping to his feet on the other side he looked back across at the agent he’d disarmed. A look of stunned disbelief gave the man a guilty, almost sad, appearance.
“Sorry for anything this might do to tarnish your record,” Vice President McKern said, “but it really can’t be helped. I’m not up for this shit.”
He wrapped his lips around the barrel of the gun and pulled the trigger.