The 321 Incident

in #writinglast year


Here are the first two chapters of a book I've just started. Normally I would only post one chapter at a time, but I wanted to put this story's whole premise out there before proceeding. Be advised that this work considers difficult subjects, including suicide. If you're in crisis, please seek help. Help is available here.

Under the Cherry Trees

Cherry blossoms infused the heavy air with their scent. Here and there, a flower petal fell to the ground, asserting its tranquility. For the briefest moment, the National Park Service ranger was captivated by this scrap of natural beauty. He closed his eyes and a pair of tears escaped. Then, taking a deep breath, Martin Dodd opened his eyes to face the music.

Twenty-six people had come to this park near the White House and died. Twenty-six men. Each one carried a sign bearing a name and a brief statement condemning the administration. Their deaths appeared to be the result of drug overdoses. A surprisingly large crowd of people from the medical examiner's office were nearly finished removing the bodies. Martin was supposed to stay until they were finished, then go back to the office to write the incident up.

Instead of doing his job, Martin walked away. As he passed the perimeter, a couple of reporters asked him questions.

"Is this a terrorist attack?" asked one.

"Is it a religious cult?" asked another.

"What drug did they overdose on?" asked a third. "Is there any chance these overdoses were accidental?"

Martin paused to find the source of that question. It was a thirtyish woman wearing a tattered denim jacket covered in punk rock patches. "What kind of reporter are you?" he asked.

"I'm not with the media," said the woman. "I do harm reduction outreach. Just making sure there are no new risks for drug users in the city."

"Oh," said Martin absently. "I guess if you're not media I can tell you. This looks like a mass suicide with political motivations."

"No shit?" asked the woman.

"Twenty-six men, all carrying political signs," said Martin. "After seeing it, I'm pretty sure I can't do my job anymore. Maybe ever."

"Buddy, you look like shit," said the woman. "You got people to be around right now?"

"Not really," said Martin. "I guess there are people at the bar."

"Come with me!" said the woman. "I have to make a few deliveries, but after we can do whatever you want. I'm Jo, by the way. Can I give you a hug?"

"Okay," said Martin, overwhelmed by unfamiliar feelings. "What the hell, right? Oh, and I'm Martin."

They hugged and walked to Jo's van. For the next hour, Martin rode shotgun while Jo delivered safe smoking kits to various locations. They were mostly silent, and Martin replayed what he'd seen in his head. More than the bodies, the signs haunted him.

"Dear President, I got Guillain-Barre syndrome from the vaccine you lied about," read one.

"Dear President, I lost my job, home, and wife because of your vaccine mandate," read another.

There were more like this, and some lengthier ones about the drug war, the prison system, the environment, the economy, and other topics. All of the signs pointed to big problems and laid responsibility for these problems on the President and Cabinet. Thinking about this, Martin shuddered. "Oh my god," he said finally, just as Jo was returning from her last delivery. "Can I show you pictures of the signs the victims were holding?"

"How about we get tacos and you show me?" asked Jo.

Over tacos, Jo looked at the images on Martin's phone. "Those poor souls," she said at last. "I wish they'd found help."

"Help for their real problems or help not killing themselves over their problems?" asked Martin.

"Yeah," said Jo, looking at her phone. "Oh shit. This is bigger than what we saw. Nine women just killed themselves on the lawn of a Supreme Court Justice."

"No," said Martin, trying to process the information.

"It gets worse," said Jo, scrolling through the latest headlines. "435 dead on the property of a Congressman, men and women, all carrying signs, too."

"What is happening?" asked Martin. "I mean, this is too crazy, right?"

"It's something," said Jo.

"They're calling it terrorism," said Martin, checking his phone. "I just got a bulletin. It's all hands on deck at NPS. But I've had enough. I'm abandoning ship."

"March 21st," said Jo. "Three two one. I feel dizzy. Like the world is spinning. Like there's an earthquake happening in the fabric of reality."

"I don't know what's going on," said Martin. "But I'm glad I'm not alone for it."

"Yeah," said Jo, briefly taking his hand. "Sometimes I get a feeling about certain people. Like I'm instinctively driven to help them. Usually it's drug users or sex workers, but today, for whatever reason, it was you."

"I'll be honest, I was headed for a bar when you found me, and that wouldn't have been good," said Martin. "I've been in recovery for two years."

"I was in a twelve step program for eight years," said Jo. "Met my ex-husband there. It really works for some people."

"So you're not in it anymore?" asked Martin.

"Nah," said Jo. "My ex was Mister Program. I was young and newly sober and he was older and had been at it much longer. After we'd been married a while, I started feeling like I'd outgrown him and his program. When we divorced, I pretty much divorced the program too."

"So how do you stay clean?" asked Martin. "Or do you?"

"I haven't used in a long time," said Jo. "But I pass no judgment on those who do. And I think total abstinence is an unrealistic expectation for many users. So I help people minimize the harm around their use."

"That's kinda cool," said Martin.

"It's incredible is what it is," said Jo. "It's the one thing that always makes sense in my life, no matter how crazy everything gets. Like today. Whatever is happening, the way to get through it is being there for each other. Doing less harm."

The Hope Gazette

The 321 actions weren't solely aimed at politicians. Mass suicides were also staged at the corporate offices of multinationals. After one week, the total death toll stood at 2,996. Although this figure was just a fraction of the country's 47,000 annual suicides, the sudden public display of mortality was palpably jarring. The United States went into shock.

As a reporter for the Hope Gazette, it was Tom Wilkins' job to put a positive spin on this, which he could not do. Fortunately, Tom's editor never read his articles, and was consequently unaware of how controversial they could be. Today's piece included an interview with a victim's family member who blamed Pfizer for the death of her cousin. "And I'll tell you what," said the family member. "You all have been saying mental health this, mental health that. But 321 had nothing to do with mental health. It had to do with people being fed up. Finished. Done with the powers that be. For real."

A few hours after publishing the article, Tom's editor called.

"Jimmy, what's up?" asked Tom.

"I just got off the phone with a rep from our platform," said Jimmy. "They're cutting service if we don't pull your article."

"Are you serious?" asked Tom. "Can they do that?"

"Do you know what I told them?" asked Jimmy. "I thought about it for a minute, with all that's happened, and I told them to stick it up their fascist asses. So we're switching providers immediately. How much do you know about blockchain?"

"Wow," said Tom. "I thought maybe I was being too controversial."

"I'm paying you for hope," said Jimmy. "You took a voice that was being ignored by the mainstream press and gave that voice an audience. There's hope in there somewhere. Far as I'm concerned, keep it up."

"Who do you think put pressure on the platform?" asked Tom.

"You know how it is," said Jimmy. "The new narrative is that staying on script will save lives. They're framing the whole thing as a public health emergency. Maybe that's even what it is. But the censorship is happening all over. Censorship and propaganda. Well, I say we're better than that."

"Thanks for being so cool about this," said Tom. "Honestly, I'm a little stunned. I didn't think you even read my articles anymore."

"Ha!" said Jimmy. "I'll admit I was kind of checked out. But this 321 thing did a number on me. I couldn't sleep, so I poured myself into the work. And you know what I found? I found you, flying under the radar, sneaking real investigative journalism in with all of our puff pieces."

When the call ended, Tom set the phone down on his desk and put on a light jacket. Heading outside, he found a perfect spring day. There was a hint of warmth in the breeze and the earth smelled rich and damp. Taking a deep breath, Tom felt overwhelmed by the moment. He saw new life everywhere he looked, like the world was unfolding perfectly, but of course the world was bigger than his residential neighborhood. And that larger world was writhing in a pain so deep that most people were afraid to even talk about it.

As Tom made his way down the sidewalk, he found a woman slumped over on the stairs leading to an apartment building. Normally, he would've passed by without a second glance. But for some reason, today, he stopped. "Hey," he said. "You alright, there?"

The woman moved, raising her head to meet Tom's eyes. She'd definitely been crying, but didn't look high or otherwise disconnected from consensual reality. "No, I'm not alright," she said. "Are you alright? Is anyone?"

"Sorry," said Tom. "I just thought ... seeing you sitting there I worried .... I don't know."

"Yeah, I get it," said the woman. "But you can't help with the problems I have."

"Maybe not," said Tom. "But I've got nothing better to do if you want to talk about it."

The woman gave Tom an appraising look. "Look, my dog died, okay. I was doing fine, holding it together through the 321, but yesterday, he ran out into the street and some asshole hit him. I shouldn't say asshole. He stopped and seemed really broken up about it and that only made it worse. So now I'm totally fucking losing it. And to top it all off, my brother quit his job and is setting off on some kind of cross country odyssey to find himself. He'll be here tomorrow."

"That's a lot," said Tom. "You get along with your brother?"

"Mostly," said the woman. "He's a park ranger in DC. Or he was. He was there at the first 321 site and quit his job right then and there. You know the signs the victims were all holding? The media refuses to publish them to 'protect the families' but my brother got pictures of all of them and sent them to me. It's the most haunting shit I've ever seen."

Considering his earlier conversation with Jimmy, an idea occurred to Tom. "Do you ... feel like maybe the media should publish those signs?" he asked. "Because I'm a reporter and could probably get them published."

"No shit?" asked the woman. "You know, I don't know. My brother took the pictures on the job and could maybe get in big trouble for sharing them. But if you give me your number, I can have him call you about it. The feeling I get is that he's on a mission to show them to as many people as possible. So who knows?"

"Thanks," said Tom. "Hey I'm Tom. Tom Wilkins. I live two blocks that way. Just let me know when you're ready for the number."

"Kayla Dodd," said Kayla, taking out her phone. "Ready."

Continuing on his walk, Tom didn't know how to feel. Poor woman, he thought, before mentally correcting himself. Kayla wasn't poor, she was encountering tragedy. Everyone was, and she seemed to be coping well enough, all things considered.

Pausing to notice the season's first new growth on a shrub, Tom thought of the victims' signs. So far, only a small fraction of these had made it into the news. Although the victims had all coordinated with each other to make sure their messages were shared publicly online, their messages had been immediately banned by all major platforms when the news broke. The government was going so far as to call the publication of these signs' messages 'support for terrorism.'

Given the risks, Tom wasn't certain Jimmy would actually go for publishing this material. But it seemed like the kind of thing that people deserved to know. 321 may have been senseless on one level, but on another it was deliberately orchestrated to deliver these messages; to demand attention in the most desperate way imaginable.

As a journalist, Tom felt like he had personally let down the 321 victims. Like, if he and thousands of others had done a better job shaping the public narrative about important issues, maybe society wouldn't have gotten to this point. It wasn't rational for Tom to feel this way and he knew it. But he couldn't help it.

Now, more than ever before, Tom felt a responsibility to report the truth, no matter the cost. The government and mainstream media machine was spinning everything in terms of victim-terrorists radicalized by dangerously uncensored social media, but that wasn't the truth as Tom understood it at all. 321 didn't happen in a vacuum. It was a social event. A public spectacle that demanded a public response. A response that he knew he had to be a part of, if only as a columnist for the Hope Gazette.

(Feature image from Pixabay.)

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Wow! Easily one of the most intense things I've ever read, because it felt so real and believable. I'm fascinated to see what Tom and others do with this tragedy...

 last year (edited) 

Yeah? The story is mostly writing itself, surprising even me. I'm considering having Martin go back to his job at the National Park Service to start some good trouble there. What do you think?

Isn't Martin the one who has the job at the National Park Service?

You are correct: ) My ideas for Tom are still vague. Playing with the idea of him discovering a special talent for working with troubled people as he connects with sources for his news stories?

I like the idea of Martin going back to his job at the National Park Service. Also, there's something about nature serving as a theme for healing and reminding us of the natural world. And I like the chemistry between him and Jo already too!

As for Tom, I really like that idea. I can see him setting up spaces for those impacted to gather together to share stories and revive the human spirit in the face of these absolute tragedies. And maybe these spaces might evolve into community organizing and action...

hehe my brain is fried. It'll be fun to see where you take all of this!

And looking forward to following Jo's journey too! I already like her and her vibe!

For sure. She's inspired by a friend of mine who does harm reduction outreach. All compassion and clean energy, but rough around the edges.

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