She is worried, but Mom always says she frets too much. It’s what older people have always done. They long for the past and are always talking about the “good old days.” Things were always better back then.
“But we know better,” Mom is always saying, “We are creating a better way of life. The way things are now is not any good and They are entirely to blame.”
Great Aunt Alexa doesn’t like the way Free Oppela is governed or the way it functions, or the fact that We can’t visit Old Oppela. We don’t want to go there anyway.
“They have blocked the N6 again,” the man wearing a patch of the Free Oppela flag says over his megaphone to a group of the We that have gathered in the square. “They are keeping the aid shipments of food and medicine from getting through. They are threatening to shut off the pipelines to restrict the water supply to Free Oppela. We won’t stand for this. We have a plan. We are preparing an offensive. It will begin at the end of this week.”
The crowd of the We begin to cheer and I watch through the windows as the We wave the flag of Free Oppela, a dark blue square with a large, white five-point star in the center.
Great Aunt Alexa closes the curtain and Dad turns on the TV. Though the We are liberated, Free Oppela still receives the government-sponsored channel of the Republic of Saxet. They are talking about the We again, calling the We terrorists, but We know better.
“They are so brainwashed! Listen to those idiots,” Dad says, getting irritated and switching to the only other channel that attenae in Free Oppela can pick up, WNN, which is an international news station. WNN is decidedly on the side of the We. Being on the other side of the world has given the international community a big picture perspective of the revolution and WNN knows that the We are liberators fighting against a murderous tyrant.
“Twenty-seven people were killed, including twelve children, when Saxet government forces targeted the last functioning hospital in South Oppela in an airstrike this week,” the WNN reporter says. “Fifty-six people were injured. Hospitals and schools have increasingly become targets as tensions are running high in the republic, which is now entering its ninth year of civil war.”
The revolution began while Mom was still pregnant with me, so I don’t know what it was like before the We and the They, but Great Aunt Alexa always jumps at the chance to tell the story.
“I was born in Oppela and when I was growing up, it was still just a small town,” she has told me and my little sister, Rim, on more occasions than we can remember. “Most people only lived here because they were students at the University of Saxet and enjoyed the laid back culture, so many of them stuck around, starting families and building businesses. It had a thriving local music scene, and that combined with its proximity to lakes and hiking trails made it a destination of sorts for people from out of state-”
“What’s a state?” Rim usually asked. She’s four years younger than me, so she hasn’t started school yet and doesn’t know a lot of the words used before the We and the They.
“Before the Continental American Territories were established, it was all a single country known as the United States of America. There were fifty states and after Saxet seceded—it was called Texas in those days—many other states did as well, and many of them banded together to form larger territories based on their political leaning.”
“Why was Saxet called Texas?” Rim would ask.
“When Saxet, er… Texas was in the process of seceding, people said it was a backward state and started referring to it as Saxet. The people of Texas considered that a badge of honor of sorts and adopted it as the Republic’s new name.”
“That’s so weird.”
“It’s all weird, Rim. It’s all very weird. Anyway, Oppela became very prosperous and the population was mainly educated people and transplants from other states who had beliefs about how things should be that differed significantly from the majority of the rest of Saxet. Everyone managed to coexist with each other until a very divisive presidential election. Leading up to that election, people were very angry at each other and everyone started speaking in terms of the We and the They. ‘We can’t stand for this,’ people on both sides would say. ‘If They win, it will destroy our way of life.’
“Eventually, Wilhem Ryder won the election and half of the United States, or the US as it was called, became very angry. The other half, Ryder’s supporters, became indignant. Everything was about We and They. ‘They are a bunch of backward idiots. We are going to lose a lot of our rights.’ ‘They are a bunch of liberal crybabies. We are going to make this country great again.’ It was all anyone talked about and everyone talked about it constantly.
“I remember when your father was just a baby, your grandmother used to host playdates with all the other new mothers in the neighborhood and it’s all they talked about. ‘They spray painted a bunch of hateful words on a store in North Oppela. Can you imagine being so ignorant? I’m so glad We are so much more intelligent than that.’ Even when she was rocking your dad to sleep, she’d listen to speeches given by people talking about it. ‘We have to do something. Make sure you’re calling your representatives. Say We won’t stand for what They are doing to our country.’ Everyone talked like that. It became the norm and it made the divide that much worse. An entire generation of people were born and raised with those divisive words of We versus They and it was all they knew. And as that generation grew into adulthood, We and They became more than just pronouns. It became an identity claimed by both sides of the divide.”
Today is a school day and I make my way through streets flanked by dilapidated buildings and piles of rubble. My walk is interrupted by one of the We shouting from a roof.
“Take cover, kid! They have a sniper today!”
I duck into an abandoned storefront and wait, flinching and clasping my ears at the sound of a series of gunshots. After it falls silent for several minutes, I make my way out the backdoor and creep through the snaking alleyways until I arrive at a hollowed-out former coffee shop, where my teacher is in the middle of the day’s lesson.
Miss Abercrombie is like Great Aunt Alexa and doesn’t conform to the We and the They, and many of my classmates talk behind her back about how the We is going to come after her one of these days.
“It was after Ryder lost his reelection to the Democratic challenger, Tobias Preston, in 2020 that Texas petitioned for secession and became the independent Republic of Saxet. Saxet was nearly unanimous in its choice to elect President Aleshire. Now, back in the days when Saxet was still part of the US, a president was limited to two four-year terms but the state governor had no term limits, and the people of Saxet decided to extend this to the newly-created office of the President of the Republic. And as a result, Aleshire has been in power for nearly thirty years.”
“Jeez! They were such a bunch of idiots!” a boy named Micah pipes up from one side of the room. “They should have established term limits. Then We wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“How did this mess begin, Micah?” she asks.
“The They started shooting the We at the first demonstrations.”
“That’s what my dad says. He was there.”
“No, what happened was a group of people were unhappy with the choices made by another group of people and wanted to do something about it. So they protested. The government sent military forces to keep things under control, but the protestors lashed out and became violent, and the military responded with force. Both sides were wrong and both sides were responsible for killing a lot of people.”
“The We were not wrong. The They just wanted to keep the We from getting our rights back and the They shot everyone.”
“And then what happened, Micah?” she asks in voice that is patient, but also slightly patronizing.
“The We fought back. The We had to. The They would have killed everyone.”
“What if the protestors sent people to talk to the government instead of fighting back?”
“You can’t talk to the They. The They are bunch of backwards idiots.”
“How do you know that?”
“They just are.”
“Have you ever talked to anyone from Old Oppela?”
“Of course not.”
“Then how do you know they’re just a bunch backwards idiots?”
Micah shrugs. “My dad says so.”
“Has he ever talked to anyone from Old Oppela?”
He shrugs again. “Maybe before the revolution began.”
“Do you understand how that’s a problem?”
“It’s a problem because the They are too ignorant to reason with.”
“No, the problem is, and always has been, a lack of communication.”
I raise my hand.
“Miss Abercrombie, how can the We communicate with the They if the They just want to kill us?”
“You have to be the first to bridge the divide. It was a lack of communication and willingness to bridge a divide a long time ago that sank this whole continent into chaos. Back in the early years of the twenty-first century, there was no They and We in the sense that you all use those words today. That happened because people were very angry about a lot of things, and instead of trying to compromise and communicate with people they were angry at, they only talked to people who agreed with them. That resulted in a culture and language of division. That division is the only thing your parents ever knew growing up because it’s all their parents could talk about, so it became the world your parents grew up in and the language they spoke. Once they were adults, they were fluent in divisiveness instead of compromise and when they became sick of the way things were, the only way they knew how to change anything was by fighting.”
“We can’t communicate with the They,” I protest. “The They are ignorant and violent.”
“No,” she says, “they’re just like you. And you’re all just angry.”
Out of nowhere, the guttural hum of a low-flying jet fills the air and she’s barely able to tell us to take cover under the tables before there is an earth-shaking explosion.
I am suddenly rendered deaf, but only momentarily before total silence is replaced by a high-pitched buzz in my ears. The buzzing is so loud that all the sounds of screaming and crying surrounding me are muffled and incoherent. I am in total darkness, save for light peeking through crevices between the pieces of brick and dry-wall that have buried the table I dove underneath. A girl named Leila huddles next to me and we cling to one another in our cave of rubble. After what feels like a lifetime, we hear the rescuers shouting orders at each other as they begin shoveling and digging.
A couple of hours later, Leila and I sit on the curb across the street from what used to be our school building, staring at three small bodies covered by white sheets. Micah, or what used to be Micah, is under one of them. Leila is hysterical, but I can’t feel anything enough to cry. Some of the rescuers are wailing and some are filming the scene with phones.
“This is the aftermath of the latest airstrike. Look at what They have done. Three innocent children dead.”
Some of the rescuers are yelling at Miss Abercrombie, who is white with dust and bleeding from her head. “You are responsible for this! You are an informant! You are on their side and look what They did!”
She tries to reason with the rescuers despite being confused and wobbly, but she is taken into custody and led away. I never see her again.
Two of the rescuers drive the rest of us to a makeshift hospital in a van that functions as a makeshift ambulance. While one drives, the other films us with his phone.
“Look at what They did! They are ignorant, violent scum and look at what They have done to our children!”
We are treated for various injuries and our parents are called. Mom and dad weep and cradle me while wailing, “How could They do this? They have no respect for innocent lives!”
That night in our home, we watch the President of Saxet sit in his office flanked by the flags of the Republic of Saxet, which are squares consisting of a white top half and a red bottom half. He issues a statement on the government-sponsored channel about the attack.
“They staged it. They are insistent upon perpetuating this war to the point that They manufacture propaganda to convince the world that They are right. We will not stand for this kind of manipulation of hearts and minds and We will not relent until We once again have a safe and united Saxet, and this includes the areas of Oppela They currently occupy.”
Later, WNN airs a statement from the leader of the We. “They once again take no responsibility for the murderous acts They insist upon carrying out against We who are liberated in Free Oppela. All of Saxet deserves freedom from They who seek to continue this oppression. In response to this atrocious act, We will make an example of this-”
The footage of the leader of the We is abruptly cut short and the anchorwoman begins discussing news from elsewhere in the world. There is commotion outside in the square and Great Aunt Alexa lifts the curtain. I approach her so I can peer out, but she stops me.
“Don’t watch this time.”
She sighs and closes the curtain. “It’s your teacher.”
The word barely makes it past her lips when the sound of a single gunshot ringing out causes us both to jump.
The We begin the offensive later that week, launching multiple rocket-propelled grenades stolen from the They into Old Oppela. The state-sponsored broadcast says, “We will not stand for this. They will be met with force.” In only a matter of days, tanks bearing the white and red flag crawl through the barbed-wire boundary separating Old and Free Oppela and begin obliterating entire neighborhoods. Our house is destroyed on day four and it seems Great Aunt Alexa had every right to worry after all. But she didn’t say, “I told you so.” She didn’t live long enough to say anything.