Excerpt from Suffer the Children*, Robert Earle’s new novel
Mo Winckleman’s retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was a six bedroom house on a marshy estuary with a guest cottage and a pavilioned dock to which a rowboat and a sailboat were lashed. A thick growth of woods hid the house from the road; an arm of land concealed it from the next house deeper in the estuary. All you could see from the pavilion where drinks and appetizers were being served was the leathery glint of the estuary waters.
Beforehand Budge said that to stay connected he had to do things like high-end duck hunts, but Pru didn’t have to participate. She could tend to her family situation. Pru said she wasn’t allowed to see the kids that weekend. Besides, she had been a secret before. She didn’t want to be a secret again. If he did things, she would do them, no matter who was present. “I could hit a duck with my Glock.” She probably could, but Budge said she’d have to leave her Glock in the car; the vice president’s security detail wouldn’t let her carry it around. To satisfy him she took the Glock off her ankle and locked it in the glove compartment. He asked if she were still getting calls and letters. He meant the threats. She said yes.
“Wade’s meticulous about forwarding them to me from Chapel Hill. He hates me as much as they do. How about you?” Budge made a joke that wasn’t very funny. “Only from Katie.”
They joined Mo, executive vice president of the National Weapons Association; the vice president of the United States; Rich Dunn, the ex-congressman from the district in Connecticut Budge had seen on the day of the school slaughter; Niles Fogerty of American Arms; and their respective wives, two groups separated under the pavilion roof by gender, everyone present at least twenty years older than Pru. They drank, they nibbled, they talked duck, and they murmured admiration for the Wincklemans’ retreat. Mo put Budge nearest the vice president.
“I was always in your corner,” the vice president murmured to him.
“I know that, sir.”
“I told SecDef not to let you resign. After what you did in Iraq, we needed you in Afghanistan.”
“Thank you, sir. I just had to resign.”
“I know these things are messy, but they happen.”
“Yes, sir, very messy.” Budge maintained his confident military demeanor while collapsing inside. He still wasn’t used to being with Pru in public, revealing he’d wanted a woman more than his reputation for loyalty, discipline and honor.
Mo leaned within earshot, a host’s prerogative. He was a flawlessly manicured man who had done only one thing in his life, but it was a large thing: Per the Second Amendment to the Constitution, he’d made America believe that it might need a village militia in the dark days of the 21st century. During his tenure as executive vice president of the National Weapons Association, per capita gun ownership in America had gone from .7 to 1.2. Before he retired, he wanted it to be 1.5, five hundred million guns.
“So your next move?” he asked Budge.
Budge glanced at Pru. “What happened in Connecticut is next door to where I grew up. Pru and I have some ideas about that.”
Rich Dunn, rosy-faced but balding, leaned forward at the mention of Connecticut; so did his wife, Anne, a dusky woman in her fifties with gray bangs covering her high forehead and carnelian lipstick on her thin tight lips. She tugged her deck chair closer to the men.
“To think what happened is what Connecticut has become known for,” Rich said. “Not Yale, not Mystic Seaport, but the slaughter of innocent schoolchildren. That was my district until I lost the Senate primary.”
Budge said, “I know, sir. Voted for you while I kept my residency there.”
Anne Dunn interjected pointedly, “The party didn’t know what it wanted in a candidate.” She meant the Republican Party. “A veteran legislator like Rich or a multimillionaire female wrestling entrepreneur. So the Wrestling Queen loses the general election for us and now the Democrats have that Senate seat.”
The vice president knew this was a dig at him, but Anne wasn’t someone to debate, much tougher than her husband, so he let it pass, returning to what had happened to the children. “Don’t take it personally, Rich. It’s an everywhere problem, not a Connecticut problem.”
Mo did not say what he said robotically in public. (“The best defense against a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.”) He looked to Niles Fogerty of American Armaments, also based in Connecticut, to step in.
Niles obliged. “Correct me if what I’m hearing is wrong, General—may I call you Budge? Yes? Thanks. Well, it seems we’re hearing you’ve worked with some of your old DARPA sidekicks on a new kind of weapon teachers can use to defend the kids against these sociopaths.”
Rich said, “What a ridiculous idea.”
Emulating the vice president, Budge let this assault pass. “Sir, it’s not a weapon. It’s a personal self-defense device.”
“Did you bring one to show us?” the vice president asked.
Hearing this question, the secret service agents drew closer to the pavilion.
“I didn’t think your agents would appreciate that, sir, but I could draw one for you.” Budge took a notepad from his coat pocket and sketched the device, placing its two projectiles beside it.
Rich Dunn said, “Looks like a gun to me. You’d be giving them to teachers?”
The vice president ignored Rich. “Go on, Budge. Brief me.”
“What we have here is mostly ceramic. The propulsive force is electric. We embed sensors and a laser to help identify an assailant’s chest or back and fire on fear.”
“Fire on fear?” Janice Fogerty asked. The women were listening to the men now and wanted to have their say, children being theirs in the first instance and forever.
“What a concept,” the vice president’s wife said.
Budge smiled deferentially at the two women. Janice Fogerty was a banker. The vice president’s wife was a former college president. He realized that anything he did to take on the issue of defending children at close quarters would be controversial—he and Pru had talked this through—and was uneasily accustoming himself, after thirty years in the military, to speaking his mind to what he still thought of as civilians. “One of its sensors picks up perspiration, temperature and heart rate spikes when a schoolroom is threatened. But the device doesn’t release until the laser-connected sensor has acquired its target.”
It was growing chilly as the sun set. The estuary was still. A frog splashed into the water somewhere. Rich Dunn said he didn’t want things like this device in his district. Anne Dunn reminded him it was his former district. Rich scowled across the water into the darkening trees.
Pru found this gathering perversely appealing. She’d never met a vice president or men as influential as the legendary gun lobbyist Winckleman and wealthy as the gun manufacturer Fogerty. Their wives ignored her with haughty elegance, but she didn’t care. She decided to speak, not as a career-wrecking mistress but as a partner, a West Pointer and PhD in history. “The projectiles don’t penetrate. They distribute their impact by shattering.”
The vice president said, “Those agents have ceramic vests under their suit jackets. What would happen if you hit one of them?” He asked Pru this, irritating the other women but pleasing Budge, who was happy to have Pru show herself off, not just beautiful but smart, not just smart but bold.
Pru didn’t hesitate. “He’d go down and have a vest-sized contusion imprinted in his flesh with no idea what hit him.”
“And you’re not calling it a gun?” Rich Dunn asked.
“It doesn’t inflict wounds. It’s purely a defensive system, as Budge said.”
“The word ‘system’ includes training,” Budge added. “The device is only part of the equation.”
“Tell us more,” the vice president said, leaning forward, his bloodless face a kind of death mask, the remnant of a Roman emperor.
Budge complied. “Sir, self-defense requires four things: intel, warning, means, and application. Optimally, no child is ever exposed to what happened in Connecticut.” (Rich flushed every time the word Connecticut was pronounced.) “That’s because intelligence, acquired by the police, ensures preemptive detention. But if there’s no intel and no warning and a school is penetrated, our teachers and children end up exposed to threats they need the means to deter. These devices will do that as long as the teachers and children, especially the children, are trained in application. If we have automated sprinkler systems in schools to deal with fires, why nothing to deal with killers? We also have manually operated fire alarms and evacuation drills. That stuff is critical to kids’ safety. When I was a kid in Glenwood Park, we did nuclear duck-and-cover drills and had a bomb shelter in the basement. Now we’re not dealing with the Soviets, we’re dealing with sociopaths. So Pru and I and some of our buddies have taken a first step in response. Maybe someone has a better idea. Maybe the point of our idea is just to flush that better idea out.”
Rich attempted to cloak his anger with mockery. “Frankly, I think your personal difficulties have gone to your head, Budge.”
“What do you mean by that?” Pru asked.
Rich retreated. “All I’m saying is teachers aren’t law enforcement and children are children. This could make a bad situation worse. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Before their affair became public, Pru had been on television, radio, and Internet chats. She’d written for newspapers and magazines and done interviews and conference panels. She was a rising star, out of the military but an emerging expert on military policy, schooled by Budge Kleeforth in the field. So she had been challenged before, and she didn’t back down.
“Then take more care with your words.”
This unpleasant exchange occurred in seconds, but the weekend, it occurred to everyone, already was in jeopardy. Would the Dunns find a reason to leave early? Anne Dunn clearly disliked her husband roiling things.
Recapturing the subject, Niles Fogerty spoke. He was a sleek man in a custom-tailored shirt and slacks with the arms of a red cashmere sweater tied around his neck. Whatever he was really thinking, his tone was quietly gracious and admiring. “I’ve been in armaments a long time, and I can tell you this is only a beginning. I’m not talking about kids and teachers. I mean this technology and its development.”
“At present it’s short range, sir,” Budge said. “Maybe we’ll keep it that way. Could be the physical limit.”
“Even so, it might be effective enough for home use?”
Budge knew what Fogerty was thinking: competition. Anti-guns everywhere. American Arms out of business. That’s not what he wanted out of this weekend. “We’re prototyping a school-based application. That’s where we’ve got the immediate national need.”
Now that Rich was sulking in silence under Anne’s glare and Niles had opened things up, the others succumbed to their sense of intrigue. Could children really be trained to duck and cover without damaging them psychologically almost as much as protecting them physically? Wouldn’t disturbed, suicidal assailants figure out some way to neutralize being neutralized?
Budge’s response was familiar to Pru who had witnessed him conduct dozens of impromptu seminars. He had a PhD, too, in organizational psychology, and this, not his iron will, was what distinguished him as he moved up the ranks: his intellectual creativity. He suggested that every culture selectively highlights features of human capability and preferred paths of development.
“Some societies don’t think twice about expecting children to hunt. In the past we didn’t either, but then we stopped needing hunting as a means of survival and gradually let the self-preservation elements in our nature atrophy. By the same token we outsourced food production to agricultural conglomerates, and we outsourced self-preservation to law enforcement. In effect, we kept specializing the institutions and diminishing the individuals. America isn’t what it was as a consequence. We lack a consensus about community-based self-defense, and our teachers and students can’t protect themselves against new predators.”
Mo Winckleman’s wife Eleanor gave a signal to her staff to have some more candles lit. Night was falling on the estuary, punctuated in the distance by birds softly fluttering to rest along the water’s embankments and radio crackle emanating from the vice president’s motorcade in the drive beyond the house. Eleanor Winckleman said the dinner could be served inside at any point; she didn’t want to interrupt such an important conversation.
Pru took up where Budge had left off. The two of them knew one another’s minds so well. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it wasn’t just sex, the flawed general and femme fatale. Talking turned them on, being understood. “These killers feel exiled. They’re taking revenge and trying to shoot their way back in at the same time.”
“That’s it. It’s not weaponry, it’s this, exactly this—the killers, not the guns,” Mo Winckleman said.
“So you test things out in…?” the Vice President led Budge back to the device and its application.
“The plan is we test things out in a two classrooms to begin with. The volunteers already are lined up and approved. That’s how we’ll develop trial training modules. Then we’ll train and test some more and give feedback to our technology partners.”
“What do you call this thing?”
“For now, the Defender.”
“What does one cost?”
“In materials, $200 per unit. Capital equipment, $50,000. The labor’s too ingenious to price at the moment. Then there’s three years of uncompensated development costs. Hardest thing is the battery. There’s no other battery like it.”
“How do you manufacture?” Fogerty asked. “You don’t just snap your fingers and they appear out of thin air, do they?”
Pru said, “Almost.”
Budge covered her insouciance: “That’s proprietary, sir.”
“You have an angel?”
“One I happened to know flew in this week.”
“What does he mean by angel?” Eleanor Winckleman asked Anne Dunn.
Anne said, “A financial backer.”
The vice president seemed to want to disassociate himself from discussions of money. “It’s not a federal issue.”
“No, sir, it can’t be,” Budge said. “A district has to commit to it. There has to be unit cohesion, teachers as NCOs and the chain of command right up to the school board and local police.”
Rich Dunn had heard enough. “Wait a minute, individual freedom runs this country, not fear-based regimentation. This lets the nut cases win.”
“Rich, you’re out of office, cut the speeches,” Anne said.
“I’m still an American. You can’t vote me out of that.”
Budge sidestepped Rich and Anne’s spat. “Again, I’ve got to emphasize this is just a start. But the STC—sum total consequence—could be school-based defense systems all over America.”
“That Connecticut lunatic wouldn’t have killed a soul,” Pru said, deliberately pronouncing Connecticut and lunatic in a way that infuriated Rich Dunn.”And perhaps no Columbine and perhaps no Virginia Tech. If we don’t do something, it’s going to happen again and again.”
Eleanor felt the conversation had swallowed its tail. She invited her guests inside for dinner.
With more than seventy stories and novellas in print and online literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. He also is the author of two novels, The Way Home and The Man Clothed in Linen, and a book of non-fiction about Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel. He recently moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and has degrees in literature and writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins. His last three posts in government were as Senior Advisor to the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Counselor to the Director of National Intelligence, and Counselor to the Deputy Secretary of State.