Episode 7: “Celebration”

Created & written by Marrton Dormish

Powers: The Serial is a fictional series based on true stories. With the exception of recognized personalities, locations and institutions from the past and present, all characters and places depicted in this series are fictional.

Ben Ellis spun a ring of keys on his hand like a six-shooter. “Where to, Uncle Zeke?” he asked of the newly released patient, who was actually his godfather, not his uncle. Ben had long since taken his rental car back in favor of Zeke’s pickup truck, which had been in storage.

“Well now, Benjamin,” mused Ezekiel Thomas, rubbing his chin. “Le’s jus’ drive ‘round for a’while.”

“That sounds like a great idea!” bubbled Lora Jean Jones, who hovered at Zeke’s shoulder like a hummingbird. Ever since Zeke’s stroke, LJ had rarely been absent from his side. “I know! Can we go by your barbershop, Zeke? I’d love to see it, and you can tell me more about what it was like running it for so long.”

“Oh, I don’ know, chil’. Saturdays are busy days at the shop. I don’ wanna cause a hubbub.”

“I think it’s a good idea, Uncle Zeke,” Ben said, grinning at LJ’s exaggerated nod of approval. The threesome continued weaving their way through the hospital parking lot, LJ and Ben slowing their pace to accommodate Zeke’s. “It would do you good to see your old stomping grounds again. I bet the boys would be glad to see you.”

Zeke frowned, but when LJ started bouncing in wide-eyed excitement, he couldn’t help but chuckle. “Alright, then.”

“Yay! Oh, Zeke, I can’t wait. I’ve imagined you there a thousand times, but you never seem to want to talk about it, and it’s such a big part of your life, and—”

Zeke sucked in his breath. For a moment, LJ feared he was having another stroke, but Zeke slowly let out his breath and whistled. “There it is.” He’d spotted his most prized possession, his forest green, 1952 Chevy Pickup truck, a vehicle he had bought off a farmer as a reward for his first successful year at the barbershop in 1973. “If that beat up ol’ truck isn’t a sight for sore eyes.”

He walked up to it, ran his hand over the rounded top of the tailgate and traced the raised letters “C-H-E-V-R-O-L-E-T” below it. Ben walked around him to the passenger door, inserted a small round key from the key ring into the lock and pulled the door open. “Your limousine awaits, sir.”

“Hold still, Ayala.” With practiced hands, sixteen-year-old Angel Kebede sat in a tiny, sun-baked courtyard and braided the little six-year-old girl’s thick hair into corn rows. “You have beautiful hair, do you know that?”

Ayala nodded shyly. “Have I told you how glad I am that you have come to us?” Tigist asked her. Again, Ayala nodded, and this time the ghost of a smile dimpled her face.

Just then, Angel heard a deep voice call her name. In exasperation, as usual. “Angel! Angel! Where are you this time?”

Baruch appeared in the doorway, “There you are!” Ayala cringed as he stomped up to them, and Angel wrapped a protective arm around her. “Angel, how many times have I told you to leave the girl alone?” He shook his long forefinger at her.

“I’m just braiding her hair, Baruch.”

“Well you will have to do it later. I am sending her.”

Angel gently released Ayala, whispering in her ear. “Be brave, Ayala. You will be fine. I will finish your hair when you return.”

To Baruch, she stood and said, “At least let me get her a head scarf, then.” She quickly walked away so Baruch would not have time to object.

When she was gone, Baruch handed Ayala a small purse with a strap. He bent down to talk to Ayala, eye to eye. “As I have told you, you must never look inside this purse or the one the shopkeeper will give you. Remember, when Dahnay brought you to me, I was the one who fed you when you were starving, and got you medicine when you were sick. I am the one who takes care of you in return for you running small errands for me. Yes?”

Ayala always felt uneasy when Baruch got close to her. Inside she was shaking, but she nodded, because she knew she had to.

“Do this job for me. Run to the same shop I showed you on the other side of  Merkato and give the shopkeeper this purse. Give it to him alone not to anyone else, do you hear. If anything happens to this purse, if you allow it to get lost or stolen, don’t bother coming back.”

Angel returned to the courtyard with a soft cream-colored head scarf. “Here you are, Ayala,” she said, walking to the girl and gently wrapping the scarf around her head to hide her half-braided hair. “I will finish the rest after you get back.” She reached for the purse. “I will put it on her, Baruch.”

Reluctantly, he handed the purse to her, and watched as Angel modestly slid it underneath Ayala’s traditional dress and tied it in place. “Okay?” she asked Ayala. The girl nodded.

“Off with you then, girl.” Baruch waved his hand at Ayala, and turned to Angel. “As for you, you get ready for work. It will be dark in a few hours, but I am opening the doors early for some special customers who want to celebrate.”

Pacing nervously in the command bunker of Cronus Corp’s top-secret test facility in the foothills southwest of Denver, Howie Jones held his walkie-talkie across his face and pressed the send button, “Roger, one minute out.”

Like the four other engineers he had chosen to conduct the demo of Cronus Corp.’s latest advancement in drone technology, and the two U.S. Air Force personnel remotely flying the drone from Nevada, Howie’s eyes were fixed on the series of monitors in front of him. He flipped a switch and said into his walkie-talkie, “Okay, Hot Branch. Give us your best shot.” The response from the nearby team of military and CIA hacking experts came immediately, “Wiring in.” The Hot Branch team’s task was to attempt to replicate the homespun, but ingenious efforts of insurgents to tap into and corrupt the video feed of an approaching Predator drone. “You mean, ‘attempting to wire in,’” muttered Howie. To his team he said, “Alright boys, let’s see if this thing works.”

“There it is,” one of the engineers said, pointing to a nearby monitor. “They’re attempting to breach the firewall.”

“C’mon, baby,” Howie coaxed. “Keep ‘em out.”

Just then, the door to their reinforced concrete bunker opened, and a short man in a hard hat entered. “What the hell?” Howie whirled around in surprise and anger. “This space is off limits for live testing!” He raised the walkie-talkie to his mouth and was about to call security when he recognized the intruder. His heart skipped a beat and he said, “Oh, Mr. Cronus. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you.”

“Don’t worry, Jones,” said Sam Cronus, III, his signature swath of white-hair barely visible beneath his hard hat. His sleeves were rolled up, and his suit jacket was missing, but his ever-present red power tie was not. “Just thought I’d stop by to see if this damn thing you made works.”

In the wake of several embarrassing and controversial “accidents” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. military had quietly accepted bids for a top-secret project to protect its drones’ guidance systems from being hacked. Cronus Corp. had aggressively and successfully sought and won the contract to provide an impenetrable firewall for the weapon that had for years been used successfully against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Howie and his team had designed and built the new system, and today was the day they would gauge their progress. Jaded by their long-term contact with the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Hot Branch team had made no secret of its disdain for whatever Cronus Corp. had created. It had taken half a dozen tweaks before Hot Branch agreed to conduct a live test with a real Predator drone, and so here they all were. The Cronus team’s objective was to ensure the drone launched a “practice” Hellfire missile on a pre-chosen target without having its video feed intercepted at any time. Hot Branch’s objective was to hack the drone’s video feed, divert the drone, or if possible, take over its guidance system completely.

Having Sam Cronus in the room almost visibly raised the stress level in the bunker, but Howie hadn’t gotten to his position by cracking under pressure. He turned his attention back to the countdown. “Thirty seconds to target,” said the Predator pilot through the intercom.

“Twenty seconds to high-threat level,” Howie called.

“Ten seconds and still on course,” Homie said. The audio sensors built into the bunker registered the drone. It sounded something like a glorified lawn mower, and barely moved faster than one.

“Five seconds.”

“Still on target. No hacks detected.”

All eyes fixed on the video feed showing the hastily constructed shed two hundred yards from the bunker. In milliseconds, the practice missile streaked into the picture and despite not containing explosives, obliterated the shed.

The Cronus team erupted into loud cheers. For a moment, Howie felt like a kid again, satisfied at having successfully blown something up.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” yelled Howie, stabbing his fist into the air. “Target eliminated,” came the satisfied call from Nevada. Howie clicked send on his walkie-talkie, “Hot Branch, do you copy?”

It took a moment for the reply. “Roger, Cronus, we copy. We were not able to hack the system.”

The engineers cheered again. Sam Cronus offered his hand to Howie, who shook it happily. “Great job, Jones. Great job.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cronus.”

Howie and his team exchanged high fives and slaps on the back. “Time to celebrate, boys!” Howie exclaimed. “Drinks are on me.” His team hooted in approval.

Just then, Sam Cronus pulled Howie aside. “Now that we’ve humbled Hot Branch, I want you to consider taking some time off, Jones. I think we can take production and installation from here without you for a few weeks.”

Howie’s euphoria vanished. “Well, uh, Mr. Cronus…there’s still a lot to do, and I want to make sure it’s done right.”

“I know, and that’s what I like about you, Jones, but you have a good team, and I want you to spend some time with your wife. I make it my job to know when my employees are having a rough time. I know you’ve been through the ringer lately.”

“But, Mr. Cronus, I still haven’t finished—“”

“Doesn’t matter, Jones. Go spend some time with Erika.”

Howie gulped. “Yes, Mr. Cronus.” No one said no to Sam Cronus, III, and kept his job, even if he had just successfully completed a project that would earn the company billions of dollars. “Thank you, Mr. Cronus.”

The placard-carrying crowd poured through downtown Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, their anger, sorrow and desperation rising like the heat waves off the asphalt where they walked. Fifty thousand strong, they chanted “¡No más sangre!” “No more blood!”

There were students by the thousands, some of them carrying white balloons. There were retired grandparents there. There were mothers with their children in tow. There were men off of work, carrying signs that said, “¡Violencia, no más!” and  “¡Dejanos narcos!” “No more violence!” “Leave us alone, drug dealers!”

And at their head, walked Mother Sofia in a special white habit, stained with blood. Her stride was purposeful, her bearing straight despite the Saturday heat beating down on her and her impromptu flock. The march had been hastily planned. In fact, Mother Sofia, had thought to march on city hall alone, if she had to. She’d been overwhelmed by the response, garnered by word of mouth alone. It was clear to her now, that the cartels’ hold on the people had slipped with the tragic death of Sister Abigail, and she meant to ensure that her dear sister and friend had not died in vain, that young Sister Rosa had not been sent into exile far from home for nothing.

The protesters surged toward the steps of city hall. Up the steps walked Mother Sofia, approaching the sea of microphones that had appeared when news of the march had reached the ears of local journalists. The crowd cheered when she turned to face them, and the sound of their support swept over Mother Sophia like a wave of confirmation.

She paused at the microphones, and bowed her head. Who had had the time to hook up a sound system and speakers? she wondered to herself. Except for the click of cameras and the wail of a child somewhere in the crowd, silence descended over the scene. Mother Sofia had no idea what to say, so she said the first words that came to mind. “Padre Nuestro…” “Our Father, who are in heaven. As she led the marchers in the familiar prayer, she pleaded with God to give her words to say to her hurting people. When they were done, Mother Sofia took a deep breath, and felt her mouth filled with words.

“My children,” she said, holding out her arms as if to emcompass the crowd. “I did not intend for this to become a large protest. I alone meant to come here to protest the gross injustices of these past months and years, when a small group of violent men have sought to control our city and our country with fear. I say to those men, who themselves are not immune to judgment by the Almighty, who themselves are people who need love and are loved by God, that your time to repent has come. The people will no longer allow you to govern here, and we proclaim our defiance by our presence here today. Let us pray for these men, these misguided men, who have lived by the sword, and let us pray for ourselves, that we would not be tempted to take up the sword to fight the evil they have brought to this city. That they have exported to our neighbors. For our Lord said, ‘Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword.’

“Here today, we honor the innocent who have died at the hands of these violent men, and we say,” Mother Sofia faltered. “We say…” Her voice broke as she remembered Sister Abigail’s lifeless body and Sister Rosa’s despair. Then, as if filled with a powerful gust of wind, she cried, “No more blood!” She held up her blood-stained habit, and said again, “No more blood!” The crowd took up her chant with raised fists. “No more blood!”

Nathan Patrick’s iPhone buzzed with an incoming text from “The Professor.” “Look behind you,” it said. He looked around and smiled when he spotted Avery a few dozen people away. “Fancy seeing you here, Professor,” he yelled over the clatter of the nearby South Sudanese brass band. Avery Cohen-Tate shouldered her way through the crowd near the platform of waiting dignitaries. She ducked under a tree that some South Sudanese had climbed for a better view of the upcoming ceremony. “Well, I was in the neighborhood,” Avery said breathlessly when they were face-to-face. They hugged, and when they did, they were not the only ones hugging among the more than 20,000 people gathered in Juba, the brand-new capital of the world’s newest nation.

Avery had done much of her early fieldwork with Sudanese refugees toward the end of the decades-long conflict between the predominantly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south of Sudan. She had lost friends and coworkers here, and had seen her idealism shattered. Officially, she was in Juba to coordinate with the United Nations on a field survey of former refugees now settling back into a more settled existence in their native villages. Unofficially, she had come to hold vigil for a people she had come to know and love, and for those who would never have the chance to celebrate South Sudanese statehood.

“So what do you think?” Nate asked, his eyes sweeping the flag-waving, jubilant crowd.

“I think it’s about time.”

“C’mon, Avery. It’s not like it took more than 20 years and cost 1.5 million lives for this to happen.”

Avery felt the tears coming, but she cleared her throat and said as evenly as she could manage, “I never thought I’d actually see this day come.”

“Look up there.” Avery pointed to the shaded platform where the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, had just arrived, surrounded by his security detail. “I can’t believe he is here.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s surreal.”

“We are now looking at a head of state indicted for war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court. And he’s sitting on the same platform as his enemies.”

“Former enemies, you mean.”

“Yeah, right. I know they signed a peace deal in 2005, but don’t tell me these two countries are now going to co-exist perpetually in peace.”

“So cynical, Professor,” Nate leaned back so he could see Avery’s face. “I thought that was my job.”

“Sorry, but I can’t overlook the years of rape, slavery and ethnic cleansing that man endorsed.”

“Not even if his enemies can?”

“It’s political expedience, Nathan, nothing more, and you know it.”

“Uh oh, you called me, Nathan. You’re angry at me.”

Avery hadn’t realized it, but her eyebrows were knitted together in a savage frown. She looked down. “Sorry, it’s just that…”

“I know, Avs. No apology necessary.”

The noise of the crowd hushed somewhat as an honor guard of South Sudanese troops marched onto the platform holding the new country’s flag—it had thick black, red and green stripes separated by thin white ones, and a blue triangular canton with a yellow star in the middle. The band began to play as the soldiers slowly, solemnly, carried it to a tall, waiting flagpole. They clipped it to a metal cable, and, careful not to let it touch the ground, began to raise it. Thousands of voices roared as one as the flag rose.

“I have goosebumps,” Avery yelled, pointing to her arm.

Nathan nodded. His eyes were fixed on the flag and what it symbolized. “Pretty amazing. Guess this was worth it, coming here.”

“Yeah,” Avery agreed. She squeezed his arm.

Nathan yelled down at her, “So…Where does it go from here?”

“You mean South Sudan or our relationship?” she asked.

“Either. Both.”

“I don’t know, Nate. Let’s just enjoy today while we can.” She looked up at the platform. Instead of the row of dignitaries, she saw a familiar parade of faces pass before her mind’s eye. Little Luol, the boy she befriended at her first refugee camp, dead of dysentery. Cathy, her friend from Australia, shot accidentally while in her U.N. vehicle during a raid by the Sudanese Janjaweed militia. Olivia, her beautiful Dinka friend, taken by the Janjaweed, and never seen again.

“I know what ‘Enjoy today while we can’ means,” Nathan said, his eyes scanning the crowd. He rose his hands to make imaginary quotation marks in the air. “‘Let’s just be friends.’”

“No, it means we’re witnessing history, Nate!” Avery said. “Let’s enjoy it. Let’s celebrate with all these people who have suffered so much!”

Nathan wanted to celebrate. God knows I don’t get to witness something this positive very often, he thought. She’s right. Why can’t I enjoy the moment? Why am I always looking ahead, never satisfied with the way things are?

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. He’d already filed his story from Juba, so his mind had already turned to his next assignment—Somalia, and the increasingly desperate conditions there. He’d already booked a flight to the Horn of Africa, and hoped to find a way behind the lines of the Shabab, the al-Qaeda-linked militant group fighting the weak government in Mogadishu.

Nate grinned, although his heart wasn’t in it. “Let’s go celebrate, Avs.”

Avery smiled. He understands, she thought with relief. “Good idea. Let’s go support the fledgling economy of South Sudan and have a beer.”

The closer they got to the barbershop, the quieter Zeke got.

“Are you okay, Zeke?” asked LJ, unable to bear the silence.

“Yes, chil’,” Zeke said, huskily. “It’s jus’ the memories.”

LJ let that comment sit for as long as she could bear, then asked, “Why do they call it Five Points?”

Ben answered for his uncle. “One of the oldest neighborhoods in Denver. Five Points is where several roads intersect—Washington and Weldon streets, which go downtown, and 27th Street and 26th Avenue. It’s been a hub of the African-American community for most of its history.”

Zeke warmed to the subject, “Yup. People called it the ‘Harlem of the West.’ Used to have the best jazz. Oh honey, you shoulda seen the nightlife in Five Points. Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Wellington, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, all of ‘em would be sure to stop here, let me tell you.”

They pulled onto Welton Street and Ben carefully guided the Chevy into a street-side parking space. “There it is,” he nodded to LJ. She looked across the street and saw a long string of cars parked in front of a shop with the traditional red, white and blue barber pole. The sign above the shop said, simply, “Zeke’s.”

“You sure you want to do this?” Zeke asked, suddenly uncertain.

“Absolutely, Zeke! Yes! Let’s go.” LJ was trapped between them in the cab, so she started pushing at Ben impatiently. “Go around and help your uncle get out.”

Ben slid out and around the truck, but before he could help Zeke out of the truck, half a dozen older men banged out the door of the barbershop and rushed across the street to them. They didn’t care that they had to stop  traffic to do it, either. “Well if it isn’t ol’ Zeke come to visit!” “Yessiree, you are a sight for sore eyes.” “Couldn’ believe my eyes, Zeke.” “Sooo glad you didn’ go on to glory jus’ yet.” They laughed and swatted Zeke on the back and took hold of his arms and propelled him across the street, waving to the stopped cars in the road. In the shop went Zeke to loud acclaim. LJ and Ben watched it all from the side of the Chevy. “Nothin’ ever changes around here, LJ. You just remember that.” Ben took her arm and walked her to the shop. “Let me go in first. It’ll be better that way.” He slipped inside.

“Well, well, who have we here?” asked a short man in a white barber shirt. His high, squeaky voice redirected the attention of the dozen or so men of all ages surrounding Zeke, who was sitting in the only empty barber chair.

“What’s up, Shorty?”

“It’s real good to see you here, Ben.”

Half of the men broke away to shake Ben’s hand and pound him on the back. “How’s your mamma doin’, Ben?” “You settlin’ in fine to life back east?” “We shore do miss your, daddy ‘roun’ here.”

More people, men and women with children in tow, pushed past LJ and entered the shop to greet Zeke. I guess word spreads fast, thought LJ. Suddenly shy, she wasn’t sure when she should make her entrance. So she took in the scene through the front window of the shop.

The walls of Zeke’s were covered with black and white pictures, ribbons and plaques. A curious hand-painted mural with white and grey clouds and an ominous looking thunderbolt streaked across the ceiling. There was a glass framed, red and light-blue trophy case on the wall with a plate in the shape of a basketball. It proclaimed, “Manual Thunderbolts State Champions,” followed by a list of years: 1939, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1955, 1966, 1972, 1976, 1988, 1990 and 1991.

Shorty, the barber, cut through the chatter again. “So, who’s that peeking in through the window, Zeke?” He nodded at LJ, who blushed and nearly ran, as all eyes in the shop focused on her.

“That there is my friend LJ,” said Zeke simply. “She saved my life when I had my stroke.”

At the response to Zeke’s revelation, LJ swore to herself that she saw the pictures on the wall shake. The men clapped and cheered, and the women raised their hands in “hallelujahs.” They piled outside to thank her and invite her to their houses for dinner and they fussed over her so much that LJ wondered if she had stepped into a dream or an alternate reality. Are these people for real? she kept asking herself.

Eventually, she was herded inside next to Ben and Zeke, and for the next hour Zeke regaled his eager audience on his convalescence in the hospital. People came in and out, in and out to offer their well wishes to Zeke, and scold him for his apparently hasty departure from the neighborhood ten months earlier. LJ lost track of the number of times people said, “You coulda come live with us, Zeke, you know that.”

For his part, Shorty seemed genuinely pleased at Zeke’s presence and made no move to shoo away his non-customers. “Aren’t you worried that you’re losing business, Shorty?” she asked him.

“You kiddin’ girl?” said Shorty incredulously. “I’m gonna be cuttin’ hair non-stop and hearin’ about Zeke’s visit non-stop for at leas’ the nex’ month! I wouldn’ have a job, let alone a shop, if it wasn’t for ol’ Zeke.”

LJ looked over at a tired, but happy Zeke, and suddenly, she started to worry the exertion had been too much for him. “Zeke, do you think maybe we should go?”

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and nodded. “Maybe so, LJ, maybe so. Yup, you’re right. We need to let these folks get back to their business. That alright with you, Shorty?”

“You’re always welcome here, Zeke. This is still your shop.”

“It’s done me good to be here, Shorty, I tell you that.”

“Come ‘round more often, alright, boss?”

“You’re the boss now, Shorty.” Zeke held up his shaky hands, “No body in their right mind is gonna to trust this old man to give them a shave with my straight edge now. Isn’t that right, Lester?” He pointed to a middle-aged man with a small scar on his neck. The shop burst into laughter as Lester smiled and said, “You sure got me a good one, Zeke.”

On their way to the door, the threesome shook so many hands that LJ felt like she was on the staff of a politician running for office.

As Ben drove them off in Zeke’s pickup truck, LJ sensed him withdraw into himself. Zeke, for his part, quickly fell asleep, leaving LJ to wonder why she felt like she’d just visited a different world, but one that somehow felt like home.

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