The Neighbors Beyond the Yard

When an American presidential candidate says he wants to "root out vermin," believe him. Dystopian fiction for a dystopian world.

The Neighbors Beyond the Yard
Original image licensed from Adobe Stock; grayscale applied by author

This short story is, for now, fiction.

This is a look into a possible future if Trump returns to the Oval Office as seen through the eyes of the “vermin” he plans to root out. I hope this story conveys that these “vermin” are not limited to minorities or the LGBTQ+ community. The vermin will be anyone who opposes him. From Charlie Sykes, a Republican Never Trumper, to you. From the various judges and secretaries of state who have been swatted, to you.

“The next-door neighbors haven’t been around for two weeks,” said Kate as she sliced a tomato.

My wife. She notices things.

She was once a highly paid freelance journalist before the big progressive news shops were put out of business by government defamation lawsuits. MSNBC, Vox Media, HuffPost, all of them are gone. She says most remaining news outlets won’t even look at her work.

I shrugged. “Probably on vacation.”

“Who takes vacations anymore?” she replied. “Besides. I think Nour would tell me if she was planning a vacation. Ouch!”

“Shit let me look at that,” I said as she glared at a stream of blood running down her finger. I ran to get some first aid materials, then bandaged the small wound as I said, “You knew her like that? Like on a first-name basis? I had no idea. Where they from?”

“Tunisia. He’s a programmer like you. You’d like him. I wish you’d go over and talk to him sometime. He’s quiet but really nice.” My wife was always trying to get me to go on a man date.

I looked out the kitchen window from where I could see the back end of one of their cars. I realized at that moment that the cars had been there during my last two days off as I tried to catch up on vacation time, which is hard to do when you’re always working remotely.

The cars had been there all day today, too, a Saturday, but that seemed normal. “Oh yeah, neat. A techie. I don’t feel like I have a lot in common with people around here, so that’s cool. Their cars are there. Why do you say they’re not around?”

“Well Sharon, for one thing, she told me last week they’ve been gone for the last week at least.”

“Wait. Sharon? Who the hell is Sharon?”

“Come on, really? Across the street Sharon?”

I shook my head. “Never heard of her”.

“Unbelievable. So anyway, I knocked on their door a bunch of different times, and the last time, their mail was all outside their mailbox and on the ground in front of their door. I stuffed it all in between their screen door and the front door. I hope they get it all.”

“It’s weird how their cars are there,” I said, proud of my bandage job on her finger. “Or, well, no, just probably took an airport shuttle.”

“I don’t think they took an airport shuttle,” Kate replied ominously.

Nour Mansour had spent her formative years in a tony Detroit suburb. The first daughter of Tunisian immigrants, she found solace in religion and science. Her parents were secular and fled shortly after Tunisia won independence from France in the 1950s.

Her father, a doctor, sensed an authoritarian streak in the new power structure, so he gathered his family for the long trip to the United States. He had originally wanted to move to France, but the politics didn’t seem practical for him at the time to do so.

Instead, he finished the necessary schooling to become a doctor in the American Midwest while his wife worked two jobs, one for a small auto parts manufacturer in Detroit, the other as a maid cleaning office buildings at night.

Nour rebelled a little at her parents’ long hours as her mother continued working after her father had established a successful practice. She began to study Islam and found a home at the Dearborn Mosque.

Now she found herself looking around nervously as she sat at a metal desk in a room that felt like a jail cell. She saw some activity through a small window etched with a diamond hatch pattern. The thick window, within the door at about eye level, was the only hint of a world outside.

She was sweating even though the room wasn’t warm. In fact, she thought it was chilly, but maybe the starkness of the cinderblock walls only made it seem so.

She had been alone in this room for at least a couple of hours. She had tried the door a couple of times but it was locked, and nobody seemed to notice her. The door seemed heavy to the touch. When she looked through the square glass, it seemed like a barrier to another world.

Finally, a large burly man with a world of tattoos walked into the room, opening the heavy metal door with a loud, violent thrust against the wall. She noticed that the wall’s soft stone was decorated by a crackled dent born by repeated attacks from the door handle.

The man’s scalp was shaved to reveal an odd tattoo of a chain that stretched across the top of his head from ear to ear. She couldn’t see the “Liberty or Death” tattoo on the back of his head or its eagle clutching arrows in both talons. There were so many tattoos on this man it would have taken months to study them all.

“Oh good, a Muslim bitch,” he said as he violently scraped a metal chair along the floor on the other side of the table to sit across a large metal desk from her. “You’re gonna love your new yard.”

A chill shot through her spine.

“So.” The tattooed guy tapped and swiped the wearable on his wrist a few times. “Huh, still friends with the imam in Dearborn I see.” He looked at Nour menacingly, then sneered, “He’s taking a little vacation from his, ummm, reeeligious practices right now.” He stared at Nour without saying anything more for a long time. Then he continued with, “Did you know that?”

“I want to see my children. I want to see my husband,” said Nour in a feeble voice. It was hard to command even that.

The man just shook his head and said, “They’re busy.” He seemed to wait for her to say more.

She tried with “Why am I here? Why won’t anyone tell me why I’m here?” The words merely bounced around the room’s cinderblock walls.

I voted for him. So did some of my friends. Here’s why.

I had done well as a software engineer, but as I got caught up in startup fever, I created a travel website and app. It competed with Travelocity and Expedia. But not well, and it marked my first failure in the startup world.

At the time, I was also freelancing, so I was hit with double taxation — social security and income tax. A stance against high taxes became embedded within my persona as I struggled to make ends meet. I guess you could say I became a libertarian of sorts, like a lot of white Silicon Valley guys in my circle.

Being a software engineer, however, means you can always pivot, so I worked at a major software company for several years and bought a house in San Francisco.

I sold it a few years later because a great opportunity came up in Austin, Texas working for Elon. I bought a house there, in a little bedroom community in the north of the city, and then, a few years later, another opportunity, this time back in the Bay Area, marched through the door.

This new opportunity, before Trump’s second term in office, involved working with a close friend and colleague, and I desperately wanted to jump on it. We went through the whole process, including interviews with eight of his cohorts, and they offered me the job.

So I told them, well, it’s contingent on me finding a house in the Bay Area. I won’t say they laughed, but I could sort of see the look of resignation on their faces during that last meeting with the three principals. It was a look that said, “Wish you had told us that before we wasted our time with this interview process.” The Bay Area housing market had rebounded, and prices were soaring again.

I made offers on 15 homes, but I needed a mortgage to do it. Somebody came in with a better cash offer every time. The winners were always investors or foreigners.

It’s not like I could quickly run back to my mortgage broker and say, “Hey, I need $40,000 more. Tomorrow.”

I stayed in Texas, but a lot of my libertarian friends from California joined me there. I was happy enough.

Meanwhile, Trump was confident when he first campaigned in California. He swooped in, surprising everybody. It was as if the Ukrainians had attacked Moscow. He said he’d put out the fires. He’d get rid of the homeless tents, and the “disgusting drug addicts” living in them, if he had to.

He pointed to the greed of landowners and developers when he said that California real estate prices made homeownership unreachable for anyone without an inheritance or who wasn’t a tech or Hollywood star or, increasingly, an “influencer” with a massive social media following.

He blamed migrants and what he called “vermin and communists” for the tent cities all over the state. A little over the top, but I got what he was saying.

He even held rallies in the Bay Area, proclaiming, “We’re going to stop all these foreigners from buying our houses.” That was it for me. That was all I needed to hear, even though I was living in Texas.

When the fires raged again that summer, he said he was the only Republican who could ever win California. He was right. He said he’d put out the fires. He didn’t.

It’s been two months now and we still haven’t seen or heard anything about the Mansours. Kate has stopped trying to squeeze their mail between their front screen door and the main door, but we haven’t noticed a much greater accumulation. I guess the post office has stopped delivering to them.

It’s kind of weird seeing their cars covered in road dust in their driveway, and not seeing the bobbing heads of their two kids through the kitchen window as they bounce on their backyard trampoline. It wasn’t that long ago when I was washing dishes, and I’d see one head come up, then down, and then another, and hear faint, silly giggling filter through the window.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I took a trip down to South Padre Island to get away for a few days and maybe forget about what might have happened to Nour and her family.

We were driving on I-69 just outside of Brownsville when my journalist wife noticed a massive convoy of vehicles along a dusty road leading to what looked like an endless string of white tents and makeshift buildings on the horizon. The road was distant and parallel to the interstate.

There was a time when visiting South Padre every year was a thing for us before the second pandemic hit. We were responding to the excitement on social media around the news that some of the beaches were trying to reopen. So we went for it. When we got there all we saw was a town ruined by hurricanes and the pandemic’s closures.

The B&B we had found online was a masquerade of its actual self: Bug infested with two angry owners who looked regretful for not taking their first opportunity to shoot us in cold blood.

We got the hell out of there and drove past the tent city again, another busy convoy stoking plumes of dust into the air. Kate took out her tablet and began texting someone. Miles later, we finally drove past the end of the tent city.

“It’s a camp,” she said.

“A camp. What do you mean, a camp?”

“Dustin. He’s an editor I worked with at BuzzFeed a while back. He’s got an aerial shot.” She flashed it at me with her tablet. “Here, see? Some resistance journalists have gotten drone shots. That’s barbed wire.” She showed me another shot. “It goes all the way around the camp, with some kind of microwave burst fence around that.”

Image of An Aerial View of the Za’atri Refugee Camp in Syria by U.S. Department of State, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; grayscale conversion by author using PANTONE Warm Gray 8 CVC duotone

“Is that kind of thing even legal?” The sprawling camp looked like it covered a dozen square miles.

“You’re joking, right?”

I’m not sure when everything changed, but it has.

Kate says a family of squatters has taken over the Hernandez house. She says nobody knows where the Hernandez family is. I didn’t know who they were, but Kate knew them.

When we walk the dog, men glare at us menacingly from their yard work. Confederate and Texas flags compete with “Don’t Tread on Me” flags for real estate.

The other day, I saw a man sitting on his front lawn holding an AR-15. Just sitting on his lawn chair holding the gun, as if waiting for an incursion on his fading green turf. The Texas flag stood behind him acting like a sentinel while the man nodded unemotionally at me, watching me hurriedly walk past with my dog.

Kate has become quiet. She says she’s leaving for work, but I know there’s no work. When she returns home she barely talks to me. The Internet has had a lot of downtime lately and cell service has been spotty.

She says she is interviewing “victims of the police state” for a blog on the Darknet. When I plead with her not to go or to at least message me more often, she says, “Well, I’m interviewing people who probably don’t want to be found, so I need to be off the grid when I go out.”

She’s freaking me out. I don’t want her on some mission.

Today, she is flipping through her tablet and looking at photos on the couch when I sit down next to her. “Look. I’m sorry,” I say.

“For what?”

“My vote.” I don’t follow that with any explanation or defense. We had never talked politics before the election. She was always way more interested in politics than I was. She sometimes got on my case for my apathy, but I was too busy to pay much attention to it.

My argument was that we elect people to pay attention to things like what’s happening in Russia and China and to fix the economy. I don’t have time for it. Sometimes she would mumble something about sweatshops making my smartphone in China, but other than that our conversations veered away from politics and into areas of common interest. Maybe she just assumed that I did what I normally do, and voted for her candidate.

“You didn’t.” Her tone is disbelieving as she stares at me. Stern.

I shrug. She shakes her head and sits staring at her tablet for a minute without flipping. When she finally looks at me, I see a tear emerge from her eye for the first time since she lost her dad. “I dunno what to say,” she says, in a quivering voice.

“I screwed up,” I say.

“Yeah, you and a whole hell of a lot of other white men like you.”

“I thought, Biden? Aside from his age?”

Kate stops me there with the first F-bombs I’ve heard from her in 25 years. “He was only three years older than Trump. Three!”

I try to continue: “He didn’t change anything or bring us together, or make us purple or fix the economy or fix mom’s health. And then, we tried to buy that house in California? All those foreigners snapping up property? I was fed up.”

She shakes her head again, becomes more resolute, wipes the tear away and says, “And what are you now, Robert?” She always called me Bobby.

“Scared,” I reply.

Every day, there’s a two or three-hour Internet outage. Every day, riots in places like Chicago, LA, Portland, Seattle, Detroit, Atlanta. Internment camps at the border.

Scary-looking young guys with long guns and wearables on their wrists patrolling airports, sporting events, festivals. They’re not even military. They’re some government-sanctioned militia group wearing red berets called Sons of Liberty. They’re everywhere these days.

Even more police shootings of Black kids. Mexican drug gangs pulling off crazy truck heists on Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona desert highways, kidnapping locals and beheading them, leaving their decapitated remains at city halls all along the southern border.

Gun battles between police and Mexican drug gangs are suddenly routine in places like Phoenix, El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville. The military has amassed troops along the Mexican border.

Armed white nationalist militia groups like Sons of Liberty haunt every protest, cheered on by the government and its propaganda media outlets.

The economy is in freefall, caused partly by another chaotic government response to a new SARS pandemic that has made everyone yearn for the good old days of COVID’s comparatively low mortality rate. And partly from America’s withdrawal from Europe and NATO. Foreclosure signs dot our neighborhood. Milk is $15 a gallon. A week ago Chinese and American naval ships exchanged gunfire near Japan.

Overnight, it seems, lots of things have doubled in price. And it’s not like you can grab a deal on a foreclosed house. The banks aren’t lending. Construction on the newest skyscraper in Austin stopped three months ago. The new Whole Foods that was supposed to open in January never did. It sits there, its empty parking lot a testament to the volunteerism of weeds.

There are hardly any small local businesses open. Kate’s hairstylist is gone. Our insurance agent’s number is disconnected. The only restaurants left are big chains.

She puts her hand on my knee. “I’m scared too,” she says. “There’s no place to go. I’ve looked into it.” Maybe she hasn’t given up on me after all. Yet.

I look around the house, wondering about the importance of what we have. Is any of it important? The old grandfather clock, the one Kate’s mom gave us, tick-tocking its way through the pauses in our conversation, seems like nothing more than a symbol of happier times. “Should we buy a gun?”

She looks at me like I’m crazy. “You hate guns.” She tries to laugh a little, but it seems more like a cry than a laugh. “Have you ever even fired a gun?”

I shake my head.

“And who’s the enemy here, right?” she asks. “Our neighbors? I bet most of them voted for Trump, but still, for God’s sake. I mean, if things get worse, and I mean just a little worse, what’s left to protect?”

I nod over to Cassie’s honorary bedroom, the one we made for her hoping she’d visit more than she does. Cassie, our precious young daughter who voted for Bernie and protested against various wrongs until the protests and protesters began to disappear.

Our idealist. Our amazing idealist, who stood in the rain in Champaign, Illinois for 48 hours marching in front of the Jimmy John’s headquarters because the company founder likes to hunt big game. Cassie, who would dodge ants when she was a little girl walking on the sidewalk in her wide, white shoes, staring at the ground, determined not to hurt them as she clomped along the concrete. “Daddy,” she said once, “why are they so little? It’s so not fair!”

A couple more months pass. I haven’t seen Kate in a week. When I filed a police report they treated me like a criminal. “What does she do for a living?” “She’s a journalist.” “Uh-huh. We’ll be in touch.”

I call every day. Sometimes three, four times a day. All I get is a stern warning that they are doing what they can.

I walk with the dog, asking neighbors if they’ve seen Kate. They look at me warily and hurry inside. Every night when I try to get a little sleep, I’m scared for her, afraid for her, wondering where she is.

Tonight, as I look for a candle during yet another power outage, I shrug, wondering what difference one stupid choice can really make in such a loud crowd of other choices. It was just one stupid vote.

It wouldn’t have mattered, I try to tell myself, as I cast light on the bed frame with a candle, if I had voted the other way. I lay on top of the bed after blowing out the candle, tuck my gun under the pillow, and spend the night trying to fall asleep on my sweat-drenched pillow in the consuming Texas heat.


This story originally appeared on Medium. I’m reproducing it here under a different title.

This short story was written by a human, not AI.