This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
The American flag hung limply on a staff at the front of Randolph Hall at the College of Charleston on this sweltering September afternoon. In the oppressive humidity, students moved slowly through Cistern Yard, the heart of the campus, moss hanging almost lifeless from the giant oaks in the walled-in yard dating back to the early 1800s. Brady Young sat on one of the concrete benches beneath one of the oaks, one leg across the other, eyeing the flag. His plan was simple. Return back here tonight, a moonless night, climb the steps of Randolph Hall, remove the silk red, white and blue flag from its stanchion and replace it with a Confederate flag he had heisted a few nights earlier from a frat house.
It was a prank but it wasn’t a prank. Faculty and students would be jolted by the sight of the Confederate flag. But a few of the more astute ones might get the symbolism. It was Brady’s belief that not everyone was treated equally here at the College of Charleston. Within the ranks of more than 11,000 students, there was something resembling a caste system. The Brahmins were the “bros” – the guys with enough cool and swagger that they could talk about nothing and still get the attention of the many attractive girls at the college. The social stratification went down from there – all the way down the caste system to the “untouchables,” the students the bros referred to as nerds who were focused solely on their studies and were the epitome of “uncool.” Brady despised the bros for how they treated anyone who wasn’t like them. He was dismissed by the bros as the smart kid from Colorado who got a full-ride scholarship to the College of Charleston, but didn’t have the flash or cash that were prerequisites for bro-dom. The swapping of the flag, as Brady saw it, was a silent protest, on his behalf and many other students at the College of Charleston who didn’t quite measure up to the “Brohmins.” Brady had lifted the Confederate flag from one of the frat houses a few nights earlier, and eventually the flag would be traced back to the Sigma Alpha Phi house, whose fraternity members would be questioned by College of Charleston police about how their Confederate flag came to replace the American flag in the sacred Cistern Yard. The Brohmins might lose their cool over that. The Confederate flag flew over the state Capitol in Columbia, but alongside the American and South Carolina flags. Brady didn’t understand why the Confederate flag was still on display at the Capitol. As someone from the West, he saw it as a symbol of the enslavement of millions of people. One of his political science professors, however, explained that to many it represented the culture and heritage of the South. But Brady couldn’t justify how the Confederate flag could still be flying anywhere in 2012, with a black president in the White House and equality supposedly the law of the land. He did know, though, that even here the Sigma Alpha Phi bros would have a hard time explaining how their Confederate flag was standing in the place of the American flag in Cistern Yard. That was a sacrilege beyond the pale, even here in conservative South Carolina.
After leaving the campus in the late afternoon heat on his old but serviceable Raleigh road bike, Brady stopped at a Korean restaurant on Calhoun Street. His scholarship money covered his tuition and books, and his parents provided him with an allowance for rent and food, but there was little left over to go out to a restaurant. As a result, Brady had cultivated relationships with some of the more generous downtown restaurant owners. Mama Rhee, who owned the Korean restaurant, was the most generous of them all. She had taken a shine to him because of his willingness to talk about her native country, and her relatives who still lived in Seoul. Brady was a political science major, with an emphasis in international affairs, and he’d had some long conversations with Mama Rhee about the threat the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un posed to South Koreans living within a missile’s striking distance of their homes, including Mama Rhee’s relatives. Brady had discussed the need for the U.S. to work with the Chinese to temper North Korea. “Can’t trust Chinese,” Mama Rhee argued, reflecting the long-standing resentment against China for its aid to communist forces during the Korean War. Brady knew that Mama Rhee had lost her father in that war.
Today, Mama Rhee was behind the counter directing her staff in dinner preparations for the tourists who often found their way to her store-front restaurant, which had a reputation for the best Korean food in downtown Charleston. On any given week, thousands of tourists disembarked from cruise ships a few blocks away, and Mama Rhee had prospered as a result. Brady stood at the front of the counter, eyeing the menu above it until Mama Rhee noticed him.
“Ah, Brady. What looks good to you today? Want to try the kimchi stew special? It’s fresh. Just made.”
“That sounds good, Mama, but I’m a little short of cash today. I’ll settle for a bowl of rice.”
This was the dance he and Mama Rhee always went through before she told him, as she did today, “No, no, no. I can tell you’re hungry. You let me get you the kimchi stew – on the house.” Brady wasn’t particularly fond of kimchi, but he was hungry.
“That’s very kind of you, Mama,” Brady said as he watched Mama Rhee ladle the stew into a dish. “But let me pay you with what I have.” He fished four wadded-up dollar bills out of his pocket and extended them to Mama Rhee.
“You save that for breakfast,” she said, handing him the plate. “Now, sit and enjoy the food.”
Brady took a seat near the window that looked onto Marion Square, with its monumental statue of John C. Calhoun presiding over the square. Brady knew that Calhoun, the seventh vice president of the nation, was an icon in the South, notwithstanding his passionate defense of slavery, because of his support for the preservation of southern values and the way of life in the South in the 1800s. Nearly 200 years later, Calhoun’s stern visage had looked over a gathering of the Occupy Wall Street movement in Marion Square. Brady had been there, having joined the staff of the College of Charleston student newspaper as a reporter in his freshman year and covering the event on a cold mid-October night. He had decided to “embed” himself in the protest to better cover it. Personally, he also sympathized with the Occupy Wall Street movement, because he believed in its basic premise that the 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans were getting wealthier while the remaining 99 percent of the population were losing out. He had traveled with three friends to Zuccotti Park in New York in September 2011 to join the inaugural protest there. Brady listened to the speakers railing against income inequality and the need to take action to remake the political process through campaign finance reform, electing politicians who would take steps to redistribute the wealth, and get tough on the big banks that had wrecked the economy through their risky lending. He heard the exhortations to occupy banks and corporate headquarters until change began to happen. Increasingly, though, he saw the movement – while right in its mission – as an exercise in futility. Politicians were beholden to the special interests that bankrolled their campaigns, and incumbents seldom lost because they had the money to keep getting elected. Corporations weren’t going to change unless they were boycotted by consumers, but Brady thought they’d still shop – as he often did – at places like Wal-Mart, because of the lower prices. It was going to take a lot more than a few thousand Occupy Wall Street protesters to effect change. Still, the message stuck with Brady, who had volunteered to cover the movement for the student newspaper when it caught on in Charleston a month after the New York protest. He went to some of the organizational meetings, but became even more disenchanted by what he saw as a strange protocol. There were no leaders at the meetings, just groups that offered a proposal and tried to reach a consensus among the entire gathering. There was a lot of raising and lowering of hands, but in the end there was no general consensus on anything.
After that, Brady covered the main protest in Marion Square with the feeling that he was a professional – mingling with the protestors, interviewing them, but keeping his distance. That lasted until about midnight, when Brady’s hands were so cold he could barely hold his reporter’s notebook and keep his fingers moving. Some of the protestors began crawling into their sleeping bags and Brady picked his way among the rumpled bags, thinking maybe it was time to go home. He heard a voice behind him.
“Brady, is that you?”
Brady turned and saw the blond head of Melissa Berry, the girlfriend of Chuck Hensley, a hulking rugby player who lived two doors down from him at his College Lodge dorm.
“Uh, yeah, it’s me,” Brady said, stepping over a couple of sleeping bags to get closer to Melissa, who was a tanned and trim tennis player who Brady had ogled when he saw her coming and going from Chuck’s room.
“You look awful cold,” Melissa said. “Are you here for the newspaper?”
“Yeah, I am, but I’m thinking about boogying on out of here. Looks like everybody’s bedding down for the night. Pretty hard to interview people when they’re sleeping.”
“Well, hey, why don’t you warm up before you go? Crawl into the bag with me. It’s well-insulated. Nice and warm.”
“I’d love to, Melissa,” Brady said, feeling a stir beneath his jeans. “But I’m not sure Chuck would approve of that.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m not coming on to you. Just trying to be nice. You’re shaking you’re so cold.”
Brady was shaking, but he wasn’t sure it was entirely from the cold. “Well, maybe for just a few minutes, until I warm up enough to ride my bike back to the dorm. Where is Chuck, by the way?”
“He’s not into this kind of thing. I’ve tried to get him to become more socially aware. I asked him to come but he said he’d rather go work out at the fitness center. He just doesn’t get what we’re trying to accomplish here – to get the people of Charleston to wake up.”
Gingerly, Brady climbed into Melissa’s sleeping bag, careful to keep the same kind of distance he had covering the protest. It was impossible, of course, and he felt her warm, lithe body nestled against him. He lay quietly, enjoying the warmth and the feel of a body he doubted he would ever have. Within minutes, his limbs thawing, Brady was asleep.
Brady awoke to the glare of a TV camera’s lights on him, as a late-night news photographer stalked among the prone figures. Brady and Melissa raised their heads before ducking back inside the sleeping bag.
“Shit,” Brady said as he scrambled out of the bag. “I hope they don’t use that. I’ll be screwed in more ways than one.”
“Oh, so what,” Melissa said, rubbing her eyes. “Nothing happened. We were just keeping each other warm. And I’m sure they’ve got plenty of other film they can use. Don’t worry about it, Brady. And don’t be a stranger. Come to one of my tennis matches.”
Fulfilling his worst anxiety, Brady appeared on the evening news the following night, as part of the B-roll showing the protestors sacked out in their sleeping bags. Not only did he have to explain to his editor what he was doing in the sleeping bag, he also had to explain to Chuck was he was doing in Melissa’s sleeping bag.
“It was just so cold,” Brady had told both his editor and his dorm-mate. “Nothing happened, I swear.” His editor told him, “Don’t ever let something like that happen again, or you’re out,” which meant that Brady would lose the $60 per month stipend he received writing for the Cistern Yard News. His dorm-mate was less forgiving, telling Brady that if he ever even spoke to his girlfriend again, he’d beat him to a pulp.
Brady never redeemed himself with Chuck, avoiding him as much as possible, but he did with the newspaper, covering the 2012 presidential campaign as it came through the college campus. That gave Brady some standing on campus. In particular, students complimented him on a piece he had written about the candidacy of Ron Paul, the maverick libertarian candidate. The article had struck a chord with these students, some of them veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Still picking at his kimchi stew, Brady pulled from his backpack a folder that contained all his clips from the Cistern Yard News. He found his Rand Paul story, which somehow seemed relevant to what he had planned for tonight. Brady re-read it, looking for some context and justification for his plan.
It was dark, and I was lost somewhere in the depths of West Ashley. Things were getting strange – a barren Home Depot across from an empty Lowe’s, two snarling dogs pulling a fat man in a wheelchair along the highway, and a wrong turn on a street that turned to dirt so fast I peeled out and nearly blew a tire. I stopped in front of a trailer where a group of six men were drinking Coors and roasting a massive pig over a fire pit. I could barely see their faces, and the flitting light made them look like wild and rugged country folk. They eyed me cautiously while I asked for directions, skeptical of my borrowed four-door city sedan, but lightened up when I told them I was heading to the Charleston for Ron Paul headquarters. I asked what they thought of the Republican presidential candidate.
“He’s an old bastard,” one said, and took a long sip of beer. “But he don’t give you no bullshit. Tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.”
This appreciation of the 76-year-old politician’s blunt, sometimes brutal honesty seems to be a common thread among supporters. He seems infinitely more “real” than the other candidates in debates, and his speeches would be better labeled as talks. Recently, Paul came to the College of Charleston for a rally in the Stern Center garden where he was met by a crowd of hundreds of students, many of whom skipped class to attend. The garden was nearly filled to capacity, and people were hanging out of balconies of surrounding houses and perched on fences. As Paul entered through a back gate, he was greeted by applause and cheers more thunderous than I have ever heard at a political event. It was so loud that the noise was picked up by the podium’s microphone and could be heard through the speakers. This kind of ruckus is typical of Paul fans – a political radio host once told me never to overestimate the number of Paul supporters at an event based on noise, because they are the “loudest, rowdiest bunch of animals out there.” A chant of “President Paul!” broke out, and it was carried for a good thirty seconds until the candidate began.
Ranting more than speaking, the candidate wound his way through the ills of government and his plans to fix them. You like Paul the same way you like your disgruntled, crotchety grandfather who constantly complains about the newspaper and tells funny stories that open with “back in my day.” His voice is folksy but fiery, like a gold prospector from the 1850s, and his demeanor is homespun and not pretentious. The content of the speech seemed to resonate with the crowd as Paul riffed on small government, disengagement from foreign wars and occupations, elimination of the income tax, and an audit of the Federal Reserve. The loudest applause came after his calls to end the drug war, repeal the Patriot Act, and prevent the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
The students’ energy was uplifting, but eerie. How could a Republican who wants to eliminate the Department of Education, opposes universal health care, and is anti-abortion (though doesn’t support a federal law banning it) draw this kind of crowd on a relatively liberal college campus?
One student dressed in a Grateful Dead t-shirt was still undecided about who he would vote for, saying probably Obama but maybe Ron Paul if he gets on the ballot. “He’s really damn smart, and knows what’s going on. You can’t pay for stuff with money you don’t even have.”
Another ex-Obama supporter mused that both parties are guilty of “passing the buck” to the next generation.
Others focused on the drug issue, and that Paul has acquired a “coolness” that fellow candidates lack.
“Yeah, a lot of people probably like him because he wants to legalize drugs,” said Clair Hollingsworth, “but I also think he has voter appeal like Obama did in his campaign. He’s not the underdog, but he has a lot of unexpected ideas.”
In 2008, Obama tapped into the youth vote, with 66 percent of young voters casting their ballot for him in the largest-ever showing for a presidential candidate in this age group. He was charismatic, easy – a cool young president – and he hit social media hard. Ron Paul seems to have a similar youth appeal, and my goal was to find out why. Tipped off by a member of the college’s Youth for Ron Paul group, I set out for the Ron Paul headquarters.
After thanking the men for directions and refusing some pork and a beer, I backtracked and continued along the road. It was pitch black now and I could barely make out street signs, let alone numbers on buildings. Again, I went too far and had to turn around. I was getting really frustrated. How could this little office in the middle of nowhere, West Ashley be the statewide headquarters for a national presidential hopeful who had taken second in the New Hampshire primary? After passing my third trailer park of the night, I spotted an old lit-up church sign that read “Charleston for Ron Paul 2012” and pulled into the dirt parking lot.
The place was not what I had in mind. It was a simple one-story house, its brown roof missing shingles and decorated with the kind of flags you find at used car dealerships. The only light in the area came from a dim streetlight and the house itself. I had pictured some decently swanky office in a shopping center or commercial park with rows of desks set up, filled with computers and neat-looking banners and men in suits. As I walked up the steps, it seemed more likely that I’d find a small band of nutjob gun freak libertarians dishing out signs and phone lists to college kids willing to soak up any sort of political ideology that sounded remotely against the status quo.
Neither turned out to be the case. The door opened into a room that was bare except for a couple tables and a TV playing CNN in the corner, and there were a few groups of twenty-somethings chatting and more making phone calls from cell phones. One was standing alone reading a pamphlet, and I approached him.
Adam Elamir, a tall, soft-spoken 23-year-old college graduate with a degree in political science, made the journey to Charleston from the suburbs of Bergen County, New Jersey. He had flown down that day to help out the Paul campaign during primary week. Adam, a self-proclaimed “Obama zombie” in 2008, said that “change sounded awesome, but I wasn’t thinking for myself.” After studying political science and economics in college and on his own, he became a Republican.
At first, he just wanted to get Obama out of office. He believed Republican candidate Mitt Romney could do that, but also thought his and other Republicans’ foreign policy was flawed. Adam said if Mitt Romney gets the Republican nomination he will probably vote for him over Obama, but may not vote at all.
He then abandoned the mainstream Republican Party and got into Ron Paul after reading one of his books, Liberty Defined. Like most Paul supporters, he hasn’t looked back since.
“Ron Paul really did influence me to get into politics. I’ve become a big political junkie. I’d never think a politician would have that much influence on me. He’s turned into a rock star, like a big NFL player. It’s good though, he’s forcing people to educate themselves with his teachings, and it’s really good for the youth. Plus, he makes a lot of sense, has great foreign policy, and, most importantly, has a real plan.”
Adam said he would remain in South Carolina until the primary results are in, after which he might head to Florida for its primary on January 31. I asked him where he was staying, and he didn’t know. He mentioned that some Ron Paul organizers might have free room and board somewhere, but didn’t seem worried. “I’ll find something,” he said with a smile.
I made my way to the back of the house and entered a small makeshift office, walls plastered with maps of Charleston and signs and pamphlets scattered everywhere. Sitting behind the desk was a wiry Kurtz-like man named James who directs Charleston for Ron Paul, the grassroots operation that has replaced the lack of an official Paul presence in the state. The all-volunteer organization is independent from the official campaign and self-funded by donations from supporters, which pay for water, electricity, refreshments and the wealth of campaign materials they distribute. James, forehead permanently wrinkled from his hectic duties, was busy mapping out a sign route for some volunteers and pointed me to a man probably in his mid-forties talking to three college kids from Clemson who looked at him with reverence as he spoke,
Glen Bradley, a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, was at the original “Tea Party” in December 2007, which was actually a “money bomb” for Ron Paul put on by supporters. Since then, he says, the Tea Party has been “stolen by the GOP” and “twisted into something much different from Ron Paul’s message” – which is to leave nearly everything up to the states. Bradley came to South Carolina to help with the campaign and has found the youth turnout astounding.
Like Adam, college students and other youth who make the quest to Paul headquarters – a fairly common occurrence – are on a pilgrimage of sorts, to find what they have been sheltered from all their lives, to find truth and realness in a world of illusion and deception. It is a place where their voice matters, where they can actually do something. Many are the same kids who were swept up by Obama’s promises of Change in ’08, his fresh and youthful perspective, and now feel abandoned by the president’s pursuit of senseless wars, refusal to protect civil liberties, and bailing out of banks and other corporations.
Voting for Ron Paul, too, allows a generation forsaken by both sides of the political spectrum to fight back in a meaningful way. The wizened, quirky old man is an outlet for the frustrations experienced by a youth that has felt its voice go unheard. He is real, and he speaks the truth – something everyone, even those who don’t support Paul, would agree we need more of today.
Brady looked back out over Marion Square, the scene of those unheard voices during the Occupy Wall Street movement and found the context for what he was about to do in Cistern Yard. It was a protest against inequality, which had many forms, from how the Brohmins treated their fellow students to a larger society where those on the lower rungs of the social ladder never had a chance. The Occupy movement hadn’t gone anywhere, and Rand Paul had lost, but it was still all wrong.
After finishing up his meal at Mama Rhee’s, Brady rode his bike up Meeting Street from downtown to Columbus Street, where he took a right turn through the not-yet-gentrified neighborhood where he lived. He knew most everyone in this neighborhood – the Lebanese guy who sold lamb kabobs on one street corner, the hookers in front of a crack house on another, the little black kids making fake roses out of sweetgrass that they would sell for a dollar to tourists on King Street, and the muscular young men who played basketball on a cracked court in a deteriorating city park a few blocks from Brady’s row house on America Street. Brady knew many of these people because he had engaged with them. He had made a point of striking up conversations with them, talking about their lives and tribulations. Among the people of this neighborhood, Brady was the witty college kid who seemed genuinely interested in their lives. It brought him an acceptance that allowed him to ride his bike home from school at midnight through this neighborhood and receive nothing but nods and waves from black people who other white people might fear.
Brady rounded the corner of Columbus and America Street, where he encountered one of his neighborhood friends – a 6-foot-6 middle-aged black man who repaired bikes, motorcycles and mopeds on the sidewalk in front of his house. From his conversations with Artemis LeClair, Brady knew he was of Creole heritage, with his enslaved forebearers migrating at some point from Louisiana to Charleston. LeClair had chuckled when he was fixing the derailleur one day on Brady’s Raleigh and Brady remarked that he reminded him of the mythological Hercules.
“No, man, those dudes were all white,” LeClair had instructed.
“No, you’re wrong,” Brady had replied. “That’s just the spin the Caucasians put on it. Hey, even Jesus was half black.”
“Yeah, I know that, but that don’t play around here.”
Brady still owed Hercules a few dollars for fixing the derailleur, and today he stopped to pay him.
“Yo, Artemis. How’s it going?”
“Hot as a motherfucker, but least I’m working.”
“Well, I’ve got the rest of the money I owe you,” Brady said, getting off his bike, fishing the four dollars out of his pocket and handing them to Artemis, who stuck them in a pocket of his overalls.
“So what’s new in the neighborhood?” Brady asked.
“Got a visit from a city inspector yesterday. Said I need a business license for doing what I’m doing out here on the street.”
“How much is that?”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Got no choice. Got to pay it. But at least I’ll be legal. I make more doing this than working in one of the places downtown.”
Brady knew that reality all too well. He had spent much of the summer shucking oysters and deveining shrimp at one of the seafood restaurants downtown. It was hot, tedious, mind-numbing work and paid $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage in South Carolina.
“You’re right about that, and you’re damn good at what you do, Artemis,” Brady said. “You could be a mechanic at any of the dealerships around here.”
“Fraid not. Don’t have enough education. I never even finished high school.”
“I got into some trouble when I was 17 and did some time. When I got out, my daddy was no longer around and I had to go to work to help my mama pay the rent and the bills. I thought about going back to school or getting my GED, but then I started a family of my own and never got around to it. Too late now. It’s all I can do now to take care of my family and try to keep my boys on the right track.”
Brady knew Artemis had a wife and two teenaged boys he worried about.
“You hear about the shooting in the park last night?” Artemis asked Brady.
“No, I was at the library until late last night. I did see some cop cars at the park on my way back, but that’s not unusual. What happened?”
“Another drug deal drive-by. Somebody didn’t pay up and got a bullet as payback. The guy survived but it’s only a matter of time before there’s another one. It’s not getting any better around here.”
“Why do you think so?” Brady asked.
“The kids around here have no future. They go to school, but half the time they go to school hungry. They get behind and the teachers aren’t good enough to help them catch up. So they stay behind, get bad grades and eventually the streets look a lot better than the classroom. That’s where the trouble really starts, with the drugs and whatall. And pretty soon they’re in trouble with the law.”
Brady had a feeling Artemis was telling his own story. Artemis continued, “We got a black president now, and for awhile I believed things might get better. But nothing seems to change around this neighborhood. Good jobs aren’t exactly falling off the trees. We can’t even get the city to repave the basketball court in the park, or even restring the nets.”
“I’ve noticed that,” Brady said. “But the guys are still playing all the time.”
“That’s because they have dreams of being the next Lebron James or Kobe Bryant. Only problem is, they’d have to stay in school to do that, and their chances of making it to the NBA are about the same as me owning a car dealership.”
Artemis wiped his brow with an orange rag he always kept in his overall pockets.
“You’re a good kid, Brady. You’re the only white kid I’ve known around here who gives two shits about black folks. Too bad there aren’t more like you. Why do you even care? You got yourself a bright future.”
“Yeah, maybe. But I look at your sons and the other kids in the neighborhood and I just don’t understand why they can’t have the same chance I do. And they deserve it a lot more than some of the assholes I go to school with – the rich kids who piss on everybody.”
Artemis laughed. “You don’t get it, man. They’re white and we’re black. There’s still a difference. Don’t matter who’s in the White House.”
“Well, it still sucks,” Brady said, getting back on his bike. “I’ll see you around, Artemis. And, hey, if you need a place to work, there’s always the back yard at my house. There’s nothing back there besides a fire pit and a lot of empty beer cans.”
Artemis laughed again and waved Brady off.
It was late afternoon, with the cypress trees on America Street beginning to cast long shadows, when he reached the row house where he lived with three other College of Charleston sophomores. They, like Brady, had lived in the dorms at the College of Charleston for their freshman year, but moved off-campus for their second year. It was Brady who had found the house on America Street – the irony of the name not lost on him -- and then he advertised on campus for roommates. That was potluck, but his roommates turned out to be decent guys, not bro-ish, although one had some bro aspirations. Brady’s favorite of the bunch was Forrest, a bespectacled kid from Hollywood, South Carolina, and a scholarship student like Brady, although his focus was math. Forrest had scored an 800 on the math portion of the SAT, contrasting with a dismal score on the verbal section. But it was enough for the admissions department to give Forrest sufficient scholarship money and other financial aid to move out of his parents’ double-wide trailer in Hollywood and come to the College of Charleston. Forrest’s mother was disabled, and his father, a line foreman at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, had had to cut his hours at the plant to take care of his wife after Forrest left for college. Forrest had told Brady he felt guilty about this, because he had been the one taking care of his mom most of the time while he was in high school. Brady liked Forrest because he thought of others besides himself. Forrest, like Brady, also was a little offbeat, chain-smoking and riffing away in philosophic monologues after he had had a half-dozen PBRs on the evenings when the other roommates had friends over. Most of them thought Forrest was a little crazy, but Brady sensed the genius behind Forrest’s eccentricity. Brady saw some sense in the things Forrest talked about, such as the bit-coin being the world’s future currency or how hedge-funders manipulated the stock market with lightning speed digital trades. Forrest was the only one Brady had told about his plan to replace the American flag at Cistern Yard with a Confederate flag, which took Forrest a few seconds to puzzle through before the broke out into a paroxysm of laughter. “The South shall rise again, courtesy of the frat boys,” he had said. “You are one bold Yankee, Brady, but you got to be careful the bros or the law don’t hunt you down. You’ll find yourself hanging from a magnolia tree.”
Forrest was the only one home when Brady came through the door. He was sitting in the living room on the faded-green couch pock-marked with cigarette burns, staring into his computer with a Newport dangling from his lips. He glanced up briefly at Brady and then went back to staring into his laptop.
“Hey, Brady, what’s up? How’d the scoping mission go?”
“Piece of cake. The flag’s not even secure. It’s just on a pole that slides into a stanchion. Same as the frat flag. All I have to do is shimmy up the column a little bit, make the switch and book it out of there.”
“What about surveillance cameras?”
“Didn’t see a single one. I mean, what’s there to steal in Cistern Yard that they’d have cameras?”
Forrest frowned. “Don’t get so overconfident, man. The campus cops are still always on patrol.”
“Got that figured out, too. There’s only two of them patrolling the whole campus at midnight, when there’s a shift change. They’ll be busy making the transition at the cop shop on St. Philip Street a half-mile away when the deed goes down.”
“Where are Alex and Chris?” Brady inquired about his other two roommates. “My only worry is that they’ll want to know where I am when I’m not here at midnight.”
“THAT you don’t have to worry about. Alex is spending the night at his girlfriend’s place and Chris is going to some party. He’ll either never make it home tonight or he’ll be too blitzed to care if he does.”
Brady ate some leftover spaghetti and had a couple of PBRs himself before going upstairs to his room to study for a Latin American history exam he had tomorrow, and to grab a couple of hours of sleep before heading out. He set the alarm on his phone for 11 p.m., which would give him enough time to pedal his way down to campus on King Street. Even on a Wednesday night, King Street would still be bustling, with the bars not closing until 2 a.m. He had made this nighttime trip innumerable times, going to the college library and back. The last thing he did before falling asleep was stuff the Confederate flag into his backpack. He had already lashed the six-foot-long flagpole to the Raleigh and put an orange flag at the top, so it resembled one of those caution flags bikers used riding around the busy streets of Charleston.
Brady woke with a start when his alarm went off at 11, a little disoriented from a dream he’d had about being chased by a campus cop riding a llama. He shook it off, knowing it was just his imagination overreacting to what he was about to do. Rationally, he knew his plan was virtually fool-proof. He dressed, slung his backpack over his shoulder and stepped carefully down the stairway. Whoever was here seemed to be asleep. Nothing was stirring. Brady quietly opened the front door and locked it before going to the side yard to retrieve the Raleigh leaning against the house with the orange caution flag in place. The neighborhood was still jumping as he rode down Columbus Street, with the night just beginning for some of the residents. As usual, there was a Charleston Police Department car parked along the street near the liquor store, occupied by two officers. This was part of the department’s “community policing” effort, but most of the neighborhood believed it was really just some extra vigilance the department applied to high-crime areas.
As Brady expected, King Street was still busy, with a lot of whooping and hollering from the tourists and young people old enough to drink – or in possession of a passable false ID. The traffic on King Street was still heavy and slow, allowing Brady to cruise behind it with little trouble. From all outward appearances, he was just another college student coming back downtown from somewhere, the orange flag flapping innocently in the heavy night air.
Brady turned onto Calhoun Street and a block later steered carefully onto the campus, passing the statue of the college’s mascot, a cougar, which was one of the first things Brady noticed when he arrived on campus for freshman orientation more than a year ago. Having grown up in Colorado, Brady had seen a cougar or two in the mountains, and knew they had a range and habitat of about fifty miles. This cougar’s name was Clyde and he hadn’t moved an inch in ten years, just held his ground with the same fierce look on his face as students entered and exited the adjacent student union building. Now, at this hour, the student union was closed and Brady saw no one as he pedaled along the brick walkways leading to Cistern Yard, passing the antebellum mansions converted into offices and classrooms and seeing no lights on in any of them. That’s good, Brady thought, not a soul around to spot him on his way back. Entering Cistern Yard from the rear gate, he slowed the Raleigh and leaned it against one of the big oak trees. The yard was lit up by floodlights – the one thing that worried Brady. But if he moved quickly, taking less than a minute to swap out the flags and get back on his bike, that shouldn’t create too great of a risk.
College of Charleston Police Officer Monisha Allen was late for the shift change and pushing her Segway to its maximum speed of 12 mph as she came north on St. Phillip Street after busting some students for drinking outside the Liberty Street Residence Hall. She’d issued some minor-in-possession citations and had to listen to several of the students complain about what their parents would think, how this would look on their college records, and the usual arguments she’d heard a hundred times before as one of the College of Charleston’s finest. After ten years on the force, and a single black mother of two teenagers who would probably have to go to the more affordable Trident Technical College rather than the College of Charleston, pity for over-privileged students was not one of Officer Allen’s priorities.
Allen happened to glance to her left toward Cistern Yard as she sped up St. Philip Street. She saw a break in the light from the floodlights in the yard – a shadow that interrupted the flow of the light. Could be a tree swaying, Allen thought, but there was no wind on this muggy September night. Shit, she said to herself, better check it out, even if it meant she’d get home late. She did a U-turn and headed for the rear gate. As she moved slowly through the archway of the gate, Allen spotted a figure shinnying down one of the columns at the front of Randolph Hall with what appeared to be an American flag draped over his shoulders. Allen punched on her flashlight and beamed it at the figure. The cone of light also revealed another flag on the pole in front of Randolph Hall – a Confederate flag where the American flag had been. Son of a bitch, Allen thought, must be one of those goddamn neo-Nazi, white supremacist punks she knew hung around the periphery of the campus.
“Hey, you, halt where you are,” Allen shouted. “I’m a campus police officer. Don’t move.”
Brady froze for a second on the column. Shit, Brady thought, recognizing the voice. It was Officer Allen, who had busted him in his freshman year for possession of a six-pack of beer as he was coming back into his dorm late one night. That had resulted in a criminal charge of minor in possession of alcohol, a trip to the dean of students and a warning that went on his record. This would be far worse if he got caught, probably meaning the loss of his scholarship, and Brady’s mind raced with his options. He could outrun Officer Allen’s segway on the Raleigh, but by now she was between him and the bike, coming up the path through the center of Cistern Yard. But if he left the bike, it had a College of Charleston bike sticker on it registered to his name. On the other hand, if he could outrun the segway on foot, he could later claim that he had left the bike there earlier in the day. There were bikes left all over campus overnight. So Brady decided to flee out of there by foot through the side gate. He jumped down from the column, tossed the American flag into the bushes in front of Randolph Hall, and took off in a sprint. Even though he was fast, having played wide receiver on his high school football team, Brady knew he couldn’t outrun the segway. He would have to make some quick cuts like he did against defensive backs, feinting one way and then going another, in hopes of confusing Allen and slowing her down. The campus also had a lot of little alleyways between the buildings that he could run down, forcing Allen to slow down in order to negotiate the turns. There was a chance he could get away.
Brady was huffing after the first 100 yards. It had been a long time since he had run this fast doing wind sprints at football practice. And he could hear the whir of the segway gaining on him, despite his zigging and zagging. Then, he saw hope. He spotted a dark alleyway to his left and dashed for it. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the segway go by, past the alleyway. Brady slowed down and then stopped, with his hands on his knees and heaving breaths. He tried to stifle them, fearing the noise would give his location away. When his breathing evened out, Brady walked slowly down the alleyway, even thinking about circling back when he got to the next street and getting his bike. But as he approached the end of the alleyway, he saw the outline of a vehicle that looked like it might be a campus cop cruiser. Brady panicked and turned to reverse his direction, but coming his way was the single light of the segway. He turned back and the lights of the cruiser flashed at him, its high beams nearly blinding him. He was trapped. No way out. He thought about what would be worse -- meeting with Officer Allen or the unknown officer in the cruiser. He thought his chances might be better with Officer Allen. So he waited until she pulled up alongside of him.
Monisha Allen unholstered her Taser as she approached Brady and beamed her flashlight in his face.
“Well, well, who do we have here? You’re Brady Young, right? The same Brady Young I met last year trying to smuggle beer into College Lodge.”
“Yes, ma’am. But it was just one six-pack.”
“You’re right. Just a flyspeck of an offense compared with what you were up to tonight. Stealing the American flag off of Randolph Hall.”
“I wasn’t stealing it, Officer Allen. Just replacing it.”
“With a Confederate flag. What are you? A Klanner?”
“No, no, no, officer. It was a prank. Actually, it was a protest of what I see all around me as racial bias here on the campus,” Brady said, thinking quickly. “Nearly thirty percent of the population of South Carolina is black, but less than five percent of the students at the College of Charleston are black. That’s a huge inequality, denying a College of Charleston education to all the local black kids who deserve one.”
Monisha Allen weighed this. She knew what Brady Young said was true, but it was also bullshit to avoid an arrest. The law was the law. She also saw Officer Buddy Johnson approaching from the cruiser. Johnson, a middle-aged, pot-bellied former Charleston Police Department officer, was the hard-liner on the College of Charleston police force. Everything by the book. If a crime had been committed, the suspect would be handed over to the Charleston Police Department and booked at the central jail.
“You might be right,” Allen said, with her hand still on the Taser. “But you still stole the flag. By the law, that’s petty larceny, maybe worse. Depends what the flag’s worth.”
“This the guy?” Johnson asked Allen as he approached and moved toward Brady, undoing the handcuffs on his belt.
Brady was staring at the ground when Johnson told him, “I don’t know what you were up to, son, but you violated the law. South Carolina law not only protects the American flag but the Confederate flag, too. I’m writing you up for flag desecration and petty larceny, although a judge might decide the value of the flag could make it grand larceny. To me, the flag is priceless.”
Looking up and eyeing the handcuffs, Brady said, “I didn’t desecrate either flag. I just replaced one with the other. And the American flag is right back their in the bushes at the front of Randolph Hall.”
Johnson shook his head. “That sounds like flag desecration to me and you were caught in the act … So where’d you get the Confederate flag, anyway? Maybe from the Sigma Alpha Phi frat house that reported theirs stolen yesterday? Better fess up, boy, it’ll go easier for you.”
Brady frowned as he mulled this over. He doubted Johnson would be persuaded by the case he had just made to Officer Allen, who seemed to be deferring to Johnson. Plus, it sounded like the cops had the goods on him for the theft of the Confederate flag, once the flag now hanging at Randolph Hall was identified as the one stolen from the frat house. “It sounds like you’re going to arrest me no matter what I say.”
“That pretty much sums it up. I’ll let the solicitor and the judge sort it out,” Johnson said.
With that, the officer moved behind Brady and snapped the handcuffs on his wrists. “Let’s go,” he said. “We’re taking a ride.”
Brady looked at Monisha Allen, who he thought was shaking her head slightly. “How’d you catch me?” he asked her. “I thought I’d given you the slip by coming down the alleyway.”
“I knew where you were,” Allen replied without much enthusiasm. “I just wanted you to think I didn’t. Old police trick. Then I called for backup and you got to meet Officer Johnson. Good luck to you, Brady. I hope we don’t meet again. At least this way. I know you’re probably not a bad kid, but you can screw up your life all the same. You might be smart, but you’re a dumb criminal.”
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