The Shotgun Divorce

It’s very rare that a country splits in two. Korea did it (with the help of a war), leading to a case where one of the most advanced countries borders one of the most backward. Scotland almost seceded from the United Kingdom a while back; alas, that didn’t pan out. South Sudan might be a good example, if not for the fact that it’s now one of the poorest places in the world.

In modern times, there’s really only one positive data point for a country splitting: Czechoslovakia. The nation was born from Communism and the ashes of the World Wars, but it always had tension. Maybe not as much as its Yugoslav cousins, but the Czechs and Slovaks almost seemed destined to split.

That split took place in 1992. Less than 30 years ago, and not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, and the rest of the Cold War icons. Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic (now somewhat officially known as Czechia) and Slovakia—not to be confused with Slovenia, an entirely different place. Relatively speaking, it was a peaceful parting of ways. Even the popular name for the momentous occasion sounds affectionate: the Velvet Divorce.

The United States is fast approaching a point where our internal divisions are too great to overcome. We’re reaching critical mass, and the highly disputed elections of 2020 only brought that into sharper relief. Texas legislators are talking about secession, using the state’s inherent right to revoke the treaty which brought it into the Union in the first place. No other state has this option, and quite a few Constitutional scholars think Texas doesn’t, either. But that didn’t stop them in 1861, and it might not stop them 160 years later.

Another option

Let me preface all of this by saying that even the possibility of Texas leaving the US is very, very remote. Secessionists always speak up after an election. It’s just that they’re a lot more vocal now, for reasons which should be plain.

Especially in the so-called red states, like my own Tennessee, people are growing afraid. Afraid to speak their minds, afraid of losing their jobs, their culture, or their lives simply for having the “wrong” political opinion. That fear, if it remains at a high level, could lead to some drastic action.

But is there a better way? I think so.

A couple of months ago, after the affidavits, hidden-camera videos, and taped confessions began to come out, the state of Texas sued six other states. The rest of the US jumped in, all but Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Alaska (if I recall correctly) taking sides. Under the Constitution, only one court can hear a lawsuit where both parties are states: the Supreme Court.

That has been tried before. In the late 1800s, the states of Kentucky and West Virginia were drawn into the most famous blood feud in American history. A posse from Pike County, Kentucky, wanted to collect the reward on “Devil Anse” Hatfield (my third cousin, three times removed) and members of his family, all of whom were, at the time, living deep in the forested hills of West Virginia. Barely a generation removed from the Civil War, the issue of states’ rights was still fresh in the minds of those in power in either state. Anse’s brother happened to know the law well enough to use it against his family’s pursuers, and he had connections. In the new America of Reconstruction, he wanted to argue, were law enforcers from one state allowed into another, or did they need to contact their counterparts across the border? What about warrants? Rewards?

The feud was mostly resolved before the case could get anywhere, alas, but others have gone before the Supreme Court in the decades since. It’s not common; we get state-on-state action on average once every few years, and it’s usually for something trivial like where to draw a border.

And the Texas case wouldn’t get to change that, because the Court threw it on dubious grounds of a lack of standing. That was, in essence, the main problem of the election suits, a Catch-22 in the legal system. In almost every case, judges ruled that the plaintiffs’ arguments didn’t have merit because their objections should have been brought up before the election. Of course, those same judges would have thrown the cases out in October, too, this time saying that no harm had yet occurred. Honestly, it’s a clever way of punting.

But it means that we have an issue where some states are seeking redress from other states, and the only court with jurisdiction is refusing to hear any arguments. What to do? Secession looks more promising, given these legal hurdles, right?

I’d agree to that. However, I do think there’s room for a more amicable parting than what began at Fort Sumter. Following the best example of a national breakup I know (and the very familiar proclivities of my fellow Americans), I call this option the Shotgun Divorce.

He said, she said

Like any divorce, who gets what is one of the first things we have to consider. In this case, it’s somewhat simple. We want to peacefully divide the United States into two parts, loosely based on the majority political opinion. We can go by state for most of it.

  • One nation, call it the Republic of America (ROA), will be the “red” states of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, and Alaska. In addition, the supposedly blue states of Arizona and New Mexico are closer in culture and politics to nearby Texas, while the eastern half of Oregon is very unlike the socialist stronghold of Portland; a fringe movement to secede is gathering steam there, so we’ll allow it to join the ROA as the new state of Columbia. (I’d considered doing something similar in the Midwest, forming the state of Superior out of northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)

  • The other nation, which we’ll name the Democratic States of America (DSA), comprises California, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina, western Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and Hawaii.

The United States also has a number of outlying territories. With the exception of Puerto Rico, which is already on the path to statehood and would join the DSA, these can fall under joint rule for the time being. They include Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas Islands, the US Virgin Islands, and a few “Minor Outlying Islands” that barely have anyone living on them.

The District of Columbia is a special case for a few reasons. One, it’s the national capital, so awarding to it one party is almost like calling them superior. Two, it has a significant “civilian” population that is overwhelmingly Democratic, so not giving it to the DSA isn’t entirely fair. And three, the Constitution expressly prohibits making DC a state. This is a conundrum, and I think the best course of action is to declare the federally-owned parts of DC neutral territory, while reverting the rest of the District to Maryland.

This arrangement isn’t perfect by any means. The ROA has significantly more territory, though its not as densely populated as the DSA states. Those, however, are split in two: the West Coast is separated from the East Coast, Midwest, and New England. Maybe we could call that punishment for the jokes about flyover country? The only other option that comes to mind, short of a stretch along the northern or southern border, is three countries, but that seems too complex.

Dividing the spoils

Our fractured country is more than just land, though. A modern nation-state has a whole host of rights and responsibilities, along with interactions on the world stage. So we also have to look at how the Shotgun Divorce would affect these.

As we aren’t part of any super-national organizations like the EU, some of it is easy. We obviously need to convince other countries to accept the ROA and DSA as separate entities, but most would be ready to support one or the other, enough that we wouldn’t be left in limbo. Thus, we avoid the fate of Palestine, Catalonia, Tibet, East Turkestan, and Transnistria, all of which, despite fulfilling the basic requirements for nationhood, have their very existence questioned by world powers, and thus are relegated to a status best described as occupied by a foreign country.

Trade deals could be made with either party, or both, and many of the current treaties can remain in effect. The ROA and DSA could apply for individual status in the UN, WTO, and other global organizations. On the other hand, some might be unpalatable to one side: the ROA probably wouldn’t want membership in the WHO, for instance.

What happens to the USA’s current status would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, I think. Things like our permanent seat on the UN Security Council are hard to reconcile with the breakup I’m describing.

And that leads me into one of the most important domestic matters. What happens to the US military? Other federal organizations (FBI, CIA, DOT, etc.) would split into two, one for each side, but the armed forces comprise such a large and important part of our nation’s budget and focus that we need to consider its fate carefully. The bases aren’t too hard: they go to whichever side they fall into. The personnel, on the other hand, may need some reassignment.

Freedom of choice

This can tie into the meat of my argument: freedom of choice. It’s not enough to divide the United States into two groups that aren’t quite as united. That doesn’t solve the problem. Red states still have significant populations of Democrats, progressives, and even socialists in their major cities. Rural parts of blue states are full of gun-toting, God-fearing Republicans. Simply cutting along the lines gives us more discontent.

Instead, the divorce agreement needs to include a provision for free movement. Obviously, this starts with semi-open borders: minimal checkpoints along the new boundary between ROA and DSA, with no passports needed to cross from one to the other, but some sort of ID required at the official border crossings. Both sides also have to allow immigration from their counterpart, and here’s the kicker. Not only do they allow it, but they pay for it to start.

For a period of one year, the respective governments of the new nations would provide for families who wish to move to the “other” side, paying at least part of the cost. This can come in the form of a stipend for moving expenses, a tax rebate given to those who plan to leave, or whatever else works. The key is that everyone is given the choice. They’re not rounded up and kicked out, nor are they forced to live under a political system they find repugnant.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there is entirely free movement between the ROA and DSA. If we did that, it’s all for naught. So there are some checks. For one, you must live and work in the same country. For another, dual citizenship isn’t allowed. If, for example, this red-blooded Tennessean wants to marry a woman from newly-Communist Virginia (I don’t, by the way; my future wife already lives in my home state), then one of us will have to change sides. I move to the DSA, or she comes to the ROA, but something has to give. In a very meta twist, divorce would have to allow us to regain citizenship in the original country of our birth.

The greater experiment

The Shotgun Divorce is just a thought experiment, really. It has almost zero chance of ever happening, especially in the way I’m describing it. But if it did, I believe it would be better for everyone involved. True, the road would be rocky at the start. The transition from one United States to two would cause headaches for everyone, and even some of the tiniest questions have no good answers. (Who’s allowed to have a .us domain? Does shipping from DSA Washington to ROA Texas count as international? And would the USPS have to deliver?)

The positive advantages of this sort of breakup are twofold. One, it devolves power: with approximately 50% of the country, mostly those politically opposed to you, out of your way, your vote counts for twice as much. That brings us closer to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, most notably government that stems from the consent of the governed. For four years, nearly half of Americans refused that consent; now, the situation’s the same, but it’s the other half denying the legitimacy of the administration. With two countries, two governments, two presidents, this problem goes away.

Does that solve all the problems? No. Does it create more? Most likely. But it would give us the chance to run a true Great Experiment, and that’s the second advantage of my proposal. We almost never have the opportunity to use scientific methods in social situations. This would be one such opportunity.

A proper experiment requires a control group. The ROA/DSA split provides it. No matter which side of the divide you find yourself on, you can look at your new country as the continuation of the USA, while the other is an experiment in governing the way your enemies want. And maybe their way is better. Maybe your side will falter, while theirs enters a new golden age. Or maybe it’ll be the other way around.

We won’t know until we try.

A new chance

Substack is all the rage right now, so I’ve decided to give it a shot. I’ll never stop posting my thoughts here at PPC, but I hope to use this as a way to get some of my “deeper” posts to a wider audience. I intend to post something there twice a month to start, assuming I can get my depression and anxiety under control. The content isn’t going to discuss any of that, though. This is all about writing and creating worlds.

So check out Hardcore Worldbuilding and subscribe. It’s free, because I’m a long way off from making it a paid deal. And tell your friends…but only if they like rambling. I’m good at that.

The last Dark Age

In the title of this post, “last” means “previous” rather than “final”, for I truly believe we are on the precipice of a new Dark Age. With that in mind, it’s not that bad an idea to look back at the one that came before.

Defining the moment

A lot of modern academics don’t even like talking about the Dark Ages. They prefer the bland descriptor “Early Middle Ages” instead. But that line of thinking is faulty in multiple respects.

First, the given reasoning for referring to the Dark Ages as something else is because the “darkness” of the times was a localized concept. Outside of Europe, it wasn’t all that dark. Islam, for instance, had a bit of a renaissance around the same time, and China barely noticed the troubles of the West at all.

However, this same logic should dictate that the Middle Ages are no less localized. After all, the term comes from post-medieval sources who placed that time between their modern era and the classical period of the Greeks and Romans. Similarly, is referring to the Iron Age (which began around the time of the Greek Dark Ages, starting in 1177 BC) any less patronizing? Iron tools were never developed by natives in the Americas or Australia; what was the Iron Age in Anatolia would have been nothing more than the later Stone Age in Mesoamerica. The Middle Ages aren’t “middle” at all, except through the same lens that gives us the Dark Ages.

The second reason why it’s an error to conflate the Dark Ages with the Middle Ages is character, and it’s the subject of this post.

Beginning and ending

Before we can get to that, though, we need to define the limits of the period. The beginning is fairly easy, because Europe’s decline can be traced directly to the fall of Rome in 476 AD. This event was the culmination of decades of barbarian activity, with the entire empire facing threats from waves of migrant Vandals, Goths, Huns, and others. Those peoples slowly encroached upon Roman territory, nipping away at the borders, until they were able to reach the capital itself. Rome was sacked, and the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, fled into exile. Or was sent there. Conflicting tales exist, but the gist is clear: Europe no longer bowed to Rome.

Things didn’t change overnight, of course. The barbarian kings often paid homage to the Byzantine emperor who continued to style himself Roman all the way to the 15th century. For a time, they considered themselves successors to the western throne, or at least to the provinces it had once controlled.

No, the Dark Ages only truly began once continuity was lost. That was a slow breakdown over years, decades, generations. The barbarian hordes lacked Roman culture. Without an imperial presence in Europe, that culture began to disappear, fading into memory as those who continued to consider themselves Roman aged and died. Later in the post, we’ll look at what that entailed.

As for when the Dark Ages ended, that’s a tougher question. Some might point to the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. Indeed, this did rejuvenate Europe for a time, bringing about the Carolingian Renaissance, and the 9th century gave us a few technological advances; Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, by Joseph and Frances Gies, details some of these, including the three in the book’s title.

Another date might be 927, marking the defeat of the Vikings by Æthelstan, first King of England. This was significant from both a political and religious standpoint, as England became a unified Christian kingdom for the first time in its history; Spain, for instance, wouldn’t manage that for nearly 600 years. And Æthelstan’s victory over the Danes did begin to bring about the changes that define the Middle Ages, such as the feudal system.

Still others would argue that the Dark Ages didn’t really end until William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. By this point, all the pieces of the Middle Ages were in place, from the manorial society to the schism of Catholic and Orthodox. The Reconquista had begun in Spain, Turks were overrunning Byzantine lands, and the Crusades were about to begin. Clearly, the world had moved on from the Fall of Rome.


Personally, I think that’s too late, while the Charlemagne date of 800 seems a bit too early. But it may be that there is no single date we can point to and say, “The Dark Ages ended here.” Rather, there’s a continuum. The period ended at different times in different places throughout Europe, as connections to the past were rediscovered, and connections among those in the present were strengthened.

When the period began, the results were devastating. As Roman rule fell, so too did Roman institutions. The roads, so famous that we enshrine them in aphorisms, began to succumb to the ravages of time. Likewise for the bath, the forum, the legal framework, and the educational system.

The replacements weren’t always up to par, either. One of the reasons the Dark Ages are, well, dark is because of the relative lack of written works from the time. We have tons of Roman-era books: Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Ovid’s masterpieces, the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and even the New Testament of the Bible all come from the Roman world. By contrast, the best-known writings to come from the period 476-1066 are histories like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, religious texts such as those by Bede, and Beowulf.

That’s not to say that people in the Dark Ages were stupid. Far from it. Instead, they had different priorities. They lived in a different world, one that didn’t have much opportunity for philosophy. Even when it did, that was almost exclusively the domain of the Church, one of the few institutions that retained some measure of continuity with the previous age.

With the breakdown of Roman society came a change in the way people saw themselves. While the barbarians did become civilized, they didn’t become Romanized. Gone were the trappings of republic and the scholastic zeal we associate with Late Antiquity. Dark Age society focused more on tribal identity, family honor, and individual heroism. The world, in a sense, shrank for the average person. Some of the changes came from the pagan background of the Gauls, Goths, and others, but they retained them even after converting to Christianity.

The unifying power of the Church may have helped usher in the end of the Dark Ages, in that it created the backdrop for the centralization of secular power, turning petty kingdoms into nation-states. Seven English kingdoms became a single England. Vast swathes of Europe fell under the rule of the emperor in Aachen. And this could be seen as lifting the continent out of the mire. A powerful nation can build bigger than a small tribe; the grand cathedrals begun in the ninth and tenth centuries are evidence of that.

But that didn’t change the fact that so much had been lost. In some places, particularly rural Britain, standards of living (which weren’t all that high in Roman times, to be fair) dropped to a level not seen since the Bronze Age, some 2000 years before. With Roman construction and sanitation forgotten, life expectancies fell, as did urban population. This was the Dark Ages in a nutshell. When Hobbes describes early man’s life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” he’s also talking about post-Roman, pre-medieval Europe. A life without even the most basic trappings of civilization, with little hope for advancement except through heroic deeds, with the specter of death lurking around every corner…that’s not much of a life at all.

Light returns

The Dark Ages did, however, come to an end. As I said above, the ninth century brought about the Carolingian Renaissance, a small uplifting. Much later came the 12th-century version, which brought about the High Middle Ages. Bits of darkness lingered all the way to 1453, when the last vestige of ancient Rome fell to the Ottoman Empire.

Odoacer’s sack of the imperial capital in 476 brought about, in a sense, the end of the world. When Mehmed II did the same thing to the other Roman capital, Constantinople, a millennium later, the effect was quite different. Instead of a new Dark Age, the end of the Byzantines fanned the flames of the Renaissance. The true Renaissance, the one which deserves this name. By then, so much of classical times had been forgotten by Europe at large, but it was now rediscovered, the bonds reforged.

Dark Ages end when light shines through. Or when enough people decide that they are destined for greater things. In Europe, the three centuries after 476 were a period of stasis, even regression. What little of our modern media touches on this period tends to focus on heroes real or invented: Vikings, The Last Kingdom, and so on. That’s understandable, as the life of the ordinary Saxon in Winchester, the Frank in Paris, or the Lombard in Pavia is relatively dull and uninspiring. The ones whose names we remember are those who rose above that. Heroes exist in every age, no matter what the society around them looks like.

Darkness, in this sense, can be defeated. This is a darkness of ignorance, of barbarism, of tribal infighting. Knowledge is the light that washes it away. To this day, we still can’t recreate some of the progress of Antiquity: we don’t know precisely how the Romans made their concrete, the composition of Greek fire, or the purpose of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Those secrets were lost because continuity was lost. The passing of culture from one generation to the next stopped, breaking a chain that had endured for centuries. With our interconnected world of today, it’s easy to think that can’t happen anymore. After all, we can call up an entire library on our phones. But what happens when that chain is sabotaged? What happens when culture and history are intentionally altered or buried? The result would be a new Dark Age.

Culture and history forgotten. Waves of migrants. Cities sacked. The loss of classical education and scholasticism. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Seven year itch

Today is January 6, 2021. That means a few things. First, I somehow survived 2020. Despite all odds, despite the world throwing everything in my way, I’m still breathing. Whether I want to be, well, that’s the question, isn’t it? And 9 months into the two weeks to “flatten the curve” has me wondering what the answer really is.

Second, it’s the day the electoral votes are supposed to be counted. (I’m actually writing this post the night of the 4th, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.) That’s a whole other story, one for a different post. Suffice to say, this is one of the last chances to stop the coup against our great nation, to stand up for liberty and against oppression.

But today also marks an anniversary, of sorts. More of a commemoration, actually. Seven years ago, my cousin passed away. And that changed my life for the worse, in ways that still reverberate to this day.

It was a Monday. As is often the case after Christmas, my sleeping schedule was horribly out of balance. I can’t remember the exact times, but I had stayed up through the night before, and I was ready to fall asleep around 4 PM. I’d just climbed into bed, in fact, when my grandmother called. She was talking to my mom, and my brother suddenly ran into my bedroom.

As a quick digression, my aunt is a mother of one and a huge animal lover. Her only son was named Joey. Her dog was named Zoë. (Yes, the dots are necessary. She insisted.) The rhyming was intentional, and it stemmed from an incident whose details I can’t quite recall. Whatever it was, it happened as she was bringing the dog home, all the way back in 2005.

Anyway, back to the story. As I was getting comfortable, my brother burst into my room and said, “Zoë’s dead!”

I was shocked for a moment, because it’s always sad to hear about a family pet dying. But it’s only a dog, not a human being. So I made a little joke, we laughed, and I shrugged it off. A few seconds later, I hear a bloodcurdling scream from my mom downstairs. “No!” she wailed. And I do mean wailed. I had never heard a sound like that out of my own mother. I didn’t know she was capable of it.

Well, I had to find out what was up. Surely she wouldn’t be doing that over a dog. As I’m coming down the stairs, I hear her crying and saying, “He can’t be!”

Zoë was female, so there went that theory. What really happened was that my grandmother (ten days shy of her 91st birthday) had misheard “Joey” as “Zoë” at precisely the wrong time. The one who had died was not, in fact, the dog, but the man.

That Monday was awful already. It was the coldest day of the year, with a temperature that never got out of the 20s and ended up somewhere around 0° Fahrenheit. Bitterly cold for Tennessee, and actually the coldest January day for my small town since the 1980s. The doors of my mom’s car were frozen shut. The pipes running to my upstairs bathroom burst in the night. And we would have to brave this frigid evening, because my cousin really did die.

We met at my grandmother’s house. Trailer, rather, the same one where she passed away a little over a year later, and the same where my uncle did the same in 2020. My brother and I rode with my mom and stepdad. Another of my aunts, who lived next door, had come down, along with her youngest daughter. Everyone was on the verge of tears, if not openly weeping. We hugged, shared words of consolation, and generally settled into a kind of vigil, waiting for more news.

That came soon enough. Joey had been sick. I recall that very well. He’d had the flu at Christmas Eve; I caught it from him. Influenza rarely kills someone 35 years old, but it can happen, and it’s even more likely than a person the same age dying to the Wuhan virus. Especially if that person is, to put it bluntly, morbidly obese. He wasn’t one of those people you see on TLC, eating everything in sight and never moving from their beds. No, he was a very active, very energetic man who just happened to have some kind of medical problem that left him almost totally unable to lose weight. So he was probably north of 400 pounds at the time of his death. (A lot of it was muscle, to be fair. And he was tall: 6’5″, the tallest in our family by a good 5 inches over second place, which happened to be me.)

In his later years, he’d had problems with his heart, stemming from his weight. He also had some kind of spider bite (I think?) on his leg that never properly healed—his treatment was on hold until he recovered from the flu. So he was by no means in perfect or even good health, but death always comes as a shock in someone so young.

I didn’t see him until the funeral. I couldn’t. While everyone else went to my aunt’s house, about a quarter of a mile up the road, I stayed with my grandmother. Except I didn’t so much stay with her as lock myself in her room where she couldn’t see me cry.

And cry I did. Pretty much constantly.

I’ve often mentioned my emotional attachment to music. On this occasion, I listened to Black Eye Galaxy, an album by blues rock musician Anders Osborne. I’d never played the whole album in one sitting before then, and I haven’t since. It’s just too powerful, too poignant. No set of songs has ever, in my opinion, encapsulated such pure, undiluted anguish. That was exactly what I needed at the time. I needed someone to tell me that they had felt something like what I was feeling.

Because Joey might have been my cousin, but he was more than that to me. He was closer to a big brother. I looked up to him. After my father left, I did so even more, using him as inspiration for my own big-brother nature. He was a friend to everyone, a big, cuddly teddy bear of a man who could still get angry if you crossed him or his family.

Most of all, he respected me like no one else in my life. When I spoke, he listened. If he needed advice on anything from computers to music to stereo modding to growing peppers, he turned to me, and he wasn’t afraid to tell anyone why. That’s what I lost. Seven years ago today, I lost not only my cousin, but my best friend, my mentor, my biggest fan.

I haven’t been the same since.

Two days after he died, I dreamed of him. We were out shopping with our respective mothers, and I followed him to the games aisle. Our family has a tradition of game night, and the two of us often talked about new games to get. (Settlers of Catan was the one I wish we’d had a chance to play.) In the dream, we were browsing the shelves when I suddenly looked over at him and said, “I guess we don’t get to play games anymore, do we?” If anyone ever tells you that your heart can’t break in a dream, they’re lying.

I was a pallbearer for the first time in my life, as I had been the odd man out for my grandfather’s funeral in 2012. I was also the music director for the service, and I still have the list of tracks I used:

  • Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Simple Man”
  • Randy Travis, “He Walked On Water”
  • Brad Paisley, “When I Get Where I’m Going”
  • Vince Gill, “Go Rest High On That Mountain”

Not all my kind of music, I’ll admit, but it served its purpose well. And I only cried for one of the songs, but I dare anybody to listen to Vince Gill without getting at least a little misty. It’s just impossible.

The days that followed were the hardest for everyone. My aunt refused to take down her Christmas decorations, because he was the one who put them up. She still takes weekly visits to the cemetery where he was buried, and she was very upset a couple of weeks ago, when the road was blocked due to a suspicious vehicle scare. (This was right after the Christmas bombing a hundred miles away in Nashville.)

We all had to adapt to life without one of us, without the natural leader and protector we had lost. Our family parties are a lot…less now. Smaller, less raucous, and I’m the one leading all the games. Before, that was an honor: Joey, first of anyone else, declared me the permanent game master. If we were playing any kind of trivia game, he said, I had to be the one asking the questions. Otherwise, nobody else could win! Since he left this world, that position became a necessity, as we just don’t have enough people to balance out my, ah, wide body of trivia knowledge.

Most of all, I lost one of the very few people I felt I could trust to stand beside me through thick and thin. My uncle’s health was growing worse, my mom was spending more and more time taking care of him and my grandmother, and I just didn’t have anyone older to talk to. Not in the same way I could talk to him. Just as when my father left, I became the older one, the man in charge. I wasn’t ready for that when I was 12, and being 30 didn’t make it any easier.

The loss, and the responsibility that came in its wake, sent my depression to a level where I could no longer ignore that it existed. For seven years I’ve lived with it, dealt with it in whatever way I could. Two years ago, I realized I would be older than Joey had been at the time of his death. Something about that resonated in me. Call it survivor’s guilt, because I honestly felt like I didn’t deserve to outlive him. I didn’t actively consider ending my own life, but I did passively accept that, if it did happen, it wouldn’t be unjust. After all, I wasn’t half the man he was.

I still feel that way. He never married, never had children. Given the state of the world and my life, I doubt I’ll have the chance to outdo him in either respect. But he had a decent job, a number of loyal friends, and a generally positive attitude that, in my seemingly eternal depths of despair, I outright envy.

Seven years have gone by. In one sense, that’s nothing. In another, it’s forever. So much has changed that he’d probably find the world almost unrecognizable. He’d be asking me for help to navigate some of the strangeness we have to face today that just wasn’t there even as late as 2014. Or we might have found ourselves on different sides of this great divide that is taking over every aspect of life. I can’t say for certain. I do know that there are times I miss him more than ever, and times when I would gladly give my own life if it would bring him back.

“Family comes first” is a motto I use in all my books. The first novel I released, Before I Wake, was my way of illustrating that. It was in a lot of ways, for him. The protagonist, Jay, is so named because those were my cousin’s initials. And I’ve added small nods to him in other works, as well. The Soulstone Sorcerer has as Ian’s boss a very…large man named Joseph, who recently had gastric bypass surgery; my cousin had been considering that for some time. The Endless Forms series has a number of references. As his mother was the one who pitched it, I felt it would be a good place to toss in as many as I could fit.

But those are only small reminders, my way of coping with a tragedy. After seven years, the memory remains. So does the wound. Oh, it’s no longer fresh, but it left a scar on my very soul, one that will never truly heal.