Before the insurrection on Halloween, the security guard considered himself an atheist and a cynic, but there are some things too hard to understand, things without precedent, and one of them is a polished ten-inch Colt Python Revolver pointed directly up your nostrils. It wasn’t every day that the Old Liberty Bank was heisted by a group of schoolchildren in matching Catholic school uniforms and black cowl, CEO, and Les Mis masks, appearing out of nowhere like a flash mob, their scrawny forearms barely strong enough to aim their weapons. Indiana wasn’t Sierra Leone after all, but somehow the little bank robbers knew how to click the safety with their thumbs just like child soldiers. The guard knew it was going to be a very long day, even before the first shot was fired.

 

Several hours later, a large clan of white kids in karate uniforms and red headbands raided the local Toys “R” Us, wielding sai swords in the air like religious fanatics in the Bombay Riots. As the police report proved later on, the kids were professionals. They had magical powers that vaporized everything in their path like mushroom clouds, stuffing stolen SpongeBob backpacks with brand new merchandise: Nintendo DSi Lites, Wii games, florescent beach balls, Transformers, plastic chemistry beakers, Pirates of the Caribbean Lego sets, fruit-scented markers, and Notre Dame Monopoly boards. Even their getaway was impressive: a masterpiece of synchronicity using tiny battery-powered ATV’s, Big Wheels, and pedal scooters. By the time the police arrived, the toy store looked like something out of the apocalypse: aisles covered in plastic snakes, Barbie accessories and cat-eye marbles, bright whirling sound tubes and glittery hula-hoops—a sprained ankle at every turn. Eventually the cops found the employees in back tied to a septic pipe with red karate belts and gagged by orange-striped tube socks. Next to seven empty cash registers, they discovered a pile of cell phones on the floor with the SIM cards removed and a heist note that no one noticed until later on in the investigation.

 

Sweet Dreams candy shop was the third place to get hit that night, overflowing with rows and rows of mason jars normally filled with licorice wheels, taffy bow-ties, root beer hard candy, caramel cubes, chocolate plaques, sugar ellipses, rainbow lollipops shaped as magnifying glasses, drill bits, and exotic, glistening fruit-shaped marzipan. When the owner of Sweet Dreams arrived early next morning, there was a supernova in his store window and a half-inflated basketball on the floor covered in fragments of glass and Hoosier-colored jellybeans. The shelves, however, had been wiped clean—a paragon of OCD if ever there was one. The till was missing, of course, and there was a pile of upside down mason jars on the floor now in four columns forming a square. For some inexplicable reason though, the thieves had left all the marshmallow peeps in the window, their sugary beaks staring down the road like silent witnesses.

 

The fourth robbery wasn’t discovered until the next day when the manager of Wal-Mart unlocked the loading garage, his latte cup bouncing from forearm, stomach and crotch to inner thigh and ankle, striping his khakis with steamed milk. He couldn’t believe his eyes: the entire electronics section—every plasma screen, laptop, and digital camera, every single iPod, GPS navigation system, and Wii—was gone, not to mention all the rap CD’s, tortilla chips, and Slim Jim canisters, every pair of LeBron VI’s, the whole shelf of SunnyD, and every Jason Bourne DVD. Simply by making a tally of the merchandise the manager could tell what age the thieves were. He made a call to headquarters in Arkansas, his crotch smelling of steamed milk, when he noticed a note tacked to one of the television boxes. He closed his flip phone, removed his glasses, and pieced together the words—foreign-sounding, lacking verbs, vaguely menacing—before he called the police department. He had a thing or two to tell the sheriff about what would soon be called the Conspiracy of Lemons.

 

The part-time security guard forgot his gun again—it happens—so he stored his cell phone in the holster instead. You can’t tell anyways from a distance, a bulge is a bulge. But when a phalanx of teenagers marched inside the lobby and heisted the bank before his eyes, dressed like the Crazy 88 with guns for swords, he was caught off guard. The guard decided to lunge for one of their Colt Pythons from behind a towering ficus when a freckled girl in a short skirt and mask of the Lehman Brothers CEO blasted him in the foot, shaking her head in disapproval.

The guard howled in pain.

—Don’t touch the gat, she hissed, pointing the gun up his nose.

—Little girl, he said, you don’t wanna do this.

—Hell yes I do, she said, adjusting her mask.

—You can walk away from this right now if you want to.

—Yo, shouted a white boy in a Countrywide CEO mask from an adjacent teller with a horrendous farmer’s tan, —please stop talking or I’ll shoot your other foot, sir.

—Okay, okay, the guard reassured them.

—Listen buddy, the girl said, this isn’t the Iraq War, so we don’t run over civilians on the road.

—Huh?

During their conversation, the tellers moved back and forth between the vault and the getaway bags, feeding hundred dollar bricks to gaping pillowcases until there was enough cold hard cash for them to buy the Neverland Ranch from foreclosure or produce a Hollywood blockbuster with dazzling special effects. Meanwhile, the security guard pushed hard on his foot to make a tourniquet, the blood gurgling up like a stabbed juice box. When the bleeding stopped, he was going to press the emergency response button on his walkie-talkie. He had been waiting his whole career to press that thing.

 

The Muncie police department had never seen so much crime before and what was worse, they had no leads either. The eyewitness testimony was flawed: not a single person—including the sheriff—had gotten a clean look at the bank robbers without their cowl, Les Mis, and CEO masks. Even worse, the Toys “R” Us employees didn’t recognize the karate kids at all, as if they’d come from a secret village underground and the security camera lenses at Walmart, Old Liberty Bank, and Sweet Dreams, had all been spray-painted by a girl with pigtails and Gavroche mask. Another complication, the kids in this area all looked alike. Homogeneity had never been a problem in Muncie, in fact, it had been the easiest (disgusting) way to separate locals from non-locals, but when it came to making positive ID’s for unsolved crime-sprees, homogeneity became your greatest enemy. There was a final snag as well: the Muncie police department had no forensics department and Indianapolis wasn’t sending in their strapped science geeks with the Q-tips and the DNA kits until dead bodies started popping up like spring dandelion clocks. The sheriff had no alternative but to schedule a town hall meeting. So, in the first month in November, he did just that and to his surprise, not a single person showed up, not even the old fogies and they showed up for everything as long as there were snacks. Having no other choice, the sheriff launched an ambitious door-to-door investigation that yielded troubling and contradictory evidence. A hint of conspiracy lingered in the air like stale lemons (hence the name).

 

The manager from Walmart took a cup of coffee from the receptionist at the police station—three cubes of sugar, three dashes of powdered milk—as he waited. The sheriff entered, a chubby balding man with a napkin tucked into his collar and a chuckle dabbed on his rosy cheeks.

—What can I do for you Charlie? he asked, shaking his hand.

—It’s about the Conspiracy of Lemons.

—Oh, that, he said, throwing the napkin on the desk. He sat down.

—Have you seen this? the manager asked, sliding the paper across the desk.

The sheriff scanned the note, a slow confusion accumulating on his face:

Brioche? Demands: Dads. Planet. Class. Bullshit Bomb. Child. Yourselves.

—Where’d you get this? he asked.

—In the loading annex.

—What the hell is brioche anyway?

—Not a clue, maybe a misspelling of brooch?

—Why brooch?

—I think it’s a code.

—Wait, why?

—Terrorists speak in code. Everyone knows that.

—I didn’t know that.

—Maybe it’s time you called the feds. They know all about terrorist codes.

This comment stung the sheriff. He didn’t like the idea of the FBI swooping down on his town and ripping the case out of his hands. It had to do with pride and maybe a little with Federalism. —Alright, well thanks for coming down, Charlie.

—They’re trying to take over this country, he said, standing up.

—Who?

—The Islamofascists.

—Give your wife my regards, he said, standing up and ushering him through the door with a sigh.

 

For the next week, the sheriff and a few of his officers began a charm offensive. They chatted casually with the locals, trying to pry information one door at a time. Unfortunately, every household had a different culprit and theory as to what caused the conspiracy, expanding the number of explanations the department had been trying so hard to narrow down. The Menckens, for example, thought the Conspiracy of Lemons was a question of moral anarchy: how could parents spend time with their kids when they were pushing forty-hour weeks with no benefits, just to pay the bills? There wasn’t enough light of day for family or church time, so it wasn’t a big surprise that kids were learning all the wrong values. They had no one guiding them, no one teaching them Leviticus. And, by the way, the Voses were a bunch of liberal traitors, Mr. Mencken warned, before slamming the door in his face. For the Smiths, both English professors at the university, the problem was the sublimation of material identity, whatever that meant: advertising firms spend millions of dollars trying to inject affluenza into our bloodstreams, deliberately targeting kids because they’re pervious to hero culture, Mr. Smith said, foaming at the mouth. Commercials are cultural propaganda anyway, the foxy Mrs. Smith pointed out, a social mechanism to produce consumers out of thin air by converting our own sense of inadequacy into a need for consumption. And by the way, Mr. Smith pointed out, the Menckens are a bunch of cowfucking rednecks. The sheriff raised his eyebrows. The Andersons, on the other hand, said the conspiracy was a product of atheism in America. People weren’t afraid of God anymore and they sure weren’t afraid of sin. Instead of going to church, kids were fiddling with fancy videogame consoles and expensive cell phones while the rest of Indiana was on its knees, praying for salvation during the economic crisis. Even worse, Mrs. Anderson confided, the video games were violent, sinful, and godless. The sheriff nodded politely. Just look at the Smiths, Mr. Anderson said, a bunch of shi shi liberals thumbing their noses at the world with their Ivy-League degrees and their highfalutin words. Finally, there were the outspoken Voses who said the problem was the rich-poor gap. Rich kids were flaunting their SUV’s, five hundred-dollar purses, and iPhones to the world while down-and-out folks held up their pants with shoestring.

—I’m all for integrated schools, he said, but they’re full of class conflict.

—He’s secretly a Commie, she said, laughing.

—Is that so? the sheriff asked. —I didn’t know that about you, Frank.

—No, Missy’s full of shit, he said, I just want the world to be fair. And you know what? It’s not. Rich people don’t give a shit about poor people or their crappy schools, so poor people go and mug rich people so they don’t feel powerless.

—Oh boy, here we go again, she said.

—Heard this before, have you? the sheriff asked.

Mrs. Vos raised her eyebrow and nodded.

—Look, Mr. Vos continued, I’m just saying: rich people get scared, so they ask politicians to pass tougher laws for criminals, which they do because they want campaign contributions. So, petty criminals stay in prison until they become professional criminals, rich people build walls around their homes, install security cameras, and hire bodyguards. Meanwhile, poor students in crappy school districts have no professional mobility because their broken-down, militarized schools don’t prepare them for college so they deal drugs, work at gas stations, and steal cars instead. Then, rich people get new laws passed to keep poor people further away from their jewelry—all of this, just to make rich people feel safe, and rich people never feel safe. That’s the rub.

—That’s quite a history lesson, the sheriff said.

—I’m just saying Jim, a part of me, a big part of me, doesn’t give a damn about our kids—

—Our kids, or your kids?

—I mean all of our kids.

—Just checking.

—I could care less if our kids are stealing shit right now when we’re at the brink of a depression. I don’t blame them for wanting more than they got, the system’s made this way for a reason: to make us spend money.

—Is that so? the sheriff asked.

—Yeah. They’re the victims in an economic system we stuffed down their throats. If you want to blame anyone, blame us. Don’t blame the kids.

The sheriff nodded politely, shaking hands with the Voses before he handed them his card, just in case they saw anything suspicious in the future. Then he walked back to the police station, his mind now a thick muddle of words he vowed to google back at home.

 

The manager of the toy store didn’t find the second note (pinned on the floor underneath a magazine belt of Crayolas and naked Hollywood Kens) until the following day. The sheriff was drinking his second cup of coffee—cream, no sugar—when one of his deputies handed him the second note:

Mangent Are Back Killing Us Time A Is Get

The sheriff shook his head and sipped his working-class café au lait. The second ransom note was gibberish. What in God’s name was a mangent? Was this a misspelling of magnet? Or was it two words: man and gent? What the hell was a man-gent anyway? And what if the real secret of the two notes was just bad orthography? What was he supposed to do then, put a grammarian on the payroll?

The sheriff decided to call Mr. Vos. He was a trade union blowhard and probably a secret elitist, but at least as a union man he spoke conspiracy theory fluently. The sheriff felt like he was running out of time and ideas whereas Mr. Vos seemed to be drunk on both. The sheriff drove his shiny new cruiser to their house, shook hands with Mr. Vos, and accepted Lady Fingers and coffee from his wife. Once the two men were alone, the sheriff pulled out the second ransom note. Mr. Vos nodded his head like a Talmudic scholar as he scanned the words.

The sheriff bit one of Lady Fingers, powdered sugar exploding on his lap, and then shifted positions. —Have any idea what that is?

—It’s a manifesto.

—For what?

—For the abolishment of the 40-hour workweek.

—Huh. That’s what the Menckens said.

—The Menckens? Mr. Vos asked in horror, they’re a bunch of scripture nematodes.

The sheriff shrugged his shoulders.

At the front door, they shook hands quickly, but sadly too.

 

The security guard was counting his bad luck. First, he forgot his pistol, which became the biggest mistake of his life (his stepfather’s voice echoing through his head, from my cold dead hands), which made him feel like a dumbass. Then, the bank was getting heisted by kids in Catholic school uniforms and creepy masks, and they had real guns that could detonate your genitals or pin a piece of your lung to a bulletin board three hundred feet away. Kids weren’t supposed to have that kind of power: they’re too young to understand the value of life, the story behind every human subtraction. But even worse, even if the security guard had brought his tiny handgun, he still wouldn’t have stood a fucking chance against the Flaming Red Hot posse. The emasculation of his authority as the only adult in the lobby made him light-headed. At the twilight of his consciousness, he disconnected his walkie-talkie from his chest clip and slowly pulled it inside his pocket, stretching the coiled wire. He pretended to cough and pressed the red emergency button in a satisfying click that instigated his hope and salvation. Then, he passed out, the pain in his foot finally overwhelming him.

 

As the sheriff and his deputies made the rounds through Muncie, they accumulated a formidable stack of theories about the Conspiracy of Lemons jotted down on crumpled notepads and recorded in twenty types of penmanship. It was impossible to know where to start, but also easy too because all their leads were anecdotal, flawed, and specious—an insatiable matrix of circumstantial evidence to nowhere.

The Rodriguezes, for example, thought the problem was that American families didn’t spend enough time together, just look at the Menckens. With the O’Connors, the problem was affirmative action, just look at the Rodriguezes, who spent too much time with their kids. The Durants said the problem was the Iraq occupation, which was sending perfectly good fathers away to fight a bullshit war, leaving their mothers to play the role of both parents. The Clovers said the problem was the lack of patriotism, just look at those slithering traitors, the Durants, eating French fries every night. The Blackwells argued that the problem was America’s rugged individualism: too many drivers, not enough passengers. Just look at the gas-slut Clovers and their seven cars. Who could live like that? The Fincklesteins said the root of the issue was multiculturalism, which was ripping a hole in America’s soul: children didn’t know who they were anymore because people like the Blackwells told them they could be anyone they wanted. The theories kept piling on until the sheriff was buried in an avalanche of suspicion, shtick, and prejudice. Slowly, he looked at the conspiracy differently. He wasn’t condoning the heist— it was grand larceny after all—but he was starting to understand why it happened, and as an elected public official and promoter of the peace, empathy always got in the way of criminal prosecutions.

 

A week later, an insurance agent from Indianapolis stopped by to inspect the store window of Sweet Dreams and write out a check for the damage. The owner of Sweet Dreams was cleaning the countertop when he discovered the third ransom note hidden underneath pink fire hoses of bubblegum and a few crushed piano keys of milk chocolate. At first, he mistook it for something his son—what was that expression his teacher had used?, the slam poet—had written: all pruned and odd-sounding, the T’s crossed in the same way like a loop slashed with a razorblade. The words meant absolutely nothing to him, as much as he tried. He was an honest man, hardworking, but also completely immune to art. He knew he was holding onto cold hard evidence though and that fact alone piqued his interest:

De La Our Our This Art Is Silent Someone’s Over

He didn’t get it. Why was the word our repeated twice? And when wasn’t art silent? He drove to the police station and dropped off the note, wiping his hands of another teenage enigma.

 

The sheriff felt like he was trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with poetry and he wasn’t even sure the puzzle formed a coherent picture. Maybe the ransom notes were just a way of messing with adults who had rules, principles, and protocol. Kids were mischievous like that (not to mention hyperactive, impulsive, and cruel as all hell).

As a last resort, he called Mrs. Smith on her cell phone and asked her to stop by after her class. Don’t worry, he said, you’re not in any trouble. At quarter to five, Mrs. Smith was sitting in his office with a cup of tea on her lap.

—Thanks for coming down, he said.

—No problem, she said with a nervous hint in her voice.

—I wanted to ask you something.

—Jim, it’s just an occasional thing, I promise. One or two puffs at the most.

—What?

—Oh.

—What are you talking about?

—Isn’t that why I’m here?

—No, it’s not, so don’t say another word. I don’t want to know.

—Okay.

He shook his head.

—Sorry, she said, exhaling, so what can I do for you?

—Do you understand any of this? he asked, sliding the wrinkled ransom notes across the birch desk like a casino dealer.

She slipped on her glasses, the pink metal frames looking smart and vaguely European. She hunched over the desk to scrutinize the penmanship, tiny strands of blond hair falling down her profile, removing ten years in a flash of adolescence. Through the dusty blinds, her face looked radiant and soft. The sheriff thought about Junior High, back when he’d had a secret crush on her even though she was the class nerd and he was just a third-string defensive end. He looked at her with desperation, resurgent longing, and irrational hope.

She took a sip of tea. —It’s poetry.

—Poetry?

—Yeah, probably Dadaist.

—How do you know that?

—The French is the giveaway. My French isn’t what it used to be, but this line is easy to translate. It says: They eat brioche?

—What the hell is brioche?

—It’s an eggy sort of French bread.

—Eggy? What the hell does that have to do with anything?

—That’s just it. It’s not supposed to mean anything. That’s the whole point of Dada.

—Sounds like a crock of shit to me.

—A crock of shit is a perfect metaphor of Dada, actually.

—So what you’re trying to tell me is that all of this is supposed to be some work of art?

—Possibly. Or it could be a live semiotic text. Even performance art. Who knows? But those are just theories.

—Theories are all I’ve got right now.

—Well, theories are all you need in my field.

—Unfortunately, he said, sighing, they don’t satisfy grand juries like they used to.

 

Three days later, the sheriff called a professor of French lit at Notre Dame to decode the first line, which evidently was a Marie Antoinette quote (who knew?), which helped him figure out the correct order of the ransom notes. The sheriff arranged the four notes into a coherent message and laughed. Even when kids were robbing banks and stealing high-tech electronics, they were earnest little fuckers, too young to be indoctrinated by sarcasm or irony. Their sincerity, while misguided, was refreshing:

Qu’ils Mangent De la Brioche?
These Are Our Demands:
Bring Back Our Dads.
Stop Killing This Planet.
Give Us Art Class.
Quality Time Is Bullshit.
Poverty’s A Silent Bomb.
Everyone Is Someone’s Child.
Please, Get Over Yourselves.
 
::

 

The first place to get robbed was the Old Liberty Bank, but it was also the sheriff’s last piece of evidence, helping him solve the mystery of Indiana’s one and only documented child insurrection. By comparing alibis and attendance logs at school, he concluded that every kid had participated in at least one heist (probably more). Even worse, their parents were all hiding something too. That’s when he dropped the investigation. There was nothing he could do with the whole town guilty. In time, he learned to ignore the futuristic glow of sparkling plasma screens flashing through people’s windows. He stopped asking neighbors where they got the money to buy brand new pick-up trucks and state-of-the-art desktop computers, family vacation packages to Cedar Point, and new dental implants for grandparents used to gumming their syllables for years. The people of Muncie had never wanted him to ask too many questions, especially about their sudden fortune, and he really hated being lied to, so he stopped sticking his nose in people’s inexplicable cash flow.

 

After the security guard pressed the mythical red button and passed out, the Star-Spangled Banner blared over the bank’s PA system in a monophonic clamor. The customers lying on the ground covered their ears, wincing. Twenty minutes later, the fire department showed up after a tween called 911 using a stolen SIM card. Ten blocks from the bank, the sheriff saw a group of kids in Catholic school uniforms and cowl, Les Mis, and CEO masks trick-or-treating (their guns tucked inside bulging pillowcases filled with candy).

He stopped his car and rolled down the window. —Who are you guys supposed to be?

—The Crazy 88, they said, like duh.

The sheriff smiled and told them to be good. Then he shooed them away right as an armored SWAT van zipped by. They were just kids after all and kids were always the victims, even when they were the ones pulling the trigger.

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