It's 1772, and America has so much to give.
His white pines, perfect and tall, brush green fingers along New Hampshire's coast. The thick ones are marked for the British Crown, marked by cold ink-and-paper law. The little ones are for America, for floorboards made narrow and cities made small.
Sea-worn England sails white-pine ships carved from America's heart, and for two years America wonders why England never trusts him.
Then it's 1775, and America unfurls an appeal to heaven, splashes bright pine on white cloth, and laughs at England's ire.
America likes to think of himself as a rattlesnake, thirteen joints coiled and snapping. Join or die, Ben had said, and a grinning Paul adds that to his paper, a hissing confrontation of American snake and British dragon.
Rattlesnakes don't attack unless provoked. Even then, they give fair warning before the fangs come out. They're heroic like that.
So America tells England, "Don't tread on me," paints it loud and clear on yellow banners of warning, and prays for an understanding that never comes.
He refuses to turn the other cheek, because rattlesnakes never close their eyes.
Rockets and mortars rain down in Baltimore, trailing smoke and artificial thunder. America shakes stars from his eyes and casts his gaze upwards, searching instead for stars framed in red and blue. He sighs. Over thirty years have passed since the Revolution, and America is tired of fighting with England.
He passes the night trading blind artillery for blind artillery. Neither side incurs much damage, and the next morning dawns quietly. No sound save for the flapping of a star-spangled banner, high and proud.
On the Patapsco River, a relieved Washington lawyer scribbles down the words to a poem.
She wears ribbons of red and white, striped side by side like boxed pleats of a lady's skirt. Her smile, deep navy ultramarine, unfolds like the night sky.
1861 comes along, and suddenly she has a scowling Confederate brother. In battle, he sheds his bars and slings his stars like bandoliers around vermilion shoulders. He's proud and rebellious, but war does him no favors. He falls. She doesn't.
She is a survivor. A seafarer, adventurer, commander, veteran. Fringes ragged from years of flight. Faded colors. Mismatched stars.
Her name is Old Glory, and America treasures her so.
Sometimes, America doesn't know what to think about the Southern Cross.
It's a good symbol, some say. Rebellion, freedom, heritage, pride—and, well, folks down in Dixie have always been proud.
But memories of the bloodiest war in his history cling to it like unwelcome perfume. He cringes when he recalls the groups that rally under its shadow. Students with hateful eyes. Pallid ghosts in pointed hats. America, land of the free? Sometimes he feels like choking on his own hypocrisy.
He keeps one in his storage, anyway. If nothing else, he thinks it's important to remember.
The fifties dawn red.
America grows twitchy and aggressive, eyes locked on crimson footprints tracking their way west. He shudders away from Russia's grabby fingers, away from the nations shaking hands in Warsaw, and watches the world like it's going to end. Cuba smirks at him, and suddenly the red is right there, right in his own backyard—no place is sacred, not even the sky with its sinister foreign satellite.
At the end of an exhaustive decade, forty-eight becomes fifty, and a new flag rises, white, blue, red.
It's the only red he can stomach.
Occasionally, he forgets his own brother's birthday.
He doesn't mean to, of course. The first of July is easy to overlook with America's wave of excitement sweeping ever toward the fourth. Canada doesn't complain—has never complained, placid creature that he is—and America doesn't fully realize the weight of his own disregard until 1959.
Their first joint celebration links Windsor and Detroit just as surely as the Ambassador Bridge. Eagle and maple leaf fly side by side under breathtaking arrays of fireworks.
Canada's smile is brighter than all the lights in the sky.
In one giant leap for mankind, he reaches the moon. Six American flags—five, after he accidentally blows one away—now fly quietly in space. We come in peace, they say. He hopes Tony's people are watching.
"You do realize," England tells him haughtily, "that in a few decades, solar radiation will have bleached them completely white."
America blinks and says, "Really? Damn. Now everyone's gonna think France landed on the moon. Or Italy."
Which is a rude thing to say, really. But it teases a smile from perpetually grumpy England, so America figures it's worth it.
America treks through the jungles of Vietnam, soaking her forests and farmland in a heady, toxic orange. The weight of the war settles merciless and anchorlike in his gut, dragging his steps as he paces feverish grooves around the Iron Triangle.
The cries from back home are growing louder. A minority, but a vocal one.
(Hey, hey, LBJ—)
Vietnam—bleeding, grime-covered, split down the middle—looks at him with increasingly cold eyes. He doesn't meet her gaze. He's trying to remember.
(—how many kids did you kill today?)
Thousands of miles away, voices swell and flags burn.
He sees it all:
A skyline choked in smoke. Two towers wreathed in fire and dust, tumbling down, down, down. The confusion. The desperation. The terror.
Firefighters, police officers, agents, medics, workers, chefs, people. People helping people. People running back for those who cannot. People searching rubble for survivors. People volunteering, and raising funds, and offering support, and ten thousand acts of kindness that are so, so insignificant and yet somehow mean everything.
The flag survives.
America clutches at it, breathes in its scent of solidarity and quiet heroism, and thinks—yes—
—this is me, this is me.