We Run

“Where did we think we were going?”

Diego Torres Silvestre/Flickr
Diego Torres Silvestre/Flickr

As we rush out into we know not what, my fingers investigate my shirt pocket, and then my jacket pocket, where I make the discovery that I have not left my reading glasses on the kitchen table, as I feared. So I can read, and I have my passport (right Velcro-sealed pocket). In my backpack I have a bank envelope with $500 in cash, my phone, for what it’s worth—the cell service is out from here to Hawaii—my wallet with a bank card and two credit cards—ditto; the machines aren’t working—my survival packet of oatmeal crackers, dried fruit, and a chocolate bar, my warmest socks, my dad’s old Swiss Army knife. Jack has his passport, I know because he was holding it as he came down the stairs, but I don’t know what else he grabbed as we were running from the front of the house to the back. We could hear the planes, and as we stepped out into the yard, some kind of underground explosion shook the earth. The smoke bush I planted last year, just leafing out now, pushed right up out of the soil and fell over into the viburnum.

Money has been chasing money out of this town for some time now, and then there was the malfunction at the water treatment plant that killed a lot of people and their pets. The bottled water users, which included Jack and me and our dog Fidel, were okay. In the summer, Fidel, who was old by dog standards, crawled under the back porch and died. We pulled him out and buried him in the yard. Then we had a power outage that lasted three weeks, and we were drinking rainwater from the roof runoff, which turned out to be pretty good. I just set the trashcans under the three weak spots in the gutter where it pours through. We had a lot of rain. In Burley, two towns over toward the shore, there was a big explosion at the tire factory they said was no accident, and the government got into it, which meant a lot of mischief. That’s when the helicopters started with the circling every day at dawn.

Everybody is broke and everybody is sore about that, and nobody knows whom to blame. Jack lost his job at the college, but I still have mine at the DMV. We planted a garden because vegetables were sky high at the store. A tomato cost 10 bucks.

It’s bad all over, including other countries, and for some time Jack and I have been planning to leave this one. Jack says this is the worst country in the world because everybody hates everybody so much, whereas in some of the countries further north, people care about each other. I’d rather go south for the climate, but it’s worse there than here with the money that has no value and the murder rate that keeps rising exponentially. No services at all. People burn their furniture for heat and carry water in buckets for miles at a time, or so we hear.

Yesterday the post office was closed with no warning and then the phones were all dead. We had power but no signals, no cable; Jack said it didn’t make sense. Mario the plumber, a short-wave radio aficionado, said it looked like there was a lot of confusion out there and no one was sure who was running what. This morning there were no helicopters for a change, which was a relief. Jack and I had lunch in the kitchen: tomatoes I froze in August and bread and some goat cheese we got at a farm market, and while we were eating we heard this distant growl. Jack looked out the mudroom window and said there was a wide swath of planes heading our way. “We need to run,” he said.

My first thought was: we need to run to the basement, but I never said it. We both tore up the stairs and started grabbing things. Jack yelled “passports” as he veered off into his office.

What do you take? As I said, I grabbed the passport, my phone. I pulled down the old backpack from the closet shelf and stuffed in two pairs of underwear, the socks, a toothbrush, the knife, the envelope of cash, my wallet. Downstairs I pulled on my mid-weight jacket, a warm scarf off the coat rack and in the kitchen picked up the food packet I keep for travel. I was pulling a bottle of water from the fridge when Jack came barreling through and we tore out the back door, across the yard, out the gate, and into the alley. I saw, from a distance, our neighbors Jill and Stan bursting out of their front door. Where did we think we were going?

You just don’t know what you’ll do. The planes were louder now and bearing down on us from the south. They were in some kind of formation, and the effect was paralyzing. My legs were unresponsive. Jack looked over his shoulder, but in less time than it took to look, the planes were square overhead. As we dropped to the ground, sliding doors in their wide bellies opened and black pods began to descend.

Jack grabbed me as I fell to my knees and drew me under a big rhododendron that shades one whole side of the library. “Lie flat,” he said and threw himself on top of me. The thing is, we’re both over 70 and this maneuver required a lot of bone creaking and scraping, but Jack is still pretty strong and I felt a powerful wave of gratitude as he spread his shoulders, one of which hardly functions at all, over my back. His head came down alongside my own. “Jesus,” he said, and I laughed.

We figured we were done for, and I thought, it’s been a long strange trip indeed, but at least we were going together. We managed to get our arms around each other and held on tight.

Explosions were what we expected, but as it turned out, the black pods dropping from the planes came down slowly, and though we didn’t see it happen, at some point parachutes deployed over them and they drifted down as quietly as turkey buzzards, then hit the ground with a chorus of sharp cracks that sounded like bowling balls thumping into the gutter.

We heard shouts from inside the library, and others from the alley across the street. The library doors flew open and Bev and Libby, the librarians, rushed out. Bev cried, “They’re bombing us!” and Libby, catching sight of Jack and me lying on top of each other under the bush, gasped, “They’ve killed the Bentleys.”

“Not yet,” Jack said. He pushed up on his arms and rolled, with difficulty, off me and onto the sidewalk. “Not just yet.”

Jesse Mellon and his husband, Pete, came out of the alley in an excited state. As I sat up and brushed some foliage out of my hair, Pete bent over and offered me a hand. “You poor thing,” he said. “Did you get hit?”

“What the hell did they drop?” Jack said, rising to his knees and then his feet. Then we were all together looking about us at the collapsing parachutes, each melting dejectedly over large cardboard boxes stamped all over with writing. Jesse sprinted to the closest one, halfway in the street near the corner. “Oh, for God’s sake,” he said. Pete ran over to join him and the two slowly circled the boxes. Pete started laughing. “This is too much,” he said.

“I don’t get it,” Jesse said.

“What’s in ’em?” Jack called out.

“It says MREs.”

Jack laughed too, and said, “I thought they dropped those after the bombs.”

“What are MREs?” I asked.

“Meals Ready to Eat,” Bev piped up. “My son was in Afghanistan. They give them to the soldiers there. Sometimes they drop them on refugees. “

“Which ones are we?” Libby asked.

“Are they trying to tell us something?” Jesse said to Pete. He had released the box from the parachute, and shoved it up to the sidewalk. It appeared to be very heavy.

Jack was standing with his hands on his hips, looking up and down the street. “They’ve really blanketed this town,” he observed. Everywhere we looked, we saw more boxes with flapping parachutes, on lawns, right in the middle of the intersection. One was on top of Mario’s garage, another had landed in Mrs. Millard’s prize chrysanthemum patch. Jesse and Pete toddled toward us, carrying the box between them.

“I’ll get my box cutter,” Libby said, and disappeared into the library.

“I really don’t like the idea that they’re dropping rations on us,” said Pete, and we all nodded in agreement, trying to think of what it all might mean.

“I guess it means they think we’re going to need them,” Bev observed. Libby came out with the box cutter and handed it to Jesse. “Let’s see what we’ve got,” she said cheerfully.

“It’s probably all dried stuff, like fruit and jerky,” Pete speculated. “Maybe granola bars.”

So we all stood around and waited while Jesse opened the top of the box. The planes were long gone and it was so quiet, we could hear a woodpecker drilling in the big dying maple across the street. Jesse reached into the box and pulled out a couple of large brown plastic packages, which he handed to Jack and Pete. Bev and I joined Jack and read the official-looking print on the packet. There was a government seal at the top, then a list in different fonts.

Chili and Macaroni. MRE
Meal, ready to eat. INDIVIDUAL

At the bottom, in large blocky letters, it read:


“Are they trying to tell us something?” Jesse repeated.

“Who would want to eat food approved by warfighters?” Jack asked.

“It should be ‘warriors,’ ” Pete said. “I think they should call them warriors.”

Then the siren went off. They test it every day at noon, one short earsplitting screech, but this was 1:30, so we knew it would give three long blasts, pause long enough to say, “That’s really deafening,” and then do three more. Which it did.

We heard the fire engine, tearing down Main Street toward the park.

“Somebody pulled the lever at Starcrest,” Pete observed. Starcrest is a nursing home, and the residents have the bad habit of yanking the fire alarms whenever they escape surveillance by the staff, which they do way too often.

Bev was examining the MRE package. We all watched as she pulled the box cutter across the top and looked inside. “I’ve always wanted to see what’s in one of these,” she said. “My son said they call the sausages ‘the five fingers of death.’ ”

We all snickered at this. She set the bag on the library step and spread the contents—several smaller foil bags—across the concrete, reading the writing on each one as she took it out. “Chili and macaroni, cornbread stuffing, vegetable crackers, cheddar cheese spread with jalapeños, grape jelly, vanilla pound cake.”

“I guess you put the jelly on the cake,” Libby suggested.

“Cocoa powder,” Bev continued. “Coffee, beverage base powder—orange, artificial flavor—no fruit juice.” She took out a clear plastic bag we could see had plastic utensils in it and a few smaller packets. “Sugar, salt, Tabasco sauce, gum.”

“Look,” said Libby. “It’s a tiny little bottle of hot sauce. How cute.”

“Afghanistan must have mountains made entirely of those little bottles,” Jack said.

“F R H,” Bev read, taking out the last and largest packet.

“What’s that?” said Pete.

Bev squinted at the writing. There was a lot of it, also little diagrams printed in red. “Flameless Ration Heater,” she read.

“What will they think of next,” Jesse said.

“Imagine how comforting it must be to have a nice hot foil bag of chili and macaroni on a 100-degree day in Haiti after your house just disappeared into a hole in the ground,” said Jack.

“I think it might be very comforting,” Bev observed coldly.

That’s when we heard the explosion. The sound seemed to come from everywhere at once, and it was close enough to make us all jump, emitting shrieks of surprise. Jesse and Pete clutched each other like children. Libby clung to the stair-rail and as the volume faded, she said, “I think we should all go to the library basement.”

“I want to go home,” I said, and Jack agreed, turning toward our street.

“Good Lord,” he said, “is it a nuclear bomb?” For there, bubbling ever upward over what must have been the high school hockey field, was a plume of black smoke.

“It’s got to be the fuel tank behind the gym,” Jesse said. Jesse taught art at the high school, or did until they cut art and music from the curriculum last year. The smoke was being ferried toward us by a mild spring breeze, and very soon we knew it was oil burning because we could smell it.

“What I don’t get,” Pete said, “is why the siren went off and the fire trucks were out before the explosion.”

“Maybe they’re not connected,” Libby suggested.

“The fire engine was going toward the park,” Bev observed. We all just stood there, looking in different directions. I watched the black cloud. It was still swelling and bubbling up like a volcano, gradually blocking the sun as it pushed steadily toward us. A few drops hit the street, the sidewalk, and then one slid down Jesse’s forehead. He brought his hand to it and smeared it up toward his hair, then sniffed his palm. “It’s raining oil,” he said.

Bev trotted up the steps and pulled open the heavy library door. “Let’s just get inside please,” she said.

Libby followed her colleague, motioning us to follow. Jesse reached into the big box and pulled out a couple of bags. “We might as well take some of these with us, just in case.” Pete followed his lead and took a few more. Then Jack and I lined up. I put two in my backpack, then we each grabbed two more and trailed into the library with the others. Once the door was closed behind us, everything seemed normal, almost as if we might just check out a couple of videos and a murder mystery or two and head home for the night, as we so often did. The patter of oil sounded a lot like rain, but the effect on the long windows facing the street was an accumulating curtain of sludge-brown slime, and the reading room quickly darkened. Libby switched on the lights.

“What would make a fuel tank explode?” Pete wondered out loud.

“Teenagers,” said Jesse. “They get stoned and want to play with fire. They’re perfectly capable of opening the tank and dropping a roach in just to see what would happen.”

“I hope no one was injured,” said Libby.

“I don’t think it was the fuel tank,” Jack said. “I think it was some kind of bomb.”

“Is the oil still falling?” I asked.

Libby went to the big glass doors that were still clear because they were under the portico and looked out. “It’s passing, I think. It’s letting up.”

Bev followed her, and the two stood gazing out at the street. “Oil will kill everything that grows unless they can find some way to clean it up. It will kill the grass, the bushes, the trees,” Jesse said.

“It’s sickening,” I said.

“And what are we supposed to do?” Pete complained. “We can’t just hide out in the library.” He took his phone out of his pocket and clicked it on and off. “How can there be no cell service, and no Wi-Fi. Do you have a land line here, Libby?”

“We do,” said Libby. “But it’s not working.”

Just then, the lights went out.

“We’re fucked,” Jesse said mildly.

Jack nodded. “We are truly fucked,” he agreed.

We were all quiet for a few minutes, just listening to the oil-rain, which was clearly letting up. The librarians pushed the door open and stepped out under the portico. “I think when the oil stops, we should go home,” I said to Jack.

“We might as well,” he agreed. “We have lots of food in the fridge, and there’s the old camp stove in the basement.”

I could see Libby’s back through the door, but not Bev, who had evidently gone further out to the sidewalk. Abruptly Libby turned back, pulling at the door, and Bev reappeared looking alarmed. They both came inside without speaking until the door closed behind them. “There are some men coming,” Libby said softly, though no one could hear talking beyond that heavy door. “I don’t know who they are, but they’re wearing camouflage clothing and carrying some kind of weapon I think.”

“Did they see you?” asked Jesse.

“What kind of weapon?” said Pete.

“I think they did see me,” Libby said. “I can’t be sure.”

“What kind of weap-on?” Pete repeated.

“How many men?” asked Jack.

“I didn’t count them,” said Libby. “Maybe 10, 12.”

“What kind of weapon?” repeated Pete.

“I think they’re called crossbows,” said Libby.

“They’re just deer hunters,” said Pete.

“A dozen deer hunters?” said Jack. “They don’t go out in dozens. And why would they be walking down the street? Deer famously live in the forest.”

Jesse gave Jack a cold look, and Pete replied at once, “They could be coming back from a hunt.”

“I wouldn’t think much about it,” Bev opined, “but no one’s been in here all day and the phones and the computer are out, so there’s no way of knowing what’s going on downtown.” As she spoke, Libby stepped behind the counter and tapped at the computer keys. “Nothing,” she said.

“What do you think?” Pete asked scornfully. “The town has been taken over by men with crossbows?”

“If they plan to rob the rich and give to the poor, they need to go over to Riverton,” Jack said. “That’s where all the money is.”

“I think we should all go into the basement,” Bev said. “If they look in and see no one’s here, they’ll move on.”

“They’ll think you’re closed,” I agreed.

Then we heard shouting outside. It was impossible to make out what was being said, only that it was men and they were shouting angrily. Bev and I made for the basement stairway, which is carpeted. The basement is where the children’s library is, and it’s a very lovely space with some windows high up because the room isn’t completely underground. There’s a nice bathroom and a meeting room, which they sometimes use for book groups or even cooking classes, and the children’s area, with good quality, dark industrial carpet, walls of books, videos, and audios, a few computers, big stuffed animals kids can lie on, and child-sized chairs, tables, games, puzzles. When our grandchildren visit, we spend hours down there. Jack followed us and stood at the top of the stairs. Pete and Jesse stood looking back at the door, and then Jesse made up his mind and followed. We heard stamping outside on the sidewalk and up the handicapped ramp. Jesse scooted faster, and Pete, who could see the street, turned and hurried after him. When we were all gathered in the children’s room, Libby said softly, regretfully, “We should have locked the door.”

But it was too late. We could hear them banging around on the steps and then the big door opening and the voices, suddenly very loud and clear, speaking over the stamping of boots. It sounded like a large group coming into the lobby.

Using hand signals, Bev and Libby encouraged us to gather near the audio shelves, as far from the doorway as possible. If someone came down the stairs and glanced into the room, they wouldn’t see us. Pete made a pained look, and stuck his jaw out, but I noticed he didn’t hang back. We could hear the men clearly now, one speaking loudly, another responding in a softer voice, and a lot of footsteps moving through the main floor all the way to the reading room. We could hear them, but they weren’t speaking English. Jack, who is very good at recognizing languages, whispered that it was definitely Slavic, definitely not Russian, maybe Serbo-Croatian.

“How do you know it’s not Russian?” hissed Pete, looking skeptical.

“I know enough Russian to know it’s not Russian,” Jack replied.

Although we’re all neighbors and much accustomed to one another’s foibles, certain hostilities do crop up, mostly having to do with who has an advanced degree in anything and who does not. Pete is a contractor; a good man to know if you need home repairs but he may never have read a book in his life. Jesse did go to college and majored in theater, I think. He’s a fantastic gardener, and I’m always watching to see when and what he prunes and when he plants what and where.

But all we were really thinking about, standing there in the children’s library, was whether or not the shouting men would come down the stairs and find us. It didn’t take long. One of them shined a flashlight down the carpeted stairwell, like a beacon of intent. “Here they come,” Bev said softly to Libby, and I noticed Libby take her hand. In the next moment the men came three abreast down the stairs and straight into the children’s room, brandishing their bizarre weapons with the bow-strings stretched tight, the vicious looking razor-tipped arrows pointing at us and their fingers wrapped closely around what were basically triggers.

When they saw us practically huddled now in a tight, terrified group, their eyes caught fire, their lips stretched into thin, intense lines. The biggest among them, they were all big men, shouted an order and they fanned out around us, muttering words we didn’t understand. They looked stern, but the emotion that flickered beneath this varnish of cruelty was joy. They were delighted to have found us. The day had just turned interesting for them; they had to do something with us, to us. We stood staring at each other, our group, their group. Something had to give.

“What are you doing here?” Pete demanded gruffly. He was standing behind Bev and Libby, who were visibly trembling.

The biggest man said something that had a lot of consonants in it—vrsh brgrsdck stckhtl—something like that, and his two cohorts raised their crossbows higher and laughed. I was clutching my backpack, and the others were still holding their MREs, which struck me as funny for some reason. I always think it’s best to be polite to people with weapons, but Pete clearly took the opposite view. “This is bullshit,” he said, stepping away from us. He turned to Jesse, “Come on,” he said. “We’re out of here.” Jesse didn’t move. Pete strode out across the carpet, dodging the leader who barked something. One of the archers pulled a vicious-looking black club from a loop in his belt and knocked Pete to the carpet as he passed by. Blood sprang from the blow above his eye, and he let out a cry of surprise, covering his face with his hands. The man who hit him closed in and delivered a hard kick to his gut. “Stop!” Pete howled.

Now a string of consonants poured from the commander, and his cohorts turned their attention and their arrows upon us. “What do you want us to do?” Jesse said petulantly. His face was drained of blood, and his voice was an octave higher than usual. The commander opened one arm, pointing to the hall and the staircase.

“They want us to go upstairs,” Jack said. This was obvious, actually, but Bev said, “How do you know? Can you understand them?”

Vstrp mbghskp,” said the commander, jabbing his index finger in the direction of the stairs. Pete was sitting up now, struggling to get to his feet.

“Let’s go,” said Jack. He met the commander’s eye and nodded, pointing at the doorway. The commander nodded back and turned to lead the way. We followed him across the carpet and up into the lobby, the other two men close behind us with their arrows and clubs at the ready.

My heart sank as we cleared the stairwell and I could see the glass doors of the lobby. There were several more men there, armed with crossbows, dressed in camouflage suits with high laced-up boots, some looking in at us, others turned with their backs to the building, their weapons pointed at the street. We should never have left the house, I thought. Now we were captives.

Bev and Libby came up behind us, followed by Jesse, who led a bleating, bleeding Pete by the elbow. Pete was muttering about the lawsuit he would soon be filing, the assault charges and the harsh penalties pursuant to conviction. Jack and I exchanged looks of mild disgust—Pete really was an ass and he was making everything worse. For several minutes we all just stood there in the lobby waiting to find out what would happen next. One of the archers started poking around the big MRE box; they’d evidently dragged it in from the porch steps, and there was some conversation about the contents that we didn’t understand. The group on the step landing was slowly dispersing down to the sidewalk. Two stayed behind, and after the others were gone, they turned to the door, tugged it open—it’s an extremely heavy door—and came inside. Consonants filled the air. They began herding us across the lobby to the front entrance. We passed the high school art exhibit they’d just put up last week—some of the kids were really talented—and Jesse observed in passing a large, carefully shaded drawing of a guitar leaning against a chair—“That’s Clare Devant’s. I recognize her style.” That made me really like Jesse, but Pete managed to be annoyed and said, “Are you out of your mind?” Jesse gave me a weak smile and I smiled back.

We came out into the entryway with the village history display and for the first time we could see Main Street. It was lined on both sides with small horse trailers hitched to pickup trucks. There must have been 20 of them. This is hunt country, so horse trailers are not an unusual sight, but I’d never seen this many in town. Some of the trailers were closed, but three or four had their wide back doors open and next to each of these stood a small Hispanic man, presumably the driver of the truck. This cheered me considerably, as Jack has excellent Spanish.

“Is there a riding event?” Libby speculated, though there were no horses in sight. Our captors held the doors open and ushered us out into the oil-slick street. The smell was acrid, and it was more sticky than slippery underfoot.

Some of the trailers were beat up—horses had been recent passengers—but several looked brand new. Two of the new ones had their loading doors open, and our captors urgently ushered us toward the bigger one. As we approached, the Hispanic man backed away from the trailer doors and went to the front of the truck. Jack called out to him in Spanish, and he smiled affably but made no reply. “¿Que está pasando?” Jack asked. We were very near then, so he didn’t have to raise his voice. The man opened his hands, as if presenting an unvarnished fact. “No lo sé,” he said.

That much Spanish I understood. But Pete asked Jack, “What did he say?”

“I asked him what was going on, and he said he didn’t know,” Jack replied.

“Right,” said Pete. “They never know anything.”

Way down the street, in front of the bank, I could see a commotion going on around two trailers. As archers herded another group of villagers toward a small trailer, two men in suits broke away and ran for the corner. I could make out their backs, their jackets pushed open wide, their long strides, as they made it to the sidewalk and disappeared between Mancini’s Real Estate and The Eatery. One of the archers stepped out, not hurriedly, raised his crossbow pointing between the two buildings, and pulled the trigger. Someone on the sidewalk screamed. That’s all I saw.

“They’re taking the whole town,” Libby observed. The truck engine of a closed trailer across the street from us started up, and as we watched, it pulled away from the curb heading north, out of town.

“Are there people in there?” Pete asked. He’d seen the trouble at the bank and was looking seriously subdued.

The Hispanic man turned away from us, opened the truck door and climbed inside. Our captors pressed in closely, while their commander shouted at us incomprehensibly. However, we understood that he wanted us in the trailer. Libby moved between the doors, peering in. “At least we’re getting one of the new ones,” she said.

I really didn’t want to get into the trailer. Jack was standing close behind me, and I leaned back into his arms. He rested one hand on my hip, the other on my shoulder; neither of us moved. But Pete, nudged by an arrow tip, stepped up onto the loading ramp and Jesse followed him. Bev, who was standing next to us, said, “What else can we do?” Libby, well inside now, turned to us encouragingly. “It’s big enough and the windows are open.” I could feel Jack’s resistance building through his hands. He constitutionally hates all authority, whereas I tend to do as I’m told. The commander was closing in on us with his hand on his black club. “We don’t have a choice,” I said softly.

“I know it,” Jack said, to my surprise. We followed our neighbors up the ramp and into the horse trailer. Immediately our captors raised the ramp and slammed the steel doors closed behind us. I felt the bolt sliding through the metal loops, as if it was a rod jammed straight through my ears. The truck engine started up, there was some shouting among the archers, and then with a jolt that made us all stagger in place, the trailer began to move.

In the next nine hours, Jack and I learned more about our neighbors than we wanted to know. The first bit of info was useful enough: Libby was wearing an old-fashioned battery watch, so we were able to keep track of the hours as they ticked by. We were miserably uncomfortable, especially as the day wore on and it got first hot then cold inside the steel box. The floor was covered by a hard black rubber mat, which we could sit on, but it was so close to the ground, every pebble in the road translated into a shock to the buttocks. The sides were lined with faux-leather padding, and there was a padded rail down the center to keep the horses from kicking each other. The barred windows were just right for a horse to look out of, but we could only see bits of the sky, perhaps a flash of a tree limb. At first I didn’t think much about the bucket secured to a low ledge near the front, but as time wore on and our bladders silently filled, it became obvious that it would have to be called into service. Without discussing the etiquette, we unanimously turned away from the person who gloomily stepped toward the front to answer a call of nature.

We had little to distract us from our plight and our perfect ignorance of the fate that awaited us. Pete became preoccupied with the heater of his MRE, convinced that he could set fire to something with it—though there was nothing flammable in the trailer—and that the resulting smoke and flame would cause the driver to pull over and open the back doors, at which point we would all leap out and make a run for it. He got Jesse to give him a handkerchief as starter fuel. Then he read the instructions out loud, and it was revealed that the first thing you needed to add to the packet was water. I had a full water bottle in the backpack, but I was reluctant to waste it on such a hare-brained scheme and Jack backed me up. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be in here,” Jack said.

Bev agreed as well. “First rule of seamanship,” she said. “Don’t waste fresh water.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Pete exclaimed. “We’re not at sea.”

So there was hostility about that, and Pete was disgruntled.

After a few hours of being positive and hopeful about everything, Libby abruptly burst into tears, sank into a corner of the trailer, and repeated that we were going to be killed. We would be left on the side of the road, locked in and starving to death, like those immigrants they found in a van in Albania. Jesse tried to comfort her. He crouched in front of her, took her hands, stroked her hair and her face, promising her that we would find a way home, that she would be back at her post in the library tomorrow morning.

I really wished Libby hadn’t said that bit about the immigrants in Albania. I fell to scanning every inch of the trailer for a way out. The back was sealed and bolted, but there was a small, human-sized door at the front, across from the bucket, and I thought it might be possible to kick it open somehow. I was about to share this thought with Jack when Libby started gasping for air and Jesse asked me if he might give her a drink of water from my bottle. “We could all use a drink,” Jack said kindly, so I got the bottle and passed it to Jesse. Everyone took a few swallows—even Pete didn’t try to guzzle more than his share—and Bev passed it back to me with a soft “Thank you.” I felt pleased with myself for having thought to bring it.

The day wore on until it seemed the driver must need a break. For a long time we were on a highway moving at such a speed that we all just stood holding onto the divider, or the rope ties along the walls on either side. Pete judged from the angle of the sun that we were moving northeast. We were hungry but no one wanted to try the MREs cold or waste the water on heating them. I thought about my survival oat crackers and chocolate, but there wasn’t enough for everyone, so it could only create more suffering to bring it out. We speculated that as there was only one driver, sooner or later he would have to stop. So we waited, more or less patiently, Jack and me and our neighbors Bev and Libby and Pete and Jesse, for whatever came next.

It was dark and cold when at last the trailer left the highway and commenced bumping down a rutted road. We could hear bushes scraping the sides, and tree branches stretching over the high windows clawed at the bars. Another half hour of jolting and bumping, then several turns left, right, right again, then left, progressively slower and slower until at last the trailer came to a halt on an incline that sent us all staggering to the back. Then silence. Dark. Cold. We spoke softly, as if we might be overheard. The driver hadn’t left the truck; we felt sure of that. Pete raised his fist to the wall and beat on it, shouting, “What’s going on out there? Let us out of here,” a few times, and Libby sobbed, “They’ve left us, they’ve left us,” into Jesse’s shoulder. Bev pulled her phone from her bag and turned it on; it made an eerie spot of light beneath her chin as she read the words “no signal.”

“Yell at the driver,” Pete said to Jack. “Tell him to let us out.”

Jack nodded and moved to the front of the trailer. As he did, other footsteps seemed to follow him; which made Libby cry out, “Oh, God.” There were more footsteps then, heavy boots tramping in from every direction. We heard the sound of sticks and brush being trampled underfoot. A dull light rose up from below the windows, white and thin, nothing like the sun, but strangely comforting. Next there were voices, men talking. Was it English? They didn’t sound excited; they were just talking and moving around the van. One said something that could have been, “Give that to me,” in a thick accent I couldn’t identify. Then we heard the sound of the bolt sliding across the back doors. “They’re letting us out,” Jesse said to Libby. “You see, they’re letting us out.” Abruptly the two big doors were pulled open wide, and a blinding light flooded our dark, narrow prison. It was like stepping onto a stage; all we could see was the light. From somewhere behind it a deep voice said, “Come out, won-ah by won-ah.” We heard, but couldn’t see, the loading ramp being pulled out, dropped into place. Jesse kept his arm around Libby and guided her into the light, but at the edge the voice said firmly, “Won-ah at a time. Won-ah at a time.” We watched as Libby stepped out nervously, moving down the ramp, her shoulders trembling with sobs. Then Jesse followed her, silently, bravely, I thought, saying, “Libby, don’t be afraid, I’m right behind you.” Pete went next, followed by Bev. Jack and I hung back. “We have to follow,” I said. Jack nodded.

“You come now-ah,” said the voice. No one else was talking, which seemed odd and we couldn’t see a thing. We approached the ramp together. “I’m coming,” I said for no reason, stepping down onto the metal slide. When I got to the bottom, a man in a camouflage suit and silly camouflage rain hat took my arm and led me to one side, beyond the light. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Jack halfway down, holding his palm over his eyes against the glare. When I looked ahead there were the others, gathered together on a wooden platform lighted by klieg lights strung from the trees and surrounded by more men in camouflage suits, high boots, the silly hats. Each one was equipped with a powerful-looking rifle slung from a strap across the torso. My guide led me to join my neighbors; Jack came behind. We all stood in a nervous huddle. Around us was a forest, dark and deep. The soldiers didn’t speak, only stared at us as if we were performers in a play they expected to begin any moment. In the distance, then closer and closer, we could hear a loud motor approaching. It turned toward us and a single headlight broke out among the branches. Over the bumps and ruts in the path a rider bounced along on an enormous roaring motorcycle. When he arrived at the clearing, he braked at the far side of our platform, turned off his engine and swung one long leg over the side, settling his machine in place. He was a huge man, tall, wide, dressed in a weird uniform, a red coat, pea green pants, black boots, a black hat, a black belt, a big silver pistol in a holster attached to the belt. The soldiers surrounding us hardly acknowledged him as he strode across the path and with a quick jump landed on the platform. Pete, ever blustering, looked this giant up and down and said in the tone of a dissatisfied customer, “Are you in charge here?”

The officer lowered his chin to his chest in order to look down upon Pete. He appeared to be thinking about what to say to this nonentity beneath his gaze. We were all riveted by this confrontation. “Citizenship!” the officer exclaimed.

“What?” said Pete.

“Citizenship!” the officer repeated at exactly the same volume.

“I’m an American,” Pete said.

“He wants your ID,” Jesse said to his husband. “Do you have a license or something?”

“No,” said Pete. “Do you have anything?”

At this point I started tugging at my jacket zipper to get the passport in my inside pocket. Jack reached into his side pocket and took out his, which he held out to the officer, saying, “We’re all Americans. Look. Here’s my passport.”

The officer turned away from Pete and snapped Jack’s passport from his fingers. I moved closer, holding out my own. He took it abruptly without looking at me. “Citizenship!” he said to Jack.

Jack regarded him incredulously. “You’re holding our passports,” he said. “We’re Americans.”

The officer ignored us for a few moments, carefully turning the pages of our documents.

“What ever made you think to bring your passports,” said Bev to Jack, clearly impressed by our prescience.

Jack looked at her bemusedly. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Something about those planes coming over made me think we might need identification.”

“You thought we might be killed?” asked Libby.

Jesse had taken his wallet from a back pocket and opened it to his driver’s license. “I wonder if this will satisfy him,” he said.

The officer handed our passports back to us without comment. He turned to the others and announced baldly, “Citizenship!”

“He only knows one word,” said Pete. Jesse tried to hand over his license, but the officer waved it away.

“We’re all Americans,” Bev pleaded. “We two are librarians. We’re all neighbors from the same village. You must know that.”

If he did, he wasn’t saying. He waved over a few of the guys with rifles and indicating Jack and me, said something in the unidentifiable language, which they appeared to understand perfectly. Three of them gathered around us, ushering us off the platform toward the woods. They’re going to shoot us, I thought, just because we’re Americans. We stumbled ahead, in among the trees. I looked over my shoulder at our group, gathered before the officer, tired and helpless. Jesse saw me and raised his hand lightly in farewell.

The soldiers urge us forward, picking up speed, striding purposefully alongside us, talking among themselves, as if we aren’t there. Beneath our feet the narrow trail broadens and flattens, and a pinkish light rises up from the ground, picking out the stones and the low scrub just ahead. Is the sun coming up? We find our footing at last; break into a brisk walk. One of the soldiers speaks to the others, and they laugh. A sound comes from the distance, high and keening, an instrument of some kind. The soldiers gradually drop back, and the path grows brighter, wider. Intimidated and uncertain, we slow down, plodding forward toward the light.

At last we come to a clearing, and there in the long grass a group of dancers are gathered, moving gracefully in interlocking circles, while two musicians, one on an accordion, the other with a violin, play a dreamy country waltz. We pause on the verge, panting, looking out at them, our hearts beating fast. Jack says softly, “Nothing makes sense anymore.”

Two of the dancers, a young man in jeans and T-shirt and a girl in a plain brown dress with a wide-gored skirt, spot us and break free from the others. They are both smiling, and as we watch dumbfounded, they hold out their arms, their hands palms in, waving us to join them. “Come in,” the young man calls. “Come join us.”

I feel many things at once, regret and fear for our neighbors left behind, relief that we have somehow survived and come to this place of rescue. How did we manage that? It occurs to me that it’s just like Jack to realize that we might need those passports. When I ran through the house, I thought he was being absurd, but now all I feel is gratitude.

The waltz pours out over the tall grasses; the sun breaks free of the brush and floods the field with gold; the smiling couple faces us, waving us in to safety.

Energy and joy surge up through my legs, all the way to my heart. I want to run as fast as I can. Jack’s hand takes mine, holds it fast. “Let’s run,” he says.

And we run.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Valerie Martin is the author of 11 novels (most recently The Ghost of Mary Celeste), four collections of short fiction, and Salvation, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi.


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