They're here. Mommy always said they would come. She was right. I knew she was right. Mommy is never wrong. They have big black boots that stomp on the floor. I can see through the very bottom crack of the cabinet I'm hiding in, but I have to press up against the floor, which smells gross. The pipe of the sink digs into my back and something slimy is under my foot. But I am very quiet and very still.
The men don't shout. I thought they might shout at Mommy and Daddy when they came, but they don't. They're quiet like a roomful of people after somebody says something wrong. Their boots stomp on the floor but that's the only noise they make. There's six of them. Seven, eight. No, more. There's too many. I can't count them all. Somehow their quiet is making me more afraid than it would if they were loud, I think.
Mommy and Daddy got a warning that the men in black boots would come, and so they hid me and my brother and my sister in cabinets all over the house. The cabinets have secret exits, so if things get bad, we can just press a panel away and escape. But my sister's got something wrong in her head and my brother's only a baby, so I don't know what will happen to them. I don't know if they'll remember they can escape. But I remember. Daddy said if I was caught, I would either be killed or re-educated. I don't know what that word means. Re-educated. But still I remember it, and I turn it around in my mouth like a mint candy. Re-educated. I have a good memory.
Mommy and Daddy didn't bother hiding. They're still sitting in the living room. I imagine Mommy knitting and Daddy reading as the men in black boots stomp towards them. I imagine Mommy and Daddy pretending nothing is wrong. I imagine them trying to be brave.
I hear crashes. Shouts. That's Daddy, shouting. None of the men in black boots make a sound. Mommy shouts, next. More crashes. Are they trying to escape, are they fighting? They said they wouldn't; they said there was no proof they'd done anything wrong, so they shouldn't have to fight. But they're fighting now. I hear an awful noise and know deep in my veins that Mommy is hurt, badly. That is the noise you make when you're hurt. More shouting—Daddy is desperate now, screaming, almost. Then one more crash and bang, bang. Shots. I know what shots are because Daddy took me out two weeks ago for my first shooting lesson. I know what shots sound like. I know Mommy and Daddy are gone, I know it in my heart, but I won't think about it, I push it away. I won't think of it.
They're banging through the house, now. A thought flashes through my head—Mommy and Daddy, lying on the ground, bloody, dead, like the deer I've seen Daddy shoot—and I choke a little, make a sob. A noise. Stupid, stupid, I shouldn't have made a noise. Mommy said it was the most important thing in the world that I should be quiet. Fear makes me into a stone statue and I'm still as a rock, waiting for one of the black-boot men to yank open the door and grab me out and shoot me too. But nothing happens. They're not nearby. They're somewhere else or they would've heard me, I'm sure.
I hear crashing, upstairs, downstairs, nearby. Another shot, just one, from downstairs. No one is downstairs but Patricia. Patricia is dead. They shot Patricia. That's not fair. She's only eight and she's bad in the head. She wouldn't hurt a fly—couldn't. Why would they shoot her? If they would shoot her, they'll shoot me too. Without even thinking—maybe my body can think for me, now—I turn around, which is hard in this tiny space, and push away the panel. Then I wiggle my way into the tunnel Daddy dug, and pull the panel into place behind me. Then I crawl as fast as I can go away from home.
Before I get far I hear another shot, this time from upstairs. Will. They got Will. He's only four. They shot him and he's only four. It makes hate swell up in me so heavy that I think it might pull me down to the floor. But I keep going. I have to keep going.
The tunnel leads to a faraway spot and I crawl and crawl. Daddy only put wood paneling in part of it. The rest of it's just dirt. I get so dirty crawling through that tunnel, but I keep going. I can't do anything else, not now. Even though I'm so scared and sad and angry that I could burst, I know I have to keep going. I'm just a kid but I'm not a baby and I'm smart. I know there's no one going to save me or help me. I have to help myself now. I have to look after myself.
The crawl is so long. It feels like hours. I get so tired, my bones feel like they're going to melt out of me, just spurt out of my ears and puddle on the ground in a grey mess. And every time I hear a noise, it makes fear whistle through me, fear that one of the black-boot men knows where I am and is following me and will shoot me. But every time I look behind me there's no one there. Just darkness, blackness—I'm so far away from the house now that I can't even see a speck of light behind me.
After forever, I finally get to the end. I push myself out and I'm standing in a field. I know this field—it's the one near the woods where Daddy taught me to shoot. It's fifteen minutes' drive away from our house. That's long enough. I should have a head start. But now that I'm out of the tunnel, fear swallows me up and I can't move anymore.
Mommy said I should be brave, and I want to be brave, I'm trying my hardest to be brave, but I can't. She said when they came, I should be brave and smart, and if I got away, I should think about anything I did before I did it. But most of all she said I need to find Allan. That's what I need to remember. I repeat it in my mind like the bedtime prayers Mommy says to me. Find Allan find Allan find Allan find Allan.
I repeat it to myself until the fear goes away. Then I tell myself: you have to run. If you don't, they'll get you. And then I run into the woods like a black-boot man is chasing me.
The woods are dark and the wind is in the leaves, and I feel like every tree has something waiting behind it to hurt me. But I keep moving. Mommy gave me directions to Allan. She said: go through the woods, northwest. I know where northwest is because I can read the stars—Daddy taught me, not too long ago. Then, Mommy said, you'll get to an open area, and a little shack. Go in the shack. There's a phone number in the drawer. Call the number. If it doesn't work, then follow the map in the drawer. Ask for Allan. Above all, find Allan. Whatever you do, find Allan. She made me repeat these words over and over and over again until they couldn't leave my mind if I wanted them to, until I even dreamed them in my sleep.
It's cold. I'm only wearing a thin green jacket and jeans. Mommy said that anything bigger would get in my way, slow me down. She said that just before she hid me. I'm not even wearing socks. Mommy didn't have time to find any.
It's all because of the pamphlets. I don't understand all of it. Mommy and Daddy were putting out pamphlets, and the pamphlets said something that made the men in black boots mad. Daddy tried to explain it to me once, but I didn't understand and he got tired of trying to make me get it. Things have been fearful ever since I can remember, because of those pamphlets. Mommy and Daddy had to move way out into the country because they were part of a group of people who put out pamphlets and organize meetings and stuff like that. Whenever there's a meeting at our house, they make me and Patricia and Will hide in our rooms. Something about the meetings and the pamphlets makes somebody mad. That's just about all I know about it.
If it weren't for the stupid pamphlets then my whole family wouldn't be dead. The stupid pamphlets. Why did they have to make those stupid things? Did those pamphlets really matter more than I did?
While I'm walking through the woods I try to make myself think about something else, because the fear and the sad is going to eat me alive. I think about the TV shows I watch. We used to have a different TV, a thin shiny new one, but it would show these stupid horrible shows every few hours, these shows that are supposed to make you behave or something like that. And it always showed this orange eye on grey, all the time—down in the corner, or sometimes huge in the very middle of the screen, just staring at you.
I didn't like that TV. When we moved, we got a new one, an old one that shows the shows I like, on tapes Mommy got for me, and doesn't show any orange eye at all. It shows Barney the dinosaur, and Dora with her backpack, and stuff like that. I like that stuff but I'm too old for it, so I just pretend to not like it, but I watch it with Will. Will's still young enough to like it. And I watch cool shows, too, like shows about people who go up in space, and shows about lions and tigers. Sometimes I like that kid stuff too, but I think Daddy doesn't like that I like it, so I pretend like I don't. Daddy wants me to be all grown up already. He says he needs another man around the house, not a kid who watches stuff for babies on TV. I don't want to be a baby—I'm not a baby. But he doesn't know that. I can't make the words come out of my mouth right.
He'll never know it because he's dead. The thought suddenly rises to the top of my mind like a balloon and bursts loud and horrible. I will never have another chance to make him like me, because he's dead.
I want to sit down and cry and cry but I don't. I keep going. Northwest. That's the way to go, northwest and find Allan. Find Allan. Find Allan.
Just when I think the shack might not exist, I find it. It's in this open area with leaves all around. I run to it and jiggle the door. Locked. I bang on it. Won't open. I'm so mad. I bang and bang.
Finally I get another idea. The windows are low enough to the ground that I could throw a rock at them. I find a nice big rock nearby and I lift it, as high as I can. It's heavy like holding the whole Earth in my hands but I still lift it and swing it high. It crashes into the window. Shatters. An awful noise. I'm so worried someone's going to find me and my fear makes me stronger, strong enough to run at the window and leap up and pull myself into the shack without anybody helping me.
No one's inside and it's so dark. I don't have a light. Just before the black-boot men came, Mommy was looking for a little flashlight to give me. But they got there, in their black truck, before she could find anything, even socks. I tumble around for a while, looking for the drawer. Finally I feel something that could be it—yes, here's a handle to pull. I open the top shelf and find some paper, which I pull out. Now how do I read it? There's no light. And how do I call Allan if there's no phone? I don't know yet if there is a phone because there's no light to see what's here.
I get the idea to see if there could be a light switch. I find the wall and feel my way around it, stretched to my tip-toes, feeling for the bump of a switch. Finally I find one and I could cry for how happy I am. I flick it on, and in the very last instant I'm afraid nothing will happen. But it does. The light flashes on. I've been in the dark woods and the dark shack so long and the light burns and burns my eyes, but I'm happy it does.
When I'm used to it, I look at the paper in my hand. It's a phone number and there's a phone nearby. I dial the number. Nothing happens. I know the phone isn't dead because the lights are flashing up on the numbers. It must be the number that's dead. What if Allan is dead? What if the black-boot men got him too? The thought is the worst thought I've had and it makes me want to fall down. Allan is all I know. If I can't find Allan then there's nothing else I can do. Mommy didn't give me any other people to find. She just said Allan.
I go back to the drawer. Like Mommy said, there's a map in there. The map leads from the shack to a house. The house is far away and it's in the middle of a city. I don't want to go. But I have to.
I won't go right now. There's a little fridge nearby and I open it and there's food in there, an apple and a sandwich. The sandwich is floppy, and the apple is brown, but it's still good. I haven't eaten since lunchtime. I only eat the apple and I leave the sandwich for later. I have food and light and there's a little blanket nearby. Yes, I can stay here. I won't leave and go now, while it's dark out. I won't and I can't.
I lie down on the floor and stretch, all my bones popping and cracking. Oh, it feels so good to lie down and melt into the floor. I pull the blanket over me and even though I don't have a pillow, I can already feel myself falling into sleep.
Morning. The sun is shining through the window, right into my eyes. But that's not what woke me up. I have to pee bad. I go outside and pee, as far away from the shack as I dare to go.
Back inside, I open the fridge and stare at the sandwich even though the cold from the fridge is pushing on me. I know that if I eat it, I might not get more food for a while. Maybe I could eat just half. But I'm so hungry, it's like there's a collapsing cave in my stomach.
I try to eat just half. But then I eat three-quarters. And then four-fifths. And then there's almost nothing left at all to save. I'm stupid. I want to hit myself. But I was so hungry. Now you'll be even hungrier, I tell myself.
You don't know how much I want to cry. I want to cry and cry until I'm empty. But there's work to be done now and I won't let Mommy down. I imagine Mommy looking down from up above and crying, because she sees me failing her. That's enough to make me get up and move.
I follow the map through woods, across streams, across busy highways. My legs get so tired they feel like rubber, but fear keeps me going. I'm so scared someone will find me, someone will take me. When I reach the city and walk down sidewalks alone, grown-ups look at me with funny looks on their faces. But I only give them a smile and then stare back at the map. I need to make them think I'm okay or else they might take me. They'd think they were doing something good for me. Saving me. But they'd be wrong.
One man asks me where my mommy is.
"She's waiting for me," I say, smiling so hard my teeth hurt. "I'm following this treasure map to find her."
It's not really a lie.
He bends down and takes my arm, stopping me from leaving. I want so bad to pull away, but I can't make him mad or else he'll take me and give me to the black-boot men. He looks at the map. "This is two cities away. It would take days to walk to this address from here. Did your mommy really give you this map?"
Days? Well, it feels like I've been walking days already. I don't care. I have to find Allan. "Yes," I say.
He frowns. "Maybe I can drive you there. Look at you—you're not even wearing shoes."
Fear jumps up in me like a mad dog. I pull away. "No, thanks." I'm this close to running.
"You don't understand, I'm trying to help you—"
That's it, I'm not staying. I run and run and run, feet pounding against the ground. He won't take me. I know he wants to take me to the black-boot men, but I won't let him. I run faster than I've ever in my life. I won't let him take me. I imagine Mommy cry and scream as she watches from heaven, watching me being taken away, and this makes me run even faster. No one or nothing could catch up to me now, not a greyhound or a cheetah or anything. I hear the man shout after me but I don't think he's chasing me. I run down sidewalks and through parks until all the breath is gone from me.
For a tiny second I'm afraid I've lost the map—I can't feel it in my hands—but when I lift my hands, it's there, clutched so tightly that I've lost feeling. I'm so relieved I could fall down and die from it. Thank you thank you thank you, thank you it's still there. I don't know who I'm thanking. Mommy, maybe.
Then I think about what the man said. Two cities away. I'll have to walk for days. I don't want to walk for days. But then I remember Mommy looking down at me, and I start walking, following the map.
Even at night, I walk. I walk along busy highways in the dark, walking in ditches or low places so no one can see me. I'm hungry and it hurts and hurts more with every minute, but I keep going—there's nothing else to do but keep going.
Sometimes I think somebody sees me. Sometimes I'm scared that they'll stop and catch me, but they never do. But once, so late at night that it's almost morning, I hear a car crunch to a stop on the side of the road behind me.
I don't even think, I just run, even though I'm so tired. I hear someone calling after me. "Is something wrong? Are you okay?"
I hear a door slam and the car crunches after me, going along the side of the road. They catch up to me as easily as anything. Please, no, I think, running even faster, running so fast I can't even breathe. But they're there.
It's a woman and a man, and the woman catches me into her arms. I kick and I punch, but I don't scream. Screaming would make people notice me and that would be the worst. She lifts me up and I kick her and punch her but she doesn't let go. The headlights of the car are so bright. They stab my eyes.
"Look at him. He's so dirty," says the woman.
"Green coat, no shoes—do you suppose he's the one they're looking for?"
I want to cry. They're with the black-boot men. They're going to take me. I'm going to be shot.
"Yes. I think he is," says the woman.
"What do you want to do? With him, I mean?" asks the man.
The woman's lips become a very thin line, like my mommy's do when she's mad at me. "We can't let anyone know we have him."
My heart skips a beat, hope shoots through me.
"You're right," says the man, but reluctantly. "We can't."
"We know what they'll do to him if we give him up," says the woman.
I stop kicking. I go limp. I'll be the best-behaved boy in the universe, if only she'll save me.
"Yeah," says the man.
"But where will we take him?"
"Allan," I say, the first word I've spoken in a long time. My voice is cracked and croaky.
"What?" They look at me—really look at me—for the first time.
"Please. Take me to Allan." I lift the map and show them.
The woman lets me down from her arms, but she keeps a grip on my sleeve. "Who's Allan?" she asks, her voice suddenly soft. She's very young. She's way younger than my mommy.
"I don't know," I say, and it's the truth. "But I have to find him. Mommy said. Please help me."
They look at each other. Then she takes the map from me and looks at it. "It's just Portland," she says to the man. "It's half an hour's drive away."
"We can take him there," says the man, but I know the look in his eyes—it's the look Mommy gives Daddy when she doesn't agree with him but doesn't want a fight. Instantly I make a note in my mind not to trust this man.
The woman doesn't notice. "Come on, let's go." She pulls me to the car and I go happily. The sudden hope in me feels awful and awesome at the same time. Maybe I can trust them. But maybe I can't. But there's nothing else to do but go with them, because now they've got me.
I wonder what Mommy would think of this?
I sit in the backseat of their car. It smells like lemons and pine. Like summer and the forest. I stare at the back of the man's and the woman's heads. Neither of them speak. The woman's got dark hair like my mommy. The man is a bit older than her and he's shaven bald.
They stop at a store and tell me to wait in the car. When they come out they've got new clothes for me—black shoes, jeans, a green shirt. I'm so happy to see the clothes—they're just the type that Mommy said wouldn't make anyone notice me and would help me hide in the woods. My own clothes—a blue-striped shirt, thin pants, my jacket—were dirty and ripped and torn from running through the woods and walking for so long. These, the woman throws in the garbage after I've got changed.
Then they take me to a burger place. I eat and eat, I'm so hungry. While I'm eating, they look at me with these sad looks on their faces and I'm suddenly scared: are they sad because they're feeling guilty because they're going to give me up to the black-boot men? But then the woman says, "You sure are hungry, aren't you?" and now I understand.
"Yeah," I say through a mouthful of burger. "Haven't eaten in a long time. Two days I think. Feels like longer."
"On the news they said you were ten," says the man, "but you look younger. How old are you?"
"Seven." They said I was ten on the news? Why would they do that? Maybe they just heard wrong.
They look at each other and the woman's mouth is in that tight line again. "Seven," she repeats like a parrot.
"So how did you get away?" The man is leaning in close to me now, and whispering.
The woman nudges him, hard. "Steve. We can talk about this in the car."
He draws away. "Right, sorry."
Suddenly I remember. They could be watching; they could be listening. The black-boot men, I mean. Mommy told me to always watch out for cameras, and so I lift my head and look around. And I notice them. They're everywhere, hanging from the ceiling like spiders. Black cameras. Staring at me.
I look away from them and speak to the woman. "Cameras," I say.
She frowns, but doesn't look up. "Why would there be cameras in a restaurant?"
She does look, and her face turns white as a sheet. "Steve. We need to leave now." She grabs her purse, slung over the back of her chair, and leaves too quick for us to follow her.
Me and Steve get up and Steve starts to reach for my hand, but at the very last second he stops and just walks away. I follow him, trying to keep up with his long fast steps.
In the car, Steve and the woman—I know now her name is Amy—start arguing, angrily, fierce words back-and-forth. They're arguing so fast that I can't keep track of what they say. The words bounce around inside my head, meaning nothing. So instead of listening to them I stare out the window, tracing patterns in the fog—a butterfly, my mommy's face—before wiping it all away and watching the other cars go whooshing by.
I hear the man say, "This was a bad idea. I knew this was a bad idea."
"Shut up, Steve." The woman sounds tired and afraid all at once.
"No, no—it's true. We shouldn't have done it. There are cameras in there. They saw us. They saw us. We'll go to jail. We'll be executed."
"There will be protests," says Amy. "They won't execute us for saving a little boy. People are already angry. They're already stirring. If the government executes us—executes him—it'll be the last straw."
The man shakes his head. "You're being naïve. There won't be an uprising, and I think you know it. They'll arrest us and shoot us and shoot anyone who disagrees with it, and that's it." He keeps talking faster and faster and faster, babbling. "But maybe we can save ourselves yet—"
"This is the way to the Director's Office. We can keep going. We don't have to stop in Portland. We can pretend we were going to the Director's Office all along."
"No." Amy's hands are sheet-white, they're holding the steering wheel so hard. "Steve, shut up."
"Don't tell me to shut up—you know I'm right. This is the only chance we have to save ourselves."
I pretend to be asleep, lean against the side of the car and let my mouth fall open as if I'm drooling, but my eyes are cracked open just a slit. I see Amy look back at me. "We can't, Steve," she says, and thank you thank you thank you, I can see no doubt in her eyes, just anger. Her voice quiets. "I won't condemn a little boy to death just because you want to save your own skin."
"His parents were part of the Underground, Amy. You know the government doesn't mess around with Undergrounders. This is the most serious thing we could've involved ourselves in. There will be no leniency for us. You're not going to just be tossed in some cushy jail cell somewhere and left to rot. We are going to be shot. If not tortured." Instead of rising, like most people's—my Daddy's—voices do when they're angry, Steve's voice lowers and lowers until it's like a snake's hiss. "I don't know about you, but I don't feel like tossing my life and my future in the trash for the sake of some kid."
"Somebody has to make a stand." Amy's voice is quiet, too, but not with anger. "This has to end somewhere. Somebody has to stand up and say no. We can't just let them kill children anymore."
"And we're going to stop it how? You know how this'll turn out, you know it as well as I do. This is all pointless. We might as well be driving to nowhere. They're going to catch us and kill us, and we won't have made any difference at all. They're going to make an example of him no matter what we do."
I knew I shouldn't trust him, I knew it, I knew it, and fear is boiling under my skin, but still I'm quiet like a mouse and pretend I'm fast asleep. But thoughts are buzzing inside me and I'm as awake as I've ever been in my life. I wonder how bad I would be hurt, with the car going as fast as it is, if I opened the door and hopped out.
But I don't need to think about this anymore because suddenly the car stops, so fast that I'm thrown against the seat in front of me. In a hard voice Amy says, "Steve, I'm taking him to where he wants to go, and if you don't like it, you can get out now. Go on. The door's unlocked."
Steve doesn't do anything for a second, just sits there and looks at Amy. His hand's on the handle of his door. So is mine. If Steve stays then I'm getting out. I don't trust him. I won't stay with him.
But the moment breaks like a water balloon and Steve opens the door and gets out and slams it shut behind him quick as a snap of fingers. Then Amy pulls away, the car screeching. I look out the window behind me, forgetting to pretend to sleep, and see Steve on the side of the highway, staring after us, getting smaller and smaller and further away.
"I hope you didn't hear any of that," says Amy, "but it was just him. I won't turn you in."
I believe her, I trust her. But not all the way. I won't trust anyone all the way, never. Nobody except Allan.
It seems like just a second, but it also seems like forever, before we get to Allan. His place is a house sandwiched between two stores in the middle of the city. There are so many people around as we pull into a parking spot in front of the house. There are people walking down the sidewalk, people standing and talking, crowds of them. It wouldn't seem like so many to me if only I wasn't so scared. Every one of them seems like a monster, just about to scratch at me, seconds away from grabbing me and taking me to the black-boot men. I'm so scared but I remind myself that I'm here, I'm safe, I'm going to meet Allan and everything will be okay. And that makes it better, a little.
Amy takes my hand and we go up to the door of the house, and she lifts her hand to knock, but she doesn't have to because the door opens right away. Someone must have been waiting at the window looking for me. Is it Allan? I don't know—Mommy never told me what he looks like. He's got long hair for a man, and a beard. His eyes are turned down like a puppy's, and sad.
"He wanted you," says Amy, and that's all she needs to say.
"He needs me," corrects the man. And he picks me up and looks me right in the eye. "Did you see it?" he asks.
I get it right away, I know what he's talking about. I'm not stupid. "No," I say, "I just heard it."
"How did it happen?"
"Shots. Bang, bang."
He looks at Amy. "You'd better come inside."
We all go in. The man says he's Allan, and I believe him. We sit down in the living room. There's two other people in there, a man and a woman. The woman is sitting in a flowery chair and knitting, but as soon as she sees me, she puts down her knitting and stares and stares at me. The man has a newspaper, but he puts it down, too, and looks at me.
I sit next to Allan. You couldn't take me away from him if you tried—not if you were the strongest man in the world.
"I was good friends with your mommy," Allan tells me.
"Yes," I say, "she talked about you so much. She told me to find you. I walked for days and days. I walked through the woods and found the shack. Look, I found the map." But I forgot that I don't have the map anymore, Amy does.
Allan doesn't say anything about the map. He says, "Did you walk almost all the way here?"
"He walked all the way to the highway near Woodburn," Amy speaks up, sitting on a couch across from us.
"In two days?" Allan's eyebrows are as high as the sky. "How?"
"I walked really fast," I say. I don't see how this is such a big deal. Mommy told me to find Allan, so I went to find Allan as quick as I could. I was just listening to Mommy.
"You're a very brave boy," says Allan, his kind face smiling at me. "Very strong, too. Just like your mommy and your daddy." Then he says, "Why don't you go into the other room now? You can play in there."
I don't want to leave him. Mommy told me to find him, and if I leave him, I might lose him again. But he'll just be in the next room, so I decide to do what he says.
There's not much there to play with in here. Just an old rocking horse. At home I had a tiny car Daddy built for me out of wood, one with little wheels that you could really steer. And I had coloring books and paper to fold shapes out of. Here there's nothing but that old rocking horse. Soon I get bored and I crawl, quiet as I can, out to the hallway, where I sit up with my back against the wall and listen close to what Allan is saying.
"You're one of us now, whether you like it or not," Allan is saying.
Amy's voice is hard. "I knew what I was getting into when I picked him up."
"I don't know much about fighting the government—about resisting. Do you know about cameras? In restaurants? Do they monitor those closely?"
"You can learn. Where was the restaurant?"
She tells him some address. It surprises me that she knows the address—where'd she see it? Maybe she just has a good memory. Mommy had a good memory. I got mine from her.
"Oh, along the highway," says Allan. "No, I don't think they'd be watching that. Those would just be for the restaurant's personal surveillance."
I can hear the relief in her voice, heavy, weightless. "Good."
"Was anyone else with you? At any point?"
"Steve. He's my brother. He and I had a disagreement, so I dropped him off."
Allan is silent.
Amy sounds defensive now. "I don't think he'd betray me. I don't think he'd tell anyone. He's my brother. He's selfish and stupid, but he loves me."
"We all think someone loves us," says Allan, "until we realize they don't. Do you know who turned his family in?" He's talking about me—I think.
"No. On the news they said they'd suspected the family of treason for a long time."
"Oh, I'm sure they were on the state's radar, but they weren't suspects. Us Undergrounders are very, very careful about our activities."
"The woman, Helen—her brother."
Uncle Paul? What did Uncle Paul do?
"You're just trying to make me feel bad," says Amy. "Her brother, really? You'd better come up with a better story than that."
Allan makes a tcha noise. "I wish it wasn't true. But it is. The informant was her brother. And, if agents break down our door and kill us all like they killed that family, we'll know exactly whose brother's fault it is this time."
"It's not my fault. None of it is my fault." Amy sounds like she's trying to make herself believe it—there's something in her voice that's just about to break.
"No, it isn't. You did the right thing."
"Then why are you trying to make me feel guilty?"
She laughs, it's bitter, bitter, like lemons. "Then what the hell are you doing?"
"I'm trying to convince you," he says, voice suddenly gentle, "that you can't trust anyone, no matter how well you think you know them, or how much you think they love you."
"Especially not brothers," says Allan, quieter.
I don't believe him, but I'm confused—Mommy said I could trust Allan, so why would he lie? But Uncle Paul wouldn't hurt us. Uncle Paul gives me presents at Christmastime and smiles at me and calls me bud. He likes Patricia, and Will is his favorite. He wouldn't tell on us. He wouldn't, he couldn't, he won't.
But if we could trust him, then why didn't Mommy tell me to find him, instead of Allan?
And suddenly I remember something I heard a long time ago. Mommy and Uncle Paul talking. Mommy saying it's my life. Uncle Paul saying you're hurting these children you're endangering these children you need to give up this life. Mommy saying I believe in this. Uncle Paul saying but you need to believe in your kids more.
He wouldn't have told the black-boot men on us.
But what if he thought he was just protecting us? What if he didn't know they'd shoot Patricia and Will and Mommy?
Suddenly I'm really tired, I feel it all the way down to my bones, and I don't want to think anymore. I go back to the room Allan sent me to, and I lie down in the big, big bed. I want to sleep, I don't want to have to think about anything, but all of a sudden I'm not tired anymore—I'm sad. It all crashes down on me like bricks. Mommy's dead, Daddy's dead, my sister and brother are dead, and I'm the only one left. I hear it over and over again—it won't leave me alone—the sound of the crashes, the screams, the shots.
I cry, but real quiet, so Mommy won't hear from up above and be sad for me.
I must have fallen asleep, but I can't remember it. I wake up to see Amy leaning down over me. She looks sad, and scared. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Why is she asking me this? But then I touch my cheeks and feel they're wet.
"You were screaming," she says.
I was? I wasn't dreaming. Or maybe I was and I just can't remember about it.
"You have to get up, anyway," she says. "We're leaving. Come on."
She's not like Mommy. She's not like a mommy at all. She's quiet and doesn't seem to understand. She's unfamiliar, that's the word, I think. But I get up anyway and follow her. I hold her hand and wonder if she'll take it away, but she doesn't. She holds it tight, as if she needs someone to hold her hand, too.
I wondered if maybe Amy was going to take me away on her own, but Allan is there, waiting at the door. His two friends, the man and the woman, must've left sometime, because they're not there. "Are you ready?" he asks me, kneeling to my level and smiling at me, his eyes smiling, too, though they're sad.
I nod, "Uh-huh," and we go.
We go in Allan's car, because, he says, they'll be looking for Amy's. His car is small and dark, nothing too different about it. That's good—no one will notice it. That was what Mommy always said I should be: unnoticeable. I sit in the back, Allan and Amy in the front. They say we're going to a safe house in the country, to somebody named Marcia, who's Allan's friend. I'm glad. I could use some safety right now.
Allan has all his stuff in a suitcase in the back, but Amy doesn't have anything to pack, so we stop at a department store and get stuff for her and for me—clothes, shampoo, that kind of stuff. Then we go to a burger place, like the one Amy and me and Steve stopped at. But while we're eating Allan notices a TV near us up high on the wall and turns to it, staring at it with dark eyes. I look at it too, and see myself on the screen, and Amy. And I start paying attention to the words.
—boy escaped from the home of his parents during a raid. His parents were considered dangerous criminals, part of the large cult known as the Undergrounders who seek to undermine the government. The boy is wanted for questioning in relation to his family's activities, and may turn out to be an important asset, say top government officials. According to an informant, he may be with a man known as Allan. He is also known to be with this woman, Amy Scottson, a twenty-five-year-old carpenter from Salem whose licence plate is—
Amy has seen it too, and turned pale. "Do you think we'll be able to make it?"
"Yes. They won't be looking for my car. They don't even have my last name."
She speaks quietly and her eyes are afraid. "It was Steve, I know it was him. He was the only one who knew. I didn't think—I didn't think he'd ever—"
"He probably thought it was the only way he could save himself." Allan laughs. "A lot of good it's done him. I bet they already have him in jail now."
"Why would they put him in jail? He never really did anything wrong."
"He could've stopped you, technically," says Allan. "But he didn't try."
"He reported me, didn't he?" The lemon-bitter in her voice almost hurts my ears.
"Yeah, but he didn't forcibly stop you. And in the eyes of the law, that's what he should've done."
"Just yesterday morning," says Amy, sounding far away, "I couldn't ever have imagined this."
Allan shrugs. "That's what all of us say."
It's all because of me, I realize, and now I feel bad. I think about Amy's life—does she have a husband, kids, friends? Now she has to leave it all because of me. She has to leave it and come with Allan and me and start a new life, just because she was nice enough to pick me up. Does she maybe have a son like me, my age? It's not fair.
I want to make her feel better—I see pain and fear in her eyes and it hurts me. I pat her on the arm, but it feels strange. "I'm sorry," I say to her, "I know it's not fair."
She looks down at me and her eyes are like glass, like fog. She doesn't really see me, I don't think. "It's okay," she says.
"We're gonna get you somewhere safe," says Allan. And at first I think he's talking to Amy but then I see he's looking straight at me. "You're going to be okay. I promise you."
I don't know what to say so I just nod my head okay. Allan won't leave me alone, though. He puts his hand on my arm. "You can tell me the truth. What did you see?"
What did I see? Oh—Mommy and Daddy. I did tell him the truth. Why didn't he believe me? "I didn't see anything, I swear. I just heard it. I was hiding in the cupboard."
He nods and draws back but I can see he still might not believe me. I don't care, though. He can believe me or not believe me, but it's still the truth.
When we drive away, I want to write words in the fog on the window, but there isn't any. I guess it isn't warm enough. So instead I write words on my leg. Sorry. Mommy. Sorry. Daddy. Please come back. I trace them and hope they'll melt off my leg and rise up and go to heaven, and Mommy and Daddy will come back. But I'm not a baby and I'm not dumb. I know they won't come back. It just makes me feel better that they might know I want them to.
"We're going to take you to Marcia," Allan tells Amy and me. "You'll like her. She's the nicest person I know. She'll fix you right up—give you clothes and good food. I know she's got stockpiles of clothes for just such an occasion. I'm sure she'll be able to clothe you to your tastes."
Amy gives a little noise that might be some kind of laugh. "I don't really have tastes. I just throw on whatever I see."
"Then clothing shouldn't be a problem," says Allan, joking. "I once had a girlfriend, never liked anything she wore. She'd put on an outfit and we'd go out, and have to turn the car around and come back home because she didn't like her outfit all of a sudden."
We pass a museum. I remember Daddy took me there once, a long time ago. We left early because Patricia was having one of her bad days and Will wouldn't stop fussing, either. Daddy was so mad—he kept talking about how we ruined the day for him. Mommy tried to calm him down. She was always the best one at calming him down. But I was the maddest, even though I didn't show it, even though no one knew. I had been fine—I didn't do anything, I was quiet. It wasn't fair that I had to go home, too.
Suddenly things become bad. I don't hear anything different or see anything different—I just feel it, like the air in the car is full of poison. Then I notice Allan is staring into the rearview mirror with this awful look on his face. I unbuckle my seatbelt, twist around, so I can see what's happening—
There's a black van behind us. No, no. Please. I don't want to see them again.
Amy sees it, too, in the side mirror. Her eyes widen. "Is that—?"
"Might not be. It's just a van. Van doesn't always mean agents." Why does Allan sound so calm? He might not think they're agents, but I know they are. I can feel it.
Maybe Amy can feel it too, because when she turns to Allan she looks so scared I'm worried she'll drop dead from it. "If it is agents, what can we do?"
Allan doesn't speak for a second. Then, "Maybe we could speed away. If we went fast enough, maybe we could shake them."
But I hear the lie in his voice and I know what the real answer is, I can translate it from the lying language of grown-ups, the language I know best: Nothing. We can do nothing.
Mommy told me to find Allan. That means he's the person that she most trusted in the world to save me. That means he will save me, and everything will be alright. This is what I tell myself to keep from falling apart.
But I'm not stupid, and truly, in my heart, I know that nobody is perfect. Not Mommy, not Allan or Amy, not anybody.
"We'll stay on the highway," says Allan, still so calm. "They won't be able to do much while we're on the highway."
"But you said the safe house was in the woods!" Amy says, her voice just shy of a shout, trying to keep herself under control.
"It is. But with these guys stalking us, obviously we aren't going to be able to get there right away. Not until we shake them. Otherwise, we'd lead them right to it."
I kneel on the seat and stare out behind us. I can't see through the black-tinted windows of the van, but I'm sure they're staring back at me.
"Sit down!" Amy cries. "They'll see you!"
I sit, and then, I let myself tumble to the floor, curling into a ball. Maybe if they haven't seen me yet, I can hide from them.
Suddenly, I see a black shape right outside the window across from me. Another van—close to us, too close.
"They're edging us out, they're edging us out," says Allan, and for the first time I hear the hard edge of panic in his voice. His knuckles, holding the steering wheel, are white.
"What are we doing to do? We can't go anywhere—we can't—"
"I don't know. I don't know. The radio said there was full gridlock ahead. We'll never make it—they'll be out of the vans and arresting us before we have a chance to even sneeze."
Amy sounds like she's trying to control herself. "There has to be something we can do. We just need to think of it."
"Amy," says Allan, and all of a sudden there is a calm in his voice that somehow scares me more than his fear did. "There's a bridge just ahead."
She looks over at him. "You—?"
Allan interrupts, talking fast like auction guys on TV do. "If they get us, they'll torture us. If they torture us, they'll find everything out. I know too much. I've got too many people's lives in my hands. I can't risk it. And this little boy—they'll put him through hell if they think he might have learned something from us."
"You—you want to—?"
"There's no lane to the left of us," he says. "Nothing to block us. We can veer off. It's a thirty-foot drop. It'll be quick."
Her mouth is wide open, wide like a drawbridge. "Are you suggesting—I mean— we can't just give up!"
"All of us Undergrounders," says Allan, "know that, someday, giving up may be the only thing to do."
I don't know what he means by giving up. I don't understand. Is he going to surrender? But why does he want to go off the bridge?
Is Allan going to kill us?
Amy's turned towards Allan and I can see her mouth is in that tight line again. Determination. That's the word. "Okay," she says. That's how I know she's giving up for real.
I know what they're doing. I'm not stupid. I'm not a baby.
I want to tell them, no, no, please, Mommy wouldn't want this, but somehow I can't make my mouth open. I just stare and stare and stare as the bridge comes closer and closer.
I imagine Mommy looking down. Her mouth open in fear.
"No," I say out loud. "No, no!"
They don't listen to me.
I pull at the door handle—I'll get out and run if I have to—but it's locked tight. I pull and pull and yank on it. "No, please, please!" I almost scream. I can't let them do this. Mommy would hate this. This isn't what Mommy wanted for me.
I remember that I can unlock my door myself just as we're coming up on the bridge. I look, my eyes wild, for the little pull-tab that will save me. I pull it, and just as I do, I look up for a second, just as Allan jerks the wheel to the side.
We crack against something—the concrete railing. It smashes away, jerking me back and forth, and I can feel the car teetering, and then we're falling. It's so fast and it jerks me around and I bang against the side of the door, bang against the roof as we flip and fall. For a second everything's like a feather, even me, and gravity doesn't exist. Then we slam, slam hard against something. My head smacks against the door again and I can't think, can't breathe. Things are still. I can't hear much.
Rushing. I hear splashing, water. Cold water against my feet—it's coming in. But I can't get up and move. I can't escape. All I can do is sit here and blink. I can't even remember my own name for a second. I feel something trickling down my head—water, a leak in the roof?—but it's warm and the water is cold.
I come back to myself and look around. Allan isn't moving. Amy is moving a little. They don't say anything to me.
I look out the window. We're sinking. I can't even see the sun. Outside, bubbles are frothing up to the surface—the air is escaping quicker than I can think. The water is coming up fast, past my dangling feet, to my ankles. The seat is almost covered.
"Help," I whisper. I'm talking to Allan or Amy or my mommy or whoever might hear me. But nobody does. I have to help myself.
"Help," I say again, and then I answer my own prayer. I unfasten my seatbelt with fingers that feel numb and useless—it takes one, two, three tries—and then lean forward and shake Amy. She's not moving anymore. There's blood all down the side of her head, and blood on the cracked window where she must have smashed against.
I shake Allan, too. He doesn't move. He flops to the side and his mouth's wide open like a dead fish. But I see that he's breathing.
I can't save them if they won't move. I can't do anything. I have to save myself.
The water's up to my chest. It's so fast. I don't think about how afraid I am. I can't. I just take a deep breath and open the door.
For a second I think it might stick and I almost burst into tears, but then my door opens wide and water floods in.
I push past it and escape. Water floods my mouth, my nose, and it's so so so cold, but I try my best to ignore it. I'm so deep, I see as I look up. The sun is so high above, so faint, and runny on the surface like an egg. We've sunk so deep already and I feel like I'm being crushed. I flail my arms, pushing against the water, pushing myself up, pulling like I'm on a ladder. The runny yolk of the sun stares down at me, calling me home. It comes closer and closer, but not fast enough. My breath is all gone and my lungs feel like they're about to blow up. It hurts. I want to breathe so bad. I swim upwards as fast as I can go, and just before I get there, I take a big breath—I can't help it. Cold in my mouth, cold in my nose, my lungs.
When I break the surface, I'm already coughing and choking, and I'm so confused I can barely stand it, but I keep on swimming anyway. Finally I get my breath back and look around. Bubbles are still coming to the surface around me from the car's escaping air. Amy and Allan are dead by now and I as good as killed them. That's the first thought that comes to my head, but I push it away. I won't think about that now.
The water around me is a bit red. I touch my head and it comes away with blood. I'm still bleeding. But no, I won't think about that now, either.
Where am I? I can still see the bridge above me, with its smashed railing, and people leaning over, staring down, pointing and yelling. But I don't see any black-boot men, in their black suits.
I shouldn't feel safe. That doesn't mean they're not there.
Far away is the shore, and I swim to it as fast as I can. There are so many things not to think about, including how my arms feel sore and awful, so I just focus on one thing, one thing to think about, and nothing else: get to safety. But I don't know where safety is now. Safety was with Allan, and he's gone, down in the river. But I won't think about that now, either.
I pull myself onto land, finally, and I want to lie down so bad, but I won't. The black-boot men are after me. I can't let the black-boot men get me. That water was freezing-ice-cold and my clothes are wet and stuck to my skin, but still I run, getting as far away as I can.
Mommy told me to find Allan, but she didn't tell me what to do if he wasn't there.
I remember Allan talking about the safe house. Where did he say it was? In the country somewhere? He never said exactly where, or if he did, I didn't hear him. I wish he'd gave me a map. I could use a map.
Marcia. He said something about Marcia. Who is Marcia? She's at the safe house. I need to find Marcia. That's what Mommy would want.
I'm bleeding worse than before—I can feel it coming down my head. My thoughts are all confused. I can't think. Marcia, that's all I can think. Marcia and Mommy. Find Marcia.
I'm running, running, but I'm stumbling, and my leg hurts and burns, and I have to lie down. Just let me lie down for a minute. It won't matter if I just lie for a minute.
The warm stuff—water? From my hair? I can't remember—is coming down, running over my eyes. There's a tree next to me, the tall trunk of a tree, its leaves casting shadows down on me. I'm so cold.
It won't matter if I just close my eyes for a minute. When I open them, I'll go looking for Marcia. I have to find Marcia. That's what Mommy would want—for me to find Marcia. She's Allan's friend, after all.