Episode Twenty-two ♦ Breaking Out

Anita sat inside the dark, muggy box and wished for a glass of water. Screeeeech. Something was happening outside. Their container remained stationary. The thick air vibrated. She reached for George and found his arm. He was trembling again. Taking his hand she said, “Try to relax. It won’t be much longer. We’re fine.”

Quiet returned. His trembling ebbed.

She sagged to her right against the side of the crate, taking slow, deep, meaningful breaths. “Someone will come. No need to worry.” Her eyelids closed. She released his hand and accepted sleep’s approach.

The dogs ran past the box barking “Where?” and “When?” and “Why?” The barked words morphed into George crying. “I need out. Let me out.” She said, “Be patient. Someone will come.”

But no one came. Long hours gave way to days. The top of the box dissolved into a cloudless, azure sky. She rested her hands on the edge and peeked over as the side shrank, the front pointed. They were surrounded by dark, muddy water. George by her side, they sat on a wooden bench. A malevolent voice demanded, “I want more. Give me more!” A fat hand at the end of a thick, hairy arm grabbed at her. George held an oar like a shotgun and said, “Leave her alone.”

The smelly, sweaty man said, “Give me what I want or I’ll take it.” He pawed at her.

George aimed the oar at the stranger then cocked it.

Yama’s messenger draped the man in a crimson cloth. “Thank you,” Anita said. The cloth disappeared. The man was gone, but the messenger – his eyes black holes, his ears flaming pointed crescents – held his stick between the couple and said, “We’ll meet again.”

She pulled George, shaking, inconsolate, out of the boat and up the bank. With each step a single, lentil-sized bead of gold fell from under her dress. She left them; George was more important. He started to walk on his own. Thirst clenched at their throats.

She reached for a golden bead. Bending down, as thumb and forefinger closed, a blade of grass sprang from the earth. She tried for another bead, but it too became a blade of grass. Again and again she tried, but grass grew, the first stalk now heavy with seed.

Standing, she surveyed the country in all directions: the omnipresent grass, extending midway up her thigh, going dormant under an angry sun. Sweat dried on George’s forehead. She said, “Not much farther. I see it now.” A single, red cloud hung in the sky…

Bam!

She gasped. “What was that?”

“Getting out. No one’s coming.” Barked words, George’s voice was high-pitched.

“Give me a minute.” She was confused. “I was asleep. I need...” She remembered Melville, asking for help, going below decks, getting in a box.

Another thud. George caused it. “Can’t wait.”

Leaning into him, she grabbed at boney limbs and fought to hold him down. “Just give me a minute!” she said. He had to relax. “It’s okay George. We’re okay.” Muscle tension eased. Pulling back she found a sweaty armpit and helped him back into a sitting position. He smelled stale, unclean. She placed her right hand on his chest. His shirt was drenched; his heart beat like a small bird’s. Moving her hand in small circles she calmed him. The heartbeat slowed.

“Maybe if we try together, but no banging. Let’s just push,” Anita said. “And take a couple deep breaths first.”

“Okay. I’m okay.” Air rasped entering his nostrils; humid air exhaled, he must be looking at her. He said, “Feet at the top. To get more leverage.”

“Let’s give it a try,” she said moving into position. “On the count of three.”

“Okay. One.”

“Two.”

“Three,” they said together and pushed. The nails squealed, unwilling to release them.

George said, “Again. One.”

“Two.”

“Three.”

Nails giving way, light snuck in through the fist-wide gap. He urged her on. “Now the middle.” The need for air – space – infected her. She moved her feet halfway down the front as he restarted the count. Less effort yielded a stronger squeal. A much larger gap. More light. At the bottom, the final nails bent, the front of the crate arcing downward. George scooted forward. Too much light. She closed her eyes against the brightness.

“Look around at least. Make sure it’s safe,” she said and cracked open an eye. George pulled himself up and darted out of view. The other eye opened. They were concealed by a row of stacked crates five meters in front of the opening. She stretched out her legs, curling her toes, flexing her ankles, luxuriating in freshness as cooler air streamed in. Moving into the middle of the box she stretched her sides, rotated her shoulders, loosened stiff muscles.

George reappeared, springing from foot to foot. “Hurry. Your bag.” He grabbed it before she could move. Flinging it over his shoulder, he grabbed his satchel and yanked her out of the box. “We gotta go. Someone’s coming.”

“Who’s there?” A man’s voice came from beyond the concealing row of crates. It didn’t sound close; no need to worry.

“Maybe he’s looking for us,” she said.

“Into the brush. Not far.”

“George, what’s going on?”

“Read the card. It says, ‘Be cautious. In Hannibal. Like Tabeau wrote of York’.” He pulled her towards the river, the brightest stars gleaming in the dusky sky across the water.

They sprinted around the last crate as well as a protective wall behind and were free of the warehouse lighting. She asked, “But what does that mean?”

“Not sure. Need to find Sid and Mary. We can check out the town. At night. Then decide what to do.”

Shaking her head Anita said,  “I don’t know...”

“I trusted you. Back on the train. In Caseville. Now you need to trust me. Hurry.”

They stumbled into the brush.

“But I had a plan back then,” she said. “Even if I didn’t know the specifics.”

“So do I. Trust me.” His whisper, pleading. He pulled her into the forest and held a finger to her lips.

“Oh great,” the unseen man said. “It’s happened again.”

♦ ♦ ♦

George stopped, resting his case against his leg, but could not see Anita in the darkness of the moonless night. “You there?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” she said. He sensed her approach as the loud, short trill of frogs and chirping of crickets quieted.

“We better rest.”

“Please. It felt good to move at first, but it’s impossible to see the trail. I have to feel each step with my foot before shifting my weight forward.”

As they stood still, tiny lights darted around them. “I’ve always loved fireflies,” George said, exhaling a deep breath. “Never saw fireflies in Roseville.”

She asked, “How long you think we’ve been walking?”

“An hour. Maybe two?” He shrugged.

“So what’s your plan?”

“Let’s rest. There was a bluff south of the landing. We’re downstream now.” He pointed into the darkness knowing she could not see his hand. “Hannibal’s on the other side. When the moon rises, we can look for a gully and trail up.”

“Hello!” The voice came from behind him. It drowned out the chorus of amphibians. “Do you need help?”

George turned ninety degrees to his left. A spot of light advanced through the darkness. It came from the direction he had planned to go.

“Yes,” Anita called as the light neared.

“Shhhh.” He said, “Duck down. It might not be safe.”

She ignored his warning. “We’re over here.” A moment passed and in a softer voice Anita said, “It can’t be any worse than stumbling around in the dark all night.”

George waited, squatting, trying to move into the tangled brush between the trail and the river. The silence grew.

“Are you lost? You shouldn’t be wandering out here at night. You might get hurt.” The voice was gruff but the pitch too high to be masculine. Now a couple meters away, George saw a single daisy held in the light ahead of the speaker. “You are headed to Hannibal, right?”

“Yes,” Anita replied.

“I have a wagon, but it’s on the bluff. I can guide you.”

Anita said, “Thank you. That would be a huge help.”

“A couple left the excursion train at Sawyer’s Creek this afternoon. They were walking along the river into town. Since they didn’t arrive, I was sent to find them. Have you encountered anyone else along the river?”

“And you are?” George asked, standing.

“In Hannibal, I’m Jane Canary. And you are?”

“I’m Anita and this is George.”

“My lost couple. Why didn’t you stay in the crate? Doesn’t matter now.” Jane tossed the daisy into the bushes and swung her backpack down onto her left arm opening it with her right hand. In the limited ever-moving circle of light, she pulled out two pair of sunglasses like those Bonden had taken from them on the Harmonie. “Here. They show you taking the excursion train from Gateway Entrance and your accounts have been charged accordingly. You’ll work in town for a couple of weeks while you make your next contact and no, I don’t want to know, so don’t tell me. Or ask about anyone you’ve been told to find. Your best bet is to hold your cards very close to your chest. Don’t put yourselves in the position to be asked a lot of questions. Most folks don’t know anything about the underground out here, and those that do aren’t your friends. Are we clear on that?”

“Quite clear,” George said convinced it was unsafe to trust anyone.

“Here. You’ll need these.” Jane handed them both a strap with a small gadget attached. “When did you last drink some water?”

George said, “Hours ago. Before we left…”

“Don’t need to know.” Jane was curt but not offensive. “Okay, here’s a water bottle for each of you. Do either of you need emergency rations?”

George remembered the food in Anita’s bag, wishing he had done so sooner.

Anita answered. “No, we’re good. How much farther do we have to go?”

Probing and testing, he examined the strap and device, trying to understand its function.

“Not far. Just depends how quickly you walk. Any injuries? Any other needs? Toilet paper maybe?”

“Um. We’re fine. Right George?” Anita said. “George?”

“Yeah. Fine,” he said.

“Take a minute to get your headlamps on and have a drink of water. Take occasional sips from your bottle as we go. I’ll lead when you’re both ready,” Jane said. “It turns on when you cinch the band into place.”

“Oh. No wonder,” he said setting the water bottle between his feet. Cinching the band around his skull, the lamp came on. He moved Anita’s bag to the left shoulder, picked up his bag with his right hand, and left the bottle on the ground. He followed a couple paces behind the women, the path through the waist high grass and dense bushes easily seen in the glow of the headlamp.

“I was going the right way,” he said to himself.

♦ ♦ ♦