I am working on getting chapter 8 up. If you have not read chapters 1-7 yet, see the post immediately below this one!
[Check out chapter 5. If you have not yet read the prologue , chapter 1 ,chapter 2, chapter 3 , chapter 4 and chapter 5, chapter 6, go read them first! Forgive typos – or better yet note them in the comments! – I have not yet received the proof from my copy editor! Also, the illustrations are not as they will be in the book. I have an illustrator or I am also thinking of doing myself.]
The car slowed as the sun was setting. As I looked out the window, the houses had a chain link fences outlining overgrown lawns, the streets were full of potholes, and weeds peaked out of the cracks between the sidewalks and the road. A large pit bull without a leash or an owner trotted down the street and we slowed as he crossed in front of us. We pulled into the driveway of a one story, white house with aluminum-siding. The two large front windows were covered in plywood and large illegible graffiti was painted in red on the left window. A chain link fence lined the front yard. We drove in the driveway to the large garage to the right and behind the house.
David got out of the car and looked around. He walked up to the garage, pulled a key from his pocket, reached down, unlocked it, and pulled up on the door. It did not move at first. David readjusted his grip and pulled harder. It moved a little and as he exerted himself it continued up slowly. He pushed up to get it open the whole way. He stopped. Turned around and smiled at us as we sat watching him from the car. “I think it might need some grease.” he said in a raised voice.
He walked back to the car and slipped the still running vehicle into gear pulling slowly forward into the garage. He shut off the car, opened the door, walked back to the garage door. He reached up and pulled it down. It rumbled shut more quickly than we expected given how hard it was to get up. We were all alone in the dark.
We climbed out of the car in the dark. The garage smelled of oil, dust and dirt. It was a pleasant smell that reminded me of normal times doing normal things.
“What were those explosions?” Veronica asked. “Why were jets bombing Ann Arbor?” David did not respond. As our eyes adjusted to the dark of the garage we could make each other out and I saw David walk over to a wooden table in the corner of the garage. He crouched down and fumbled around with a box underneath it and stood back up. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a match. In his left hand he held an old fashioned oil lamp. He touched it with the match and the garage become visible.
“The war is heating up,” David said and his smile was gone. His laughing eyes were gone. His fake seriousness was gone. For the first time since I met him, he seemed sad. There was a long silence.
I knew what I was thinking. I knew what Veronica was thinking. ‘What war?’ I was dying to ask. But I knew David and I knew asking for an explanation was pretty much worthless. I needed someone to explain everything from the beginning. I needed….
“Where is my Uncle Jacob?”
David opened his mouth to speak and then shut it. He did not smile. He did not show any emotion. Then he smiled as though he had just thought of a good idea and said, “Yes, it is time for Jacob.”
He walked, lamp in hand, to the wall of the garage. Previously hidden by the shadows was an old fashioned rotary telephone. He picked it up. Psss. Rlllllll. His fingers pulled number by number as he held the receiver to his ear. After he had pulled seven numbers, he stopped and waited. Then he spoke.
“Jacob?” a large smile was on his face. “It is David here. How are you doing? Yes, it is crazy right now isn’t it? Yes, I saw the jets. Yes, I heard the bombing. It is just nuts right now – you have that right.” He said everything calmly with a smile on his face and nonchalance as though he was talking about the weather. “Anyway, Jacob, I was not calling to talk about all that.” He paused to listen. “No.” He said. “No.” He said again, this time more impatiently,. “Jacob, I am calling because I am here with your nephew.” He paused again to listen. “Thomas! Yes, you got that right…yes, he is right here. I am sure he would love to talk to you on the phone but actually we are going to need to have you in person…yes, I know…yes, of course they stopped monitoring land lines…. Yes, I understand all that…… Yes, I totally understand where you are coming from but…nope…nope…. I…… no, I can’t. I am so sorry, Jacob…I cannot. In person or no talk…..Yes! He is alive…you are going to have to risk it…ok…ok….yes, you got the location perfectly correct. Goodbye, Jacob!”
He hung up the phone smiling. “Your uncle is a good guy. And he is heading this way!”
Veronica looked at me and raised her eyebrows.
We heard explosions.
“Listen to those bombs.” David said as though he were talking about the thunder in the distance.
“David….” I said. I wanted answers. I needed answers. I had to try again. “David…I don’t know if you think I know what is going on. I don’t know if you think this is a game. But I need you to stop and to explain what is going on. I know nothing. I don’t know anything about what my uncle has to do with this. I do not know why there is a bombing going on. I don’t know who you are or who Isaac is or why he tranquilized me.” I paused remembering that my leg had two holes in it from the darts and suddenly felt the pain. “Can you please just focus and tell me what is going on? From the beginning? Imagine you are talking to a normal person on the street because that is what I am. I know nothing. I was a normal kid. I woke up and…craziness. I have been running from pretty much everyone ever since.”
David looked at me with concern. He opened his mouth to speak, raised a finger as though he was about to make a point, then he closed his mouth, sighed, and grew silent. The silence did not last long. We heard the sound of gravel being squeezed and kicked by car tires and could see out the small tinted windows of the garage door that someone had pulled in the driveway.
Out of the car stepped the first family I had seen since this craziness began however many days it has been now. Dark hair, broad shoulders, a thick round face, and a large scar that ran down his left cheek. His face was unshaven, his clothes were disheveled, and he walked with a limp. But that was all normal for Uncle Jacob. He always looked like he had just woken up from sleeping outdoors. His eyes were as piercing and angry as ever and his lips had the same snarl that always had caused me to think he was scary. That was also normal.
Last Thanksgiving, Jacob stayed with us for a few days. The day after the holiday, he had almost been arrested when he jumped out of our car and had to be restrained before beating up another driver who had given us the finger in a parking lot. He was the opposite of my always calm father. And that is why my father was the only other human who liked him. My mother tolerated him. I was afraid of him. Most people hated him. My father genuinely liked him. He enjoyed the edge. My father is so calm that he was able to defuse the constant near-explosions that Jacob was getting into. I think my father viewed Jacob as a diplomatic challenge that would help him hone his interpersonal skills. But my father was always very clear that this was not the only reason he liked Jacob. He liked Jacob because Jacob, for all his spit and vinegar, was a man who could be trusted to do the right thing regardless of social pressure. Most people care what others think. Most people want the approval of others. This desire makes doing the right thing difficult if the people around you are unethical. Social pressure moves humans to join in on the wickedness. But not for Jacob. Jacob took delight in calling out the sins of those around him.
There are few human beings on earth more intelligent and hardworking than Jacob. He had founded two tech companies that had billion dollar IPOs and in the short period of time he worked for the government, he was recognized for almost singlehandedly identifying and averting more than one imminent terror threat. You would think that he would be surrounded by hangers on and money seekers but instead he had no friends, no wife and no investors, job seekers, or businesses seeking his support. Because every time someone tried to get close to him, sooner or later, some situation that required blurring the lines of what was right would come up. And Jacob was the sort of guy who was waiting for moments like this. He was disagreeable by disposition. And this disagreeableness was what my father liked so much. My father needed someone to stick up for him. My father needed someone who could provide an outside support as my father did unpopular things. My father, unlike Jacob, did care what people thought. My father wanted someone that would keep him on the straight and narrow.
Jacob walked towards the garage. When he got to the door, he bent down and pulled on the handle. When it did not immediately open, he kicked the door and yelled, “Open it, David!”
David was resting against the table and laughed quietly as Jacob yelled and he whispered, “Your uncle is a good guy and he makes me laugh.” He started to get up and then stopped. “Should we make him wait?” He asked with a huge grin as though he thought this was a prank that would be funny.
“No, please let him in!” I said in a voice I admit was whiney. I was so desperate to see someone I knew…someone who was sane. Someone who might actually explain what was going on. Someone who might be able to tell me what happened to my parents.
“Okay.” David said shrugging his shoulders with obvious disappointment.
He walked to the door, fiddled with the lock, bent over and pulled up. It screamed of rusty wheels and pulleys as it opened. The light was blinding and we all shielded our eyes. Into the light stepped the figure of Jacob.
Jacob stepped forward without looking at me. Without looking at Veronica. Without looking at Elmo. His eyes were fixed on David. He took one step forward. Then two steps. And slowly he walked toward David. The whole time his eyes were fixed on David’s eyes. David stared directly back with his hands at his sides and an easy lean to his composure.
“Jacob, welcome. Thank you for coming.”
Jacob said nothing. A long silence followed. Jacob finally said, “Trying to decide if I should kill you or not.”
“Well, if you are asking for input, my vote is that you do not kill me,” David said cheerfully and then turned to wink at Veronica and me with a wide smile. He snorted with a suppressed laugh.
“Do you think this is a joke?” Jacob said with barely suppressed rage and fists clenched.
“He thinks everything is a joke,” I interjected.
“Thomas, never have words been less true. You are alive because of how seriously I take this all.” David’s smile was gone and he had stopped slouching against the table and was standing firm. He did not turn to look at me but continued to meet Jacob’s stare. This was the first time I thought I detected a hint of anger in David. But it only lasted a moment. He sighed, forced a smile, and leaned back against the table.
“Tommy, are you okay?” Jacob asked me without removing his eyes from David.
“I was shot twice in the leg with darts and I busted my head on the concrete. It hurts like heck but I think I’m alright.”
“Seriously? You shot a kid? How low will you go?” Jacob’s anger was once again directed at David.
“I didn’t shoot anyone. I did provide him with medical care, I helped him escape, and took gunfire from my own brother in the process. But don’t worry; I didn’t do it to be thanked by you.” And with that he smiled widely and gave Veronica and me a knowing wink. There was silence and he returned to his relaxed manner leaning against the table.
Jacob sighed, “thank you,” he mumbled.
“What a good guy your uncle is,” David said in a way that did not seem as sarcastic. “And you still haven’t said ‘hi’ to Elmo. I think he is offended.”
David walked to the door as everyone stood in silence. He raised his hand and pulled the door shut again and looked out the window and spoke in a hushed tone. “Listen to me very carefully. We are all going to be dead tomorrow unless we work together.”
Meant to get it out today…. stay tuned.
Today I read a chapter another chapter to my kids (13 and 10). They were my imagined audience as I had written it. When I finished the chapter, my son said, “this is the best book I have ever read.” I smiled. Not sure if anyone else will ever read it but mission accomplished.
[Check out chapter 5. If you have not yet read the prologue , chapter 1 ,chapter 2, chapter 3 , chapter 4 and chapter 5 go read them first! Forgive typos – or better yet note them in the comments! – I have not yet received the proof from my copy editor! Also, the illustrations are not as they will be in the book. I have an illustrator or I am also thinking of doing myself. ]
“When shooting started at that rest stop, there was a lot of craziness.” Veronica began her story, “People were screaming. I was screaming. I jumped behind the trash cans and peaked out. That is when I realized you were down and bleeding. I was so freaked out. I would have helped you…. but honestly, I was too scared. I just sat there. But Elmo didn’t. He raced right at that other skinny bald guy. You should have seen it. He shot some sort of dart gun at him, missed, and then he ran like crazy. You have never seen someone that looked like a skeleton run so fast. If I was not so scared I would have laughed.
“Then there was a silence. Then I realized that a big guy all dressed in white was moving our direction with a gun in his hand. You were bleeding all over. I thought you were dead at first. Then he,” she nodded at David, “jumped out from behind a coke machine. I heard you scream when he grabbed you, ran toward the parking lot and put you in the old black Cadillac de Ville. They guy in white was running – like a robot. The Cadillac lurched into gear and starting speeding away.
“Remember when I said I was scared? Suddenly my fear disappeared. Or maybe it was still there and I ignored it. I realized that if I didn’t do something, I might not see you again. I saw an old pickup truck that had entered the lot right after all the craziness had died down was now pulling out right behind Cadillac. I did something crazy. I ran and jumped in the back and crouched down. As we started down the entrance ramp to get back on the highway, I saw Elmo coming back from chasing the man. And I could see him running on foot through the field at least 200 yards away.
“I whistled to Elmo, he looked up, saw me in the truck and started running. Just as the truck was starting to accelerate, he landed in the back of the truck and crouched down next to me. I was surprised the driver didn’t notice anything but I could hear he had his radio up. The Cadillac was so far ahead that I thought we had lost it but suddenly the Cadillac screeched to a stop and let the man in the field jump in and we were right behind them.
As we moved down the highway, I realized I had not thought my plan out very well. What were the chances that this truck and that Cadillac were going anywhere near the same direction? I knew what would happen next. Either the pickup truck would exit the highway and the Cadillac would not, or the Cadillac would exit the highway and the truck would not. Even if by some miracle they got off at the same exit, what was the chance that they would go the same direction from there? We were still tracking with the Cadillac for now but it could not last long.
“Time passed. Every minute felt like eternity. I kept peaking over the side of the truck bed and I could still see the Cadillac up ahead. It was not speeding. I could see a lot of things going on in the car. I could see the driver somehow handing off the wheel to the man in the passenger side. The car swerved and slowed as they traded places. The man who had been driving now twisted around and was looking at you. He climbed into the backseat. I could see him tear some long white bandages with his teeth and I could see him yelling at the driver. He looked a lot like…,” Veronica looked at David knowingly.
“Then, finally, the moment came, I saw the Cadillac slow and put its blinker on. It started to exit. Amazingly, our truck also started to slow as well. I looked into the cab of the truck and I realized what was going on. The driver had also seen what was going on the back seat of the car and was interested. He was leaned forward and straining to see. He was an older man with a bald head, glasses, and a flannel shirt. His eyes were tightened and focused on the Cadillac.
“The Cadillac turned right as we exited the highway and the truck followed. We were now on a two lane highway and there were farms on our right and left. I looked out and saw cows grazing in the fields. I was starting to get very cold at this point and I hugged Elmo for warmth. The sky was overcast and I hoped it was not going to rain. I saw that the driver of the truck was fiddling with his phone. He was probably trying to call the police but based on the fact that he was also watching the Cadillac carefully while driving, he was having problems dialing. I saw him try two or three times before setting the phone down in frustration.
“The Cadillac started to accelerate. I peaked up again and I noticed could see… him,” she nodded at David again, “looking out at the truck and then speaking to the driver. They passed a car on the two lane highway and started to pull away from us. But the truck driver did not give up.
“I could feel him begin to accelerate and he also started to pass the car in front of us. I looked ahead and there was a huge truck coming head on in our direction. It was at this point that I realized how unsafe this all was. The bed of the truck was rusty steal, there were no seatbelts, and I am pretty sure we were going about 80 miles per hour by now. The semi got closer, I screamed, Elmo barked, our driver glanced back in startled confusion just as he managed to pull back into the right lane, successfully passing the car and missing the semi. We were right behind the Cadillac again!
“The man was now looking at us as much as he was looking at road. He opened the window and shouted, ‘What in the world are you doing in my truck?’ I shrugged. What could I say? But I credit that guy, he never slowed down. Imagine turning around and realizing you have a girl and a giant dog stowed away in the back of your truck. Didn’t seem to faze this guy too much. He kept driving.
“We were actually catching up. But we were also getting closer to the a city. A road sign said, ‘Ann Arbor 6 miles’ there was progressively more traffic. The farms became fewer and more and more buildings, gas stations, and warehouses lined the roads. I saw a stop light up ahead. It was red. The Cadillac blew right through it (coming incredibly close to broad t-boning a van in the process). We came up to the same light; I could see a steady wave of traffic coming the other way. We were not slowing down!”
Veronica paused for dramatic effect. Then she added in a hushed voice, “We were going to die, Tommy. “
“The next thing I know, I heard brakes screech, Elmo and I got slammed into the front of the cab (I still have a lump on the top of my head from that). Then I heard someone (another driver) yelling. Then I felt the truck accelerate again. Without stopping for more than a moment, we were hunting the Cadillac again.
“We were truly in the city now. Large buildings lined the sides of the roads. I could smell the smells of pollution and restaurants blending together. We passed a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Ann Arbor.’ The Cadillac went through red light after red light. My driver went through red light after red light. I wished they put seat belts in truck beds. I banged my head, my back, my elbow and every other part of my body. Poor Elmo looked carsick.
“Then suddenly all the bouncing stopped. We were smack dab in the middle of the city. I saw big brick buildings all around. Old fashioned buildings lined each side of the street. I saw a young hipster couple walking their dog and Elmo barked as we past. After weaving through the old streets, we finally came to a screeching stop. Before I knew what was happening, my truck driver jumped out of the pickup and started shouting. The skeletal man got out and walked calmly and directly into the alley and entered one of the buildings from the side door. Then the other man got out….,” Veronica’s voice trailed off and she gave a knowing look at David, “and he was covered in blood. He stood next to the car, then bent in and started lifting you out. Your head was wrapped in white bandages. There was also a bandage on your leg.
“The driver of my truck was speed walking up to the car. He was yelling and asking lots of questions about what was going on, who the boy was, and why his head was bleeding. The man in the suit….” Veronica paused again and nodded at David who flashed back a broad smile, “seemed to be almost enjoying himself. After putting you back in the car, he introduced himself and explained that they were helping the boy. The boy had passed out and cracked his head on the sidewalk. He reassuringly said that the man’s concern was ‘to be commended’. The truck driver started to call the police and moved to his car to find his phone but the man in the suit stopped him, said that was a great idea, and offered to do so himself. Putting his bloody hand in his pocket, he pulled out an old fashioned flip phone and started dialing.
“His calm demeanor seemed to have a calming effect on the truck driver who was now talking in a more moderate tone. Elmo and I crossed the street to get a view of the events without being noticed. A crowd had gathered around to watch. A few moments later, a police car pulled onto the street with its lights on but it was not racing as though it was in a hurry. It moved slowly down the street and rolled to a stop.
“The door opened and out stepped a fat police officer. He had thinning black hair cut short on the sides and back. He took a few steps toward my driver and the man in the suit coat. He stopped, turned back, and walked to his car. He reached in and pulled out his hat and then turned and looked at the crowd. I could see him clearly and his face looked the color and texture of melted cheese. Remember that guy?” Veronica once again paused dramatically, raised her eyebrows and looked at me waiting for an answer.
“The one from the elevator?” I said.
Veronica gave a knowing nod. “The one from the elevator. When he looked at the crowd, I quickly ducked back behind everyone and I do not think he saw me. As I peeked out again, I saw him walking slowly back to the scene. He said something softly and I could not hear him. Then the truck driver spoke for a while. Then the three of them seemed to be arguing. Then the police officer turned half around and spoke loudly as though he was not only talking to the two men but also to the crowd. ‘Well, we better get that boy to the hospital.’ He pointed to the Cadillac. The three of them went back to the car and got you out. You had clean bandages on your leg and head. You whimpered a little but it looked like you were not all that awake. The crowd gasped when they saw you bandaged and unconscious like that but I was a little relieved to see you alive.
“The three worked together to carry you to the police car and carefully stretched you out in the backseat. The policeman closed the door and again spoke loudly. ‘I will get him to the hospital. Thank you, men, for helping the boy. A detective will be calling you to get your statement.’ And with that, he got into the driver seat, turned his flashing lights on, slowly made a u-turn, and drove down the street at a pace one would not expect for a car getting a bloody kid to the hospital.
“At this point, I had no idea what to do. I had no way to follow you. I didn’t really know where I was… I mean I knew I was in Ann Arbor but other than that. I watched as my driver walked back to his pickup scratching his head. He looked confused but also unsure of what had just happened. He turned and watched as the man in the suit coat walked into the building. Right before he got back in his truck, he stopped. He leaned over and looked in the back of it, then scanned the crowd looking for me. Once again, I ducked back behind the front row and pulled Elmo with me. He seemed like a nice man but I didn’t think he could help me and I didn’t want to answer any questions. After looking around for a few moments, he sat down in the driver seat, closed the door and turned the key. His truck rumbled to life, he turned the steering wheel, and slowly pulled out into the road. I watched as he turned out of sight. Elmo and I were alone again.
“The crowd slowly dissipated and I found myself standing alone on the sidewalk. I looked around at the old brick buildings. There were shops and restaurants on both sides of the street. The bald skinny guy and the guy in the suit coat had walked into what looked like an old shoe store. There was a giant neon sign hanging above the door that was in the outline of a shoe and various shoe brand logos were painted on the brick on both sides of it. The door that they had entered was the front of the shop but the windows were now covered with newspapers and the lights were out. I turned and looked around. There was a locksmith’s shop behind me. It had a blinking open sign hanging in the door and the window had a display of keys and safes. Next to the display lay a dog, a collie, sleeping. Elmo looked at it with interest but he did not move or growl. The next building to the east of the locksmith was an Italian restaurant. There was a life sized statue of a traditional Italian waiter holding a pizza on the sidewalk beside the door and delicious smells were coming from within. The smell reminded me of something. I had not eaten since breakfast and the sun was now going down. I reached in my pocket but I knew what would be there. Nothing. I had no money. If you remember, we had combined our money in the car and, of course, you had the wad in your pocket. I had no way to get food.
“I remember hearing a story about how a man once survived for twenty years without ever using money. They say that he became a scavenger. He found his food. One of the primary ways he found it was behind restaurants in dumpsters. As horrible as that sounded when I first heard it, my growling stomach and lack of money convinced me to at least go have a look. I walked down the alley between the locksmith and the restaurant to the back. The big dumpster directly behind the restaurant was rusty and stinky. I immediately doubted I would find anything worth eating. I opened the dumpster and looked inside. I could see, right within reach, a pizza box that contained a half a pizza. It looked like it had not touched the trash – it actually looked good.”
At this point Veronica narrowed her eyes and looked at me. She said in a motherly tone, “Don’t judge Tommy. I was starving!
“I reached for it but could not quite get to it. I needed a little more height. There was an old bucket on the side of the dumpster and I flipped it over, stood on it, and leaned in. The dumpster smelled horrible but the pizza looked good. I put my hand on the pizza. And then something pretty horrible happened. The bucket slid out from underneath me and I tumbled into the dumpster. The lid closed and I was in complete dark and complete stink.
“I heard Elmo whining as I tried to get myself turned around. As I began to lift the lid, two men walked up. Embarrassed, I kept the lid low and watched them. They were talking. One said, ‘I don’t have my key on me but I will leave the door unlocked for you. There is plenty of food in the fridge if you are hungry.’
“The other answered, ‘You sure it is safe leaving the door unlocked all week? I can’t start painting until Tuesday at the earliest.’
“‘I’m not too worried about it. This is a pretty safe neighborhood and there is nothing in there but a fridge and a few old tools. Nothing to steal. I messed up not bringing the key but that’s life. Thanks for your work painting the place. We are planning on putting it up for sale by the end of the month and a fresh coat of paint will be nice. Let me show you the place.’ I watched through the mostly closed dumpster lid as they walked toward the back of the building, past the back door to the locksmith’s shop, to the next building. They opened the unlocked door. Above it read, ‘Acme Hardware’. A few minutes after entering, they walked back out, walked out of the alley, and disappeared.
“I climbed out of the dumpster. I left the pizza – my appetite was gone. I longed for hand sanitizer. I longed for a nice warm bath. I walked out the alley and back into the street in front of the shoe shop. The moment I stepped onto the sidewalk, I ducked back into the alley and pulled Elmo with me. A police car was coming back down the street. I saw a fat policeman with a face that looked like melted cheese behind the wheel.
“I crouched behind the trash bags in the alley and watched. The police car pulled up slowly and came to a stop. The policeman opened his door, stepped out, opened the door to the backseat, and pulled you out. He heaved you on his shoulder and carried you into the shoe shop.
“I was stunned. I am not sure why I was stunned (did I really think Cheeseface was going to take you to the hospital?) but I was stunned. I was not sure what to do. I could not call the cops. I could not help you. I could only watch. Cheeseface came back out a few minutes later without you. He got in his car and slowly pulled away again.
“You know me. You know I would never steal. I would never break into a building that was not mine. But what was I supposed to do in this situation? I had no shelter. I had no one to help me. And I had to stick by you…… and I was hungry. What choice did I have?
“I walked back down the alley with Elmo behind me. I walked up to the back door of the hardware store, opened the door and went in. I found an empty shop with an old fridge, a few tools, and a perfect view of the shoe shop out the front window.
“That hardware store was my home for the next four days. The fridge was pretty well stocked. It had frozen meals to last the week, pepsi and a bottle of apple juice. I feel bad about taking that food but I was hungry. The next four days were rough. I was so bored. I sat there on the floor and read old magazines that were left in the bathroom. And I watched the shoe shop. Nothing happened. Every once in a while, I saw either the suit or the skinny guy come in or out but saw nothing of you for four days. Then, finally, today I saw you and him…” she nodded at David, “coming down the fire escape. And you know the rest.”
When she finished her story the car grew quiet except for wind and road noise. Then I remembered a question that her story had not answered, “at that rest stop, who was the big guy in a white suit?”
“I have no idea.”
“I do,” said David, “He is one of the reasons why we do not have cell phones and it is the reason for the gunfire.” With that mysterious statement the car grew silent again.
Then we heard thunder, which is a weird thing to hear when the sky is perfectly clear. The car started to shake. Elmo started to bark, and we all looked out the window and counted at least fifteen F-35 fighter jets flying overhead toward Ann Arbor.
[Check out chapter 5. If you have not yet read the prologue , chapter 1 ,chapter 2, chapter 3 and chapter 4 go read them first! Forgive typos – or better yet note them in the comments! – I have not yet received the proof from my copy editor! Also, the illustrations are not as they will be in the book. I have an illustrator or I am also thinking of doing myself. ]
The pain woke me. My head, leg and wrist all vied for attention. I felt cool air and heard the noises of a busy city street. I opened my eyes and saw the street three stories below me. I am ashamed of this but my first reaction was to let out a scream that started off low and slowly got louder and higher. It seemed like it was coming from someone other than me but, unfortunately, it was all me.
“I would not recommend screaming right now, Thomas. Silence is most likely the wiser approach at the moment.”
The voice was David’s. It came from below me. As I became more aware and more awake, I realized I was being carried on his shoulder. He was half running and half walking down the fire escape. I stopped screaming.
“Much better,” David said when I had grown silent, “I am doing something rather stupid right now and I am doing it for you. And it will be very stupid indeed if we both die because you scream like a girl.”
David came to the final landing of the fire escape and released the last flight. The rusty hinges creaked as it swung to the ground. He quickly stepped down it.
“Where are you taking me?”
“I am not sure yet.” Silence from David and the sound of the noises of the street followed. Cars. Air conditioners. Honking. Dogs barking. Then I heard another scream. I placed my hand over my mouth to confirm it was not me. It was not.
“Oh my! Is he ok?” came the voice of an old woman. I twisted my head to see an old lady holding a very small dog in her arms and looking at us with her mouth wide open. Her free hand was pointing at me. The little dog yipped.
“Is who okay?” David said, looking around, and then, following the direction of her finger he looked at me, “Him? Oh, yes, he is fine. But thank you so much for your concern.” When the woman continued to stare in alarm, David continued, “He has been shot with a tranquilizer and he tried to rip his own hand off but other than that he is doing very well. And how are you doing?” From the corner of my eye, I could see David smiling broadly and looking at the old woman with a thoughtful squint.
The woman stammered, said something about being fine, and then slowly walked away. David turned and continued to walk swiftly. We made our way down the street and when we came to a blue two toned 1984 Ford Escort, we stopped. David opened the unlocked door and set me down in the passenger’s seat. David opened the driver’s side door, paused, sighed, and then sat down quickly next to me and closed the door. He looked at me for a long time. He looked at my bloody arm. He looked at my scabby head. He winced. The key was turned and the low rumble of the unmufflered exhaust broke the silence.
“If you move, I will chop your head off,” said a voice a high female voice that I recognized. I turned and saw a young girl with a large ax (borrowed from a hardware store) leaning into the open driver side window. Her hands were choked up high on the ax handle with it cocked and ready to strike. There was a giant red dog behind her.
“Veronica?” I groaned.
“And Elmo!” David added with a wide grin pointing at the dog.
“Veronica, he is helping us escape. Get in.” I said those words and realized as they left my mouth that I had no idea if they were true. I had zero reasons why I should trust him.
Veronica gave me a curious look, lowered the ax, and climbed into the backseat of the car. Elmo climbed in as well. The Escort roared as David revved the engine. “We’ll be there by dinnertime,” he said confidence and a broad smile. “Good dog,” he added in a high voice and patted Elmo on the head. Elmo curled his lip and growled in response.
The car pulled out into traffic and I heard Veronica yell, “Oh look out!” I looked up and saw Isaac and a fat policeman running out of the building with guns drawn. Bam! Bam! Bam! Three cracking noises and three holes in back of the car.
The little Escort squealed its tires as we pulled onto the road and David navigated around the confused and panicked drivers. He used the shoulder and the sidewalk to get around the corner and ‘bam!’ another shot cried out and we felt the unmistakable bumping of a flat tire. David accelerated anyway and the sound of the flapping rubber on the passenger side rear tire combined with the sound of a faulty muffler silenced any speech. David continued to weave around the traffic until Isaac and the fat policeman were well out of sight.
“Give me your phones,” he said as soon as they were out of site.
“I have no phone. Left it on the nightstand,” I said half groaning.
“That is a sensible place for it.” He looked at Veronica and extended his hand. She reached in her pocket and gave him hers. But as soon as she did, she regretted it. She let out a gasp and then a cry as David rolled down the window and threw the phone out.
“What are you doing?” She yelled.
“Everyone will be looking for us now. We need to get off the grid. Nothing electronic. How do you think the whole world found you at that rest stop?”
After driving for blocks, the urban buildings became less frequent and longer stretches of green indicated that we had come to the edge of the city (that I was now realizing was Ann Arbor). David pulled the car onto the shoulder.
“Maybe dinner was too optimistic,” David said turning to us and flashing a smile. He opened his door and walked to the back of the car, lifted the hatchback, and proceeded to pull out a small spare tire. Veronica and I sat in silence and watched as he worked with incredible speed and within a few minutes, he was back in the car. As he pulled out into the road, the thunder of the muffler was overpowered with the sound of jets flying overhead.
We all looked up and watched them scream toward the city. David nodded knowingly to himself, narrowed his eyes, and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He turned on the radio and fiddled with the dial. He stopped and I recognized the song, “Street fighting Man,” by the Rolling Stones. He turned it up and silently mouthed the words.
My father was always a Stones fan and played them when he worked in the garage. The last time I had heard that song, I sat in a happy home. Mom was cooking. Dad’s voice shouted the lyrics as he worked on his 1973 MG Midget. Those were happy times. And they seem like ages past. Would I ever see my parents again? Would I ever see normal again?
As the song came to an end, David turned the volume down and began to speak, “Everything changed after the operation moved to Ann Arbor.” This sentence came out as though he was in the middle of a conversation that had been going on for some time. “After Ann Arbor and ‘Enduring Freedom,’ nothing was the same.”
I knew that name. My parents had spoken of Enduring Freedom. It had something to do with the government’s efforts to keep the country safe. Apparently, our government learned of a massive international conspiracy to destroy our nation. Everyone was involved. Almost every rogue state you can think of, every terrorist group, and even some countries we thought were allies were involved. There was going to be a coordinated attack that would wipe out our nuclear capabilities and then execute a full overthrow of the government. The effort was stopped just in time and our government was completely freaked out. Enter Enduring Freedom. My parents couldn’t tell me the details but our president made a public address explaining that the program was “a wide sweeping, inter-agency information gathering effort designed to keep our country safe for future generations.” There were a few news stories and reports at the time but it was not major news and the public mostly forgot about it within a few months. My parents worked on it for years. My dad was excited and happy to help at first. Then one day he came home and looked at my mother. They went into the spare bedroom, closed the door, and talked for two hours. When they came out, it looked like my mother had been crying. They never talked about Enduring Freedom again.
David continued his unprompted monologue, “Yes, everything changed. It was not perfect before. No system is perfect, children. I am not saying that. But it was never this bad. And it is not even that I mind tyranny. I really do not. But why can tyrants not be honest? Why can they not admit what they are? Why such a name? ‘Enduring Freedom’? It is the dishonesty I object to.”
As he spoke, he reached in his jacket pocket, pulled something out and handed it to me. I recognized it immediately as the envelope from my father’s safe, “This belongs to you.” He smiled broadly and added, “Don’t tell anyone but I stole that from Isaac.”
“Thank you but you could have kept it. It is gibberish.”
David gave a knowing smile. He opened his mouth to speak then clamped it shut. We sat listening to the noises of the road: wind, wheels, and gravel. We were making our way to the outskirts of the city. To my right, I could see the skyline. I turned around and looked at Veronica. She had been silent for so long I had almost forgotten she was there.
“How in the world did you find us, Veronica?”
Veronica grinned, looked out the window with a dramatic pause, and began to tell her story.
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” – GK Chesterton
I have been doing a lot of reflecting on how fiction changes the world. And one thing that I have discovered is that fiction helps us look at our problems differently. Every well written novel is an adventure of some sort. And every one starts with the protagonist encountering some sort of grievous trouble. I think stories start this way because it is a point of contact with every reader: we all have plenty of trouble in our lives. Our health, our marriage, our job, and our finances at any given moment can be the source of stress, worry, and, too often, profound pain. And so we pick up a book and we encounter a protagonist who is also going through something (often something even worse than what we are going through). This causes us to emotionally invest in the hero and to want to see them somehow survive it.
But also the narrative teaches us something. It teaches us to view the trouble itself differently. What we are facing is itself a story. What we are encountering is itself a form of adventure. Now, adventures are not fun when you are in them. Death (which I have seen too much of among my friends and family) is the ultimate trouble in this life and when death comes, our response to the adventure is fear and tears. We all laugh when Bilbo stumbles out of his hobbit hole chasing after the dwarfes but no one laughs when we watch a friend die of cancer or a parent lose their memories to Alzheimer’s. But that does not change the fact that such trouble begins an adventure – a painful one. The deaths, sicknesses, financial struggles, marital struggles, and etc that I have experienced have all changed me. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes the scars are still so thick I don’t think they will ever heal. But the scars are a change. They make me who I am. I can tell the stories. Because I have lived the adventure. I am still living some of them.
When Lucy asked if Aslan was a safe lion, she was told that he was not safe but that he was good. When we ask if the adventures we are going on are safe, the answer must be a resounding no. Death, sickness, sadness and sorrow are parts of almost every adventure. But are the adventures good?
In any decent book, if the author is worth anything, the story will turn out well. The hero will some how come out on the other side (despite the trouble, sorrow and death) better than she went in. Somehow it will work out. And that is what I cling to when things are really bad. That is what I stand on when I look at my own troubles. Somehow this will work out. I stand with Dostoevsky when he wrote,
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
Hi everyone, I am going to be giving advanced (and free) copies of my upcoming book out this summer to early subscribers. If you are interested in registering for this, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe” in the comment line and I will get you on the list. – V.W.
I recently was talking to someone about reading. I had just read something by Vonnegut and was trying to convince him to read it. He mentioned that given his technical and time consuming job, he only has time to read non-fiction texts from his field. Being the skilled social animal I am, I did not tell him how wrong that was. If you want to be better at your job, find a good story. Read Tolkien. Read Tolstoy. Read Lewis. Read Dostoevsky. If you want to be a better human, read stories.
Why? Because stories are what drives us as human beings. The stories we tell ourselves are indicators as to whether we find success or failure in life. Stories of slaying dragons teach us to fight the real life dragons in the world around us. Stories of morality and difficult choices teach us to do the right thing when no one else is. A good story changes us in a way that no lecture or scientific journal can. A good story makes us stronger, more sure of our selves, better in social situations, more willing to stand, more willing to laugh at trouble, more willing to endure through hard times. Good stories make us better people.
Of course, this is also why it is important to tell good stories. Every time I read Hemmingway, I find myself wanting to drink large amounts of alcohol and join some war somewhere. And Hemmingway is such a great writer that that impulse is strong and enduring. But even in Hemmingway there is some good – for example, I find my social skills are improved as I hear his characters banter and reflect. But the best stories have knights who teach us how to face evil and stand strong and dragons that show us that evil is real. Tolkien is a great example. The knight (Frodo) takes on the dragon (Sauron) and teaches us about the importance of friends, patience, endurance, and courage. Of course, it doesn’t “teach” us these things. Tolkien gives no lecture. Instead, the story brings our defenses down. We listen because humans are story telling animals. And when our guard is down, we are hit with all those valuable life skills smack in the soul.
One common phrase that I find quite amusing is the statement, “it is just a story.” Usually this is said when some horrible racist or violent ideology is espoused and someone rightfully objects to the idea. But the fact that it is in a story makes the person seem silly for saying anything. As though being in the context of a story makes an idea less dangerous. No the danger is enhanced because our guards are down. Our minds are enjoying the story and the ideas come waltzing in the front door without so much as a knock. So… if you want to be a better human, read good stories. If you want to make the world a better place, write good stories. Stories change the world. Stories matter.