When I come to I realize we are in one of the upstairs apartments, probably one of the upper floors. Georgia is sitting on the ground next to me, and she puts a wet washcloth to my forehead. She then places a finger over her mouth, signaling me to stay quiet.
So I manage to silently prop myself up on my elbows and survey the room – everyone is here, our group and Anna’s. Remembering our circumstances, I am flooded with embarrassment over passing out. But I got them the message. They wouldn’t have known before it was too late without me.
My lightheadedness forces me to lie back down again, and, defeated, I do.
I am about to ask for an update when I hear the sound of boots in the hallway outside the door. Everyone is silent, and I know, even without seeing it, that the main door is barricaded.
We all hold our breath as we listen to the indistinct speaking of soldiers in another language. We hear a door break down, and then another. They are checking the rooms.
My eyes land on Anna and Paul, and that other guy our age. They are sitting against the wall a few feet from me. Paul has his arm around Anna, who is resting her forehead against his shoulder with her eyes closed. His eyes stare straight ahead.
I can’t be sure how long I’ve been out, probably at least an hour. After I fainted, everyone would have gone through the lockdown procedure – securing the rooms, rearranging and hiding our stuff so it didn’t look like people were living here, and then hiding upstairs.
It sounds like it worked; the soldiers don’t sound like they’ve found anything, like they are searching for people they know are here somewhere. They are in the hallway just outside this apartment, I can tell – the walls are relatively thin, and they are very loud. Someone farther away yells something, like a command, and the guys in the hallway leave, making their way back down the stairs.
They probably realized they couldn’t realistically check every apartment in the entire building, and I am glad one of them had that much sense, and that we were lucky enough to have not been hiding in any of the ones they did search.
The sound of heavy booted footsteps going down the stairwell echoes through the hallway, and enters the apartment as a muffled, distant thudding.
I close my eyes and allow myself to relax a little. My head is throbbing. We all sit in silence for a long while before daring to move. When we do, Georgia helps me stand up, and my legs threaten to crumble under me again, and I quickly grow frustrated. Of all times, now is not the best to be debilitatingly ill. I refuse. I will myself to stand steady.
“You okay?” Georgia asks me.
“Yeah,” I say – it’s not convincing, but she seems to take it.
She notices me rubbing the side of my head. “You hit your head pretty hard.”
“That explains a lot.” I can feel a bump forming behind my ear. At least I didn’t fall on my face.
Aiden exits first and checks the hallway, he makes for the staircase to head downstairs, but I stop him.
“Aiden!” I whisper. He turns to look back at me. “Fire escape,” I say, gesturing for him to lookout from it first before we try to go downstairs, to make sure they aren’t still stationed at our building or in the street. He nods and goes to check, then comes back.
“All clear,” he says, at a more normal volume, feeling the reassurance of seeing that the army has moved on.
We head back to the fourth floor. Link walks with me down the stairs, wrapping an arm around my shoulder to help me stay steady as I struggle with the basic task of walking. We regroup in the shared apartment.
Aiden looks at me from across the room. “What exactly did you see?”
“The streets were full of them – they had trucks, and they were looking in buildings and clearing stuff out. I don’t know, as soon I saw them I came to tell you guys, I didn’t really stick around to watch.”
“Where were you?”
“The fire escape.”
“Just needed a breath of fresh air.”
“They could have seen you – you could’ve gotten us all killed.”
“If I hadn’t been out there and seen them we would have all been killed.”
He gives a little huff but doesn’t respond. We both have good points.
“What are we going to do now?” Link interjects. “Do you think it’s safe to stay?”
“Well we can’t leave,” Aiden states, as if it were a given.
“Why not?” Link crosses his arms, eyeing Aiden. We’ve all been feeling less than reassured by Aiden’s behavior lately, and I can see Link sizing Aiden up.
“We have too much here, we can’t move it all. This is where we live. We have a good situation here.”
Link shakes his head. “Yeah, we do, but it won’t do us any good if they come back and do find us next time.”
“How do you know?” Link demands.
He pauses. “We’ll station a watchman, on the roof. We’ll take shifts.”
Now I am the one shaking my head. “Aiden but you just said the fire escape-”
“I know what I said!” he shouts. We are all quiet. “I know what I said, but if they’re around and looking for people, we need to keep an eye out.”
“Aiden, I think we might need to leave,” I say calmly, trying to be sensitive to his mood.
“Jamie you know we can’t do that.”
“We can. And the longer we wait the harder it will be. If we leave early we have an advantage – we can pack and plan. If we end up being forced to leave in a hurry we might not be able to take as much with us.”
“We won’t need to leave,” he insists.
My head hurts too much to respond, and I can tell he won’t be reasoned with. Not now at least.
Anna’s dad clears his throat, “I already said the other day that I worried the neighborhood burning was just the beginning. A few of us recently went out looking for another group we thought was trying to radio us. When we found their camp they were gone, and we wondered what they had wanted from us – if they needed help or were trying to warn us. I bring this up just because I think it may add a dimension to this. The strangeness of their reaching out and then disappearance, the neighborhood burning, and now the soldiers in the streets – it’s just weird. They’re more active than normal. Portland has been fairly quiet until recently, so I think we have reason to worry.”
I let out a long exhale; this is good information, but Aiden is too stubborn. I’m afraid we will all die here.
Aiden just stands up, grunting. “We’re going to be fine.” And he leaves the room.
“Well,” I say after a long pause, “meeting adjourned, I guess.”
We all try to go through the remainder of the evening as usual, but we can’t pretend like the invasion didn’t happen. Things are tense.
I have a hard time falling asleep, and then I wake up early – after another nightmare, drenched in sweat. It is still dark out, but I get up anyway.
Incidentally, I run into Anna again. She is down the hall, headed for the stairs.
“Where you headed?” I whisper after her.
She jumps and looks back at me, placing a hand over her heart. “Jesus, you scared me.”
“Sorry. Sneaking out?”
She turns to leave, and I follow her, feeling a twinge of excitement – she’s taking me to her fire escape.
Anna goes down to the first floor and I see the rest of her group standing around their pick-up on the street. It’s dark, but I can see that their faces fall when they see that I am with her.
“What is it?” she asks them. Their eyes are on me – I am clearly unwelcomed. I don’t dare to look in Paul’s direction.
“They slashed our tires.”
“Those fucking soldiers – slashed two of our tires, just in case anyone wanted to use the car.”
And now I understand. She is sneaking out – they all are.
“We have extra tires,” I offer them. “We have…we have a lot of supplies. That’s why Aiden is so set on not leaving. You can replace your slashed ones using ours. Follow me.”
Paul and another one of the men follow me inside and up the stairs. I have to lean heavily on the railing to get up, but I manage. I unlock apartment 455 and lead them in, trying to hide my sense of shame about our hoard of supplies. They take two tires and head out. Before I follow them, I unlock the weapon chest and take out a few guns and boxes of bullets – it’s the best gift I can give them.
On our way back down we run into Gus. “Jamie?” he whispers, in his soft and crackling old man voice.
I sigh. “Hey, Gus.”
“What are you doing?”
“They want to leave, I’m just helping them out.”
“I want to go with them,” he says. “It isn’t safe here.”
“Us too.” I turn and see Catherine and Link peering out from a doorway.
I shrug my shoulders. “Aiden says we can’t.”
“Don’t we have the right?”
“If you want to leave empty-handed, I suppose, but…”
“I’d rather leave alive and empty-handed than die hands full here,” Gus insists. “I don’t care what Aiden says, I’m getting the hell out.”
I turn around to head back downstairs – I don’t know what to tell them, I really don’t. But they follow me, as I followed Anna, and I fear that her group will be upset – they were trying to sneak out, and now half of my people are out there with them complicating their exit.
And I’m not wrong. When we get down there and they see Gus, Catherine, and Link with me they are visibly upset.
“What are they doing here?” Paul’s friend demands.
I ignore his question and walk straight to Anna’s father, and hand him the guns I brought. “You’ll probably need these.”
“Thank you. I hope not.”
“Are you guys leaving?” I hear Kennedy’s unmistakable voice.
“Go back inside, Kennedy,” I say, not even turning around to face her.
“No,” I say, turning around. And now I see that Georgia and Johnny are with her. “Go back inside. There’s nothing to see here.”
“Bull shit!” Aiden yells, pushing through them. “Where are you going?”
Anna’s dad walks forward, “Aiden I’m just taking my people and leaving. We’ll go far away, we won’t bother you. But we can’t stay.”
“Aiden we want to leave, too,” Link says.
“Hell, Aiden, we all do – come on, now, you know this place isn’t safe anymore,” Gus says.
He looks around, I assume realizing for the first time that he can’t possibly stop all of us from leaving, and would be better off with us than without. Most of Aiden’s good decision are ultimately forced upon him, and I am hoping that he realizes the time to let this argument end is now.
“Well, I guess you all have decided for us then. We’re leaving,” Aiden surprisingly – but angrily – concedes, throwing his hands in the air. Another rash decision, but at least it is in our favor this time. I let out a sigh of relief that he won’t fight us on this anymore.
He tosses me two sets of keys. “Jamie, get the cars.”