The new tires get put on our red pick-up truck and we finish packing up what little we have. Link and his wife, Catherine, instruct us to follow them back into the building, back up to room 455. I go, along with JJ, Dottie, Laura, and Dylan.
“Start grabbing stuff and taking it down,” Link says, looking around at the piles of boxes.
“We don’t have room for all that in our truck, plus people.” Dylan surveys the impossible amount of supplies they have amassed, rubbing a hand over his head. “We already packed what we could.”
Link smiles back at him, “Just trust me and start carrying.”
I take a box that has some food items in it; looks like cereals, some canned foods, and some packets of I can’t tell what. When I get back down to the street there are two more cars there, one is a dark green van. Jamie is getting out of the other car, another pick-up, and smiling. He spins the keys around one finger as he walks back over the group.
“Tonight we ride in style,” he grins.
“You seem to be feeling better,” I note as he walks over.
“Finally getting the hell out of here – I’m feeling great!”
I don’t buy it, but I can appreciate his attempted rebound, so I won’t press him any further. Instead, I drop the box I’m carrying next to the others being brought from room 455, and remark, “Nice cars.”
“I told you, Aiden is a hoarder. We’ve had these hidden for a while now, but he’s never let us use them – as you could probably guess by his agoraphobic tendencies.”
We start piling the boxes near the van, and Jamie takes the lead on fitting them into the back.
“Well I can’t say that I’m surprised. As much of a pain in the ass as he seems to be, his hoarding does appear to be coming in handy.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to be critical of his craziness when it ends up being so helpful. It hasn’t been fun, but he’s kept us all alive and well fed, and now, thanks to him, we have what we need to make our escape, so I guess following his manic laws has been for the best.”
I take several more trips with a few others back and forth from room 455 to bring down more boxes and bags. I can’t help but wonder where it all came from. I am thankful that we can take some of it with us, but I would rather be able to just stay here.
I know we should leave; it makes sense to, as something is obviously looming in a new way, but they had such a great set-up here. The big building, room enough for everyone to have their own space, instead of being cramped like we had been back at the house. And they had managed to amass such a stock of supplies; we could have lived comfortably here.
But I am forgetting, in the rush of all of us leaving together, seemingly as one conglomerate group, that we may not have lived comfortably there; Aiden never agreed to let us live in the apartment or stay with them as long as needed. He was letting us stay only out of his own self-interest, and would have kicked us out as soon as it became beneficial to. In fact, he still could cut ties; we can’t be counting on their help. As soon as tomorrow they could take their two well-packed cars and leave us.
I watch Aiden as I carry another box out. He is not helping, but he stands, arms crossed, watching the entire operation. His brow is furrowed, and I imagine him in a long, angry conversation with himself in his head. I will feel more comfortable once we are on the move, until then I fear he could at any minute take back his concession to let everyone leave.
“Where are we going?” wide-eyed Melissa asks. My stomach twists hearing her say this, and I mourn for her lost childhood. The war is all she really knows, and she knows very little about it. Her upbringing is the kind parents fear – ungrounded, unreliable, and dangerous.
Kimberly goes over to her daughter and kneels down. “We haven’t decided yet, honey.”
“Can we go back to Anna’s?” she asks.
“No, sweetheart.” Kim zips up Melissa’s jacket as she says this. She doesn’t say that we can’t go back to Anna’s because Anna’s doesn’t exist anymore.
Jamie slams the back of the van shut.
“What, that can’t be everything,” Aiden says.
“That’s all we have room for.” Jamie walks over to the group.
“Certainly we can fit-”
Jamie shakes his head. “No, Aiden – it’s full. We have just enough room for ourselves left in the cars.”
I am beginning to see a pattern in the dynamics of this group. Jamie always has to talk Aiden down from his anger and help him come to a sensible conclusion. He may be the face of the group, but I’m not sure Aiden is really their leader.
“We’re going to need all we can get,” he insists.
“This is all we can get,” Jamie gestures with both hands towards the completely packed cars. “We can’t take more than we can carry.”
Aiden looks as if he’s about to respond when Link holds out a hand to silence us and points with his other upwards. “Shh…”
We all look up, listening. Airplanes.
“Get in the cars,” my dad says, putting an arm around my mother and directing her toward our pick-up. “Everyone in the cars now, we’re leaving.”
Even Aiden jumps into action, clambering into the driver’s seat of the green van. Dottie and I jump into the second pick-up, not the one JJ found that we came in, but the one Aiden had been hiding away.
The humming of planes is getting louder, but it’s hard to tell how close they really are; noises echo and louden when the clouds are heavy like they are tonight.
The van takes off first, and then the red pick-up, and lastly the black pick-up, the one I am in – Jamie waits to make sure everyone else is accounted for, and is the last to get on board. When he does, it is into the bed of this second pick-up that he jumps, and we speed away from the apartment building, following the other two cars.
We make it out of the city and find ourselves speeding down unlit abandoned roads, not knowing where we are headed next. Though our getaway was chaotic and rushed, we did it in silence. Even now, besides the roaring echoes of the aircrafts, the only sounds to be heard are the engines of the cars and our own loudly thumping hearts. After such activity, it is strange to be made so suddenly immobile in the cramped bed of the pick-up.
As my thoughts slow and I re-enter the present moment, I find that my limbs are weak, drained from the adrenaline rush. I try not to think of how nice a bed would feel right now, and how, until a few days ago, I was sleeping in one, and how I might not sleep in one again for a very long time.
Though we all suspected it was coming, we flinch together as the first bomb sounds from the city. Followed shortly by another. It’s a tight fit, but I manage to turn myself around; it is dark, and I cannot see the planes that I know are in the sky, but every so often a part of the city will be lit for a second with another explosion.
There must be others still in there. It would be naïve to assume that just because we’d never seen them there weren’t still other people in Portland. And now the city and any remaining residents were gone; tomorrow there would be nothing left of them but smoldering heaps of debris. Of course, not everyone will die instantly; some may be stuck for days, trapped under collapsed buildings, waiting to suffocate or starve, only wishing they had the tools or willpower to put themselves out of their own misery. Or maybe some would foolishly hold out hope that there were still organizations that would come to their aid, dig them out and reunite them with their children; but those are all gone too.
Dottie sniffles next to me, and I look over at her, taken out of the tangential darkness of my thoughts. An explosion in the distance briefly illuminates her face and I can see that her cheeks are wet and she is crying.
I wrap an arm around her and hug her close, kissing the top of her head.
“Anna, we’re going to die,” she says.
“We’re alive right now, aren’t we?” I tell her. “We’ll take it one step at a time.”
But I am afraid, too. We have had three close calls. First the burning of our neighborhood that Paul and I happened to see in time to get everyone out of the house, then Jamie seeing the soldiers in time to warn us to lockdown the apartment building. And then tonight, our timely decision to leave – had we not decided to try to sneak out tonight, we would have died in our sleep. Or had we taken any longer packing up, we could have been caught in the attack.
At this rate we will be due to run out of luck very soon.
I rub Dottie’s shoulder, but I have no words to comfort her with – I wonder where we will go next, how far we will drive before finding a new place to live. Will we ever find a place to “live” again?
“Hold fast to dreams,” Jamie says from the other side of the bed.
Dottie and I both look at him.
“Hold fast to dreams,” he starts again, “for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
I clear my throat. “Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go, life is a barren field frozen with snow,” I recite, finishing the poem. “Langston Hughes.”
By now there is a faint glow from the burning city, and I can see Jamie smile at me from across the truck before turning to look forward at the road we are driving down. I want to ask if he recognizes it, if he has some sense of where Aiden might be leading our caravan, but I don’t.
Dottie places her head on my shoulder, and I respond by resting my head on hers and closing my eyes. I hope when I wake up we have found somewhere to stay.