“Why were they trying to radio us in the first place?” Sophia asks, looking around the living room for someone to offer an explanation. After the group got back last night, we tried to keep conversation to the necessary basics, but today, now that we’ve had a night to sleep, it’s time for a team meeting that addresses the harder points.
“Any number of reasons, I suppose.” My dad rubs his neck. “Maybe they wanted to take in any loners that were in need of a group.”
Ken shakes his head. “They wouldn’t really risk using a radio for that.”
“Maybe they were running low on man-power, needed some extra hands, extra guns,” Dylan muses from the other side of the circle.
My dad is not convinced. I can tell that the mystery is bothering him. “I guess,” he mutters, halfheartedly.
My mom sighs loudly, and I glance over at her. She is sitting next to Kimberly, and they are both looking increasingly upset. Admittedly, I also find the discussion oddly and even frustratingly diplomatic, and I hope it is over soon. I don’t see what we stand to gain from it.
“Or maybe,” my dad pauses and runs a hand over his balding head, “maybe they needed supplies and were hoping to find some generous folks listening to the radio.”
“Would you do that?” Dylan counters.
“No…no, I wouldn’t,” my dad gives in; it’s not the answer he wanted to give. “Pointless. Things aren’t like that anymore.”
“Exactly.” Dylan folds his hands.
The room falls silent again.
My dad takes a breath in, about to speak, then shuts his mouth again. Then opens it. “Well maybe they just knew the soldiers were nearby and they hoped another group could come help fight ‘em off.”
“That’s more likely, I think. But still. Something ain’t sitting right with me,” Ken says. “I just have a weird feeling. I don’t know.”
“Is there any point in even talking about this?” My mom final speaks up, and all eyes are on her. “What good is it going to do? They’re gone, your excursion was pointless and it left Donovan dead – I don’t care what they wanted, they didn’t wait for you to answer them. Is there anything else we need to talk about, or can this meeting be adjourned?” I half expect her to start spitting fire. That, or collapse into a puddle of tears. I wonder if JJ has any Stellas left.
My dad closes his eyes. “Jen-”
“Don’t – are we done here or not? I don’t think this is a conversation that needs to be had. I don’t care what they were trying to tell us.”
“You’d care if they were trying to warn us.”
“Well I guess we’ll never know,” she says, patting her knees with her hands and standing up. “I’ll be in the garden.”
Paul and I risk a walk in the afternoon. I only tell Dottie we are leaving, so that when someone – inevitably my mother – asks where I am, someone will know. But at least by then I’ll already be gone; I am often criticized for being too reckless. But the way I see it, we’re not exactly safe ever, anywhere, anyway. And Portland has been mostly calm for a while now – we just stay quiet and indoor to air on the side of safety, in case the soldiers come back or a gang moves in. The streets are clear; we just want to get some fresh air. It’s only a little bit dangerous, but so is everything else, so we don’t mind.
We walk to his old house, just a few blocks away. A few of the houses on our way there are burned down, nothing left but the foundations and ashes. Some have their windows knocked out, and you can see right through them. Graffiti is everywhere. We pause at one house that has, “America I gave you everything and now I am nothing,” written across the front of it. I hadn’t seen this one before – I guess I just never noticed it.
Paul reads it aloud.
I smile. “Ginsberg.”
He looks at me, confused.
“It’s Ginsberg. From his poem, ‘America.’”
He nods and we keep walking. Every so often we pass a car that looks like it might work, but if you were to really inspect it you would find it was drained of gas, missing a battery, and its seats were stained with blood. Other cars were obviously out of service, only the frames remaining after being burned. Some are on their sides. Most are missing tires.
Paul’s house is situated on the corner of our street and another. When we get to his house it looks almost like it used to. It’s abandoned, but if it’s the only house I’m looking at, I might be able to convince myself that’s all it is – an abandoned, haunted house, not the aftermath of an occupation. But of course I see it all, and so I have to see it for what it is.
We go inside anyway, stepping over some broken glass. Framed pictures still hang on the walls – the sloppy kindergartener artwork is hung right next to the professionally done pastel family portrait. Melissa was just a baby when they had it done. That was right before things started turning bad for us, and it makes me feel a pang of nostalgia. Melissa is how I keep track of time. She’ll grow up never remembering what things were like before the war, the raid drills and the economic collapse, before the occupation, before the gunshots and the airstrikes and the fires. I don’t know whether I pity her or envy her for this.
On our way upstairs, I run my hand over the wooden bannister and close my eyes. I’ve done this a thousand times before. We go to his room, a scary shell of what it used to be. The light coming through his window illuminates the dust hanging in the air, and out the window I can see his backyard, overgrown like my own.
We lay on the bed next to each other, staring up at the ceiling.
“What do you think the other group was trying to tell you?” I ask him.
“It’s so hard to tell, Anna. We could never pick up much from their transmission in the first place. For all we know, they could have just been talking to each other or looking for one of their own, gone missing. Maybe they weren’t even trying to talk to us.”
“But…” I offer, sensing there is more.
“But it could also have been a cry for help, or a warning. I…I don’t know, Anna. It was weird, though, how they were just gone. They packed up – they didn’t leave in a rush, they left only their dead behind.”
“So you don’t think they ran?”
He shakes his head. “Maybe they just got tired of waiting for help and knew their time was up. Maybe it was pre-emptive, they knew they wouldn’t be safe for much longer so they left before anyone came for them.”
“I was worried it might have been a set-up.”
“Nah, only the one guy followed us, he was alone. The one that…yeah.”
“Well I know that now, but I just meant that while you were gone I worried. I tried to keep myself busy like you told me to, but still. It’s just good to have you back here with me. Safe.” I roll onto my side to face him. He looks sad – his brow is knit as he stares at the ceiling, and the corners of his mouth are turned ever so slightly down. He is thinking about his father.
I lean forward and plant a gentle kiss on his forehead. His hand finds mine and we lay like this until we fall asleep.
I wake up and the sun is already beginning to set.
“Shit, Paul.” I pat his arm urgently. “Paul we need to go. The sun is setting.”
He shoots up and looks out the window. Everyone knows not be out after dark. If we had woken up much later than this we probably would have just stayed here the night instead of going back to the group house.
We rush down the stairs, taking them two at a time, and I am about to throw the front door open when he reaches out to restrain me. He claps a hand over my mouth and pulls me down, against the wall.
We duck down by the window next to the front door and peer over the sill. A group of soldiers, not American, in Humvees is driving up the street that intersects ours at this corner.
If Paul hadn’t seen them, and I had rushed out of the house, they probably would have shot me. He slowly removes his hand from my mouth, knowing that I see them.
“What do we do?” I whisper.
“Wait for them to pass – then we have to go back to the house.”
“Should we stay here? What if there are more?”
He shakes his head. “We need to tell the group.”
He is right. We need to get the house shut down, remove any traces of our settlement. We need to tell everyone to get away from windows and to stay quiet. The risk Paul and I take getting there is not as important as the risk they unwittingly take if we don’t tell them.
We watch from the window until the last of them disappear, and then we cautiously creep out of the house. Then we start running.