“So where y’all coming from?” Andrew asks as he winds his Honda Odyssey through a mountain road lined with thick pines.
“Haliford,” Marc says. “It was already starting to come apart when we evacuated. We would’ve left sooner, but we held out, hoping to get Matthew checked out by a doctor before hitting the road. In the end, there just wasn’t any time. And you?”
“Marietta, Georgia. It was more or less like you described in our area, too. Lots of fires, sirens. Lots of damage done by the looters. The police did what they could to maintain order, but I can’t imagine they’ll hold out for long. And what about you, Luke?” Andrew asks with a quick glance back at me in his rearview mirror. I’m in the middle bench by myself. Ashley and Matthew are in the far back. Matthew was fussy after the commotion at the gas station but seems to have settled down some. Ashley hovers over him with a distraught look and a rag she keeps dampening with a water bottle and placing on his head.
“Same as Marc. Haliford,” I say.
“Oh, ok. Y’all family, then?” Andrew asks.
“Just friends,” Marc says. Andrew nods a couple of times but there’s a deep crease in his forehead that tells me he’s still piecing it together.
Shortly after getting in the van, Marc and Ashley scrounged through their belongings and tracked down a few cans of beans and corn. We ate it cold with half a loaf of bread and bottles of Gatorade before continuing on our journey. It was then, between mouthfuls of cold preserves, that I learned from their conversation that Andrew is also a Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were able to piece everything together through Brother Harris, who used to visit their congregations and is well known in the area. I didn’t bother mentioning that I know him too.
What are the chances?
Add to that the miraculous night of restful sleep despite the blaring music. The distracted federal officers on the bridge. Somehow surviving that drop into the water despite the handcuffs, the temperature, and the fact that I was in the custody of armed officers. That I somehow managed to not just escape, but run into two of the only people who might know where Amy is. And now this.
I mull over it in silence for a few minutes before my mind is subdued by a wave of drowsiness. My eyelids go heavy as my gut processes the first decent meal I’ve had in nearly a day. I have plenty to be thankful for, and whether or not God is a part of that, I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. For the time being, I’m happy to be in the company of these people, happy to be far from the clutches of Agent Meade and his goons. I allow myself to relax a little and lay my head against the back of the seat. I hear a snippet of something on the radio, something about California, and that’s all I remember. I’m out like a light.
When my eyes flutter open, it’s impossible to gauge how much time has passed, but judging from the angle of sunlight it hasn’t been long. The asphalt has run out, and we’re now crawling along a country gravel road at a snail’s pace. Marc speaks softly with Andrew. I close my eyes again, pretending to sleep as I tune into the conversation over the crunch of the wheels along the road.
“Police officer?” Andrew mutters in a hushed tone.
“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing,” Marc says.
“And how long’s the wife been studying?”
“Over a year. Already a UP. She would’ve gotten baptized at this upcoming assembly, had it not been for the evacuation.”
“Huh. And you just ran into him in the woods?”
“Yeah, can you believe it?”
“Sounds pretty incredible. Almost too much so. Y’all consider the possibility that…you know?”
“What, that he’s spying on us?” Marc says. I hear his head swivel back and can feel him looking me over.
“Well, yeah,” Andrew says.
“I did. But it just doesn’t add up. He was running away from us when we came across him. He was terrified. Either he’s a top-notch actor or he’d actually been through something bad, just like he said.”
“So you’re thinking something else is at work here.”
“That’s what it seems like. I keep praying about it.”
“Huh,” Andrew grunts. “I guess we’ll just have to see how it all plays out then. Leave it in Jehovah’s hands.”
“Yeah. Although, I think I do need to have a talk with him about–” Marc stops suddenly and gasps. The van slows to a crawl and Andrew speaks next.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“Sure looks like it,” Marc says. I hear him turn around and reach over the seats to rouse his wife, who’s asleep in the back row. “Babe, Ashley, take a look.” There’s a yawn from the backseat as Ashley pulls herself together and leans into the window, and then gasps.
When the earthquake footage finally gets rolling on the airwaves it’s a flood, a disaster in and of itself. The extent of destruction is breathtaking. Roads buckling, cars and trucks swallowed into the earth. A cliffside highway shrugging off into rocky waters below, passengers rolling into the foamy seas in their toy cars. San Francisco is a hilly sea of fire and smoke. It’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from any of it.
The Golden Gate Bridge somehow managed to survive, but the footage of it swaying left and right, the twang of those giant cables straining and snapping, is seared into my mind like the flash of a camera in my eyes. I realize that even if the news cycle were somehow forced off, it’d all be playing just the same in my head. And the chaos–the destruction, the fire, the piles of debris–isn’t even the worst of it. The screams are.
Blood-curdling. I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s the sound of terror and hopelessness. The realization of imminent death. Sounds powerful enough to put ice in veins and haunt dreams. I’m not the only one. The faces of brothers and sisters watching with me are stony with shock. It’s too overwhelming to bring on tears, but I imagine the tears will come later on tonight, when we’re lying awake in our cots and it all finally sinks in.
Unanswerable questions are whispered over shoulders, families worrying about members and friends last seen in California. Even the kids, who until this moment were unfazed by the reality of life in a refugee camp, have sidled up somberly to their parents, soaking in the news cycle with fixated, gaping stares. But for all its shock and horror, no one is able to tear their attention away.
I guess that’s why they decide to pull the plug. There’s a small ripple of discontent at the realization that the news stream has been broken intentionally until a brother climbs up a raised platform and holds his arms out for us to be quiet. It’s a tense few moments as the room settles down. If these weren’t my brothers and sisters, I realize, this could have easily become a mob.
It’s all very sensible, of course. The elders have discussed it and decided to give the news a break. There’s still a lot of work to be done and everyone’s help will be needed. They don’t want us sitting in front of the screens immobilized by shock and worry. The crowd dissipates as we wander off to our corners.
Walter wheels me back to their partition and I keep Chelsea company. A couple of older brothers I don’t recognize whisk him away a few minutes later and I’m left sitting next to my friend, wondering what’s going through her head. It’s clear from a glance that she isn’t herself. There’s something childlike in the way her eyes dart from the curtains that make up the three walls of her room and the bed and me. The gravity of the situation is completely lost on her.
I miss her so much and yearn more than ever for her guidance and reassurance. Instead, she gives me an innocent smile and nods as if there’s nothing to worry about. We might as well be on a camping trip. She lies back down on her pillow and is sound asleep within minutes.
“You’ve known my mom a while, huh?” a voice asks over my shoulder. I turn to see Jesse standing behind me with a head of scraggly wet hair and smelling like a fresh shower.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I say. Jesse hands me a wet can of Coke and I’m surprised to find that it’s icy cold.
“Brought a cooler of stuff in my pickup,” he explains with a shrug. I nod in thanks and we enjoy our sodas together as we watch Chelsea sleep. It’s odd, I think, sitting next to Chelsea and Walter’s son and knowing nothing about him. He’s appeared out of thin air, and I can’t help but wonder.
“She was studying with you, wasn’t she?” Jesse asks without looking at me. He finishes his can and crushes it on the floor.
“Yeah. We were good friends. We spent lots of time together. She was like a mother to me.” I glance over at Jesse and can’t decipher his expression.
“By any chance, is your husband a cop?” he asks.
“Yes, he is. How did you know that?” Jesse won’t look at me now and it’s clear he’s hiding something.
“Jesse,” I press. “Do you know something about my husband? Please, if there’s something–”
“Look, I don’t know where he is now, if that’s what you’re asking,” Jesse says, tensing, leaning away from me.
“But you do know something, don’t you? What is it?” Jesse’s shaking his head and looking down at his dirty sneakers. I wait for what feels like an eternity before he finally speaks.
“I met him.”
“You met him? How? Where? What are you talking about?”
“He came to my house.”
“Your house? How did he know where you live? I don’t even know where you live.”
“How would I know? Maybe he did a search online, maybe the cops have me in their database. Who knows?”
“So, why then? What did he visit you for?”
“He had some… questions.”
“Questions? What kind of questions?”
“Questions about my parents. About me. And about the Witnesses.”
“When was this?” I pry. Jesse shrugs.
“I guess about a week ago.”
“And that was it? You only saw him once?” Jesse nods quietly as my mind reels. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would Luke question him? What was he after?
“It wasn’t a long discussion. Probably not even ten minutes. I sort of chased him off my property.” I stare at Jesse, waiting for more. Perhaps he wants to talk. Whatever he’s about to say, he’s uneasy.
“It was the craziest thing, your husband showing up like that. Me and Isabelle, my girlfriend–ex-girlfriend now, I guess–had been fighting that morning. It was over something stupid, as usual. There was a time when I thought things would work out between us, way back when we’d first met, but… Whatever. Things change, I guess. I found myself wondering more and more what my life would’ve been like if I’d stuck with the truth. If I’d turned Isabelle down when she first invited me out bowling with her and her friends way back in high school. If I’d listened to my dad and mom, maybe even got baptized. I felt so… empty. The Witnesses would come around every few months and I always turned them down, or I’d let Isabelle take the door and shoo them away. Then they just… stopped coming.
“A few months later the news of the religious restrictions hit, and all I could do was think about the fall of Babylon the Great that we used to study in The Watchtower and at bookstudy… I still remembered those images from the Revelation book. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep at night, and when I did, I always saw that prostitute on the back of that leopard thing, head cocked to the side, holding the cup of blood in her hand with that wild look in her eyes. I remembered how the book talked about government attacking false religion. I even remember handing out those tracts about it when I was a teenager. I hated that campaign. I was terrified of what the householders might think. I guess that was always my problem, though, wasn’t it? Fear of what other people thought. Fear of classmates, fear of teachers. And where are all those people now? Why did I care so much about what they thought?
“I’d almost made up my mind to come back. I was worried it might be too late, but what was there to lose? Things were going nowhere with Isabelle. Neither of us was happy. I finally prayed about it one morning. Wasn’t easy. But I pushed myself, and no sooner had I said ‘amen’ when I heard a knock on our front door.”
“Yeah. He asked specifically to talk with me. I wasn’t worried. I had some misdemeanors long ago, but I’d been on the straight and narrow for the past few years. And it wasn’t your typical cop interrogation. He didn’t throw his weight around or make it seem like I owed him anything. Actually, he seemed pretty nervous.”
Jesse’s voice trails off momentarily and he casts me a sidelong glance, as if he expects me to fill in the gaps for him, but I’m not ready to offer anything until I hear the whole story.
“That doesn’t sound like him.”
Jesse shrugs and makes an expression that irks me. “I dunno. But the questions he was asking…”
“What? What are you trying to say?”
“He was after information, ok? He specifically asked about meetings, like how and when they were held.”
“And?” I ask, feeling my discomfort mount.
“What, you don’t think that’s a little odd? A cop trying to dig up info on the Witnesses? And why come to me? He already knew my parents, didn’t he? Why not go to them?”
“Maybe he wanted a different opinion,” I say.
“Yeah, or because he thought I’d be willing to sell the Witnesses out. Maybe he thought that I’d be some kind of outcast or something, that I’d tell all.”
“Stop it!” I hiss. “Stop talking! You don’t know my husband! And why should I trust you, anyway? You just show up out of nowhere because you see the world’s coming to an end, and now I’m supposed to believe what you say? Where were you all those years while your parents worried themselves sick, huh? Your mom was so hurt that she couldn’t even hear your name without crying. And now look at her!”
The words are sharper than I intend, and their effect registers instantly on Jesse’s face. The silence is an icy current that he decides not to fight. It carries him swiftly along until he looks down at his feet quietly, long, wet hair covering his face.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you,” he says softly. “I just thought you should know.”
“Yeah, well thanks a lot,” I sneer. Jesse gets up and disappears into the crowd.