45


2:15 PM

LUKE


            “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.
“Our car!”

3:04 PM

AMY


            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.”
            “My husband.”
            “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.

44


1:35 PM

LUKE


            “I said get out,” the man repeats, his voice icy. He shakes the muzzle of his rifle at me. It’s enough to get my hands in the air and my mind racing to assess the situation.
            “What’s going on?” I ask calmly.
            “Jeep’s dead. I need your ride.”
            “You’re hijacking us?” Ashley says in disbelief.
            “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Now all of you, get out.”
            I’m not stupid enough to argue with him, but I keep the conversation going as I open the door and slide out. I risk a glance at Ashley, pale-faced as she glances at her son.
            “Look, maybe we can help you take a look at your car, see if we can get it running. We’ve got a sick kid here, man,” I say gently. The man glances at Matthew momentarily, but the look in his eyes doesn’t budge.
            “Not my problem. I’m out of time and I need the car. Now get out.”
            “Time for what? You’re not going anywhere. The roads are a mess. You won’t get far. Let us help you,” I say, avoiding Ashley and Marc’s questioning stares.
            The man growls, eyes narrowing. “Just get away from the car already!” He brings his rifle to the level of my chest and chambers a round.
            “Luke, it’s ok, let him have it,” Marc says, his voice shaky. “We’ll find another way.”
            “Listen to your friend,” the man hisses, wiping a line of sweat from his brow. I glare at Marc and Ashley, who look at me in resignation. Ashley removes Matthew’s booster seat and sets it on the ground beside the car. He stirs and whines, looking worse than ever. A rash is creeping up his neck and his face is damp and splotchy. The man seems to ignore all this, hovering over us anxiously with his gun as we struggle with the boxes from the roof of the car.
            It takes us at least five minutes to pile everything from the car’s roof onto the ground as the man watches coldly. If anyone’s watching from the convenience mart, they’re keeping awfully quiet. Surely this is all being captured on CCTV somewhere, but with the general state of chaos I suspect we’ll never see the footage, or the car.
            It makes me shudder, realizing how quickly people can come to this. How fast lawlessness sets in when the authorities can’t be relied on. How swiftly people become predators and prey. Maybe it’d be different if I was in uniform. Surely this man would have second thoughts if he saw my Glock 9-millimeter holstered at my hip. But not today. Today I’m just a civilian, easy pickings for this dope and his rifle. It’s enough to get my blood boiling.
            There’s a sound down the road, a vehicle lumbering our way in a cloud of dust. We crane our necks in time to see a dirty minivan climbing up the drive. It turns into the gas station just yards from us. Our hijacker lowers his rifle to appear as innocuous as possible; he even has the audacity to turn and wave. It’s an opportunity I don’t dare to miss.
            I’ve been eyeing the ten feet of ground between us, and have my footsteps clearly visualized. I can do it in three paces and disarm him, I’m sure of it. I summon all of my strength and wits and leap into action.
            Despite the mental focus and adrenaline, I simply don’t have it in me. In the last two days I’ve been tasered, electrocuted, underfed, and nearly frozen to death. My body has had enough. My movements are sluggish and clumsy, as if it’s all happening underwater. The man steps back, easily dodging me. He grabs the back of my neck in a thick hand and throws me to the ground. Either he’s very strong or I’ve simply nothing left to resist, or both. I slam face down into the dirt, sucking in a plume of dust.
            The sole of a heavy boot lands squarely between my shoulder blades, pinning me down. I hack up the dirt in my lungs and pant heavily as the man puts more of his weight onto his back. The fresh burns on my chest and legs sting with the pressure and I grit my teeth, refusing to give this bully the satisfaction of hearing me scream.
            “Everything okay?” a man’s voice asks. The driver of the minivan, I think. I hear his approaching footsteps, but keep my burning eyes shut tight.
            “Just fine. This fella was gettin’ a little outta control. Needs some time to cool off, I’m afraid,” chuckles the man with the gun.
            “Oh. Uh, ok,” the other man says, and I can tell by the shuffling footsteps that he’s retreating backwards to the safety of his ride.
            “We just about done here?” the man with the gun growls at Marc and Ashley.
            “Yeah. It’s all yours,” Marc mumbles. I hear a set of keys passing hands and the boot leaves my back. I half expect a kick in my side or worse, but instead the man simply walks over to Marc and Ashley’s Honda and gets in. If he senses that there’s no fight left in me, he’s got it right. The engine cranks over once and he’s gone.
            Marc rolls me over gently as soon as the man leaves.
            “You ok?” he asks in a flat voice, frowning.
            “Yeah, just fine. Guess I wasn’t as strong as I thought.”
            “No, I guess not.” Marc helps me sit up and brush myself off. “To be honest with you, that was a stupid move you just pulled.”
            “Well, I wasn’t going to just sit there and watch him drive off with our only hope of getting out of here.”
            “He was armed, Luke. He could’ve been extremely dangerous with that rifle if your little stunt had annoyed him a bit more.”
            “Gee, sorry for trying,” I say with a snort. “It’s not really in my nature to get shoved around by some jerk with a gun.”
            “It wasn’t your vehicle to lose, Luke.”
            He has a point, so I simply shrug. Marc walks back to his wife, who’s sitting on one of their boxes with her hands covering her face, her chest rising and falling in spurts. Marc puts his arm around her and says something to console her, but I can’t make it out.
            I sit up and glance over at the man filling up his minivan, who’s watching us carefully and no doubt trying to make heads or tails of all that’s just unfolded. He finally walks over a few paces.
            “Y’all okay?” he calls out, clearly hesitant to get too close.
            “Yeah, it’s fine. Just got carjacked,” I say with a wave of my arm, trying my best to show I’m not a threat.
            “Well, that’s terrible. Really sorry ‘bout that. Where y’all headed?”
            “We were on our way towards the state line,” Marc says.
            “Huh. Goin’ to see family, or what?”
            “No, we have some friends there.”
            “That your boy?” the stranger asks, gesturing curiously towards the booster seat. Marc nods.
            “He looks like he should be in bed. Why y’all in such a rush to see friends with him looking like that?”
            “We’ve just… Got a very important appointment. We should’ve been there by now,” Marc says with a glance at his watch.
            “Huh. Where’d you say you were headed, again?” the man asks, cocking his head slightly to one side.
            “Past the state line, a place near Greenville.”
            “Huh,” the man repeats, rubbing his knuckles against a couple of days’ worth of facial stubble. He has a young face, probably not much older than myself, but the grey streaks at the side of his head put on a few years so it’s difficult to say for sure. He keeps glancing back and forth between each person in our group, as if he’s trying to decide something. I’d be a lot more worried if we actually had something of value. As it is, I’m still sitting on the dusty ground with my elbows on my knees. I suddenly realize that nothing on me is actually mine, and I doubt there are many valuables in the boxes littered around us. In any case, the look the man is giving us isn’t a dangerous one. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s curious.
            “Say, this might seem like a funny question, but do y’all know anyone by the name of Donovan Harris?”
            I glance back at Marc, whose expression melts away. His eyes widen and his shoulders go back. “I do.”
            “You know where he’s staying these days?”
            “1159 Oak Ridge.”
            The man rubs his face for a second or two, continuing to measure us up before speaking. When he does, I notice that a crooked grin has worked its way into his features. “Well, isn’t that interesting.”
            Marc is beaming now, and runs over to Ashley, where he sweeps her up in his arms in a spinning bear hug.
            “I’m Andrew Gillespie. Small world,” says the man, stepping forward and hugging Marc and Ashley. Marc introduces himself and his family and finally points down to me.
            “This is Luke. He’s a friend of ours. His wife’s already there.” I get up and brush myself off. Andrew shakes my hand, but there’s an odd look in his eye, as if there’s something he doesn’t understand. It’s a feeling I can relate to.
            “So what, what just happened?” I ask.
            “We’ll explain soon enough,” he says happily.
            “Let’s get you all loaded up and get back on the road. There’ll be plenty of time for chitchat,” Andrew says as he bends over to grab a box and haul it to the van.



1:50 PM

AMY


            Walter and I spend an hour after lunch navigating the narrow hangar aisles. I don’t know, maybe we’re looking for distractions. We see a few familiar faces, but neither of us is in a chatting mood. The latest arrivals to the hangar are injured and have been bandaged and medicated as best as possible under the circumstances. A handful of the friends here have medical training, but supplies are limited.
            Wandering in circles like this is enough to drive me mad, even if I’m surrounded by my brothers and sisters. I look into faces wondering if some, like me, are waiting on news of loved ones. Walter suggests we head outside for some fresh air and I eagerly concur. We follow the yellow duct tape arrows along the walkways to locate the nearest exit.
            It’s warmer today than it has been in weeks but there’s an odd smell in the air, like a campfire where someone’s carelessly tossed in assorted trash. Lifting our eyes, we discover the culprit. Littering the horizon above the trees are dozens of smoke tendrils weaving high into a grey sky. Some originate from the direction of the highway, but I’m not sure about the others. Houses, maybe? The wail of distant sirens fills the air. A shiver dances on my spine and it isn’t from the cold.
            “Is this how you imagined it would be?” I ask Walter. A distant helicopter catches our gaze as it arcs over the tree line and disappears, propellers chomping the air noisily. I glance at Walter in time to see him shrug.
            “No, I guess… I never really imagined it, to be honest. But Jesus did say it would be a tribulation like nothing that had been seen before, nor would be seen again. I guess anything is fair game.”
            “I’m glad we got out when we did,” I say softly after a long pause, although my relief is tainted with a heavy dose of anxiety. Knowing that Luke is still out there somewhere brings sharp and suffocating pangs to my chest. I hear footsteps behind us and turn to see a young man walking briskly in our direction. His head is hunched below his collar and his hands are deep in his pockets. It’s Jesse.
            “Hey dad, something happened,” he says with a thumb over his shoulder. “You’re probably gonna want to see it yourself.”
            Jesse flashes a brief glance in my direction. That look again. It’s as if there’s something he knows, something that he wants to tell me. I forget it as Walter wheels me back to the hangar. The odor of bodies is even more pungent now after being outside and I hope the brothers are looking for ways to solve the ventilation problem. But for now, something else is occupying everyone’s attention.
            The flatscreens above are back on and tuned to CNN. My eyes flutter over the scrolling marquee at the bottom of the screen and my heart jumps into my throat.

            MASSIVE CALIFORNIA FAULT EARTHQUAKE, MILLIONS POSSIBLY IN PERIL

            Despite the sensation of needles pricking my skin, the meaning of the words takes a moment to reach my brain. I’m numbed by the news. It’s as if everything is moving through a fog. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced before, years ago, when I watched live as a passenger jet crashed into the South Tower. Before the bell rang for our second period class, it had already fallen. Like they say, it’s just one of those things you never forget. I deeply suspect that this is another one of those moments.
            The room is deathly silent as everyone stares into the screens, waiting for the inevitable footage to start rolling. The first clip, from a cellphone, is shaky and blurred, but the sounds alone are horrifying. Crashes and a loud rending noise can be heard as the image sways back and forth, as if the whole world is riding on the back of a hacksaw chewing its way through the earth. We hear glass shattering as items pour from shelves and countertops. It’s a wonder that the user survived long enough to upload the video, I think, until I realize that it’s from a live-streaming app. There’s a blood curdling scream and everything goes black. The connection is dead, and the news anchors are left with pale, horrified expressions and no words to fill the air.
            The lead anchor mumbles something incomprehensible and bows his head, shuffling papers on his desk. Even his thick layer of makeup can’t hide the line of sweat climbing down his brow. Just like 9/11, I think. No one knows how to react.
            The co-anchor eventually grabs the reins and rehashes what we’ve just seen in the cellphone broadcast. She’s buying time, of course, but she won’t need to for long. Pretty soon there’ll be a steady trickle of footage, and then a flood. It’ll be all we see, a twenty-four hour news cycle laced in gruesome headlines and harrowing images.
            “Hey Walter,” I hear someone say in a low voice from behind us. I turn to find a man staring wide-eyed up at the screens with a look as dire as the rest of us.
            “Yeah, Ralph?” Walter says without turning.
            “You think the friends in California were evacuated?” the man asks, his voice trembling slightly.
            “I sure hope so.”
            As if on cue, a 3D topographical map of California flashes on the screens as part of the newscast, the San Andreas Fault outlined in flashing red. It runs for hundreds of miles through the state like a giant zipper, a dozen cities sitting right atop it.

43


12:55 PM

LUKE


            We meander the wooded roads for miles but after three hours of driving we’re still nowhere near our destination. Without their phones, Marc and Ashley are forced to navigate by an ancient Garmin GPS. I doubt the maps are even up to date, but there’s little point in bringing it up. I try to sleep, but despite my utter exhaustion my mind refuses to rest. I fret constantly over the fate of my wife and keep wondering if there’s any way to contact her.
            “Does this thing show any towns coming up?” I ask, pointing at the dash-mounted GPS.
            “I think so. But if you need to use a bathroom, I’d suggest doing it here in the woods. You need me to stop?”
            “No, it’s not that. I was wondering if I could get to a payphone. Maybe try calling the hospital.”
            “I’m sure Amy’s fine, Luke,” Marc says.
            “How do you know?”
            “Well for one thing, she’s probably with Walter. He was with Chelsea last I heard from him, and they were in the same hospital ward. And for another, she’s got Jehovah on her side.”
            “I wish I had your faith,” I say with a grimace.
            “It takes time. But after all we’ve been through, we are one hundred percent sure Jehovah has been helping us.”
            “Yeah?”
           “Absolutely. We’ve experienced his helping hand countless times, especially in the recent months. When I lost my job the friends were right there to help. We ended up living with another family. It wasn’t easy, but we managed.”
            “Where are they now?” I ask.
            “They were evacuated to a different location. We weren’t in the same congregation.”
            “Congregation. I’ve heard the term before.”
            “It’s a term for a group of witnesses assigned to meet and do the ministry together. Each congregation is taken care of by a group of older men, called elders.”
            “Yeah, I figured as much. That’s what my interrogators wanted to know. Who all your elders were.”
            “Walter’s one of them,” Ashley says.
            “Figures,” I say. “So how were you all organized? The feds said they were monitoring everything, but they seemed to know very little.”
            “We were very careful. Our organization had us prepared well in advance. We used encrypted software and internet connections to do everything.”
            “What about cell phones?”
            “We used them, but always encoded our messages. When we had to make phone calls or send texts, like to Bible students, we had a system of code words.”
            “And was this just locally?”
            “No. Every congregation of Witnesses around the world had the same instructions. We were communicating with them up until the moment we had to evacuate.”
            “But you left your phones at home?”
            “We got a message a few days ago saying that the encryption for the app we use was compromised. Something about a hack attempt. The branch told us to be sure to not bring our phones to the safe house.”
            “Branch?”
            “Yeah, it’s the term we use for a department that cares for the congregations under its supervision.”
            “I had no idea you people were so organized. You’ve got it more together than your government.”
            “More evidence we’ve got divine backing. Governments are in turmoil all over the world, and yet we’ve managed to stay completely united and organized. In fact, we’ve probably become more unified.”
            I find myself nodding in amazement. “So everyone is being evacuated? Worldwide?”
            “That I’m not sure of. I know that many in larger urban areas have been directed to move to other areas. I can’t say that it’s the same everywhere, though. But it’s been the right call.”
            “Why is that?”
            “In all the instances I’ve heard of so far, once the friends were safely evacuated, something catastrophic happened in the city they’d left. Fires, anarchy, rioting, you name it. There was even one instance in Europe of a nuclear meltdown at a power facility right after the brothers left. If the friends paid attention to the warnings and got out in time, they were safe. Sadly though, some didn’t heed the warnings.”
            “What happened to them?”
            “Well, as an example, a brother in one area south of us decided it would be safest for him and his family to build an underground bunker and begin stockpiling supplies. This was long before the evacuation orders came through. Our organization has never recommended this, but apparently he was pretty adamant about it. Even started urging some of the others in his congregation to do the same. Once it was built, he filled it with canned goods and jugs of water and propane tanks and so on. He spent most of the family’s savings on the project. Well, eventually some of his neighbors got wind of it. One night a group of masked men with guns stormed his house and forced him and his family out. They eventually made it to the safe house, but it was a nightmare. They barely made it out of the city with their lives.”
            “But what about people like my wife, who were trapped in hospitals, or hurt? What if they didn’t get out?”
            Marc draws a long breath before answering. “I can’t answer that, but I know that Jehovah never leaves people behind. He’ll find a way. In any case, we need to stop soon for gas. We’ll see if they have a payphone.”
            It takes us another forty-five minutes to reach the gas station. I expect the place to be lined with cars trying to fill up, but there’s only one other vehicle at the pumps, an old Jeep with mud caked in the wheel wells, a hunting rifle up on the racks. The hood is up, and a large bearded man stands glaring at the engine in frustration. He gives me a cold look as we pull up. At the side of the building I find a payphone and place a call to St. Mary’s. An automated message tells me the lines are down.
            Frustrated and helpless, I return to the car and wait while Marc fills the tank. Ashley is tending to their son, whose condition has worsened over the last couple hours. She wets a towel and places it gently on his forehead. “He’s burning up,” she says when she sees me staring. “I hope they have a doctor there.”
            “Me too,” I say, and freeze. Just outside our car, the bearded man from the Jeep is standing just outside our car. In his hands is the hunting rifle, its glistening tip leveled straight at us.
            “Get out,” he growls.

1:03 PM

AMY


            A little after noon an announcement comes over the PA system. The voice offers a brief prayer and asks us to form lines for lunch. Walter and I make our way to the line and chat with others idly as we wait. Despite the sizable crowd, we’re served and back at our cots within half an hour. The meal is simple: a bowl of diluted tomato soup, side salad, ham and cheese sandwich. Still, no one’s complaining, especially after we see the news.
            A few screens installed high up on the walls of the hangar are turned on shortly after lunch, eliciting a wave of gasps from the crowd. Aerial footage from a helicopter is being broadcast as a reporter solemnly delivers his lines. Atlanta is an inferno. Countless structures spew long columns of black smoke or slowly succumb to climbing walls of flames. Heavily damaged police vehicles with broken windows and spray paint scrawls litter the streets. In spite of it all, throngs of people still mill around in the streets, many with guns slung over their shoulders or exiting buildings with large boxes and containers.
           “It’s a good thing we left when we did,” Walter says grimly as he points to one of the screens. The aerial cameras are now trained on a hospital downtown. Fire pours from a row of windows on the upper floors as people dash about frantically on the roof.
            “That could’ve been us,” I say softly. Walter nods without turning to look at me. We peel ourselves away from the news reports after a few minutes and chat with the friends. The exchanges are brief and tense; everyone’s happy to be here, but we’re full of uncertainty for what lies ahead.
Walter and I make our way back to our cots to find Chelsea awake and peering around curiously. She’s frail and disoriented, but it’s a relief just to see her sitting upright again.
            There’s a man sitting at her side holding her hand, and I assume it’s one of our doctor friends until we get a little closer and he turns. For a Witness, his hair seems unusually long and unkempt, but somehow he looks familiar. Walter gasps and runs up to greet him. He throws his arms around him and the two weep quietly while I try to make sense of it.
            “Amy,” Walter says, finally turning to me as he drags his sleeve across his eyes. “This is our son, Jesse.”
            My eyes widen as I make the connection. A perfect meld of his parents, really. Jesse looks oddly at me and offers his hand. He looks down at the floor as his father pats him exuberantly on the back.
            “It’s so good to see you, son. Did you have any trouble getting here?”
            Jesse shakes his head. He glances at me quickly and then turns away. “No, your directions were pretty straightforward, once I could decipher them.”
            “Good. And what about Isabelle?”
            Jesse shrugs and shakes his head. “She didn’t want to come.”
            “That must’ve been a difficult choice, son,” Walter says with a sad look and sighs.
            “I’m ok. We’d… hit a rough spot lately. It’s good to see you and mom. It’s been a long time.” Walter nods, and for a moment the two study Chelsea silently. “Her memory loss seems pretty bad,” Jesse says quietly. “She seemed to recognize me at first, and then she forgot who I was.”
            Walter nods. “She comes and goes. The doctors said there was some serious trauma to her frontal lobe. They believe that’s what’s causing the amnesia. But at least we know it’s temporary. All this is.”
            Jesse turns to his father and nods.
            “You got rid of the beard,” Walter says, stroking his son’s cheek.
            “Yeah, well, I figured they might not let me in here if I still had it. I guess Witnesses still don’t do the beard thing, huh?”
            “Not in this area, usually. I wonder if things will change after, though. We’ll have to see. You looked handsome with a beard.”
            Jesse’s face reddens somewhat and he smiles. “Didn’t get a chance to cut the hair though, sorry,” he says abashedly.
            “I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m sure we’ve got a barber and a pair of scissors around here somewhere. But that’s not important now. Tell me, how have you been?”
            I decide to give the two some privacy and wheel myself quietly away from the partition. I only make it a few yards when I see brother Odelawe bounding up the walkway towards me.
            “Hello, Sister Amy! It is good to see you. You have eaten?”
            I can’t help smiling. “Yeah. You?”
            “Very full. It was so good to have a meal with my brothers! Where are you headed?”
            “Just thought I’d get a look around the place. It’s a lot bigger than it looks from the outside.”
            “Oh yes, it is. Where would you like to go? I can help you.” And without another word, Odelawe is behind me pushing my wheelchair.
            We make a circuit around the outer walkway. Brothers are putting up signs for a help desk, bathrooms, an outdoor shower area, a cleaning and laundry department, a commissary, an exchange area, a lost and found, even a nursing room.
            “It’s amazing they set this all up so fast,” I say under my breath, though Odelawe still hears me.
            “Only Jehovah’s people. This is a taste of the New World! Very organized, very peaceful.”
            I’m nodding quietly, but secretly hope he’s wrong. It’s a little too cramped for my taste, and the smell of sweaty bodies seems to be getting stronger as the day wears on.
            “So, is it just you here?” I ask over my shoulder. Odelawe looks down to smile at me.
            “Yes, I am the only one here, but I have family in Nigeria who are also Witnesses.”
            “Oh? That’s nice,” I say with a touch of envy.
           “They learned the truth years ago, shortly after I moved to America to attend university. They would call me often and try to preach to me. At that time, I belonged to a church. I was told by my pastor to disown my family, that they had left the true faith and would burn forever in hell for their sins.”
            “But you didn’t listen,” I say, casually wondering where that pastor is now.
            “No, but it took me a long time. I flew back to Nigeria often, and would argue with my family every time, trying to convince them that they were being deceived by those ‘Watchtower devils’. But I soon realized that I had no way of proving myself with Bible scripture. Although my parents were much older than me and not as educated, they had no trouble finding the verses to support their faith. I eventually realized that it was I who was being deceived.” Brother Odelawe lets out a laugh.
            “That’s great. I’m glad you had a change of heart.”
            “As am I. And I learned an important lesson: Never give up on anyone! Especially your family.”
            I nod quietly as Brother Odelawe pulls us back into the spot where Walter and Jesse sit next to Chelsea, who has fallen back asleep.