9:48 AM


            My eyelids flutter open to reveal hundreds of sleeping bodies knotted tightly together beneath a patchwork of blankets and jackets. A few of the friends are stirring awake or picking their way through the masses hoping to scrounge up some food. Walter appears from the underbrush and hands me a thermos of hot coffee. I don’t know how, and I don’t ask. We enjoy the warmth of our liquid breakfast in the morning tranquility. With the sounds of birdsong and the squirrels bounding along the branches above us, it’s almost peaceful enough to forget the gravity of our situation. Almost.
            It’s another hour before the entire convoy is up and moving. Many are forced to nibble down their breakfast on foot. My stomach aches for something more substantial than powdered coffee and saltine crackers, but concerns about food rations pale in comparison with all the uncertainty that looms ahead.
            “You think we’re almost there?” Jesse asks Walter.
            “I think so. I talked to one of the brothers in the lead early this morning. He seems to think it won’t be much longer till we’re there.”
            “And where is there?” I ask.
            “We’ll know soon enough,” Walter says.
            Somehow, Chelsea’s managed to keep up with the rest of us, but her wandering eyes and the occasional wild gesturing of her hands tell me she’s still far away. From time to time something just off of the trail catches her attention and she stumbles after it like a child. Walter is immediately behind her, guiding her gently back to the path. His words are quiet and kind, but the pain on his face is unambiguous.
            Eddie, the brother with the two small girls, is never far from us. I hear Walter fall back occasionally to check up on him. The two of them speak softly, keeping the conversation neatly out of his daughters’ earshot, but I can’t imagine the two girls don’t know what’s going on. Still, they seem content with this distraction through the woods, plucking the periodic pansy and getting me to stick them in their hair. I keep them occupied with conversation, speaking all the louder when I hear their father charge a few paces into the underbrush and vomit loudly. With these rations, I know it isn’t something he ate. Anxiety weighs on each of us in different ways.
            The trail opens abruptly into a grassy clearing. A towering abandoned sawmill leans tiredly to one side at the center. The tin roof is old and rust bitten, holes gaping in its panels like dirty cavities. Derelict machinery litters the edge of the property. Parents grip the shoulders of their children tightly, dissuading any curious notions of exploration.
            “We’re not staying in there, I hope,” a sister mumbles behind me.
            “This is our rendezvous point,” a brother says in a large voice from several yards ahead, relaying the message down the line. We gaze around curiously, struggling to make sense of it.
            Eventually the crowd disperses, reclining on the grass and relishing the warming daylight as the sun climbs above us in the sky. It takes us some time to thaw out from the night before and it’s just what we need. Before long the children are back to their old selves, running around and playing again; the adults are chatting, relaxed.
Then we hear a shrill scream from deep within the forest. The voices fall silent as heads turn to locate the source of the noise. A column of white steam rising from the pine tops is our only clue.
            The ancient train chugs determinedly through the trees to meet us, steel wheels swishing along invisible rails hidden by tall grass. Yellow sparks splash to its sides as it screeches to a halt. The engine and the string of cars it tows are relics from a bygone era. The engine’s bronze plating and trim are faded and scratched, but it’s no less majestic.
            The door to the engine car swings open on creaking hinges and a man emerges. He leans over the chain railing on a narrow metal walkway and gives us a friendly wave before dropping down into the grass and disappearing in the crowd.
            “Our rendezvous?” I ask Walter.
            “So it would seem,” he says with an amused smile.
            Doors on rails slide open on the sides of the cargo carriages. Friendly faces and outstretched hands welcome us aboard. Young brothers and sisters clamber atop the cars to lash our meager luggage to the rooftops. When everyone is accounted for–three hundred and eighty-nine in total–the engine whistle screams once more and the line of cars groans back to life.
            In the cargo carriages there are no seats, no tables, no beds. With the doors barred tight, the only sources of ventilation are long horizontal slats just inches below the ceiling. It’s enough to keep the air breathable, but with nearly forty of us in this carriage alone, the smell of sweaty, unbathed bodies is inescapable. The toilet, a shallow metal dish that opens directly onto the tracks below, probably isn’t helping the smell, but I try not to dwell on it.
            Mike, the brother who’d been in charge of getting us aboard this particular carriage, smiles as he distributes oranges from a large plastic bin. He lets out a low whistle when he spots me in my wheelchair.
            “Couldn’t have been easy on that trail,” he says with the shake of his head as he hands me the fruit.
            “It was a long night. Thanks,” I reply.
          “Be sure to eat the whole thing. Vitamin C might be a hard thing to come by in the days ahead. We gotta take what we can get now. Not a time for waste.”
            I nod, digging my fingernail into the fruit and enjoying the faint spray of citrus on my fingers. Soon the whole cabin smells of oranges and everyone’s mood is slightly improved.
            “So, what’s the story behind this train?” Walter asks Mike once the bin has been emptied.
            “The engine was owned by a brother. It was his business, I understand. He’d buy old steam engines, refurbish them, and sell them to collectors. The organization contacted him a few months ago and told him to keep his eye out for a few functional engines. He did, and they were purchased by the society and sent to different cities here in the South. The containers were purchased months ago for next to nothing at an auction. They were parked in an old railyard in Florida until a couple of weeks ago, when our congregation was assigned to get them cleaned out for passengers. Not an easy job, let me tell you. These used to be livestock cars. It took forever to get the stink out.”
            “Well, we really appreciate your hard work. This definitely beats trekking through the woods in the dark,” Walter says.
            “How long were you out there?” Mike asks.
            “Not even a full day, but it felt like a week.” Walter motions around to the friends around us, most of whom are sound asleep and snoring loudly, their laps littered with orange rinds. “So, you folks are from Florida?”
            “Yup. Been on this train for four days now, picking friends up along the way. You guys were the largest group so far.”
            “Are there more people getting on at later stops?” I ask.
            “I believe so, but I don’t know the full schedule. The information is all very compartmentalized, for safety reasons, of course,” Mike says with a shrug. Walter nods knowingly.
            “It’s ok, we understand. Up until this train showed up, I wasn’t even sure who was meeting us back in that field.”
            “Walking by faith,” Mike says.
            “No kidding. So how were things in Florida before you all left?” Walter asks. Mike is suddenly very quiet, a shadow falling over his face.
            “Not pretty. The National Guard was called in a couple of days before we left. A huge crowd of rioters tried to fight back. The soldiers opened fire… It was a massacre. The civilians who survived retreated, got themselves armed, and went back. Eventually the soldiers were overpowered.
“Things only got worse after that. Some locals got a hold of one of the army tanks, went on a joyride through town. Shot up a bunch of buildings, ran over cars. No one could stop them. The police were nowhere to be found at this point, of course. It was total anarchy. Utilities had been shut off, too. No water, gas, electricity. That’s when the instructions came for us to leave.”
            “On this train?” I ask.
            “Yeah. By this time we’d finally cleaned it out, gotten the doors repaired, made sure the roofs weren’t leaking. It’s a good thing we had this was our means of escape, too, because by the time we left there wasn’t any other way out. The roads were blocked with abandoned cars and those men in the tank had blown up a few of the bridges to prevent the military from sending in reinforcements. The railway was the only way.”
            “It sure is incredible, seeing Jehovah’s hand in all of this,” Walter says with a sigh. Mike nods somberly.
            “Makes me wonder what’s still ahead, though,” he says quietly.

9:50 AM


            It isn’t hard to locate the trail. The hangar was clearly stocked to house hundreds of refugees, and so many people trekking through dampened dirt and grass are sure to leave tracks. After less than an hour of searching, we find the trailhead north of the hangar. It’s about half a mile from the building and marked by a wooden sign.
            I try to picture a mixed crowd of that size moving through the trees in the dead of winter. There’s no point in discussing the motive for their evacuation. We’re all in the dark together.
            “When do you think they left?” Andrew asks from over my shoulder. I’m at the front of the group, with Marc and Ashley at the rear. Matthew, sound asleep, rides in a stroller his mother salvaged from the hangar.
            “Hard to say,” I mutter in response. The dirt of the trail is mixed with gravel and rocks, making the tracks harder to distinguish. An occasional discarded item–an empty food tin or water bottle–is all that tells us we’re still on the right track.
            “By the way, I found this in the hangar,” Andrew says, jogging a few steps to my side and matching my pace. He swings his pack around and pulls out a small AM/FM radio. He switches it on and starts scanning for a signal. There’s a pause as the scanner desperately searches for a signal, but there’s nothing. No morning traffic reports, no news bulletins, no pop music, no call-in radio shows. The airwaves are deserted. A chill runs up my spine.
            “Try AM,” I say uncomfortably. More static, then another stretch of silence at it scans. Then, finally, something breaks through. It’s faint and riddled with static, but the message is clear enough.
            …Repeat, the National Guard has withdrawn from the following counties: Cherokee, Union, Kershaw, Chesterfield, Williamsburg, and Allendale. If you are a resident in one of these counties, for the safety of you and your family, the South Carolina State Sheriff’s Department strongly recommends staying indoors. For added protection, board up windows and keep doors locked at all times…
            Andrew shakes his head with a low whistle as the cold, mechanical voice rattles off a list of cautionary procedures. To the average Joe it may seem like there’s a fighting chance, but as law enforcement I know better. The situation must be hopeless. Chances of being alive a week from now are slim.
            My mind goes back to the conversation Walter and I had just weeks ago. The worst-case scenario; the man hunkered down in his basement surrounded by canned food and a stocked gun locker. Then I see the hijacker in the ditch, rifle glistening at his side while his life slipped away. Walter was right. It’s an uncomfortable admission.
            The Witnesses were wise to evacuate.
            The deafening whine of a jet engine shreds the forest silence as a grey fighter passes just above us. It vanishes a moment later, heading south. The rumble lingers in the air long after it’s gone, and as soon as it fades over the horizon, a new one takes its place, a terrible, ground-trembling blast that can only belong to an explosion.
            We exchange tense glances for a moment and pause in our tracks.
“That sounded like a bomb,” Ashley says, a dire look in her eyes.
“And it sounded like it came from the direction of the hangar,” I say, heightening the tension.
            “If we’d been even an hour later, we would’ve been inside…” Andrew says with a look of shock.
            “No point on dwelling on it now, let’s keep moving,” Marc says, rushing ahead to take the lead. But the sound of a chopper overhead stops him. We dive for cover as the aircraft passes, and as I glance up through the branches I catch a glimpse of three letters that put ice in my veins. FBI.
           “Luke, c’mon, let’s go,” Andrew says, tugging at my sleeve. I nod vigorously and rush to catch up. After the explosion and the sighting of the two aircraft, our pace quickens considerably. It’s now clear that our only hope lies in reuniting with the other group.
            By the time we finally break for a late lunch, we’ve been walking for almost six hours. We peel our shoes off and massage the blood back into our battered and blistered feet. We finish an entire loaf of white bread and half a jar of peanut butter. Matthew wakes up long enough to join in the meal and falls back asleep immediately after. He looks much better than he did yesterday, but he’s still pale and weak.
           “So, we appear to have hit a crossroads,” Andrew says, wiping breadcrumbs from his jaw with the back of a sleeve. We survey the grassy clearing around us, which branches into two opposite paths on either side through the woods. The good news is that it’s clear from the large swath of freshly trampled grass that a sizable crowd of people was recently here. The problem is that their tracks end here. Neither path shows any signs of recent activity.
            “Any ideas?” Andrew asks, gesturing first to one of the routes, then the other. The grass on both sides is tall and undisturbed. It doesn’t add up. Rising, Marc moves towards an old crumbling building in the center of the clearing.
            “Babe,” his wife calls after him warily. “You’re not going in there, I hope. It can’t be safe.”
            “Just want to get a look around,” Marc says over his shoulder. Then, looking down at his feet, he pauses and beckons us over excitedly. We wade through the grass to get a closer look. It’s an old rusted set of rails. We stare at them in wonderment for a moment before speaking.
            “A train,” Andrew says with a smile, catching on. “They don’t run on highways, so the traffic can’t hold them up.”
“Exactly. And all you need is enough coal and a small crew and you can move hundreds of passengers anywhere you like. It’s brilliant,” Marc says.
“Look here,” Andrew says from a few yards up the tracks. “Some of these rail ties have been replaced recently. I’ll bet our brothers have been working on this for weeks. Months, even.”
            “This must’ve been the plan all along,” Marc says, face beaming.
            “Seems like a stretch,” I say.
            “Just like everything else up to this point, but here we are,” Andrew says.
            “I certainly don’t see any other options,” Marc says.
            “Okay, so we wait here on the off chance that another train shows up?” I ask.
            “We could follow the tracks, but there’s no indication of which direction they were headed. There’s a fifty-fifty chance of getting ourselves even farther away from the rest of the group.”
            “So we wait,” Andrew says, shrugging. “Could use the rest anyhow. We can sleep in shifts, make sure someone’s always up to watch the rails.” It’s a sensible suggestion, and the notion of rest is appealing. We’re sore, worn out, and mentally exhausted.
            “Ok,” Marc says with one last look around. “You guys can sleep. I’ll take the first shift.”
            I plop down into the grass and bundle up in a sleeping bag I found stuffed in an old suitcase back at the hangar. I’m asleep before my head hits the ground.


11:49 PM


            Morale is not high as we exit the hangar into the frigid winter night. There are groans and sighs as we file through the doors, the pall of exhaustion and anxiety having sapped our strength long ago. I brace against a sudden lash of wind and wonder again why we’ve been told to evacuate now, of all times, in the middle of the night and the dead of winter.
            “This is crazy,” someone mutters behind us. Still we press on, huddling together in a feeble attempt to keep warm. It’s a slow trek to the tree line, where an old wooden sign indicates the start of a densely wooded trail. One of the elders takes the lead, swooping shadows stretching through the trees as the light from his electric lantern bobs and bounces.
            Flashlights are flicked on as the pines thicken and the stippled moonlight yields to thick tree cover. With the heavy loads and the unpredictable terrain, falls and stumbles are common. A few young brothers with first aid kits are quick to assess injuries.
            I’m thankful for the wheelchair; I can’t imagine making the trek on crutches. Still, it’s far from a smooth ride. Jesse, of course, hardly seems to notice. I hear him grunt and complain as we trudge further into darkness.
            “You doing all right?” asks Walter’s voice from somewhere in the night.
            “Yeah, I’m good,” Jesse replies before I have the chance.
            “Good. Slow and steady. No need to wear ourselves out here. It’s gonna be a long night.”
            “How long?”
            “Can’t say exactly, but I had a look at a map of these trails before the evacuation. They wind through the hills for miles.”
            “So you know where we’re headed?” I ask.
            “The general direction, yes. But I’m not sure of our destination.”
            “I sure hope someone is,” says Jesse.
            “We’ll be taken care of, son. Jehovah will see to it.”
            Walter gives me a gentle pat on the shoulder as a burst of static erupts from his jacket. He zips it open and retrieves a small walkie-talkie.
“Go ahead,” he says into the handset.
“Get the friends to shut their lights off and keep still,” says a voice. Walter whirls around and gives the signal as our surroundings plunge into blackness. We wait in utter silence, hundreds of frozen bodies shivering in the dark.
            “What’s happening, Dad?” Jesse whispers, but Walter is silent.
            It’s a couple of minutes before the sound above us is realized clearly; the thud of propellers high above the trees. The sound approaches slowly and lingers, and the source is soon unmistakable.
            A squadron of military helicopters passes just over the treetops above us, red strobes blinking on their black tails and underbellies. Powerful white searchlights rake and sift through the woods around us. The tree cover afforded by the evergreens above is thick, but I know it won’t be enough.
            “Keep still,” Walter says, his voice barely audible above the helicopters’ rotors.
            “You think they’re looking for us?” I ask. Walter ignores this.
            An eternity passes before the aircraft have moved beyond us. A collective sigh of relief is heard from the crowd. Though we can be sure of nothing, somehow this feels like deliverance.
            We trudge on for another hour before the leading edge of our party comes to a wide, shallow creek. The brothers call for a short break. Canteens and plastic bottles are topped up though the water is far too cold to drink straightaway.
            Despite the dark and the cold, the brothers manage to get everyone across the stream in an organized way. As per their instructions, most traverse it barefoot, arms bent and interlocked at the elbows, stepping carefully with their shoes draped over their shoulders.
            “Take it slow,” I hear someone caution from the shadows. “This water’s ice cold. Getting wet could easily give you hypothermia.”
            I glance at my wristwatch. It’s just past three AM. I’m exhausted from just sitting and being pushed in the cold and can’t begin to imagine what the others are experiencing. I study the faces as they cross the streambed: White haired sisters with stony expressions, bags slung over their shoulders. Teenagers and parents trudging across the frigid water with smaller siblings latched on their backs. All quietly resolved to the task of survival and obedience.
            Walter appears at my side, brushing the mud from Chelsea’s feet, then massaging them gently, getting the blood flowing again after the shock of the icy river water.
            “Are we going camping, Walter?” she asks, looking up at the trees and the people all around.
            “No, dear. This is not camping,” Walter says, replacing her shoes and socks.
            “How you holding up?” he asks.
“I’m fine. Feeling a little guilty, getting to sit through this all,” I say.
“No need for that. This is how it works. We take care of each other.”
            “Yeah. I’m thankful for that. How would anyone be able to do this on their own?”
            “They wouldn’t, not without Jehovah. Remember that even if these brothers and sisters aren’t at your side, Jehovah always is. His friendship is the most important.”
            “You say that like we’re going to be split up,” I ask, catching a shift in his tone. He takes a deep breath and gives me a long look before speaking.
            “I don’t want to scare you, Amy, but you need to be prepared.”
            “Prepared?” Another long pause. Walter scans the crowds before looking back at me.
            “Things may get harder before they get easier. We just don’t know what’s around the corner.”
            “What are you trying to say, Walter?” I ask.
            “I’m saying that I cannot guarantee that I will be at your side through all of this. I can’t guarantee that any of these friends will. I wish I could, but I can’t read the future. You must understand this.”
            “Walter, stop talking like this,” I say, fidgeting.
            “Amy, please, listen to me. You need to know that I will do anything to protect your life and the lives of our brothers and sisters. It is the responsibility of a shepherd. But even if something happens to me or anyone else here, be assured that you will be remembered by Jehovah.”
            I don’t. I can’t. Just the thought of losing Walter sends my mind into a panic. I’m shaking my head as Walter takes my face in his hands and gently kisses my forehead.
            I’m still in shock and confusion as our convoy resumes its trek through the valley of deep shadow.

7:02 AM


            We’re on the road by sunrise the next morning, feeding on tins of Andrew’s food as he drives.
            “How’s Matthew?” I ask, glancing back at the child wrapped in Ashley’s arms.
            “Better. The fever’s finally broken, thanks to that nurse.”
            “Glad to hear it,” I say. “Looks like we picked the right town after all.”
            “If only we weren’t so far behind schedule,” Marc laments.
            “Explain to me again this ‘schedule’, would you? Why the rush?”
            “A few days ago, the congregations in our area received detailed instructions for our evacuation. They were very clear on the date we had to leave by, and the date and time we had to arrive at the location by. Unfortunately, we missed that deadline.”
            “So what does that mean? Surely they’ll let us in when they see who we are.”
            “I’ve been going over the same question in my head. I don’t know the answer, Luke. But it worries me, showing up late like this.”
            “Well, between the road conditions, getting hijacked, and getting ourselves arrested and thrown in jail, I think your friends will have to make some allowances.”
            “I hope so. For now, we just need to get ourselves there.” Marc chucks his empty tin in a plastic garbage bag and unfolds a map on the front dash, tracing our route with the tip of a pencil.
            “According to the sheriff, I-26 isn’t backed up like the highways we avoided earlier,” he says.
            “It’ll beat back roads, that’s for sure,” Andrew adds.
            “Yeah, my thoughts exactly. Shouldn’t take more than an hour if we can keep our speed up.”
            “And if we can avoid any more setbacks,” I add.
            “And that.”
            “So, what else do you know about these evacuations? Where is everyone headed?”
            “I wasn’t privy to all the details, but I imagine it’s different for every area. The place we’re headed to is a decommissioned private aircraft hangar. It should be big enough to hold everyone.”
            “But for how long? What about food? Water? Supplies?”
            “Again, I don’t have all the answers, but Jehovah’s organization has accomplished some impressive things in the past. In many countries hit with natural disasters, the Witnesses were the first to provide aid to their brothers and sisters. Before the government showed up, before the Red Cross, we were there with truckloads of food, water, blankets, you name it. We’d fix houses or even build new ones for our friends. All free of charge, by the way. No one else knows worldwide disaster response like us. I’m not worried.”
            “I didn’t know the Witnesses were into that kind of stuff. Amy never mentioned any your public works projects.”
            “We don’t call them public works projects,” Andrew mentions.
            “And why not?”
            “We’re not about building schools and hospitals. But we do help our brothers and sisters whenever there’s a need.”
            “So you only help those in your congregations? What about outsiders?”
            “We don’t ignore others. We spent millions of dollars and billions of hours helping people, but not through handouts. Our focus has always been on preaching the good news of God’s kingdom, a real, future government that will rid the earth of its problems once and for all. It’s the only solution to this mess.”
            “I remember Walter mentioning something about a war.”
            “Right. Armageddon,” I mutter under my breath.
            “We don’t fear it, Luke. We need it now more than ever. Just think, an end to crime, corruption, war, greed, suffering. It’ll bring the kind of world we won’t worry about raising our children in.”
            “It sounds good. I’ve always been hopeful, but what you all believe, it just seems… impossible.”
            “I know how you feel, man,” Andrew says from behind the wheel. “Took me a long time, too. Sounds like a fairy tale, huh?” I nod at him in the rear view mirror.
            “When I first started studying with the Witnesses, I felt the same way you do. At first I thought the Witnesses were a cult. I was very guarded, very suspicious. But after some time getting to know them, I could see they were just normal people. Still, their belief in a future paradise seemed farfetched.
            “My Bible teacher’s response was for me to just give Jehovah a chance. Told me to start praying, do a little Bible reading each day, think about what I was learning, and use it. It didn’t take long to see the changes. The more I thought things over, the more sense it made. My faith has only grown since then.”
            “I’ve never really been a man of faith,” I say.
            “I don’t mean blind faith. That’s dangerous. The faith I’m talking about it based on facts, based on personal experience, and based on study. It doesn’t happen overnight. I think one of the big factors for me was having my prayers answered. When that started happening, I could see there was something to this. So I began to think, if God’s listening to my prayers, he must be real. And if he’s got the power to do that, why wouldn’t he have the power to do the other things he’s promised? Like I said, the more I thought about it all, the more it just clicked.”
            “Take the next exit, then hang a right,” Marc quietly interrupts. The off ramp from I-26 spills us into a small town. It’s so similar to Maynard I almost wonder if we’ve somehow circled back. The stretch of road, the ski resort signs, the barred-up windows of shops and homes, it’s all very familiar. I instinctively glance up at the rooftops, wary of more snipers.
            “Follow this road for a couple miles. Take a left at the intersection,” Marc says, the tension audible in his voice as he eyes our surroundings.
            Andrew follows Marc’s directions carefully, sending us through the heart of the small town. Many of the parked cars sport broken windows or graffiti. The shops are caged in with bars or roll tops; the few left undefended have been thoroughly pillaged.
            On the next street, charred skeletons of homes stand on black lawns. A mixed pack of soot-covered dogs, some still in their collars, sifts through the wreckage. A couple of them raise their heads curiously as we pass, memories of their domestic lives flashing momentarily in their eyes, but most seem content in their new feral lives. Andrew gases it a little harder.
            “What do you think happened here?” Ashley asks quietly from the backseat.
            “Same as everywhere else, I’d imagine,” I say sadly. “People see the news, get scared, start stocking up supplies. Then you have the troublemakers, the ones who can’t wait for a taste of anarchy. The police stand their ground, hold the people off as long as they can, but eventually opt to protect their own and quit the uniform. It doesn’t take much, and it doesn’t take long.”
            “It’s amazing how quickly society can crumble,” Andrew comments under his breath. The van slows to a stop a few moments later as we near a gravel road that turns off from the main street.
            “That’s it, that’s the road,” Marc says with cautious enthusiasm. Andrew points the van up the road without a word and we hold our breaths. Minutes pass before the trees part and give way to a large open field. There’s a giant grey building at the far end. As we approach I spot at least a hundred vehicles parked quietly on a vast blacktop.
            “Seems awfully quiet,” Andrew says nervously as he confers with his watch. It’s eight thirty.
            “Could they still be sleeping?” Marc mutters as our vehicle approaches. Andrew stops the car near a set of doors and we pile out anxiously. Marc flings open the doors to reveal an enormous hangar.
            The floor space is littered with abandoned luggage and piles of belongings. Folding cots are stacked high with electronics, clothing, and accessories. Everything but the people.
            “Any ideas?” I ask the others as we round the first corner in the main path. A stage made of scaffolding and plywood sits to my right. A microphone stand is perched atop it, and I suspect that whatever was last spoken through it caused the mass exodus.
            “Looks like an evacuation. And they must’ve only taken the essentials,” Marc says simply, lifting an expensive looking laptop from a table.
            “An evacuation? But wasn’t that the whole point of this place in the first place? To give people a place to evacuate to?” Andrew says incredulously.
            “I think Marc’s right. They left in a hurry,” I say.
            “So what happens next?” Andrew asks.
            “I guess we try to figure out where they went,” says Mark.
            “Couldn’t have been far,” I say. “Not with all those cars outside. Wherever they went, they travelled on foot.”
            “On foot? In the dead of winter? We’re talking hundreds of people here. Men, women, children, elderly folks…” Andrew says, shaking his head.
            “Wouldn’t be the first time,” Marc says cryptically. I don’t bother asking him what he means. He’s deep in thought as he surveys the hollow space around us.
            “Ok,” he finally says to us. “You guys grab a couple of bags and whatever food and water you can carry.”
            “What’s the plan?” I ask.
            “A hundred people walking anywhere are bound to leave tracks. We locate the tracks and follow them.”
            Andrew and I are left without words, but the two of us quickly realize our options are running thin. We nod and disperse.


6:31 PM


            The order to evacuate sends our camp into turmoil. People run around anxiously collecting items from their cars, taking inventory, agonizing over what to take and what to leave behind. Some even try to plead with the brothers to allow them to bring more, but the elders won’t budge: each person is only allowed what they can carry. Stick with the essentials.
            An older sister in the partition next to ours is flipping through a large leather-bound book, seemingly oblivious to the chaos swirling around her. It’s her wedding album. The tips of her fingers linger on each of the photos, the look of fond reminiscence shining in her eyes. She peels one of the photos from the page and slips it into her coat pocket. Then she closes the album and sets it delicately on her cot and sighs.
            “Are you ok?” I ask softly as she catches me staring. She nods.
            “I suppose so. I guess it was wishful thinking to imagine I could take all this with me in the first place. That’s material things for you–here today, gone tomorrow. And you?”
            I shrug. “I’ll be ok. Didn’t have the chance to go home and pack. I left with the clothes on my back.” The sister smiles gently.
            “It’s probably just as well. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have to choose.”
            I think she’s right about this. Our brief conversation ends as she returns to the task of packing a roller suitcase with canned food and bottled water.
            Chelsea has been roused back to consciousness, though the sea of commotion in the hanger confuses and disorients her. Walter returns from his truck with a couple of duffel bags slung over his shoulders. He’s followed by a man I haven’t seen before. He’s gesturing wildly, clearly upset.
            “Walter, this is crazy! We just got here, and now they’re making us pack up and leave again? I mean, come on! You have any idea how many hours it took us to get here? The last thing I’m gonna do is start hiking through the woods in the middle of the night!”
            “Eddie, you need to get your head on straight,” Walter says sternly. “You’re only here, along with your family, because you listened to directions in the first place. What do you think will happen if you start deciding to go off on your own?”
            “All I’m saying is that you talk to those elders, ask them to give us another day! My family is exhausted, man!” Walter turns to face Eddie and takes a deep breath, and for a moment I almost think he’s going to throw a punch.
            “Look, we’re tired too, Eddie. We’d all love to rest. But we’re also obedient.”
            “It just doesn’t make sense to me. Why now? Why leave in the middle of the freakin’ night?”
            “Deliverance never makes sense from a human standpoint. You think it made sense to the Israelites to put themselves between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army? You think it made sense to the first century Christians to flee to the mountains after the Romans retreated from Jerusalem? Or what about Noah and the ark? Ridiculers will ridicule and doubters will doubt, but those who listen to Jehovah will be saved.”
            “Yeah, that’s all fine, but my point is that–”
            “Your point is that you don’t agree with the brothers. Fine! I get it. To be honest, I don’t understand it myself, but I’d be a fool if I were to start questioning things. Not now, not when we’re this close to the end.”
            Eddie is finally quiet. He lowers his head and stares at his shoes for a few quiet moments until Walter walks over and puts an outstretched hand on his shoulder.
            “What’s really going on, Eddie? Talk to me.”
            “Rebecca stayed behind,” the man says quietly, shrinking with each word. I turn away as he begins to cry, but there’s nowhere to hide in a place like this.
            “I’m sorry,” I barely hear Walter say.
            “I remember that last shepherding call you guys did with us. She was starting to get irregular with the meetings, spending more and more time with her unbelieving family… But I had no idea. She wouldn’t even get in the car, Walter. She said she didn’t want looters to get into our house. I begged her. My two girls had to see that. They had to see their Dad on his knees begging their mother to come with us… But she just refused. The girls and I… We must’ve cried for the first hour on the road.”
            “I’m so, so, sorry,” Walter repeats. “But you did the right thing.”
            “Yeah, I know, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”
            “Let’s stick together, Eddie. Get yourself and your girls packed up and meet us back here. We’ll make the trek as a team, ok?”
            “Yeah, ok, Walter. Thanks.”
            I hear the men hug and pat each other on the back and my eyes are wet by the time Eddie finally leaves. Walter turns to me and sets one of the duffel bags gently on my lap.
            “Can you be in charge of this?” he asks. His eyes are red and soggy.
            “Sure,” I say. “I wish I wasn’t in this wheelchair. I feel like I’m really going to slow everyone down.”
            “Don’t worry,” Walter says with a wave of his hand. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. And anyway, it won’t be me that’ll be pushing you. I’ll have my hands full helping Chelsea.”
            “Oh? Then what’s the plan?” I ask.
            “I’m putting my son in charge of you.”
            And as if on cue, Jesse emerges from the crowd. He’s somehow found the time to cut his hair, so now he actually looks like a Witness. He’s got a pack slung over his shoulder and acknowledges us with a nod and a smile. I avert my eyes, unable to look at him. Why is he here when Luke is somewhere out there? I clench my jaw and stare into the sagging bag on my lap.
            “So, when do we get this show on the road?” Jesse asks eagerly.

7:09 PM


            The holding cell is a bleak twelve-by-twelve square barred off on one side and surrounded on the other three by cinderblock walls the color of split pea soup. The three men–Andrew, Marc, and myself–sit on narrow benches that jut from the two sidewalls. Ashley sits on the cold floor in one of the corners, cradling Matthew in her arms. He’s been sleeping for most of the day but he doesn’t appear to be getting any better. The rash covers most of his face now, and it’s clear from a mere glance that he’s running a dangerously high temperature. His ragged breaths come through in congested spurts and whines.
            It was a quick and quiet ride to the station. Our captors simply handcuffed us and hauled us back, no questions asked. Apparently, the Miranda rights have gone out the window with the rest of the Constitution. On the bright side, we were fed. It wasn’t much–cold, raw hot dogs and potato chips–but it was welcome all the same.
            The large man in the white Stetson strolls in after we’ve eaten. He’s got his thumbs jammed in his belt loops as he hauls his bulging frame up and down the hallway and studies us seriously.
            “So, which of y’all care to explain why you were stealin’ our gas?” he asks, scowling. There’s a pause on our end as glances are exchanged. Finally Marc speaks up.
            “It’s a long story, sir. Our car was hijacked this morning at a gas station. We ended up carpooling with our friend here, but eventually we ran out of gas. We’ve been on back roads all day, trying to avoid the highways.”
            “Where y’all comin’ from?” asks the sheriff after a long pause.
            “Georgia. We were just passing through.”
            “Why the Florida plates?”
            Now it’s Andrew’s turn to speak. “It’s my car. I just bought it from my sister, who lives in Florida. Didn’t have time to change the plates.”
            “Why’d y’all stop in our town?” the sheriff asks, grunting.
            “We were trying to get our bearings, sir. And we needed gas,” Marc explains.
            “Thought you could just pull up to a small town and steal a bit, huh? Thought we wouldn’t notice?”
            “We thought this town was deserted,” I say. “Do you all know what’s been going on everywhere else?”
            “What, y’all think we’re so backwards out here that we can’t figure out how to turn on a television set?” the sheriff sneers.
            “He didn’t mean it like that,” Marc says. “We ran out of options. We were just trying to stay safe and get to our destination in one piece.”
            “And what do you think I’m doing?” the sheriff growls. “You have any idea how hard it is to keep this many people from goin’ insane like the rest of the country? I’ve been wearing this badge for forty years, son. I’m already three years past retirement. But this town, it’s all I got. No one’s gonna put these good people in harm’s way.”
            “I can respect that, sir. You have my word that we meant no harm.”
            “Yeah, that’s what the last group said. Bunch of yuppie kids from Atlanta. Said they just needed a place to rest. Ended up looting one of our stores and stealing a bunch’a motorcycles. When my boys tried to stop them, they drew weapons and opened fire. Could’a killed someone if they weren’t such lousy shots.”
            “We didn’t steal that gas,” Ashley finally says from the corner. The sheriff looks surprised to hear her voice, as if he’s forgotten all about her. He glances at the small child in her arms and for a moment I sense his discomfort.
            “Who’re you?” he demands.
            “I’m Ashley, and that’s my husband, Marc. Everything they’ve said so far is the truth. And we weren’t stealing that gas.”
            “You callin’ me a liar, miss? I had four men watchin’ y’all like hawks from the rooftops. They saw your every move, and they swore they all saw you siphoning gas from one of our cars.”
            “That’s true, we siphoned it.”
            “Then how d’you figure you weren’t stealin’ it?”
            “I paid for it, sir.”
            “Paid for it? What are you talkin’ about?”
            “I left a note with some cash on the windshield.”
            It takes a moment for the sheriff to process this, and then he dismisses it with a loud scoff. “Right, a note. Sure you did, kid.”
            “I’m not lying. Why would I? Have one of your men go take a look. I left a twenty and some change. It’s all I had.”
            The sheriff gives Ashley a long stare before reaching for the radio clipped to his belt. He speaks to someone named Benjie and orders him to check the car for cash, all the while eyeing us suspiciously.
            The sheriff returns the radio to his belt and gives us one last scowl before plopping into a rusty folding metal chair and reading a newspaper. An eternity passes as we wait.
            “Hey Sheriff, we’re at the car now,” Benjie says.
            “Yeah, go on. Find anything?”
            “Yeah, there’s some cash in an envelope, like you said. What should we do with it?”
            One of the sheriff’s eyebrows raises an inch as he glances at Ashley, and then down at the child in her arms. “Give it to Fred, of course. It was his gas,” he says dryly. Benjie acknowledges and the radio is silent.
            “Well I’ll be,” the sheriff says. “So y’all have some semblance of a conscience.”
            “We’re Bible readers,” Marc says. It’s an odd comment and I stare at him to indicate as much but say nothing. “We do our best to live by Christ’s teachings. I’m sure you’re doing the same. We saw the churches down the road.”
            “Those churches’ doors been closed for months. People lost their faith long ago, I’m afraid.”
            “Not all people. We still believe that living by scripture is the best policy.”
            “Wish everyone was that way. Make my job a lot easier, that’s for sure. So, what, your churches in Georgia didn’t get closed down? What denomination are y’all? Baptist? Methodist?”
            There’s a moment of hesitation as glances are exchanged in our cell. It’s Marc who finally answers. “Actually, sir, we’re Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
            The sheriff pauses at this, scanning each of our faces carefully. “Witnesses. Huh,” he says with a tired grunt, removing his white hat and running his fingers through a thin cloud of hair. The others seem to be holding their breath as they wait for the sheriff to react.
            “We had a few of your people in our town, before the laws changed.”
            “You mean the Liberation Act?” I offer.
            “Yeah, that’s the one,” he says, shifting his weight with an uncomfortable look. “Never did understand it myself.”
            “Neither did our precinct,” I say softly, drawing a puzzled look from the large man on the other side of the bars.
            “Come ‘gain?”
            “I’m law enforcement, too. Or was, I guess. It’s beginning to feel like another lifetime,” I admit. The sheriff looks me over dubiously. In my current attire and state of grooming, I know I don’t look the part. “It’s a long story,” I say simply.
            “So you’re not one of them? A Jehovah Witness, I mean?”
            “No sir, but I’ve been with them long enough to know they’re no threat.” An odd look washes over the sheriff’s face and he lowers his head solemnly.
            “Yeah, that was what I said,” the Sheriff says sadly. It’s quiet for a few moments as the sheriff loses himself in his thoughts. Then he glances over his shoulder down the hall, rises slowly from the chair, and draws a ring of keys from his pocket. The door to our cell swings wide open.
            “Are you letting us go, sir?” Andrew asks, clearly bewildered.
            “No sense keeping y’all here. You were telling the truth about the money for the gas. Way I see it, no harm’s been done. And if things continue to go downhill as I fear they will, we’ll need these cells for the real criminals.”
            “Thank you, sir,” Marc says, rising swiftly from the bench and shaking the sheriff’s hand.
            “Don’t mention it. I didn’t become sheriff to be a tyrant. I just want to protect my community. Listen, before y’all leave, we’ve got a nurse here that I’d like to have check your boy out. He don’t look too good.”
            Ashley rises unsteadily with Matthew fidgeting in her arms. She tries to thank the sheriff but is overcome with emotion. Marc and Andrew grasp her shoulders and manage to keep her from toppling over. The sheriff looks them over with a concerned expression before calling someone on his radio.
            “Follow me,” he says softly as he leads us from the cell, past the corridors, and back out into the cold night.