“Fuck.” Nodari’s heart skipped a beat as the toolbox tumbled off the roof and onto the ground. The condensation on the ginger ale can made his hand slick, and fumbling to grab it made him accidentally kick his old iron toolbox. “Please tell me I didn’t just ruin this.” If his tools broke, he’d be shit out of luck. Since the immigration, supplies had been hard to come by. Zack only showed up once every few weeks.
I wonder what area he covers, he thought. For a guy with just an ATV and a trailer, he should be able to cover a pretty wide area. Finding the tools to replace his careless mistake would be hard. Coming up with the money for those tools, even harder. Turns out there wasn’t a surplus of jobs in a completely vacant town.
He’d been working on the roof for a few weeks now. A late summer thunderstorm was responsible for the saucepan next to his bed collecting water. An afternoon spent climbing around his musty attic revealed that birds had decided to make it their summer home. Some usual wear and tear had caused the hole, and the birds tore it wide open. Knowing that winter in Pennsylvania is no joke, he’d been struggling to repair the hole and replace the insulation under the roof tiles. It was a long, sweaty process for a twenty-three-year-old with absolutely no roofing experience.
During high school, Nodari had entertained the idea of going to the vocational school. Dom Toretto and his silver RX-7 has inspired a career in engines. When he brought it up to his parents, his mother had promptly shut it down.
“You’re going to college. Your father and I aren’t working these extra hours to pay for application fees so we can go to college, you know” she said. Times had always been a little tough in the Whale household, so he didn’t argue. He hated when his parents made comments like that. His parents gave him what they could, and he knew that. They just didn’t have to be so bitter.
The idea of simply moving to a new house had occurred to him. With an entirely empty neighborhood he could have his pick of the litter. But this was his home. He’d lived his entire life in Schuylkill County, known un-affectionately as the “Coal Region.” If God had a small-town USA template, the day he created Schuylkill County must have just been another Tuesday at the factory. During the week, its inhabitants spent their days working at pizza shops, bank stations, and steel fabrication plant. Weekends were spent at beer-drinking softball tournaments and Hannons. Sunday mornings were devoted to Father Dave and the church. Some people managed to get out, but most settled for the long haul. “It’s not a bad place to raise a family” people thought, “Long as those Puerto Rican’s from New York stayed where they were.”
His mother had worked at the local high school, staying just long enough to watch her boy graduate, before retiring at the not-so-old age of fifty-five. Still active, she spent her days in her garden dealing with lower-back pain that should have belonged to a much older person. Nodari’s father took after his grandfather, which led to a life behind a desk with his nose in the city’s financial ledgers. On March 17, 2022, both Mr. and Mrs. Whale were killed behind the wheel.
In small town PA, a night at Hannons was like hitting the Vegas strip. That is, if you replaced high-end casinos with a moderately sized, one level building. Thursday’s was dollar draft night (a great cause to go considering drafts were usually $1.50.) Friday was 50 cent wing day (Best Wings in Northeast PA!), and Saturday’s were live music. The once white walls were now gray at best, and in dire need of a new coat of paint. The stale smell of Marlboro Reds hung in the air, causing anything that entered those doors to adopt the scent of a used ashtray. There were the usual regulars at any local establishment. Some were there to escape their wives, others trying to meet their futures Mrs.
On his way home from the Hannons, Mike Shanahan was drunkenly texting a girl he’d met the previous night and unknowingly drifted across the double yellow lines. His Chevrolet 2500 “dually” ensured that there wasn’t much left of the Whales’ Toyota Prius.
Nodari took it as well as any twenty-one-year-old could. He took the life insurance check, bought a new truck, had a couple hundred drinks, and eased the pain away. Eventually the money ran out and reality sunk in. He did his absolute best in pushing his late parents to the back of his mind.
Meanwhile, America was in being torn in two. The Republicans had majority control, and the idea of “By the People, For the People” was dead. In 2025, the Environmental Rehabilitation Act was instituted against the wishes of almost every American. This act required that every three years the entire population leave their hometowns and move to the Mojave Desert “to support the healthy rehabilitation of our country’s wilderness.” One could argue Republicans had a point. Since the country had brought back the coal industry in the early 2000’s, the environmental status of the once lush nation had rapidly decayed. Exhaust from manufacturing sites had raised pollution levels on both coasts over 14% since 2003. The once blue skies were now almost a constant state of hazy gray. Even the “Sunshine State,” which once was a haven for snowbirds and tourists had fallen victim to the effects of burning fossil fuels. Rivers in the Northeast turned a burnt orange from the carelessness of the coal companies. Acid mining drainage was caused by water breaking through old, abandoned mines and oxidizing the earth minerals. This oxidization polluted water sources to the point that dams had to be re-engineered to supply (somewhat) clean drinking water to neighboring counties.
As you can imagine, the American people were less than thrilled that the government was telling them where to live. In comes PREFERENC (pronounced preference): The People’s Refutation of the Federal Rehoming Coalition. PREFERENC was a group of civil-rights activists that discreetly fought against the re-homing initiative. Protests were held to no avail, as their pleas went unaided. Guerrilla recruitment ensued, aimed at the youth of America. Secret meetings were held on college campuses nation-wide. Students were taught to resist “for the liberties endowed upon us by our Creator.” Violence followed shortly after and the protests of 2025 were the most violent the nation had ever seen. It wasn’t uncommon to see police in riot gear, black helmets and shields making them look like armored Hercules beetles. Tear gas and Molotov cocktails traded hands in the streets, while police batons broke bones.
Rumors were started that while claiming the re-homing was for environmental rehab, the true reason for the forced immigration was that the government wanted uncontested access to the nation’s fossil fuels. Without actual businesses to compete with the government was free to swoop in, drill the oil fields, empty the mines, and fill the Reserve. They didn’t care about the people, just boosting the economy. As the word circulated the nation, people jumped to join PREFERENC.
As Nodari began descending the ladder to get his tools, a gust of wind made him feel uneasy. If I fall, I’m probably dead. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. I wouldn’t have to worry about this fucking roof. He laughed to himself as he made his way back down.
When you’re alone, your imagination becomes your only friend. It’s like when you’re sitting in class or on the bus, and you think of that funny commercial you saw last week. That Orbit gum commercial where the wife walks in on her cheating husband and says things like “YOU LINT LICKER! Or “COOTIE QUEEN!” You find a smile creeping across your face even thinking how your stupid grin must look to everyone else.
He bent down and collected the pieces from his toolbox. Screws littered the yard, shining in the sunlight like change in a middle-of-the-mall fountain. They shined a bright copper, the color of badges used by the guard. The guard.
A new branch of law enforcement was created when ERA2025 took place. They looked like the National Guard, but acted like Border Patrol. Instead of keeping people out of the country, they were responsible for moving everyone in. New offices started to populate across the country, recruiting the young men and women of America. The called themselves ERA, but everyone referred to them as “the guard.”
The immigration occurred in steps, all being carried out by ERA officers. The first step was refurbishing the nation’s railroads. This caused a surplus of jobs, for which people were grateful. After the railroads started the building of the new community. Rows upon rows of two or three-bedroom houses were built upon the mostly flat, yet sprawling landscape that was the Mojave Desert. The government had thousands of contracts that needed to be filled, and construction crews across the country raced to put in their bids.
The economy boomed, jobs were everywhere, and manufacturing came back to the states. International companies that used to ship to America couldn’t keep up with demands. The Republican’s looked like Gods. They re-invigorated the economy AND had the entire nation “Go Green” in just a few months.
After a few minutes of poking around the grass, everything was back in its place. One of the two latches on the front of the box were bent, but no permanent damage. Nodari chuckled at the divot left in his yard. The only time he’d made a hole that big was when he tried to play golf for the first time. He and his friend Brian drove up to Evergreen Pines after watching a first-time player win the PGA tour and were hoping to try their luck. They quickly learned that golf wasn’t for them.
Cautiously climbing back up the ladder (thankfully the wind had momentarily died down) he scrambled back on the roof. He set the box back down, and reached for the closest shingle. Something moving caught his eye. Whatever it was had traveled down the road and gone behind a stretch of trees. He walked to the highest point of the roof, right where it met the chimney. Hoisting himself up, he stood up and turned in the direction he knew the road led.
From his vantage point, he could see the white SUV. Three big green letters stood out on the side that made his heart race. ERA. He watched them for a moment as they lazily drove through his neighborhood. Realizing that someone standing on a roof wasn’t exactly blending in, he quickly hopped off the chimney and threw himself on the other side of the slanted roof to watch. The truck was in the cul-de-sac on the next street over, making a U-turn. At one point, one of the officers stepped out of the truck and walked up to a house. He walked the perimeter of the yard, and peeked into a window. Nodari could see his khaki uniform and belt that held his tools. Taser, mag-lite, flexi-cuffs. He knew what they were looking for.
Nodari was the only person left. On the day that his city was to be moved, he had shown up for roll-call just like everyone else. He was just another face in a crowd of angry Americans. He’d learned in a PREFERENC meeting that once your name was accounted for, the officers weren’t locals, and there was no way of them knowing who had or hadn’t gotten on the train. This bought him enough time to run back home before they knew he wasn’t going to arrive at his new community.
He had hidden inside a janitor’s closet within the station, barring the door with a chair. The dark room smelled like a used dish rag, and his pants quickly soaked through from sitting in the mop-filling station. According to his phone he’d spent a little over eleven hours in there, long after he heard the slow chug sound made from the locomotive pulling away. It was relatively quiet, save for one scary moment when someone pushed on the door. Whoever it was must have thought the door was locked, and thankfully moved on. When he finally emerged from his hide-out, it was long after dark. Except for one lone guard who was busy playing on his phone inside of their makeshift booth, the station was deserted. He quickly snuck off the platform in the opposite direction into the night.
The first few weeks were rough. When one spends their entire life with every whim at their fingertips, the sudden disappearance seems like your world is crashing. He was afraid to use his phone for fear of tracking. After about three days he couldn’t help but check it. It worked as if nothing had changed. No new apps, no weird interference. After turning off the GPS setting on all his apps, he figured he was safe enough.
Tougher than lack of cell phone was his light discipline. Even in the house he grew up in, his shins were at the constant mercy of his furniture after dark. The television in the living room might as well have been a neon sign reading “COME LOOKE HERE! I DIDN’T LEAVE!” Every sound made him jump, every shadow a lurking ERA agent. Every time a branch knocked against the side of his house he was sure that the ERA would come busting through his back door. After a few weeks’ the bumps became more familiar, and the darkness became an old friend. Nodari started taking note of his houses little quirks such as the squeak of the fourth step heading upstairs, or the way the window would jam if you pushed too hard on the left side when trying to lift it up.
With just his head over the peak of the roof, Nodari had to use his hands to stop from sliding down. It wasn’t exactly physically taxing, but after a while his biceps began to ache. Feeling content that they hadn’t seen him, he climbed over the peak and started to carefully move down the other side of the roof. Almost spiderlike, he crawled his way back to the ladder. He had been so focused on the vehicle on the next street over that he had failed to see the one making its way down his own. Just as he swung his legs onto the ladder, the siren went off. The lack of modern day-to-day noise created an intense screeching that almost caused him to jump. WEE-WEE-ERGH-ERGH. A voice came over the loudspeaker.
“YOU! GET DOWN AND STOP MOVING!” the megaphone blared. “WE ARE FEDERAL AGENTS OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL REHABILITATION AGENCY, DO NOT RUN AWAY.”
Nodari knew this was it. If he was caught, he was going to jail. He scaled the ladder as quickly as he could and took off south down the street. The white SUV parked abruptly in front of his house, hearing the screech of tires, and the transmission slam into park. The uniformed officers jumped out leaving the car doors open and ran left to go around Nodari’s house. The red and blue lights still spinning, Nodari made his move. Moving south, Nodari ran as hard as he could. If I make it to the woods hopefully I can lose them, he thought, I can hit the fields, cross the Portsmouth, and go to Kelsey’s.
No one ever means to join a cult. You meet people and some of them have a certain magnetism that you just can’t help but be drawn by. Charles Manson wasn’t a God, people just liked hanging out with him. You find yourself doing things you’d have never done alone like weightlifting, skydiving, or cocaine. Certain people have the “it” factor. The ability to make crazy ideas make perfect sense. Not to mention, cults never really look like cults in the beginning. Kelsey never appeared a crazed fanatic following a second coming of Christ. She didn’t’ sacrifice goats, or draw pentagrams in blood. She did what she thought was best for the family business.
Kelsey was the youngest daughter of the Haines commercial cattle ranch (HAPPIEST COWS EAST OF THE MISSISSIPP!) Since the end of the great depression and before her great-grandfather was shipped off to Italy her family had run that farm. When he came back, he picked up like nothing changed, eventually turning the reigns over to his son, and eventually Kelsey’s father.
Kelsey was the first-generation Haines to go to college. She never forgot how she laughed when her Dad jumped with a loud WOOO HOOOOOO, accidentally tumbling over the ottoman as she read her acceptance letter. She had gotten into the business program at Elizabethtown University. It wasn’t Penn, but it was respectable. She arrived the first day of fall check-in (her new Jan Sport, new bedsheets, and old stuffed elephant all jammed in her green suitcase) and immediately felt the unfriendly smack that was culture shock. These kids had life by the balls. She’d driven her hand-me-down Ford Ranger, while they drove BMW’s. They had shiny Mac laptops as she was stuck using the library’s old collection of Acer’s.
Friday nights were a drag. While her roommates spent the evening getting ready in front of the mirror and making plans, she trudged on to Fox Hall, hoping to grab a good spot to study. She’d heard the stories on Saturday mornings (Oh my god did you hear that Becky slept with Kevin and made out with Jared last night? What a slut!) and was afraid what might happen if she tried to join the festivities. The library was safe. The same Mrs. Hansen worked the front desk almost every night greeting her with a smile or a wave, and there was a cozy cubicle on the second floor with a heating vent right above it. For hours she could sit there, warm as under a blanket, and study the night away. It was there she met Dwayne.
Dwayne was older. He was a senior political science major and a frequent visitor to the second floor. He always wore a gray hoodie and hand an old composition notebook in his hand. At first it was simple hello’s.
“Another Friday night in the books huh?” he said.
“Yeah, gotta keep your nose in the books ya know?” she replied. Oh my god, nose in the books? I am so lame.
It became something to look forward to, her under her vent and him a few cubicles away. Her saying hello, him stealing glances whenever he got the chance. As the semester went on, the conversation expanded. Dwayne would ask her thoughts on his latest political assignments, and she would tell him about her roommate’s latest escapades. One night a few weeks later, she looked up to see him leaning on the cubicle divider.
“Hey so if you’re not doing anything tomorrow do you want to come to this thing with me?” He asked sheepishly. “Me and a bunch of my friends usually get together on Saturday’s. Nothing serious, just a chance to talk and hangout. Plus, maybe we can give the front desk lady a night off.”
“Sure!” Her eyes lighting up. “That sounds great!”
“Cool so here’s my address,” slipping her a folded piece of notebook paper “Everyone will start showing up around eight.
“Okay!” She smiled meekly, hoping that he couldn’t see just how excited she was. She was so happy to finally hangout with people who seemed more her speed. She walked home in a daze, thinking about tomorrow. Never realizing that about fifty yards behind her walked Dwayne, his eyes glued to her. Once she had made it back to the dorms, he sat down outside on a bench and lit a cigarette, staring.
The next night, while struggling to put on eyeliner, her roommate, Caitlyn, asked where she was going.
“I met a boy.” She said, a small grin spreading across her face.
“OH MY GOD TELL ME!” Caitlyn yelled.
Kelsey filled her in on the library scene. Caitlyn’s face dropped a little, not seeming so excited as she had a minute ago. “That sounds kind of boring. Are they at least playing drinking games?” She shrugged and finished putting on her makeup. No one could bring her down tonight. At eight she left the dorms and started towards Dwayne’s house. He lived on the other side of campus, so she figured she’d show up “fashionably late.” The whole walk over she kept playing scenarios out in her head. There was one that kept popping up where everything went terribly. She couldn’t keep up in conversation, had no idea what they were talking about, and just felt utterly stupid. She almost turned around, but decided to trudge on. He’ll take care of me, she thought.
When she finally got to the address, she walked up to the door. After about ten seconds of knocking, Dwayne opened the door. “You made it!” he exclaimed. “Come on in and meet everyone.”
She walked through a small entryway and looked around. A staircase off to the left side led to a dark second floor. To her right, a small table with a dish that held a few set of keys. In front of her spanned a hallway that led to the living room. Taking off her jacket and draping it over her arm, she followed Dwayne down the hall. Soft classical music was playing somewhere in the background. She felt calm. I can do this, she reassured herself confidently.
Following Dwayne, they entered the living room. He raised his arms and said loudly “Hey everyone, this is Kelsey. She’s a bookworm and her parents own a cattle farm. Don’t let her feel left out.” Everyone smiled and waved, then went returned to their conversations. Dwayne lightly touched her elbow, “Let’s go grab a drink” And motioned for her to follow him into the kitchen. In the center of the kitchen was a small breakfast bar with a few bottles of wine in the center.
“What kind do you like?”
She could feel her face begin to flush, “I’ve never had wine before.”
“Oh okay. No worries. Sweet or dry?” He asked with a smile. It made her feel comfortable.
“Umm let’s try dry.” She said, stopping to consider that she’d never thought of dry as a taste.
He grabbed a glass and picked up the bottle closest to the edge of the table. “Tell me how you feel about this. It’s not the lightening in a jar you county folk drink, but it’s. It’s called Pinot Noir.”
Handing her the glass, she took a sip. “It’s pretty good. I didn’t expect wine to taste like this. I always thought it was gonna taste like old, gross juice or something.”
She took another sip as they headed back into the living room. She caught the eye of a boy, who looked younger than the rest. After Dwayne had made a few introductions, she felt her way through some conversations.
“If the Democrats don’t start to change with the times, they’re going to lose the majority. I don’t see how after a lost presidential election AND losing majority in the Senate they can stick to their game plan.” Kelsey listened and nodded along with everyone else. Long as no one asked her something directly, she could do this.
“Kelsey, what’s your opinion on ERA2025?” A girl asked.
“Umm…..well….” She stuttered. Shit. Her mind had gone blank. C’mon Kelsey, say something. I know I’ve heard of that before.
“I figure if your parents own a cattle farm you probably don’t like the idea of the government telling you that you have to leave YOUR land and move to the desert. I mean who’s going to feed the cows, right?” She looked back to see the younger boy from across the room.
Things started to click. She’d overheard her parents talking about it. They were worried that the demand for their stock would go down once everyone moved away. Taking the farm with them obviously wasn’t an option. How could they reestablish themselves after that? She had gone to sleep late that night, anxious in the way that kids get when they see their parents upset.
“Oh right, well my parents are obviously worried about the financial burden it’s going to cost us. We can’t exactly put livestock on hold for five years and just pick up where we left off. Not to mention the cost of replacing the equipment that’s basically wasted sitting in the barn.”
“Man, that’s so terrible. Who do they think they are uprooting everyone like this? I hope you guys are able to make it through.” She said. Content with Kelsey’s answer, the girl stole away to the kitchen to refill her glass.
Turning to the boy, “Thanks for the save back there.”
“Not into politics, huh?” Smirking, he extended his hand. “Nodari.”
“Hi Nodari.” Taking it, it was rough with callouses, like her Dad’s used to be. “I’m Kelsey. Do you go to school here?”
“Nah, Dwayne and I went to high school together. He brings the girls and I bring the wine……Not like in a creepy way. That sounded so shitty. I’m sorry. I just mean he’s not twenty-one yet.”
Kelsey struggled not to laugh as he choked on his words. “I got you.”
“So, if you’re not into politics, how did you end up with us?” Nodari asked, raising his eyebrows.
“What do you mean with us?” She asked. “Is this a group or something?”
“Yeah, us, PREFERENC.”
Her lost expression gave it away so he explained. For the next twenty minutes, Nodari justified the riots she’d seen her father watch on the news. They were freedom fighters, the true patriots. The government didn’t know what was best for the people and they had no business deciding where the population should live/how they should handle ourselves. It was up to us, the citizens, to fight back. To take back OUR country.
She was hooked (partly because what he said made sense, partly because the wine was making her feel adventurous.) With the gusto of any influenceable young mind, she exclaimed “We have to do something!”
As if on cue, she felt a hand on her shoulder. Looking left she saw it belonged to Dwayne. Everyone in the room had their eyes on her.
“Yes, we do.”
Sprinting nearly half a mile, he disappeared into the tree line. Thinking he would run directly away from the house, the officers fortunately took off north of the house, and ended up almost running into their teammates the next street over. They’re plan was to contain him. He had barely escaped.
Nodari could hear them calling for him.
“C’mon buddy, just come out. Don’t make us chase you.”
“Let’s work something out. You don’t have to run.”
He watched them between the branches of a y-shaped tree. On his knees, he tried to make himself as small as possible. Realizing after a minute that he’d forgotten to breathe, he exhaled and felt his heart pounding in his chest. The woods were silent, all he could hear was the bm-bm-bm of his heart.
Creeping another twenty yards into the woods, Nodari sat down to rest. If anyone came near, he would hear the crunch of the leaves. Weighing his options, he could only think to continue to run. By now, the officers would have entered his house and realized someone was still living there. He never thought to keep up appearances inside the house. Food wrappers, magazines, and dirty clothes littered the floor. He left his bed a mess this morning. One look inside the refrigerator and they would see leftovers. It was over, he couldn’t go back.
His only option was to continue south. Heading through the trees, he did his best to move silently. Every snap of a twig made him flinch. He moved slowly, occasionally tripping over a hidden root or half buried stone. The leaves of the trees ran over his arms and face tickling him, and eventually caused him to itch. When he finally paused, it was because he had felt something crawling on the side of his neck. Grabbing it between his thumb and pointer, he looked down to see a tick. He could see the small legs kick wildly. He flicked it off into the side and pulled out his phone.
He’d saved only one number. He selected it and typed the words “The fox is inside the hen house.” After making sure it sent, he held down the power button.
He took his stance. Feet together, hands behind his back. He shook his head no to the imaginary catcher, then nodded when he got the signal for the pitch. He put his hands together above his head while bringing his left knee up to his chest. The wind up, and the throw. The phone went sailing through the trees. He saw it eventually hit a branch, and land somewhere in the distance. A small smile crept across his face.
Only two towns over, Kelsey’s farm was about thirteen miles away. Having driven through that way a few hundred times, Nodari didn’t think walking would be that bad. The fear of being caught had started to wear off, it became kind of relaxing. The sun had started to creep between the trees, occasionally shining straight into his eyes. He hadn’t thought to grab his go-bag. He’d stashed a sleeping bag, some clean clothes, a bottle of water, and some power-bars for this very event. Now that it was getting dark he thought about the sleeping bag. Luckily for him, it was still warm enbough outside as the change in seasons hadn’t brought on the cold just yet.
After walking for another hour, he decided to try and set up for the night. Nodari scrambled up the nearest hill to find a place to set up camp. The top of the hill was narrow and surrounded by an almost wall of trees, but the ground was level. From up here, he would be able to see for a good distance, just in case an ERA officer tried to walk up on him during the night. Getting down on his hands and knees, he scraped leaves and dirt out of the way to fashion himself a spot to lay. Taking off his shirt, he shoved handfuls of leaves inside, fashioning a makeshift pillow. At least he’d have a comfortable (enough, anyway) pillow for him to spend the night with.
Rustling around in his bed, it seemed an eternity until he got comfortable. Insects kept crawling on his legs and stomach, causing him to itch. The sounds of the woods were unfamiliar and unsettling. Nodari was happy to see the moon, it was his nightlight. After struggling to find comfort, he finally relaxed and managed to dozed off.
“What do you mean we have to stay?”
Sitting in the back corner of a Starbucks, Kelsey stared at Nodari. He had a plan.
PREFERENC made her feel important, like she had a sense of purpose that others didn’t. Security briefs outsiders didn’t have the clearance for or her own exclusive club that they weren’t on the guest list for. She knew the REAL facts; not that garbage they spewed on television every night. They couldn’t shake her.
“I mean we have to stay put. Don’t get on the train. Dwayne said that almost everyone’s on board. Once the trains leave, it’ll take a few weeks for them to realize who never showed. During that time, we hang low, set up, and wait for further instruction.” Nodari explained, taking another sip of coffee.
“Okay and then what? Like, what’s our goal here? I don’t know if we’re actually accomplishing anything by not actually going.”
“Yeah, honestly I don’t know either. He’s been kind of vague lately. I think he gets this stuff from higher, but he doesn’t want to tell us yet. I think we just have to trust him.
Kelsey looked around. It seemed ludicrous watching people go about their daily lives with so much wrong in the country. Did people just not care that the Man was just going to uproot our lives? How could that woman worry about having 2% milk instead of 1%, or the girl crying into her backpack over her failed mid-term test when everything was about to change? But where do we even start, she thought, and where does it even end.
“What do we do if they come looking for us? Eventually someone is going to realize were not there?” she asked.
Nodari’s eyes lit up. “If they show up at our houses, we’ll just go to each other. Dwayne said we wouldn’t be able to use our phones, but if they already know where we are who cares about one text message. We can have like, a code, that we’ve been compromised and to let the other know that were on the way.”
“This is some Navy Seal stuff!” She said giggling. A girl who had never so much as received a parking ticket, she was expectedly nervous at the thought of running away from the cops. “What do you want the code word to be?”
“It has to be something abstract. Like, “The laundry is out to dry,” or “The fox is in the hen house.”
Through a mouthful of muffin she nodded her head, “I like the fox one. It seems secret-agenty.”
“Then it’s a plan. We’re really doing it.”
When he woke up the next morning, he felt tense. The ground hadn’t done his back any favors, and the morning dew had drenched his t-shirt. He flicked an ant off his stomach and sat up. Small red bumps formed an itchy line on his right forearm. I must have walked through some ivy, he thought.
Looking around, he took in the forest. It was peaceful in the morning, with the sun coming up between the trees. The wet ground reflected the new light as if everything was freshly showered. He took a deep breath, and then another. It smelled fresh, of dirt and honeysuckle. He thought to himself, how could people knowingly destroy something so beautiful just to make money?
Having not eaten for almost an entire day, his stomach rumbled angrily at him. He knew it was only a few more miles until the river, and shortly after was Kelsey’s. No sweat. He stood up, did his best to brush the dirt off his back, and shook the leaves out of his shirt. Deciding it was best to leave it off until it was dry, he swung his t-shirt over his shoulder and took off.
His trek was relatively uneventful. A few quick flashes of brown out of the corner of his eyes as deer, alert to the stranger, took off into the foliage. Birds flew from tree to tree, singing as if the world hadn’t changed in over a thousand years. After another two hours of walking (more than a few painful blisters forming on his feet,) Nodari plopped down. He had made it to Johnson’s River.
Johnson’s River started in the foothills somewhere in the Northern region of the Appalachian mountain range. It was relatively small in comparison to, say, the Mississippi, but emptied into a damn built to act as Schuylkill County’s drinking water. It flowed steadily, never freezing in the winter, and was a local favorite for the spring fishing season. Nodari crossed via a small, wooden walking bridge affectionately known as the kissing bridge by the Elizabethtown folk. Beyond was a well-worn footpath that Nodari had used to walk with his Mother on Saturday mornings.
The path would take him to the edge of Strawberry fields. What used to be a neatly arranged corn fields were now an overgrown mess of weeds and grass. Dandelions littered the field like freckles to a face. He could see an old rust-covered tractor almost half-way across, the sun shining off the back windshield. The shadow made almost a perfect circle on the patch of grass behind it. A herd of deer were casually feeding in the western-most corner, occasionally poking their heads up to make sure there were no predators. It was a peaceful. The wind poked through the trees and rustled his sweaty hair, cooling him off. Before putting his t-shirt back on, he did another once-over for ticks. He hadn’t heard or seen anyone else moving through the trees with him, so he felt calm in his escape.
Thinking about how thirsty he had become, Nodari spotted the dirt road back leading back to her farm. It was on his right side, and went maybe 200 yards away before turning left and heading south again. By now, ERA must have realized he had gone south, this road was their only way in.
It was also his only out.
“HOW THE FUCK CAN YOU LEAVE US HERE” he yelled. Dwayne sat silent on the other side of the phone. He called to let Nodari know that he was out, feebly trying to come up with some lame excuse about “needing to plan from inside the communities.” They could see right through it. He was scared and now that the immigration was a few days away, he was backing out.
Kelsey sank low in her chair. If Dwayne flaked, how can we keep this going? He got me into this. She stood up crept away from Nodari who was still yelling into the phone, to sit down in the bathrooms claw-foot tub. She sat with her feet at the drain, and stared at the rust that was starting to collect around the hot water handle. She couldn’t quit now, everything was in place. She would go down to the community knowing that she, Kelsey Haines, was the one who let her family’s farm fall to ruin.
“You okay?” Nodari asked through the door. “Sorry that got a little intense. I just can’t believe him, ya know?”
“Yeah I can’t believe he’s actually skipping out on us. He was the one who started this shit.” She replied sullenly.
After talking back and forth for a few minutes, they both decided it was best to stay the course. After they ditched the trains, they would go back to their homes and re-establish. The trade lines had already been set, so they didn’t worry about food or necessities. It was simple; if they got caught, they would turn to each other.
The familiar dirt road made Nodari feel as if nothing was wrong. As if there wasn’t a government police force actively out looking for him. As if he was just going to see a friend. Kicking a rock the size of a golf ball in front of him, he looked up into the sky. The day had gone gray with overcast. It smelled like rain. He felt sad. Nothing was familiar anymore. Gone were the days of going to D’Angelo’s for pizza, or eating salty peanuts off Hannons old wooden bar. There was no more church on Sundays, or Monday night football. Life had changed.
Lost in thought, Nodari never noticed the group of men that had slowly crept out of the woods from behind him. They had waited for him to move past their position on the road. Using hand and arm signals, the black-clad men made their way silently across the field and onto the road behind him. He gasped as felt strong hands grab his shoulders and force him to the ground. He felt the zip-ties tighten, binding his wrists behind his back. Having his face pushed into the cold earth, he could feel raindrops beginning to fall, landing on his neck and ears.
The officer kept a hand on his face to stop him from being able to see what was going on around him. He heard the crunch of rocks as the SUV pulled up. After the door opened, he heard feet hit the ground. Through the officer’s fingers he could see a pair of clean, black dress shoes. The man bent down until the bottom inches of his tie were lying lazily in the dirt. The officer moved his hand, so that Nodari could see who was in front of him.
It was Dwayne. He looked smugly down into Nodari’s face. Rage filled Nodari’s body like he had never felt before. He knew that Dwayne had been lying. He thought it was because he was scared, but he had been betrayed. Turning away, Dwayne reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his phone.
He knelt back down, and put it in front of Nodari’s face.
The phone was Kelsey’s. The message on the screen read, “The fox is in the hen house.”
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