By Douglas James Troxell
Snowflakes fell relentlessly from the cold, indifferent sky. Shelly pulled Alex down behind the dumpster and covered his mouth with her hand. They both tried to radiate silence with all their being. Shelly imagined herself as a statue. A bird landed on her and yet she did not move. A child ran past and yet she did not move. A teenager pelted her with rocks and yet she did not move.
A flashlight passed over the dumpster once—twice—a third time. Shelly had never prayed to God before but she prayed now. Her prayers seemed to be answered because the light did not return. Instead, heavy footsteps trailed off in the opposite direction away from the restaurant until they fell silent altogether.
Shelly finally released her breath. She glanced over at Alex, who had turned purple.
“Breathe,” she whispered. “It’s ok. You can breathe. We’re safe now.”
He exhaled. A sob caught in his throat and he choked on it and fell into a coughing fit that sounded like a thunderstorm to Shelly. She was grateful when it finally ended.
“Safe?!” Alex said when he recovered. “We’re not safe. We’re never going to be safe again. Don’t you understand that?!”
He nearly shouted the last part, but Shelly quickly shushed him and rubbed his back until he calmed down. That always seemed to calm her husband down in their old life—their normal life. She was surprised it was working now considering how different their lives had become in the past few months, but then she had to remind herself that they were still the same people. Maybe it was because the dumpster in the alley behind the restaurant seemed so far away from their condo on Guerrero Street. It seemed to reside in a different lifetime.
“We need to figure out what we’re going to do next,” Alex said. He was thinking rationally again. Shelly could see it in his eyes. “We need a plan. Because we cannot go back to that camp.”
Shelly remembered the screams and the sobs and the gunfire.
“No,” she said. “We can’t.”
Their silence sealed their pact. It also highlighted how few options they had open to them. Shelly turned her eyes to the sky and watched the snowflakes float lazily to the asphalt. The ground wasn’t covered yet, but it was only a matter of time before the snow overwhelmed the world. Shelly felt like she was trapped inside a giant hourglass -- and time was running out.
“We need to ditch these clothes,” Alex finally said just for the sake of saying something. He picked at the patch on the left sleeve of his camp-issued uniform. “Or at least ditch these patches. Maybe we can just pick them off—”
“Then we’d have huge holes in our sleeves. It wouldn’t be any different from running around without any shirts on at all. Anyone who saw us would know right away we were from the camps. What we need is an entirely new set of clothes and some place to stay for the night.”
More silence. And more snowflakes.
“So where can we go?” Alex blurted out. “Everyone we know is back at the camp—except your uncle! Maury? Maybe he can help us!”
Shelly shook her head. “He got nabbed two weeks ago. The passport he bought was flagged. They got him at the airport.”
“How about the Caldwells? Weren’t they hiding with a second cousin or something?”
“The second cousin turned them over to the secret police.”
More silence and more snowflakes. Shelly shook the snow from her hair. Loud voices in the distance forced them into silence. The voices were answered by a dog barking. No one was supposed to be out after curfew so voices only meant one thing: a patrol.
They were running out of time. Soon the decision of what to do would be made for them.
Alex and Shelly held each other until the voices disappeared on the winter breeze.
“The Morgans,” Alex said. “They live three blocks from here. Remember the Morgans? Three blocks. We could make that.”
The Morgans were friends of Alex’s parents—maybe not friends but certainly acquaintances. They used to play golf together on occasion at the Silver Meadows Country Club before all the madness. Before the purges. Before the barbed wire and the screams.
Shelly knew little about the Morgans, certainly not enough to trust them with her life. She had spoken to them once at Alex’s parents’ 40th anniversary party. She remembered Mrs. Morgan had kind eyes. That would have to be enough.
The snowflakes were still falling when Alex and Shelly abandoned the safety of the alley. They stuck to the shadows, tried to stay off main streets, and cut through people’s yards when necessary. Shelly glanced behind them at one point and noticed there was enough snow on the ground to leave footprints.
They managed to make it to the Morgans’ just after midnight. A dim light still shone from a downstairs window. The house was located on a side street lined on both sides by identical brick houses. The houses were close enough to create a sense of claustrophobia in Shelly, but there was no turning back.
They stood in the shadows of the shrubbery on the side of the house for a long time as the snowflakes continued to fall. Now that they were no longer mobile the cold started to set in. The wind added to their misery with its cruel whisper.
“Ready?” Shelly asked.
They scampered from the bushes to the front porch. The nearby streetlamp illuminated the front of the house like the sun. They were completely exposed. It was Alex who knocked. It was so soft Shelly could barely hear it standing behind him. When no one came after a few seconds, Shelly knocked again more forcefully.
About thirty seconds later, Mr. Morgan appeared in the hallway and froze when he spotted Alex and Shelly standing on the front porch. Shelly had been silently praying for Mrs. Morgan, but she did not allow her smile to waver. Mr. Morgan stared at the guests on his porch without blinking. He glanced back toward the room he had come from. He looked like he was going to retreat but then he marched to the door and swung it open.
“What are you people doing here?” he asked with his voice soaked in panic. “I thought they took all you people away?”
Alex tried to speak—but failed.
Mr. Morgan began to close the door, but Shelly stepped past Alex and placed her hand on the door.
“Please, Mr. Morgan. We didn’t have anyplace else to go. We escaped the camp and we just need a place to spend the night and maybe a change of clothes. We’ll die if we have to stay out here all night. We’ll leave first thing in the morning. Please.”
Mr. Morgan opened his mouth to speak but no words escaped. He began to open the door wider when his wife appeared, her kind eyes turned wild.
“Get the hell out of here! What are you trying to do?! Get us thrown in jail! Leave before I call the patrols! Leave! Leave!”
Her ranting drove Shelly and Alex from the front porch. The next door neighbor’s porch light blinked to life. Mrs. Morgan pulled her husband back inside the house and slammed the door. Shelly stared at the door as the snowflakes caught in her rapidly blinking eyelashes. She made a sound deep in her throat, like a wounded animal. She charged the door, but Alex managed to latch onto her arm and pull her back.
“There’s no time. We need to get out of here.”
“And go where?”
“I don’t know but we can’t stay here.”
They retreated back to the shadows and started walking. The direction didn’t matter. One was as good as any other since there was no destination in mind. They moved from yard to yard in silence, their only goal to make it past the next house without a light going off or a pair of eyes peering at them from a doorway. They marched endlessly into the darkness as the snowflakes continued to fall.
Then the darkness was shattered by a blinding light from above.
“Rats! Rats!” a shrill voice rang out from the light.
Shelly shielded her eyes and spotted the shape of a woman hanging out a nearby window near the light. She could feel the woman’s voice saturated in hate.
Alex grabbed Shelly’s wrist and pulled her forward. The reaction was automatic. They took off running. They exited the alleyway and were immediately greeted by barking dogs. Shelly twisted her ankle and collapsed to the asphalt. She reached up for Alex’s hand but there was no hand to take. She looked up in time to see Alex disappearing into the darkness.
Two pairs of combat boots made footprints in the snow. Two guards stood over Shelly, their German Shepherd barking maniacally at their side. She had learned not to look the guards in the face but their cold laughter forced her eyes up. They were young -- the worst kind. All the cruelest guards were young.
“Look at this poor little Dem-o-rat we got here,” one of the guards said. “Your libtard husband abandoned you, you baby-killing slut.”
The other guard kicked her in the stomach, the pain exploding like a firecracker in her gut. Then the guard leaned down and ripped the snowflake patch from her sleeve. He spat onto it and shoved it into her mouth.
“Swallow it,” he ordered her.
Shelly felt numb. She collapsed inside herself to prepare herself for everything that was to come. She prayed for the dogs but feared there would be much more before she was afforded such a kindness.
And still the snowflakes fell.