JUNE 5, 2015
SOMEWHERE IN SOUTHERN COLORADO
Charlie spent the first night huddled to the far side of the man’s truck, waiting for the inevitable. From the time they left her home, her sick (dead) parents, she’d realized there was only one reason a strange man would take a young girl. There had to be a catch, some kind of payment or exchange for her safety, and so she waited, not sleeping, not eating the bag of chips he offered as food, not speaking.
What was the alternative? she wondered with a sinking feeling. She had nowhere to go.
At some point she’d drifted off, her cheek pressed into the rough pebbled surface of the door handle, awakening with a soft gasp when the truck stopped with a jolt and the driver’s side door creaked open. Mosely got out of the truck and walked around it, and she gripped the handle until her fingers grew pale, almost transparent with fear.
But he stopped at the back of the truck, and it took a few more moments of waiting for her breath to slow before realizing he wasn’t coming for her at all. He was unscrewing the gas cap, pulling a length of hose from the back of the truck, siphoning gas from a nearby vehicle.
When he got back in, he smiled kindly. “Sleep well?”
She hadn’t answered, and so he started the truck and drove on.
They’d crossed the border into Colorado, the weathered sign proclaiming their entrance, when she finally asked, “Where are we going?”
“We have another stop to make; then we’ll go home.”
“A home, of sorts. A place where you’ll be safe,” he’d said.
“I…I don’t understand. Why me?”
“Because you’re still here, Charlotte.”
And that was the end of the conversation.
They were joined by three more at the next stop; a boy and two girls, picked up at a large brick building, a school. The new recruits, as Charlie began to think of them, were much younger, one still in diapers, all of them mute with shock. They climbed into the bed of the truck without protest, empty eyes looking up to the strange man with wonder at their savior.
Do I look like that, too? Charlie wondered as she searched for signs of comprehension in their dull, dirty faces. Mosely didn’t introduce them, simply asked the older two to get in back, to be careful not to stand up while the truck was moving. He spoke to them kindly, offering water and food. The youngest sat up front next to Charlie, curling himself into a ball, and went to sleep with one dirt-caked thumb held tight between his lips.
She began to feel vaguely like merchandise, and wondered if there would be more stops, and what waited at the end.
She didn’t need to wait long; true to his word, Mosely makes no further pick-ups on the way to their destination. Soon they are driving across an expanse of desert so familiar, so similar to her own back yard, that her fear is momentarily replaced by homesickness.
Homesick for an empty house? No family? Is that what you miss, Charlie? The chance to starve and die and rot away like your mom and dad?
The thoughts plague her. Part of her knows that men do not descend like angels to rescue little kids out of the goodness of their hearts, that what lays in store for them is potentially worse than the threat of starvation, but where would she go even if she could find the energy to run?
The two-year-old wakes up, crying for his mother, and Charlie pulls him into her lap. He stinks; his diaper probably hasn’t been changed in days, his hair is matted to his forehead with sweat and dirt, and his thumb remains solidly in his mouth even as he cries.
When Mosely pulls over, she asks him to grab something so she can at least change the child, and the man does so without question.
“We’re almost there,” he assures her upon his return, bearing a handful of clean rags and a box of wet wipes. She uses the latter to wipe off the boy’s face and hands, a pitiful sponge bath, but the kid doesn’t cry, just sucks hard at his thumb and looks at her with doleful green eyes.
The town is tiny, not a stoplight to its name, not even a Wal-Mart, which you could find just about anywhere. She looks out the window, seeing miles and miles of rocky desert, a no-man’s-land of nothing that Mosely referred to as “home.” She shudders, wondering what kind of home it could be.
When they reach the fence, the outer perimeter she would later learn, her fingers tighten in her lap. He stops the truck to unlock and open the fence.
A sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach tells her that once they cross that boundary, her choice is made. She could make a run for it. He wouldn’t want to leave the other kids. She reaches for the door handle.
At that moment, the two-year-old stirs from another restless sleep and reaches for her with a soft, pitiful cry.
Her palm is sweaty; beads of perspiration collect on her forehead as she concentrates, willing her legs to shift, to work, willing her arms to be strong, to shove open the truck door on its creaky hinges.
The little boy tucks himself deeper against her, pressing his sweaty, stained face into the side of her shirt, his thumb wrinkled and red around the edges where he’s sucked it raw.
But it’s too late. Mosely climbs back into the truck, navigating his way through the open fence, and locks it behind them.
“We’re here,” he says evenly, bumping along the road, but as far as she can see, “here” is just another word for nothing. She swallows desert dust and fear as she looks forward, squinting, her stomach aching.
The structure materializes slowly, first a wavy black block in her vision, growing slowly larger with each passing mile. It shimmers in the distance, coming to loom over them like a dark cloud.
It looks like a military compound; like something she’d seen in the old war movies her father liked. It’s gray and lifeless, but the man looks up at the building like this was his grandmother’s front porch.
“Here we are, kids,” he grins.
From off to one side, a woman emerges, frowning at the sound of the approaching engine, then smiling at the sight of the truck. Another woman, and a man, and more…now people pour out of the place by the dozen.
Something in Charlie’s chest begins to unwind. She hadn’t dared believe there was this much life left, and the sight of so many people—alive, healthy, maybe even happy—makes her throat constrict.
The group crowds around them then, Charlie picking up on snippets of excited conversation. Mosely has been shepherding the survivors, as he calls them, to this place for the last two weeks; they are one of the last groups to come in.
There’s a flurry of welcoming faces, and no one seems to mind that she remains mute, stunned by the sudden activity after so much silence. Someone takes the two-year-old boy from her arms, a young woman who coaxes and coos at the baby in a motherly way. Charlie watches him go with a mixture of confusion and relief, realizing she hadn’t even thought to ask Mosely for the kid’s name.
They’re brought inside, where the cool air feels like water against her desert-parched skin. Mosely himself breaks away from the group to lead her to her room; an oversized closet with painted cement brick walls. It’s dry and clean, with a bed, and simple furniture, and a narrow window at the top that barely lets in enough light to read by, even in the daytime. There are clothes; scavenged, smelling of fresh dryer sheets, no holes.
“You’re free to do what you like here,” Mosely says, setting down a pile of sheets and a blanket on the unmade bed. His voice is soft as he continues, “You’re your own person, Charlotte. You can think of me as a guardian, if you like. I only ask that you respect our rules, and do your part to help us rebuild.”
She doesn’t know how to respond to that; not hours ago, she’d thought this would be her prison, perhaps the end of her life. Now she isn’t so sure.
“I understand you may need some space to process everything; please, take your time. When you’re ready, Mary will be waiting outside. She’ll take good care of you.”
“Thank you,” she says finally, looking down at her hands. Mosely leaves, and she sits on the bed in her tiny, dark room, wondering where to begin.
She awakes disoriented in the dark, gasping from a nightmare in which she’d seen the creatures that lurked within her parents’ bodies erupt from their makeshift wombs—they’d been men with no faces, lit by fire.
There’s a knock at the door, but she doesn’t answer; just clutches the rough woolen blanket to her chest, trying to settle her heart.
When she does make her way outside, blinking into the bright hallway, there’s a woman sitting on a chair across from her room, reading.
“Oh! I didn’t think you were awake,” she says, smiling, putting down her magazine—an issue of US Weekly that must be at least two years old.
Charlie fights the urge to shut the door and lock it behind her. “Um.”
“You must be exhausted,” the woman continues. “The clothes Mosely brought—they fit?”
“Uh, I think so.” She hasn’t tried them on; she’s still wearing her dirty t-shirt and jeans.
“Why don’t you get dressed? Breakfast is still on for at least the next hour, and—oh, how silly of me,” she demurs. “I forgot to introduce myself! I’m Mary.”
Charlie hesitates, unsure what to do with this information.
“What do you think?” the woman prompts. “You look starved. Can you eat?”
She swallows hard, nods, even as the thought of food turns her stomach.
Charlie retreats to her room and tries on the clothes, surprised to find they fit. The shirt feels starchy and stiff against her skin. Her foot aches where she cut it on the glass, and a smear of dried blood along her ankle reminds her that she hasn’t showered. She’ll have to ask where they keep the soap and towels. Her hair feels thick, unwashed and uncombed, and she runs her fingers through it to break up the largest snarls. She wants to brush her teeth, but the woman outside is eager, and Charlie seems to have lost her voice.
Mary shows her to the cafeteria. Once again, Charlie is stunned at the sheer number of people who appear to be continuing on as if nothing had happened. There are a few familiar faces from yesterday, although in the confusion, she never learned their names.
One of them smiles and waves in greeting. She recognizes the young boy sitting in her lap—the two-year-old Mosely picked up, the one with the sore thumb and the dirty diaper. Today he looks clean and happy as he eats, waving his spoon in the air, milk dribbling down his chin. She wonders if he remembered his real parents, if he dreamed about them the way she dreamed about hers. He must be too young to remember.
Mary interrupts her thoughts, gently nudging her forward. “I hope you like oatmeal,” she says, handing Charlie a tray.
She looks down at the rectangle of red plastic as if she can’t quite believe it’s there; a cafeteria tray. It looks like the ones she used at school. She remembers her first day in ninth grade, that moment of liquid terror upon turning toward the noisy rows of tables, not a single one of them empty, the way it made her throat tighten.
Suddenly the room is too loud, too bright, too full; Mary is still talking at her ear.
“Charlene? Charlene, are you OK sweetie?”
“Um, yeah. No. I…I don’t know,” Charlie says, trailing off. The tray clatters to the floor before she realizes she’s dropped it, echoing in the metal beams, and the din quiets for a moment as the other residents turn to watch. Her throat goes dry, tight, the asthma burning up her lungs without warning.
Mary is at her elbow, guiding her away, out the double doors, down the gray brick hall, whispering soothing words that Charlie doesn’t hear. Her hands won’t stop shaking. She takes her first ragged breath, finds her lungs won’t take in air, but Mary is there with an inhaler. Charlie takes a drag on it, holding in the medicine as long as she can, letting it out with a labored cough.
“I know this must be a difficult adjustment for you, Charlene,” Mary whispers when the worst of the attack is over. “But I think you’ll find there are a lot of people who want to help you.”
“Help me what?” she asks, her voice still thready and weak.
The woman smiles, placing a hand on Charlie’s shoulder, the first warm touch she’s felt in weeks.
“We’ll help you survive—like us.”