the black wallpaper polishing the strange space to a level of acceptable fancy; through puddles in the dark, wettish night, the bags fighting back as we traversed over curbs and grass. I watched as my bag, then two, were thumped upon the pile to be loaded by the boatmen, it rocked, I waited a moment to be assured of its retrieval, then boarded the ancient vessel that so longed to be rusty, its lack of shine the only clue to the betrayal of its upkeep.
it begins to snow, in the dark, on the water.
we drift off to sleep, at long last, on our journey home.
Slowly, we are waking up. It is sudden. We are arousing to consciousness fully clothed in tweed suited skirts, matching jackets and quaintly matching hats. We are riding our bikes, unease striking us as we become aware; we can't be waking naturally, riding fully clothed through the falling petals of the blooming trees around us, in front of our housing, vacated yesterday, all modern, now here reality is all old. The petals are white, hints of green among the blooms, it is sunny and peaceful, no sign of aging vessels linger at the docks, visible through the structure of the bridge before us.
What is going on?
The official stance is that we never left.
Our things, they tell us, are back inside, we never packed them, we were not leaving.
we cannot tell.
confusion tops a layer of absolute certainty; we know. We left, our lives were real, now erased, now...this.
She looks at me, and I at her, our hearts racing, something is amiss. It's dangerous, they want to hide us, they deny they let us go, deny they are holding us; we must be silent, covert, escape.
Memories return as we contact our loved ones back home. We've been away, months, maybe, working secretly under a thin pretense. We learn our pretense was a decoy, our real purpose deeper than our work. Tests, lies, experiments...
They discover our covert contacts, bring our families closer to us, dump them into this camp, this false world that seems lovely but keeps us silent. We are not threatened, never reprimanded, suddenly a home appears with family inside; they say it has always been so; we know better.
The network of women and few men recruited, willingly working, promised release, and amnesiated find each other like spiders, linking up invisible threads we hope will lead to the rescue of our families. Why is this?
My husband and I duck under a long wooden-topped table, our daughters small enough to help us be inconspicuous, the room crowded beyond us, the table's metal legs secured to the wall and floor, support beams filling the space around us. Greys, greens, yellows, it reminds me of that ship, the one they say never existed, with its desire to be old and hollow, and how they clean it anyway, forced march of utility, this is the military, you don't get to stop, you are used, you are used when and how they use you, you have no say, you are not you, but a drone projected from your skin, to be counted as one of a mass, not an individual. Just as that ship, you are kept in running order, and controlled.
I am wearing army fatigues, kind of, like posh clothing modeled after a soldier's plight, I have just gotten notice from a friend; someone in the medical department, a sympathetic soul, risking life and limb to orchestrate an accident of paperwork that lets me see my file. It's because of my allergies; if I was whole and healthy this mistake would be impossible. Now, under this table, dusty, winded, hiding from normalcy, heart pounding with deception, I have access to the dimly glowing yellow window that shows me my contact, prints out a single page document, my picture in the corner, in a real uniform, a soldier's flattop haircut, and detailed lists of the work of done, the tampering they've done with my brain. My breakdown as a soldier, the tests, the reasons, the beatings, no fluff just the core, my number among many. It is proof. It is deadly. Have they all been subjected to this? "take a look at this, love," I tell my husband, "This is what I've been doing. It's the only time you'll ever get to see me like that, as a soldier, they'll never let me look like that again." I only mean the picture. I am proud of my work, I am sad at its forced end. I hand him the paper. He takes it in.
25 more copies, I am told by a robotic existence, 25 more copies will be available for printing or 25 e-copies for distribution, after that, no more, access will be permanently lost. So, I know, this is precious. I immediately want to opt for e-copies. But I don't know how to hide them, I resist. I fold the paper, and hide it in my boot.
And so. And so we can work to freedom. I am focused on my family. My friend on hers, our peers on theirs, and this faith binds us together, those invisible threads keeping us linked though we pay each other no mind.
Now it is the dead of night. Now it is the time for the attempt. To get away, minds intact, to show that file, if not me then someone must show that file...to someone beyond the reach of the forces holding us dumb. It is dead of night.
We are silent. Sneaking families, all, sliding through shadows and bringing precious little. Over the sidewalks, down to the water; our ship is there, but not at shore. Do they know? it hasn't docked. We have no choice, we must try. Silent, slow, families slipping into the water, a sea of bobbing heads praying for shelter.
My husband cannot.
I try, it is so hard with my babies, how do I keep their heads above the waves? We are ok.
A commotion; they know, we are all in danger, the water becomes choppy, in the dark there is now a searchlight, blinding yellow, passing over, disorienting desperate eyes among the white foam peaks of the churning deep brown waters, then it settles elsewhere. There is just enough light for us to see, we see each other, there are so many, and then we know, through our invisible web, this boat is ours.
Friends aboard have cast a net, people cling to it and make it aboard, a storm is brewing. it becomes clear; this boat is rusted and older than the last, is it the same boat? happily disheveled, this boat will fight for us, crewed by an overburdened few, they are friends, but they speak harsh and sharp. our captors know, they have that light, they have been betrayed. They are coming.
Through the waves, I must get my babies on the vessel. I have one shot, I send my body as hard and fast as I can, the small child on my left, the big child and their father on the right, helping as they can, but the crowded waters pose a stark reality, we make it to the net in a straight line, a narrow v of ripples spreading out behind me as I power through to the massive olive green metal wall that is this ship, the white ropes popping against it's dullness, I almost sink, but I make it, we make it, and I climb to the top, onto the wet floor of the deck, the baby clinging to my chest as we go, my left arm clamped around her. I set foot, there is no time for breath, I am in the middle, there are so many still to be rescued, and we have so little time, we may be sunk, and the storm threatens to topple this ship, the wind whipping, the clouds rolling so much they are visible in the dark as simple, pure, sluggish motion, they yell at me to go go go, I am to take a seat among the rest, in the middle, fill as you go leave none empty there are so many to pack in...
there are dozens of rows on the exposed deck, rows of simple metal stools with basket-like curved backs, each one touching the next, laid out in a semi circle stretching as far as I can see. The first half is full, people are piling around me, I am to take a seat as well, they are slippery and rickety, but as I start towards them, the workers hand me my older child, no longer with her father, she clings to my back, my right arms grasps her, too, and my fear stifled only by sheer determination; how can I do this alone? I do not know where my husband is, I know only that those ropes will guide him, I am not worried.
I find a place to be, I try to take two, I am reprimanded, I must hold both children in my one seat, there is not room for more, and as I move to sit there is a large swell, the boat rears violently upwards, wind, rain and now waves try to tear us all away, and I am terrified, how to keep my children safe from drowning? My big girl's arms wrapped around my neck, the little one pulling my clothes, I grab the rusted out, once-blue-green back of the chair in front of me and try my best to squeeze the girls with my arms, wedge the three of us onto this bolted metal circle and pipes that calls itself a seat.
The wave passes, more people board, I buckle down for a long night of danger, and as the wind whips and the waves threaten to overcome this old boat and the noise overwhelms, as our wardens bare down upon us, the rust giving my eyes focus through the rain while my muscles strain to hold and not crush, in the growing chaos and weakening odds I feel the love that threatens to burst my heart, my will demands, I know only that I can do my best.