By Karen Hesse
Feiwel and Friends Copyright © 2012 Karen Hesse
All rights reserved.
I stare out the small window over a vast field of clouds.
New travel restrictions ban even backpacks from the cabin of the plane.
I haven't brought much out of Haiti anyway. The orphans at Paradis des Enfants need my sandals, my toothpaste, my T-shirts more than I need them.
Besides, Mom will buy new stuff for me when I get home.
I can't believe half of what I've heard in Haiti about what's happening in the U.S. But if even half of that is true ...
My heart raps at my ribs like a trapped thing.
I remember my parents warning that all hell would break loose once the American People's Party took power.
And now it seems as if all hell has broken loose.
The plane is rerouted in flight with no explanation. To Philadelphia. When we touch down in Philly military personnel direct us through customs. There are three separate officers at three discrete stations. Each station has its own arsenal of weaponry. Each its own computerized lists.
At the second checkpoint, soldiers single out a dread-locked man three people ahead of me in line and strong-arm him away. He had been sitting across the aisle from me on the flight from Haiti. I watch, stunned, as the man is led off, arrested on suspicion of ... of what?
My head aches by the time my turn comes at the last station. The officer carefully studies my passport, shines a small light on it, fixes a hard stare on my face. He checks my name against his master list, then opens my passport again. "Radley Parker-Hughes," he says. There's something about my name he doesn't like. I'm having trouble breathing. The room spins around me.
Finally, he makes a decision. He lets go of whatever it is that's bothering him and sends me through.
It's taken hours to clear customs. Racing across the terminal, I fear I'll miss my reassigned flight. But at the designated gate I discover the plane to Manchester, New Hamphsire has been delayed indefinitely. The attendant at the desk promises to make an announcement the moment she gets more information.
I close my eyes. As best I can I block out the news reports playing on the overhead monitors. I can only watch the same chaotic scenes so many times without going out of my mind.
With no cash in my pocket and my charge card in my checked backpack, I try to sleep. What other way is there to eat up the endless hours of waiting?
Except for a plastic cup of complimentary orange juice on the flight from Haiti, I haven't eaten since early this morning when Monsieur Bellamy put a piece of his wife's cake into my hands. "As soon as I get a line through, I will send a message to your parents, letting them know you are on your way," Monsieur Bellamy reassured me.
Now, nearly ten hours later, I'm still nowhere near home and they've just announced that our plane will be delayed at least another few hours.
Although my stomach has definitely grown smaller on one meal a day at the orphanage, there's a gnawing emptiness inside me.
I surrender to the overwhelming need to hear the sound of my mother's voice. But no matter how much I search I can't find a phone booth anywhere. Finally, I ask an attendant at the USAir desk.
"All the pay phones have been removed," she tells me. "No one needed them anymore. Everyone has a cell."
But with the new travel restrictions no one is allowed to carry cell phones onto the plane. Mine nests inside my backpack, which is in some cargo hold between Port au Prince, Haiti, and Manchester, New Hampshire.
I guess I'll just have to wait. I trust that Monsieur Bellamy has reached my parents by now and told them when and where to meet me. I hope they know my plane is delayed so they're not sitting all these hours at the airport.
Everywhere I look there are uniformed patrols. Their steely scrutiny unnerves me.
An eerie quiet fills the terminal. The only sound is the nearly muted commentary on FOX news. Everyone stares at the screens, watching the same clips of vigilante groups wandering like packs of dogs, frenzied looters racing through electronics stores, round-shouldered police interviewing shocked bystanders.
My fellow travelers sit or stand, staring, mesmerized by the images. No one speaks.
Near dawn, after an endless wait, a plane is finally found for us and we're allowed to board. A little over an hour later, we land in New Hampshire. I'm one of the first from our flight to reach baggage claim and my pack emerges from the black hole early for a change.
I'm exhausted from twenty-four hours of travel. I just want to climb into the backseat of my parents' car, eat a granola bar, close my eyes, and sleep through the two-and-a-half-hour ride home.
Despite the huge plate-glass windows in the terminal, a gray and sullen light greets me. I expected to return to the breathtaking beauty of May. Instead, out the glass doors a heavy blanket of storm clouds suffocates the life out of New England.
And I don't see my parents.
I've never arrived in an airport without my parents meeting me. They always come, day or night, no matter where I land, no matter when I land ... they're always there.
But they're not here now.
Monsieur Bellamy promised to get a call through to them.
I reason that they'll be here any minute ... that something has held them up. Or that they've gone to grab something to eat because they've been waiting for so long. Soon I'll see their beaming faces. Soon I'll be pawing through the hamper of snacks my mother always packs for the ride home.
But when they don't show after a half hour, I swipe at my tears, battling the rising tide of panic.
I've been unwilling to take my eyes off the doors, certain my parents will materialize at any moment; but I can't wait any longer. Stopping at a bank of chairs, I dig around for the cell phone inside my backpack.
Posted on the airport walls are new laws printed in boldface letters. Curfews. Mandatory registrations. Threats of incarceration. I don't remember seeing any of this in Philadelphia. Is it possible they've been posted only in the last few hours? Is it possible they've been posted only in New England?
When I open my cell, I remember it's dead. I reach into my backpack again, this time for the charger. But I can't remember packing the charger. Not until I've emptied every compartment twice and checked every zippered pocket a half dozen times am I certain that I left the charger in Haiti. Beside my bed. At the Paradis des Enfants.
Typical. So typical.
My parents never scold me about the frequency with which I lose things. They always just fix it for me, no matter how I screw up. I'm used to them just fixing it for me.
Where are my parents now? I need my parents to fix things for me now. But they are nowhere. They're nowhere. Even if I borrow someone's cell phone, I can't reach them if they're already on the road. They both refuse to have cells of their own. Maybe, after this, they'll agree to get one.
My hand closes on the one good surprise I've found in my backpack during my search for the charger. Jethro, one of the orphans at Paradis des Enfants, has tucked the little bear my mother knitted for him into my bag. I am too old for stuffed toys, but I am deeply grateful for this selfless gift. Jethro loved his little bear. What a sacrifice it was for him to part with it, to send it home with me. Now I know why he told everyone with such confidence that I would return. Carefully, I zipper the little bear back into my pack, take a deep breath, and walk out into the damp, chill air.
Striking up a conversation at curbside with a couple that left Haiti the same time I did, I learn they live an hour north of Manchester. He's a carpenter and she's a nurse and they've just spent six weeks volunteering in Port au Prince as part of a pledge they made to their church.
Usually I'm not bold, but these people, clearly struggling to handle their excess of luggage, seem safe enough. And I'm still trying to kill time, still waiting for my parents to show up. I offer to go back in and search for one of those metal luggage carts for them. They thank me and watch as I disappear back inside the terminal.
But there are no carts to be found.
Staring out at them through the glass doors, I make a decision. It's looking more and more like my parents aren't going to show. It's possible Monsieur Bellamy couldn't get through, that they don't know I'm here.
When I return to the couple I propose helping them with their bags.
I ask, in exchange, if they could give me a lift to the bus station in town.
I've got my charge card now. I can buy a ticket home. It'll be a great surprise for my parents when I walk through the front door.
Just the suggestion of my getting into their car causes fear to flicker across the face of the wife. All these new rules have set everyone on edge. But the grateful husband says, "Sure, we can give you a ride."
We locate their car on the long-term lot. I'm crammed into the backseat with their luggage shifting around me. On the floor, as I squeeze in, I catch the glint of coins.
Bending over, pretending to retie the heavy boots my parents bought for me to take to Haiti, the boots I never wore the entire time I was there, I pick up two quarters from the car floor and slip them into my sock.
It's only fifty cents. The man would have given it to me. But my cheeks feel hot as I sit back up. I can't believe what I've just done.
The man keeps talking. They haven't noticed that I've stolen their quarters.
He's heard the Internet has been shut down. "The government trying to stop demonstrations on the street," he suggests.
They are careful not to be too critical.
"The government is trying its best," the wife says. "Under the circumstances ..."
* * *
There are concrete barriers all around the bus station. The man pulls up as close to the door as he can.
"Take care," he calls as I leave the car, hoisting my pack up onto my shoulder. I feel the quarters rub against my ankle.
"You, too," I call back. "Thanks for everything."
* * *
The Manchester Transportation Center swarms with soldiers and U.S. Marshals, just like the airport. I spot a pay phone, finally, inside the station and call home using the stolen quarters.
A recording comes on informing me that I've reached a nonworking number. I try to remember other phone numbers, numbers for my aunt in Atlanta, my cousins in Florida, my friend, Janine.
But I never memorized any of those numbers. They were programmed into my cell.
And my cell is dead.
It's been a month since I've heard my parents' voices; about two weeks since their last postcard.
On the front of that card was an image of our cat, Romulus, hanging over the arm of our sofa. On the back my mother had written, "I've got claws and I know how to use them."
It was those words, and then no word at all, and then the assassination of the president of the United States that sent me running home.
I vow to myself that tomorrow Dad and I will go out and get a new charger and this time I'll never lose it. I also vow to memorize important phone numbers from now on. Or at least write them down somewhere and carry them with me.
In the bus station, announcements repeat over a loudspeaker.
"All passengers must submit to a security check before boarding. Travelers wishing to board must first present a completed travel request form. Please have a valid I.D. ready to show. There will be no crossing of state lines without prior government approval. We repeat. There will be no crossing of state lines without prior government approval."
I turn to the man standing beside me. He's wearing a shabby suit and scuffed leather shoes; his long, dark hair is threaded with gray.
"Travel request forms?" I ask. "No crossing state lines?"
"Yeah," he says. "You don't have your papers?"
"I've got a passport, I've got a credit card."
"Where've you been? Under a rock? You're not getting anywhere without authorized travel papers."
I step out of my place in line and attach myself to a group of students leaving the station.
This is madness.
This is the United States.
This doesn't happen here.
But it is happening.
I can't get hold of my parents by phone and without the proper paperwork I can't take the bus.
I've got to get home. Government approval could take days, weeks.
I can't wait that long. Once I'm home everything will be all right. My parents will know what to do.
I just have to get home.
I find a phone booth at a nearby mini-mart and try calling home again. Same message.
You have reached a nonworking number.
I ask inside the store for a map of New Hampshire.
The guy at the register is tapping away at the counter with a pair of chopsticks. He looks my age, seventeen. Maybe a year older. "Those maps down there are free," he says, pointing with a chopstick to a row of brightly colored maps in a wire rack.
Free is good. I open the complimentary map. It's loaded with advertisements.
"I'm heading west," I say. "Maybe on back roads ..."
"In this part of the state there's really only one road running east to west." He squints at the map for a moment or two, then traces a route with his chopstick. "Route 101. It's a fairly straight shot."
"How's the best way to get there?"
He shrugs, embarrassed. "I don't actually know. I don't live in Manchester, just work here. I live in the next town over. Hey, Joanie?"
A middle-aged woman wearing a maroon mini-mart smock comes from somewhere between the aisles. She wears her dyed red hair in a ponytail, her gray roots showing. Her eyes are the color of robin's eggs.
"101?" she asks. She draws a map on a napkin she's plucked from the hot dog counter. "It's not hard, but it's a hike getting there from here."
She has no idea how far I need to go.
"That's okay," I say. "I like walking. Thanks." Besides, I think, Monsieur Bellamy could get through to my parents any time. They could be driving like mad at this very moment, trying to find me.
"Anything else?" the guy asks.
It's been more than a day since I've had any food in my stomach. I put a huge handful of granola bars on the counter and pull out my charge card.
"Sorry," the guy says. "Cash only right now. The lines to the credit card companies are down."
I put the granola bars back on the shelf.
He slides a pack of gum under my hand.
"I can't pay ..." I'm afraid to surrender the quarters. They're all I have.
"It's on me," he says, waving me out the door.
I worry about the boy and the surveillance camera and whether he'll get into trouble for giving me a pack of gum.
His supervisor, Joanie, has vanished into the aisles. But I wonder if she's witnessed what just happened.
My mother wouldn't have let me accept the gum. In fact, when I get home, she'll probably insist on driving back here to pay for it.
At Paradis des Enfants they would break one stick of chewing gum into a dozen pieces so everyone could have a taste.
It's not until I've been walking for an hour or so that I realize the boy at the mini-mart could have called the police on me for shoplifting as I went out the door. It could have been a setup. It wasn't. But it could have been.
I was lucky this time, I guess. Still, I can't rely on luck. I have to be smarter from now on. I have to think from every angle.
* * *
I make myself walk purposefully, not too fast, not too slow.
But then my mind wanders and my pace quickens. I keep thinking about last Friday when Monsieur Bellamy rushed to the orphanage.
"Radley," he cried, breathless. "Radley, someone has assassinated your president!"
Usually I laughed at the ridiculous rumors that masqueraded as "news" from the U.S. But this wasn't funny.
Monsieur Bellamy paced, agitated. "There have been arrests. Many arrests."
I thought about my mother's last card and her comment about having claws and knowing how to use them.
Running to my tiny room on the second floor of the orphanage, I retrieved my cell phone to call my parents, to make certain they were all right. But my cell phone was dead then, too, and there was no power at the orphanage to recharge it.
Monsieur Bellamy said it didn't matter. Phone lines to the U.S. were down anyway.
All I could think of was my parents, what was happening to my parents?
* * *
I realize I am walking too fast, calling attention to myself.
"Slow down. Slow down, Radley," I whisper.
I'm surprised by the small amount of traffic for a city as big as Manchester. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Safekeeping by Karen Hesse. Copyright © 2012 Karen Hesse. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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