Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
“We want you to do something for us,” says the cultured voice from the darkness.
“Yes,” I say.
“Is that ‘Yes, I’ll do it?’”
I don’t have to think. Months of building the Wall have made me compliant, as it was meant to do. “Yes, I’ll do it.”
“It will involve betraying a friend.”
A year ago, I would have been brave, would have given a short answer: Forget it, or another two-word phrase that began with “F.” Now I scarcely hesitate before saying, “In the loser camps, friends are no help. They’re just another liability.”
“Good,” says the voice. “If you deliver, you won’t have to go back to the camp. You’ll be declared fully rehabilitated. Actually, we can use you at Apprentice Central. And your wife and son will join you.”
I am too numb to feel anything yet, but I notice that my cheeks are wet. I raise a hand and find that my eyes are full of tears.
“What do I have to do?” I say, then listen closely while he tells me.
A week later, they have cleaned me up, deloused me, cleared the worms from my intestines, fed me and shot me full of vitamins. They have flown me from San Antonio to Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington, where a special-forces helicopter delivers me silently to a spot on the Columbia River south of the 49th Parallel. It is a moonless night and overcast. We touch down in complete darkness, one set of hard-handed men unloading me from the copter into the equally hard hands of another crew. I assume they are all wearing night-vision gear because they move me swiftly down to the water’s edge, put me in a rubber boat, climb in with me and push us out. It is only when I feel the slight breeze of our passage on my face that I realize they have started a motor as noiseless as the helicopter’s.
I have no idea how long we are on the river. I see few lights on the shore until we pass a small airport on the eastern bank, then we are back into black-out travel. Eventually, I see the lights of a town and the boat angles in to the west bank and grounds on a patch of gravel. There is enough illumination from the town reflecting off the overcast for me to see the men in the boat as vague shadows.
One of them presses something into my hand – the strap of a half-sized duffel bag – and whispers, “You get out here. There’s a road up a little ways. Find the bus depot. There’s money in the bag.”
I don’t hear them go. I climb the bank, push through some low scrub, and come to a two-lane blacktop. I turn toward the lights of the town and start walking. They made me memorize a rough map of the place – it’s called Trail – and I find the bus depot easily enough; it is on Bank Street which is a continuation of Riverside Avenue, the road they directed me to.
The depot is a little blue-and-white frame structure. I wait outside until a tired-looking man in jeans and a cotton shirt opens up. As I hitch up my bag and step through the door, he says, “Where to?”
“Vernon, then Kamloops,” I say. If he asks, I will tell him I am meeting my brother in Vernon, but he just punches some buttons and hands me the paper slip that his ticket machine printed out. I pay with one of the used Canadian bills they put in my wallet and go to sit on one of the benches. The ticket says the night bus from Alberta will arrive and depart in about an hour and it will reach the Vernon depot in mid-afternoon. I will then catch another bus to Kamloops and be there before evening.
I sit, looking straight ahead, my inner eye replaying the images of Sharon and Arthur on the phone of the man in the A-Corps staff car – I never learned his name. My wife and son looked worried but unbruised and reasonably healthy. They hadn’t been put to punishment labor as I was.
The street door opens and a man and a woman come in. She has a rounded figure but looks strong; he is taller and leaner but moves like an athlete. They both wear holstered automatic pistols, khaki shirts, dark trousers with a yellow stripe and matching flat caps with shiny leather bills.
I see them from the side of my vision and the dark pants with the stripe – identical to those worn by the Apprentice guards in the camp – almost trigger an automatic response. But I manage not to leap to my feet and stand to attention. Instead, I look straight ahead, a man with some thinking to do.
Until they stand over me. “Hey, there,” says the female Mountie, “who are you?”
I look up then and give them the name that matches my ID.
“Where you from? And where are you headed?”
“To Kamloops, from Eastend, Saskatchewan.”
I say the name of the latter place easily, using the pronunciation my handlers drilled into me. “It’s Suh-skatch-uh-one. That’s how the Canucks say it. Americans say Sass-katch-uh-one. Dead giveaway.”
The male cop already has his phone out and is working its icons and keyboard. “Who’s the mayor there?”
I tell him.
“Where’s the Co-op store?”
“Corner of Maple and Railway.”
He flicks the screen a couple of times. “Tourist attraction?”
“T-Rex Center,” I say “Listen, what’s this all about, eh?” Canadians are polite but don’t stand for police harassment.
“Border jumpers,” the female Mountie says. “Let’s see your ID.”
I show them my Saskatchewan driver’s license. It is good enough to fool them and they hand it back. “Watch out for anybody tries to be too friendly,” says the male cop, putting his phone away. “Some of these jumpers, they’ll steal your identity. And you won’t complain because you’ll be dead in a ditch.”
I tell him I didn’t know it was that bad, which is true. But I am not surprised. I know what motivates most Americans who come over the Forty-Ninth and how far they will go to keep from being sent back.
“I’ll be careful,” I say.
My “brother” is waiting for me in the bus depot at Vernon. He catches my eye then steps into the restroom. By the time I follow him in, he has checked all the stalls; we are alone.
He hands me a leather belt that is identical, right down to the stainless-steel studs set along its length, to the one I take off and hand to him. Squeezed between the new belt’s two layers of cowhide, I know, is a web of circuitry. While I am putting it through the belt loops of my jeans, he unscrews one of the buttons on my denim jacket, fills its hollow with a small, shiny battery, and screws the button back on. Through all of his, we do not speak and his gaze does not meet mine. When he is finished, he turns on his heel and leaves the restroom. Our association has lasted less than thirty seconds.
Not long after, I am on the bus to Kamloops.
“Loops,” as the locals call it, is where two major rivers – the North Thompson and the South Thompson – meet to run as one down to join the Fraser on its way to the Pacific. Long before the whites came, the river junction was a gathering place where native tribes met for peaceful trade, making it a perfect site for the Hudson Bay Company to establish a trading post. After the fur traders came the gold-seekers, and when the placer deposits were all played out, the high, dry plateau country around the junction of the two rivers was recognized as good cattle country.
Today, the city has spread from the river bottom up into the surrounding hills. It’s a prosperous place, peaceable in the Canadian way. And home to a colony of American asylum-seekers granted “landed immigrant” status – the equivalent of a US green.
All this, and more, I know from the briefings given me in San Antonio. I never saw the Escalade man again, though I heard his voice in the hallway outside the room they put me in once I was cleaned up. That’s where the “more” came from. The door had been left ajar and I could hear him giving crisp, clear orders:
“ . . . don’t tell me your problems, Major,” he was saying. “Just get it done. The snatch team will be in the safe house on the twenty-second. Every hour they’re in-theater, they’re in danger. We know the Senator is in the vicinity, but they move him constantly. I want our Judas to find him not later than the twenty-first.”
There was a mumbled reply, but he cut it off. “I don’t concern myself with that level of detail. If you can’t cut it, I’ll have you transferred to one of the Wall camps, and you’ll find yourself nit-picking for real.”
A moment later, a worried-looking Apprentice-Major came into the room and took the other chair across the table from where I sat. He placed a thick file of papers between us, opened it, and said, “Straighten up, loser. We’ve got work to do.”
Kamloops’s Greyhound depot is on Notre Dame Drive, just east of the intersection where the street widens and turns into a divided boulevard. And not far west of that is the White Spot restaurant. It was getting on for evening but this far north the summer sun is still well up when I climb the concrete steps from the sidewalk and push through the front doors. The place is half-empty, not too brightly lit, but I can tell it’s a family-friendly restaurant from the scattering of parents and kids in the booths and at the tables.
There is a counter with stools near the kitchen walls and I make my way to it, setting my duffel down at my feet as I sit. I pick up a folding menu from the steel rack that holds salt, pepper, and vinegar and flip to the burger section.
I’m only doing what the Apprentice-Major and his subordinates told me to do, but the sight of the illustrations and the waft of cooking fat coming from the kitchen door behind the counter, brings not only saliva to my mouth but tears to my eyes. I remember, when Sharon and I were newlyweds, we loved the burgers at Le Diplomate on 14th Street a couple of blocks from Logan Circle in the northwest part of DC. It seems like a thousand years ago now.
That’s not going to help, I say to myself, knuckling my eyes as a young man in waiter’s garb emerges from the kitchen, sees me, and comes over to give the counter in front of me an unneeded wipe. “How’re ya doin’?” he says. “Coffee to start?”
“Yeah,” I say, then have to say it again to make it come out clearly. I look through the menu again and say, “Didn’t you use to have a blue cheese burger?”
He has his back to me, pouring coffee from the carafe on the shelf behind the counter. Now he pauses half way through before finishing. He turns and passes me the cup and saucer along with a spoon and two little containers of half-and-half cream. He is not looking at me but glancing around the restaurant. Finally, he says, “You must be thinking of the A&W.”
I say, “You know, I might just be at that.”
“Okay,” he says, and now he’s looking directly at me, “order some food and stay where you are.”
I point to a burger on the menu and he brings out some kind of hand-held device and pokes its screen then asks me if I want fries and coleslaw. I nod and he pokes again. Now he puts the hand-held away and reaches into another pocket, coming up with a basic cell phone. He turns it on, pushes a speed-dial button, waits for a long moment, then says, “Sorry, wrong number.”
He turns off the phone, slides the back off it, slips out the SIM card and Puts it on the counter then reaches under and comes up with a pair of shears. He cuts the SIM into small pieces and throws them into a trash basket.
“Okay,” he says, though I think he’s talking to himself. Then he says to me, “I’ll get that burger platter. More coffee?”
The coffee is strong and flavorful, better than you’d get in most American burger joints. I’ve worked my way down to the bottom of the cup when he brings my food on an oval platter. Despite the coffee, my mouth is dry, but I take a big bite of the burger and find it juicy, with some kind of sauce beyond the usual mustard and ketchup. It tastes good. It tastes like freedom, and my eyes begin to tear up again.
I swallow another bite then try the fries. Good again, and the coleslaw is chunky and chewable. My San Antonio trainers fed me decently, the same as they ate, but that was institutional food; after the slops in Camp 17, this is heaven.
The waiter is hanging around the counter, pouring me more coffee, but his attention is all for the front door. I see him come to alert and my hand holding the coffee cup shakes so I have to use the other one to steady it. I take a sip and wait.
A man slips onto the stool to my left, another takes the one on my right. They both order coffee and the young fellow brings out cups and pours.
The one on my left sips his black while the one to my right is stirring cream and sugar into his. Then the black coffee drinker puts down his cup, turns his head my way, and says, “How’s it goin’, eh?”
“Gettin’ better,” I say, careful to drop the “g.”
And the one on my right says, “Holy shit! Is that really you?”
I turn, and I’m looking into the surprised and delighted face of Charlie Wedley.
Comments are closed.
Sign up for my Newsletter
Or support me on Patreon
the Archonate Bookstore
Latest at the Archonate:
Search the site