Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chapter One

Chapter 1

I can’t even tell you how long that limo ride was. For the rest of the day we would drive along I75, get off at a rest stop or park and pick up one or two people then keep going. I felt badly out of place. These people smelled of money and power. None of them showed any curiosity about me at all and I was glad of it.

No one talked, there wasn’t even any strains of music from the radio, just complete silence only broken by the occasional bit of road noise. A couple of the other passengers broke into the wet bar and got quietly drunk. One lady popped a couple of pills from her Hermes handbag. The bag was unbelievably ugly so I know it had to have cost a small fortune. That was in keeping with the other passengers who were dressed in the kind of name brand clothes I had only seen in the coffee table magazines like GQ, Vogue, and other big cover publications.

Every other stop we were allowed a five minute bathroom break. Five minutes, that’s all. The driver, that Michelson guy, had zero tolerance for tardiness. It only took making an example of one person for the rest of us to get how serious he was about his timetable. Nothing was said; he simply drove away, not even stopping when the man came out running, trying to catch the limo as it turned out into the road. The park where we had stopped – we had gotten off the interstate by then and were traveling along unlit back roads – was dark and deserted with no houses or even buildings beyond the bathrooms anywhere nearby.

Once the moon rose things became even more surreal. We stopped briefly at a crossroad. Anonymous hands delivered sandwiches that were the texture of cardboard; they tasted like it too. The “coffee” they served in small Styrofoam cups was bitter like it had been cooking in the pot for three days. I’m not a coffee drinker but I was desperate for something, anything, to get the sandwich taste out of my mouth. How could I have ever imagined that there would come a time when that sandwich would have been akin to manna.

I don’t think I even finished the coffee. The next thing I remember clearly is realizing we had stopped. My head ached worse than the end of the semester I got attached to No-Doze to help me survive my course load. My tongue felt like a gerbil … a dead gerbil.

The double doors of the limo stood wide open and I saw two big guys dressed in khaki colored coveralls half walking, half dragging one of the men that I had been riding with, but I couldn’t see to where. The driver Michelson stuck his head inside and saw that I was mostly awake and jerked his head at me, clearly saying it was my turn to get out.

As I stepped out I saw him standing with a clipboard as he talked to two other men, “Female. Chapman, Emmaline Josephine. Answers to Emma. Single, aged nineteen. One duffel, one backpack. Papers in order. Cleared for boarding.” One of the men acknowledged Michelson’s summary and then turned to me.

Not even when I was a child was I foolish enough to simply walk off with two strange men. I certainly knew better by then. Why I did it at that point I still can’t quite answer with absolute clarity. Intimidation played a part in it I’m sure, so did my own shock. Am I sorry I followed them? Some days that is a hard question to answer; other days I’m too appreciative of being alive to question the strange journey that has gotten me here.

Since I was walking under my own steam one of the men carried my duffel for me and the other my backpack. The one that had taken my papers said in a gruff voice said, “This way Miss. Watch your step.”

I’d only flown one other time in my life before that night and I was too young to remember anything about it except the boredom and the impression of size. What I entered this time was more like a tin can with wings. During the flight three of the passengers barfed. What was strange was that the guys in overalls acted like they expected it, were even prepared for it. The smell of upchucked liquor and stale sandwich got to me but I didn’t puke which earned me some brownie points, or so I thought. Actually they could have cared less how I acted at that point but I wasn’t to understand that until later.

The flight was longer than I thought it was going to be given the size of the plane. Since it was occurring at night I couldn’t see the terrain and I had no idea where I was. I was cold but not so cold that my USF fleece hoodie, jeans, and Hi-Tech hikers didn’t keep it tolerable. I’ve been thankful for those shoes several times and I’ve done everything I can to keep them repaired.

The landing was a rough one with lots of bumps and a very quick stop that had us jerking forward in our seat belts. Some of the other passengers grumbled but one look from the coverall dudes silenced them though the resentment still showed plainly on their faces. Disembarking was much quicker than loading had been. I still hadn’t said anything and was intent on absorbing everything I could. There were no lights beyond the flares on the runway and a few very small, dim ones along a dirt path we were being herded up. Then we were being loaded into the back of a big truck. Suddenly I was yanked out of the group I was with and directed to another vehicle which was a former school bus, now spray painted in hunter’s camouflage patterns. The guy who grabbed my arm wasn’t rough but he was firm as he guided me over to the new line.

When I finally got to the front of the line a prison matron looking woman asked for my name. I remembered Moshe’s instructions and looked at the guy in coveralls beside me that had been near me since I’d left the limo.

“It’s OK. Show her your pass,” he said in a gruff yet understanding voice.

As I handed it to the woman she said, “Next time I ask for your name, you better deliver immediately. I’m in no mood for games. You bought this E-ticket so deal with it.”

She was really starting to set my dander up but I managed to keep my face blank. After Brunhilda checked her list I was directed to board, find a seat, sit down and shut up. I heard the coverall guy say, “Ease up Lou, she’s another one that hasn’t been told anything. And she had to ride with a bunch of Level 2’s. You know Michelson and how he usually complains but he said she’s been rock solid the whole trip and the only one he didn’t have any attitude problems with.

“!@#$%&, that’s just great, another one. I’ve got half a dozen like that on this bus load alone. Colonel Mackey is going to be &%$#@!. She’s already unhappy over the whole program, but at least the others know the score going in.”

I had no idea what they were whispering about but wondering about it finally melted a hole in my carefully constructed numbness.

“Yo! Chapman! Sit here girl,” Lou said as she ordered me to sit in one of the bench seats behind the driver. I sat down beside an obviously scared woman with mascara trails down her cheeks and chewed off lipstick. Lou took one look at the woman and said, “Stop your sniveling woman. Appreciate the chance you’ve been handed and get it through your head you’re going to have to earn it to keep it. They’ve got enough problem children in the 2’s; you 5’s need to get over yourselves.”

I rarely saw Lou after that and am glad of it. Life is hard enough without having to deal with that sourpuss day in and day out; I was to find out that I was seeing her for the first time on one of her better days. As soon as the bus was full it fell in with a long line of other vehicles, all painted military green but of all shapes and sizes from heavily loaded flatbed trailers to golf carts. The ride was slow and bumpy. Dawn wasn’t that far away and it was light enough that I could finally make out my surroundings; large deciduous trees mixed in with cedars and pines pressed right up to the windows of the bus. Small broken branches here and there attested to all of the other vehicles that had already passed the same way. As we came to a V in the road the buses were directed to the left into a parking area as the rest of the long line continued straight.

“All right ladies,” but you could hear the heavy sarcasm when she said ladies, “stand up and take you crap with you. There is no lost and found out here. You leave it, you lose it forever. Your duffel bags are over there. Pick ‘em up and get in line. And don’t take all day, I’ve got to go get another load of you beauty queens.”

I stood up and she barked at me, “Chapman! Take these five crybabies, help them get their gear and report to Lt. Chandler. She’s standing by that green pole. See her?” I nodded and then did as asked if for no other reason than to get away from her and the bad vibes she was throwing off like a dog shaking his fur after a roll in smelly mud.

On the other hand crybaby wasn’t such a poor description of the women in question. They’d all been crying and weren’t looking exactly their best. They had trouble finding their clearly labeled duffle bags, complained about having to carry the heavy bags, and whined from the point they left the bus until Lt. Chandler shut them up with a look that had two of them crying again.

We followed the lieutenant down a sharp incline, into a large tunnel, and then through a heavy metal door, the kind I imagine could be used on a submarine. We then walked down a long, dimly lit hall, making so many twists and turns it was either keep up or be lost for who knew how long as we had seen no other people on our trek.

We finally wound up in an office area and were directed to sit down in a room that looked like a miniature lecture hall. And there we sat … and sat … and sat; the time only broken by the arrival of more people every thirty minutes or so. It was then I realized that we were all females, none any older than thirty. Women huddled in groups talking quietly amongst themselves, occasionally pointing to the very obviously observation cameras hung in the corners of the rooms when someone started to get upset or a little loud. Every once in a while someone would try and engage me in conversation but I kept to myself.

Three hours later, every seat filled, and the room starting to get a little warm and sticky, five people entered. Two of them were armed men in coveralls who stationed themselves at the door. One of them was a young woman, obviously a gopher of some type from her harried expression and the file box she carried. The two remaining people were also women, though more mature.

First we were instructed by the young woman to fill out the forms that she passed out to us. They were medical and family history forms, forms on our education and qualifications, a short form on our perceived talents and hobbies, and lots of other questionnaires where you bubbled in the best answer.

When we were finished and had turned everything in the younger of the two mature women stepped to the podium. She was in her forties, handsome rather than pretty, and introduced herself as Major Harper. She in turn introduced the other woman as Colonel Mackey. The best term I’ve found to use for Colonel Mackey is austere since it describes both her personality and her looks. She’s built blockey but trim with a full head of iron gray hair. Her smiles are rare and small and you have to work doggone hard to earn them. But she is the kind of person that when she talks people listen.

“There is no easy way to explain the situation you now find yourselves in. Your sponsors failed in their duty and their responsibilities are now mine. You were supposed to go through a vetting process, however due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control our timetable has accelerated dramatically. Now I’ve been left with the unenviable task of providing you with a condensed orientation. To put it succinctly … you were the price of your sponsor’s admission.”

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