Orange Dawn - Chapter 4

John Clark Smith
Part of me wanted to stay and find out what would happen but escape now looked more and more attractive. I edged along the building on the west side of the square. Meld in with the crowds, Melinda had said, until you reach the park. Then all I had to do was retrace the path I’d taken with Paul.
Yet first I had to slip out of the square, even though I felt like a dandelion on a putting green. I tried to calm myself and act as if I was familiar to citizens and the Guard. One step at a time. Concentrate on something else. Like where would I get a flashlight for the tunnels?
Melinda and Aphra had returned to Paul and Abe in the line. I stayed in the shadows underneath a balcony, a short distance from the café. From there it was only a few steps on the road that led to the park. People were looking in my direction – it was all I could do not to bolt.
Melinda leaned down to Aphra, handed her a few items, and pointed in my direction. Aphra looked at me and nodded. On the far side of the park, the bridge beckoned.  I started toward it without looking back.
Residents were still walking toward the square. They stared at me as I passed, but no one stopped to talk. I rolled my sleeves down to cover my bare wrists.
The park and one of the golden grasshoppers were ahead. I quickened my pace. Halfway to the bridge, I glanced over my shoulder. A small group of guards had just turned from the square into the road.
Had Paul, Abe or Melinda given me away? I began to run. The park was all open space; the shrubs wouldn’t hide even a child. Worse, the bridge was guarded by a National Guard soldier. The guard, with a German shepherd on a leash, stopped me with a kind tone.
"Ma’am, what’s wrong?” he asked. "You can't go this way.” The dog’s big black nose sniffed me.
"That's fine.”
"Could I see your identification?"
I showed him my driver’s licence. “I was lost and accidentally entered the town."
“You need to head back to the square and talk to the officers at the stations."
I turned around and saw another Guard enter the park.
“Stop her!” one of them yelled.
The Guard with the dog grabbed my arm and began to lead me over to them. We hadn’t gone more than a few yards when I saw Aphra and her mother entering the park. They hugged and Aphra broke away and raced down the eastern path along the river's edge, heading north. Melinda signaled frantically for me to follow.
I hesitated for a moment, ripped my arm away from the officer, and raced off as fast as I could after Aphra. Fortunately, my action seemed to surprise the Guard and his dog, who didn’t immediately pursue me. The other Guard wasn’t so fooled. I could feel him close behind. Never had I moved so quickly. I can only imagine how it must have appeared – a girl in a short skirt and blouse running as if a tiger was after her, a woman close behind, and a couple of Guards not far behind the woman.
We ran up the path to a place where the river narrowed. Without a moment's wait, as if she had done it many times, Aphra threw off her shoes, jumped into the river, and began to swim across. The heavy sound of military boots was coming down the path. I had no choice but to leap in.
Warning shots were fired. The dog barked. Aphra was already halfway across the river. I’m not an especially fast swimmer, but with adrenalin flowing I was moving faster than usual. Out the corner of my eye I saw Guards running toward the bridge.
Aphra reached the shore and raced off into a junk yard. By the time I hauled myself out onto the muddy bank, I could no longer see her. The yard was scattered with drums, old cars and trucks, cement sewer pipes, huge plastic barrels and countless other discarded items. I looked back and saw two Guards swimming across the river, while others were running up my side of the riverbank.
“Stop! You’re under arrest!”
More warning shots.
Then a little voice below me spoke: "In here."
Aphra was peeking out of a long cement pipe. I crawled into it and followed her down several others until we met a tunnel. She held out her hand and led me with a flashlight through several minutes of near darkness. I saw very little but heard the kissing squeaks of rats and smelled a damp odor like an old basement. That tunnel met others going in different directions, but Aphra seemed to know the way. Soon I saw a distant circle of orange light.
When we crawled out, we were near the backyard of her home. Peirce was tied up next to his doghouse. When he saw Aphra, he began barking.
Dripping wet, we briefly sat on the back stairs of the duplex to catch our breath.
Aphra was smiling widely. “We did it!”
“Yes, we did.”
“C’mon. Let’s get my stuff and change. Mummy says you can use her clothes.”
When I didn’t move, she asked, “What’s wrong?”.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m going on alone. I can’t take responsibility for you and Peirce.”
The happy expression on her face disappeared. “We’ll follow you,” she said in a defiant voice. “I know how to reach the hut and Paul gave me a key.”
My mind froze. Once again, I found myself in a corner. Like that time in university when I was one of the leaders giving the speeches and encouraging others to protest the university’s weapon research, until the campus police came, and I ran.
“I’m not going to the hut, Aphra. I’m sorry, but--”
“--I know,” Aphra said. “You’d not good with kids and dogs. Mummy said I might have to take care of you.”
 “Really?”
“It’s OK. She trained me. Glen trained me.” She gazed longingly back at Harding.
What would a mother have to say to induce a child to leave her for a stranger? If Aphra can face this situation, I thought, why can’t I?
Aphra untied Peirce, picked him up and cradled him. “Don’t worry, we can do it.”
"Don't you worry either," I said softly. "She'll be fine. She has friends."
*

After we had changed into dry clothes, we gathered the items we needed into two backpacks and one small satchel. We made our way through the same tunnel and cave that Paul and I had traveled, a passage that Aphra appeared to know well.
The trip was not without tears. Seemingly oblivious to the dank environment, Aphra would suddenly stop, her flashlight pointing at the ground, and whimper. I hurried her onward through the claustrophobic tunnel crawling with snails, grubs, and worms. I yearned for the light and was relieved when we left the cave.
Because Aphra was so distraught, I suggested we spend our first night at the hut. Yet even that distance was too far. As her eyes filled again with tears, she told me she wanted to sleep on the hillside overlooking Harding. I doubted the Guard would follow us in the dark, so I accepted the risk.
It was a warm and cloudless summer night. I found an area under a large fir tree. Peirce and Aphra cuddled together and I rested on the other side of the trunk, making a pillow of bags.
“Can’t we sneak back in?” she said after a time.
“I’m sorry, Aphra. You’re safer here.”
She started to sob quietly. "I want Mummy."
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll see your mother soon.”
When she finally fell asleep, all was quiet except for the slight wind passing through the trees and the periodic snore of a puppy. If we were ordinary campers, it would have been an inspiring moment. We were high above the city and valley below. The lights of the houses were glittering. We could smell the dogwood, pine and many wildflowers, especially the grape odor of the Eastern Shooting Star. The river glistened as it flowed by the city. Towering around us were the mountains. All of it sunk deep into the cushion of an orange cloud.


[To be continued ...]

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