~3300 words, 23 minutes reading time
It was after midnight when Miriam heard the quick crunch of feet over the gravel outside her shed. A regular person might have thought the noise outside was an animal, snuffling around for scraps, but her hearing was too good. She could not mistake it for anything other than a human foot; heel to ball, heel to ball. Good enough to be quiet, not good enough to be silent. A small, light body.
The power buzzed when she accessed it. Senses aflame, she could hear for a mile, see the distinct shape of things in total darkness. Her chest vibrated with the smallest shifts on the surfaces around her and ground below her.
She grabbed her baseball bat off her chair and crept across the cracked floor. This abandoned shed had been part of a flourishing vineyard before it was destroyed. Not designed for living, its floor was made of rough planks. A splinter pierced her barefoot. She winced, careful not to breathe in too sharply. The steps came closer.
Waiting a beat, she clenched her hands around the bat and burst through the door. Sprinting around the corner, a cobweb caught in her face, its threads sticky and soft. Sweeping away the lines across her vision, she ran toward the intruder in her garden.
“Back off!” She held the bat out, the muscles in her arms tense, ready to swing. It took a moment to realize the smaller body over her carrots was not a short adult, but a tall child. Miriam hesitated, shifting, as her bare feet dug into the earth. The moon, bright orange due to year-round wildfires, burned in her eye line. She squinted, tuning her vision like an instrument. The burning halo from the moon lessened, and the figure in shadow became clear.
A young boy looked at her, back bent over, arm through a pried-open hole in the wiring blanket she’d constructed over her garden. His eyes were wide, his skin as dark as hers; dark brown tinted red under the moonlight. The vibrations of his rubber shoes shifting into the earth rose through her own feet and up her body.
“Those are mine.”
He rose quickly, his body trembling. Yanking his arm out of the mesh, he cut himself, sending out a high-pitched ah into the night. Blood dripped, then oozed down his arm. Miriam breathed hard out her nose and lowered her bat. What was he, twelve? She wondered if she had a maternal bone in her body. Her mother always said she should have a baby before it was too late. Mom had stopped saying that in those last few years, before everything turned for the worse, before Miriam had to run. She kept her bat up. Kids were a liability. Even dangerous. In the beginning she’d lived in the refugee tenements, any maternal instinct curdled by watching desperate kids in knife fights over daily supplies. It’s how it went now. The more desperate people were, the more they were capable of. Her breath came fast and hot, the smell of basil and iron in the air. She stepped forward and the boy flinched.
“Why are you out here? Where are you supposed to be?”
He raised a shaky, bleeding arm, and pointed towards the trees. The patrols didn’t come out here much, despite the large area of land where immigrants could hide. They had the wall to keep trouble out. The land in this part of California was dry, brown and grey rocks covered in small brush, cactus, and leaning pines. In this shed near Lake Tahoe, Miriam could see each sparkling undulation in the water a mile in the distance. She could make out the wall, separating California and Nevada, or what had once been Nevada before it and all other states had fallen to the dark new order. The land was too arid, too close to the border; everyone, except for lone settlers like her, avoided it.
“You came from the woods?”
The kid nodded.
“Pretty far from the tenements.”
His eyes narrowed, then flicked back into the darkness around them.
“There isn’t anything out here. Just the wall a few miles east.”
He had a small afro, twigs and grass caught in his curls. He was thin but not malnourished. If he’d been on the run, it had only been for a short time. The rocky hills, sharp firs, remaining wild animals, would roughen one up.
“I…I…need to get back to Mom and, and the rest-” The boy tried to make his voice strong but a quiver traced through it. His eyes flicked back out towards the dark spaces between the trees.
Miriam raised her bat again. “Are there others? Out here? Are they trying to ambush me? I can get patrols out here-”
“I don’t…I don’t…”
His mouth opened and closed. She watched his every movement, and watched for any movement farther out into the night in her peripheral vision. She was careful not to show what she was doing. Being careful had worked for her this far. Knew not to trust kids, strangers, friends. Perked up her ears to every sound for a mile around. A mouse or small creature burrowed under fine stones a hundred yards away. An owl’s wings flurried, a hurried stop as it landed with sharp talons on the dry, aching branch of a very old, tall tree. The vibrations, aches and scratches for a mile around traveled over air and were pulled into her ear canals, enhanced and multiplied a thousandfold.
No patrols, no one else nearby.
“What are you doing here kid?”
“I just want to find my mom.”
A twinge went through her. She felt the same way and she was easily thirty years older than him. A cold breeze passed over them and she lowered her bat, still gripping its handle tight. It was darker, a cloud passing over the moon, but the kid’s watery eyes still sparkled through the darkness. She stared at him so long he shifted on his feet. His lips were dry, each crack visible to her sharp vision.
“We came on a train!” After this outburst, he shut his mouth tight, trying to compose himself. For a moment she imagined herself from the outside,a bat-brandishing stranger scaring a lost kid.
“There are no trains-” Miriam began. She stopped, , turning her head to the side. Several branches snapped at the far edge of her hearing. Listening harder, she heard feet, treading the same way the boy had, soft steps into dirt, probably a mile in the distance. She turned back and saw the boy was turned towards the trees. He listened for a moment longer and then saw her watching him. He had heard the distant sound, a sound so far away only the power could register ir. They had revealed themselves. Miriam opened her mouth but didn’t know what to say.
There was a scrape stone against jeans.
The rush of air as an arm swung. The whistle of a flying projectile.
The jagged edge of a rock smacked into her eyebrow.
Right eye clamped shut, her vision adjusting, a sharp pain running through her forehead, Miriam swung her bat around. The boy ran into the woods. He was already far off. Cursing under her breath, she brought her free hand to her eyebrow. A lot of blood, but a shallow cut. He shrunk into the distance. He wouldn’t make it in those woods alone.
Back inside her shack, Miriam paced the ten feet across. Back and forth. Drank water, tried to lay down to sleep. He was running away but she still couldn’t relax.
People couldn’t get across that wall anymore, no matter what that kid said. Just delirious. She’d barely made it out before they put up the wall, a dull metal structure reinforced by concrete beams, eleven meters high. All refugees knew the wall’s height, its layers of additional walls beyond the first, the trenches and spikes, armed guards and barbed wire. This new America made sure no more deviants could escape, or come back in to save those still trapped within its borders. Those who were the problem; queer people, disabled people, those who preached the falsehood of climate change, those who opposed security and national pride, and most definitely those born with the power, a phenomenon that had emerged in the last 50 years and scared all the normal, God-fearing citizens of the nation. They wanted their own country, safe from deviancy.
Miriam still heard the boy, breaking dry twigs as he ran, heading into the abyss. Five miles and he’d be at the end zone. Wandering into those woods looking for that boy would be a mistake. It was too bad the kid was separated from his mom. She’d want to know where he was. The last moments with her own parents flashed in her mind, their strained faces as she rushed onto a crowded bus to an even more crowded train station. They were supposed to follow her the next week, when more tickets were available. The trains stopped the next day. Only she would make it to California, now a separate nation after the civil war secured its freedom. She recalled the details of their faces everyday, keeping them solid. Were they even alive?
They wouldn’t want her risking her life right now. . Patrols might be out there;they shot curfew breakers on sight. She was doing the best she could to survive, and a fine job at that. Made a home on this remote hill, away from the tenements. Watched sunsets and sunrises through smog, enjoyed those moments even when she heard the roll of machinery and patter of guns in the distance, tasted gunpowder in the air. Even as the bombs and fighting of the last few years continued, the pollution and deforestation of the war accelerating climate change and increasing wildfires. Being away from the other refugees, on the edge of the world, was supposed to help her feel safe. But her body was always strained, tense, listening and looking for danger, even in this quiet place. There was no hope.Just a crushing wave that drowned you or pushed you out, out, out.
She couldn’t sleep. The sound of the boy’s frantic steps started to diminish, but remained in her hearing. Her fingers, calloused from hard labor, pulled the scratchy threads of her woollen blanket over her shoulders. Trying to settle down, she breathed deeply. The air inside her shed smelled like decaying flowers. Even though she knew better, even though she’d made it this far, she couldn’t sleep thinking about him. The thought of his terror out there was getting to her. Like the terror she’d felt in those dark compartments in secret vehicles, the cold metal burning under her skin.
She’d have to stop him. Bring him back, return him to the tenements in the morning, just to get some sleep. He wasn’t dangerous, not really, she could already tell that. Grabbing her bat and slinging a sack of water over her shoulder, she dragged herself out into the night. She’d see or hear anyone coming a mile off. From the quality of the darkness and the height of the moon, she knew it was a few hours from morning.
When Miriam found him, he was asleep, so tired even her footsteps hadn’t woken him up. She nudged him with the bat. His eyes flew open, bright white in the muted auburn heaviness of the late hour. Other people’s eyes wouldn’t be able to make out the details of a face in this darkness, but she could see the red vessels in the corners of his eyes, the droplets of sweat falling down his temples. The extra rods in their retinas set their faces aglow in the heavy shadows of the woods. “Are you a … where’d you come from?” Her voice was hushed, as if she was speaking to herself. Did he really cross the wall, concrete a thousand miles wide? “Did you get across the wall?”
A few dry croaks popped out of his mouth. Miriam scrambled for her water and held the bottle to his mouth. After drinking the whole container, he stopped, panting. “I rode a train.”
“A train?” She hissed. The dark scared her, but she needed to know. “Where is…this train?”
The boy’s eyes widened and he pointed down, pushing a shaky finger through the moulted leaves and into the earth.
Miriam remained still for some time. At first, she had no idea what he was getting at, if he was too frightened to make any sense. Then she understood. He meant to say there was a train under the ground. It was impossible. He was lying or had lost touch with reality. She nudged him with the end of her bat. Unnecessary, sure, but she’d never been good with kids, or people. He rose and they made their way back to her shed. He could sleep the night and find whoever had lost him in the morning. He wouldn’t die and she’d get answers.
She woke up to a series of knocks on her door, someone’s knuckles like small, rapid battering rams. The planks of her den, and the heightened cochlea in her ear, shook with the sound. Goddamn patrols. The sunrise was a faint violet through her small window. Somehow, she’d managed to sleep a few hours, dreaming of her mother waving her hands over the radioactive wasteland of Minnesota, turning the blackened earth into a field of flowers. The boy lay curled up in the corner under her one woolen blanket, his eyes open now. The hammering had woken him up. Finger to her lips, she nodded at him and stepped gently towards the door.
She hadn’t interacted with a patrol for months. Miriam showed up to her mandated government appointments; even though she knew the answer, she’d always ask about her parents. The officials would smile, nod, type things into broken computers. Nope, nobody, not a body, had escaped in the last year. Motioning with her hands, the boy followed her directions and covered himself with the blanket. Against the wall, near a few bags, he blended in.
Miriam strode to the door and opened it. Put on a bright, relaxed expression. A look of gratitude all the refugees like her were supposed to carry, in the face of the countrymen who had let them in.
“Hello, officers.” Sweet and sailing. A bright spike of light through the morning dust and clouds burned her eyes but she kept them open.
“ID.” The first of two guards spoke. Pale worms with black helmets stuck on their heads. They scanned her ID. “You seen a kid around here? Surveillance a few miles back shows him running near these parts. Part of a pack of intruders.”
She opened her eyes in surprise at the word intruders. “No! Intruders?”
Silence followed as they stood, expressionless.
“Through the wall?” She waited, eyebrows raised, to see their response.
“We can’t say more.” The first guard who had spoken to her glanced at the other, both of them fidgeting.
“This state is packed to the brim! We just can’t afford more people.” This place groaned with their presence, those shell-shocked refugees, people, who reminded them so blatantly of the state of the world. “I got here legally. So glad this state accepted me. God, we just can’t let others sneak in here though, can we?” She was laying it on as thick as icing.
“We’re cracking down.”
As the guards glanced into her shed, Miriam heard the sounds. Feet, at first a few pairs, then more, two dozen pairs of feet, stepping quickly through the forest a half a mile west. She knew the kid could hear them too, but he didn’t shift, didn’t move under that blanket. The patrols couldn’t hear. Her chest tightened and her face felt strained as she kept her gaze steady.
“You sure you haven’t seen anything?”
“It’s great you’re cracking down. I support it. But no, sorry.”
The second guard nodded. “We can’t let it be chaos. Law and order. We’re the good guys. We want actual law and order, peace and …all that.”
“Sure thing, sir.”
They stepped back and glanced around her small perimeter, spotting her garden. Their bodies leaned forward, staring underneath heavy helmets. “How’d you manage that?” One of them barked. “Haven’t seen growth like that in years.”
“My…mother taught me.”
That was true. But the patrols were only half-listening, staring at the bright colors of life. They lazily circled the shed, feet kicking up dirt onto their black trousers, eventually wandering away with a wave to Miriam. She smiled back, waving until they disappeared over the top of a hill. The rustle of the boy throwing off his blanket rose up behind her.
She leaned out the door and kept listening. He joined her, his mouth half open as he listened. A big group of them were snaking through the woods. Miriam’s thoughts flashed; these strangers’ approach, the patrols still within reach. Gripping the boy’s thin wrist, she felt the looseness of his dehydrated skin for the first time, and his frail warmth. She led him out the shed and into the woods, her feet carrying her before she could figure out what she would do when they met. She’d left behind hostile native citizens, other refugees, all the others left behind that wall, to survive. Suddenly, there were lost boys showing up outside her house, refugees crossing an impossible wall, underground trains that just might be real, all invading her isolated life.
The boy ran and she followed. The familiar scent of charcoal, the crunch of leaves underfoot. A sturdy figure was visible amongst the trees, soon surrounded by others. The boy burst into a sprint. Miriam’s breath sharpened in her throat as she tried to keep up. The figure had the same dark brown face as the boy, softened by age. She slowed down, able now to make out the greying baby hairs haloing the woman’s head. Yards away, the collective rustling of the people was audible; the smell of charcoal now overpowered by the scent of musty bodies. She was surprised to see how clean their clothes looked, compared to her own – some were only partially torn and dirtied. Her own were so worn and browned that no one would ever doubt her status as a refugee. A large group of people, many of them black and brown, stood before them.
The boy flung himself into his mother’s arms. Miriam straightened her shoulders, holding her hands behind her back to stretch out, and caught her breath.
“He wandered into my home. You must have been worried sick.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much. I didn’t think I’d…” The woman’s face tightened and she clutched the boy close to her chest.
He grinned; it was the first time Miriam had seen him smile, and it changed his whole face.
“They’re looking for you.”
“Of course they are.” The woman raised her eyebrow, and those behind her shifted, muttering among themselves, ready to move at a moment’s notice.
“Your son told me you came in on a train.” She had to know the truth.
The woman looked Miriam up and down as the crowd fell silent. Her gaze was intense. Miriam held it until she couldn’t bear to any longer, glancing away and towards those around them.
“If you did, I’d think that was… amazing.”
“That would be, wouldn’t it?” The woman smiled. She must be the leader of the group. “We didn’t think anyone would catch us out here.”
Miriam stared at her. “No one here thinks it’s possible. And if this is possible a whole lot else might be.”
“We’ll have to go.” Someone spoke up from behind.
The woman turned back and nodded. “We have to keep going to …where we are going.”
The woman had turned but looked back. The rest of her people had started to walk again, their light steps tracing a soft path through the woods ahead. “You have the abilities, don’t you?”
Miriam nodded. Something about the woman’s gaze, her arm around her son, reminded Miriam of her own mother..
“We’ll need people like you. If you want to join. You saved my boy. Brought him back to me.”
“It was nothing-”
“No. It was something. It was everything. In this world.”
“Where are you all going?”
“To where righteousness still lives.”
“What?” A dry laugh escaped Miriam’s mouth.
The woman ran a hand over her face, brushing away the fine dust that collected on the skin here. Floating ash.
“Nothing is certain yet. But we’ve made it this far. We’ve built a movement that can’t be stopped now. California can’t hold us. They are barely surviving , a new nation after a long war. Refugees can’t live here. And more of us are coming.”
“So does that mean you have a secret place you’re going?”
Miriam watched her for a moment. The woman wouldn’t tell her more yet, which made sense. For a moment she considered it. Finally being amongst others, maybe even people she could trust. The North was greener. Maybe Oregon was headed for civil war. It had always been suspected new America had a weak hold on it. But as soon as she contemplated it, she knew she couldn’t leave. This lonely, rocky terrain was her own. At least for now. And she still hoped to find them one day. She wanted to stay as close to her parents as possible. She owed them everything, and she owed them this last bit of hope curled tight in her chest.
“I can’t leave.”
The woman nodded. “I understand.” She raised her head to look over the pines, the distant mountains.
Miriam thought about her parents. Even as they had aged, they resisted the tide of things. After so long, she had nearly forgotten what she had once believed. She decided then. “But I want to help. If all of this is true, you’ll need someone here. To … watch the border. They think they know where everyone like us is. They don’t know. Maybe…help those along this little trail you’re creating.”
“Are you up for that? Might draw some heat.”
“I’ve been here a while. I know these patrols.”
The woman, who had been holding her son tight, kissed the top of his head, then reached forward to shake Miriam’s hand. “An agreement, then?”
Miriam took her hand.
Zebib K. A. (she/her) is a writer and psychiatrist recently moved from NYC to Edinburgh Scotland to do a masters in creative writing. She is black, queer, and from an immigrant background, and explores these identities in her writing. She has been published in The Rumpus, Counterclock, The Selkie, and other anthologies and journals. She can be found at medium.com/@pegasusunder, twitter @pegasusunder1, and Instagram @pegasusunder.
Author of “Commodities”
What inspired you to write this story?
The idea for this story first came to me when I moved to Scotland for my masters program, in the midst of this pandemic. I was in a new country but quarantined. I had been isolated and unable to exist in the world in America, and that continued in a foreign country. I was happy to be here, privileged in my health, but the idea of traveling to a new country and remaining inside, as the world was in turmoil, people were dying, and the chronic violence of social injustice coming to a head, struck me as a great setting for a speculative story. I remembered my parents fleeing a civil war in the early 1980s; all this inspired me to write a speculative dystopian story of a divided America.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
I wanted readers to reflect on multiple issues related to racism, refugee rights and climate change. I hope the reader can understand an experience of being displaced and isolated as a refugee, as well as the toxic politics and policies around America’s border with Mexico and the internment of immigrants there. I also wanted to show the real possibilities of white supremacy and extremist thinking and what it could do in this world.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story/poem has been through?
I did about 6 big picture edits on this piece. It went through several iterations before I knew what it was really about and what the speculative elements were, then several edits to smooth out and fill in details.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
My partner is a marvelous writer and had a trippy, imaginative piece published in 2020 that I love!
I am a big movie buff, and recently enjoyed the film Forty-Year Old Version.