Graduated from M.I.T. as a mathematician, Bob Jones has made his living as a full-time professional entertainer (singer and musician) most of his life, including a stint as a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. Repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have led to work as a librarian, teacher of physics and mathematics, and city planner among other occupations. For twelve years, he wrote a regularcolumn, reviews, and feature articles for a national music and arts magazine. Later, he wrote a syndicated newspaper column on the English language for a decade. Bob emigrated to New Zealand in the 1990s but returns to the US (and Europe) to perform. Most recently, he has written three novels and thirty-some short stories. His fiction has appeared in the Galway Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Red Fez, Veronica, Degenerate Literature, and other literary journals.
As a trusted “patient”, Helen often drew jobs assigned only to low-risk inmates. For four days, she had policed the northern perimeter of the huge desert compound under the summer sun, her only protection the standard issue high-visibility yellow-green T-shirt and shorts and the broad-brimmed high-vis hat issued to avoid charges of cruelty.
On her rounds, Helen made some interesting discoveries. She had so far found two complete mostly buried car bodies. Each discovery required her to walk the six hundred yards back to the supervisor's shack and have a digger sent out to remove the wreck. Helen hadn't called a digger in to remove an almost completely buried piece of concrete culvert, because she had noticed something else nearby: spots where both perimeter fences didn't reach the ground.
The juxtaposition of the pipe and the gaps spawned a plan. Helen knew she would have to act quickly, before someone else spotted one or the other and called in the contractors. The problem of the motion detectors occupied Helen's thoughts most of a day, but she thought she might have a solution.
The federal government had forced California to accept an “Educational Rehabilitation Center” in the Mojave Desert. The governor and most of the legislature along with the majority of the state's population opposed the President's plan to build what amounted to a concentration camp on their territory but were powerless to stop it. Contractors had erected the fences and built the first structures three years ago and continued adding dormitories and cell blocks, as Helen patrolled the grounds.
The feds had picked Helen up at a peaceful anti-government rally in San Francisco. A kangaroo court had ruled that she was not competent to stand trial and needed rehabilitation, so she was sent to the Pony Corner Educational Rehabilitation Center. In Helen's twenty months at the camp, the administrators had never allowed her or any other inmates to contact lawyers or anyone else outside. She lived with outrage, anger, and desperation.
Helen knew that office and dormitory furniture usually arrived wrapped in large sheets of heavy kraft paper. She also knew that the camp administration didn't bother to burn or recycle the paper, which often nearly overflowed some of the dumpsters. Early on Friday, her third day on the northern perimeter, she retrieved several square yards of the heavy paper and sequestered it under her mattress. The compound carried a smaller staff on weekends, and Helen's fourth day on the northern perimeter fell on Saturday. Exploiting the reduced supervision, she managed to deposit a pint bottle of water and half the kraft paper in the buried culvert.
For—probably unconstitutional—religious reasons, no work beyond kitchen chores was assigned on Sundays. Helen used the day's meals to load up on carbohydrates and fluids. She ate the institutional dinner and visited her bunk to retrieve the rest of the paper and hide her high-vis, prison-labelled hat under the mattress. After the sun set but while the twilight still felt like full daylight, and before all the floodlights and sensors switched on, Helen walked casually toward the northern fence line carrying another pint bottle of water under the paper. She reached the culvert, just too far inside the fence to be in range of the perimeter sensors, and slipped inside.
Helen emerged from the pipe an hour later and three hours before moonrise, covered herself with two layers of paper, and began crawling toward the gap below the inner fence. Moving at the pace of a snail—of which there were none in the desert—she reached the low spot in half an hour. Another fifteen minutes got her and the paper past the inner fence. She lay quietly, listening for only a minute, then checked that the paper completely covered her and resumed her slow crawl toward the outer fence. Forty minutes later, Helen lay outside the compound. She listened briefly then crawled another fifty yards to ensure she lay outside the range of the sensors and lights. Still afraid she might be spotted, she folded the paper and began walking briskly northward.
Helen walked for nearly two hours by starlight alone, aided by the barrenness and relative smoothness of the desert. She had covered four or five miles, when she came to a well-formed road running from southwest to northeast. Helen considered using the road in order to make better time but decided that would be too risky, too obvious. Instead, she walked along the road for about a hundred yards, then turned back south and paralleled the road for another hundred. She then walked southeast a few yards before laying two sheets of kraft paper on the ground and rolling from the first to the second. She then put the first one beyond the second one and continued in the same direction, angling back toward the road as she repeated those actions over and over. After crossing the road on her paper sheets, she continued rolling and swapping sheets for most of a hundred yards on the other side.
Slightly dizzy from all the rolling and feeling worried about the time, she folded the sheets she'd used and walked backward for two or three hundred yards. Finally deciding she couldn't afford to spend more time disguising her tracks, Helen resumed her trek, pushing herself due north toward the mountains and climbing steadily as the first faint light of the still-gibbous moon appeared on the eastern horizon. When the moon rose high enough to illuminate the sloping desert floor, she quickened her pace.
As she walked, Helen mused on the irony of her incarceration. She had never been politically active and, while sympathetic, had attended the rally mainly because several friends went and urged her to accompany them. She did her job well—teaching high school math—rode with a local mountain bike club, did a little gardening, volunteered at a second-hand shop that raised money to help refugees, hung out with friends, played her guitar occasionally, and read a novel or a magazine now and then. Helen had never joined anything except the teachers' union and the mountain bike club.
She had always thought of politics as a silly game that some people played for their own amusement, a game she mostly ignored. She cast a vote every two years as a civic duty, but she paid only minimal attention to the politicians' campaigns. She hadn't voted for Drumpf, of course; she'd held her nose and voted for that rich lawyer bitch. Unfortunately—indeed, disastrously, as she now recognized—too many people had done the opposite: held their noses and voted for Drumpf.
Helen's “rehabilitation” had politicized her. Every day in the concentration camp—for that's what it was, she knew—she re-affirmed her intention to fight against oppression, if she ever got out. And now she was out, although staying out—or even staying alive—might prove difficult.
As the moon rose higher, she thought she could see a road off to her right and altered her course slightly to the left and further up the slope only to find another road above her there. When she reached the upper road, she could see that it paralleled a line of enormous power pylons. She soon also saw that the two roads seemed to converge. What she didn't see was any place to rest. Helen had worked at keeping herself in good aerobic condition while imprisoned, but she had walked for five hours and gained two thousand feet in elevation. She felt tired but knew she dared not stop until she could get out of sight of the aircraft that would come looking when the daylight returned.
Estimating that she had three or four hours before sunrise, Helen followed the power line road half a mile to its intersection with the other road. There, she looked at the stars, found the little dipper and Polaris, and turned left onto the other road, which headed almost due north. In twenty minutes and less than a mile, the road began descending. Going downhill eased the strain on her muscles and lungs but punished her knees, ankles, and feet.
Ninety minutes later, the road seemed to become a well-travelled creek bed still leading generally north. By then, Helen had finished her first water bottle but continued to carry it in order to avoid leaving an obvious sign. In another hour, she found herself walking below cliffs that might provide shelter from prying eyes, if she couldn't find anything better before daylight overtook her. Moving more slowly in the shadows cast by the towering rock, she took another hour to reach the point where the canyon debouched onto the open desert. Walking on with the high, steep bluffs behind her, Helen felt almost elated. She could see the headlights of traffic on a highway four miles away, along with some stationary lights, and she could even hear the trucks.
Feeling exposed on the smooth empty desert, Helen backtracked to the moonshadow of the cliffs. A hint of the morning light to come painted a faint glow along the eastern horizon, as Helen sat on the sandy soil with her back against a large rock at the base of the bluff. She thought she probably had enough time to reach the highway before full light, if she walked fast. They might be looking for her there, though, and she didn't want to arrive at that point exhausted. Better to sleep through the day and reconnoiter the highway Monday night without having to worry about impending daylight, she thought. She had more than half of her second water bottle remaining—not much, but adequate—so she decided to look for a more concealed refuge.
Helen stepped away from the steep bluff and almost immediately spotted a cleft in the rocks a few yards beyond where she had sat and no more than forty or fifty feet wide. She picked up half a dozen stones and threw them into the dark chasm to flush out any coyotes or snakes. Hearing nothing but the rattle of rock on rock, she picked up another handful and entered the opening just as the sun came over the horizon. She continued to pick up rocks and throw them ahead, as she walked and clambered over boulders further into the narrowing canyon. A hundred feet in, she could touch both sides and, despite the gloom, could see a dozen potential hiding places.
Upon reaching the head of the little box canyon, Helen turned back toward the entrance, inspecting each potential refuge as she went. Halfway to the mouth of the canyon, she reversed direction again and returned to a broad stone shelf projecting from the east wall above a bare patch of sandy dust. Beneath that ledge, she would be invisible to anyone not standing right there in the box canyon—even someone with high-tech instruments. She spread her paper on the ground, took one small sip from her bottle, lay on the paper, and fell immediately asleep.
She woke once, from a dream of pursuit by an airplane, and realized she did hear the sound of an aircraft disappearing in the distance. Uncomfortably warm but cooled by the rocks around her, she felt secure enough—and tired enough—to fall back asleep. She woke again in the early afternoon, hot and thirsty, but grateful for her little patch of shade. Helen took a small sip of water, then lay quietly formulating a plan for the night. Eventually, she fell back asleep.
When she woke again, the sun was low in the sky. She could see blue sky overhead, but the canyon lay in a deeper gloom than when she had first entered it early in the morning. She walked back to the head of the canyon to eliminate the small amount of fluid that hadn't escaped as perspiration, then made a leisurely trip to just inside the opening. She crouched behind a boulder and looked out toward the highway, wanting to get a feel for the ground she would have to cross in the dark. Helen could see a couple of homesteads and thought she could make out at least two fence lines.
The sound of an airplane sent Helen diving into the space beneath where two boulders leaned against each other. Fortunately, the space was not occupied by any venomous creatures—a thought that occurred to her only after the sound of the 'plane faded. By then, the shadow of the mountains behind her stretched more than halfway to the highway and covered the nearest homestead.
Moving to sit against one of the boulders in the shadow at the mouth of the canyon, Helen revisited and extended her earlier thoughts about the best way to hitch a ride without getting caught. She considered standing by the highway and flagging down a truck or car in the night. Two objections militated against that course of action: (1) a lot of truckers seemed to be fans of President Drumpf and might not want to help her escape, and (2) her pursuers could be on her in the dark before she saw them coming. Scoping out likely drivers, truck or otherwise, at a gas station or truck stop might prove a better strategy—except that the feds might look for her at such places. By the time the shadow of the mountains reached the highway, Helen had decided to wait until she got a closer look at the highway and its surroundings before making a decision.
She studied the lay of the land, the homesteads, the highway, and the fences as best she could in the fading light, then drank most of her remaining water and set out walking in the starlit dark. Smooth, and gently downhill pretty much all the way to the highway, the desert provided a less strenuous walk than the previous night. Helen confronted three fences, one of them already mostly tumbled down, and climbed through them without problem or injury. In each case, the paper she held in front of her gave warning before the barbed wire could scratch her. She crossed two well-formed dirt roads and passed within two hundred yards of a lit-up homestead, but not near enough to set their dogs barking.
From a quarter-mile out, Helen could see she had found not a two-lane highway but a four-lane freeway. That offered advantages—more traffic—and disadvantages—drivers feeling less inclined to stop—and another and more difficult fence to traverse. Also, not wanting to head toward Arizona, she faced the problem of getting all the way across to the far side. None of those problems was insurmountable, and another advantage became apparent as Helen drew closer: she had reached the freeway precisely at a spot where the Federal Highway Administration had provided a rest area on each side.
Two hours of careful and deliberately leisurely walking brought Helen to a paved road she hadn't noticed. The road carried no traffic, and another two hundred yards brought Helen to the freeway's boundary fence. Once inside the rest area, she walked straight to the rest rooms and locked herself in a toilet cubicle. She wrapped her high-vis shoes with PCERC stencilled on them in most of the kraft paper and left them in a trash can outside. She then quickly refilled, drained, and again refilled her empty water bottle. Fifteen minutes later, she exploited a lull in the nighttime traffic for a sprint across four empty lanes, then strolled as nonchalantly as she could to the women's rest rooms on the westbound side.
Helen again locked herself in a toilet stall and sat down. Now what? she wondered. A rumbling in her belly reminded her that she hadn't eaten in more than twenty-four hours. I'm not going to get a ride sitting in here, she thought. Just as she stood up, someone entered the restroom, so Helen sat and waited quietly while the person used the adjacent stall. Once she had the restroom to herself again, Helen hurried to the door and peeked out at the scattering of vehicles she could see.
She stepped outside to get a better look, but nothing struck her as an obvious safe bet. She felt exposed and uncomfortable realizing people could see her without her seeing them. After a moment, she stepped back inside and retreated to her stall.
Helen decided to wait until first light but didn't want to spend the night sitting on a toilet seat. If I'm going to wait for daylight, she thought, I need to get some sleep so I'll be clear-headed and fresh. From the box canyon, this part of the freeway had appeared lined with trees. The rest areas on both sides had many trees, but none of them had foliage lower than five feet above the ground. Helen surmised the highway authorities kept the trees pruned to eliminate exactly what she wanted: a secluded place to sleep. Peering out, she saw a dark shape outside the tree line and decided to risk a closer look.
Standing in the toilet cubicle, she fashioned her remaining kraft paper into an outer layer just covering her prison garments. Once she felt she could improve the covers no further, she stepped out and affected a casual stroll about the rest area. Passing between two trees, she came to what appeared in the dim, tree-filtered light to be a shipping container sitting up on blocks. From the smell, she guessed the container probably held rubbish collected from the trash cans on this side.
Although noticeable, the smell wasn't strong enough to drive her away or to keep her awake. She picked up a handful of stones and repeated the morning's exercise of tossing them to encourage any resident snakes to leave. Wishing she had saved more of the kraft paper, Helen finally slipped under the container. She lay awake for an hour thinking about what she would do in the morning but eventually fell asleep for a surprisingly restful slumber.
Helen woke in the dark and maneuvered herself to a position that allowed her to see some of the eastern sky. She suppressed all thoughts of food and decided to stay put until the sky began to grow light and then move to one of the picnic tables. As she lay, watching the artificially illuminated rest area and keeping tabs on the black sky above it, she pondered not only her next move but also longer term plans.
Where can I go? she wondered. Not back to her old haunts, she knew—the feds would look for her there and would find her in short order. Maybe I should've gone east, she thought—but she didn't know anyone east of San Diego, or at least El Cajon. South? The thought of arriving in Mexico with no money and no clothes made her shudder despite the warm temperature beneath the container. North? The government of Canada had so far been good about not repatriating political refugees. The country's powerful southern neighbor might exert enough influence to change that policy, but for now Canada seemed a possible haven—if she could get there.
When the sky had grown noticeably lighter, Helen strode to the women's rest room. Listening for approaching footsteps, she washed herself as well as she could using water from a handbasin, liquid soap from a wall-mounted dispenser, and paper towels. She hurried back to a stall and adjusted her paper garments, then went to the door and scanned the rest area. Once she felt confident she could identify the vehicles behind the headlights, she strolled to a picnic table and sat on one of its benches.
While working hard to appear nonchalant, Helen studied each vehicle that entered the rest area and each person who emerged from each of those vehicles. In what she estimated as ninety minutes, she ignored a dozen truck drivers and said “Hello” to three people—an elderly gentleman and a middle-aged couple—who had strolled past the table where she sat. She had made no requests for a ride. She knew her risk increased with every minute she sat there, but she figured asking the wrong person could pose a greater risk.
Helen considered approaching one of the younger truck drivers but continued to hesitate. She had never been at all vain about her appearance, but she found herself wishing the prison hadn't kept the inmates' hair so short. Fifteen minutes later, she watched a bus emblazoned with “The Ronnie Jarvis Show” pull in and park slightly off the pavement to get in the shade of a scrubby tree. At first, she placed the driver in his twenties because of his shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops and the spring in his walk. The silver beard and hair made Helen revise her estimate upward by three decades.
The man offered a smile and a cheery “Good morning,” as he ignored the concrete path and strode past Helen's table straight toward the rest rooms. While still keeping track of other vehicles and people, Helen watched the man until he disappeared into the men's room. She pictured him pulling out a cellphone and saying, “I've found her,” and then almost laughed out loud at the image. She thought he had a kindly face and merry eyes. She couldn't imagine him in the employ of the feds, especially driving that bus. He walked back outside, went to a water fountain filled an empty glass bottle he'd been carrying, then did a roundabout walk back to the bus. She was about to jump up and run to the bus, when he reappeared and proceeded to walk vigorously around the rest area, stopping every so often to do squatting, bending, and twisting exercises.
His path back to the bus took him near Helen's table again, and she said, “Excuse me.”
“Hi again,” he said with another smile. He stopped and looked at her and continued with, “How can I help?” Helen saw his eyes taking in her makeshift paper garments hiding—she hoped—her prison attire. “Holy sh--!” he said. “Did someone carjack you and steal your clothes?”
“Something like that,” Helen replied in a shaky tone.
“That sux. Shall I ring the police? I have a cellphone in—”
“No! I mean, I don't think that's the best thing for me to do right now.”
The man's kindly face took on a puzzled look for only a moment. “Was it a cop who did it?” he asked.
Helen didn't want to lie, but she wanted to get the hell out of there. She nodded her head and began to speak, but the man interrupted her. His eyes looked less kindly, as he said, “What kind of low-down son of a bitch . . .” He stopped and looked around, then said, “This isn't a conversation you want everyone to hear, is it?”
Helen shook her head, and he said, “Let's walk over to the other side of the bus, if you're OK with that.”
Helen nodded vigorously and jumped up from the table. As she walked across the pavement, she thought, Anyone watching will assume I'm a prostitute. As she and the balding, silver-bearded man stepped into the shade of the tree sheltering the bus, she thought, So what.
The man said, “Back to my original question: what can I do to help?”
“Get me out of here.”
“That's easy, and I suppose we can talk while we're moving.” The man reached for the door and said, “C'mon i—wait! Is somebody after you?”
Helen nodded and said, “Yes,” very softly.
“OK,” he said, pulling his hand away from the door handle, “this gets complicated.” He paused and began again. “I have three fellas in there. I don't imagine any of them could know whoever did this, but they're all from Southern California. I'm pretty sure they're all three asleep.”
Helen waited, while the man lost himself in thought for a moment. When he resumed, he said, “I think the best thing is for you to just walk straight back to the bedroom—it's right at the back, at the end of the aisle. Just open the door and go on in. There's no seats or seatbelts, but you can at least be comfortable on my bed. More to the point, nobody can see you in there.”
“Are you sure that's OK?” Helen asked, fearing he might change his mind.
“No, but we've got to get you out of here, don't we. Once I drop the guys off, I can take you wherever you need to go.”
Five minutes later, the bus rolled west on Interstate 40, as Helen lay on the most comfortable bed she'd ever felt. Despite her many hours of sleep in the previous day and night, she dozed to the motion of the bus as it climbed the mountains and descended into Los Angeles. Helen woke when the bus came to a stop. Peeking around the curtains, she saw the bus had stopped for a traffic light. She lay back down but peeked again, when the bus stopped and remained stationary.
Helen saw her benefactor and another man remove a small suitcase, a garment bag, and two instrument cases from the bus's cargo bay and carry everything to the front porch of a modest stucco house. The two men talked for a few minutes, before Helen's benefactor returned to the bus and resumed driving. He repeated the entire process twice over the next hour, then pulled into a large parking lot and shut off the motor.
A moment later, Helen heard a knock on the bedroom door. She opened the door and found the silver-bearded man standing before her. “OK,” he said, “Where would you like to go? I'm not sure what this area is called—it'd be North Hollywood or Van Nuys, I think. I've stopped at Costco, 'cause I figure you prob'ly need some clothes, underwear—whatever.”
“You're very thoughtful,” Helen replied. “The thing is—”
A slight tremor in Helen's voice made Ronnie stop and give her a worried look.
“You're being really nice to me—but I don't have any mon—”
“I kinda figured that. Don't worry about it.”
“But I might never be able to pay you back.”
“That's OK. You need help, and I like helping people. Thy needs are greater than mine, or something like that.”
Helen wondered if he was some kind of religious nut, who might report her. While she dithered, wondering what to say, he spoke again. “Or, as we used to say, when I lived in Oregon: what goes around, comes around.”
That old hippy saying reassured Helen a little, and she said, “I can't go in there like this.”
“No. Let's make a list.” He patted his pockets, then walked to the front of the bus and returned with a little notebook and a pen. “You'll want underwear, bra, a blouse or shirt or something—or would you prefer a dress? Or slacks? A skirt? You just tell me and tell me what size for each thing.”
Wondering what the man might expect from her in exchange for his largesse, Helen felt she didn't have much choice and compiled a list with him. When they were done, the man said, “Oh, by the way, my names Ronnie Jarvis.” Helen hesitated in replying to his introduction, and he said, “You don't have to tell me your name, if you think it'd be safer not to.”
“I might just wait awhile, if that's OK.”
“Yeah, of course it's OK. You don't have to tell me at all. Now, look, it'll get pretty warm in here without the motor running. I won't be too long, but there's cold water and milk and stuff in the 'fridge. Help yourself, and I'll be as quick as I can. I'll lock the door, but you can still open it from the inside in case of an emergency.”
With that, Ronnie Jarvis disappeared down the steps and out the door. She heard the sound of his key in the lock and couldn't resist peeking around the edge of the curtain to watch him walk into Costco. As she watched, she thought he seemed like an awfully nice man. She also thought a glass of cold water sounded good, so she poured herself one out of the container in the fridge. She also drank a glass of milk and, seeing a loaf of wholemeal bread, ate a slice of that.
Forty minutes later, Ronnie returned with several bags of booty—including slacks, jeans, skirts, blouses, a pretty summer dress, a toothbrush, a raft of undergarments, and an overnight bag.
“That's so sweet of you,” she said, “but you didn't have to get all that.”
“I know I didn't have to, but I can afford to be generous—so don't worry. Do you know what size hat you wear?”
Helen didn't—the prison hats came in small, medium, and large. Ronnie rummaged in a cupboard and extracted two hat boxes. “Here, try on a couple of mine,” he said. His hats fit her reasonably well, and he said, “OK, you get into whatever clothes you want to wear. I'll be right back,” and disappeared out the door again.
Ten minutes later, Ronnie returned with a straw Western hat, a large-ish pair of sunglasses, and a pair of flip-flops. He unlocked the door and called, “OK if I come in?”
“Of course. Goodness! It's your bus.”
“Sure, but I didn't want to make you uncomfortable or anything.”
“Thank you so much. I took the liberty of drinking a glass of your milk and eating a slice of bread. I hope that's OK.”
“F'r cryin' out loud! Of course it's OK. That's what it's for.” He paused for a moment and then asked, “When's the last time you ate?”
Ronnie said nothing for a full minute, then asked, “You don't do speed, do you?” He quickly continued, “I mean—”
“No. No, Ronnie, it isn't like that. I'm not like that. I jus—”
Helen's distress must've shown on her face, because he quickly said, “OK! I didn't really think you were a speed freak. It's just…that's a long time. Have you been at that rest area that whole time?”
“Is it better if I don't know?”
“No, oh, maybe yes. I don't know.”
“Are you hungry?”
“But I don't have to feed you, 'cause you can't repay me and blah-blah-blah. Yeah, yeah, I know all that. But, look, my dear anonymous lady, I've gotten involved in taking care of you, so I'm going to feed you. Just relax and concentrate on what we need to do to keep you safe and sound.”
Helen began to thank him, but he cut her off, “Yeah, OK. I accept your thanks, but don't waste time on that. I want to do what I can to help. Now, I can fix you something, or you can just hunt around and find yourself something to eat. You saw the bread—there's also cheese in the 'fridge. There's peanut butter in the cupboard next to it, and a knife in the drawer.”
Helen retrieved several items and began making a sandwich. She asked if she could make something for him.
“You feed yourself first,” he said. “I had a good breakfast this morning, so I could go all day if need be. Don't worry about me. I'm worryin' about you, and one of us worryin' is enough.”
Helen felt happy enough to laugh, as she made a surprisingly delicious cheese sandwich. When she finished eating, Ronnie said, “Now that you've got dressed, you can put on the hat and shades, and we can go in and get you some shoes.” So they did.
Before he started the motor, her benefactor said, “I guess the first priority is figuring out where you want to go.”
Helen didn't know what to say. Thinking only about getting as far away as possible, she said, “Well, I was hoping to get to Seattle, but I don't know how I'm going to do that without any money. If you could get me to 101 outside the city . . .”
“I could do that,” he replied, “but I don't think it's a good idea. Doesn't sound safe. The good news is, I'm heading to Vancouver, so I can take you to Seattle—but not in this. Let me think about how we can do this, while I get some fuel in this old girl.”
Ronnie then drove a few blocks to a gas station and started pumping diesel into the bus. He stuck his head in the door and said, “Do you have stuff you need to get rid of? That paper or whatever?”
Helen wondered what he would think of her prison clothes but decided to take the chance and handed them out to him with the kraft paper. He disappeared for a few moments, and she heard him removing the nozzle from the bus's filler neck sooner than she'd expected. He went in to the cashier and paid, returning with two small bottles of orange juice.
“It's nice to have a treat sometimes,” he said, as he handed her one of the bottles. She thanked him and emptied the bottle in one long draft. He took the empty bottle and dropped it into a box labelled “glass”, then said, “If you put your hat and shades back on, you can sit up here and we can talk while I drive.” She followed his suggestion, then fastened her seat belt while he started the motor. Instead of getting back on the freeway a hundred yards from the gas station, Ronnie drove back to Costco and made a series of 'phone calls from their parking lot. The last call ended with “Hour'n'a-bit—give me two hours. You're sure it's OK? Great! I'll ring you when I get there.” He then went back into the store and shopped for food.
Once they were headed north on the 405, Ronnie said, “May I ask you something, while we're driving?”
“Were those prison duds?”
Helen felt a chill run through her. She didn't know what to say, and her hesitation stretched for long moments.
“I'll take that as a 'yes',” Ronnie said. When Helen didn't reply, he continued, “Well, you'll be happy to know they're in the back of a pickup with Texas plates—so if anybody ever finds 'em, they'll prob'ly be a long way away.”
“Thank you,” Helen said for the umpteenth time.
“Yeah, yeah. Don't worry about that.”
“It wasn't really a prison.”
“You want to talk about it? What did you get sent up for?”
“Nothing. I was never convicted of anything. I didn't do anything.”
Helen knew telling him the whole story could put her in serious danger, but she hoped he would be sympathetic to her point of view. She decided to accept the risk. “They call it an Educational Rehabilitation Center, but it's a concentration camp.”
“Not a state prison?”
“Out there in the desert.”
“Holy hell! I'd heard stories about the feds building a couple of prison-camp-sort-of-things in California, but I hadn't ever seen anything to confirm that. Y'know? It was sort of like a conspiracy theory thing.”
“It's real. At least that one is.”
“So how . . . ?”
Helen ended up telling him the whole story, about her life before, about the demonstration, about the phony trial, about the camp, and about her walk over the mountains. By the time she finished, they had climbed out of Los Angeles on Highway 14 and begun the slight descent into the Antelope Valley. Helen worried, as Ronnie drove silently for several miles.
“Wow!” he finally said. “I'm harboring someone who could derail Drumpf's re-election.”
They talked most of the way into Lancaster about the politics of the situation, and Helen felt relieved to discover that she and Ronnie had the same views on virtually everything. She asked about his life and felt surprised to learn that he was an entertainer who made his living singing country music. At the Shady Elms RV Park, Ronnie got a site that wasn't under any shady elms. He used the park's waste dump to empty both tanks, then pulled into the assigned space. Once he had the electrical and water connections in place, he fastened covers over his tires and a large fabric cover over the windshield, then disappeared under the bus with a ratchet and socket. He came back inside saying, “Whew! It's hot,” and handed Helen a key. “My spare for the bus, in case you need to go out—'though I s'pect it's better if you don't.”
He sat down, and they discussed the practical aspects of Helen's situation. “I don't think Seattle's going to be safe,” he said.
“I was afraid to say Canada, you know, becaus—”
“Understandable. So, we need to get you into Canada. OK. We can do that.”
Helen felt herself relax more than she had in twenty-two months.
“But,” Ronnie continued, “I'm going to have to leave you here for a few days. I have a couple of gigs in the city, and I need to rent a van to drive north—also in the city. I'll prob'ly come back late tomorrow night.”
“Would you have rented something, if I hadn't disrupted your life?”
“Probably not, but I often do. See, I store my bus outside Mojave, just north of here. About half the time, I take the train to Vancouver. But the other half I rent a van and visit friends on the way, prob'ly more than half, actually.”
“So, do you live in Vancouver?”
“No, I just won't travel through U.S. ports. I live in New Zealand.”
“How in the . . . Are you sure you're a country singer?”
He opened a cupboard and pulled out a large box.
Helen looked in the box and found it full of CDs, two hundred of them and all of them with Ronnie's picture and name on them, eleven different albums. “OK,” she said, “you're a country singer alright. But how did you end up living in New Zealand, of all places?”
“I went there on tour—sort of on purpose, I guess. I liked their attitude—refusing to host American navy ships in their ports and all—and had heard good things about it. Nuclear-free, no snakes, clean and green, and all that. I found I felt more at home there than here, so I jumped through the necessary hoops and emigrated.”
“Amazing! Why do you come back here? Family?”
“Nahh, I'm not close to my family. This is where the gigs are.”
Helen wanted to ask more but sat quietly and thought about her situation and about this nice man she'd lucked into meeting. Before she could speak, Ronnie did. “Warren'll be here soon, so I want to explain about the bus. By yourself, you won't fill the waste tanks, and you have water and power and plenty of food, I think. We can head north Sunday, but I'll come back here, prob'ly late tomorrow night, to make sure you're OK. You can use my laptop, if you want to start writing up your experiences. And I think the fewer people who know you're here, the better.”
“What about your friend?”
“Warren? He's an OK guy, and I trust him to be a decent person and all, but I don't trust him not to blab.”
When Warren arrived a few minutes later, Helen hid in the bedroom. She peeked around the curtain to watch Ronnie load two instrument cases, a garment bag, and a knapsack into the backseat of Warren's pickup. Once Warren had driven away, Helen explored the bus and inventoried her food supplies. That done, she wished she had a book to read—then remembered she had seen one beside Ronnie's comfortable bed. She spent most of the next three days reading and writing.
Helen heard Ronnie's key in the lock at three o'clock Thursday morning and realized with a start that she was in his bed. He called out softly, “Everything OK?”
“I forgot I was in your bed.”
“We can talk about that tomorrow. I'll just crash on a bunk. Are you OK?”
“I can move to a bunk. Yeah, I'm fine. How was your show?”
“Good. Stay there. Go back to sleep. We'll talk in the morning.”
And they did. Ronnie told Helen he felt attracted to her “physically and otherwise—but that isn't what this is about.” He reiterated his desire to help, “even without the justice-stroke-political angle,” and insisted that he did not demand or expect any sexual favors. “My aim is to get you safely out of the country,” he said. “What you do after that is your own business—'though I hope you'll expose the bastards.”
Helen laughed at first, when she saw that Ronnie had bought full camouflage outfits for both of them, along with binoculars, four flashlights, two headlamps, two hand-held GPS devices, wools socks, silk socks, and a pair of heavy rubber gloves “in case there's an electric fence.” After he explained his plan, she felt encouraged and impressed—and lucky.
“You'll need hiking boots,” Ronnie said, “but you need to be there. And hammocks, in case we have to lay up.”
“Can't we just sleep on the ground?”
“Could, but the black bears can be dangerous up there.”
“And why do you have to walk with me? I can do it alone.”
“'Cause I'll be worrying the whole time, if I don't. Also, if somebody does spot us, I might be able to distract them and give you a chance to get away.”
“Prob'ly won't be, but neither of us wants you to get caught.”
She couldn't argue with that and didn't, although she still doubted the need for him to accompany her. “Before I forget,” she said instead, “I want to thank you for leaving that book here—it's so-o-o good.” To his questioning look, she said, “Mirrors. It—”
“Oh, yeah. Galeano's book. It's great. I waited a year to get that—couldn't get it in New Zealand. Hey! Different topic: do you want to come to my show Saturday night at Montana's? We could fine tune our hiking gear at REI in the afternoon.”
“D'you think that's safe?”
“With your hat and shades, as long as we're careful, prob'ly. I was thinking we might find a store where you can find a wig, too.”
“You're spending a lot of money on me.”
“Getting you safely out of the country is important. Besides, I grossed a hundred, forty thousand on this tour. I can afford to help.”
Helen worried but said nothing, and soon Ronnie left to fulfill his social obligations at Warren's. When Ronnie arrived at the bus Friday night, Helen lay asleep in a bunk. When he opened the door, she woke and asked, “How was it?”
“Not the sort of place I'd hang out for fun, but a good gig. I hope you'll like it. What are you doing in my bunk?”
Helen wondered if he intended to climb into the bunk and wondered if she wanted him to. He seemed extremely nice, and two years of celibacy was more than enough. Helen couldn't decide if she felt relieved or disappointed, when he said, “You didn't have to sleep out here. I c'n crash here, if you'd like the big bed.”
“No, I'm fine,” she said.
“You are that. Good night, then,” Ronnie said, as he walked on into his bedroom.
The next day, he bought Helen a pair of Zamberlan hiking boots—and insisted on buying her a pair of Western boots—and two Hennessy Hyperlight Asym Zip hammock tents and other camping gear at REI. Ronnie also insisted on buying Helen a blonde wig, which left her feeling much less exposed and vulnerable. “Nobody would ever pick you for the same person,” Ronnie said, as they walked into the nightclub.
Ronnie's music made Helen want to dance, but she wanted to dance with him so just sat and listened. As he drove the van back to Lancaster, she said, “I could learn to like country music the way you do it.”
He smiled and said, “I sure hope so.” When they arrived at the bus, Helen almost suggested they share the big bed.
She woke at nine to the sounds of Ronnie making breakfast and hid in the bedroom again, when Warren arrived to follow them to the storage yard. Ronnie parked the bus and made a great show of putting on the tire covers and the windshield cover before Warren ran him back into Lancaster to pick up the van. When Ronnie returned to the bus, Helen helped him pack the van and fasten a large tarpaulin over it. Within fifteen minutes, they were heading “toward Buckersfield” on Highway 58.
“What country musicians call Bakersfield, 'cause that's where Buck Owens lived.”
He drove the van straight to the Kern County Swap Meet at the Bakersfield Fairgrounds. In an hour at the flea market, they found dresses, jeans, shorts, shoes, and all manner of tops for Helen. As they headed for the gate, he stopped abruptly and backed up to a stall selling old-fashioned women's hats. He looked at several before buying a simple one in charcoal grey and handing it to Helen. They rejoined Highway 58, which carried them west across the valley to Interstate 5, the nation's busiest highway.
Once they settled into traffic on the Interstate, Helen asked, “Why did you buy that little hat?”
“'Cause you can wear it anywhere.”
She reached into the back and retrieved the hat, then examined it and discovered it had a veil. She said nothing but looked over at Ronnie and enjoyed his grin.
Ronnie cruised into Sacramento after seven and booked two rooms at the Rodeway Inn. Defying the lingering heat, they shared a vigorous walk to the Capitol before spending the rest of the evening studying maps and aerial photographs and talking—about getting across the border and a hundred other things. Helen woke at 5:30 to Ronnie's knock and ate muesli in his room after showering. Back on Interstate 5, Helen found herself trusting and liking Ronnie more and more as she got to know him. She wanted to know more about New Zealand and also wanted to know more about Ronnie. She quizzed him about both for mile after mile.
They left the freeway at noon and entered Ashland, where Ronnie introduced Helen to the Ashland Food Co-op. Helen took great delight in the range of products available, and in discovering Ronnie was vegetarian. She hadn't realized how much she missed organics—and smiling faces. Ronnie made a 'phone call, while Helen continued shopping. He rejoined her and added a few items to their cart before they went through the checkout. Back on the Interstate, Ronnie handed Helen the best chocolate she'd ever tasted.
“Before…well, you know…I didn't eat anything containing sugar,” she said, “but that could almost make me change my mind.”
“Don't have to—it's sugar-free.”
“No! Don't tell me you're vegetarian and sugar-free”
“Uh huh. Sugar-free since my twenties.”
Helen shook her head in wonder and said, “You're not a typical country singer.”
Ronnie gave his endearing grin and said only, “No.”
He proved less mono-syllabic as they chatted their way over four passes and down the Willamette Valley. Nearing Corvallis, Helen said, “I don't want to be an exile. I guess I might have to be, but I don't like it.”
“You wait 'til you've spent a couple years in New Zealand. You'll be writing President Drumpf a thank-you note.”
Helen wondered about his intentions and her desires, and also wondered if she would ever get to New Zealand.
Entering Portland, Ronnie stopped at Costco in Tigard to buy batteries and other supplies they had decided they needed or wanted. Ronnie's earlier 'phone call meant it didn't matter that they arrived at the Lone Fir Resort after eight. Ronnie had rented Cabin 6, so Helen had her own private bedroom. After moving their things into the cabin, they trotted four miles up Lewis River Road in their hiking boots and shared a brisk walk back, slowing to explore Beaver Bay Park and Cougar Park and finding the cabin with their flashlights.
A worrying thought had occurred to Helen. “Do they call this village Cougar because…”
“Yep. They're out there.”
“They could've attacked us.”
“Could've—but wouldn't. I've heard of a cougar attacking an isolated person, 'though it's rare, but never two people together.”
Helen sat in the easy chair and pulled her boots off, then put her feet up on the large hassock. “My feet are a little sore.”
“Yeah, new boots. You need to break 'em in. I figured it's better now than next week, when it matters.”
They looked at maps and aerial photos again for an hour, then slept soundly. Helen woke to the sound of Ronnie cooking oatmeal in the microwave. “I thought we'd do some higher-elevation walks today,” he said as they washed the bowls and silverware, “'cause we'll be up over 5,000 feet on part of our walk.”
Two hours' driving brought them to the Loowit Trail, which they walked to the falls draining Mt. St. Helens's crater. Six hours later and back in the van, they stopped for a look at Iron Creek Falls then carried on north by back roads. Bypassing Seattle proper, they drove directly to the cabin Ronnie had rented, making one comfort-and-calisthenics stop and arriving about seven-thirty Tuesday evening.
Wednesday morning, he drove the van to the end of the Mt. Baker Highway, and they walked the Chain Lakes Trail and a few side trips for more high elevation acclimatization. Afterward, they used the last hour of daylight to explore the road they would take on Monday—and confirmed, to their dismay, that it was blocked not far from the highway. Ronnie proposed buying a second-hand motorcycle to ferry their gear to the trailhead, but they decided to walk to the trailhead the next day and see how they felt.
They felt surprisingly good—tired, but good—when they reached the trailhead just after noon, so they pressed on and walked the entire ridge trail as a loop back to the road but lower down. Back in their cabin before dark, they felt footsore and more tired, but still good—and eager to return to the ridge. Deferring another walk, Ronnie left early Friday and drove across the border to Delta, near Vancouver's airport, to rent a pickup with a camper. Helen used Ronnie's laptop to continue her notes about the camp but felt glad to see him return mid-afternoon. Before they again walked up the closed Forest Service road, Ronnie handed her a fistful of Canadian coins and bills and two keys and said, “Keep these safe, so you can get in when you reach the campground.”
“What if you get there first?”
He held up the rental company's keys, as he locked the cabin door. Helen nodded and smiled as they started toward the blocked road. “And what's the money for?” she asked.
Ronnie said, “Two reasons: one, money makes things easier, and you never know when you might need some; and, two, if you're carrying Canadian money and somebody picked you up, they'd assume you must belong on that side.” Helen smiled again and shook her head as they crossed the highway and headed up the Forest Service road. They walked up the road halfway and then headed up the ridge trail in reverse. They turned around as soon as they hit the ridge in order to reach the cabin before dark.
Saturday brought more high altitude walking above the end of the road on Mount Baker. To their delight, Helen found her feet and boots had reached an accommodation, and her feet didn't hurt at all, 'though her legs felt a little tired. On Sunday, jointly identified as a rest day, Helen wrote while Ronnie played almost inaudible music, his solid-body guitar with no amp and his fiddle with a heavy steel mute on the bridge. They also studied the maps again and shared thoughts about myriad topics, conversations Helen enjoyed immensely.
Helen woke before dawn to the sound of Ronnie cooking oatmeal and joined him for breakfast after showering with unscented soap. The full moon hung near the western horizon but added enough to the first dawn light for them to walk to the Forest Service road and begin a repeat of Thursday's ascent. They passed the unnecessary warming hut five hours later and paused for a drink of water before plunging into the tall timber for the short walk to the first trail junction. Bearing left, they headed up toward the ridge.
Having walked twenty miles and gained almost 3,500 feet of elevation, Helen and Ronnie felt pleased to reach their target ridge by three o'clock. Even at 5,200 feet, the August heat dictated a move to the forest below the ridge to eat their lunch in shade. They then walked along the knife-edged ridge and by 4:30 stood looking across the border at the end of a Canadian logging road.
They commented on the fallen logs abutting the simple barbed wire fence and congratulated each other on their success so far. Moving back into the trees below the ridge, Ronnie selected two climbable trees and tied three pairs of ropes fifteen feet up the trunks.
“Why so high and why so many?”
“The hammocks will sag some, and you don't want a bear to be able to reach you standing on its hind legs. And we need to be able to crawl out there and get into them.”
They unzipped the hammocks' doors and attached the hammocks to the ropes, then pulled them up into position. After a minimal dinner and an hour of conversation, they did the same with their backpacks. Finally, they climbed into their hammock tents as the sun set and slept before the sky grew dark.
After lowering their packs, the conspirators ate a breakfast of muesli with reconstituted powdered milk by the light of the gibbous moon about four o'clock. As Helen put the powdered milk back into her pack, she felt some paper she hadn't noticed earlier. Keeping her flashlight within the pack, she saw it was a copy of the Vancouver Sun. “Did you put that paper in here?”
“Yeah,” Ronnie whispered back.
“It's like the money—it makes it look like you started out on that side.”
“I like the way your brain works. You just think of everything.”
Helen couldn't tell, but she thought he smiled and winked in the dim light.
Once they had lowered the hammocks and stowed everything, they made their way by moonlight to and across the border fence and onto the logging road.
“How far are you planning to accompany me?” Helen asked.
“As far as you want.”
“I can do this alone—although I do enjoy your company.”
“I'd feel better if I walked you all the way to the campground, so I'd know you're safe.”
“This'll be a stroll in the park, compared to what I did two weeks ago. Gee, has it really been two weeks?! Anyway, I'll feel better if I know you're on your way to meet me there. But don't do those ridges in the dark.”
Ronnie hugged Helen—her first hug in two years—and she wondered why they hadn't done that sooner. She squeezed his hand and started down the logging road, thinking about how good that hug had felt. Ronnie turned and picked his way back across the fence and into the trees.
Helen ducked into the trees twice on her way down. She saw one pickup drive past and decided the other must have been on another road nearby. At eight Tuesday morning, she walked into the campground and tried to appear casual as she looked around for the pickup Ronnie had described. She laughed out loud, when she spotted the hand-lettered signs in the windows saying “The Ronnie Jarvis Show”.
When she let herself into the camper, she saw a note on the top sheet of a writing pad on the table. Ronnie hadn't said much—“If you're reading this, then you've made it safely. I'm glad of that. I'll see you as soon as I can.”—but she felt her eyes begin to brim. She sat for a moment before pulling off her boots and socks. After Helen had read Friday's Sun all the way through, she fixed herself some lunch from the camper's well-stocked larder. Fed, she thought how nice it would be to walk down by the creek—they'd been avoiding creeks as obstacles—but could she risk it.
Helen suddenly enjoyed a liberating thought: she was a fugitive only because she was an illegal immigrant—nobody in Canada was looking specifically for her. Relief and delight washed through her. As she stood to go out and enjoy a stroll by the creek, her eyes lit on a new pair of soft leather sandals sitting on the opposite seat. This time her eyes overflowed. “Damn you, Ronnie Jarvis!” she said out loud. “You are just too nice.” Not surprised to find shorts and a blouse sitting on a sunhat next to the sandals, Helen changed clothes, and spent two hours sitting and strolling by the creek and the river and greeting passers-by.
After lunch, she used the writing pad to make more notes documenting Pony Corner. The afternoon had begun to drag, when Ronnie pulled his van in behind the pickup at four o'clock. Helen rushed out and threw her arms around his neck, saying, “I'm so glad you're OK.”
“Me, too. And I'm glad you're OK,” Ronnie replied, as he hugged her more tightly than he had earlier.
Helen felt confused, because she wanted Ronnie to keep hugging her but thought maybe she shouldn't. With a squeeze, he turned away to lock both vehicles, then held her hand as they walked to the creek. They sat on a rock, and Ronnie said, “I've worried all day. How was it?”
“A stroll in the park, just like I said—but it would've been more fun with you. What now?”
“I feel kind of embarrassed I hadn't given that a great deal of thought. I think I'll contact the New Zealand consulate tomorrow or the next day and see how we can get them to grant you political asylum.”
“That'd be great.”
“I s'pose we could drive into the city tonight, and I could contact them first thing in the morning, but we don't have to go anywhere right away. I've rented the pickup 'til the end of the week, and I leased the van for a month. I—”
“Let's just stay here tonight and relax.”
“Good idea. I could sleep in the van, so you could have some privacy.”
“I don't need privacy from you, Ronnie Jarvis.”
“Good! They said the camper sleeps four, but—”
“I think we'll find a suitable arrangement,” Helen said, as she squeezed Ronnie's hand.