“The outcome of the war is in our hands; the outcome of words is in the council.” -- Homer (800 BC - 700 BC), The Iliad
The siren that sounded as Celeste and I were making our way back toward the main auditorium was very ominous; screaming in deafening tones the urgency to vacate. People were running everywhere, scrambling to get their few personal belongings and exit the way we came, through the platform elevator.
“Oh shit!” I heard Celeste exclaim, “I’ll be right back…wait for me here,” showing me a small nook beside the stage, then disappearing back down the hall from which we came. It seemed like an hour passed by, watching the panic of hundreds of people scattering, some toward the elevator, others down seemingly vacant halls, trying to get out. I still didn’t know what was going on, somehow part of me thought it was another test, until I heard the gun fire and saw familiar faces fall to the ground in explosions of their own blood. In a panic, I started to creep toward the elevator but was stopped by Celeste, now holding the box of puzzle pieces.
“We can’t go out that way,” she looked around a few times, until we both saw what was coming. Running down the same hall Celeste had just come from, were soldiers in large numbers, scattering in deliberate formation around the large room. They carried M16’s in their arms and were adorned in the usual green and brown Camo colored clothing, the only difference being the unique logo on their shirts and berets. It was the Great Seal, the back side, showing the pyramid and All Seeing Eye. I watched in horror as a small gun battle took place at the elevator. Three or four of our guys were at the top by the cabin, shooting the soldiers below who were in turn firing back. Bodies fell from above in bloody masses, dying with their 45’s and 44’s still in hand, while the casualties of their enemies below were few, with maybe two fatalities that I could see.
“Come on, we have to get out of here, follow me!” And with that, Celeste and I crept low to the ground, crawling through a curtain that hid the girders holding up the makeshift stage, finding a trap door that opened up to a stairwell that took us even further underground.
“Still have that flashlight?” she asked me once we shut the trap door above, giving permission to the darkness caving in on us, surrounding us like the feeling of impending doom, now consuming the hope this gathering had instilled in all of us.
“I’ll trade you for the box,” I whispered, still trying to be a gentleman. Without argument Celeste handed me the box, then once again led the way down the stairs. The stairs flashed me back to a memory I had of the Ohio Caverns, when an old girlfriend and I took a trip there one time and laughed in delight at the amount of stairs it took to get to the bottom. The damp chilled air of the caves was much more inviting than the damp chilled aura of this death camp. At the end of the descending stairs was quite literally a cave, with its glorious display of stalagmites and dripping damp walls.
“Come on, this way.” Celeste still whispered, although now aided by the echo effect common in caves. We were far enough beneath the mayhem that we could no longer hear the gunfire, but the sound of footfalls on the trap door above us was motivation to find our escape. We traveled one of three visible passages. Celeste seemed to know where she was going as she never once paused or stopped to reconsider her direction. In most places we had to duck down, almost crawling, as we made our way through one cavern and turned into another. We crawled through water that weakened the box I carried, losing some of the pieces. Celeste stopped at one time to acknowledge a group of pieces floating past her. She never said a word; she didn’t have to. When she turned to look at me, I knew her disappointment.
The last of our journey had us trekking through waist deep, icy cold water, which finally opened up to the brightest sunlight my eyes had ever experienced, about three miles past the site of the cabin. The mouth of the cave was hidden by a waterfall above us. The waterfall was not a trickle of water cascading down the hill side, but a torrential downpour; buckets of water almost forcing what was left of the box from my hands when we leaped through it. We had to leap about six feet from the opening upon which we stood to hit the solid rock bed of the creek below.
I tried desperately to recover a few of the puzzle pieces now floating in all directions down the creek. In frustration I stopped and took a deep breath before looking around me. The scenery looked painted. Brilliant greens and blues, complemented by the dark shades of the rocks in the creek bed. The hillside we just exited was covered in grass and trees hanging unnaturally from the sides, looking like they could tumble over at the slightest breeze. All this beauty, this unique collection of God’s artwork, somehow calmed me, even amidst the circumstances I found myself.
I looked over at Celeste who was now sitting on a boulder with her head buried within the palms of her hands. I couldn’t tell right then but she was crying. I sat next to her, not saying a word, only offering the comfort of my arm on her shoulders. Her box of puzzle pieces had gotten saturated from the water it absorbed, so much so that the slightest movement now smeared on our hands the tattered pieces of wet cardboard. She grabbed the box from me and took out the soaking folder holding Cheney’s documents. I watched in sadness as she carefully laid the box on the water, stabilizing it so that it floated, before letting go. She watched it travel downstream until it hit another boulder, flipping the box over, releasing all the remaining pieces before dissolving the box into nothing. Celeste stood silent and very still, staring intently at the pieces slowly vanishing from her sight. She simply shook her head in answer to a question asked only within her mind. I sat frozen and equally silent.
“Well, that was most interesting.” She looked at me, “We should probably keep moving.” Celeste had an uncanny ability to shut down her emotions like a light switch, so much so that not one minute later, I could no longer tell that she had experienced a mild emotional collapse.
“So what happened back there? How did they find out about us?” I was trying my best to keep up with her pace through the rocks and up the embankment toward a trail.
“I don’t know, Daniel.” She sounded like she wanted to say more, but couldn’t find the words. She tried to shake off the excess moisture from the folder now in her hand, never once opening up the folder to see the condition of the documents it held.
“How did you know about that trap door under the stage?” It seemed so unlikely anyone but the builders would’ve known about that door, especially since no one else found their escape there. “Are those the NEW and Improved soldiers we’re going to be fighting? Did you see their uniforms?” I had a million questions to ask her now, but somehow her reluctance to answer even one had me wondering if I was heard at all. “Celeste!” I became adamant, “I need you to include me in what you know!”
“Daniel!” She turned to face me with a fire in her eyes that stopped me in my tracks. There was no hiding her anger and confusion anymore than her need to lash out these unwanted emotions. She took a deep breath, staring me down, never blinking before she grabbed my face in her hands and kissed me. “I’m sorry. I don’t have the answers.” Finally releasing her lips from mine. She volunteered nothing else. She just turned and walked away from me, not caring at all whether I followed. I didn’t follow. I picked up my pace until I was walking beside her, in equal silence, matching my strides with hers, like uniformed soldiers marching to their next battle. The determination in our pace let me know right then and there, we were at war. We remained silent, walking together on a trail in the middle of the woods long enough to dry the clothes we wore, before coming up on a little carry out store that stood beside a small paved road. It was another log cabin building with a sign out front indicating its true purpose. It was a Tackle and Bait store, and from a distance we could see an older black man sitting in a chair out front smoking on a pipe.
We hide behind a group of trees not 150 feet from the store before Celeste finally spoke. “Here’s the situation, D.” I had to smile at yet another name change now in the form of a letter. “We have no money and no guns. What’s worse, we aren’t that far from that camp. I’m going to go talk to that man, see if I can get some answers. I want you to wait here, out of sight.” We heard the sounds of a diesel engine from a distance and ducked lower to the ground behind the trees. Pulling up to the Bait store was a military truck with soldiers adorned in the same kind of uniforms. We watched intensely as they poured out the back and made their way inside the store. We could hear them laughing and joking with some rude remarks about the commander followed by more rude remarks about his wife. They were loud and made no effort to be discreet. A group of about eight of them disappeared into the building followed by the old man with the pipe, leaving another four of them waiting by the truck. We watched one of them make his way into the woods, obviously needing to urinate, separating himself from the rest of his squadron. I turned again toward Celeste to say something, but she was gone.
I crawled through thorny brush until I caught Celeste, walking up to the soldier in the woods, approaching him from behind without caution. With a combination of disbelief and amazement, I watched as he turned around, then smiled widely when he saw her standing there, unbuttoning her blouse. She looked in my direction, making sure our eyes met, before she knelt down before the man and started pleasuring him. In the midst of his groans and obvious delight, she was able to release his pistol from the holster, grabbing the soldier’s ass before tossing the pistol in my direction, moaning loudly herself to hide the noise the pistol made hitting the ground. She looked again in my direction, her eyes meeting mine. This was my cue. As quietly as ever, I made my way to the gun and grabbed it, slowly returning to the group of trees that hid us from everyone, doing quite well at making very little noise. I looked back to see if Celeste was still there, and she was, finishing him up. I heard the other men calling for him, and when the soldier turned to yell back to respond, Celeste disappeared from his sight as quietly as she had mine, and in a matter of seconds was again beside me. We both watched the soldier quickly pull his pants up and run toward the truck already pulling out, never once noticing his gun was missing.
Once they were out of sight and the old man was back in his chair packing his pipe with a fresh wad of tobacco. Celeste finally took a breath, then released the clip from the .45 to see how much ammo we had. “Gun problem solved.” She said. She acted as if nothing had happened, as if what she did was as meaningless as taking a shit, again showing me her superiority in matters of survival. “Now let’s see about getting some money.”
“So are you going to blow the old guy for that?” Sounding like a jealous lover, I was instantly ashamed once those words escaped my lips. I respected this woman, respected what she was able to do, and the self respect she was able to sacrifice for her cause.
Celeste stuck the gun to my head, rage burning behind the green of her eyes, illuminating the yellow specks. “Don’t EVER talk to me like that again. I don’t need your disrespect nor do I need your approval or permission. Is that clear?”
“I’m sorry.” I couldn’t look her in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” holding my hands up beside me, making sure to not enrage her further. After all, I had just insulted a woman with a gun.
“Don’t think for a moment I couldn’t pull this trigger on you!” and with that said, she was again out of my sight, approaching the man with the pipe. I didn’t know if I should wait for her or follow. I watched her walk up to the man, share a few words before embracing. She then turned toward me and met my eyes with her own, before motioning with her head for me to join her.
As a man, I am naturally uncomfortable with someone else being in charge. I was a business owner with employees, a home owner, a pet owner; I was in charge of my life and every aspect of it. I was. Now, I’m nothing more than a rat stuck in a maze with the scent of cheese teasing me, challenging me to find my way out. But there is no way out of this now. I suppose I could go back to my home. Go back to my place of business, get chipped, conform to the new reigning ideals that will overshadow the uniqueness and hide the history of this great country. I could get a new cat, a new car and reacquaint myself to my old life. I could even go as far as becoming one of ‘them’ just to have my guns back. There’s still time for me. I could regain control, ease my ego, fix my lack of confidence with just a choice. One small little choice. But I knew going back to my old life wouldn’t erase what I now knew, wouldn’t wipe from my memory all I had seen. Going back and conforming wouldn’t restore my ignorance. I stood there, staring at Celeste and this old man talking, their body language showing to me they had been friendly for quite some time. I stared blankly as my thoughts focused on my next move, my next decision, another piece of my own puzzle about to come together to create another clue to the big picture. Here, right now, I needed to see either Poppies or Flames. I felt ashamed and very small. Part of me felt completely childlike, wishing someone would tell me what to do. But there was no one to make the choice for me. I did, however, have Celeste. My eyes focused again on her, standing before the old man, hands on hips, her naturally wavy red hair blowing slightly in the breeze, looking as beautiful as the day we met, and I knew my choice. My steps would follow closely beside hers.