In front of the building, Emma skirted the drive where the cars piled into a traffic jam. Parents frantically waited there to pick up their children as quickly as they could to get home before the roads closed. The principals released all the students early, instructing them to go straight to their houses without stopping.
As Emma moved away from the school building, she walked the flawless white sidewalk slowly and tried to ignore the unnerving stillness. On what had been a beautiful spring day, clouds gathered over the streets now empty of people. A heavy silence muted the usual trill of birds.
Emma startled when an olive green car abruptly pulled up to the curb beside her. Both of its occupants smiled broadly, their eyes shrouded by opaque sunglasses. The one nearest her in the passenger’s seat spoke to her through the partially open window. “What are you doing outside, miss?”
“I had to finish something at school. I’m on my way home now.” She continued to walk at a slow pace.
The man in the passenger seat smiled even more broadly as Emma answered him, as if he knew something that no one else did. The driver turned his head to survey the area surrounding the car. The man in the passenger seat looked out at the street, the lenses of his glasses too dark to make out his eyes. “You had to finish something? A school project?” The tone of his voice didn’t threaten her.
“Yes.” Emma lied, warming to him as he took an interest in her.
The car continued to follow beside her. “Did you finish it?”
“The project? Yes.”
The driver then leaned over to speak through the open window. “Want a ride home?”
Her mother’s warnings about strangers snapped into her head. “No. I just live over there.” Emma pointed down the street.
“Okay. But we’ll stay with you until you get inside.” The driver moved back behind the wheel.
Emma crossed the street as the car pulled past her and up into the driveway of her house. She ran to the door and rang the bell even though the front door key was lodged in her pocket. Quickly moving footsteps came from inside as someone approached the door. Emma waved at the occupants of the car, then turned back to see her mother standing in the doorway, her face as she saw the car fading to pale. She quickly pulled Emma inside and shut the door.
Seven years later, the temporary situation born on that springtime afternoon lumbered into another year of the “great crusade” and “the salvation of the nation.” The handsome face of the Colonel who preached this gospel still stared out at her from billboards and handbills routinely disfigured until they were replaced. He never aged.
Not long after her eighteenth birthday, Emma sat on the floor in a dark room where candles painted their ephemeral twilight across the wall. Stale damp air crowded into the empty spaces. Emma pressed her back against the wall.
Across from her, Elena from another part of town finally finished the story she had hesitated to tell of that same day in the spring. “In the middle of the night they came to take me and my neighbors on both sides. Pushed us all into buses with the rest of the people they picked up, even though there wasn’t enough room for all of us. The bus took us to the gym at the high school. Everybody cried and I could feel everybody shaking all around me. We couldn’t sit down. When we got there, I saw so many of them, so many people with guns.”
Emma knew without being told that Elena had not revealed before the words perched on her lips slightly parted. “I never told anybody about what happened that night. I never said what they did to me.”
She brushed the side of her face with the palm of her hand. “I never did. And I never will.”