Claire was just finishing up an email she was sending to one of her clients. The radio was on and the DJ announced that traffic is relatively light. She was thankful for that. These days the nights are getting long and sun sets pretty early. It will take her 45 minutes to walk from her work to her house. If she takes the cab, it will only take her 20 minutes max. She expects that by the time she gets home, her husband Miguel and their two daughters Clary and Dale are already home.
She needs to type faster if she wants to leave 5:00 PM sharp. No one stays late in the office anymore. Everybody leaves at 5:00 PM sharp, not a second later. You are lucky if you manage to leave earlier than that. Otherwise, you’ll have to spend the night in your office and explain to the area captains why and you must be persuasive and believable. It’s not like she has anything to hide. After all, she is a good, law abiding citizen of this great nation.
That’s something she got used to saying and hearing every morning. Every time the clock strikes 6:00 in the morning, all radio and television channel will broadcast only one thing: the pledge of allegiance:
I am a citizen of this country, the home of my ancestors
this land nourishes and protects me
I offer my heart, mind and body
to this great nation
I am the citizen of this country, the home of my ancestors. Claire was sure this is not how her parents remember this country. Democracy was truly practiced; citizens are free to speak their minds and to rally on the streets to express their defiance against the government. But three months ago, after the bombing at the plaza where 89 people died during the light festival, the government declared a State of Emergency. Two days later the country was under martial law.
“Oh fuck!” she cursed, slamming her laptop closed and rushed out of the office, forgetting to clock out. No matter, her boss is nice enough to understand. Just as she got to the terminal, the last cab left.
She looked at her phone: 5:01 PM. Twenty-nine minutes before sundown. She started walking briskly, not something she wanted to do in heels. A minute passes and her toes started begging for life.
She heard a ring behind her and sharp break. She jumped back just in time, but broke her heel the in the process.
“How’s it going, Claire?” asked Jared, a local newspaper delivery man in his 40s. Jared doesn’t deliver the newspaper approved by the government. In fact, not a lot of people know that this is Jared’s job. Some would say it’s a crack newspaper full of conspiracies and a paranoid’s theory. But for someone who’s coming from the lower middle-class, for someone who runs away in fear of men in uniform, she knew better.
“You made me break my heel, that’s what,” she sighed as she took off her shoes. Buying a new pair of shoes is not in her budget for another six months.
“Sorry there, love,” he scratched his graying hair. “Need a ride? It’s almost sundown.”
“Do you plan on staying in our house?” she chuckled as she took off her other shoes. Hopefully, she won’t look too suspicious running without any shoes on. “Get going already. You don’t want to get caught now, do you?”
And with that, he saluted her and pedalled away.
This land nourishes and protects me.
She has a lot of things to say about that. Ever since martial law was declared, people started disappearing like bubbles left and right. People like Jared who voice their dissent to the government are in constant danger. They must learn to hide, else they’ll disappear. If they’re lucky, they will be found—but they will be broken. They’ll make sure you are. They will break your spirit and your strength, and when they’re done with you, you’ll finally be a good citizen of this country. Her former co-worker Lena learned it the hard way to be a good citizen.
Lena was one of the first people who stood against the government last election. It was the dirtiest election in history and people, well people had a voice back then. After the plaza bombing and the state of emergency, the government pointed their fingers at the activists—blaming them for destroying the peace in this great nation. The following day, one by one, people got picked up by the military. Lena came back two weeks her arrest. Her eyes were dead, and her body is covered in wounds and bruises. After one month, she found out she was pregnant. She never left the house again.
Claire wouldn’t say that Lena is lucky to be alive. In fact, she doesn’t know who are luckier; the survivors or the dead. Some of those who survived went underground. Some even say that they went to the outskirts of the city to join the rebellion. Wherever they go, it can’t be any worse than where they are now. Miguel’s brother Gabriel, was one of them.
She doesn’t know if he’s still alive. According to the news, the government is relentless in hunting all of them and will not stop until they are completely destroyed.
She looked at her watch.
She passed by a small supermarket owned by Mike and remembered that she needed to buy cabbage for tonight’s dinner. She bit her lip, looked at the time and decided not to. The store looked almost empty now. Mike might close the store soon.
With a 40% income tax, everyone is barely making ends meet. Almost half of her salary goes to the government. Miguel had to sell their car in order to keep the house. Even though they want to leave, they didn’t have the money to do so. Every day, they have to ration their food and come up with creative ways to find something to put on the table. They learned how to plant. Their backyard is a small vegetable garden where they grow tomatoes and potatoes. But they had to keep it from everyone. They don’t want any unwanted attention.
For a country where 90% of the population are Christian, it seems like God, or whatever deity they believe in, has abandoned them.
This is a cruel world to live in. This is a world where you are beaten down the moment you try to stand—where you are killed the moment you start to fight.
It’s been three months. There hasn’t been any form of media available for the people. You can only hear the static sound and the cries of the family.
She’s only a three blocks away. She started running. Eyes were on her, she knew. They’re just waiting for the time for it to be legal to pick her up. They’re like vultures waiting for her to crumble and die.
She finally reached the gates of her house. Beads of sweat drips down her cheeks, nonetheless she is grateful she gets to spend the night with her family and survived the day.
Miguel greeted her at the door, but there was something wrong. She can see the darkness behind his glasses.
“What is it?” she asked, but too afraid to hear the answer.
“It’s okay,” but his tone wasn’t. “Everything’s fine.”
Silently, she entered her house. There was mud on her floor and too many shoe prints.
“What happened to your shoe?” Miguel took her shoes from her.
“Jared made me trip,” she suddenly became very aware of how raw her soles felt.
“I told you not to talk to Jared anymore,” he said in a low voice. “You never know who’s looking.”
Her husband, unlike his brother is a very formal man. He’s always in a suit and he keeps his nose in his own business. When Gabriel left, he didn’t come to say goodbye. He was afraid for their safety, he explained. She didn’t press on the matter. She thought they’d never hear from him again. So when she found him sitting on her couch and six other strangers scattered all over the living room, she felt all the blood from her face drain.
“Hey there, Claire.”
He looked scruffier than the last time she saw him. His beard is unkempt, shadows are under his eyes and blood stains on his clothes. The men with him are all injured. Bloodstained bandages are wrapped around their heads, arms and legs.
“Gabriel,” she nodded and turned to her husband.
“Where are the girls?” she whispered.
“Upstairs,” he answered. “I told them to lock their rooms.”
“There’s no need to keep my nieces away from me,” he interjected. “I won’t harm them.”
“The people looking for you will,” she snapped. Miguel held her arm.
“Gabriel, what are you doing here?”
“They found our base,” he explained. “They bombed it. Our people are dispersed. I figured the closer we are to the city, the lesser chance they’ll find us.” The bandages and wounds suddenly made sense.
“Your face is all over the city,” Miguel explained. “Wanted poster signs of the rebels are posted everywhere.”
“I just need the night, Miguel,” the desperation was clear in his eyes. “Just to rest, we will not wait for sunrise to leave.”
A loud siren blasted outside. Everybody was on their feet. The strangers in her house took their guns and checked the windows. Claire checked her watch.
It was the five minute warning before curfew.
“Stay away from the windows,” Miguel warned the strangers. “And put those away!”
Gabriel asked his men to calm down. It was too late. They can’t ask them to leave. The security is tighter at night.
“One night,” the words made everyone look at her in disbelief. “One night and before sunrise, you leave,” Miguel took her arm, trying to silence her.
“Do you understand?” she looked at Gabriel.
“Yes,” he lowered his head. “Thank you.”
The additional five mouths to feed threw off her budget for the month. Seems like buying a new pair of shoes must wait for four months. Her vegetable garden is almost empty now. Did she do the right thing, she wondered. They were fighting for the freedom, for the democracy they used to have. She thought it was the least she can do for the men who do what she can’t. But there’s no way Miguel will understand.
He fixes a lot of things, like the financial problem and currently her broken shoes. But he’s a man of peace, at least that’s the way she’d put it. He’d avoid fights and confrontations as much as possible.
Clary and Dale joined them for dinner, but not before Gabriel and his men were sent down to the basement. Miguel insisted no one shall look at their daughters. Not his brother, not his neighbors and certainly not the city guards.
Miguel created a system. He memorized the patrol’s route. Every morning when she walks them to school, he’ll cover them with big coats and a baseball cap, whether it’s summer or winter. He created mapped the route where they can avoid the eyes of the patrol. Not that he had anything to hide, he just doesn’t want any eyes on their daughters.
Miguel also asked Claire not to wear any make up and loose clothes for work. Moreover, he asked her to gain ten pounds. Again, to avoid unwanted attention. She simply complied. The fear on her husband’s face was enough for her to fold.
“How was school today?” Miguel asked thirteen year old Dale.
“There was a school project,” she answered. “I would’ve done it if you didn’t drag me out of the school.”
“You did what?” Claire asked.
“We already three minutes behind schedule,” he explained. “You know how important it is for us always be on time.”
“I heard uncle Gabriel’s voice earlier,” eight year old Clary said. “Where’s Uncle Gabe?”
“Uncle Gabe’s not here,” Miguel said.
“Enough of that girls, lets—” a knock on the door disrupted an almost peaceful dinner. She could feel the tension of the men in the basement and the fear of the ones with her.
“Go upstairs,” Claire whispered to them. Without another word, they went.
Another knock. It was louder this time. Miguel took a deep breath and went to the door. He fixed his glasses and opened it.
“Evening Sir,” said the man in uniform at the door. “Ma’am,” he nodded at her. He is big, she thought. Twice the size of Miguel.
“Is-is there something we can do for you, officer?” Miguel tried desperately to keep his eyes on him. But the officer looked at the living room, at the couch, at the floor, at the ceiling and at the dining table.
“Sorry to disturb your dinner,” he answered. “We just want to ask if you’ve seen anything unusual in these areas.”
Miguel was frozen.
“We have some witnesses claiming that a group of heavily injured men passed by here.”
Three officers entered their house. Normally, people can say that it’s trespassing. But these are not normal times. These men have too much power, and no mercy.
“Sorry, we didn’t see anything,” he simply answered.
The leader looked at him, examining him from head to toe.
“I think our daughters go the same school,” he said. “Yes. I saw you at school today. You were eager to get home this afternoon,” he chuckled.
“My wife was waiting for me,” he didn’t miss the shake in his voice.
“How are your girls?” he asked. “Maybe they saw something. Where are they?”
She felt her heart drop to her stomach. She could almost scream and run upstairs to bolt the door. She looked at the kitchen knife. How fast can she kill him, she thought. Can she kill all of them?
“They’re at my mother’s,” his voice is a lot calmer now. “Outside the city.”
“Oh, well, that’s too bad,” he said, unconvinced. “Perhaps I could visit some other time. Get a good look at your girls and see what I can do for them.”
Miguel was pale and sweating.
“Maybe I can babysit for you sometime, what do you say?” he tapped his shoulder. “Officer Kirkpatrick here is a big fan of little girls.”
The malice was clear in their faces. She felt tears building in her eyes.
“That would be nice,” Miguel chocked. “But we got it covered. Thanks.”
“Well then,” he motioned his men to leave. “Have a good night, Sir. Madame.”
None of them answered. He simply closed the door and locked it. Her knees gave out and realized that she was holding her breath. The basement door opened, but didn’t reveal the man hiding in the shadows.
“Stay in there,” she whispered. “They’re patrolling the house now.”
“I’m sorry, Claire,” said the voice. It was low and sincere, but provided no comfort.
“Close the door, Gabe,” she picked herself up and fixed herself. “I’ll bring you your dinner.” She checked the clock.
10 minutes felt like an eternity.
They all ate in silence. A single light bulb illuminated the dusty dark basement. It wasn’t ideal, she was sure, but nonetheless, they expressed their gratitude. She also changed the dressing of their wound and injected them with antibiotic. The perks of working in a hospital. She just needs to come up with a convincing reason why she had to use hers.
They were all asleep by the time she finished cleaning Gabe’s wound. She slowly rested his head on the pillow and silently walked upstairs. Miguel was waiting for her in the living room.
The room was dark. He’s sitting on the couch, elbows on his knees and hands clasped together over his lips. He’s staring at nothing. Even in darkness, she can see the intensity in his eyes. It wasn’t fear. It was something new Claire couldn’t figure out what it was.
“Are they still out there?” she said lowly.
“I heard three patrol cars pass by in the last 30 minutes,” he said, still staring at the darkness.
She sat beside him and placed her hand on his lap. “What is it?” she asked.
He shook his head and pressed his index finger on his temple. “He always does this,” he said. “Involving everyone his problems. He did it to mom and dad, and now us!”
“It’s not just his problem,” she said. “It’s our problem too.”
“Yes, because he barged in here without any consideration for our safety,” he met her gaze for the first time since she entered the room. “I have done everything I could to keep us safe and I have. He ruined everything.” He sighed, holding back the tears. “And now they’re after our daughters.”
“It’s always been our problem,” she cupped his face. “We just chose to ignore it. And now—it just came knocking at our door.”
He laid his head on her lap, searching for any sort of comfort in the night. It was over, they both knew it. The attention they both tried to avoid has found them.
“So what do we do now?”
He didn’t answer and simply stayed on her lap. Claire turned on the radio, listening for any news about the rebels in the area.
Neither of them got any sleep. Five minutes from now, they have to put on their uniforms, the most innocent face they could muster and face the day.
Miguel’s head is still resting on her lap. They could stay home, she thought. But that would seem suspicious. It might raise questions.
The radio didn’t say anything about the rebels. They reported about bombing their base and encouraged anyone to come forth with any information. Anyone who can point in the direction of any rebels will be rewarded. She figured that maybe, one of her neighbors is desperate enough to turn them to the authorities. She couldn’t blame them. These are desperate times.
Both of them jolted when they heard the basement door open. They looked better than last night. They had more color in them. They’ll live another day, Claire figured.
“It’s not yet safe,” Miguel said. “They’re still patrolling the house.”
“Once the street is busy, we’ll sneak out in the back” Gabe explained. He didn’t move and held their gaze.
“There is still time,” Gabe continued. “You don’t have to bring a lot. Just the necessary ones.”
They knew what he was suggesting, but that meant leaving this comfortable house they worked so hard to protect. But it wasn’t safe anymore. It never was. The night had shattered that illusion.
They had to make a decision fast. How far can they get? How long will they survive? How will they survive?
The clock is ticking.
The radio went static and a familiar voice came
I am a citizen of this country, the home of my ancestors
This land nourishes and protects me
I offer my heart, mind and body
To this great nation