What you're about to read: This is a work of historical fiction—recent history—inspired by actual accounts, so it's rather realistic though definitely fictional. The novel is built around themes I find erotic: captivity, sexual tension, male intimacy. However (disclaimer and spoiler), you won't find any full-blown sex here. This is the story of a queerly romantic, lopsidedly erotic, but unconsummated relationship between a gay man and a straight man held together as hostages.
Chapter 8 -- We take a trip
In early February, the Beirut airport falls silent. We no longer hear planes taking off outside the apartment. Although the closing of the airport would suggest that the civil war has intensified, we don't hear sounds of new fighting. We keep hearing the intermittent explosions that Allan attributes to the siege of a Palestinian refugee camp, but they don't occur with any more frequency than before.
I wait for the war to audibly escalate in some way. More explosions, gun battles, sirens, tanks grinding through the streets—something. Days pass. Still nothing happens, nothing we're in a position to detect, anyway. The guards don't seem anxious.
As we enter the last week or so of February, we sense finally that something is happening. The phone in the front of the apartment rings more often. The guards spend more time listening to the news on the radio—in Arabic, which doesn't help Allan and me figure out what's going on. Although I can't point to any concrete change in the guards' interactions with us, I feel a tense "vibe" coming from them. Allan says he feels it, too.
One day there are non-stop explosions, at the refugee camp apparently, lasting something like fifteen minutes. The noise is very loud, and I am very frightened. Allan assures me that the shelling isn't as close as it sounds, they're not shelling our neighborhood, we're safe.
The tumult stops, silence settles. We never hear explosions again. Is the camp siege over? Who won?
Allan has tried explaining the Lebanese civil war to me. It's dizzying: there are so many different militias, espousing different ideologies or representing different ethnic or religious groups, and their alliances aren't stable. Exactly who is fighting who may well be different now from what it was last April, when Allan was taken hostage. The basic, persistent conflict is between Lebanon's politically dominant Christian minority and the country's Muslim majority. But there are different factions on both those sides; and then there are the Druze, who Allan understands to be "kind of Muslim" but who aren't accepted as such by either Sunnis or Shiites; plus there are socialist or Communist militias; and on top of all that, there are the Palestinian refugees, most of whom are Muslim—but Lebanese Muslims don't necessarily support the Palestinians because they resent Palestinian militants for provoking Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Israel's intervention has complicated the conflict, as have interventions by Syria, Iran, and the United States.
Where do Allan and I fit into this mess? We don't, really. Whatever demands our captors are making for our release probably relate not to the civil war but to additional agendas of theirs. The release of Shiite prisoners in Kuwait; the release of Palestinian prisoners in Britain; concessions by Britain to Iran—these reflect farther-reaching aims of Lebanon's Shiite radicals, who want to promote Islamic revolution not only in their own country but elsewhere in the Middle East too.
Unless things have changed in a major way since Allan's kidnapping, the group who's been laying siege to the Palestinian refugee camp is a Shiite militia called the Lebanese Resistance Battalions, who want to drive the PLO out of Lebanon. The LRB are moderate by Shiite standards: they want constructive relations with the West and therefore oppose the taking of Western hostages. They're the militia who Allan told me rescued a pair of hostages from an apartment a couple of years ago. They also orchestrated the release of the passengers of the hijacked airplane that was forced to land in Beirut in the summer of 1985. The LRB are at odds with the Partisans of God, the radical Shiite militia to which our captors are likely connected. Those two militias are competing for the loyalty of Lebanon's Shiite population.
So... if the end of the camp siege means that the LRB have finally routed the Palestinians—which is one way to interpret what we've been hearing—would that turn of events be good for Allan and me? Allan ad libs a rambling analysis, the upshot of which is this: If the end of the camp siege means that the LRB and their current allies have achieved a stronger position, and if that stronger position also allows them to back the Partisans of God into a corner, then Allan could envision the Partisans of God releasing the Western hostages as part of a negotiated surrender.
This scenario captivates and excites Allan. I'm conflicted. I want to hope, of course; I want to believe that what's unfolding around us is the beginning of the end of our captivity. There is a superstitious part of me that is especially tempted to believe because we are approaching the one-year anniversary of my kidnapping, March 11. Could this shift in the progress of the war be God's way of arranging to get me home before I hit the one-year mark, or at least not long afterward? Yes, I remember—I cultivated a similar superstition about my six-month anniversary. But this time, I have better reasons to hope it might be true...
The more rational part of me knows better than to let myself race down that road. This part of me is suspicious of Allan's excitement. Allan is an optimist by nature, which is good in that it keeps him buoyed up; but it has also led him in the past to become enthusiastic about prospects that we later had to recognize were Strange Ideas. So I make the effort to hold myself aloof from his excitement now. I'm wary of the ifs in his scenario, I don't grant their plausibility as readily as he does.
Fishing for confirmation of his theorizing, Allan asks Waleed straight out what's happening. He dangles specific possibilities in front of Waleed, the names of enemy parties, in hope of triggering a political rant that will give the truth away. Have the LRB destroyed the refugee camps? Did the Syrians help them? Are Christian forces moving into west Beirut? Is Israel advancing again?
Waleed doesn't take the bait. He orders Allan not to ask questions. "It is not good for you to know things," he snarls ominously.
Waleed's dark mood persuades Allan that our captors are under pressure, which he takes as reason for us to hope. I, on the other hand, am frightened. If our captors get backed into a corner, might they kill us? Allan bats that fear aside: If our captors are in trouble, they need us all the more as bargaining chips. And they need to haul ass to close some kind of deal for us while they still can.
I pray for Allan's optimistic analysis to be true, but I pray with greater fervor for our safety and for the strength to go on if Allan is wrong. I pray that things aren't actually about to become worse for us for reasons that he isn't foreseeing.
* * *
We wake on the first day of March to find that the French have disappeared. Their absence becomes apparent when the guards come to administer our toilet runs. They take Allan and me first, not the French. I feel a vindictive thrill: Finally, the French have to wait for a change! But the guards don't take the French for their toilet runs after us. They don't take the French to the bathroom all day. When the evening feeding comes, Allan and I hold perfectly still, listening. The guards don't open the French hostages' door. The next morning's feeding and toilet run confirm the new pattern: Allan and I are the only hostages in the apartment.
Allan doesn't understand how the French could have been removed without either one of us hearing anything, especially given how restlessly I sleep. The night chill wakes me up, my need to pee wakes me up, the morning call to prayer wakes us both up briefly. Allan keeps hounding me. You're sure you didn't hear anything? Maybe you heard something and thought it was a dream. His obsession grates on my nerves, already frazzled from the tension of the past several days, plus now this latest destabilizing change. No, for the umpteenth time, I didn't hear anything; forgive me for managing to sleep as soundly as you for once. Why does Allan need to figure out exactly what time the French left? The point is, they're gone.
Allan wants, of course, to interpret the French hostages' disappearance as a release. This is it: fire sale. Our captors are clearing out the inventory, cutting deals to get all the hostages off their hands. As supporting evidence for this interpretation, he cites the fact that the French were "snuck away." As we learned from Paul and Donald, and as we saw ourselves when Robert was taken away, our captors don't want other hostages to know when someone is going home.
Part of me wants to agree, the same part of me that's superstitiously counting down the days to March 11. Another part of me feels obliged to point out to Allan that the French could just as plausibly have been transferred. If the war's tide has turned against our captors, couldn't that prompt them to move the hostages to more secure hiding places, like the Shouf prison?
Allan launches into a fastidious argument—fastidious because he's attacking my hypothetical example, not my main point—about why it wouldn't make any sense for our captors to transfer us back to the Shouf if they're losing the war. The Shouf is Druze territory, and if there's an alliance that's been able to tighten the noose around the Partisans of God, the Druze have to be part of it...
I interrupt. I don't want to fight with you about this, I tell him. I'm not trying to make you lose hope, but we're not supposed to lose ourselves in hope, either. The only way I can do both those things is to keep both possibilities in mind at the same time. Maybe the French were released, maybe they were transferred. Maybe we're about to be released, maybe we're not. We have to recognize both as possibilities, so let's not argue over which is right.
Allan is chastened. "You're right. I'm sorry."
A few days pass without any sign that the guards are getting ready to remove us from the apartment. The suspense is unbearable. Allan again tries posing direct questions to Waleed. What happened to the French hostages who used to be in the other room? Have they gone home? We've never before alluded to the other hostages in conversation with a guard, much less acknowledged that we know they're French. Waleed angrily repeats his earlier warning against asking questions. Undeterred, Allan asks if we are going home. For the first time ever, Waleed hits Allan. He repeats: Don't ask questions.
I take the risk of explaining to Waleed that if they're planning to move us somewhere else, Allan and I don't want to be separated. Please let us stay together.
Waleed doesn't hit me, but he punishes our badgering him in a different way. From now on, he announces, we are not to speak at all without permission—not to each other, not to the guards. He enforces that rule for the rest of his two-day shift. Fortunately, Sayeed's shift doesn't enforce Waleed's ultimatum, if they know about it in the first place.
Shower day comes. We're made to bathe as hastily as usual, despite there being only two hostages showering now, not five. But at last something different happens. The guards don't give us a new change of clothes; we have to keep wearing last week's. I agree with Allan right away that this has to mean that a move of some kind is imminent, be it transfer or release. The hostages' laundry service has been discontinued. This holding place is being shut down.
On March 6, after the evening feeding, all three guards come into our room. My heart leaps. Here we go... I'm told to stand. Across the room, I hear Allan being unchained; no one's unchaining me, though. Now I'm terrified of a separation. Using the English he's retained from his lessons with me, Hikmet informs Allan that he's being taken to the toilet. I hear Allan pick up his water bottle and pee bottle to carry with him, but Sayeed tells him no, so Allan puts them back on the floor. While one guard escorts Allan to the bathroom, the other two guards remove all his things from the room: bedding, tub, bottles. Then they remove my things. That relieves me—it's a sign that both of us are going together after all. However, the fact that our things are going with us suggests that our destination is a new holding place, not home.
To my surprise, Allan is returned to the bedroom after his toilet run. Why is his mattress gone? he asks as the guards rechain him. No answer. After being taken to the bathroom, I too am rechained. The guards leave us locked in the bedroom, sitting on the bare floor. Some kind of activity goes on in the front of the apartment; I'm convinced the guards are packing up the things they removed from our room. We assume they'll return for us shortly, after they've finalized their preparations for the move.
We wait. Nothing more happens. After a while, the guards go to bed. Evidently they expect Allan and me to sleep on the chilled floor, without blankets. In early March, the nights are still wintry cold. I curl up into as tight a ball as I can, with each of my hands tucked up the opposite sleeve of my sweater. At least I have flannel pajama bottoms; poor Allan is stuck with a pair of those flimsy silky bottoms.
Now I'm having doubts. Are we being punished? For asking questions? Allan doesn't think so, he's confident the move will happen sometime in the middle of the night or early morning. I wonder: Did the French spend their last night in this apartment shivering on the floor? For once, I feel sorry for them.
I pass a wretched night, unable to do more than skim the surface of sleep. Belatedly, I come to appreciate my mattress, which, when I had it, I always found too thin to be comfortable. I use the book I've been reading, the only thing they didn't take from me, as a pillow. Outside, I hear a heavy rain falling. It falls all night. I don't know if the temperature would actually be less cold if it weren't raining, but I imagine I would feel less cold if I weren't hearing the rain fall. I can't believe I ever complained about having "only" one or two blankets.
Sometime in what I guess—hope—is the early morning hours, the phone rings. Finally, I think, we're going. Because the guards left me without a bottle, I badly need to pee. I wait for our door to open. I keep waiting. After a time, I hear the call to prayer being broadcast outside. The guards pray, then return to bed. I doze fitfully.
Outside our sealed windows, the world begins its day, but the guards are in no hurry to start theirs. I'm so desperate to void my bladder that I risk angering them by knocking on the wall. Eventually Mohammed enters, surly and rough, to take me to the bathroom.
When the guards bring us breakfast, Allan demands to know if we're leaving the apartment today. He poses the question in French, since with the French hostages gone, there's no longer any point in concealing that he knows their language. After a startled beat, Sayeed growls, "Ne me parle pas, fils de pute." Allan persists: If we aren't leaving, we need our things back.
No such luck. We spend the next three days on the bare floor, with no possessions. Since we no longer have pee bottles, the guards consent to take us to the bathroom during the day if we knock on the wall, but they warn me not to wake them up during the night. We have to ask the guards to bring us glasses of water when they feed us. They seem to think that the tea they serve should be enough to quench our thirst—or maybe they would prefer that our bladders remain empty for their own convenience. I can tell the guards are annoyed by my need to pee frequently in small quantities. I can't help it, assholes. If you don't like it, give me my bottle back.
Without our tubs, we no longer have candles, which I could have used as a last-ditch heat source. When the power's out, we lie in a pitch-black room. We don't have toothbrushes or tissues. Allan has to cadge individual cigarettes from the guards throughout the day.
Our most urgent need is to get our blankets back, but the only concession we receive on that count is that Hikmet brings us the two bathroom towels designated for hostages, plus an extra towel for me since I'm not lying next to the radiator. I suspect the extra towel is his own. I use one towel as a blanket and the other as a mat. While I'll gladly accept any additional layer against the cold, the towels make a negligible difference. Allan lobbies for the guards to chain me to the radiator, but to no avail. Because the drop in temperature prevents us from sleeping at night, we get most of our rest during the day.
The guards are as paranoid as ever about not letting our chains rattle on the floor—a big problem, now that we no longer have mattresses. As a result, Allan and I are required to be even more sparing than usual in our movements. Fortunately, the guards ease back this restriction once they've had the idea of wrapping our chains in tape, so they'll make a less metallic sound when dragged across the floor.
I retain my conviction that we're being transferred somewhere; there's just been some last-minute delay. The reason the guards won't return our possessions, I've decided, is that the setback could be resolved at any moment, so the guards wouldn't have time to repack. That's my optimistic reading of our deprivation. A more pessimistic read is that Sayeed is retaliating for our having concealed that we both know some French.
Allan spins his own interpretation, one that allows him to keep hoping we're being released. Because we're going home, the guards have closed up shop. They've either thrown our things away or carted reusable items, like blankets and mattresses, off to their own homes. In my frozen, sleep-deprived misery, I carp at Allan's theory despite my earlier insistence that I didn't want to fight over such things. Why wouldn't the guards wait until we're actually gone to discard or requisition our possessions? Allan digs back: Why am I concluding so decisively, from the taking away of our possessions, that we're being transferred? Our possessions have never accompanied us on a transfer before.
On March 8, the last day of the weekend shift, Hikmet brings us a late-night glass of tea. It's an act of mercy, a small measure to fortify us against the cold. He lingers after serving us so he can take our empty glasses back with him. The door is ajar; off in the front of the apartment, the television blares. That noise provides cover for what I do next.
"Hikmet," I plead quietly, "when do we go? Boukrah?"
He hesitates quite a while before answering. Then he crouches next to me so that he can whisper. "How d'you say: tss, tss, tss, tss, tss?" I have no idea what he's trying to communicate. He tries again. "Listen," he tells me. The radiator's too feeble to hiss, so all I hear is the dreary, frigid sound of the rain falling outside. That sound has been oppressing us for the past two days. Hikmet taps on the wall with all his fingers, a dancing patter. He repeats: "Tss, tss, tss, tss, tss, tss, tss."
"Rain," I tell him.
He echoes the word, patches it into a makeshift sentence. "Is not rain—you go."
While finishing my tea, I debate whether to try to find out where we're going. I don't know if I should reward Hikmet's kindness by pressuring him for still more information he surely is not supposed to give. My nerve fails, I don't ask before he collects our glasses and leaves. Allan doesn't fish, either. "Thank you, Hikmet," I say, but he doesn't reply, just closes the door.
What does it mean that they're waiting for the rain to stop before they take us away? This new piece of information doesn't help us resolve the "transfer or release" question, Allan and I are able to brainstorm too many possibilities supporting both sides. Are they waiting for the rain to stop so that it won't prevent a speedy getaway when they release us? Might they be waiting out of consideration for us, our health, so that when they release us, we're not left standing somewhere in the cold pouring rain, in pajamas? Then again, they might be transferring us somewhere, like the mountains, where driving in the rain might cause them to slide or get stuck. Maybe they just don't want to get wet while lugging us out to the car in sacks. Or they don't want to risk slipping while carrying us.
Too many possibilities to draw even a tentative conclusion. We continue to hang in suspense.
* * *
On March 9, the rain stops. Waleed's team is on shift, once again enforcing his rule of silence. As an extension of that rule, we're not allowed to knock on the wall for a toilet run. Instead, Waleed decrees that we will be taken to the bathroom four times a day, coinciding with our three feedings plus a "last call" just before the guards go to bed. I suffer, not only because my bladder wants to be emptied more frequently than four times every 24 hours, but also because the stress of waiting to see what will happen, now that the rain has stopped, loosens my bowels.
In the evening, the phone rings. "Someone's coming for us," I whisper to Allan. "Probably," he whispers back. We fall silent, each of us stewing in his own hopes and worries. As disruptive and stressful as it's been, in the past, when they've showed up to move us without warning, I can see now why it might be better for us, emotionally, not to know in advance.
I'm banking that before the night is out, a transfer team will arrive, like the team who brought us to this apartment from the abandoned office. But they might not be coming right away. When the guards go to bed, I conclude that we'll be moved out in the early morning.
Tomorrow is March 10. The very threshold of my anniversary. How spectacularly, providentially coincidental it would be if that were the day of my release. What a climactic reversal after the misery of the past few nights. Please, God, do it. For your glory.
This night feels longer than usual, and I sleep even less than has become usual. From his breathing, it sounds like Allan does a little better.
I haven't yet heard the morning call to prayer when the guards come to fetch us. They take me first. Coming out of the bedroom, they steer me left instead of right. I pull back, telling them I need to use the toilet. They shush me and continue walking me into the front area of the apartment, a place I haven't been since the night they brought me here. They sit me in a hard chair. The early morning quiet is suddenly rent by the now familiar shriek of packing tape.
I'm frantic. "Waleed, I have to use the toilet first, I cannot wait!"
"You need pee-pee?" Waleed asks in a babyish voice.
Fuck you, Waleed. "Yes. I need pee-pee. Please!"
I hear someone fumbling around in a plastic bag, apparently retrieving something from the trash for me to pee into. "Waleed!" Because I'm trying to be insistent and quiet at the same time, my voice comes out as a whine. "Just take me to the bathroom."
A tin can is thrust into my hand. "Make pee-pee in this," Waleed orders. Peering under the bottom of the blindfold, I see that this must be the can from which they poured beans over our rice at yesterday's midday meal. I stand to tug down the front of my pajama bottoms and my flyless briefs. After two months of going to the bathroom under the open-door rule, I'm resigned to exposing myself in front of the guards, and doing number one while they watch is far less humiliating than number two. Nevertheless, I resent having to do this, especially with the guards standing so close around me. I hope that with their delicate Shiite sensibilities, they're squirming. Well... Waleed won't be squirming, unfortunately. He enjoys making me submit to this indignity.
When I'm finished, they tape me up the same way they did when I was transferred from the abandoned office: reinforced blindfold, cloth-and-tape gag, wrists behind my back, ankles together. Again, I'm threaded into a burlap sack. Once knotted shut, the sack is dragged across the floor to some spot where I'll be out of their way while they tape up Allan. I immediately set to work on making the gag slip.
I hear Waleed ask Allan if he, too, needs pee-pee. They didn't empty the can after I used it, so there isn't enough volume remaining to accommodate Allan's entire morning piss. "I'm not finished," he protests when he has to cut his stream short. "No, you are finished," Waleed counters imperiously.
They drag Allan, taped and bagged, over next to me—in front of me, as I'm lying on my side. By this time, the call to prayer has sounded, so the guards pray while Allan and I lie on the floor inside our sacks. Their praying lasts a few minutes. My lips finish wriggling their way to freedom over the top edge of the gag, but I don't attempt to free my hands. I'm not sure I want to try even once we're in the car, knowing that Allan got his hands smacked last time. With the guards nearby, Allan too is holding still.
After the guards have prayed, we keep waiting—guards as well as hostages—for something else to happen. It's a long wait, during which my primary emotion is apprehension. Please let them be releasing us. Please help me be strong if they're not... At one point, my apprehension is interrupted by a surge of rage when I realize that if the guards took our things from us in order to pack them up for a transfer, then instead of doing that four days ago, leaving us to suffer in the interim, they could have done the packing during all this time we've been waiting just now.
There's a knock on the door, which, I discover, I am lying very close to. Booted feet pass directly behind my back as new men enter the apartment. The two sets of guards exchange quiet salaams, but otherwise few words are spoken. Everyone knows what to do. Three men lift my sack into the air between them and rush me down the five flights of stairs I was hauled up two months ago. Their haste plus my weight make them clumsy; they occasionally bump me against the stairwell walls. I'm afraid that one of the guards will stumble or misstep and drop me. Please, I don't want another smashed elbow—or knee, or foot, or back, or head, or anything else.
They don't deposit me in a car trunk this time. Instead I end up on the floor of a van. Why a van? What might that indicate about where we're going? Allan, it must be, is laid down beside me a few minutes later. I hear some other things being slid into the van at the same time as Allan. Our mattresses and other possessions, I suspect. If so, then the guards haven't requisitioned our possessions for themselves, as Allan had theorized, which suggests that we're being transferred, not released.
At least one guard sits in the back of the van with us during the drive, so struggling to free our hands isn't an option. After several minutes, we park in an echoing space I take to be a garage. Oh shit, are we back at my first prison? Are they moving us back underground? Or... could this be the parking garage in west Beirut where I was taken immediately after I was kidnapped off the street? Could I be so close to Bernie's apartment? Are they taking me back to Bernie's apartment? Is this year-long nightmare about to end where it began?
All the guards—I think there are three of them—get out of the van, taking with them the items that had been loaded in with Allan. During the minute or so that Allan and I are left alone, he shifts inside his sack, but he doesn't struggle vigorously. Stress makes me want to say something, anything, to Allan, for the sake of connection. The guards are just outside the van, though, and they left the doors open, so I don't dare speak. I think they're reloading things into another vehicle; whatever they're doing, they're making enough noise that I don't think Allan would be able to hear me if I only whispered. Allan doesn't speak either.
When the guards return, they all get into the back of the van, closing the doors behind them. My sack is unknotted and the burlap pushed down to expose my head to the air. I assume they've done the same for Allan.
A man squatting or kneeling closer to our level speaks to us. I recognize him as the same fluid English speaker who came to transfer us out of the abandoned office—the one who assured me then that we were going home.
This time he tells us: "Listen. Do not speak. We are letting you go. But not here, not Beirut. You must take a trip. You understand? You must take a trip to the place where we will let you go. For you, this trip is good—you are going home. For us, there is danger. Because there is danger for us, we must do something to make you ready for your trip. Trust us. Do not be afraid. We are doing this so you can go home. You understand?"
I nod. With my gag halfway down my chin, I could answer out loud, but he ordered us not speak. I wish I knew what Allan thinks about what we've just been told. Every time they've transferred us, they've told us we're going home; the last time they transferred us, this very man told us that lie. But of course, I want to believe him now anyway. I realize that my fervent desire to believe is why the lie works every time. And yet this time genuinely seems different. This time he has given us information.
The guard asked us to trust them. They're going to do what they want whether we trust them or not. I suppose it's easier for them, though, if we don't resist. What is this "something" they have to do to make us ready for our trip? By telling me not to be afraid, the guard has made me more afraid. Evidently I'm not going to like what they feel they need to do.
They start with Allan. Tape screeches as they wrap it around him, binding him more securely. At one point, he makes a high-pitched grunt, a noise of startlement or pain. They shush him. He remains silent after that.
They keep wrapping. And wrapping. And wrapping. And wrapping. Jesus Christ, why are they using so much tape? They stop, only to start again. Did they run out of tape and start a new roll? This is absurd!
Clearly they want us to hold very, very still during this trip. Fine, so just tell us that, and we'll hold still for you. We won't move, we won't look, we won't make a sound, we promise. You ask us to trust you, why can't you trust us? It's in our own interest to help you, we know that. You don't have to do this to us...
Are they doing it because Allan pulled his hands out of the tape last time? Because they've seen us slip our gags? Oh, how we have screwed ourselves...
We're sorry. Please. We know we shouldn't have done it, we understand why it alarms you, but you're overreacting, we didn't actually make any trouble for you, don't you see that? We won't do anything wrong this time, we swear...
For God's sake, enough already! You'll cut off our circulation, using so much tape!
Finally, finally, they're satisfied. They're done with him. The van opens. An unexpectedly loud plastic crinkling accompanies what must be them carrying Allan out: taped up so thoroughly, he can't be walking. As they take him away, I panic at the thought that if this is really a transfer to a new holding place, they might be taking him away from me permanently, carting us off to different locations.
The guards don't carry Allan any farther than they carried the other items of cargo they unloaded from the van earlier. Very quickly, they're back. My turn.
They finish extracting me from the sack and sit me upright. They strip the tape from my fallen gag, then retie the gag around my mouth. They don't put fresh tape around the gag to hold it in place. Instead, they wrap a towel around my head and neck, so that only the tip of my nose is exposed.
They proceed to completely encase my towel-wrapped head in packing tape. They start at the top of my forehead, systematically winding their way down. They run new layers of tape across my already taped and blindfolded eyes. When they reach the tip of my nose, they run the strip of tape straight across—holy God, I'm going to smother! I squeal and thrash my head. "Trust us," the English speaker tells me again, sternly. Someone's fingers peel the bottom edge of the tape up away from my nostrils, leaving me a slit to breathe through. Air flows, but my breathing still feels constricted, I think because of how my nose is compressed by the tape running over it. I have no choice but, as ordered, to trust them. I have to trust that they know what they're doing, that they've done this safely before with other hostages.
They wrap many layers of tape over my gagged mouth, a ludicrous number of layers, to muffle any sound I might make. Then they run loops around my head vertically, under my chin and up over the top of my head, to immobilize my jaw in that direction. I won't be slipping this gag. Finally, they wrap tape around my neck. Swallowing is now difficult. I can do it, but it's a slow labor, not something I will be doing often. Breathing is also hard work. I have to focus on the task, pulling air in and pushing it out again through the narrow gap at my nostrils. Good God, how long do they expect me to do this?
They cut the tape off my wrists, but not my ankles, and stand me up, holding me as upright as the van's height allows. They press my arms and hands flat against my sides, as when my kidnappers taped me up, a year ago, to insert me into the compartment under the van's floor. A guard reinforces the tape around my ankles. Then he winds his way gradually, inch by inch, up my pajama-draped legs. He is wrapping me thoroughly, no gaps. Like a mummy. I am literally going to look like a mummy when they are done with me, a mummy wrapped in packing tape. This is what they did to Allan—they carried him out of here as a mummy. That is not the picture I had in my head when I heard them taping him. I had imagined him with thickly layered swaths at intervals down his body.
Two men keep holding me up at a slant, a task they seem to find awkward and taxing, while the third man passes the roll of tape around and up my lower body. The overlapping layers of tape create a very tight binding. My knees and ankle bones are squeezed together painfully. My fingers are sealed to my thighs, completely immobile. Tape presses against my crotch, around my hips and arms. They finish one roll, start another.
When it comes time to wrap my upper body, the guards change position. One kneels beside me with his arms around my hips, leaning my lower body against himself and pressing down to bend my mummified knees, so I can be held upright above the waist despite the low ceiling. The position puts a strain on my ankles. It also feels precarious, I'm afraid I'll topple over. The other two guards share the burden of propping up my shoulders while passing the roll of tape back and forth to each other. My baggy sweater becomes compressed under the tape working its methodical way up my torso. My chest strains against the binding as I labor to breathe.
Finally the tape has climbed around my shoulders, back to my neck. Every inch of me is now covered in tape, except, for some reason, my stocking feet. Back in my first prison, when I had my meltdown and the guards taped me up for "time out," those bonds, while uncomfortable, had made me feel secure. By contrast, what has been done to me now is simply terrifying. The muscles of my arms, trapped against my sides, vibrate infinitesimally out of fear. I have never felt so helpless in my life. I'm still afraid of smothering, it's all I can do to breathe. My head is sweltering under the towel and tape.
Holding me by my shoulders and legs, two men hoist me into the air. As Allan did, I crinkle when they move me. They have turned me into a package, shrink-wrapped in plastic, ready for transportation. After maneuvering me out of the van, the guards carry me a few steps, then slide me head first onto a platform. They push me back until the crown of my head is flush against a wall.
I have the impression I've been loaded into the back of another van—or perhaps a pickup truck, except that the surface I'm lying on is flat, not corrugated. My left arm is pressed against another solid wall. My right side is pressed against Allan, lying next to me; I feel and hear him moving inside his wrapper. We're together, thank God for that at least. I too am shifting, straining, squirming, not trying to escape but simply to move, to try to stretch and relax the bonds a little, to feel a little less horribly, helplessly constricted. When a guard hisses for quiet, I muster the willpower to hold myself immobile.
Just beyond my feet, a metal plate clangs into position, covering up the opening through which they slid me into this cramped space. I hear screws turning. They're sealing us in. I'm afraid. I have to know where they're sealing us into. With my neck wrapped in tape, I can't turn my head, but I can lift it. I do so, cautiously. Within mere inches, my forehead touches a metal surface above me.
I've never known myself to be claustrophobic, but now I'm swallowed up by panic. I feel suffocated, crushed. They're sealing us inside a box, a shallow metal box, like... a coffin. Jesus God, it's a coffin. Images flash into my mind: They dump the coffin into a water-filled quarry and let it sink. They drop it in a dirt hole and bury us alive.
No no no no no. You cannot let your mind go there. You cannot do this to yourself, you cannot lie here imagining horrific scenarios. Trust them. Trust them. Remember what Allan said: they're terrorists, not gangsters, they wouldn't want to hide the bodies... They're transporting you somewhere, this is how they're concealing you. The guard told you that precisely so you wouldn't imagine it was something else, so you would know it wasn't something else. They're taking you to be released—at worst, they're transferring you to a new holding place. You have to calm down. If you start hyperventilating, you won't be able to breathe...
It takes a long time to seal us in: many screws, only one screwdriver. At last they're done. Outside our compartment, more words are exchanged among the guards. The doors of the vehicle's cab open and close beyond my head, on both sides of me. The engine starts up, very loud. We're definitely in a truck. Hanging under the truck, more likely—a secret cargo in a secret compartment. Our guards have become smugglers.
As the engine idles, I am forced to pull diesel fumes into my lungs. Come on, get moving, you'll gas us to death...
We're off. Unable to brace myself, I am rocked by the movement of the truck, jarred by every bump in the street. Soon we're barreling down a highway. There are air holes in the side of our container; I can hear the wind whistling past as the truck races along. The cold air is bracing, my nostrils suck it in. I hear other vehicles around us. The morning traffic is beginning.
The sounds made by the surrounding traffic, and by the wheels of our own truck spinning on the wet asphalt, are noticeably louder than I'm used to. I'm riding outside the vehicle, not inside it. This feels so dangerous. I hope to God that this box we're in is riveted firmly to the underside of the truck. If it falls, we're dead.
The truck slows, idles, pulls forward, idles some more. I'm breathing diesel fumes again. What's the delay?
A checkpoint. Of course. I encountered these when Youssef drove Bernie and me in from the airport. That's why our captors have gone to such extreme lengths to conceal us. So they can get us through checkpoints.
The soldiers manning the checkpoint are going to search the truck. When they do, I must hold very still, I mustn't make a sound. I must show the guards that they can trust me in the future, that they don't need to subject me to this ever again...
Wait, no. You idiot. If the soldiers discover you, they'll free you, you'll never have to worry again about whether or not the guards trust you.
Should I try to shout though the gag, through all the layers of tape? I doubt my muffled voice could be heard over the idling engine. A better idea—I can bang my head against the top of the compartment. The claustrophobic nature of our hiding place is suddenly a blessing in disguise. If Allan hears what I'm doing and does it with me, they have to hear us.
I'm frightened, this feels enormously risky. What if somehow the soldiers at the checkpoint don't hear us but our guards do? What if the soldiers hear us but assume that the noise is being produced by some fault in the engine? What if they hear us and become suspicious, but the guards floor it and make a successful getaway? In my head, Robert Berg is screaming uselessly for mercy...
Why run the risk if they're taking us to be released, anyway?
Unless, of course, they're not really releasing us, in which case this might be our only opportunity for rescue.
Dear God, what should I do? Tell me, give me a sign.
I'll do whatever Allan does. He's savvier than I am, he'll know better what the smart thing is to do. If he makes noise, I'll make noise.
We've advanced in line to the checkpoint. Under the throbbing of the engine, I can hear someone outside the truck speaking to the driver. I wait to hear what Allan will do. So far he's not making a sound. If he's planning to, it makes sense that he'd wait until a soldier comes around back to search the truck. Any moment now, we'll have to decide what to do...
We're driving forward. We've been waved through. They didn't search the truck.
I don't understand. What's the purpose of a checkpoint if you're not going to search the truck?
I'm enraged, I'm in despair. We missed our chance. No, we weren't even given a chance. What the fuck? What the fuck?
* * *
A few minutes beyond the checkpoint, we turn onto a different road and start to climb. We've done this before. They're taking us back to the basement prison in the mountains. I would much rather be going home, of course. But at least I know, now, when this nightmarish trip will end. In half an hour, maybe a bit more, we'll arrive, and they'll get me out of here. Half an hour. Please, God, help me endure that long.
The ride is hell. The jarring was bad enough on the city streets and highway; lumbering through the mountains is much worse. Bumps and potholes toss my head into the air. If wrapping a towel around my head was meant to provide cushioning, it's not enough to help. A large enough jolt can lift and drop my whole body, smashing my spine against the iron floor.
Occasionally, my head is propelled far enough into the air that my forehead hits the top of the box. A terrifying thought: If my nose gets hit, a nosebleed could smother me, or drown me. Or the unattached edge of tape in front of my nostrils might get smashed down, closing my air slit. I wrench my tape-wrapped neck side to side, as far as I can—barely an inch in either direction, but I'm hoping that the repeated motion will loosen the tape, allowing me to turn my face safely away from both the top of the box and the wall to my left... Shit, it's not working. The strain hurts my neck and makes it harder to breathe. I'm tiring myself out without accomplishing anything.
Breathing takes so much fucking work. Every breath is a conscious action. I have to think about it, I can't just breathe automatically. I have to work to pull enough air through my nostrils. I have to work to expand my chest under the tape.
The guards can't possibly know what this experience is like. They've never ridden inside this jolting coffin wrapped up like mummies. They don't realize how incredibly dangerous this is. Trust them? They don't have a fucking clue. I am in the hands of idiots. My life is in the hands of idiots. Dear God... hold me in your hands. Keep me safe. I am depending on you, I have nobody else.
Half an hour to the prison. I only have to survive half an hour. By now, it's probably down to more like twenty minutes. I can do this. I have to. I have no choice.
Try praying. The rosary. For once, the repetition will be useful. I'll have to focus to keep track of the number of repetitions, it will be a good distraction. Our Father in heaven... hallowed be your name... I try to establish a rhythm for the phrasing that will match my labored breathing. Hail Mary, full of grace... The Lord is with you...
Oh God, get me out of here.
Your kingdom come, your will be done... Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus... Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit...
Despite how chilly the air is, I'm roasting under all this tape, sweating like a pig...
I've done five decades, a whole rosary, minus the prayers at the beginning and the end, which I don't remember. We still haven't arrived. How long does it take to recite the rosary? Fifteen minutes? I'll start over. I don't have any other fucking thing to do...
I'm sorry, God, forgive the blasphemy; you know I didn't mean to be disrespectful. Please, help me.
Help Allan, too. Shit, I haven't even been thinking about him. I assume he's all right. Please let him be all right. This next rosary's for him, for his safety—
Fuck! That bump hurt! It was like being cracked on the back of the head with a two-by-four and punched in the kidneys. Jesus... A blow that hard couldn't actually knock the wind out of me, stop my breathing, could it? That would take a blow to the diaphragm, right? The stomach, not the back?
Save us from the time of trial... Deliver us from evil...
Holy Mary, Mother of God... Pray for us sinners...
As it was in the beginning... ever will be... world without end...
Unless I miscounted, that's another whole rosary complete.
No, I must have skipped a decade. I can't have been praying for thirty minutes, we would have arrived by now...
Any minute, we'll be there. Hang on, it's almost over.
Why are we still driving? I know I'm shit at estimating the passage of time. Still, I'm certain we should have reached the prison by now.
Oh God. We're not going to that prison. We're going somewhere else. I have no fucking idea where. Which means I have no fucking idea how long it will take.
I cannot do this. I cannot fucking do this anymore! You have got to take me out of here! PLEASE!
* * *
We keep driving through mountains. Every now and then we make a particularly wide, slow turn, leaving one road for another, it would seem. The altitude change pressurizes my ears. Bound, I have no way to ease the pressure; swallowing alone doesn't do the trick. Besides, I'm trying to avoid swallowing. The time and effort required to swallow through my tape-wrapped throat has to be stolen from the time and effort needed to breathe.
After what I'm convinced must be an hour, I feel I have reached the absolute limit of my endurance. My body aches—from the jolting, the constriction. I need to stretch, I need to bend, I need to move. My chest muscles are sore from the exertion of pushing out against the binding as I inhale. I want so desperately to inhale through my mouth, a full, deep, unrestricted breath. I am drenched in sweat, which remains trapped inside my plastic wrapping. When I itch, the best I can do is squirm to relieve it. I'm thirsty. My jaw is in constant discomfort; the way they've taped it up has left it in an unnatural position. If I push my chin forward and down, straining against all those layers of tape, I can open my mouth a tiny bit, loosening the gag and expanding my nasal passage, my airway. But the strain is too much to maintain for more than a few seconds at a time. I have to relax—but relaxing merely means dropping my jaw back into a different uncomfortable position.
I cannot endure a minute more of this. This trip has to end now. They have to stop and pull us out and unwrap us.
I have reached my limit... Yet we have hours still to go. Four hours total, Allan will estimate at the end. Four hours as mummies, bouncing helplessly in a metal box under a truck bed.
At one point, the truck dips heavily to my left, so far that for a horrifying few moments I'm convinced the wheels have slipped off the road and we're about to topple down a mountainside. The dip sends Allan sliding heavily into me, squashing me against the side of the box. I'm being crushed, I can't breathe...
As soon as the truck rights itself, Allan wriggles and lurches away from me. Several seconds later, he collides into me again—except this time the blow strikes only my shoulder and the side of my head, and he pulls away again immediately. What the hell?
He does it again. He's hitting me deliberately. He's trying to communicate with me. He wants to know that I'm conscious, he wants me to respond. I deduce that his head and shoulders wouldn't have the leverage to swing back and forth so readily. That means he must be hitting me with his feet.
All this time, I've been envisioning that Allan and I are lying head to head... like lovers sleeping side by side. But no. The guards have inserted us into this box head to foot. Allan's head, instead of being next to mine, is at the far end of the box. That knowledge makes me feel more distanced from him. I feel more isolated, even more vulnerable than before.
Holding my breath, I bend what little I can at the waist in order to lift my legs. I swing them toward Allan, make contact. There, he'll know I'm all right. I lie flat again. That brief effort exhausted me, I have to go back to just breathing.
The drive through hell continues. I'm tired of praying, I need to do something else to distract myself, to make the time pass. In my head, I sing the soundtracks of musicals I grew up listening to from my mother's record collection. West Side Story. Fiddler on the Roof. The Sound of Music.
Still going. Where the hell are they taking us? Why are they taking us so far? I understood Lebanon to be a tiny country. Given how long we've been driving, is it possible they're transporting us into a different country?
We're descending now. I feel gravity pulling on my head, and I register the altitude change in my inner ears. I still can't unpop my ears, I've always had a hard time doing that. It's a trivial discomfort; nevertheless, it's one more maddening addition to the torture of this journey.
We're out of the mountains. Less jolting now, thank God. We rattle along down level roads, mostly straight, no more tight curving and winding. The new terrain allows us to pick up speed. Good—we'll get wherever we're going faster.
Not nearly as fast as I'd like. It turns out there's still something like an hour to go.
I'm soaking wet, clammy and chilly. At the same time, I'm parched—my body is desperate to replace the liquid it has exuded through my skin. I'm being pickled in that liquid, pickled in my own sweat. In addition to my thirst, my stomach resents having missed breakfast. The hunger, combined with the smell of diesel, is making me nauseous.
No! Think about something else, don't dwell on the nausea. If you throw up behind the gag, it will kill you.
As we drive on and on, I become sleepy. The work of breathing has wiped me out. Maybe I'd be able to doze off, now that the ride has become relatively smoother—but I don't dare try. I'm afraid that, on autopilot, my body won't know how much effort is required to keep me breathing. The yearning for sleep is a further agony, one more reason I need this trip to end now already.
Maybe I'm sleepy because I'm being gradually asphyxiated by the exhaust.
Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad way to end this.
No. Please, God, I want to survive this. I want to be released, I want to go home to my family...
Despair and fear and exhaustion make me want to cry. I can't let myself do that, though, I'll suffocate. My breaths become shakier and longer, and more painful, until I'm able to get my emotions under control.
I can't focus on distractions anymore, my thoughts just ooze in random directions. My brain is being squeezed like a sponge. Is this what insanity feels like? I want to stop having any thoughts at all.
We turn onto another bumpy road—too level to be more mountains, but it's worse than the mountains, a dirt road, badly rutted. Oh God, the worst jolting yet. Please, let this be the last leg, let us be arriving... The truck feels like it's inching along. Come on, come on...
We brake. We turn in reverse. We brake again. The engine cuts off. The guards get out of the cab. At last. We've arrived. Thank you, Jesus! We've arrived.
They can't pull us out right away. They have to undo all those screws, one by one. Hurry... Hurry...
The cover's off. They pull Allan out first. I hate him for getting to go first, then immediately feel guilty. It's perfectly fair that I have to wait longer. They taped him up first, they should get him out first. Get to me quickly, though—before I lose my mind.
Something's wrong. The guards have remembered that there's something else they were supposed to do first. They slide Allan back into the box. You fucking morons, get your goddamn act together. One of the guards climbs onto the back of the truck, I hear him walking above me. Whatever he's doing up there, he's taking his sweet fucking time about it.
The guard in the truck jumps back onto the ground, and both guards walk away. Oh no you don't, don't you dare leave us in here... Within a few moments, they're back. They extract Allan again, carry him off. I hear the ripping of tape, but no sign of life from Allan. God, please let him be all right...
Finally I hear him, gasping and sobbing. "Motherfucking bastards!" The sound of ripping tape continues. "I'll do that," Allan says. "Get Jeremy out!" When they don't comply right away, he shouts hysterically, "The other man—get him out now, you sons of bitches!"
They hsst at him, but they do what he wants. They drag me out of the box by my feet, carry me a short distance, lay me down on the ground. Infuriatingly, when they cut the tape off, they start at my ankles instead of my head. As a blade slices its way up between my legs, the severed ends of tape spring away from each other, that's how tightly wrapped I was. It takes them longer to untape my groin, stomach, and chest: they have to make incisions and peel the tape off my clothes, a few strips at a time. When the binding on my chest is loosened, I take a long, loud, wheezing breath through my nose, relishing the sensation of my chest rising without restraint. Ouch—my chest muscles are too sore to want to stretch that far.
At long last, they free my head, slicing and peeling the tape until they can strip off the sweat-soaked towel. The towel was sweltering and did no good as a cushion, but I see now the advantage: they can unwrap my head more quickly, and I don't experience the pain of having tape pulled off my skin and hair and beard. I should be thankful, I suppose, for that small consideration. They leave my tape-wrapped blindfold on, but they remove the cloth gag tied over my mouth. Finally, finally, I can breathe freely again. I can breathe without having to think about it.
I'm lying on a blanket spread out on the ground. The guards roll me around at will as they finish stripping the tape off me. When they're done with me, they move back over to Allan, who's lying on an adjacent blanket. Despite what he told the guards, he hasn't been able to remove the tape from himself; they have to do it for him. No wonder, if his body's reacting like mine. All over my body, freed muscles are going into spasms. I shake uncontrollably for long minutes. I pray I haven't suffered permanent damage.
Gradually the spasms subside, leaving me limp and drained. I imagine that I can feel my sponge-squeezed brain slowly expanding back to its regular shape. Thank you, God, I keep thinking. Alternating with: Please—never again.
"Are you all right?" Allan asks me in a weak voice. The guards have laid us down with our heads next to each other this time. I feel far from all right, but I whimper, "Yes," so he won't worry. I trust that I'm going to be all right.
Once we've regained the use of our limbs, the guards give us each a bottle of water and show us where they've left a pee bottle close to our heads for us to share. Allan struggles onto his knees to use the pee bottle right away, although his bladder yields only a short trickle after a longish wait. I feel no need to pee. I have sweat all the water out of my body, I'm still wearing all that sweat in my clothes. What I need to do is drink. I gulp down so much water at a single pull that the guards take the bottle out of my hand for fear I'll make myself sick. What, now you care about my well-being?
I don't feel the sun shining on us, so there must be a roof over our heads. But the floor beneath the blanket is dirt, and the air is fresh, and there's a breeze blowing in from beyond our feet. I hear sounds of a rural setting: birds chirping, windblown grass rustling. No sounds of people, except for an occasional truck passing by far away. I'm picturing us in an isolated barn surrounded by farm country. This can't be a new holding place. It feels temporary, an unloading point, not our final destination. But where is that...?
The truck we came in is very close by; I hear one of the guards jump up to sit on the truck bed. The other guard—only two accompanied us on this journey—is standing lookout a bit farther off, scuffing the dirt now and then with his foot. Tobacco smoke wafts toward us on the breeze. Allan asks for a cigarette, and the guard on the truck bed brings it to him. When the guard offers me a cigarette, I shake my head, still too drained to want to speak.
After giving us some more time to recover, a guard approaches us again. He has a bone to pick. He's not the fluid English speaker from the van, the one who told us to trust them. That man isn't here, the fucker. I don't think I've heard this new guard's voice before today.
The guard demands of Allan, "Why you talk bad to us?" He sounds pouty more than angry.
Allan's reply is measured but tight; he's holding himself back from exploding. "What you did to us was very bad. You cannot do that to people, it is dangerous."
"You are not hurt," the guard says in self-justification.
"We were hurt. All the time the truck was moving, it hurt us. We could have been hurt very badly. We could hardly breathe, we could have been killed."
The guard becomes more solicitous. "How are you now? Okay?" He nudges me, asks the same question. I nod.
Instead of answering the guard's question, Allan poses one of his own. There's a strain in his voice that suggests he might be close to tears, although if so, he stays under control. "Are you really letting us go?"
"Soon." Patent evasion.
"Please. After what we just went through, can you please just give us a straight answer for once? Are we going home—yes or no? If we're not, just tell us, we just want to know."
The guard shushes Allan the way he might a fussing child. "Ss, ss, ss. No more talk. Is better you sleep now. You go soon. Not in truck—okay? No truck, no worry. Sleep well, then you go. All good."
He walks away. I am aware that in his attempt to pacify Allan, the guard did not make what would have been the most obvious move for him to make. He assured us vaguely that all will be "good." But he did not repeat the promise that we're going home.
"It's not real, is it," I say in a dull voice.
Allan doesn't answer right away. "I don't know." His voice is quiet but pained with frustration. "We might be going to Syria. We might be going to Baalbek."
I have no idea what either destination entails, I've never even heard of the second one. "Where do we want to go?"
I am able to sustain surprisingly little interest in this question. Right now, a different concern blocks my view of the future.
"Wherever we go, I just don't want to do that again." My voice catches as I say it, but I don't have enough strength to cry.
"No, that's over." He speaks bitterly. "They wouldn't have undone us if they had to do us back up again. Too much work for them."
* * *
The guard told us that we will be going "soon." On this occasion, "soon" turns out to mean well after nightfall. We spend all day lying on the floor of the barn.
Exhausted, I drop off shortly after Allan's conversation with the guard. When I wake, a guard brings me lunch. It's my first meal of the day: a sandwich containing both jam and cheese—a weird, unwelcome combination—and some kind of cola, Coke or Pepsi, I can't tell the difference. I literally can't remember the last time I drank any kind of soda.
Allan's awake. He tells me that he, too, napped for a while. Then he woke up, at least half an hour ago, he thinks, and a guard fed him while I kept sleeping. While Allan was eating, he asked the guards what time it was; they told him one o'clock. I'm surprised they told him. Guards never want us to know anything.
More than twelve hours have passed since my last real toilet run, not counting that business with the tin can before we left the apartment. My stressed-out bowels are at a crisis point. If there are toilet facilities nearby—a farmhouse or an outhouse—I'm not allowed to go outside to use them. Instead, a guard leads me into a back corner of the barn, where I blindly squat over the ground. I feel immensely relieved afterward, but also dirty and degraded. I'm at a point where I don't care if we're being released or transferred, I just want to get the hell wherever we're supposed to end up.
Allan and I nap some more in the afternoon. When we're awake, we lie around, silent, nothing to do. Because we're not restrained, the guards go on alert anytime we move, so we try to stay still. With blindfolds taped around our heads, we couldn't possibly run away, but I wouldn't count on that fact to keep the guards from getting paranoid about an escape attempt. I don't want to give them any reason to feel the need to tape us up again, not even just hands and feet.
I'm recovering from the hellish trip, emotionally as well as physically. The fresh, cool air rejuvenates me, lifts my morale. My God, I'm outdoors! The apathy I've been feeling about our fate gives way to cautious, anxious stirrings of hope. I pray in the conditional tense: God, if they released us, that would make this horrible experience worth it...
When night falls, the temperature falls with it, from cool to cold. I shiver in my still slightly damp sweater. Allan and I roll ourselves up in our respective blankets. "Let's huddle," he proposes. "If they don't like it, they'll tell us." So we scoot close together, facing each other. The guards don't object. In fact, the one who talked to Allan earlier produces a third blanket, which he spreads out over the both of us. We'll be going soon, the guard promises again. He sounds almost apologetic.
I'm hungry as well as cold. It doesn't look like we'll get dinner until we arrive wherever we're going next. Could it be my first meal in freedom, do I dare to hope for that?
Eventually a car pulls up. Two new men have arrived. The guards take the blankets away from us, shake them out. Allan and I are left sitting on the bare ground with two guards standing watch over us, while it sounds like the other two move some things from the truck to the car. That activity doesn't seem consistent with the car having come to drive us to a release site.
Preparations complete, all four guards walk Allan and me out to the car together. They help us climb, groping, into the trunk, Allan first. A welcome surprise: we are not bound or gagged in any way, merely ordered to be silent. Might that be a sign that this is a release after all?
Allan is spooned behind me as we face toward the rear of the car. Earlier, while we were huddling under the blanket, with our hands out of the guards' sight, I had been tempted to reach over and touch Allan's arm, for comfort. I didn't do it. Now that we're spooning in the trunk, I wish he would reach forward and wrap his arm around me. I crave an embrace, both after the trauma of the journey in the truck and now in the face of this new trip to God knows where. The uncertainty is an agony. I'm hoping, I'm afraid to hope...
I find the courage to reach back and lay my hand on Allan's thigh, hoping the intimacy won't make him too uncomfortable. After several seconds, he lays his hand on top of mine, pats it, and withdraws. Not wanting to abuse his tolerance, I withdraw shortly afterward as well. I cross my arms over my chest, hugging myself for warmth.
The car labors down the rutted dirt road that brought us to the barn. At least this time we can use our hands and feet to brace ourselves against the sides of the trunk. We reach paved road, pick up speed.
The drive proves short, five or ten minutes. The last leg climbs uphill on progressively more primitive roads.
When the car stops, Allan and I are left in the trunk while the guards unload things from the back seat. Again, this activity seems to point to a transfer, not a release. Still, I'm not quite willing to relinquish hope yet. Maybe the unloading is an errand they have to complete on the way to releasing us. Maybe instead of unloading us, they'll get back in the car and resume driving. It's conceivable. I'm steeling myself, though, for the more likely alternative.
The trunk opens. My heart sinks, but I am resigned.
Men help us out of the trunk, more men than the two who drove us here. Through my socks, I detect grit-flecked concrete underfoot.
I am led up a flight of stairs. Steered through a series of rooms. When we stop, a mattress is waiting for me on the floor.
It's official—we've reached our destination.
They want me to lie down on my back instead of sitting. Allan is being made to lie down just beyond my feet; in the process, he accidentally steps on my shin.
The inevitable chain, this time around my right ankle. Jesus, it's heavy.
Someone presses down on my eyes through my tape-wrapped blindfold and gives me an incomprehensible order, something like "Naray gadaypa."
"I'm sorry," I say, "I don't understand."
Someone else standing a short distance away says, "You cannot look. Never."
You've got to be kidding me. Never?
They don't even give us anything for dinner. A shitty end to a fucking shitty day.
* * *
I see why they never want us to raise our blindfolds early the next morning, before sunup.
I'm awakened by the guards praying in another room, and I can't go back to sleep, even after they've finished and the building falls silent, presumably because they've gone back to bed. I hear Allan breathing like a man dead to the world. Roosters crow occasionally in the distance.
I've been blindfolded for 24 hours straight now, I've got to have a break. I'm certain the guards aren't in the next room. They're farther away, in some other part of the building. I'll need to keep a careful ear out for them, but I feel safe enough to run the risk of stealing a look around.
Working my fingertips under the edge of my tightened blindfold, I pry at the cloth until I manage to create some slack in the layers of tape wrapped around it. The slack isn't sufficient for me to tug the blindfold up onto my forehead, but I am able to pull the blindfold the other way, down onto my nose, so I can peek over the top.
Allan and I are being held in a narrow room, our mattresses crammed end to end along one of the longer walls. In the short wall that faces me, at the far end of the room from me, is a window—uncovered, but with frosted glass, so I can't discern what's outside. The passage to the next room is also located at that far end, in the long wall to my right, opposite the wall we're lying up against. In the dim, gray light of the early dawn, I can confirm what my ears had told me when the guards retreated from our room last night: there is no door, just an open doorway. That's why they want us to keep our eyes constantly covered.
No question of it, we're fucked. I could probably get away with lifting my blindfold, if they would take the tape off, since the angle from my head to the doorway doesn't allow me much of a view into the next room—and, by the same token, won't allow the guards to see much of me from that room. But Allan's head is located directly across from the doorway. He could see perfectly whatever there is to see.
So we're going to be kept blind the whole time we're here. Blind, in a room where we'll have sunlight for a change, assuming they're not planning to cover the window. How cruelly ironic. Maybe we'll at least get to feel sunbeams on our skin, if the building is oriented the right way.
At my feet, Allan is sleeping with his soles pointed toward mine. He's coiled underneath his blankets, only his blindfolded face peeping out; it's colder here, wherever we are, than it was in Beirut. Somehow, seeing Allan curled up in his nest of covers with his blindfold on makes me think, despite his beard, that he resembles a little boy. I am seized by a fierce tenderness for him. Thank you, God, for keeping us together in this new place. Thank you for getting us both here safely. I depend on him so much. Help me be a better companion to him. Less needy, more conscious of what he needs. More supportive. Less self-absorbed.
I have a quick pee into my bottle (something else to be thankful for), then retreat back under my blankets to escape the cold. I should try to get a little more sleep before what I hope will be a normally scheduled feeding and toilet run. I pry my blindfold back up over my eyes. The blindfold fell completely off one ear when I pulled it down, and now I can't manage to squeeze that ear all the way back under the cloth. As a result, the blindfold is lopsided. Shit. I can't keep fiddling with it, the tape crinkles, I'm afraid the guards will hear. At least both my eyes are covered. Maybe the guards won't notice the lopsidedness. Hopefully the blindfold won't suddenly slip down around my nose again.
What a fuck-up. Leave it to me to start off on the wrong foot in a new holding place.
It's the morning of March 11. Exactly one year from the day I was taken hostage. One year and counting.
* * *
Author's note: Okay, folks, think of that as a season finale. We're about halfway through the novel. All the remaining chapters are partially drafted. New developments are coming in Allan and Jeremy's relationship, and some other characters you've met will return. However, other projects demand my attention, so I'm afraid I need to take a break from this one.
Thanks to everyone who has invested time in reading this story! Thanks especially for the generosity of those who have offered encouragement by email.