River of Fire, River of Light – Chapter 1


ELIZABETH BAUER, BLINKING as she emerges from the overbright truck stop restaurant, wonders if she should seduce her horrible uncle. The thought itself is repulsive, but at this point she is willing to try anything. Even that. It would be ridiculously easy, too, because she’s, well, experienced, and he had once actually seen her, quite a lot of her, tarted-up and mortified in the corridor of that posh St. Louis hotel. He of course didn’t know that it was his young niece, en fête, but was obviously appreciative of the view, yes, very appreciative, she remembers, so the notion isn’t too insane . . . but no, she sighs, it’s too late for that now. It seems nothing in the world can stop her and her little brother from being taken away this hellish night.

We are so fucked . . . she sighs again as she plods along behind Mikey and Aunt Nora and Uncle Bill back to their car in the lot, which, at this post-dinner hour still holds a goodly scatter of vehicles: dusty rural pickups, cars, vans, and at least one sleek rental sedan, all dully reflecting, in various liquidlike ways the huge golden Dixie sign that looms overhead. It’s epic, beyond bleak, she and her brother hapless slaves shuffling in chains, manacles, shackles, behind their disgusting new masters . . . when Uncle Bill suddenly pulls out his phone, puts it to his ear, nods to Aunt Nora, turns and begins walking back to the restaurant.

Elizabeth spins around, perfunctorily flips him off, then catches up with Mikey and their clueless aunt, settling gloomily next to her brother into the back seat of the still-frigid car. Both stifling yawns, they are in the midst of politely trying to listen to Aunt Nora’s disquisition on finer dining in some New York restaurants when she abruptly interrupts herself and says that she must visit the restroom again and will return in a few minutes. In a flash of bracelets, a gust of Chanel, she is gone, slamming the door behind her, hurrying back across the parking lot, and then they are alone.

Elizabeth takes a deep breath, “C’mon Mikey, we’ve got to run for it! Now!”

“Well, do we have to?” asks Mikey, who is nine, looking wide-eyed at his fifteen-year-old sister. “I mean, he gave me this camera, and they want to take us to their nice house and all—”

“Mikey, Jesus Christ, he just bought you the camera to shut you up about him almost killing you!”

“Yeah, but—”

“But what? He had you up against the wall in the kitchen! You were scared shitless! Remember that? When he finally dropped you I thought he had killed you! And they want to send you to a fucking military school! You heard them!”

“Language, Lizzie—”

“Fuck language! Listen, this is our only chance! We’ve got to get out of here now! If we don’t get away this second they’ll take us all the way out to Connecticut so we won’t ever see mama again! They hate mama, you know that. They think she’s total trash. C’mon, let’s go! Now!”

Cradling his huge precious Nikon with its thick neck strap, Mikey nods slowly, hesitating for only a moment before he moves too, grabbing his backpack and water bottle while Elizabeth, gripping her pack, swings open her car door chanting, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, let’s go!” Very quickly they jump out, slam the doors behind them, and are free.

“Where do we go now, Lizzie?” asks Mikey, clutching his camera tight as tears form in his big blue eyes.

Yes, where do we go now? Elizabeth looks anxiously up and down the rows of cars patchily illuminated by the feeble overhead lights. She can feel the day’s heat still radiating from the eroded asphalt beneath her worn sneakers, a shock from the air-conditioned coolness, new car smell, and quiet terror of Uncle Bill’s luxurious BMW rental.

A door slams close by, only a few cars away, and they duck down. Elizabeth peeks over the hood of Uncle Bill’s car and sees an older man with gray hair wearing a nice jacket walking away from a new-looking white van. The man is whistling. He seems like he might be nice. “Shhh,” she whispers, “stay here. I’ll be right back.”

She runs over, averts her eyes from a yellowed spent condom composting into the fertile asphalt, hopes she won’t have to explain it, or not, to Mikey. The van looks very new and very clean and has Minnesota plates. Through its back windows she can see boxes stacked up, clothes on hangers, and maybe some wrapped-up furniture. He must be traveling somewhere far away. This might be it. No one is presently near them so she has to move fast. Her heart pounding mightily, she first tries the back doors. Locked. She runs around to the side door and then the passenger door, both locked. Fuck. In desperation, she circles around to the driver’s side door. Miraculously, it opens. Where is Mikey? She looks around and he is already running up to her, dragging both their backpacks.

“I wasn’t gonna wait there,” he pants. “Uncle Bill’s outside—”

“What! He-he’s not in the restaurant? Where—?” She stands on tiptoes, cranes her neck toward the brightly-lit building. “I don’t see him, is he coming this way?” Her heart is pounding in her ears; she tries to calm herself, knowing that everything depends on this.

“No, he’s outside the restaurant, off to the side, talking to a man, another customer,” he says, nervously twisting the zoom lens of the camera. “I could see him through the camera when I turned it—”

“Okay, okay! I see him. Now, get in here. Quick!” She opens the door wide.

“Whose van is this?”

“That nice man’s. Now get in!”


“Shut up!” she whispers loudly. “Get in now!” She grabs his jacket and boosts him up. She reaches down and lifts his backpack, passes it up to him, then hers. “Okay, now get back there, quick!”

Mikey grabs his pack and wrestles it into the back of the van. With her frayed purse strap looped around her arm, Elizabeth pulls herself up, sits in the driver’s seat and pulls the door shut as gently as she can yet with enough force to latch. It clicks tight. Then through the windshield she watches the man who is still walking slowly up to the restaurant, now passing the base of the tall golden Dixie sign that heralds the oasis from far and away. Suddenly he stops and turns around. Elizabeth instinctively jerks backwards into shadow, holds her breath as he begins walking back toward them. Oh no! But he reaches down, brings his hand up with his keys and points them at the van. There is a simultaneous click from all the doors. Locked. Then he turns and resumes walking toward the restaurant.

“What was that?” gasps Mikey.

“It’s just—he’s got that thing on his keys that locks and unlocks the car doors. Uncle Bill has one, too.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“We were sure lucky. Another minute and we’d have been locked out.” She smiles, pleased at their coordinated effort, but they have had a lot of practice, taking care of mama. “Well at least we’re safe—for now.”

“And Uncle Bill and Aunt Nora won’t find us?”

“God, I hope not. I just hope this man leaves before they come back and find us missing.”

“What are we gonna to do now?” asks Mikey, voice quavering.

“For now, nothing,” breathes Elizabeth, sweating, dragging her pack into the back of the van where Mikey is cradling his camera.

Minutes pass with Elizabeth and Mikey perched just behind the front seats anxiously watching for Uncle Bill and Aunt Nora or for the man to come back. She stares up past the bright Dixie sign and searches for a wishing star, what she needs right now, ad astra per aspera, their brilliant addict father had once taught her, but the sign’s electric glow vanquishes the heavens around it, so her wish becomes a simple prayer into the dark blank night that the man please, please, please, returns first.

His sleek camera resting on the back of the passenger seat, Mikey squints through the eyepiece, adjusts the lens, says, “I can see Uncle Bill still talking to somebody, and the man in the van just came out again and is coming this way.”

“He did? This guy, our guy?”

“Yep. Here he comes now. Oh, and there’s Aunt Nora, she just came out.”

“Oh, no. But . . . yes, you’re right, I see him too, the man is coming back! Oh, thank God. He must have only had to use the restroom. Now let’s get back and hide. We’ve got to be completely silent, you understand?”

“Uh-huh. But what are we gonna do then?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“That’s what mama always says.”

“That’s right. Just think of us getting back to mama . . . somehow. And then, we’ll—shhh, he’s almost here. Stay down and be completely, absolutely quiet.”

The van is silent for several moments and then there is the electric click of the driver’s door unlocking. It swings open and in the dim light behind the boxes Elizabeth looks at Mikey, puts her finger to her lips. They feel the van settle on the left side as the man climbs into his seat. The scent of aftershave wafts back and also licorice, which the man was eating as he walked back. They then hear the click of the key in the ignition and the engine start up. The radio comes on at the same time, playing polka music.

Mikey whispers to Elizabeth, “I wish we had some licorice,” and she immediately claps her hand over his mouth, putting her finger to her lips once again.

As the van crawls through the rows of cars, Elizabeth peeks out of the back windows toward the restaurant where she sees Uncle Bill talking with Aunt Nora as they walk toward their car. And at that moment the van suddenly stops in the middle of the lane. Shit! They aren’t more than ten feet from Uncle Bill’s car!

“Omigod!” Elizabeth gasps softly, trying to look ahead around the boxes, and then behind her through the back windows where Uncle Bill and Aunt Nora are steadily approaching their car. Has the man heard them? Sensed them somehow? Her heart leaping out of her chest, she clasps her trembling hand around Mikey’s mouth, whispers softly in his ear, “Shhhhhhhhh.”

The man shifts in his seat, seeming to look around for something. Suddenly the van’s interior light bursts on. Elizabeth pushes Mikey flat and crouches down herself, but after several anxious moments dares to peek around the boxes, sees the man looking down around his seat, uttering a guttural “ah,” as he reaches down, apparently retrieving a dropped stick of licorice. Then the man turns off the light, steps on the gas, they lurch forward, and Elizabeth takes a final look back as the man swings the van out of the parking lot, headed toward the Illinois interstate. Uncle Bill and Aunt Nora are almost to their car. I think we made it. She lets out a grateful quiet breath knowing that before long there will be plenty of trouble happening here, but also that very soon they will be far from it. Her body shakes with a tremendous sigh of relief.

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