River of Fire, River of Light – Chapter 3


ELIZABETH TRIES DESPERATELY not to fall asleep, periodically quietly slapping her face and digging her nails into her palm, silently shifting her position behind the boxes from uncomfortably crouched to completely (luxuriantly) prone, the latter of which Mikey quickly availed himself, sleeping quietly alongside her, but she had been up late last night, the big van hums smoothly, hypnotically, down the interstate, and the man has now shut down the jangling radio after the polka stations faded into the night. So it’s not going to be easy.

Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. She has no clue where the man is headed so she must stay awake in case he stops somewhere and God forbid opens the back doors and finds them asleep on the floor of the van. That would be a nightmare. And somehow they have to get out without being seen. How will they do that? He has to stop somewhere, either at his home probably up ahead in Minnesota or maybe at a motel for the night, or maybe at another truck stop. Wherever it is, they have to be ready to hide or sneak out. Somehow.

She tries to watch the glowing green road signs materializing in the headlights and then quickly vanishing behind them to try to discern where they are going. It appears to be north, to Wisconsin and then Minnesota, which she tries to picture exactly, way up above Missouri, she recalls from geography class . . . and then sees signs for Rockford somewhere far ahead, the mileage numbers decreasing each time she looks, but still over a hundred. The twinkling night lights of the prairie towns approach and brighten and then fade away as they drive on mile after mile. Her mind begins playing tricks on her as she finds herself thinking that they might perhaps live in the next town coming up where she could soon get some sleep . . . in a little white house, to which she and Mikey and mama have returned from a long, long journey and they are very tired and walk wearily through the front door into a cheerful little living room. Mikey runs ahead into the bright kitchen, but Elizabeth is so tired all she can do is creep up the staircase into her warm pink-hued bedroom and lay down on the pretty pink and white comforter that her mother had sewn especially for her last birthday and stretch out on her so-soft bed with all her clothes on, why not, she’s so tired and it is so very peaceful here. . . .

Suddenly she jerks awake, sweating, heart pounding, her wonderful little bedroom dissolving into the dark humming reality of the van . . . and it takes only a couple more seconds to remember their desperate situation, my God, stowaways in a van headed for—where? She catches a glimpse of another green mileage sign and Rockford is now only twenty miles away. Omigod! She is shocked. But apparently all is still well; the van hums relentlessly along, Mikey still sleeping peacefully next to her. Looking up at the van’s dim ceiling, watching the distorted reflections of passing headlights, she ponders their predicament as her mind chases down the particulars of their situation, from their sneaking into this van to their assumed destination, Minnesota. Which she is pretty sure lies west of here so they will have to drive leftward through Wisconsin to, perhaps, their ultimate destination, wherever, exactly, that might be. Anything could happen in between . . . and then she realizes they are slowing, uh-oh, and there are pole lights along the interstate now so all is much brighter than the dark benign Illinois countryside they have been traversing. She looks over at Mikey, still sleeping soundly, mouth slightly open. She prays he won’t wake up as she sees that they are approaching an I-39 tollway.

She bites her lip and sees that the traffic has diverged into several lanes, some on the left for I-Pass, the traffic flying by, and some for Cash Only on the right, which is where the man is headed. She holds her breath while the van crawls through the line, which, this late at night is thankfully very short. When his turn comes up the man stops the van, rolls down his window and gives some bills to the woman at the booth, who hands him change. He says thank you softly then rapidly accelerates back onto the interstate.

He has to swerve somewhat to get around another slower driver and Elizabeth reaches out to brace herself on the side of the van. She looks anxiously over at Mikey, who has shifted along with the van, and, just as she feared, opens his eyes. She instantly covers his mouth with her palm. His eyes bulge wide and he bucks against her hand. She leans down next to his ear and whispers, “Shhhhh, don’t say a word. You’ve got to be quiet. We’re in the back of the nice man’s van, remember?”

Mikey looks briefly puzzled, then relaxes, blinks, doesn’t try to struggle. God, I love this little dude, thinks Elizabeth as she takes her hand slowly away from his mouth.

“So, where are we, Lizzie?” he whispers.

“I don’t really know,” she whispers back. “I fell asleep, too. We’re on I-39 and 90 in Rockford, Illinois. According to the signs.”

“So where is that?”

“It must be north, at the top of the state. Then I think we’re going into Wisconsin.”

“Wisconsin! Wow!”

“Shhh, you’ve got to talk real soft, Mikey.”

“I know,” he whispers. “So then where’s Wisconsin?”

“It’s north of Missouri and Illinois. It’s between there and Minnesota.”

They look at each other in the dim light, both silent as the van glides northwards into the night, away from Aunt Nora and Uncle Bill, away from their poor imprisoned mama, away from their former humble home, and as all of everything recedes further and further behind them, the uprooted children have never felt more alone.

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