On Sunday I arrived at the airport, lightly laden with baggage and prepared for my journey home from home. As usual I arrived an hour early, a practice derived from my paranoia at being late and my fear of the bureaucratic delays the security lines threatened. Suddenly thirsty, I slipped into a kiosk to buy a cup of tea. On a whim, I bought a newspaper as well. Its headline referenced the continuing investigations into the terrorist attack which had racked this very airport only three weeks before. Security was tight, the lines were long; I was glad to be there early, and gladder still to have something to read.
First, the check-in line. I glanced over the lead articles while kicking my wheeled suitcase forward with every advancement of the queue. Most of it was local nonsense or banality: corruption in city hall, the death of a local artist who never amounted to much. Dog bites man’s daughter’s cat. The terror story was all that really caught my interest, at least on the front page. Since it was so much more difficult to hold an open newspaper while keeping an eye on the slowly-moving line, I was content to scan it for the time being.
The basics of the story were already common knowledge. An airplane had exploded on account of a radiological bomb, set off as the plane touched ground on the runway. Added to the tragedy of the dying men, women, and children who had only just landed, about a dozen of our nation’s most cherished citizens, our warriors, had been aboard. The people wept at the sacrifice of those brave men (and women) who died in service to their country, trapped like rats in an aluminum can.
Today’s installment offered hopeful, yet sobering new information. A handful of passengers at the rear of the plane had survived, among them Captain Steve Kilroy, a decorated veteran and hero. His identity as a survivor had only just been made public, and his face was displayed prominently beside the exalting text. I examined it, a typical soldier’s portrait: sandy haired, square jawed, with steely blue eyes piercing the camera with wholesome modesty and purpose. The portrait of America’s heroism, its Saxon resolve, the portrait of an utterly admirable man.
I kicked my bag to the end of the line, and after a few more minutes of waiting, politely tucked my newspaper under my arm and handed my luggage to the Southwest employee with a smile. Smiling back, she asked me where I was bound.
“Portland,” I replied, “I’m on my way home from a family reunion.”
“Alright,” she said, her pretty eyes set sideways in a way that revealed her lack of real interest. “Your flight leaves in an hour, sir. Here’s your boarding pass.” I took it, with a slight nod of my head, and left for security as she placed my bag on the conveyor belt. Off it rolled without me.
With happily remarkable efficiency the security line approached the machines. I finished my tea and tossed the paper cup in a convenient receptacle, and stashed my newspaper in my backpack. To save time I removed my shoes, although I still had a little way to go before I reached the X-ray machines.
A sullen man in uniform asked me for my identification and boarding pass. I quickly produced them both, and he took them from me. I patiently waited for him to return them.
But he didn’t. Pausing a moment to signal to his left, he looked at me and said “Sir, you’ve been randomly selected for additional screening.” At once a lean, muscular, dark-haired officer approached and gestured for me to follow him. He did not smile, and he did not speak. I hesitated at first, and then obeyed uncertainly.
In a small room at the end of a corridor he took my backpack and my coat from me, then patted me down and emptied my pockets. He instructed me to stay put, and then left with my belongings. I started to protest; I knew nothing about the ordinary procedure, but I strongly suspected that this was irregular. The officer acted like he didn’t hear me, and then he was gone. There was no window on the door.
The little room was heavily air-conditioned and without my coat I shivered, and wrapped my arms around myself for warmth. There were no seats, so I went and leaned against a corner, my socks providing minimal insulation from the cold linoleum floor. There was no clock, and with my cell phone taken I worried at the passage of time, and hoped that they were going to hold my flight.
After standing that way for what might have been twenty minutes, two men in suits entered the room. There was no sign of my things.
“Young man,” the shorter of the two said, “your name has recently been added to the ‘do not fly’ list. We’d like to ask you a few questions.
I knew that I would miss my flight, and I didn’t know why; these two things were all that I could be sure of. The men in suits escorted me from one little room to another, and another, blindfolded and shoeless. I was lonely and afraid and I wanted to cry out, but I was out of my depth and so I said nothing. I noticed that we descended several flights of stairs, and I gradually heard the hum and commotion of those who were once my fellow passengers fade beneath the droning clanks of machinery. I could almost say that I ran, but my escorts kept me moving at an awkward half-way gait, until at last my blindfold was removed and our pace slowed. Though I could see again, my first instinct was to keep my eyes shut.
I knew that we could not have passed beyond the airport’s walls, but I couldn’t recognize the place that I was now being led through. We proceeded down one grey, windowless hall after another, occasionally turning at right angles in a sense-defying maze. The air was cold, the walls were steel, like the guts of an aircraft carrier. The floor was an oil-smirched and otherwise stained concrete slab. Of course our footsteps echoed, and it was a dreadful, maddening noise, like the sloppy but insistent drumbeat of uncertain doom. I felt a pain in my foot, but gave no indication. I didn’t think these guys were likely to sympathize.
There were doors in these halls, but they were not labeled, except with what appeared to be meaningless four-digit numbers. The numbers did not proceed in order, which seemed bizarre to me, but the men who were taking me seemed to know exactly where they were going, regardless. We suddenly stopped at an otherwise unremarkable door, the number of which I noted was “2001.” The taller of my two guards produced a single key and unlocked the door. We went inside.
The room inside was white and sterile, with an air conditioner blowing slightly too loud, and a bright fluorescent light that glowed in heavy contrast to the dank lighting of the hallway. The room was partitioned by a wall of glass and metal, with a door; I could see a man and a woman on the other side. On my side was a soldier behind a small, nondescript desk. He himself was of short stature, with shiny, short black hair and a face only a fascist could love; he gave a menacing, bureaucratic glare as I entered the room. As for myself, I decided that I must have found my way into one of hell’s waiting rooms.
I was brought before the soldier, who contemptuously rose from his desk. He made a show of taking his gun, a rather large pistol of a type I could not identify, out of its holster and laying it on the table. It sat conspicuously next to the small plaque that indicated his name and rank: he was Aaron Copeland, Sergeant. I stared numbly at the plaque, trying to forget the weapon, unwilling to look at the man.
He spoke, curtly, asking for my name. I gave it, reluctantly looking him in the eye. He asked for a few more biographical details, and I wondered; to think that they might have dragged me to the depths of hell to get such tedious information! If I were not scared brainless, I might have thought about being sarcastic.
Without warning, he asked an entirely different sort of question. “Young man,” he said, slowly, “what is your relationship to Mr. Shoul Baruk?”
I started at the inquiry. “He’s a friend,” I said, stupidly, “I went to school with him.” Though I claimed him now as a friend, I used the term loosely. More accurately, he was an acquaintance with whom I had shared a great many classes on account of our common obsession with twentieth century history. But that was decidedly in the past; ever since graduation, our bond had been no stronger than a few status updates on Facebook, a service that he used only sporadically.
“You’re being held as a material witness in the investigation against Mr. Baruk,” he said, and he lowered himself into his chair once more. I could scarcely believe my ears.
“What!? How long!?”
“As long as we need.” He gestured to the suited guards, and before I could take stock of my predicament I was on the other side of the partition.
I half expected (and desperately hoped) to find Shoul there, so that I could pry some information out of him and find out what he’d done to get me into this mess. But he wasn’t there; the only people present were the man and the woman who I had seen from the other side of the glass.
The woman looked young, perhaps the same age as me. She was slender, not quite athletic, but fairly tall with straight black hair that came down to her shoulders, and pale green eyes. She looked at me nervously, as she leaned against the corner of the room with her arms folded. Periodically, her eyes turned to the glass, but she could not see outside; it was that special sort of window that only allowed light to pass in one direction. So far as she or I could tell, the world outside was entirely dull and black.
The man was very different. Muscularly built, he otherwise gave the impression through his unkempt hair and clothes that he was unconscious of his physical appearance. His face was lean and serious, seemingly drawn with a minimum of unnecessary lines. He stood squarely in the center of the room. For a few seconds he looked me over, and then he simply stated, “We’re getting out of here.”
I looked back at him dumbly, not realizing at first the implications of what he had said. The woman did not react, but her eyes were now fixed on me, as though she anxiously awaited my response.
Blinking confusedly, I tried to get more details from him. “Get out? Why are we here, anyway?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he said, his voice tinged with concentrated impatience. “You’re here because you’re friends with someone they think is a terrorist.” I put my hands over my face and turned to the wall, determined to avoid his voice. “That’s why she’s here, that’s why I’m here,” he continued, “we’re all in the same boat.”
A quick, angry spasm seized me, and I kicked at the wall, forgetting momentarily that I had no shoes on. I sat on the floor and cursed, massaging my aching toes.
I looked up to face him again, and demanded clarification. “None of this makes any sense!” I said. I didn’t know Shoul well, but I didn’t believe he was a terrorist. And even if he were, what could that possibly have to do with me? Of what value was I, even as a material witness?
“So what if it doesn’t make sense,” he answered, as his voice grew louder and his eyes grew wilder. “You know the score. They’ve put you here, and they’ve got no right to do it. So you’re breaking out. It’s as simple as that.”
“You’re crazy,” I said, “what kind of stupid answer is that!? You know how serious these guys must be! They’ll kill us if we try to escape!”
“You coward,” he snapped, “lick their boots clean, why don’t you? We could be here for years. No,” he paused, as his expression took on a more sadistic tone, “no, not here, but on some God-forsaken island in some God-forsaken cage, living on bread and shit while the government pretends you don’t even exist! If we don’t get out, our liberty is gone for good.”
I climbed to my feet, on the verge of tears. “You can’t be serious.”
I stared at the floor a while, knowing everything he said was true. But he was crazy. Escape was impossible. I looked up to the woman. “Are you in on this too?” I asked, looking for a voice of reason.
“Yes, I am,” she replied, in a disarmingly gentle and quiet voice. It was plain in her eyes that she was frightened, both of our captors and our cellmate, but her voice did not waver.
“I..I need to think about this,” I said. I covered my face again and turned to the wall. I didn’t want to ever make up my mind, but my tormentor wouldn’t let me be. With uncharacteristic softness, he pleaded his case to me.
“You won’t even have to do anything, man. Just back me up. I’ll take care of everything.”
Liar, I thought. You wouldn’t be asking me to do this if you didn’t think you needed me.
I turned back to face the woman. She looked less nervous than before, but less relaxed as well. Her eyes were drifting back to the glass, and I wondered if perhaps she could see through it more clearly than I could.
She was attractive, in that conventional sort of way that does not call attention to itself all at once, but rather grows more undeniable over time. I lost myself for a moment in frivolous thoughts, and shook my head at myself and my foolishness.
“Alright,” I said, doing my level best to keep my voice from cracking under the strain, “how are you planning to do it, anyway?”
In a flash, the woman began attacking the window with a ferocious series of blows; I was amazed that she did not break it. In a moment, Sgt. Copeland was in the door, brandishing his pistol. To my shock, my cellmate flung himself at the jailor, striking him with unbelievable speed and ferocity. Copeland fired a shot; a second later, he collapsed, his neck horribly broken.