Safekeeping

Karen Hesse

Macmillan Young Listeners

part one
 

 
I stare out the small window over a vast field of clouds.
New travel restrictions ban even backpacks from the cabin of the plane.
I haven’t brought much out of Haiti anyway. The orphans at Paradis des Enfants need my sandals, my toothpaste, my T-shirts more than I need them.
Besides, Mom will buy new stuff for me when I get home.
I can’t believe half of what I’ve heard in Haiti about what’s happening in the U.S. But if even half of that is true …
My heart raps at my ribs like a trapped thing.
I remember my parents warning that all hell would break loose once the American People’s Party took power.
And now it seems as if all hell has broken loose.
The plane is rerouted in flight with no explanation. To Philadelphia. When we touch down in Philly military personnel direct us through customs. There are three separate officers at three discrete stations. Each station has its own arsenal of weaponry. Each its own computerized lists.
At the second checkpoint, soldiers single out a dread-locked man three people ahead of me in line and strong-arm him away. He had been sitting across the aisle from me on the flight from Haiti. I watch, stunned, as the man is led off, arrested on suspicion of … of what?
My head aches by the time my turn comes at the last station. The officer carefully studies my passport, shines a small light on it, fixes a hard stare on my face. He checks my name against his master list, then opens my passport again. “Radley Parker-Hughes,” he says. There’s something about my name he doesn’t like. I’m having trouble breathing. The room spins around me.
Finally, he makes a decision. He lets go of whatever it is that’s bothering him and sends me through.
It’s taken hours to clear customs. Racing across the terminal, I fear I’ll miss my reassigned flight. But at the designated gate I discover the plane to Manchester, New Hamphsire has been delayed indefinitely. The attendant at the desk promises to make an announcement the moment she gets more information.
I close my eyes. As best I can I block out the news reports playing on the overhead monitors. I can only watch the same chaotic scenes so many times without going out of my mind.
With no cash in my pocket and my charge card in my checked backpack, I try to sleep. What other way is there to eat up the endless hours of waiting?
Except for a plastic cup of complimentary orange juice on the flight from Haiti, I haven’t eaten since early this morning when Monsieur Bellamy put a piece of his wife’s cake into my hands. “As soon as I get a line through, I will send a message to your parents, letting them know you are on your way,” Monsieur Bellamy reassured me.
Now, nearly ten hours later, I’m still nowhere near home and they’ve just announced that our plane will be delayed at least another few hours.
Although my stomach has definitely grown smaller on one meal a day at the orphanage, there’s a gnawing emptiness inside me.
I surrender to the overwhelming need to hear the sound of my mother’s voice. But no matter how much I search I can’t find a phone booth anywhere. Finally, I ask an attendant at the USAir desk.
“All the pay phones have been removed,” she tells me. “No one needed them anymore. Everyone has a cell.”
But with the new travel restrictions no one is allowed to carry cell phones onto the plane. Mine nests inside my backpack, which is in some cargo hold between Port au Prince, Haiti, and Manchester, New Hampshire.
I guess I’ll just have to wait. I trust that Monsieur Bellamy has reached my parents by now and told them when and where to meet me. I hope they know my plane is delayed so they’re not sitting all these hours at the airport.
Everywhere I look there are uniformed patrols. Their steely scrutiny unnerves me.
An eerie quiet fills the terminal. The only sound is the nearly muted commentary on FOX news. Everyone stares at the screens, watching the same clips of vigilante groups wandering like packs of dogs, frenzied looters racing through electronics stores, round-shouldered police interviewing shocked bystanders.
My fellow travelers sit or stand, staring, mesmerized by the images. No one speaks.
Near dawn, after an endless wait, a plane is finally found for us and we’re allowed to board. A little over an hour later, we land in New Hampshire. I’m one of the first from our flight to reach baggage claim and my pack emerges from the black hole early for a change.
I’m exhausted from twenty-four hours of travel. I just want to climb into the backseat of my parents’ car, eat a granola bar, close my eyes, and sleep through the two-and-a-half-hour ride home.
Despite the huge plate-glass windows in the terminal, a gray and sullen light greets me. I expected to return to the breathtaking beauty of May. Instead, out the glass doors a heavy blanket of storm clouds suffocates the life out of New England.
And I don’t see my parents.
I’ve never arrived in an airport without my parents meeting me. They always come, day or night, no matter where I land, no matter when I land … they’re always there.
But they’re not here now.
Monsieur Bellamy promised to get a call through to them.
I reason that they’ll be here any minute … that something has held them up. Or that they’ve gone to grab something to eat because they’ve been waiting for so long. Soon I’ll see their beaming faces. Soon I’ll be pawing through the hamper of snacks my mother always packs for the ride home.
But when they don’t show after a half hour, I swipe at my tears, battling the rising tide of panic.
I’ve been unwilling to take my eyes off the doors, certain my parents will materialize at any moment; but I can’t wait any longer. Stopping at a bank of chairs, I dig around for the cell phone inside my backpack.
Posted on the airport walls are new laws printed in boldface letters. Curfews. Mandatory registrations. Threats of incarceration. I don’t remember seeing any of this in Philadelphia. Is it possible they’ve been posted only in the last few hours? Is it possible they’ve been posted only in New England?
When I open my cell, I remember it’s dead. I reach into my backpack again, this time for the charger. But I can’t remember packing the charger. Not until I’ve emptied every compartment twice and checked every zippered pocket a half dozen times am I certain that I left the charger in Haiti. Beside my bed. At the Paradis des Enfants.
Typical. So typical.
My parents never scold me about the frequency with which I lose things. They always just fix it for me, no matter how I screw up. I’m used to them just fixing it for me.
Where are my parents now? I need my parents to fix things for me now. But they are nowhere. They’re nowhere. Even if I borrow someone’s cell phone, I can’t reach them if they’re already on the road. They both refuse to have cells of their own. Maybe, after this, they’ll agree to get one.
My hand closes on the one good surprise I’ve found in my backpack during my search for the charger. Jethro, one of the orphans at Paradis des Enfants, has tucked the little bear my mother knitted for him into my bag. I am too old for stuffed toys, but I am deeply grateful for this selfless gift. Jethro loved his little bear. What a sacrifice it was for him to part with it, to send it home with me. Now I know why he told everyone with such confidence that I would return. Carefully, I zipper the little bear back into my pack, take a deep breath, and walk out into the damp, chill air.
Striking up a conversation at curbside with a couple that left Haiti the same time I did, I learn they live an hour north of Manchester. He’s a carpenter and she’s a nurse and they’ve just spent six weeks volunteering in Port au Prince as part of a pledge they made to their church.
Usually I’m not bold, but these people, clearly struggling to handle their excess of luggage, seem safe enough. And I’m still trying to kill time, still waiting for my parents to show up. I offer to go back in and search for one of those metal luggage carts for them. They thank me and watch as I disappear back inside the terminal.
But there are no carts to be found.
Staring out at them through the glass doors, I make a decision. It’s looking more and more like my parents aren’t going to show. It’s possible Monsieur Bellamy couldn’t get through, that they don’t know I’m here.
When I return to the couple I propose helping them with their bags.
I ask, in exchange, if they could give me a lift to the bus station in town.
I’ve got my charge card now. I can buy a ticket home. It’ll be a great surprise for my parents when I walk through the front door.
Just the suggestion of my getting into their car causes fear to flicker across the face of the wife. All these new rules have set everyone on edge. But the grateful husband says, “Sure, we can give you a ride.”
We locate their car on the long-term lot. I’m crammed into the backseat with their luggage shifting around me. On the floor, as I squeeze in, I catch the glint of coins.
Bending over, pretending to retie the heavy boots my parents bought for me to take to Haiti, the boots I never wore the entire time I was there, I pick up two quarters from the car floor and slip them into my sock.
It’s only fifty cents. The man would have given it to me. But my cheeks feel hot as I sit back up. I can’t believe what I’ve just done.
The man keeps talking. They haven’t noticed that I’ve stolen their quarters.
He’s heard the Internet has been shut down. “The government trying to stop demonstrations on the street,” he suggests.
They are careful not to be too critical.
“The government is trying its best,” the wife says. “Under the circumstances…”

 
Copyright © 2012 by Karen Hesse