(Note: This novel contains critical ENEMIES FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC
"plot spoilers,"so consider reading that book before plunging into this sequel.)
The woman was new--it was only her second day among the camp's female detainees. She still had the boot camp buzz-cut that marked her as fresh from the "Tombs" in Illinois.
The D-Camp admin staff usually did this with pale-skinned girls: they put them straight out into the fields under the blast-furnace Oklahoma sun. The new prisoner had gamely attempted to keep up with the line of twenty women, weeding her row of knee-high corn with a hoe, but her hands were already cratered with broken blisters.
She walked back down the narrow file to where Big Kendra was waiting. Ranya anticipated what was going to happen next.
"Penny, are all the skinny white girls back in Maine as pitiful as you?"
Ranya kept moving her hoe, while glancing over her shoulder at the drama playing out behind the field crew. The new woman was half the size of Big Kendra, with her broad behind and ample chest straining against her khaki uniform.
"What is this here, woman? What do you see here?" Big Kendra was a "line pusher," an unarmed guard who moved among the prisoners working the fields, telling them exactly what to do. She carried a long rake handle when she was on duty in the fields; now she was using it to point at the ground between the rows of immature corn.
The new detainee was shaking visibly, but Ranya couldn't hear her reply. The woman turned and looked back up the line for the missed weed, leaning over to see where the guard had pointed. The guard moved up close behind, looming over her.
"Are you blind too? That's a big ole' weed--ain't that what you're here for?"
Ranya cringed as the guard booted the new woman down onto her face.
"Now get back on the line, and don't let me catch you slacking off again!"
Big Kendra was one of the most offhandedly brutal guards in D-Camp. The six-foot Philadelphian took special delight in humiliating the new detainees, especially soft suburban housewives from the opposite end of the pigmentation spectrum.
After a few months of interrogation, they arrived at D-Camp in unmarked "moving vans" as pale as Pillsbury doughboys, and were immediately sent out to do field work beneath the unrelenting sun. No hats were provided, and their faces and shorn heads burned an agonizing lobster red. No gloves were supplied, and without calluses, their hands became painfully blistered working the short-handled hoes.
Ranya had seen the black Amazon called Big Kendra put the boot to many new detainees, as part of her own personal "breaking in" procedure.
The new prisoner stumbled back, and took her place among the women working their way up the lines of dusty plants. She was on the next row from Ranya, sobbing quietly. A trickle of blood seeped through the dirt embedded in the abrasion on her left temple.
"It's not my fault, it's a mistake--I shouldn't even be here! It's all a mistake! But nobody will listen. Nobody will listen!"
This was the usual lament of the new Article 14 detainees. It was always a mistake. An old song by an Australian band ran through Ranya's mind. "It's a mistake!" It was always the same heartrending tune. "It's a mistake!"
"My husband disappeared last year, just disappeared! Went to work, and never came home. No word, not one word! Then last March the police came, and found guns in our attic. Assault weapons and sniper rifles, they said! I didn't even know they were there! I swear to God, I had nothing to do with them! But nobody would listen! Now who's taking care of my children? It's all a mistake, but nobody will listen! And now I don't even know where my children are..." Tears slid dirty tracks down her cheeks.
Children. The word stung Ranya like a slap. Who's taking care of your children, lady? Well, who's been taking care of my own baby for five long years? Her thoughts swept her back to the federal prison clinic in Maryland, her wrists and ankles shackled to the cold stainless steel table, and those precious minutes spent with her newborn baby boy. Even then, her wrists were not unchained: a sympathetic nurse held the baby boy to her chest, allowed her to kiss him, to inhale his newborn breath...and that was all of her time with him. Her baby was taken by a grim prison matron, and he disappeared behind a locked door, never to be seen by Ranya again. At least this new prisoner had been able to share a life with her children. Not just a few minutes!
Ranya wanted to say, "Do you think you're the only mother here?" Instead, she answered, "Look, it's not a mistake, your being here. Let me guess: you're here for an Article 14: 'conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism,' right?"
The new prisoner nodded slowly, her face down, broken.
Ranya continued talking, while also looking down at her own work. "Lady, there are no mistakes here. And nobody in admin will listen to you anyway, so just forget it. That life you had is over, that life doesn't exist--not while you're in D-Camp. Hell, Delta Camp, detention camp, whatever you want to call it, it doesn't even exist, haven't you figured that out? Did you get your telephone call yet?" Ranya laughed bitterly. "Listen lady, if you ever want to see your children again, you have to at least make it in here. You have to survive. If you give up on yourself, you give up on any chance of seeing your kids again, ever."
Ranya had tried to stay aloof in the camp, cold inside and hard outside. She avoided close friendships. Nevertheless, she couldn't help but feel sympathy for this innocent woman, thrown defenseless to the wolves, with her husband missing and her children taken away by the state.
"I'm sorry." Ranya reached across, and touched her arm. "What's your name?"
"Stephanie. Stephanie Pennington. I'm from Maine."
"Stephanie, I'm Ranya Bardiwell. I'm from Virginia. Look, you really need to cover your head out here." She paused, scarcely believing what she was about to offer to this stranger. "Here, take my hat." She was giving up a prize possession, the brown ball cap she had found in the drainage ditch by the road, while being marched back to the barracks. A dingy gray rag was attached to the back like a vagabond's version of a French Foreign Legion kepi. "I don't need it so much any more--I'm way past getting sunburns. Don't make a show of it, and the guards will let you wear it in the fields. Hide it in your bunk in camp. You won't get another haircut out here in D-Camp, so in a few weeks you'll have some more protection from the sun. I can't help your hands though...I know how they hurt. I'll try to get some of the weeds on your side, the ones that I can reach. You'll be all right."
The Latina woman working on the other side of Pennington ignored their hushed conversation. They worked their hoes in the red soil with their heads down, their backs to Big Kendra, who was trailing along behind them with her six-foot hardwood pole.
"Thank you, Ranya, thank you." Pennington wiped away her tears with the sleeve of her blue prison shirt, leaving grimy smears across her sun burnt face. "I just think about my children, and I don't know how I can endure it...it's like a nightmare that never ends..."
"How old are your kids?" "Four and seven. Thomas and Michael." The hint of a smile crossed her face and vanished. "Where do you think they are? Nobody will tell me anything!"
Ranya poked through the corn with her hoe: with her experienced eye and strong arms, she was able to weed most of the new woman's line as well as her own. They were a hundred yards from the end, then they would move down twenty lines of corn and work their way back. They would do it until seven pm on this June day, with only a brief water break every two hours. Lunch had been stale peanut butter sandwiches, eaten an hour ago at noon, in the meager shade of a windbreak tree line.
Tree lines were what passed for scenery in this dead-flat part of Oklahoma. Sometimes, in the right light, Ranya would visualize in a distant tree line the fringe of palm trees that often marked a low-lying tropical island on the horizon, as seen from the deck of a sailboat. Sometimes the wind blowing in waves across the wheat fields played the same cruel trick, taking her back to those days of sailing aboard Guajira with Phil Carson. He had been her father's friend, before her father had been killed. Then Carson had become her friend, protector and mentor during their months together on the run, hiding out along the coast of Colombia.
That time was now five years in the past, back when she had carried Brad's baby. Brad Fallon, whom she had known so briefly, and loved so intensely, Brad, who had been shot by federal agents. Brad, who had then disappeared into the depths of the Potomac River, leaving Phil and Ranya to flee without him, on the boat he had prepared for his own getaway.
Ranya had returned from Colombia to the USA by herself. By the time she finally decided to come back she was seven months pregnant, and she thought she should not sail across the always windy and rough Caribbean. Instead, she had flown from Colombia to Honduras on her false Canadian passport as Diana Williams, and after a week of switching towns and hotels, she changed her identity back to Ranya Bardiwell for the onward flights to Guadalajara and Phoenix.
She should have risked the sea voyage with Phil Carson and returned to America secretly, off the official radar. Her passport had been flagged even as she reserved her flight to Mexico, and four grim-faced U.S. Marshals pulled her from the Customs line at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Her first day back in America had been her last day in freedom. The immunity deal they thought had been arranged proved to be a dangerous fantasy, nothing but bait to lure them back to the states, and arrest. Ranya had left Guajira and Colombia before Phil Carson, and she still had no idea where he was: abroad or in the states, free or a prisoner, or even if he was alive.
She should never have returned to America. Returning had only meant betrayal and imprisonment, and worst of all, losing her son...and Brad's son. The most bitter irony was that the only reason she had returned to the United States, was to give her son a proper start in life as an American citizen. She did not want to risk ruining his life by beginning it as a baby fugitive, with his mother living under an alias in a foreign country. For attempting to bring her son into the world as an American, she had instead lost him, and lost five years of her life.