“What if it were women not men who made a mess of things, what would the men do? Would they stand idly by?...I am not here to recriminate or to deepen the gulf that yawns between the sexes. Redeemed, transformed by a new moral tone there would be tenderness, sympathy, generosity where there is only brute force and sordid rivalry.”
Verna Tarrent, a gifted, young orator speaking to an audience of suffragettes in 1897 Boston, in Henry James “The Bostonians”.
I’ve heard it said that it’s in times of darkness that seeds for positive change begin to sprout. That certainly was the case with me.
In my darkest hours, at the absolute worst time of my life, I received a message of hope for a brighter tomorrow, by way of…how do I phrase this and still maintain my journalistic credibility? Let’s just call it an “experience,” of sorts, of a possible future for humankind other than the one we seem hell-bent on creating. A future not based on our past, and totally different than from our present. It was a ray of light so bright; it sustained me and restored my shattered faith. The experience was so profound, so monumental, that it changed the way I look at life forever. And it put my life, my daughter’s life, my grandchild’s life, and my son-in-law’s life in jeopardy.
I am standing in a lush green field dotted with brightly colored wildflowers of every imaginable hue. The air is of a clarity and purity that I suspect is the way it was on Earth before the first clunky human footprints blemished the landscape. There are more flowers and flowering trees than I’ve seen in my entire life–not only of an infinite variety, but with colors so intense they practically leap out at you.
And the quiet, the incredible, almost unimaginable quiet. No aircraft streaking across the pristine, sapphire sky above, no roar of traffic, no sirens or jackhammers, no horns honking, not even the piercing jingle jangle of a cell phone or the shattering blast of a car alarm. I’m so happy, so carefree, so filled with delight and joy just to be here. I feel so free in this Eden, this paradise of such unspoiled beauty, perfection, and peace that I never, ever, want to leave.
I stand in the field basking in this exotic landscape as a gentle breeze caresses my body like a lover’s tender touch. Suddenly, I spot a figure in the distance slowly walking towards me. The sunlight cloaks her body from behind in a circular aura of gold. From the distance she appears to be translucent, sparkling, shimmering, dancing with the light.
As she draws nearer, her form takes on substance and shape. And then she is before me, like the very first time she appeared, only now I know who she is.
“It’s time,” she whispers ever so gently.
“No, no, let me stay! Please let me stay!” I implore, reaching out to Sage, my guide, my wise woman, my teacher, my dearest friend in this “woman’s world,” conceived and brought into being totally by what the inhabitants call “feminine consciousness.” But it’s no use. As has happened so many times before, she fades with the landscape. I can hear her voice as I drift into a black stormy sea of nothingness.
“I’m with you, dearest, always.”
“Sara, Sara! Wake up, wake up! We have to leave now! Now Sara, now!”
The voice, seemingly distant yet familiar, has a quiet, lilting Irish accent that belies a strong undertone of urgency.
From deep within my dream–a dream I’ve had so many times since I actually had the experience…yes, that’s right, when I was there in that magical landscape with Sage–I feel a hand shake my shoulder gently but forcefully. For a few hazy moments I do not for the life of me know where I am, or who is calling my name. I’ve been in so many beds, so many houses in the past year, that the feeling you get from waking in your own familiar surroundings has long since departed from my everyday reality.
Oh god! My life is like a bizarre movie, I think to myself and sigh.
My exhalation is so deep I fear my lungs will collapse, and I gasp for breath.
I used to be a respected journalist. Now, not just me, but my daughter, my grandchild and my son-in-law are “on the lam” as they say, shuttled from one “safe house” to the next, like Mafioso in a witness protection program. The one big difference is that I’m being hunted down like the leader of a hated terrorist organization, yet I’ve broken no laws, harmed no one. My pursuers are the most feared of all, a shadowy band of assassins, little known even within the intelligence community. These human robotoids, who might as well have ice flowing through their veins, can terminate a person’s life, take down a country, assassinate a president or civil rights leader, without having to answer to any government, or any higher authority. Humble servants doing their masters’ bidding, thinking of themselves as good citizens: defenders of liberty, justice and the American way. These shadowy killers operate outside and above the law, sanctioned by a clandestine society of men whose origin goes back many centuries, if not millennia. They call themselves “The Fellowship.” I call them the “Boys Club.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, as if emerging from a fog, I open my eyes. Standing over me is a vision of loveliness with alabaster skin and lustrous red hair falling in an easy, efficient cut to just above her shoulders, which catches the soft early morning light and shimmers like the gemstone for which she is named. Her stark black business outfit rests on her voluptuous body in sharp contrast with the softness of her exquisite features.
The vision brushes a few errant strands away from her eyes before pulling the bed covers off my back and demanding once again that I hurry and get dressed.
Ruby, my dear chief protectress, my tower of strength, my safe harbor, is living proof that appearances can be, and usually are, deceptive. Looking at her you would think that she’s as soft and feminine as they come, but you would never guess that she is master of three different forms of martial arts, and a master of masters at watching over me and my family and keeping us alive.
Not only is Ruby skilled in the martial arts, she can pilot a jet fighter and is also an expert shot, trained to use even the most technologically advanced weapons the Boys are constantly dreaming up. But what really sets her apart is her intelligence and a decidedly Irish sense of humor.
While Ruby busies herself with gathering my clothes and laying them out on the bed, I grab a few moments to blink my sleep-encrusted eyes into focus and take in my surroundings.
Once the fog clears, I remember. “Oh yes. This is the Seattle house, the one with the mesmerizing view.” Truth is, I don’t really want to leave. Of all the “safe houses”, this is by far my favorite.
The clatter of little feet resounding on the bare wooden floor outside the master suite shatter my thoughts and yank me back to the here and now.
Moments later, the other jewel of my life, actually the other two jewels of my life, burst into the room. My sweet little Gemma, followed by her mom, my darling Sophie, the only one still alive of my two grown children.
“Gran Sara, Gran Sara, look I’m all dressed. Get up, get up. Mommy says we have to leave right away,” cries Gemma as she rushes up to the bed and performs a little twirl to show off her outfit. Calling me “Gran” is a compromise we’ve worked out. Being addressed as grandma is something I’m just not ready for. In my head I’m too young, this being only my forty-third year on this troubled planet. But that’s the price you pay when you get pregnant at sixteen.
Just as Gemma is about to climb up on my lap, Sophie scoops her up in her arms, spins her around playfully, then sets her down and takes her hand.
“Gran Sara has to get dressed so why don’t we leave her be right now.”
But before Sophie can head out the door, I call out to her.
“Wait darling, let my little Gem give her Gran a big hug and a wakeup kiss. It will help me dress faster won’t it, Sweetpea?” I say, with a conspiratorial wink.
Sophie pivots back towards the bed and lets Gemma hop up and lean into me. After a big hug and kiss, they scoot out of the room and I’m left alone as Ruby busies herself in the dressing room, gathering the rest of my traveling wardrobe. Not wanting to fritter away this moment of solitude, I swing my still uncooperative body over the edge of the bed, plant my feet on the floor, and begin easing into my morning stretching regime.
“Not now! Move it Sara. Get that bum off the bed and get dressed,” orders Ruby sounding like a prison guard bullying an inmate, as she lays out my clothes. Actually, tossing them at me is more like it, which is uncharacteristic of her.
But obviously something is different this time. I can sense it in her voice, in her body language, and in the haste with which she moves around the room. Instead of her usual saucy grin, Ruby glowers at me. But still, I take my time getting dressed. Personally, I can’t get worked up about this “we have to leave now!” scenario. We’ve done it so many times before, in so many houses, and they were all false alarms. In my mind, Ruby is getting worked up over nothing. These Byzantine operatives with every conceivable technological resource at their disposal still have not been able to find us and accomplish their deadly purpose, at least not yet. And technology has its limitations. Whatever one side invents the other side can counter, and I have not one, not two, but three genius Superangel techies working for me round-the-clock. Kendra, Shilpa, and her sister Aesha–who lets me know right off the bat that no matter what her sister calls her, she insists that she be addressed by her Buddhist name, Chinzen. This trio work as a team, using a sophisticated array of computers, banks of monitors, and an arsenal of highly advanced electronic devices, to keep us one step ahead of the elite band of assassins out to get us.
“Sara this is not a joke. Ya can stick yur head in the ground, plug up yur ears, or cover yur eyes, but it won’t change anything. The threat is very real.”
Ruby gives me another of her “looks,” and I can feel my stomach begin to churn.
“O.K. Whatever the reason, you have to admit that the threat never seems to materialize. That’s why I’ve grown so complacent. Can you blame me?”
“How easily we forget,” is Ruby’s terse reply.
Forget is not quite the right word. Block out is more like it. I just don’t want to dredge it all up. But suddenly, with alarming clarity, I remember all too well what drove us into hiding in the first place.
“Yur puttin’ all our lives in jeopardy, Sara. We’ve got ta get outa this house now! If ya don’t care about yurself, think of that innocent little child downstairs. Those sons a Satan will mow her down as if she’s a tin can in a shootin’ gallery.”
Ruby doesn’t have to say another word. A sense of urgency commingles with a sudden sickening feeling of dread. I leap off the bed and fly into high gear. Genuine menace or silly spy game to keep us on the run, I just can’t take the chance. The realization that I could be responsible for harm befalling my little Gem is more than I can even contemplate, let alone bear.
Not bothering with hair or my morning routine, I speed down the stairs after Ruby, half in, half out of my clothes, zipping and buttoning, rushing like a mad woman fleeing a lynch mob, nearly tripping over herself when she picks up the pace.
As we storm through the kitchen, Andy, my son-in-law, who’s assumed the roles of cook, nanny, and housekeeper from day one of our life on the run, waits for me near the center island. As always, he greets me with me a kiss on the cheek and a smile.
“So, how is my favorite fugitive this morning?” he teases as he falls into line behind us on our beeline across the spacious kitchen. I shoot him an indignant look, although we both know I don’t mean it.
“I’m afraid breakfast is going to be delayed today señora; this restaurant is officially closed. It seems we’ve lost our lease,” he replies, feigning an apology, while laughing to himself at the absurdity of it all.
“Funny, very funny. How can you be so wide-awake, and so goddamn cheerful this early in the morning? Why can’t you be grumpy and irritable like Ruby here?”
Normally my chief guardian angel would have volleyed back with a retort faster than Martina Navratilova in her prime, but this time she pays me no mind and continues racing towards the pantry at the far end of the kitchen.
Ruby pauses in front of a floor-to-ceiling storage cabinet and pulls a tiny transmitter from her pocket. One push of a button and voilà, the bulky storage unit swings away from the wall, revealing a hidden door behind it. She yanks the steel door open with such force I think it’s going to fly off its hinges. In that moment, I realize just how strong this woman is.
“Come on ya two. Don’t stand there like bloody mannequins, get a move on!” There is a harshness in Ruby’s voice I’ve not heard before.
Andy and I race over to the door and follow Ruby down a flight of stairs leading to a subterranean basement, an area of a house I do not normally enter or explore. I don’t know why, maybe it’s another childhood trauma I’ve buried, but for some reason, cellars give me the creeps. And this one is no exception. A great deal of care has been lavished on the exterior and interior of the house, but the basement is suffering from benign neglect. Apparently, the owners, whoever they are, share my aversion to underground bunkers. The spooky feeling draws the knot in my stomach even tighter.
This is getting really scary. Where the hell are we going? I think to myself, but don’t dare ask.
Ruby stops in her tracks before a massive hot water heater and pushes another button on her hand-held transmitter. Suddenly, the heater pivots out of the way and a panel slides to one side on the wall behind the heater, revealing a darkened opening. Ruby stands by the entrance and motions for us to step in. I hesitate and glance inside. Suddenly my heart sinks. There is just enough light spilling in from the overhead bulb in the dungeon-like basement so that the first few feet of the opening is illuminated. After that, it’s pitch black. But I can see far enough in to make out a tunnel a few feet in width and barely tall enough to stand in, which has been dug into the moldering earth.
“I can’t do this,” I stammer.
“It’s all right, Sara, I have me torch,” says Ruby.
“This,” she replies pulling a tiny flashlight from her pocket and holding it up for me to see.
When I remain frozen in place, Ruby glares at me.
“This is not the time ta play the prima donna, Sara, we don’t have a moment ta loose.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t do this. Enclosed spaces terrify me. I have to be tranquilized like a wild beast being shipped in a cage when I fly.”
Andy sees the look of utter panic on my face and puts a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“What happened to that fearless journalist who, rumor has it, induced incontinence in CEOs?” he murmurs in a barely audible whisper that I somehow find comforting.
“I think that any moment now, she’s going to have some problems with incontinence herself,” I reply.
“See it as an adventure, Sara. You’ve traveled to the future, surely you can make it through this little tunnel. Think of it like it’s a ride at Disneyland, or down some rapids. You can do it. You tell the women at your talks to look their fears right in the eye and move through them, so now you have to walk your talk señora. Come on, we’ll do this together.”
Andy’s voice resonates with so much fatherly confidence, it almost propels me into the dark, dank, cavernous hole.
“I don’t know,” I stammer once again. Normally, I never allow myself to appear weak, and I hate myself for being such a wuss, so I take a tentative step.
“Sure, you do. You’ll be fine. Just close your eyes. I’ll lead you from the front, and Ruby will hold your other hand from the rear, and we will guide you.”
There is a quiet calm in Andy’s voice that assures me. Still I hesitate.
Somehow, I sense that this is no drill or another false alarm. Lives are at stake. I tell myself that the longer I delay, the more I’m jeopardizing everyone’s safety.
I close my eyes and grab Andy’s hand, gripping it so tightly our knuckles must surely turn white as snow. Then I take a deep breath and follow him into the tunnel, with Ruby bringing up the rear.
Once we’re all inside, Ruby hands her flashlight to Andy. She pushes a button on the transmitter and the door behind us slides shut with a whoosh that resounds with chilling finality. Except for the silver dollar–sized circle of light the little torch casts, we are completely engulfed in darkness, tightly surrounded by earthen walls that reek of a gag-inducing smell that reminds me of rotting mushrooms or a rotting corpse. The long, deep passageway feels as if it’s wrapping itself around my windpipe, choking my breath away. My knees buckle, and its only Ruby’s lightning-fast reflexes that keep me from falling to the damp ground. If there is such a thing as hell on earth, this is it for me.
As we begin to slowly traverse the tunnel, Andy looks back over his shoulder and says, “You are going to be fine. Just remember to breathe, Sara, breathe. That is what you taught me. Right?”
Even though my eyes are shut so tight I fear the lids will bond together, the confining blackness envelopes me like a strait jacket. The walls of the low, narrow passageway scraping my arms and legs feel as if they are trying to swallow me up. The funereal stench of the suffocating earth sears my nostrils, which now reminds me ever so much of a freshly dug grave.
Inwardly, I want to scream at the top of my lungs; instead, I bite my lower lip and try my best to breathe. I’ve learned about the importance of “conscious” breathing from Sage, but the terror clutching my heart is so powerful I’m not sure if I can do it. Eyes still shut, I try my best to let Andy and Ruby guide me. But I can feel myself growing faint, and I know that even with their help, I am not going to make it.
Just as I’m about to pass out, what I can best describe as a field of energy suddenly supports my body like an invisible cushion, holding it upright and somehow breathing life into my empty lungs. At the same time–even though my eyes are still shut–in much the same way we “hear” our thoughts, I “see” a brilliant light flare up and take shape.
I open my eyes, and in the space of a few fleeting milliseconds, much to my astonishment, Sage in all her glorious beauty materializes at my side, shimmering in the darkness.
Surely, I must be hallucinating, I think to myself. But I don’t care. Sage, my pillar of strength, my fount of wisdom, my source of comfort and hope, blankets me with her great love and obliterates the darkness with her luminous presence. I’m so overcome with gratitude and emotion I almost black out again. She reaches for my hand, and I can feel her life force returning me to consciousness and my lungs filling with air again!
“Yes, dearest, let the breath soothe you, let it wash away the fear gripping your heart,” I hear her say inwardly in that distinctive otherworldly voice of hers.
With Sage at my side, my fears dissolve like snowflakes in a hot sun. I forget about the tunnel. I forget about having to flee the house, and the great danger we certainly must be in. I forget about whether or not Andy and Ruby can see her, which I sincerely doubt. I want to tell Sage how terribly much I miss her, how much I ache to return to her world. But as she has so many times before, she seems to read my mind.
“Save your strength, dearest. You needn’t speak. Remember, we are eternally connected. I am always with you.”
With that she is gone. The light extinguishes, and I suddenly remember that I’m being led through this infernal, seemingly endless tomblike passageway like a blindfolded prisoner of war on the way to face a firing squad. But even though Sage’s appearance is fleeting, it fills me with enough fortitude and determination to hold my deathly fear in check, which returns the instant she dissolves back into the ethers. I close my eyes again and keep moving, one foot in front of the other, forcing myself to breathe. As I brush against the rough, dank walls, I fight desperately to cling to the vision of Sage at my side. In this way, I manage to keep on going. My guess is that we are probably in the tunnel for only minutes, but to me it seems as long as hours and days must seem to a convict serving a life sentence.
When I finally hear Ruby say, “Ya can open yur eyes now, Sara,” these glorious words sound better to me than an aria sung by Maria Callas. I open my eyes and behold one of the most welcoming sights I’ve ever seen–a shaft of daylight from above! It’s as if God herself is shining directly on us.
We climb a rickety makeshift ladder. Once Andy is high enough, he reaches above his head to where the narrow shaft of light is beaming through the roof of the tunnel and slides a plywood cover to one side, revealing a rectangular opening barely wide enough for us to fit through. But to my quivering soul, the gates of heaven have parted for us. Once the cover is moved aside, he springs up through the opening with a single agile leap, pulls himself through the opening, and extends his hand down to me.
With a boost from Ruby who is still bringing up the rear, I’m lifted out of the tunnel onto the unfinished floor of a large storage closet, whose door opens to the rear of a garage in a newly remodeled house that has been sitting empty. We are directly across the narrow alley-like street from the safe house. Once Ruby exits the tunnel, she drops the wooden ladder back down the open hatch and then replaces the sheet of plywood.
Parked in the driveway, backed flush against the opening of the garage, is one of those long-haul monstrous tractor trucks attached to a flatbed carrying a cargo container. Without giving me time to dust myself off, Ruby and Andy take my hands and practically drag me across the garage.
I follow Andy up the short ladder leading into the back of the cargo container. As soon as the three of us are safely onboard, Ruby flips the metal ladder inside with one forceful pull; then she and Andy reach out for each of the huge double–steel doors and begin swinging them shut, not an easy operation from the inside.
While Andy and Ruby fuss with the cargo doors, I survey the interior, scanning faces. Everyone except Dee Dee, a former championship race car driver and now our driver extraordinaire, who I assume is at the wheel of the truck, are all present and accounted for.
Suddenly, I realize that someone is missing, and I panic.
The thought that she was left behind, or even worse still, that something happened to her, wrenches my heart.
Ruby puts a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“Relax, Sara. Hippolyta’s ridin up front with Dee Dee.”
A sense of relief washes over me. When you’re thrown together with a group of women 24/7 for a year, especially if they’ve made great sacrifices to ensure your safety and well-being, they become like family. And what a family. My dear, loyal protectresses, my band of Superangels–who make secret service agents seem like slackers–are such a diverse and interesting bunch, the days and nights of my confinement are never dull. But what really makes this outlandish adventure bearable is being able to spend all this time together with my darling daughter Sophie and my little Sweetpea, Gemma, and Andy.
Being thrown together in one safe house after another has allowed us to get to know each other and love each other in a way that most assuredly would not have happened under ordinary circumstances, especially given the rift that separated us for so many years.
Once I know that everyone is safe, I take a few moments to survey the interior of what is to be my getaway vehicle. This is not your ordinary, everyday cargo hauler. There are a few niceties here and there. The floor is covered with oriental carpets, and I can see little pinholes of light all around the sides, sort of like tiny portholes with handgrips to hold onto when peering through. Small spotlights strung across the inside of the tin roof provide illumination, and upholstered benches are bolted to the floor. The one crucial necessity, a portable potty, stands in a far corner of our mobile “luxury liner,” and I can only hope that it is firmly secured. All our belongings and equipment are lashed to the opposite wall of the huge metal container. Most important of all, fresh air is somehow circulating throughout.
I am so relieved to be out of that tomblike tunnel and find everyone together safely inside, instead of tuning in, I push aside the jittery feeling in my gut and let a stream of what Chinzen would call “delusional thoughts” spill from my brain. This is all so silly. Escaping in a cargo container. How ridiculous can you get? And what are we running from? I don’t sense any danger. Damn, I could have slept for a few more hours.
I begin shuffling over to Kendra, as Andy heads towards where Sophie and Gemma are seated, while Ruby maintains her position at the rear door.
I take two, maybe three steps, when suddenly a horrendous, colossal explosion rips through the air. The blast is so violent, so powerful, and so close, it feels as if a volcano has erupted right outside the door. It’s so earsplitting I fear my eardrums are going to shatter. The concussion from the blast is so strong the tractor-trailer truck is lifted into the air, and we’re sent flying like rag dolls.
Don’t ask me how she does it, but as I’m being hurled backwards, Ruby somehow manages to catch me in midair and cushion my fall, while almost simultaneously covering my body with her own as the tractor-trailer lands back on the ground with a hard, sickening thud. For a moment or two I fear it will topple over, but miraculously it rights itself.
Before hitting the floor, I catch sight of Andy diving towards Sophie and Gemma, doing the very same thing as Ruby with his body.
After a series of much smaller secondary explosions, an eerie silence hangs uneasily in the air. Then I hear little Gemma sniffling, fighting to hold back the tears.
For an instant I can’t move, frozen in place like a terrified rabbit, paralyzed with fear and the return of the trauma I suffered when I witnessed all one hundred stories of the World Trade Center towers collapse and crumble before my unbelieving eyes as I was exiting a taxi not all that far from Wall Street. My son and my ex-husband worked in those buildings, and I went into total panic, running towards the wreckage like a madwoman.
As irrational as it seems, I just want to flee, to rip open the doors and run. I try to wriggle out from under Ruby.
“Don’t move,” she orders. The tone of her voice leaves no doubt that she is in charge.
Then she calls out, “Everyone stay down and keep down. Nobody move…Does anyone need medical attention?”
When there is no reply, she calls out again, “Is everyone all right?”
The instant Ruby is greeted with a dim chorus of “yeses,” and is satisfied that, save for a few bumps and bruises, everyone is more or less all right, she speaks into the headset of her mobile communicator. The device, which she wears on her belt, looks like a Smartphone, but functions something like a combination walkie-talkie, 360° camera, super-computer, and god knows what else. I understand it does not have GPS, so it cannot be tracked or hacked, and its wave band or whatever it uses cannot be broken into or compromised which makes it as secure as anything can be secure in this day and age. And unlike traditional walkie-talkies that crackle with static, the voices come across crystal clear. Kendra once tried to explain how it works, but she may as well have been speaking Mandarin to me.
Ruby straightens her headset and signals everyone to be still.
“Hippolyta, Dee Dee, are ya two all right?”
Since Ruby and I are as close together as Siamese twins joined at the hip, I can hear Dee Dee’s reply.
“Hell honey, I’ve flipped end over end and rolled three times pushing 180 mph down the back straight at Daytona; this here’s been just like one o’them bumper car rides in the fun park.”
I can see Ruby, who normally is a comic’s nightmare, fighting to keep a straight face.
“Hippolyta, what’s happenin, out there?”
“The house is pretty much leveled down to the foundation. What isn’t down is engulfed in flames,” she answers in that steady, even bodyguard voice of hers which betrays no emotion.
“Do you want us to move out?”
“No, not yet, wait until we have some cover. Dee Dee, start the engine, but wait fur me signal before ya go. Remember, no matter what’s happenin’ out there, just drive nice an easy, as if yur makin, a pickup or a delivery. Do ya read me?”
“Like a dime store novel, darlin’,” replies Dee Dee, trying to make light of it, but I can hear the tension in her voice. I can also feel the searing heat and smell the stench of the acrid smoke beginning to slowly seep into what could very well turn into our mobile coffin. I can’t understand why Ruby doesn’t give Dee Dee the go sign. Like when you go into a turn too fast and your every instinct is shouting, “hit the brakes, hit the brakes!” Which Dee Dee tells me is not the right thing to do. I just want to scream, “let’s get out of here!” But I think, far be it for me to question Ruby: she’s the expert, the commander in chief. I just have to lie here and trust. But it isn’t easy.