© 1999 Allie McCormack
Into the Storm
The park was still and quiet in the early morning. The grass and bushes were heavy with dew, the myriad of tiny droplets sparkling as the rising sun touched them. Erin took a deep breath, drawing in the crisp, fresh scent of fall. Laid out in vast terraces in the center of the city, the beauty of the park lured her each morning, its peace a balm to her spirit. Crossing the highest terrace, with its lookouts to view the surrounding city and the desert spreading far beyond, she came to the steps leading to the next level.
She glanced to the right, where a heavy entanglement of oleanders burst with color. Yes, the man was there again. She'd discovered his presence there a few days earlier, at first puzzled by the acrid waft of tobacco in the deserted park. Curiosity was one of the many luxuries she couldn't afford, and she had shrugged off his presence there as not important to her. Still, she couldn't help glancing at the foliage every morning to see if he was there. Maybe he was supposed to be quitting smoking, and this was where he came to indulge his vice. The fancy amused her and she smiled as she passed across the terrace.
The dew was starting to recede now, soaking into the ground as the sun rose, huge and fiery even in late September. Off to her right, several levels below, a small lake glistened with a silvery sheen, mist rising heavily as the sunlight touched the chill water. She'd brought an offering for the ducks this morning, some crumbs torn from her meager breakfast of tiny pita sandwiches of beans and falafel; standard breakfast fare here in this small middle eastern country.
The greediness of the fowl entertained her, as always, and she was smiling as she hurried her steps towards the lowest terrace and the park exit. She'd lingered longer than usual by the lake, and now she'd be late to work if she didn't hurry.
Two men rounded a bend in the path some distance ahead of her, strolling slowly, deep in conversation. The elder was a tall, heavyset man in his late 50s, dressed in crisply starched army fatigues. Gold bars that Erin knew denoted a general's rank glistened on his collar. He appeared to be speaking urgently to his companion, a much younger man who was simply clad in black trousers and blue shirt, his shining black hair thick and waving. He listened to his companion impassively, nodding now and again but seeming to give the speaker only half his attention as he moved with nonchalant grace, his hands deep in his pockets.
Erin had seen them here before, these two men. They didn't come every day, but she'd encountered them perhaps once or twice a month over the past year. Sometimes she only caught a glimpse of them from a distance. It was always the same; the general talking and the young man listening, sometimes more attentively than he was today. Erin had seen him once at the lake, staring pensively into the still waters, the older man talking urgently. As she watched he had turned with an impatient gesture and strode off, the general following silently in his wake.
Clearly he was someone important, and she wondered, as always, who he was. He never wore a uniform, and his head was always bare. She'd seen the general several times in dress uniform and wearing the ghutra, the traditional male headdress here in the Middle East. Today the general wore camouflage fatigues.
Camouflage! Erin's breath caught in her throat, and several facts suddenly clicked in her mind, like pieces of a picture puzzle that had eluded her before. This young man, always accompanied by a high-ranking military officer, who came to walk here in the early mornings on a regular basis... and the man up on the hillock, the one who smoked under the oleanders, had always been difficult for her to distinguish because he wore camouflage! It wasn't a coincidence... it couldn't possibly be a coincidence.
The two men were drawing closer, and Erin struggled with indecision. Every nerve in her body screamed at her to pass by... to stay anonymous to the government, the military. She couldn't take the risk of recognition, to be brought to their attention in any way. Even saving these men from possible assassination wouldn't save her if her identity was discovered. The face of the younger man rose before her... strongly chiseled features in a narrow, deeply tanned face, the high cheekbones and wide, beautifully shaped mouth, intense brown eyes set under straight black brows. It was a face that haunted her dreams, that crept into her consciousness during the day. He was everything that she was not... strong, sure and confident, his every movement so graceful it was beauty to watch. She couldn't... she couldn't pass by, silently as always, face averted. She couldn't allow him to go unsuspecting to his death.
Still uncertain, she glanced over her shoulder. The path behind her curved around before sloping upwards; they couldn't be seen yet from the hilltop. Turning back, she found herself looking straight into the young man's eyes. Involuntarily she flinched from that steady, honest gaze. Then the men were drawing abreast of her. She must speak now, or it would be too late. She stepped into the general's path.
"Sir." She choked out the words, keeping her voice low and urgent. "There's a man on top of the hill, wearing camouflage. He's been there every morning this week."
Faster than she could have expected, the two men closed on her. The general had a cell phone in his hand and was talking rapidly into it, firing questions at her at the same time. Where on the hill? Oleanders? Could she identify the man? No? When had she first seen him? He shot a sharp glance at the young man, who nodded, eyes sparkling.
"I'll go on, Hassan. How long do you need?"
The general was already on his way back towards the entrance; he paused, pursing his lips.
"Five minutes. You be careful." Turning, he broke into a jog and disappeared around the corner.
The young man turned to Erin.
"Thank you." His voice was warm with gratitude. "You should leave the park quickly now; you don't want to be here when this goes down."
Speechless, Erin nodded, and he turned to continue up the path towards the steps up to the next terrace. With sudden desperation she darted forward, grasping his arm with both hands.
"No!" She pulled him back, clinging to his sleeve, horribly afraid. "No, you can't go up there! Don't you understand? I think he's an assassin! I think it's you he's after, that he's been waiting for! "
With a smile he covered her hands with his, gently disengaging her fingers. He spoke softly, but the bright excitement in his eyes contradicted the calm reassurance in his voice.
"I can take care of myself. It isn't the first time, and likely not the last either. He won't kill me. I promise."
He lifted her hands to his lips, one at a time, his eyes holding hers. He released her, then touched her cheek softly.
"Go now," he said. "Quickly."
And he was gone.
Erin walked numbly away, her feet seeming to carry her of their own accord. She was aware of movement, of people, of many men swarming past her... men with uniforms, with guns that were drawn.
She had passed through the park gates when she realized that she might never know what happened... might never know if he had survived. She whirled, pressing against the beautifully wrought iron rails that bordered the walk, straining to see past the trees, as if she could see right through the hill itself. Tears filled her eyes as a vision of him, straight and confident, rose before her. She couldn't bear to think of him being killed... his body laying motionless on the grass, a rust-colored pool about him, and the flies...
No, not him. She couldn't bear to think it. But how could she know? An assassination -- or attempt -- might not make it into the papers, so unless he came to the park again, she wouldn't know. Sometimes he didn't come to the park for weeks at a time. If an attempt were made on his life here, he may never wish to return... if it had been her, she wouldn't. Shuddering, she clenched the cold bars, every sense attuned as she prayed, hoping against hope to see something... anything... reassuring.
Instead a soldier approached.
"Move along, miss," he told her. "The park's closed for today."
She dropped her hands, nodding. She was turning away when the still of the morning was shattered suddenly as the mist-enshrouded hilltop erupted in gunfire.
"No... oh, no!" she cried out. Gathering her shawl about her, Erin ran back towards the gates. The soldier caught her by the arm, pulling her back.
"You can't go in there!" he told her sternly.
"Oh, but..." Her protest died on her lips. It was no use; she would not be allowed near no matter what happened. She nodded silently and the soldier released her with an absent nod, his own attention fixed on the hill. The staccato of automatic weaponry reached their ears, and Erin gasped, clapping her hands over her mouth. She exchanged a helpless look with the soldier. His face was grim, as powerless as she to rush to lend aid, held to the gate by his orders.
Silence ensued, an ominous hush. Soldiers appeared, coming down the slope and then veering off towards a more distant park gate that was nearer the center of the city.
She might never know what had happened here today. To stay now would only draw attention to herself, and they would tell her nothing anyway. Reluctantly Erin stepped back from the fence and turned away, her heart heavy. With one last look at the park, the flagstone path winding up through the terraces, she walked away.
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