Fiction

Quicksilver

By: Lee Conrad

The wood frame house, a century old, but in good shape, dominated the hilltop. Near it, a barn, in disuse for many years, struggled to keep from collapsing. A large white peace sign on the back side had faded, but Belinda knew it was there. She helped paint it.

The field across the dirt road radiated golden as the rays of the sun dipped behind the huge maple trees at its edge. Belinda sat on the porch and waited for the first of the stars to become visible, a mug of herbal tea on the table next to her, and one of the barn cats in her lap. She looked towards the woods at the edge of the field to the path, now overgrown with brush. She tried to remember the people she and James, her late husband, had helped along the path on their way across the border into Canada.

Like the peace sign on the barn, Belinda knew her life was fading. Bad enough that her body failed her once in a while, she thought, but once my mind is gone, well that’s it isn’t it? It amazed her that yesterday’s goings-on were quickly forgotten but something that took place in the ’60s or early ’70s seemed to be as vivid as if it just happened.

She could see James walking towards the farmhouse with a young man, long hair blowing in the wind, a couple, or even someone with a military haircut, trudging next to him. Rucksacks with a few possessions, maybe a sleeping bag, was all many had with them. They were on the run. The ones with the short hair were AWOL soldiers, soon to be labeled deserters, drafted into a war they hated. Others were political radicals, one step ahead of the law. She remembered the long discussions about the war and the state of the country as she, James and new arrivals would sit around the kitchen table talking until the time came to move them across the border.

“Time for you to go hunting, and time for me to call it a night,” she said to the cat as she put him down. Belinda looked out at her view of the field, said goodnight to James and went into the house.

The morning broke sunny and Belinda, listening to NPR while she cooked her eggs, jumped at the knock on the door.

“Come on in, can’t let the eggs overcook.”

A tall stranger opened the screen door. His long white hair was swept back and his goatee cut short. His clothes were fashionable for his age which Belinda figured to be mid to late ’70s, like herself.

“Oh, I expected my neighbor from down the road. He should be here soon.”

He wasn’t but Belinda wanted the stranger to think that.

‘I’m sorry to surprise you like this, Belinda.”

“Do I know you?”

“We had some mighty conversations around this table. I’m Jackson Pierce. You and James helped me escape across the border 55 years ago.”

A vision of a younger man worked its way into Belinda’s memory. She placed it with the older man in front of her now. The brown hair now white. The skinny kid now a fit older man. The smile and the eyes though, they were the same.

Belinda put her hands to her face. “Oh yes, I remember now. Well, come in and sit Jackson. I’ll cook up some more eggs.”

Jackson sat at the table, the same one from years ago. Old oak and sturdy. Meant to last generations. He moved his hands across the smooth surface willing the table to talk, to reveal long lost conversations.

Belinda put out another plate and fork.

“Coffee, Jackson?”

“Absolutely. I still have my vices.”

Belinda poured two cups from a percolator on the stove.

“I have a feeling we have a lot to talk about,” she said, eyeing Jackson.

“Sorry to hear about James.”

“Thank you. His heart gave out or maybe up… but why are you here?”

Jackson moved the cup of coffee around in his hands searching for a way to begin.

“Do you remember when I came through here?”

“Vaguely. Refresh this old brain.” Belinda remembered but wanted to see if their version of events were the same.

“I was the editor of an alternative paper. We had been doing stories on everything from the war to local corruption. Of course, you remember we certainly didn’t make many friends in the establishment or law enforcement. So they set me up on a drug charge. Someone planted heroin in my desk. You know how it was…long hair, radical, drugs, equals guilty. I knew the bastards would hang me if they could, so I ran. James helped me across the border.”

“That’s pretty much how I remember it,” said Belinda. “But you came back. I remember reading something in the paper years ago that said you were cleared.”

Jackson’s eyes turned hard. “A junkie on his death bed admitted he set me up. Got paid well by the cops to do it. But that’s all ancient history, Belinda. You still fighting the good fight?”

“I didn’t go to the dark side if that is what you mean, but I am not that young thing you met years ago. Time and the world have taken their toll. Do I pay attention to what is going on? Yes, I’m paying attention and I don’t like what I see. People got to learn all over again it seems. Democracy withered on the vine because people didn’t give a damn or wanted a strong leader. Fuckers got one. We thought Nixon and Trump were bad. This new guy and his National Party make them look like children. But you didn’t come all this way just for a visit so I am asking, why are you here?”

“We need the path again.”

Belinda could feel a stirring in her.

She leaned forward across the old oak table.

“Explain Jackson.”

“We know there is a crackdown coming. We need to get people out of the country before they are rounded up or worse. Your path is an old one that most people don’t know about, thanks to you and James keeping it a secret all these years. Plus your farm is isolated, not many neighbors or prying eyes.”

“James isn’t here to lead them to the ‘Promised Land’ and I can’t do it anymore.”

“I know Belinda. It will have to be me.”

“You’re no youngster anymore either Jackson.”

“I’m still in good shape and maybe we can train someone younger.”

“Maybe.” Belinda was skeptical.

“Where are you staying Jackson?”

“The Colonial outside of town.”

“Check out and bring your things here. We need to get some planning done.”

“Sounds ok to me.”

After breakfast, Belinda and Jackson walked out onto the porch.

“This view is still beautiful.” He smiled and held his hand over his eyes. “I can see the path. A bit overgrown. Hasn’t been used for a long time. We should keep the opening overgrown so no one suspects.”

“On your way, Jackson. See you this afternoon.”

Jackson walked to his car, turned around and flashed the peace sign to Belinda.

She chuckled. “Kind of cute for an old guy.”

That afternoon Jackson returned. He had changed into jeans, cotton shirt and hiking boots. He got out of his car, slung a jacket over his arms and carried his suitcase to Belinda’s porch where she sat waiting. She too had changed clothes and tied her long white hair into a ponytail. A little makeup to hide the age lines. A girl has to look presentable she had said to herself.

“Well, at least you got out of your fancy city clothes, Jackson.”

Jackson noticed the change in her too. “If I could have found my old bell bottoms, and if they would still fit, I would have worn them. These will have to do,” he joked.

“Come on in, let’s get you settled down.”

“You mean I don’t have to sleep in the barn this time?”

Belinda laughed. “You get your own room. You aren’t on the run Jackson.”

“Not yet,” he said with hesitation.

Belinda looked back at him, then looked away as they passed through the kitchen and into the main room of the old farmhouse.

Jackson saw the flat screen TV on a stand and the laptop on a small desk. Gone were the anti-war and psychedelic concert posters. In their place were expressionist prints. Bookcases lined the room. History, politics, and fiction were everywhere and she had them categorized. He went to the fiction section and pulled out a copy of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury.

Belinda went over to him.

“That’s my banned book section. It has been getting larger,” she said coldly.

“The hound and the firemen will get you, Belinda,” referencing the books’ characters, whose job was to burn books, not put out fires.

“Let them try.”

He put the book back in its space which was flanked by ‘The Iron Heel’ by Jack London and ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ by Sinclair Lewis.

They walked up the creaking wooden stairs to the room Jackson would be staying in.

“It’s not much but it’s clean and comfortable,” Belinda said.

“This will be fine.” Sunlight lit it up through a small window. A dresser against the wall and in the corner near the bed a plush chair.

“Meet me in the kitchen when you are settled in, Jackson.”

A bowl of unpeeled potatoes and carrots were on the table. A small roast sat in a pan while the stove heated up.

“You know the drill here Jackson,” Belinda said. “You peel the potatoes and carrots. Everyone chips in.” She suddenly felt melancholy. “Except there are only two of us. Used to be a lot more.” Memories of a table full of people, tie-dye shirts and jeans, and animated discussions flooded her mind.

“How about some music?” she said, recovering and brightening her voice.

“Whatever you want, Belinda.”

“There is a nice bottle of Spanish Rioja in the rack over there and the corkscrew is on the counter. You open and I’ll pick the music.”

Belinda went into the living room, opened up her laptop, turned on her satellite speakers and picked some music. The strains of Déjà Vu and the sweet harmony of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young weaved through the house. She came back into the kitchen humming.

“You have done well here, Belinda. The farmhouse is in good shape.” Jackson poured the ruby colored Rioja.

“James work as a union carpenter and mine as a nurse kept us going. Our pensions and social security helped too.”

After the roast and fixings were put in the oven they sat down at the table.

Belinda held up her glass of wine, leaned forward and clinked Jackson’s glass.

“To the revolution.”

“I remember saying that as we all sat around this table. Do you remember the people that came through here, Belinda”?

“I remember faces, especially the ones that had to stay a while like you and that AWOL soldier. Do you remember his name?”

“David. I don’t remember his last name. We talked a lot in the hayloft at night, and then on the path as James led us to the border. I doubt he would have survived in Vietnam, and if he did he would have been a much darker person.”

“A sweet kid if I remember right,” said Belinda. “The Army and the war would have destroyed his soul. He talked a lot in this kitchen too. His draft number came up and off he had gone to boot camp. He knew he wasn’t cut out for it. Soon as he got leave he jumped at the chance to get out. Someone in the movement passed him on to us. James was a Quaker so his pitch was to stay out of all wars. Mine was more political. Screw the establishment. Don’t participate in their war machine.”

“What else do you remember Belinda?” Jackson settled back, the warmth of the Rioja easing him into his memories.

“I remember people sitting around the table reading the latest Rolling Stone, when it was a decent counter-culture paper and then talking about the articles for hours.” Belinda laughed. “Of course the joints being passed around kept the conversation interesting. I remember the political ones all fired up ready to burn everything down. At the time I thought they were right. Age kinda mellows one out. I would rather find common ground than burying someone in the ground. Well, most people anyway. But enough of the past, Jackson. Tell me about yourself. You came back, then what?”

“Well, I ended up doing what I did best, journalism. Of course when the newspapers went bust and all the layoffs took place I had to find something else to do. So I went with an online news organization and that worked well until this new president came in. I got married along the way, three children, all grown now of course with kids of their own. My wife Karen died from breast cancer ten years ago.”

Belinda reached over and grabbed his hand. “I am so sorry Jackson. I know how you feel.”

The warmth of Belinda’s hand rejuvenated something in both of them. Of times past, of loves lost.

They finished supper, cleaned up the dishes and went out onto the porch. Belinda with her tea and Jackson with a glass of the Irish whiskey he had brought with him. They settled into the chairs to watch the sunset. The barn cat circled around them unsure of the newcomer. Then without warning, he leaped onto Jackson’s lap.

“You have a new friend, Jackson.”

Jackson leaned over towards Belinda, one hand balancing the cat and one on his glass.

“A little flavor for your tea?”

“Plying me with liquor are you?” She smiled. “No, I’ll pass. It would put me to sleep.”

Jackson stroked the cat and took a sip of his whiskey. “If it is all right with you I will tell people in this sector we have a way out.”

“You can do that. The first batch might have a tough time going down the path. Make sure they leave their city shoes home and wear hiking boots. It is only two miles but it is overgrown and most city people are used to sidewalks.”

“I’m going to leave tomorrow and start the organizing of the escapes. I’ll come back up to lay out the plan when it is finalized. I don’t trust phones even that old landline you have.”

“No cell phone for me, Jackson. Too expensive and the bastards are always tracking you.” She shrugged. “Can’t understand how people accepted that. And don’t tell me about other sectors or escape routes. I don’t need that information, you know, just in case.”

They sat out on the porch for hours talking about the old days, Belinda drinking her tea and Jackson getting a little tipsy from his whiskey. Music from the ’60s and early 70’s played in the background. Moths gravitated towards the oil lantern hung in the porch post, burned their wings, and dropped. Crickets chirped, adding a symphony of sound.

A pensive Jackson looked over to Belinda. “I miss the old days.”

“Don’t forget they were dangerous days too, Jackson. Busting people for having one joint and giving them 20 years in prison. Getting harassed for being a hippie. And don’t get me started on the FBI and Nixon’s war on us. And here we are doing it all over again. Never underestimate the stupidity or the plain meanness of the American voter. It’s funny. We were the ones calling for freedom and the liberty to do what we want and were called unrealistic dreamers. Maybe we were.”

“And speaking of dreaming, time for me to turn in. I have a long drive tomorrow. But before I go in the morning I want to check out the path.”

Jackson could hear Belinda humming in the kitchen as he came down the stairs in the morning. She had tied her white hair back again and had jeans and a sweater on. Her well-worn boots completed her outfit.

“Coffee is ready and French toast coming up with real syrup. When we’re done we’ll go to the path.”

They walked through the field to the path, steadying each other all the way.

“I enjoyed sitting on the porch with you last night, Belinda. I felt at peace. Haven’t felt like that for a very long time.” He took a risk and held her hand.

She didn’t pull away. Belinda leaned in towards him. “I liked it too.”

Then as if they realized what they had done, laughed, and separated.

“Let’s look at the path, Jackson. Been a few years for me. I tend to see ghosts when I come down here.”

They pushed their way through some blackberry brambles that blocked part of the path and walked in.

The path took some turns and went up some knolls. Parts of it strewn with rocks by flooding from a nearby creek. They held onto each other, old bones and muscles stretched to the limit.

“It looks manageable,” Jackson said.

“Do you have someone on the other side to take them on?”

“That’s being worked on.”

After a mile they turned around and walked back to the farmhouse, Jackson hunched over a bit. “I am getting to old for this,” he moaned.

Belinda laughed and rested her hand on his back. “I told you.”

Jackson loaded his things, drove off and waved to Belinda as she stood on the porch. She wished him a safe trip and more importantly a speedy return.

During the time Jackson had been gone things had gotten worse in the country. White nationalist groups were out in force and brazenly marched down city streets as the cops stood by and congress did nothing. Cities were in chaos as the militarized police and security forces tried to keep order in neighborhoods that fought back against curfews and stop and search. Most ominous of all were the incidents of activists and journalists being gunned down in the street. Like a scene from a South American dictatorship, two people on a motorcycle, the one on the back, pistol in hand finding his target and shooting. It was open season on the left as the new president gave tacit support to “his people” on the right. They said it couldn’t happen here. Well, it did. It made Belinda nervous knowing Jackson was in the middle of all that.

A month later Jackson came back. He drove up towards the farmhouse, the dust from the dirt road chasing him. Belinda walked to him and hugged him. She noticed the different car.

“You look weary. Did you get a new car?”

“It hasn’t been a good month. Let me get my things inside and we can talk. I need to put the car in your barn too.”

“Sure, go ahead.” Belinda walked back to the house, worry accompanying her.

Jackson came into the kitchen. The smell of the coffee percolating on the stove restored him somewhat.

Belinda set a cup in front of Jackson and sat down.

“What happened? I expected you to have others with you.”

“The crackdown came sooner than we thought and we were unprepared. We had people ready to go but Homeland Security found out what we were up to and who we were going to smuggle out. In this sector, I had five people. Every one of them got lifted by Homeland Security. They almost had me too except I ran out for a few minutes to the drug store down the block. As I walked back I saw their van and men around my house. They had my car blocked too. I went to a friend’s place a few blocks over not knowing what to do. He is sympathetic but not involved in our work. He had a second car and let me take it. I left with just the clothes on my back and a few things from the drug store. I didn’t even stop on the road.”

“Does anyone in your group know of me and the path?”

“No, I kept all that information in my head. I didn’t share it with anyone. By the way, your path will be called the Quicksilver Route.”

“Are you Quicksilver, Jackson?”

He looked into Belinda’s eyes and saw a hint of sorrow. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

“I don’t think we will sit out on the porch tonight, Jackson, just in case.”

“Sorry, Belinda.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. I signed up for this. It’s not like we haven’t done this before. It will be alright. And I still have some of James’s clothes. You are about the same size.”

They watched the news but nothing on it about any crackdown or roundup, as if it didn’t happen. But the families of those detained knew. They were told to keep quiet or they would be joining them.

When they went upstairs to the bedrooms Belinda stopped by hers.

“Come stay in mine Jackson. I feel the world getting darker and colder. Hold me tonight.”

Jackson followed her into the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

Belinda had already been up for a few hours and sat at the table waiting for Jackson to come down.

“Good morning, Belinda.” His face look troubled.

She smiled at him over her cup of coffee. “I didn’t think you were going to get up. You tossed and turned all night.”

“I kept having nightmares of them knocking down the door and grabbing us.” Jackson paced around the kitchen. “I made a decision. I have to go across the border. I can’t do my work here. Too much of a risk of getting caught. Somebody is bound to notice you have a guest, no matter how remote this place is. I don’t want you getting arrested too.” Jackson put his hands on her shoulders. “Do you want to come with me?”

The scenario played out in her mind. The long, arduous trek to the border, leaving her home behind, and then… what?

“As much as I would like to Jackson, I can’t. I’m too old to leave my home and start all over in Canada. Besides, when you get across you will have your work and you need me here.”

That night they chanced it and sat out on the porch. Belinda turned the music up and opened a bottle of Pinot Gris. They slow-danced on the porch to the strains of the music they loved from the past and put the present out of their minds. When they went upstairs Belinda left her door open and Jackson followed her in.

They were both subdued in the morning, not wanting to part and say goodbye. Jackson had dressed for his hike in some of James’s old clothes. Belinda filled a backpack with some food and water just in case. The meowing of the cat near the door, wanting to be fed, broke the silence in the kitchen

“OK you, wait your turn,” Belinda said to the cat as she poured some food into a bowl on the porch.

Jackson stepped out onto the porch ready to go.

“Do you want me to walk you to the path, Jackson?”

“No. You should stay here.”

Jackson embraced Belinda. “I don’t know how to say this…”

Belinda put her finger to his lips. “Then don’t. We will see each other again.”

She watched Jackson walk through the field and reach the mouth of the path. She could swear she saw James standing by him. Too many ghosts she thought. Jackson waved, turned, and slipped through the brambles.

The maple trees were a bright hue of color heralding the fall and preparing for winter. Belinda sat on the porch and thought of Jackson, gone now for three months. Out on the road, a car pulled into the drive and approached the farmhouse. She could see three people in it. The driver, a woman in a postal workers uniform, got out and walked towards the porch.

“Are you Belinda?”

“I am,” she said cautiously.

She smiled. “Quicksilver sent me. I have some friends that could use your help.”

In the car sat a young Asian man and a middle-aged black woman. They looked frightened and wary.

“I have to get back, they are yours now.”

“But how will they get across the border? I can’t take them.”

“That’s been taken care of. Someone is coming later.” Duty done, she hugged her passengers, got in her car and drove away.

Belinda looked at her two guests. “Well, come on into the kitchen. My name is Belinda,” she said, shaking their hands. “Go ahead, sit down and get comfortable. This big old oak table has plenty of room, always has. You must be hungry. But around here we all chip in. You can peel the potatoes and carrots while I get some chicken ready to roast. And when we are done eating I will tell you the plan and show you the path. Everything will be alright. You’re safe here.”

The young man grabbed the bowl of potatoes, eager to help and to relieve his anxiety.

The woman, who seemed distressed when she came in, ran her hand over the worn surface of the old oak table and visibly relaxed as if it too told her she was safe now.

Belinda looked out the kitchen window at the edge of the field and smiled. Jackson pushed through the brambles at the mouth of the path and walked towards the farmhouse.

The end.

Categories: Fiction

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