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Every week, Hannah asked when the war would end.
Soon, Mom always said, which her child’s mind translated as, Longer than you want.
The war had taken her home, friends, and family. If it didn’t end soon, it might take everything.
Ten months ago, Hannah and her mother arrived at the refugee camp set up at the Indiana Convention Center. They’d settled in Hall D, a vast space sectioned off by metal pipe and dark blue drapes into rooms ten feet square. Rough living, the days suspended between tension and tedium, but it was safer than outside.
Now Mom sat on her cot and inventoried their weekly aid package. Spam, rice, cheese, beans, sugar, powdered milk, soap, cooking oil. The bland basics of survival.
Before the war, she’d been an accountant. Now she added up calories, while Hannah counted the hours to their next meager meal.
Mom licked her finger and dipped it in the sugar. “Taste test?”
They used to bake together in their kitchen back in Sterling. Cookies and cupcakes and scones. Hannah helped out, knowing she’d be the official taste tester.
She licked the sweetness. It only made her hungrier, but she didn’t ask for more. She already received more than her fair share of the food. Once a plump woman, her mother had wasted away to gauntness.
“We have enough to get us to Friday,” Mom said. “Except water.”
“Okay.” Hannah looped a belt through three plastic gallon jugs.
“Why don’t you stay here and play with your friends?”
Mom always said this before they went outside. The streets were dangerous now with muggers, bombs, and rebel snipers who’d infiltrated the city.
“I want to go with you,” Hannah said.
She’d already lost Dad and Alex. If Mom went without her, she’d go out of her mind waiting. She hated being alone.
Mom understood all this. “All right, honey.”
They left their tiny room and closed the drape behind them. People traded rations and gossip in the aisle. A couple was having a loud argument. The air smelled like pee and frying Spam. Smoke from cooking fires hazed around the dead ceiling lights high over their heads.
Mrs. Bevis yanked her drape aside. “Did I hear you’re going out for water?”
Mom pursed her lips. “You did.”
“Because my back is still killing me.” She was already holding out her jug.
Hannah took it. “We can fill this up for you, Mrs. Bevis.”
“My waste bucket is getting full too.”
“Some other time,” Mom said before Hannah could say anything.
The old woman shot a look down the aisle. “Listen to them. Arguing again. They go at it all day and then again all night.”
Mom said, “Well, we should get going.”
Mrs. Bevis regarded her with a judgmental frown. “Don’t let me hold you up.”
They walked down Aisle 1500. War news droned on a portable radio. A swarm of kids ran laughing through laundry hung on lines spanning the aisle. Hannah sometimes joined in the fun but more often stayed close to Mom, an oasis of warmth and love in a world that had otherwise turned against her.
“Mrs. Bevis told me the war will be over by Christmas,” she said.
“It’s more like a hope than a prediction,” Mom told her.
More code that grown-ups used. “Okay.”
“It can’t go on forever, honey. It’ll stop one day, and then we can go home. We’ll all be together again.”
Mom always talked about Hannah’s dad as if he were still alive and as if her older brother, who’d disappeared, had made it back to their house in Sterling.
“I can’t wait,” Hannah played along.
“Until then, we’re doing okay. All we have to do is keep going.”
Outside, bright sunlight washed the cold street. Dirty snow covered the ground. Bicycles zipped around dead cars. Gunfire crackled at the front line a few miles away. A band of militia walked past, hard men and women wearing ratty uniforms and carrying rifles.
The water tanker was three blocks east. They waited in line until they could fill their jugs. Hannah shuffled her feet to stay warm and read political graffiti covering the wall of a nearby building. FREE INDY, THIS GUN KILLS FASCISTS, RESIST.
At last, it was their turn to fill their jugs from the spigots, and they started home.
Mom gave her a sly smile. “If Christmas is coming, you know what that means.”
“Hooray for me,” Hannah sulked.
“You only turn eleven once. I’m going to make you a cake.”
Hannah understood grown-ups told white lies to protect their kids, but this was going too far. “We don’t have any flour or butter. We barely have any sugar.”
“Then I’ll have to make something out of nothing.”
She shot Mom a warning look. They’d once had an imaginary dinner, where they’d pretended to eat a sumptuous feast. “Okay.”
“It’s a real thing, honey. I got a recipe from another mom.”
Hannah believed now. The women at the refugee center were like mad scientists when it came to making new meals from the monotonous aid packages. They knew how to turn rice, vinegar, water, and powdered milk into cheese.
“What’s in it?” she said.
“It’s best if you don’t know.”
Hannah laughed. “Like a hot dog.”
“It’ll be yummy,” her mother assured her.
“I can’t wait.” She was still smiling. “It’s gonna be awesome.”
“When the world goes back to normal, we can have a proper birthday party.”
The grown-ups always talked like that, how nothing was normal, as if the war was an embarrassing mistake. But this, talking about a birthday cake. This felt normal, even after everything she’d lost. Something out of nothing.
“I love you, Mom—”
Blood sprayed across her cheek.
Bikes crashed in the roar of the rolling gunshot. The street emptied.
Mom shuddered on the blacktop.
Hannah blinked in shock. “Mommy?”
“Sniper!” a woman shrieked.
A large man scooped Hannah like a football as he charged past. She screamed and clawed at the air as Mom dwindled with each step.
The man set her down behind a burned-out bus but kept a tight hold of her arm to prevent her from bolting. Other people had sought safety here in a gasping huddle.
Crying, Hannah watched her mother struggle to rise.
“Stay down,” the man hissed. “Don’t move.”
Mom freed herself from the belt and its heavy water jugs. She heaved onto her elbows. She started to drag her body off the road.
Hannah was wailing. “Mommy.”
Their eyes locked. A smile flickered across Mom’s face.
The second shot rammed her back down. The crowd screamed.
Hannah howled with them. “MOMMY!”
Nothing out of everything.
The Canadian Air Force transport plane trembled on air pockets at fifteen thousand feet.
Gabrielle Justine sat clenched in her metal chair attached to the bulkhead. She wore a blue helmet, flak jacket, parachute, and around her neck an oxygen mask. To her left, tarpaulin-covered wood crates filled the cargo hold. Twenty tons of milk and cheese. Cold air whistled through the compartment, bringing a strong whiff of fuel and canvas.
Corporal Kassar smiled at her from his seat on the opposite bulkhead. Goggles and a dashing red scarf complemented his uniform. The other crewman chewed gum while reading a paperback.
“You’re UN, right?” the corporal shouted over the propeller hum. “UNICEF.”
She didn’t trust herself to speak. She nodded.
“But you’re from Quebec,” he added. “Your accent.”
Gabrielle spoke French as her first language. “Yes.”
“Here to help the children. Very noble. First time in the jungle?”
Booms sounded far below. They were getting close now.
Gabrielle turned to look out the nearest window. From way up here, Indianapolis appeared peaceful through a smoky haze. Indy, the locals called it. The crossroads of America.
Then she spotted the scarred ground marking the contact line, battlefields and trenches among houses and strip malls. The city and its population of some nine hundred thousand people had been under siege for nearly a year.
No sane person would come here by choice.
The gum-chewing crewman called out without looking up from his paperback, “What’s the difference between a smart and a stupid American?”
Kassar rolled his eyes at the old joke. “The smart one is watching the war on TV in Canada.”
Gabrielle flinched as light flashed on the ground.
The crewman set down his novel and threw her a sharp look. “The same joke now goes for Canadians, it looks like.”
Two years ago, the Democrats retook Congress and impeached President Philip Marsh. After the Senate convicted him, he refused to leave office, and in the end, it was the bulk of Congress that fled Washington, DC. The military wavered as massive protests swept the country. Armed groups seized government buildings and TV stations, triggering a civil war.
When UNICEF put out a call for field operatives to go to America, Gabrielle quit her safe job buried in a humanitarian relief organization and took a contract. In Indianapolis, she’d evaluate the needs of the city’s children. It promised to be hard work, and dangerous. But worthwhile.
Her friends worried she’d lost her mind. Her parents had begged her not to go. Dad told her she was smart and young and had a long life filled with choices ahead of her. She was already helping children at her current job. Why risk life and limb?
She could do more good in the field. She wanted to take part in history. Gabrielle gave him every answer except the truth, which was long ago, if a single man hadn’t taken a risk on her behalf, she’d be dead.
She was tired of helping from a safe distance. It was time for her to pay it forward, take her own risks, and try to make a difference.
Now that she was here, she wondered if she’d made the right decision.
Gabrielle sighted the sprawling airport. So close. Then the plane tilted and cut off her view. “Why haven’t we started descending?”
Kassar grinned. “Because we don’t want to get shot down.”
He leveled out his hand and angled it toward the deck. The plane had to maintain altitude to avoid ground fire and then plunge for a rapid landing.
She grabbed onto the canvas webbing and prayed. “Dieu nous protège.”
The C-130 Hercules dropped out of the sky.
“Here we go,” the corporal said.
Alarms shrilled from the cockpit. The plane screamed in its descent. Corporal Kassar reached into the folds of his scarf, found a talisman, and kissed it for luck.
“Hey, UN,” he said.
Gabrielle stared at him, unable to speak. The airframe was shaking.
“Are you seeing anybody?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Can I take you to dinner sometime?”
“No,” she said. “Maybe. I don’t know!”
Anything, she prayed. Just let me survive this.
Her stomach lurched as the transport plane leveled out. Giant wheels slammed asphalt, carbon brakes screeching. Gabrielle gaped out the window at the blessed ground. Armored personnel carriers flashed by on the tarmac. Hesco walls surrounded the airport like a medieval town.
She prayed again—this time that she hadn’t made a huge mistake coming here.
For a half hour, they huddled behind the abandoned bus as gunfire popped in the distance. Apartment buildings loomed over boarded-up retail stores. Surrounded by water bottles, Hannah’s mother lay facedown in the empty street.
Get up, Hannah prayed.
The shooting stopped.
“We got him,” said the man who saved her. “I think we’re safe now.”
“Screw it,” a woman said. “I’ll go first.”
She snatched up her discarded bike and started pedaling. She didn’t look at Hannah’s mother lying in the street.
The onlookers tensed, but nothing happened.
The man turned to Hannah. “Do you have somewhere you can go?”
She began to cry. Mom lay in the road, and nobody was doing anything. They didn’t care. They were all leaving.
“Oh, man,” he said. “I can’t. I mean, I’m not…”
“Mom,” she screamed. “Mom!”
Willing her to get up, though she knew she wouldn’t.
A wailing ambulance turned the corner and screeched to a halt. Men in blue jackets jumped out. After checking for a pulse, they took hold of Hannah’s mother by the armpits and feet and tossed her on a stack of other bodies inside.
To Hannah, it was as if she were being taken out like trash.
“Don’t touch her like that! Hey!” She ran into the street as the vehicle sped off.
Only a red stain on the road remained. The rest of her mother was headed to a mass grave at the American Legion Mall. Exhaust hung in the air like a ghost.
“Are you all right? You shouldn’t be out in the open like this.”
The man who’d saved her was gone. A skinny woman with a bandage taped over the left side of her face towered over her.
Hannah wiped her eyes and shied away. She wasn’t supposed to talk to people she didn’t know. One couldn’t trust anybody or anything these days. People were always looking over their shoulders for a reason. They slept with one eye open.
The woman scratched at her bandage. “Is this your water? It’s a lot for just one girl.”
Hannah heaved the belt over her shoulder, but the load was too heavy. She unbuckled the belt, looped it through a single jug, and started walking. Mrs. Bevis would get upset if Hannah didn’t bring back her water.
The woman scrabbled the rest into her arms. “Bless you, young lady!”
Hannah didn’t answer. Still in shock, just trying to think.
Images flashed through her mind. Convention center, Hall D. Red Cross packages. Bulldozers digging a trench at the American Legion Mall.
Mom knocked to the ground still wearing a loving smile.
“No crying,” Hannah yelled. Not this time, not ever again.
She did anyway. She was going to cry forever.
She found herself near Victory Field. Merchants had converted the baseball diamond into an open-air market. As she grew close, the city’s smells thickened. Waste, burning, death.
Mom had taken her here before so they could look at all the nice things. Back in Sterling, they’d once had everything. A heated home and plenty to eat. School and clothes and summer camps.
And after they lost it all, Mom said: Now we know what’s truly important. Now we know how to live in the moment.
Something out of nothing. Hannah had no idea where to even start.
If the worst happens and I can’t take care of you, you have to survive.
Mom hadn’t taught her how.
If she went back to the refugee center, the aid workers would put her in an orphanage. She’d seen war orphans roaming the streets like packs of wild dogs, fighting over territory and salvage.
The idea of living with them terrified her.
Hannah veered into the bustling market and walked through the crowds in a daze. It was the first time she’d ever wanted to become lost.
People hauled old and useful things to and from sellers standing behind plastic picnic tables. A man grunted as he pushed a shopping cart filled with firewood across the cold, rutted ground. Everybody looked skinny and tired. Vapor puffed from open mouths.
She stopped to warm herself at a burning trash can. Nearby, a seller had connected a car battery to a TV tuned to CNN. She watched it for a while, mesmerized. The handsome newsman wore a grave expression. The scrolling caption read, PRESIDENT SUSPENDS OTTAWA TALKS.
Always this stupid war.
“Hot cocoa, kid?” a man said. He’d set up a hillbilly coffee shop at his table. Balanced on bent coat hangers, Campbell’s soup cans boiled water over fires burning in other containers. She spotted jars of instant coffee, packets of hot cocoa.
Hot chocolate. It made her think about all the little things that were gone. Ice cubes tinkling in a glass of lemonade on a summer day. Bologna and mustard sandwich in her lunch box. Warm sheets just out of the dryer. Cartoons on TV. A text from a friend on her phone. Fragments of a long dream, already half-forgotten.
Back then, her biggest worry was math tests.
Thinking about the little things made her forget, if only for a second, what she really missed. Mom, Dad, Alex, her friends and teachers back in Sterling.
Now we know what’s truly important.
Hannah shook her head at the man. She had no money.
One of his fires burned out, and he bent to relight it. This was the new math. The precise amount of heat it took to boil a cup of water. How to make an aid package provide calories for two people for a week.
“I’ll trade you,” he said. “Half what you got in that jug for a cup of hot cocoa.”
It seemed a fair deal. “Okay.”
Careful not to spill a drop, the man measured out half a gallon. Then he filled a Styrofoam cup to the brim with hot chocolate. It steamed in the cold air.
“This’ll warm you right up.” He smiled. “I gave you a packet that had marshmallows.”
Hannah sipped. The cocoa scalded her tongue, but she didn’t care. Its heat flooded her chest. Her taste buds sang. “Thank you.”
He dabbed a napkin and offered it to her. “You have some… red on your face.”
Hannah took it and balled it in her fist.
“Indy is one of the last places in Indiana that is still America,” a stout policewoman cried from a nearby table. She wore an impressive uniform that included ballistic armor. Behind her, a blue banner displayed an eagle, gold stars, and the roman capitals IMPD, which stood for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. “We must defend ourselves. We can’t do it alone.”
Hannah gazed at her with wide eyes as she sipped her hot cocoa. The woman appeared confident, well-fed, and tough.
“Do you want to suffer wrongs or right them?” she said. “Do you want a democracy or a dictator? Do you love the Constitution? Step right up and do your part by joining the Metro Police. Three square meals a day! Signing bonus if you have military experience!”
Food, Hannah heard. Power and control.
The police would teach her how to survive. She wanted to be this woman, standing strong in armor and being able to protect herself.
She approached the table. “Hey, can I join your police?”
The woman sized her up with a glance. “Too young.”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Sorry, kid. I can’t help you.”
“Do you know where the front line is? The one facing Sterling?”
She pointed. “That way.”
“My brother’s on the other side. He’ll take care of me.”
She started walking again, this time with purpose.
Alex was all she had left in the world, unless the war had taken him too. She’d cross the front line and find him.
“Wait,” the policewoman said.
She wrote in her leather notebook and tore out a sheet. Hannah frowned as she inspected it. Traffic summons. It said she had to go to court.
Then she read what the woman had written. An address. Prospect Street.
“Why do I have to go there?”
“It’s what you’re looking for, and it’s safer than where you were going.”
“Did you find my brother?”
The woman turned away and called out, “Indy is one of the last places left in Indiana that is still America!”
Hannah scrubbed her face with the damp napkin and returned to the coffee seller, who smiled and said, “How’s your cocoa?”
“Good.” She showed him the traffic ticket. “Do you know where this is?”
He scrutinized it. “You going there?”
“It’s in Fountain Square. A bit of a walk. I’ll draw you a map.”
It was in the opposite direction of where she wanted to go. So far in the opposite direction, it was near a whole other front line.
She finished the last of her hot chocolate and handed the cup back to the man to reuse. Then she left the market and walked along the route he’d drawn.
Each step took her farther from the refugee center. Ahead lay a long, cold trek. She had no idea where she was going or how long it’d take to get there.
The freezing wind tugged at her, as if it too wanted her to go back.
She kept going.
Hannah was mad now. Mad at the sniper shooting her mom for no reason. The policewoman sending her on a wild-goose chase. This whole stupid war.
Anger felt better than helpless despair. She held on to it. She was going to walk until she discovered what the policewoman said she was looking for.
Hannah had been trying to become lost. This was as good a way as any to do it.
The C-130 taxied on the runway before parking near an aircraft hangar. Corporal Kassar heaved Gabrielle’s duffel bag over his shoulder and offered his hand. She took it and stood to stretch aching muscles battered by the rough flight.
He said, “No offense, but you don’t seem cut out for this line of work.”
“My first time in the field,” she admitted.
“I got out of Syria during the civil war against President Assad. You might say I grew up in a place like this. You want some advice?”
“Watch out for the kids,” he said. “They’ll rob you blind.”
Gabrielle threw him a warning look. He grinned.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Here’s my advice. Keep your idealism in check and take your time.”
“What do you mean?”
“The United States is no longer united, right? Neither is Indianapolis. There are at least a hundred major militias in the city, some just armed gangs.”
“I don’t care about the sides. I’m here for the children.” She looked around the cargo hold as the ramp dropped. “These supplies will do them some good.”
As long as the humanitarian aid kept flowing, the innocent majority might survive.
“All I’m saying is get to know the players and how things work before you try to change things. Allow yourself to accept small victories. It’s the trying that counts. I’ve flown out enough burned-out aid workers to have learned this much.”
Maybe spending more time with Kassar wasn’t such a bad idea. “So how does one date during a siege?”
He laughed. “I was trying to take your mind off the landing.”
“It’s too late to back out now, mon cher.”
“I’m not authorized to go into the city,” he said. “And if I did, somebody would think I’m an Arab terrorist and shoot me. The whole country has lost its marbles. When you get home, look me up and I’ll buy you a drink. You’ll need it.”
She smiled. “It’s a deal.”
“Here, take this too. For good luck.”
He removed his talisman and gave it to her. It was a gold maple leaf on a chain, symbol of Canada and its multicultural unity. Where Kassar had found a safe place to call home after fleeing his own civil war.
“Thank you,” Gabrielle said, touched by the gesture.
She took her duffel bag and walked down to the tarmac, enjoying the feel of solid ground again. Forklifts converged on the plane to offload its precious cargo.
A slim young soldier with big ears met her at the bottom of the ramp. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am. I’m Lieutenant Douglas. I’m your liaison officer.”
She shook his hand. “Gabrielle Justine, UNICEF.”
He reached for her bag. “Let me get that for you. That’s my jeep there.”
Gabrielle had expected this reception based on her briefing. Units of the Indiana Army National Guard held the airport southwest of the city, along with a narrow strip of land between West Washington Street and I-70.
The jeep sped off toward a hangar, where Lieutenant Douglas had arranged safe transportation into Indy. He sat rigid behind the wheel, polite but distant. She sensed he’d rather be doing something else.
Soldiers smoked cigarettes around a burning barrel by a drab utility shed. An impressive armored vehicle rolled past. She wondered why these men weren’t out there trying to put an end to all this. They didn’t seem to be doing anything.
“I hope you won’t mind a word about your helmet,” he said.
She reached up to touch the cold metal dome. “Did I put it on wrong?”
“The press and UN wear blue helmets,” she said. “It means I’m neutral.”
“Yes, ma’am. Not everybody sees it that way.”
“I don’t understand.”
“For some folks here, the UN is the enemy. They think the UN wants to strip America of its sovereignty. They hate you more than they hate the press. I’m trying to tell you your helmet might as well have a bull’s-eye on it.”
“I came here to help the children,” she said.
He shrugged. “Make of it what you want.”
Gabrielle studied his neutral profile and wondered about his motives telling her this. “What about you? What do you think of the UN?”
“My orders don’t include thinking about the UN, ma’am.”
The liaison officer parked the jeep and hopped out. She didn’t press it further. The short jaunt across the windy tarmac in the open-top jeep had her frozen. She followed him into the hangar on uncertain legs.
“Make yourself at home,” he said. “We’re waiting for one more passenger, and then the APC will take you all to Indy. Good luck, ma’am.”
- "Brutal, unflinching, mesmerizing."—Peter Clines, New York Times bestselling author
- "An instant classic that will join the ranks of dystopian futures that at times feel all too real."—Nicholas Sansbury Smith, USA Today bestselling author
- "An unflinching look at what happens when politics fail and war truly comes home, powered by the narrative shock of truth-telling."—Christopher Brown, author of Tropic of Kansas
- "Presenting a dark alternate reality that touches the seams of current events and a possible future, DiLouie offers an uncompromising view of child soldiers and patriotism in conflict."—Library Journal
- "DiLouie brings depth to his dark vision of America with a story that draws parallels to the
- On Sale
- Feb 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 432 pages