Running Away is not what I imagined.

A small incident triggered my imagination, resulting in my first attempt at fiction.

A Hoax Call

Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a Profiler.  I have this recurring dream of an interview with the CIA: my poker face intrigues them and my excellent skills gets me the job.  But, alas – I have no poker face, I have no idea what these excellent skills are and nothing exciting ever happens anyway.

Well, I mean danger-exciting.

Until … one unsuspecting morning, like every other day where nothing was supposed to happen and we’ve just accepted the quiet life of Covid in a country where time is slow … my phone rang! 

“You thought you can hide; your time is up!”

It’s the strangest feeling I have ever felt: initially convinced it’s the wrong number … but what if it wasn’t?

Who would I possibly hide from, I am already in a strange country?

I have this saying, “the fear of the unknown scares us the most” … I never thought my own saying would fill head with so many question marks!  Indeed, I was suddenly living the fear of the unknown.

How do you phone your husband and inform him that you received a call that you thought were a hoax, but was followed by three more, mentioning you by name and if it was possible to bring the currently visiting, international managers home to continue their meetings … well?  As a safety precaution, of course.

When did I get involved with so many people and groups and stuff?  It must have been the social weekend of the year, because I cancelled so many appointments with so many vague lies.

How could I explain that my presence could LITERALLY be a threat?

Not a hoax call

OK … lets pause for a moment.  You probably think that ‘running away’ means a flight out of the country in the middle of the night, with whatever you can carry enroute to a small, insignificant little farmhouse at an undisclosed location where you live of the land and eventually become best friends with the bodyguard assigned to you, because really – there is no one else? 

WRONG!!! Running away was nothing I could ever imagine.

In the first place a good mother would keep a straight face and say nothing to her children … unless you are the ever practical, multitasker who answer the phone on speaker so you can fold the washing.  As it happens, I don’t wear all the clothes in the house, so the kids have to help and at the moment of the very unsuspecting and still-not-sure-if-he-had-right-number moment, I was not in the washing room alone!  While I tried to ignore it and before I blocked the number, and because there was a lot of washing and I tried to be busy while I contemplated this very, very strange turn of events, my daughter was there, right next to me.  Who would have thought that we would be contemplating over washing … ever?!

In this unpredictable predicament, however, there was one predictable: Hubby!  Turns out I didn’t have to invite any manager over for a braai after all.  Before I knew it, he sends me locations constantly to tell me they were on their way (whoever they meant); I was not to pick up the other daughter from school, it’s been arranged.  I believe that none of us ever panicked: whilst hubby went into over-protective mode (well, if there is such a mode when your wife apparently offended someone to the point of death threats).  I went into planning mode and my kids assigned themselves to the task of finding the perfect cover story.

We had the most incredible weekend!  A trip to the grocery store changed to counter-surveillance training, trying to memorise every single registration or the clothes of passers-by, outstanding features and see who could recall the most.  Hubby won every time!  Hey – we had to eat!  And we had unexpected guests and … we are South African after all.  So, we had to braai!  Cell phone locations had been turned off and privacy settings were triple checked for security reasons!  Our cover story made for laughter that made my cheeks hurt.  Suffice to say that we came up with the worst, most evasive and vague cover story ever invented: to sort out paperwork.  A reasonable story for expats and one that would hopefully not raise too many questions upon our return, create unnecessary concern or gossip.  It was decided that the girls and I will leave alone, while Hubby stay and sort out normal things like … well, work!  Someone had to work and his office is surrounded by security guards. As long as he stayed on site, he was considered safe.  We had self-defence classes every day and Hubby would constantly test us by suddenly grabbing you or something to that effect, which should have scared us senseless into reality, but instead turned into pretend-fights and again … lots and lots of laughter.

Another call came the Sunday, in the midst of our burned pizza (because honestly, I can barely cook in normal circumstances, how am I supposed to deal with cooking under stress)? The main stress factor at this point, the constant cooking for strangers trying to help and not the possible threat!

Covid-complications got a new meaning for us:  there are no quick getaways in the middle of the night in an armoured vehicle, flights are only available three days later and PCR tests takes time.

It was on Monday morning, waiting in a queue for the medical centre to open, that the severity of the situation struck me for the first time.  I was severely irritated that Hubby was checking his phone instead of the surroundings.  I saw the bodyguard in the same queue on his phone, equally nervous and alert as Hubby.  Being inside the house packing, cooking, watching TV and keeping yourself busy was a far safer place than standing in a queue on a street, seeing every vehicle as the possible carriage of an assassin.

Vulnerable.  Open.  Static.  

Social distance had a new meaning too, unrelated to Covid!  Is the guy with a jacket carrying a concealed weapon, a knife maybe?  I tried to look and appear calm, but for the first time I was scared.  I realised how my presence anywhere and with anyone was suddenly dangerous.  If the maybe-not-a-hoax-caller was serious, and an assassin was out to get me … he might miss … and that would be on me!  Whether I asked for it or not.

The notary didn’t rush my letter of authority to travel alone with the girls, they had no idea that we were RUNNING.  And honestly, I could type faster!  Were the girls safe at home with a guard posted outside?  Here we were, for the first time in I don’t know how long, alone and we couldn’t even call it a date or stop for lunch.  We were constantly watching, scanning, waiting and hoping the threat wasn’t real.

Four days and five threatening calls later, we truly did get into a vehicle in the middle of the night, praying that for once, checking in would be without problems. And it was!

I didn’t acknowledge the bodyguard on the plane, just passed as if I was a trained professional on an undercover mission. I suddenly realised what an inattentive host I’d been to our guests who dropped everything to look after us this weekend, and how they must have thought they would never come to our house again.  If there was an ‘again’.  I thought about the irony that the threat occurred on a weekend, which made disappearing so much easier and the questions from school and work and friends so much less.  I thought about how much fun the weekend had been, when it should have been agonising and scary … and maybe I just didn’t realise (until this very moment) that it actually was. 

And as the plane took off, at last, I realised how tired I was. Before I closed my eyes, I saw that both my brave girls were fast asleep already. 

Running away

Location undisclosed.

Oh!  Who would have ever thought that my dream of an overseas holiday with my girls will be forced upon us, to an idyllic little town.  We stayed in a hotel that should be a museum, went on ghost tours, city tours, museum tours and saw everything the town had to offer.

Who would have thought that running away included room service?  Or a thousand steps a day on our unexpected holiday for three.  Yes, we fell behind with school and studies, but you can’t be in a beautiful country and not explore, can you?  I would have never thought that running away could be so beautiful, so busy and so free!

Walking back fearlessly to the hotel after a magic show one night, I looked up to see a crescent moon.  “Look, the Lord is smiling down on us!”  In that moment I was filled with an enormous peace and calm, seeing how the Lord truly had looked over us in so many different ways, and thought that He must have a sense of humour to answer my prayers in strange and creative ways I could never imagine. 

We had no bodyguards, no-one knew where we were.  We didn’t live off the land in a scruffy little forgotten house that no one could find. We simply stayed under my maiden name in a place I’ve never heard anyone mention as a top tourist destination and blended in with the masses.  Running away wasn’t scary or difficult at all, in fact, we constantly forgot we were actually hiding.

I rather enjoyed being cut off from the world, no-one knew we might be in trouble, not even my family.  I loved how life has given me this interesting way to distinguish between real friends and nosy acquaintances.  Some people were so curious about our sudden departure that their true colours showed in fake concerns, filled with curiosity.  The true friends, however, had only one constant question: “Are you safe and healthy?”

Running away was easy, it was happy and it was fun. 

But … we could not run forever. The calls were real, but were the threats?  Did the psycho move on to new targets, laughing with his friends at the tension and fear in their voices?  The constant question however remained:  did I really offend or hurt someone deeply, unknowingly to the point that they would make death threats?  There were no more calls and no more numbers to block.  Hubby was safe, but far and I was missing him.  Missing home.  The novelty of an unexpected holiday was wearing off as we were falling behind with school and life and the realisation that at some point, we had to get back: back to normal, back home, back to real life and back to the threat that may or may not exist.

When life became complex!

We have been apart many times in our life, but I distinctly remember the hug Hubby gave me on our return.  A hug that said ‘I wish I can do more’ and ‘I wish I can protect you, but I don’t know how’.  We were back home where no one knew if we were safe. We had loads of photos and stories to tell, while Hubby was working tirelessly to find a suspect, a link, something … without success.  The police have written the incident off almost before we started running and there was simply nothing to confirm or deny that a threat had ever existed. 

We decided against a guard, it would raise questions with the neighbours, and more expenses: Running away wasn’t exactly cheap. Lying in Hubby’s arms for the first time in what felt like months, but so familiar that it also felt like yesterday, I realised that running away was far easier than coming home would ever be. 

I wasn’t prepared for the concern of true friends, or the tears of relief when I wasn’t dying from cancer or getting divorced.  I wasn’t expecting the fake concern and fishing expeditions of those I’ve now confirmed to be acquaintances.  Humans are a curious and nosy species, can I really blame anyone’s assumptions or reactions? It’s not like I suddenly have experience in cover stories or running away! I was kicked from the bookclub because they assumed I came from South Africa with a new Covid strain.  I had to face tears and accusations because I was lying and dishonest, whilst I was struggling to catch up with studies and groceries and ways to handle all the questions I simply could not answer.

Two truths manifested itself inside me, forever: we don’t know what’s going on in another person’s house, something I will respect and treasure for the rest of my life. I would not assume or make personal connections to others’ reactions … because I understood more than ever that sometimes I simply don’t know their story … just like they didn’t know mine. 

I was trying to mend fences with those I’ve cut off to protect – how could they possibly understand? Running away consists of vague answers to protect our secrets, a lonely place of alienating friends, and bonding with those helping you carry the runaway bags.  In confiding our secrets, they become complicit in protecting our lives, or maybe just mine – I still didn’t know!  Do they drive in a state of constant, increased awareness of every vehicle, every pedestrian or cyclist on the road?  Are they searching for the parking with the best peripheral view and avoiding public places in case an assassin awaits?  Are they scared picking up kids from school, on high alert for possible kidnappers or shooters?  How can they possibly understand?

You think running away is difficult?  You are WRONG … coming back is far worse.  We may not be in witness protection and maybe the threat has disappeared: but our bags are packed and we remain ready to run at a moment’s notice.  I owe no one any explanation and trust me: it’s safer that way.  Our secrets remain our own, and so does our fears. 

The threat dissolved

It’s New Year’s Eve.  Hubby took the girls around the block to watch fireworks from every angle.  I opted for animal duty, listening to what sounds like a war outside.  What a year it’s been, still no answers to the mysterious phone calls, rather we got a wonderful holiday.  We returned to our own normal of increased awareness and suspicions.

Lying on the couch I feel like I can relax for the first time in months amongst the noise and explosions outside.  We love the new house, we drive a different car.  We are making new friends, although I favour a low profile.  Part of me has gotten used to it: just keeping to myself.

And then, when I expect it the least: I saw him outside the window.  I don’t know him.  I don’t recognise him.  I just know … it’s the face behind the calls.  Fireworks turn to bullets, shattering windows that no one will hear.  My location compromised.  The perimeter breached.  Fireworks: the perfect cover to attack. 

I thought I would shout and run if being attacked, but a strange calm took hold of me: knowing the mystery ended, unsolved.  I was never so happy to be without my kids, without Hubby, to be alone.  Whatever threat I posed, whatever I did, I bear the end alone.  We were done running, hiding, watching and constantly looking at every passer-by as suspicious.  I thought at my end I would pray, or I would have memories flashing through my mind … but my eyes closed as the war outside continued, a vehicle screeching away and all I felt was calm.  The concept “it was over before it begun” suddenly made a different type of sense. Maybe none of us were made for this earth, cruel and unfair. Answers to many questions suddenly just didn’t matter.  Whatever I have or haven’t been for my stay, my time was up!  

I thought I saw a crescent moon smiling down on me before the bullets won and I sighed out, what I assumed to be, my last breath.

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