Federal Marshals showed up at their townhouse on a Tuesday evening in White Plains, NY, and told Mark and Janelle MacIntyre they had twenty minutes to mull it over. The decision was easy. Becoming someone else took less time than Mark could have imagined. When Mark cast a glance in Janelle’s direction, he watched her nod in what he assumed was resignation. Janelle was a planner, and Mark had goosebumps unable to imagine that she was comfortable with the processes’ rapidity. The DA had explained a few days earlier about joining the Witness Protection Program, but failed to mention that departing their old life and apartment would occur as a surgical strike. With a quick farewell to their parents, the Marshals whisked Mark and Janelle away in a blacked-out limo in the darkness. They entered the building as Mark and Janelle MacIntyre without any means of identifying information. A few days later, in the dark, they exited the unmarked building as Jeremy and Tracy Johnston. New identifying information would be handed over at an unannounced time.
Jeremy and Tracy did not fit the prototype of the usual Witness Protection Program clients. They were not blowing the whistle on organized crime, a gang, or an illicit organization of any type. Tracy, a part-time bookkeeper discovered a $22M financial discrepancy. Her former boss, whom it turns out embezzled the money from the company, had hidden it in offshore accounts, and from what what she could tell, had acted on his own. Upon discovering the issue, Tracy confronted him; he denied the claim; she talked to the higher ups, and her boss took to wearing orange jumpsuits. He expressed his view of the situation by hiring a hitman.
Jeremy found little to question about the need to enter the program, but requested more details about the logistics. What he discovered was that the Federal Marshals were not the most communicative and released information in short and as-needed bursts. Many questions went unheeded, and Jeremy resolved it might not be as difficult as he anticipated. As long as it was short-term protection, it struck him as prudent to join the program. They discussed the situation, but Jeremy made the final decision when Tracy reduced to tears with her head resting on her crossed arms at the kitchen table.
After a few rounds of tears and a couple of laughs at the absurdity of what was happening, they rationalized their situation to be a blend of The Godfather and Married to the Mob. The potential longevity of it did not occur to either of them. And with the possibility of a hitman on their tails, both the Marshals and they agreed staying alive was a better option. The Witness Protection Program offered the only viable solution. People do this all the time swirled in Jeremy’s mind as he filled the small gym bag with a few Marshal approved items (toiletries and an extra set of clothing).
Jeremy listened intently as the Federal Marshals told Tracy to stop dying her hair platinum blonde, dye it another color, crop it short or wear a wig until it grew out. Jeremy handed Tracy a tissue when an extra-large droplet rounded over her right cheek. She chose a brown wig from a set of styrofoam body-less manikins. The brown wig, close to what he remembered from when then first met, was probably what she recalled as her natural color. When the order of no more wearing blue eye shadow, Tracy’s signature mark, abruptly came out of the only female member of the Marshal group, Jeremy handed Tracy a wad of tissues. She dabbed at the translucent streaks of powdery, light blue mingled with black clumps. In empathy, he sniffled, to hold back his own flow.
Jeremy’s drastic change came about when his lip emerged after being obscured by a thick mustache since high school graduation. For him a shock, for Tracy a welcome surprise judging by her wide grin. His hair, already receding, remained intact. They updated his eyeglass choice with a more modern black Horn-rimmed frame. From shoes to shirts, birth certificates, and a new marriage license, Jeremy and Tracy would start over. Twenty years of marriage became twenty-two. They could join the local Congregational church, but not continue at the Presbyterian one. Bank accounts, new debit cards, credit cards, and AAA cards with their new names were in brand new wallets; matching his and hers. No children made for less complexity. Tracy practiced signing her name a number of times in the windowless building. She expressed her fear of slipping up and using her old name, or as she phrased it, her real name. Jeremy did not bother.
The time between the exodus from their home and the trip to Maine was four days. Escorted, once again by two men attired in black, this time much further away from town, Jeremy tried to hide his angst by pressing his palms against his thighs. Tracy rubbed her palms facing flat against one another repetitively. A Manila envelope, between them on the back seat of the limo, contained the keys to two tiny cars awaiting them in a vacant parking lot. The envelope held vital documents and pre-programed new cellphones with an address for the GPS. A note scrawled on the outside of the envelope stated they were not to contact anyone, and that someone would check in on them. The limo came to an abrupt stop. The motor stopped whirring. Jeremy and Tracy looked at one another, simultaneously raised their eyebrows as nothing more was happening, and pulled on the door handles. They exited on opposite sides of the dark vehicle. No one opened a door from the front section of the large car.
Jeremy and Tracy departed New York with no sendoff, only the knowledge that an unannounced visit from the Marshals would occur soon. Soon undefined.
Equipped with the address and instructions to look for a newish mailbox next to a rundown house, they left in the dark, spent the day in a roadside motel, and departed again after dusk. The vague directions were to turn right down a long, dirt road when they saw the red mailbox. At the road’s end, they would find their new residence situated deep in the woods, and it was far enough in that no one would see them arrive or unpack. The red mailbox appeared as Jeremy rounded a curve. Still dark, at about 2:00, Jeremy flashed his lights, indicating to Tracy they had arrived. He turned onto the bumpy road. Jeremy sighed when he saw the two tiny white bouncing lights in his rearview mirror.. The narrow, pitted road, caused the headlights of both brand-new Chevy Sparks to aim at varying points on the pine trees lining the road.
Jeremy heard Tracy’s car skid. Her headlights disappeared from his rearview mirror, but he could see her silhouette in the driver’s seat of her car when he braked short in front of her. And without warning. Jeremy shifted his view from the mirror to straight ahead, Jeremy peered through his windshield at a huge tree laying sideways, blocking the road. He got out of the car, walked in front of it, and pushed against the tree with both hands. Tracy’s engine died down, her car door squeaked, and her footsteps crunched on the gravel as she approached him.
“Now what? You’re gonna roll it out of the way?” she asked.
Without turning around, he shrugged his shoulders and pushed his glasses up.
“ Puh,” Jeremy sighed. “I guess back up. It’s a dead end as far as I can tell,” he said, peering back into the blackness, “and maybe they meant the house with the mailbox.” He mulled it over for a moment before running his hand over the top of his head. He turned to face Tracy, “Pull in behind so no one sees the cars.”
“This is what we left New York for?” asked Tracy. Jeremy gulped at the sadness he sensed in her voice. A rumble of mixed responsibility and regret pinged in his gut. The assurance that they had done the right thing did not resonate for him as he stood in between the tree and the car.
“Yup, yup,” said Jeremy, looking back at the tree. He shook his head apologetically, sensing that his tone was anything but reassuring.
They got back into their respective cars. Jeremy waited until he heard Tracy’s gears grind into reverse. Without enough space to turn around, they both backed up the half mile or so they had driven in. Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck as they pulled beside one another behind the shack. Several pairs of green reflective eyes, about a foot or two up from the ground passed in the headlights of the two cars. Jeremy lowered his passenger side window and motioned for Tracy to do likewise. He then told her to wait for him to return. She gave a thumbs up and turned off the motor.
When Jeremy returned from his tour around the house, he looked at Tracy, who rested her head on her knuckles. Her fingers looked pale against the dark steering wheel in the moonlight. She must have heard him approaching because she lifted her head, and looked straight at him. Motionless, she stared at him. He stood outside the driver’s door and waited for her to roll the window down.
“Well, now what?” she asked. He prayed his answer would resolve in a peaceful resolution where they would sleep that evening.
He crossed his arms and bent down to her level.
“Well, what?” she glared up at him.
“I am not sure, but there are a few little creatures around, and rather than sleep with them, I think we are sleeping rough in the car tonight, dear,” he thought better of having added the dear, but by then it was free from his mouth.
“Maybe you are, but I’d rather go into town and find a hotel. Clean sheets. Hot shower.” Tracy stated.
He interpreted her answer as aggravating rather than endearing at 2:00 a.m.
“Duly noted, but no,” said Jeremy. “If you recall anything from the last couple of days, we are not to do anything that will draw attention.” He put a heavy emphasis on the word ‘not,’ and stood up.
“You think staying in this dump is not drawing attention?” She cocked her head slightly to peer out the car window and tilt her head upwards at him.
“We’re not staying in there. We’re sleeping in the car,” he stated, but refrained from adding this is where they may end up because he did not know how he would remove that tree.
“Hmm,” muttered Tracy. The conversation ended.
Jeremy stood back as she pushed the car door open. She got out of the car, put her hands into her pockets, and tapped her foot. Jeremy raised one eyebrow and left her to stew. While he pretended to ignore her, although he could clearly hear her deep sighs, Jeremey rearranged some things in the back of his car for them to put the seats down and sleep, as no other option seemed readily available. Tracy got into the passenger seat. Jeremy closed her door and walked around to the driver’s side.
“I’m sorry,” said Tracy. Jeremy patted her thigh, the fabric of her jeans chilling his hand. He rubbed it back and forth in a comforting motion. It would only be one night and they could figure it out in the morning. With the seats pushed back as far back as they would go, they curled up with their feet under the dashboard and coats pulled up to their chins.
The sun crept up early on the horizon and woke Jeremy. Tracy snored lightly. He tried to stretch, but the gas pedal and break prevented him from moving too much. In the attempt to open the door without waking his wife, he slowly lifted the handle and pushed. He missed the morning clangs of garbage trucks crunching refuse they had picked up along their city street. He gave a little snort-like laugh at the thought of missing something that most mornings aggravated him. Dew had settled everywhere, and the sun glistened on little spider webs nestled between the tall grasses and trees behind the ramshackle house. Darkness had cloaked where they parked, but in the daylight Jeremy discovered it rather exposed, and since it sat on a curve, allowed passersby to see directly to where the two cars sat in tandem. Jeremy’s heart crept into his throat upon the realization that people had already driven by. He assured himself they would not make any other shortsighted mistakes.
The house was small. The primary descriptor that came to Jeremy was shack. Shack. Mouse. Racoon. Squirrel. Shack. But it was accessible, and until they could get down that blocked road, they needed a roof over their heads. A wave of regret passed through him. Jeremy pictured himself sitting at his rolltop desk, signing the renewal lease on their apartment in White Plains. The night the Marshals appeared, they were six months in on the three years of stabilized rent.
Jeremy checked on Tracy before he traipsed around the house. He did not fear the wildlife, as he had on his first inspection of the premises. Tracy’s head remained crooked to the side, so he figured he had a few minutes to investigate. Other than the windows, which were covered with plywood, it looked pretty dilapidated. Most of the plywood looked intact, but the house, being near the ocean, and open to the elements, had a good number of shingles that warped outwards on the corners, hung askew, or lay scattered around the perimeter. Several cracked bricks lay crumbled on the ground a few feet away from the chimney’s base. Jeremy’s mesh running shoes dampened while he walked through the uncut grass. The moisture seeped through the socks to his feet. Although the sun had removed the morning chill, the cold crept through him. He rounded the corner to the front where he found a red “S” and a white “e” clinging on rusted nails above the door. Gaps in the lettering indicated that more may have once hung there.
“Jeremy, Jeremy,” pierced the silence. He sprinted back to the cars. Tracy stood next to the car. Other than a appearing a bit disheveled, she looked fine.
“What the hell? I thought you were being killed by a bear or something, Janelle,” said Jeremy, huffing. He bent at the waist and rested his hands on his knees to catch his breath.
“Don’t swear at me, and don’t call me Janelle anymore,” she retorted.
“Yeah, right. Let’s go check out the tree. Man, this place is a dump.” Prior to regaining his stance, Jeremy bent down to retie his shoe that had loosened on the jaunt back to rescue her.
“Walk or attempt to drive down again?” Tracy asked.
“Walk, too much of a pain without a turnaround,” Jeremy said. He opened the driver’s side door, removed his keys from the ignition, and pressed the lock button on the fob. “Where are your keys?” Tracy pointed at the other car. “Get them please,” he requested.
“Who is going to come and steal the cars? Are you for real?” She folded her arms and shifted her weight. Exasperated and hungry, Jeremy pointed at the car again. He bent his head to the right towards his shoulder. Something in his neck popped, and he lowered his shoulders.
They headed down the gravel drive to inspect what they could not thoroughly assess in the middle of the night. Other than an occasional animal noise, self-muttering, swearing, and the crunching of small sandy pebbles, the walk was silent. As they got closer to the tree, they could see that it had not severed entirely from the base. White, hardened sap had dripped and dried over the mottled bark at the split. Top-heavy, the tree flattened smaller trees in its way.
“Shit.” Jeremy muttered. Tracy echoed the word. Neither of them had ever attempted full lumber removal, and this did not seem like the project to start with. “We can’t get someone to come here, we’re supposed to slip in quietly and become normal people again. Normal other people, whatever,” stated Tracy. The reality of the reminder stung Jeremy.
“Yes, well, I’m not sure that’s entirely possible.” Jeremy replied to the statement. “We can’t move this ourselves.”
“What do we do? Stay in the other place until the Marshals come to check on us?” asked Tracy.
“No, but…” Sensing a fight, Jeremy trailed off, not wanting to further engage.
“What do you mean no? Then where are we going to go? I’m wearing a wig,” said Tracy, tugging at the thing on top of her head. Jeremy was pretty sure the thing sat with the bangs hanging lower than they should have, but he refrained from saying anything. He knew the wig solution, meant to hide the color while her hair grew out, still upset her. For now, the platinum remained hidden. Jeremy thought dying it might be better, but if it had been him, he would have shaved his head totally. He gave a little snort to stifle the giggle at the thought of Tracy bald. She did not look at him, so perhaps she missed his nasally utterance.
When they got back the shack, they watched the cars rounding the bend with the clear view of the two brightly colored cars parked in the driveway. They looked at each other, eyes wider open than normal.
“When you yelled, I thought you were being attacked. I was not thinking about moving the cars,” he said, handing Tracy the keys to her Spark.
“And where, pray tell shall we park them?” asked Tracy. Jeremy found her tone terse, but ignored it. “Can we move one further back? The other one we can take one to town to get something to eat, no need for both.” Jeremy kicked at a few branches in front of the car.
“What do we do if someone asks who we are? I mean if they saw us,” asked Tracy.
“We tell them we are the new owners, which we are,” said Jeremy.
“Not really, we’re supposed to be the new owners of the house we can’t get down to,” corrected Tracy.
“Whatever.” Jeremy replied, the words pushing out with a loud exhale followed by a gaping yawn. “Let’s check this out, so we can get some supplies. There must be a Home Depot or Lowe’s.”
Tracy mocked his response by mimicking the adult voices in a Peanuts animation and rolling her eyes.
“Cute. Let’s look inside first,” said Jeremy. Tracy gave him a double thumbs up.
Determined to investigate the shack as it was what all they had in the short term, they ignored the gawkers, and removed the plywood from the only door which was on the front of the house. After getting past the smell of dead mice, a variety of animal excrement and mildew, Tracy stood in the middle of what must have been a living room, and broke into wails with full body sobs. Jeremy left her to her cry and creaked through the house, hoping to not fall through somewhere once he reached the second floor. He felt sorry for her, actually felt sorry for them; the uprooting was not in the plans when he pushed her to go through with reporting her boss. With deep regret settling in that he had cooerced her to do the right thing, Jeremy returned to Tracy and wrapped his arms around her. Tracy, in return, wiped her nose along the chest of his windbreaker. Yuck, he whispered inside, and looked down at the wet streak on the left side of his blue jacket.
The town, like many New England towns, centered on a small green with a gazebo decorated with a few flags and war memorials, a nearby small graveyard with some broken headstones, and a smattering of newer thick granite ones. Jeremy pointed out the Post Office. They would need to arrange a PO Box rather than have mail come to the house. Further down, rows of small stores, a movie theater, and a few restaurants lined the main street. One had an “OPEN” sign flapping against the building. It looked like the only choice this early in the day. They pulled into a spot in front of the store, got out, and stretched. Lack of showers and toothbrushes, on top of feeling unkempt, they laughed at their disheveled state and commented this never would have happened in New York. Tracy gave a bellowing laugh. Jeremy smiled and looked down at the dried streak on his jacket.
Jeremy grabbed the handle and held the door open. They looked around for an empty booth, and spotted one at back of the room. Jeremy salivated as he sniffed the scents of bacon, pancakes, and coffee. Heads turned as they made their way to a booth. Tracy veered off to the restroom, and Jeremy slid into the banquette. Tracy reappeared with a dewy face and damp hair around her forehead.
A waitress with a steaming coffee carafe and two menus came to the table. She poured the coffee without asking and placed the menus facedown at the table’s edge.
“When did you arrive? Middle of the night?” asked the waitress. Several of the people seated nearby laughed. “Did you really spend the night in the ‘Se’ house?”
“The sea, like ocean house?” asked Jeremy.
“You know the big S, little e house.” The waitress wrote the letters with her finger in the air.
“Oh,” said Tracy. “Yes, no, we slept in the car.” Jeremy tapped Tracy’s foot under the table. She sat up straight.
The Federal Marshals explained how small-town life differed from New York, and quickly blending in was of utmost importance. But Jeremy and Tracy did not expect the gossip chain’s speed. It had not even been eight hours since they turned into the blocked driveway.
In hushed voices, they talked over the severity of what leaving their old lives behind meant, the reality of it all settling in. They said ‘shit’ in unison and shook their heads. A deep inhale whistled through both of their noses when the steaming plates hit the table. No words passed between them while they gulped down breakfast. Jeremy pulled a few crisp bills from his pocket, left too much of a tip, and they headed to Home Depot. When they pulled into the parking lot, it relieved them to see it looked exactly like every other Home Depot. They parked in a spot halfway between the entrance and exit, exactly how they parked at home. Jeremy eyed the small tractors and grills lined up by the entrance. And when the front doors parted, Tracy pulled a cart free from the interconnected ones.
“It’s so nice the box stores are all laid out the same,” Tracy said as they meandered down the aisles.
“Since we’ve changed every other damned thing about our lives, it’s great we can seek comfort in what’s familiar,” Jeremy responded, keeping his voice low but tone sharp.
Tracy sneered back at him. He gave her the finger.
Jeremy searched for chainsaws while Tracy looked at cleaning supplies. They brought the saw, some sponges and multi-purpose cleaner out to the car, returned the cart and rethought the need for animal traps to remove other tenants of the shack.
At the checkout counter, when the screen with his name came up, he signed Mark and got as far as three letters into his last name before realizing he was no longer that person. He clicked the do not accept signature button, waited for the sales clerk to void his transaction, and started over, this time looking at his new credit card when he signed his name, checking to make sure it was the other him and not the old one. He had a flash of Tracy signing her name over and over like a teenager on the lined paper in the windowless identity change building. He wished he had done the same.
With the chainsaw and a topped-off gasoline canister in the back of the car, Jeremy and Tracy drove down the hill. He stopped the car about twenty-five feet shy of the downed tree. Jeremy pulled hard on the handbrake. Got out, but did not remove the chainsaw from the back. Tracy remained in the car. In daylight, and able to assess the tree’s formidable size, he walked up to the tree and knocked on it. Instead of a hollow return as he rapped against the tree, the sound was a non-echoing diminutive thud. Some sap stick to the knuckle of his middle finger. To clean the sticky goo off, he wiped it on his pants, which caused the flanking fingers to stick to one another. Slumped at the shoulders, Jeremy turned around and got back into the car.
Jeremy held up his hand with the three fingers that were lightly glued together with the sap. Tracy shrugged. “What are you doing?” asked Tracy.
“I think we need to get someone else to do this. It’s not just a couple of branches.” He rubbed his non-sticky fingers on his forehead. He reached across Tracy for a hand wipe from the glove-box. After rifling around for a few seconds, he pulled a crumpled white packet with a little lobster on one side. The alcohol wafted through the car. Tracy giggled before turning back to Jeremy with a stern expression. He returned the look with a quirky smile.
“Are you nuts? You mean, like tell someone we need help?” Tracy got out of the car, slammed the door, turned her back to him, and threw her hands up above her head.
Jeremy lowered the window. He remembered he said the exact opposite to her earlier about being inconspicuous.
“So we’re really going to live in that place, that shack, that garbage dump, at the top of the road?” The pitch of Jeremy’s voice sharpened each time the word for the house changed.
Without looking back, Tracy headed up the road. On foot. Jeremey looked in the rearview mirror and shifted the car into reverse, observing her stomping up the road. With enough room to pull around Tracy without hitting her, he veered around her and stopped. He leaned his head out the window.
She shook her head, walked around his car, and continued up the road. In the middle. ❦
Heads turned again throughout the restaurant when the bells on the door jingled. Only a few hours had passed since their breakfast entrance, but the smells had changed to tuna, egg salad, and grilled hot dogs. The diners were a new, but similar group, with the same waitress was on duty.
“Lunch?” she asked, swiping across the counter with wide strokes.
Jeremy caught himself before making a snide reply. “Yes, thanks. Same place?” he pointed at the booth where they ate breakfast.
The waitress nodded without looking up. Tracy slid in along the banquette on the same side as earlier. Jeremey remained standing, grabbing the cuffs of his jacket to pull the sleeves down. A little sap remained on his knuckle and it stuck to the inside of the sleeve as he pulled.
“Maybe it would have been better to let your jackass boss enjoy his money,” Jeremy whispered to Tracy, sliding in on his side of the table.
“Oh my god, remember we. We.” Tracy pointed her finger at herself and at Jeremy several times. “We talked about that before I said anything,?” she continued, giving him a stink eye. They both knew full well who had pushed her to do it. And it was not the one tucking her wig hair behind her right ear on the far side of the booth.
“I know, but when I agreed to it, I never imagined this.” Jeremy held his hands flat against his mouth, spread his fingers, and through the gaps squeezed out the words. Tracy’s mouth opened, but Jeremy cut her off. “Well, I guess we’re stuck with this until further notice, Janelle.”
“Don’t call me Janelle.” Jeremy held up his middle finger. “Cute, very grown-up of you,” she said, got up, and headed to the restroom.
After two oversized crab melts, the splitting of a lobster roll, and each drinking at least three more cups of coffee, Jeremy reached over and stroked his fingers on the back of Tracy’s hand. For a few minutes, they held hands across the table. She rested her pointer on the last dab of sap on Jeremy’s knuckle, looked him in the eye, and said, “Guess we’re glued together forever.” The smiles at one another appeared to be genuine and loving. Middle fingers remained in downward positions.
Jeremy held the door for her again. Tracy ducked under his arm. He gave her a bear hug once out on the street. They looked back into the restaurant and the waitress along with several of the men at the counter, waved at them through the window. Jeremy gave a thumb’s up, and aware they were still watching, did a Fred Astaire dance dip and kissed Tracy. Tracy lost her footing, and Jeremy took a step forward to catch her. Once upright, he gave an okay sign to the watchers inside.
“I think it’s going to be ok,” Jeremy said, once they were in the car.
Tracy pressed her head into the headrest and asked, “Home Depot, repeat?”
Jeremy removed the bags from the back of the car and set them on the ground. Before unwrapping the new tools, toolbox and cleaning supplies, and with no other living option, they entered the shack. They found a folding card table and two metal frame lawn chairs in the basement. Jeremy went back out for the cleaning supplies, grabbed a few bottles of water from the back seat of the car, and emptied them into the new bucket. Tracy wiped off the chairs and table and placed them in the kitchen. After wiping the counters and pulling open a few cabinets that had doors, they found some pots, dishes and kitchenware. A few other doors became unhinged in the search. Jeremy removed the doors and stacked them in a pile on the floor.
In the living room, a nibbled couch, two armchairs, and several other pieces of furniture sat at various angles near the fireplace. Tracy put on purple elbow-length Playtex gloves. She wiped down what she could, swept the dust, debris, and mouse (plus other animal) droppings. Jeremy watched her for a few minutes as she loaded the dustpan with the tiny black pellets, held them in with the broom and tossed them out through a missing window pane. Satisfied that the cleaning would keep her occupied for a few minutes, Jeremy headed to the basement in search of water pipes. Luckily, Jeremey’s handy father had imparted a tad of knowledge regarding plumbing and electrical enhancements, and Jeremy released an elongated, “oh yeah,” as he listened to the water gushing through clanging cold metal when he turned a knob. Jeremy heard Tracy sigh in between creaking footsteps as she moved through the house. Standing at the fireplace, Jeremy looked at the loose bricks and with some idea of what a Maine winter might entail. He hoped it would provide enough heat in the short term. The bathroom and kitchen utilities were rudimentary, and there was no hot water, but the clear liquid smelled fine coming out of the kitchen faucet, and they agreed tainted water was the least of their worries.
At every turn through the house, they added new items to the Home Depot list. Without bedding, they spent the night in the car again, but this time parked partway down the inaccessible driveway, keeping the cars hidden.
They headed into town again the next day after showering under an icy trickle and drying off with paper towels. In their unkempt state, it was becoming more apparent that being hidden was going to prove difficult. In the car, they practiced introducing themselves with their new names. At Home Depot, they returned the chainsaw and ordered inexpensive appliances with some of the Witness Protection funds they had received. They found a strip mall with a mattress store and drove home with the mattress tied to the top of the car. For added security, they opened the windows. Each one stuck an arm out and held the mattress just in case the ropes released.
Until they could get jobs and back on their feet, they would have to make do with limited means. They returned to the diner for breakfast and sat in the same booth as the day before. Until the appliances arrived, and Jeremey secured some wiring in the kitchen, the inexpensive pancakes and eggs would have to sustain them.
“I heard you’ve been in Home Depot nonstop,” said the waitress, pouring steaming, acrid-scented coffee.
“My, my, word travels fast,” Jeremy replied. He winked at the waitress.
She laughed and nodded.
“Do you know where we can get sheets and towels?” Jeremy deemed it ok to ask for a little help after giving into the fact their actions and whereabouts were quite obvious.
After ordering the same breakfast as the day before, the waitress offered advice on where to buy necessities, slipping in questions about where they had come from, and how long they would be in town. Jeremy answered with vague responses, and Tracy followed a green squiggle on the white Formica tabletop with her pointer finger.
Because of the weather changing and knowing the shack would only be habitable for a short time, Jeremy and Tracy debated calling the main number of the FBI. They would explain what happened with the tree, and with winter on its way, decided it would be inhumane for them to not respond. In the meantime, they repaired what they could in the shack, ate in town, and blended in. Other than the wood delivery man who suggested four cords of wood instead of the two they had ordered, no one seemed too concerned about them living in a house intended for summer living.
Tracy’s hair grew out, and she traded the wig for a tiny ponytail. Jeremy helped her cut the platinum from the brown. She bought some new eye shadow and Jeremy warmed to her new look. He shaved daily, but each morning still expected to see a thick brown fringe lining his upper lip. The skin felt too smooth as he pressed the razor down, streaking through the white foam.
The warm late summer days waned, and with leaf peeping season, came fall tourists. Maine, a day’s drive from New York, is a vacation spot for New Englanders. And what Jeremy and Tracy failed to consider with living in plain view, was that someone would eventually drive by and recognize them, which is precisely what came to pass in the middle of October, shortly after which the Federal Marshals paid a visit.
Along the front of the house, attempting to plant a row of hedges to block the headlights that came across the living room at night each time a car passed, stood Jeremy facing the road, his hands wrapped around the handle of the shovel, and one foot solidly pressing it into the ground. Able to ignore most of the cars rounding the bend, Jeremy saw the dark car slow down on the curve. The driver, with black Ray-Bans that covered half of his face, looked at him straight on. In hopes that the black car was the check-up for the Witness Protection Program, Jeremy dropped the shovel, and yelled for Tracy. He threw the shovel to the ground, removed his leather work gloves, dropped them next to the shovel, and wiped his sweaty hands on his pants. Jeremy heard the gravel crunch as the car drove in behind the shack. It was the black Mercedes. The occupants, which turned out to be a man and a small woman, wore matching sunglasses. Tracy exited the house, as the car stopped, and the two front doors pushed open with precise timing.
“Shit.” Jeremey said. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. When he opened them, the car and its occupants were still in the driveway. He uttered a few more expletives under his breath and forced a smile with his lips pressed tightly together.
“Mark!” shouted Jeff Clemens, one of their former neighbors.
“Oh, my, goodness, Janelle, what have you done to your hair?” shouted Jeff’s wife, Angie.
Jeremy and Tracy/Mark and Janelle stood motionless and said nothing. Tracy turned to Jeremy. He watched the silent words ‘what the…’ form without sound.
Jeremy, put his hand out. He and Jeff shook their clasped palms a few times, and Jeremy explained they were in Maine for an extended vacation. After an awkward twenty minutes of deflecting the Clemens’ request to see the house, they left. Jeremy and Tracy stayed sheltered in the house for the rest of the day, figuring out what to do next.
By the end of the following week, the “near future” of the Marshal’s visit arrived along with the answer of what would happen next. A blacked out Suburban pulled in behind the Chevy Sparks. One car door after the other made dense thunks as they sucked shut, Jeremy and Tracy came out of the house to meet the Federal Marshals both of whom wore black. There were no friendly greetings from the two men who stepped out of the dark-windowed car. The two burly, large-shouldered men did not remove their black-framed Ray Bans as the Clemens had done a about ten days earlier.
“This is inconspicuous?” asked Jeremy, waving his hand at the Suburban and attempting to lighten the air.
“Let’s talk inconspicuous. We got word that things did not go quite as planned. What are you doing in this place?” asked the man who stood spread-eagle with his arms crossed over his rounded abdomen. The other one gave a head nod towards the shack.
“Who told you?” asked Jeremy.
“We get word. Let’s go.” The man did not move. The head-nodding one raised one hand and motioned toward the dirt road.
“Where?” asked Tracy, adjusting the bandana that she had tied around her forehead to keep her hair, her real hair, back while she cleaned. “The house,'“ whispered Jeremy to her.
“You’re supposed to be down the driveway. Not at the top of it,” said the man who had waved. He lifted the Ray-Bans, looked at Jeremy, and dropped them back to the bridge of his nose. He then mimicked the spread-eagle pose of the other man, but put his hands into the pockets of his black windbreaker.
“The road’s blocked. It’s pretty overgrown. There’s a tree across it. Sleeping in the car got old,” said Tracy, straightening a finger for each reason.
“Let’s take a walk,” said the man, again, but this time with more force in his voice. He pressed the fob and released the back hatch of the suburban. The other three moved behind him, watching as he lifted the liner and removed a large ax from the inner trunk. Jeremy choked on a laugh, put his hand over his mouth, and coughed several times. Jeremy and Tracy followed the two broad-shouldered men in silence. From behind, Jeremy observed the men’s feet slip, twist inwards, and roll outwards in their matching black, tasseled loafers. Thinking it funny, Jeremy gave Tracy a reassuring smile and pointed down to the matching Merrill’s they had both purchased in the local Reny’s Department Store. Jeremy winked, and Tracy shook her head and rolled her eyes.
Other than a few birds squawking and the chattering of several squirrels, the only human noise was the crunching of gravel. Somber, like walking in a cortege, thought Jeremy. When they got to the tree, the man with the ax turned around and faced Jeremy. The man’s eyes remained hidden behind the black lenses. It occurred to Jeremy that Ray-Bans had green lenses. Maybe Witness Protection had special black lenses meant to hide their soul-less eyes.
“You could not chop through this?” he asked. The man knocked on the thick trunk, as Jermey had done, but did not appear to remove it with sap attached.
Jeremy noted the condescension in the man’s tone and wrinkled his forehead. He made some quirky movements with his lips, but did not answer the Marshal’s question.
The two men looked at the tree. And the one without the ax, reached forward, picked a vine loose, and tugged at it.
“I think that’s poison oak,” said Jeremy, as the man twisted the vine between his fingers. The man dropped it and wiped his fingers on his windbreaker.
“Chainsaw?” asked Tracy.
They walked back up the hill.
Jeremy drove to Home Depot to repurchase the chainsaw. The Marshals waited in their car until he came back, declining Tracy’s offer of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
When Jeremy returned, the four adults crammed into Jeremy’s Spark with the chainsaw and a filled gas can in the back. The man who had not touched the vine and Jeremy got out of the car. Jeremy removed the items from the back of the car and placed them on the ground. The rounded abdomen man poured the gas into the small machine and pulled the choke chain. With what Jeremy hoped was a firm grasp on the chugging saw , the man adjusted his collar and tie, and lifted the saw at an angle against the tree. Exhaust filled the air, and the others moved back to avoid the flying debris. After several long strokes sliced into the thick trunk, the Marshal cut a wide wedge and with sticks removed some vines and overgrowth thus allowing them a passage to walk through.
At first, the dense woods kept the path of what was once a narrow driveway, cool and in the shadows. But ahead in the clearing, they could see not only the lake with the sun’s glimmer bouncing off of it, but a beautifully, evenly hewn, log cabin. From the back side, it looked like a giant Lincoln Log set.
“Wow,” said Tracy.
“Holy Shit,” said Jeremy.
Two abreast, one pair in front of the other, the escorts walked Jeremy and Tracy down the small hill towards the lake. Like a choreographed ballet, they moved to the front side of the house, turned, and looked up. The front was all glass, with a deep porch. Four Adirondack styled chairs surrounded a firepit on the edge of the cantilevered porch. Jeremy looked back at the pond where a tethered rowboat bobbed and lightly banged against the long dock.
“This is the house,” said the man who had cut through the tree.
“I see,” said Jeremy.
Renamed Mitch and Jennifer, the Marshals gave greater details about what to do and not do. And this time when Mitch and Jennifer received their second set of new identities, second set of keys to a new residence, and a second ride in a blacked-out limo with a Manila envelope on the seat between them, they remembered to ask about contact information in case something went awry.
This story first appeared in the print journal of Meat For Tea, Volume 15, Issue 3. It is available to buy as a PDF. Along "In Plain View," you will find many other wonderful stories to wile away the long winter days.