ATONEMENT • by Kimberly Caldwell

My breath fogged the window as we passed Ogden Street. There was no First Street, but after the overpass, there’d be a Second and a Third. I’d ridden this loop many times over the years. It usually bore fruit.

The bus swooshed to a stop at Easy Street, where a man in a hoodie waited in the rain. A student at the university, I surmised as he boarded. But as he stood, looking for a seat, I saw lines on his face. Too old to be a student, then. Maybe too old to recall the grave mistakes of his own youth. Nevertheless, I moved the newspaper off the seat next to me.

He swung into it with a grateful glance.

“What brings you out on this stormy day?” I asked, flashing a friendly smile.

He pushed back his hood, shook out his hair. “I needed a walk. For inspiration. But then it opened up again.” He glanced at the leaden blanket hanging over the facades that flashed by.

“Inspiration? For what?”

A rueful smile. “A screenplay.”

I sat forward. “You’re a writer?”

“Supposedly, yes.”

This was lucky. Very lucky, indeed. A writer would understand why people do what they do. Ah, but I was getting ahead of myself.

“I have a story,” I said. “Will you hear it?”

He stretched a damp leg up the aisle. “Sure,” he said. “I’ve got nothing but time.”

I inhaled deeply, reined in my hope. “This happened a very long time ago,” I began.

Two prisoners sit side by side in chain-link cages—dog kennels, actually—the right hand of each is chained to a corner post.

I stole a glance at the screenwriter to see if he was picturing it.

“Yes, yes,” he said, nodding.

The prisoners are countrymen. But they are strangers, united by chance at a refugee shelter in a foreign land. One man is an aid worker and the other, a journalist, there to take photos.

The journalist sees a dusty Peugeot pull up beside the truck the aid worker is unloading. Armed men, their faces covered, jump out. He photographs the bewilderment and then the shock on the aid worker’s face as the armed men surround him and fold him into the car.

The journalist knows that Peugeot, and he knows where it’s going. The Resistance movement, whose flames he fanned with his photographs, is growing bolder. Arming recruits is expensive.

The journalist decides to follow the kidnappers. He will make good money with this story—this enslavement in the name of freedom.

But then he thinks about the aid worker, a countryman who crossed the world to help others, and he feels ashamed.

He will talk to the leader instead. He will convince him to free the innocent man.

This journalist is a fighter. When he meets the Resistance leader, he puffs out his chest. “You are wasting your time holding this man. Our government does not pay ransom to kidnappers.”

The leader smiles. “We will see, my friend.” He waves his guards toward the journalist. “Now we have two hostages. If our demands are not met by noon, one of you will die.”

***

So, the two prisoners wait, sitting shoulder to shoulder. Night falls. Their guard—a boy, really, with an automatic weapon—dozes fitfully and listens to their conversation. The journalist describes the wars he has covered, the plagues and famines and revolutions. He reveals what spurred him to try to rescue the aid worker.

The moon rises and then disappears in the light of a new day.

The sun heats their backs as it climbs in the sky. Suddenly, the aid worker laughs. It’s a chuckle at first, and then a great, sobbing, belly laugh.

“What’s funny?” the journalist asks, his lips sliding into a smile.

“The irony,” the aid worker replies. “A year ago, my lover spurned me for a ‘more serious’ man, and I tried to kill myself. Now I face death, and I am afraid.”

The color drains from the journalist’s face. The smile disappears. “So, what brought you here?” he asks finally.

The aid worker wipes his face. “No reason. I wanted my love to hear tales of my bravery. I wanted a purpose, so I picked a cause.”

“Boy!” barks the Resistance leader from a cement bunker across the road.

The guard leaps to his feet and lopes across the hard pack. The sun is directly overhead.

Minutes later, the guard heads back. He pauses in the road to pull a bandana over his nose and mouth. He shoulders his weapon and points it at the journalist.

“You,” he says. “The leader says you must die.”

“No!” shouts the aid worker. “He risked his life to rescue me. He is a hero. Take me instead!”

The guard ignores him. He kneels to unshackle the journalist’s wrist. Another guard emerges from the bunker to record the execution on his mobile device.

The journalist sits for a moment, rubbing the wrist that was chained. He leans toward his compatriot. “Keep me alive by telling our story,” he urges. “Tell the world of two brave countrymen willing to die for each other.”

The bus pulled over. Passengers shuffled forward as the doors sighed open. The screenwriter had moved not a muscle during the telling. Now he looked at me.

“So, you’re the survivor,” he said.

Judgment flashed in his eyes, but I deserved far worse. I must finish, I thought. I must tell it all.

“Their country did not bargain with terrorists,” I reminded. “No, I was the guard, and I shot them both.”

The screenwriter blanched, recoiling as if my sins would scorch him.

But then he whispered, “But you were just a boy. You were following orders.”

I closed my eyes and savored that small grace—not forgiveness, that was impossible; but understanding. That was enough. And for one more moment, I had brought them back to life by telling their tale.


A former journalist, Kimberly Caldwell is a book editor who is working on her first novel.


Patreon keeps us going. You can be part of that.

Rate this story:
 average 0 stars • 0 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Not quite the ending I expected, but an engaging tale all the same. My one question is – was the journalist the ‘seious man’ the aid worker’s lover ran off with? It’s sort of implied by the journalist’s reaction and is the direction I thought the story was heading.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      How interesting! I can see how that might have made the journalist feel guilty enough to motivate him to attempt to rescue the aid worker. In my mind, though, the two prisoners do not know one another before the journalist witnesses the kidnapping. Guilt does motivate the journalist to attempt the rescue, but it is guilt over making money on the back of someone who seems totally altruistic. Thank you for reading the story and commenting!
    • S Conroy
      Funny, that flashed through my mind too, but I'm so glad that wasn't the story.
  • Paul A. Freeman

    Not quite the ending I expected, but an engaging tale all the same. My one question is – was the journalist the ‘seious man’ the aid worker’s lover ran off with? It’s sort of implied by the journalist’s reaction and is the direction I thought the story was heading.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      How interesting! I can see how that might have made the journalist feel guilty enough to motivate him to attempt to rescue the aid worker. In my mind, though, the two prisoners do not know one another before the journalist witnesses the kidnapping. Guilt does motivate the journalist to attempt the rescue, but it is guilt over making money on the back of someone who seems totally altruistic. Thank you for reading the story and commenting!
    • S Conroy
      Funny, that flashed through my mind too, but I'm so glad that wasn't the story.
  • Robert Kibble

    I loved it. Keep their story, and by extension them, alive is a lovely moment of poignancy. I’ll look out for more from you.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Thank you!
  • Robert Kibble

    I loved it. Keep their story, and by extension them, alive is a lovely moment of poignancy. I’ll look out for more from you.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Thank you!
  • MPmcgurty

    Very nice. The line “Their guard…listens to their conversation” combined with the nation not negotiating with terrorists could have given it away, but it didn’t for me. Well told.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Thank you. I appreciate your comments.
  • MPmcgurty

    Very nice. The line “Their guard…listens to their conversation” combined with the nation not negotiating with terrorists could have given it away, but it didn’t for me. Well told.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Thank you. I appreciate your comments.
  • S Conroy

    The ending turned this into a very different kind of story than it seemed to be. Really like when that happens. It made me go back to read again looking for clues. I wondered then when he said ‘it usually bore fruit’ if he had told his story many times before like a never-ending confession.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Yes. He needs to confess, even if the listener is repulsed by his story--but he hopes for understanding. And on this bus route, he has found understanding listeners. Maybe because many of them are students at the university. Thank you for your comments.
  • S Conroy

    The ending turned this into a very different kind of story than it seemed to be. Really like when that happens. It made me go back to read again looking for clues. I wondered then when he said ‘it usually bore fruit’ if he had told his story many times before like a never-ending confession.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Yes. He needs to confess, even if the listener is repulsed by his story--but he hopes for understanding. And on this bus route, he has found understanding listeners. Maybe because many of them are students at the university. Thank you for your comments.
  • Bud Clayman

    Hi Kimberly:

    This is a really good story with a great surprise ending. I read this four times but was still confused about something: how did the prisoners get free in the first place? In one sentence you have them linked to a post in the dog kennel like structure and then a few paragraphs down, the aid worker(prisoner) is unloading something.

    Here are the sentences that confuse me:

    First: Two prisoners sit side by side in chain-link cages—dog kennels, actually—the right hand of each is chained to a corner post.

    Then:

    The prisoners are countrymen. But they
    are strangers, united by chance at a refugee shelter in a foreign land.
    One man is an aid worker and the other, a journalist, there to take
    photos.
    The journalist sees a dusty Peugeot pull up beside the truck the aid worker is unloading.

    How can the aid worker be unloading something if he is chained to the other prisoner?

    Thanks for clarifying.

    Best,
    Bud

    • Joseph Kaufman
      Bud, I assume the author will step in if I am way off (as I often am), but I think there was an implied flashback in there. The recollection starts with the two men being imprisoned and then explains how they got there. They never escaped. They were both killed by the main character. Intriguing, though. What if the prisoners had been escaping when they were killed by the guard? Oh, word count!
      • Bud Clayman
        Got it, Joseph! Thanks! It was a flashback within a flashback, which is what confused me. My error and obviously not the author's. Thanks, Bud
        • Joseph Kaufman
          A reader's honest response to what he sees on the page is invaluable feedback for an author, in any case. So, thank you for taking the time to voice your thoughts.
          • Bud Clayman
            Thanks, Joseph! Best, Bud
          • Kimberly Caldwell
            Bud, thank you for raising the question, and Joseph, thank you for nailing the answer! It is indeed a flashback within a flashback, but Bud's confusion provides valuable insight for me. Thank you both for reading and commenting.
          • Bud Clayman
            You're welcome, Kimberly! Looking forward to reading more of your writing. Good luck with the novel! Best, Bud
  • Bud Clayman

    Hi Kimberly:

    This is a really good story with a great surprise ending. I read this four times but was still confused about something: how did the prisoners get free in the first place? In one sentence you have them linked to a post in the dog kennel like structure and then a few paragraphs down, the aid worker(prisoner) is unloading something.

    Here are the sentences that confuse me:

    First: Two prisoners sit side by side in chain-link cages—dog kennels, actually—the right hand of each is chained to a corner post.

    Then:

    The prisoners are countrymen. But they
    are strangers, united by chance at a refugee shelter in a foreign land.
    One man is an aid worker and the other, a journalist, there to take
    photos.
    The journalist sees a dusty Peugeot pull up beside the truck the aid worker is unloading.

    How can the aid worker be unloading something if he is chained to the other prisoner?

    Thanks for clarifying.

    Best,
    Bud

    • Joseph Kaufman
      Bud, I assume the author will step in if I am way off (as I often am), but I think there was an implied flashback in there. The recollection starts with the two men being imprisoned and then explains how they got there. They never escaped. They were both killed by the main character. Intriguing, though. What if the prisoners had been escaping when they were killed by the guard? Oh, word count!
      • Bud Clayman
        Got it, Joseph! Thanks! It was a flashback within a flashback, which is what confused me. My error and obviously not the author's. Thanks, Bud
        • Joseph Kaufman
          A reader's honest response to what he sees on the page is invaluable feedback for an author, in any case. So, thank you for taking the time to voice your thoughts.
          • Bud Clayman
            Thanks, Joseph! Best, Bud
          • Kimberly Caldwell
            Bud, thank you for raising the question, and Joseph, thank you for nailing the answer! It is indeed a flashback within a flashback, but Bud's confusion provides valuable insight for me. Thank you both for reading and commenting.
          • Bud Clayman
            You're welcome, Kimberly! Looking forward to reading more of your writing. Good luck with the novel! Best, Bud
  • Wonderful story, and great surprise ending. Not a twist, per se, but an unexpected, yet believable reveal.
    I didn’t care for the three deep flashback, and I think it could have been told in “live action” style, but as a whole, a tremendous story.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      A live action approach would be fun to play with. I might tinker with that.
  • Wonderful story, and great surprise ending. Not a twist, per se, but an unexpected, yet believable reveal.
    I didn’t care for the three deep flashback, and I think it could have been told in “live action” style, but as a whole, a tremendous story.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      A live action approach would be fun to play with. I might tinker with that.
  • I thought this was just a great story. My only confusion was the same as Bud’s (read his comments below), but the author clarified. It was minor anyway.

    The reveal at the end caught my by surprise, and it really brought the story full circle (excuse the cliche). A very enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Thank you for your comments.
  • I thought this was just a great story. My only confusion was the same as Bud’s (read his comments below), but the author clarified. It was minor anyway.

    The reveal at the end caught my by surprise, and it really brought the story full circle (excuse the cliche). A very enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Thank you for your comments.
  • Sally Nemenyi

    So powerful, moving and the ending … Wow! Just wonderful. I am a novice writer and would give anything to write like that!

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Sally, thank you! I'm very flattered!
  • Sally Nemenyi

    So powerful, moving and the ending … Wow! Just wonderful. I am a novice writer and would give anything to write like that!

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      Sally, thank you! I'm very flattered!
  • Netty net

    I like how they care about each other.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      They both do care about others and act on those feelings. Thank you for commenting!
  • Netty net

    I like how they care about each other.

    • Kimberly Caldwell
      They both do care about others and act on those feelings. Thank you for commenting!