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.

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Every Day Fiction