Unfollowers: Chapter One

Unfollowers: Chapter One

Time Breaks Sometimes

Barb Matheson has her feet in two worlds: the mission in Ethiopia where she grew up and the Pennsylvania town she resides in as a pastor’s wife. The feeling of not belonging—either in the first world or the third—has dogged her for as long as she can remember, whether she’s with her husband or her lover. The characters in this novel must negotiate their own balance: between White America and Ethiopia, between the warble of the Standing Rock Reservation and the straight tones of Western Christianity, between enforced and authentic kindness, between rules and grace.

Chapter One
May 1978

Barb Eklund didn’t choose where she was born. She knew no one could. But her birthplace, instead of being something she was passingly grateful for, became a regret lodged between her ribs like the pain of a torn intercostal. Her parents brought her from Maryland to rural Ethiopia when she was four. Barb didn’t understand what she was leaving behind when she boarded the plane: her stuffed cat Oscar, the season of winter, or the red bike with training wheels she rode when winter was in abeyance.

Any sadness was short-lived. The scenery around the Welete mission—hills upon hills of vibrant red soil, the steep banks of the Omo River, the groves of unfamiliar trees and flocks of odd birds—extinguished her guttering homesickness. There were too many buildings to explore. The gatehouse. The office. The refectory. The schoolhouse that doubled as the church, its mud walls and tin roof just like the homes in the village. The hangar and its Cessna, that magnificent growling machine that popped in and out of the clouds like magic. The missionaries’ bungalows were larger than her parents’ cramped apartment in Baltimore, with raised foundations, shingled roofs, porches, and plastered walls. They had no kitchen or running water, just three rooms. Everyone relied on kerosene lamps, and that was part of the fun.

It was the middle of the Red Terror. Ethiopia was ruled by the Derg and led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, deposer of Ras Tafari. Barb pictured Mengistu angry and brooding atop a throne in Addis Ababa, a five-hour drive, but a world away to her in 1978. She was more concerned with being alone. It took a year to find a friend among the village children. Makeda was the only other five-year-old girl and the only girl of any age who didn’t call Barb ferenji to her face.

They met during morning lessons. Barb sat in the last row behind a barricade of her textbooks. She kept her head down, her pencil moving while Marty, her mother, spoke in a tangle of English, Amharic, and Oromo. (Simeon, her father, taught boys in the other classroom.) Makeda’s hair was plaited in rows along her scalp and one of her bottom teeth was chipped. She was undeterred by Barb’s scholastic front. She sat directly in front of Barb, turned around, and said, “Hello. How are you?” in painstaking English. The question felt like a prelude to more ridicule, but Barb answered anyway.

“Dehna negn. I’m fine.”

Makeda pulled a bean out of her dress pocket. “We play!” She mimed what looked like feeding chickens. Barb nodded without understanding, and Makeda, pleased, turned back around, furtively glancing over her shoulder and grinning whenever Marty wrote on the board.

From that day on, Makeda would tug Barb away from lunch and lead her to the grove of coffee trees on the mission, where she taught Barb how to spot and flush mole vipers, to feed the ibises, and, most importantly, to play mancala with beans stolen from their mothers’ provisions. The player who collected the most beans at the end of the game won. That player was invariably Barb until Makeda started bringing extra beans and sitting on them. When the game was over, she discreetly deposited them in her stash. Barb argued that she wasn’t playing by the rules. Makeda laughed. Barb didn’t understand why—had she been wrong in her insistence on fairness? that cheating was a “sin”?—but Makeda was already onto something else.

They didn’t trade pieces of glass like the other children, but languages—flower for abeba, mountain for horeb, coffee tree for bunna-zaff. Sometimes Barb told Bible stories, but she’d rather listen to Makeda’s tales stolen from the medicine man—about the Rat King’s Son; the man who grew feathers; the budas, who wielded the power of the evil eye. Barb’s favorite story was about Kaldi’s dancing goats. It made her hold the coffee berries in reverence. They were smooth and dense like the pearls in her mother’s necklace—the Eklunds hadn’t brought much with them, two suitcases of clothes and books, pocket Bibles stuffed in every crevice, but the thing of most value was the necklace that Marty had tucked between her breasts and her underwire until customs was cleared. They carved out a place to stash the pearls in the plaster of their bungalow and covered the hole with a beading of the twenty-third Psalm. Barb watched the coffee berries for any sign of magic until she grew bored and crushed them between her fingers.

When the sun reached its peak, she elbowed Makeda and jerked a thumb toward the schoolhouse. Nothing in Ethiopia started on time, but Barb knew not to try Marty’s patience. The girls raced back. If they returned to class with hands sticky and uniforms stained, her mother would hiss out a sigh, but Barb’s need for friendship eclipsed her inclination to lead by example.

Makeda and the other village children vanished after the mission gates closed, leaving Barb to wander the grounds alone (Simeon only rarely joined her) looking for bugs and trees to draw in the sketchpad she got from the Bjornstads, the couple who took care of the chickens. Certain days Barb made a game of turning over rocks. Some undersides surprised her with imprints of pinnules: tiny, encoded messages that had taken millennia to read Barb. Sent from where? she wondered and squinted at the sky in search of a sign from God.

These aimless evenings disappeared when she was nine-and-a-half. Jeff, the mission pilot, transferred, and Barb considered this an open invitation to explore the hangar. From the outside, it was an aluminum eyesore, but inside she found walls lined with an alphabet of tools: clamps in the shape of cs, iron tubes bent into ls, a hinged device like a w. She gazed at os and us and is, trying to translate their uses like Daniel had the message in Belshazzar’s dining hall. She wondered if the tools’ functions were as threatening as the writing on the wall: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. God has numbered the days of your kingdom.

Behind an unlocked door in the back sat a room for the mission pilot. There was little inside: a dresser, a bed, and a mosquito net. She didn’t search the dresser—it felt too much like trespassing—but turned her attention to that growling glory, the Cessna. The plane delivered food, something Marty called pro-fill-act-ticks, and the Good News to nearby villages, roaming the hills like the hyenas that scavenged them. The plane felt just as wild. Barb peeled up the dust cover just enough to slip inside and examine the dashboard, a composite of dials and levers whose possibilities were just as arresting as the tools. She often returned to the cockpit with a book and her sketchpad. The book, usually an L. M. Montgomery from her mother’s collection, she read with her legs stretched across the seats, taking great care not to disturb the throttle or switches. The sketchpad she filled with scenes of animals—trout slipping through the currents of the Omo; a viper swallowing one of its babies under the lettuce patch; two hooded vultures fighting over a lifeless jackal, their wings casting sickly shadows along the grass—and portraits of the missionaries. She tried to pin down the puckered expression of Reverend Nilsson or Mrs. Bjornstad’s smile between a set of dimples like parentheses. Barb conserved paper by confining these drawings to corners, as though each had retreated to its own cockpit for privacy.

Her secret evenings ended after she turned ten and the replacement pilot arrived. Declan Kline wore a wrinkled button-down and a pair of Wranglers to his welcome dinner, a traditional Ethiopian spread of wats, or stews, eaten on top of and with the sour flatbread injera. He nodded as those around the refectory table offered their names—the Eklunds, the Nilssons, the Bjornstads—and was mute the rest of the night except when Marty asked his age (twenty) and where he’d grown up.

“Atlanta, ma’am.” He glanced up from his food.

“Just call me Marty.” Her voice was cheerful, but Barb noticed her lips tighten.

Dinners continued this way for the rest of the week. Barb sipped her atmet, a local drink no other missionary seemed to enjoy, and divvied up her time between stealing looks at Declan and avoiding his eyes. Marty seemed suspicious of his silence, but Barb saw it as an indication that he hadn’t been happy for a long time. Perhaps it was why his shoulders sagged—hanger shoulders, her mother called them—or the skin pinched between his brows. He always seemed to be working out a problem. Barb felt an instant kinship. She wondered if she had the power to fix what was broken in him. He cleared his throat to speak one evening and she jumped in her seat.

He asked whether the old pilot had left any paperwork in the Cessna.

“What do you mean?” Simeon asked.

“I checked the cockpit today. Found some personal papers under the seats.” He looked about to go on but thought better of it. Barb suddenly remembered the two drawings that had come loose from the sketchpad binding: one of Makeda climbing the bunna-zaff; the other of the mission’s Leghorn rooster, its eye never accurate enough for her liking. Both sketches must have slipped out as she scrambled from the cockpit one night.

Reverend Nilsson assured Declan, “Jeff didn’t leave anything behind.”

“No one’s touched the hangar since,” Simeon added with a lopsided grin, an expression he usually reserved for chickens and children. “I should probably apologize for the dust.”

Declan searched the faces at the table until his gaze settled on Barb. She trained her eyes on an ort of injera on her plate. The red broth from her stew seeped across the bread’s surface like blood from a fresh wound.

“Never mind then,” he said.

“If you need a copilot,” the Reverend said, “I’m willing and able.”

“Might take you up on that.”

Barb saw Marty clutch her napkin. The Bjornstads noticed, too, and changed the subject to the state of the runway—just a swath of unkempt grass now.

“Get the villagers to bring in their goats,” Simeon suggested, but Barb had already stopped listening.

After dinner, she felt a tug at her sleeve. It was Declan, who nodded in the direction of the porch. She suddenly felt the way Anne Shirley must have when Gilbert asked her to marry him (the second time, after the typhus). Happiness broke over her like a wave. Wasn’t that it?

When they were out of earshot, he asked, “You know about those drawings?”

Her guilt tempered the thrill of a clandestine meeting. She looked at her dirty toes on the porch’s weathered slats. She and Marty fought about Barb going barefoot and getting hookworm but—with Simeon’s encouragement—had come to a compromise: bare feet indoors only. Here on the porch, a meter from the scrub grass, the rule’s threat materialized as suddenly as thunderclouds in the wet season. God was always watching, after all.

“Just want to know how you got in.” Declan rubbed his hands in a way that reminded her of the beggars at the markato in Jimma, as though his livelihood depended on her.

“I wiggled the doors apart.” It was a technique Makeda had taught her. Barb wasn’t sure if Declan would approve, but her body mutinied at falsehood: her eyes, voice, and posture always gave her away. Besides, lying was wrong.

He stood silent long enough that Barb wondered if the conversation was over. Then he said, “You can visit if you want. The doors are open now.”

She ventured to look up and was pleased to find him smiling, a pleasure that invited embarrassment. But then his face was in shadow, the light from the doorway blocked by Reverend Nilsson and her father.

“How’d she fly today?” the Reverend asked while Simeon ushered her inside, his grip on her arm surprisingly tight, so unlike the ethereal tug Declan had given her sleeve.

“You know what your mother says about shoes, even on the porch,” Simeon warned. But his eyes betrayed him. Barb felt like the target of a rescue operation, not a reprimand.

She accepted Declan’s invitation to the hangar the next evening, happy she no longer had to sneak in. (The guilt was only fun for a moment.) She found him at the worktable newly littered with parts, his eyes on a wallet-sized photo that disappeared when she knocked. He smiled at her again, a slight twitching at the corners of his mouth, before reaching into a drawer to retrieve the sketches. “Next time sign your work.”

“Thanks, sir.” She took the sketches carefully, disappointed their hands didn’t brush like those of the protagonists in her favorite books. The rooster leered at her with its lopsided eye.

“You’re awful polite for someone who creeps into cockpits.” He scratched his chin where a five-o’clock shadow had formed. She couldn’t tell if he, too, was disappointed or just bemused.

“Sit?” He gestured to the wall, where the Cessna’s back seat stood anticipating an audience. For better or worse, this was what Barb became. Each evening she occupied the seat, except when the Reverend and Declan returned late. She studied the movements of Declan’s hands tuning the plane’s engine or unloading its cargo and drew in her sketchpad or, with her big toe, wrote names in the dust on the floor. Once she asked, “How do you spell ‘Declan’?” and when he answered, “What does it mean?”

“Beats me. Extreme screw-up?” He smiled at the ball bearing he was wiping down.

“Know what Barb means?”

“I have my guesses.” He tossed her the rag, which she dodged. He didn’t elaborate.

“It means ‘foreign.’”


“Like ferenji. I hate it. She crossed her arms.

“Huh. Thought it was short for Barb Wire.”

“You’re joking.” His face gave nothing away. She pictured the stuff on the fences that surrounded the mission, along with the birds small enough to land on it.

“This is gonna be loud, Barb Wire.”

She reached for the earmuffs next to her as he slipped into the pilot’s seat. A moment later the engine and propeller roared to life. He always warned her of loud noises, not wanting to startle her like he had at dinner or like the ibises did when they took flight. Their wattles hung limp from their beaks, one appendance a parody of the other. If one of the birds gave its brusque cry—crrk-haa-haa—Declan, startled himself, would swallow a curse.

“Y’all look like the goddamn devil,” she once heard him mutter.

Barb had grown used to his curses and proud she was the only one privy to them. She wasn’t even sure God minded. Still, she worried someone would hear and put an end to their rendezvous, so she argued. “The ibises are nice. I’ve fed them.”

“Anything you feed will be nice to you, Barb. Don’t you know that?”

She paused, picking at a frayed seam on the row of seats. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“Why?” He sat next to her.

She suddenly felt warm. “You’re nice to me. I don’t feed you.”

“You’re twisting what I said.” He half-smiled. “People are different. ‘Times you feed them as much as you want—they’ll still hate you.”

He held her gaze and she ripped through the seam.

He always kept his hair trimmed. The longer it was, the more it stuck out, black tufts with two cowlicks in the back. His skin was darker than the other missionaries’, though Marty and Barb were close seconds. Sometimes Barb held her arm against his to compare. He laughed the first time she did it.

“We’re better suited to the sun than the Bjornstads, yeah?”

“Is that a thing?

He kept smiling. “Where the others burn, we just toast.”

She liked that.

Declan never told her parents she’d snuck into the hangar when it was empty—she would have heard about it if he had. She wasn’t sure if he acted out of loyalty to her (she hoped) or out of distrust of the other missionaries. She noticed he had two voices: one that made jokes when they were alone and another that held a quiet rage when he was with the adults.

“He has a chip on his shoulder,” Marty complained to Simeon, who shrugged.

“Most men his age do. Remember me in the Coast Guard.” Marty appeared about to argue but looked at her daughter and reconsidered. Barb was used to her parents avoiding the past. As an adult she would believe that she wasn’t the kind of person to tell secrets to, no matter how desperately she wished to procure them. Declan seemed the exception. He spoke to her like an equal, not a nuisance; only ten-and-a-half years separated them, half that between her and her parents. One evening, he looked particularly thoughtful sitting next to her, his eyes fixed on a distant point. Barb knew he was about to reveal his own secret.

“Must be hard, Barb Wire. To be alone here. No other kids around.”

Barb set aside her project of arranging ears of corn to hang from his door. “There’s Makeda. No one else is really”—she searched for a word that would be fair but true—“nice.”

“I had a friend like that once. Rod Granger. Called him the Man of Steel like Superman.”

“Who’s Superman?”

“Big, tough good guy. Rod had these intense arms.” Declan flexed his biceps and scrunched his mouth. Barb smiled, too nervous to laugh. “His name was already Rod. I don’t know why we belabored the point.”

“So the other kids—they weren’t nice to you either?”

“Kids. Yeah.” He clasped his hands behind his head. “I wasn’t in a good place. Before the mission I was lost, no matter who I followed. You ever feel that?”

Barb wanted to say, yes, always, to confirm their solidarity, but it wasn’t true for her. Maybe later it would be. Maybe in Declan’s posture now—head thrown back, eyes closed—she was seeing her future. “I don’t feel lost with Makeda or with my sketches and books.” She paused. “And I don’t feel lost here—in the hangar.”

He opened his eyes. His gaze felt like a warm breeze wrapping firmly around her shoulders in the grove. Almost like God.

“Good. That’s good.” He stood and slapped his knees, on to another thing.


Famine hit during the first year Declan was on the mission. Barb wondered if his movement across the Atlantic had upset some cosmic balance. The last famine struck the year Barb was born, and she was unable to keep herself from ascribing meaning. She couldn’t figure out why, in God’s Plan, her life and Declan’s were connected to the starvation of a country.

Makeda spoke of the famine as a purging. “It’s happened before. It will happen again. The medicine man warns us not to attend your services. He says, ‘A bird hanging between two branches will get bitten on both wings.’”

“The famine’s a punishment for the mission?” Barb was just superstitious enough to believe the medicine man.

Makeda shook her head. “For those weak enough to come here for help.”

Barb felt the pain in her ribs. Her father and Reverend Nilsson had discussed the famine in conjunction with supply and demand at dinner earlier that week. Barb knew what a drop in attendance at worship services could mean. “Will you stop coming to school?”

Makeda laughed. “Mother says, ‘Only the man who isn’t hungry says the coconut has a hard shell.’”

Barb’s relief lasted only a moment. “But the famine is—”

“It’s a bad omen, Bar-bra. Of course. It’s punishment for the Derg.” Makeda stopped herself. Barb knew why. Mengistu—like God—seemed to have eyes everywhere. “Ethiopia tikdem,” Makeda whispered like a talisman. It was what the Derg had them chant at school.

“Ethiopia first,” Barb repeated and meant it.

Second only to God and the Derg was her mother. But Marty, for all her distrust of Declan, seemed unthreatened by Barb’s hangar visits. Maybe because he always got her to dinner on time. Sometimes she trailed behind and stared at the hat he wore backward. The Atlanta Hawk fixed her with its beady stare. She had been near Atlanta once—at a homestay in Decatur. It was during her family’s first furlough, one of the sabbaticals that punctuated their lives on the mission every three years, when missionaries returned home to reunite with family and old friends and to solicit money from churches in the States. Barb dreaded these furloughs as much as her parents welcomed them. She wished she could be like Declan, who skipped them for a bonus. They wore her out but, more pressing, she feared that anyone left in Welete would be lost when she returned. This had first been true of Desta, the aide at the school, and next of Berhanu, the zebunya at the mission’s gatehouse. On her second furlough, when Barb was twelve, she counted down the days until, suddenly, she was on the plane headed home. She was anxious to lay eyes on both Makeda and Declan. She burst from the jeep as it pulled up to the mission office and ran to the hangar, ignoring her mother’s admonition to not “bother Mr. Kline!”

The doors were open. As Declan came into view, he smiled and crouched. She ran to his arms, stopping just short of hugging him. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to cry with relief. When they opened again, his smile had disappeared.

“Don’t worry. Be happy,” she said, still breathless. “That’s a song in America.”

His hand was on her shoulder, his eyes searching her face. Maybe her tears were confusing him. “Have you heard?”

Barb’s first thought was that he was going to surprise her with wonderful news—she didn’t dare imagine what—but his face told her something was wrong. She shrugged off his hand, hating the sudden feeling of powerlessness.

“Tell me!” She’d gone from ecstatic to wary to angry so quickly she felt guilty.

“I thought your parents already had. It’s your friend.”

Makeda had moved to Nekemte, a four-and-a-half-hour drive northwest, to be with her aunt. Declan pulled Anne of Green Gables from his worktable, which she’d leant to Makeda before the furlough. Barb wondered if Makeda had even read it. Her ribs ached. She wondered if her ties to Welete had only ever been ties to Makeda.

Declan had stopped talking. Even this close to him Barb felt scared. “She was my sister.”

“I know.”

How could he know? She wondered if he, too, had a sister who’d been plucked away, but that seemed impossible. She looked at him hard. “Don’t ever disappear.” She wasn’t a demanding child, but she demanded this. “Promise.”

His nod was barely there.

Maybe Ethiopia was a catalyst for disappearance: even the Derg disappeared when Barb was fourteen, though Mengistu remained President, but Declan’s promise held. While other mission workers came and went, he remained as though nailed to the hangar wall between the metallic alphabet and the Cessna’s spare propeller.

The Eklunds’ third furlough was even more unbearable. Barb was sixteen and it was as if the furlough coordinators had requested homestays with other teenagers, teenagers who did little more than sneak time in front of MTV or on their new Game Boys. They excluded her and then delighted in her ignorance, so she made herself scarce. In each new town, she prayed to be placed with empty nesters, but it never happened. She would have written to Declan about it, but why should he care about these problems while he was busy doing the Good Work? Her parents just told her to make friends. She tried, even telling one girl, Julie, about Declan. Julie had clapped her hands enthusiastically and accused Barb of having “a crush,” only to grow suspicious when she learned Declan’s age. In that moment Barb wasn’t just uncomfortable in America. She hated what it did to people without their knowing, its seeming perversion of their humanity. America meant fundraising—each week spent kowtowing to a different congregation—and billboards that ordered her around wherever she went: Wisconsin welcomes you! Enjoy your stay! Eat at Denny’s! even Fix Your Smile! outside an orthodontist’s.

Part of the furlough was spent at her parents’ college reunion and Marty started dropping hints about Barb attending as a freshman—hints she ignored. Back on the mission, she cloistered herself in her room to avoid the subject, where she read from Marty’s box of classics. She saw less of Declan. It was like she’d forgotten how to act around him, so different from when she rushed to greet him after her last furlough. There was something inside her that wanted him close, but that girl Julie’s voice told her it was hopeless—that he only thought of her as a kid.

One hot afternoon in May, when she was just starting Moby Dick, he appeared in her doorway, wearing a once white undershirt. Stains collected there and on his hat, but the black that streaked his neck and cheeks was faint, like he had tried rubbing the oil off with a rag. He leaned against the doorway. “Today’s the Obi trip. Wanna come?”

She marked her sentence before looking up. “What did my parents say?”
“Your dad thinks it’s a great idea.” He didn’t mention Marty.

“You don’t need a copilot with a license?” Reverend Nilsson held that position until three years ago.

“You’re company enough.”

She was glad to see his smirk and clapped the book shut before following him outside. The invitation meant she would get a bird’s-eye view of the countryside, all the villages she prayed for on Sundays but had never seen up close. “Do you go to Nekemte?”

He looked at her long enough to make clear he knew why she asked. “Too far north.” He pointed up, as though the village were in the clouds. She tried to hide her disappointment.

She was used to flying in the back seat when she and her parents were being taxied to the airport in Addis. Being in front reminded her of those ten months she had the cockpit to herself. She learned that flying was less about freedom and more about approved altitudes. Declan prided himself on applying for permits well in advance. It was his purpose on the mission, after all, to provide the villages of Oromia with all kinds of provisions and tracts in local dialects, even if many of the villagers couldn’t read. “Kindness is more important,” he explained with a shrug.

Their weekly flights suspended the inevitability of college somewhere between the ground and the sky. Her thoughts filled with drag and lift, flaps and ailerons, call signs and manifests as she watched the Omo River glissade through the hills. When Declan wasn’t on the radio, she read aloud from the abridged Moby Dick and studied him in her periphery.

“Your parents ever mention me?” he once asked. “The Nilssons?” He glanced at her but then fixed his eyes on the mountains.

“They wouldn’t be caught dead gossiping.” But Barb wasn’t sure: gossiping within earshot of the only kid on the mission being one thing and around themselves another.

“They don’t like me.”

“How do you know?” she asked, though she’d sensed the same thing ever since Marty shied from him at dinner that first night.

“My file.” He immediately regretted saying it. It was true that all the missionaries had medical records and intake interviews housed in the office. No one read them.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it feels like we just brought America with us.”

Barb straightened against her seat. “Don’t say that.”

“Yeah, yeah. You and America don’t get along.”

“Every time we’re there I get sick. I’ve thrown up in every rental car, I swear.”

“You shouldn’t swear.” He smirked. “You told me about the ice cream in Lubbock at least.”

“Because that was the worst time.”

“Why? Did a cute boy see you?”

His comment stalled her. “No.” She pressed her forehead against the window and felt the vibration of the engine. “My parents want me to leave sooner now—stay with an uncle in Idaho to finish high school. I don’t remember Idaho.”

“It’s Mengistu. The people are rising up.” His face tensed as he worked the throttle. “They’re just worried.”

She knew he was right. Lingering famine had led to insurrections among rival coalitions that threatened Mengistu’s power, and a takeover would lead to war. It irked her to fall victim to her parents’ superior knowledge: of God’s Plan, of Ethiopian politics, of her future. She hoped Declan would defend her because, of course, he would miss her when she was gone.

“I won’t leave,” she tested him.

“We all go back eventually.”

“Not you.”

He half-laughed. “I don’t have a reason.”

“Well, neither do I.”

“You don’t know whether you do. You’re too young.”

“Blaming my age. Hardly fair.” But he had confirmed her fears—she was a child to him. He sighed. The crease on his forehead fell away, but the tight line of his mouth remained.

Their flights in the Cessna continued, as did Barb’s avoidance of her parents. When her mother dared bring up college—in front of the schoolhouse, over meals in the refectory, during trips to the markato—Barb was reduced to shouting. But it was useless. They may have decided against Idaho, but she was destined to leave for college in August of her eighteenth year.


She spent her last morning on the mission in the hangar. Declan was readying the Cessna to fly her family to Addis, where she would board her flight to O’Hare: twenty hours aloft and alone. He had received permission to fly five weeks ago, five weeks that had felt like a forced march to a cliff, a bayonet arching her back. Mengistu himself fled to Zimbabwe in May, leaving Ethiopia to its squabbling factions, which meant an uncertain future for the mission.

“You’re getting out just in time, Barb Wire.” Declan loaded her suitcase while she stared at the tools on the wall that had lost their allure once she’d seen Declan’s mastery over them. She helped return the back seat to the Cessna. The significance of packing away her old vantage point wasn’t lost on her. She hugged herself when her hands were free, as though they were already in the air and he’d dipped the plane without warning.

“God will go with you,” he said in Oromo, which only made it hurt more.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Come on. America won’t kill you.”

She sneered but remembered this might be their last meeting. “Can we write letters?”

He just wiped the collar of his shirt across his mouth.

“Have you ever seen Chicago?”

“Visited an aunt there once.”

“Maybe I could meet her,” she said, though the visit was already doomed. Declan never mentioned his family, never made a point of writing them, not even at Christmas.

“You know,” she began, “I didn’t read your file.”

“Because you’re kind like that.”

“I thought you’d just tell me. I was waiting, logging all those hours in the air.” His eyes were trained on a washer near the worktable, probably from one of the coffee-can cars they made when she was eleven. “I thought you’d trust me.”

“I do.”

She straightened her shoulders. “Then tell me.”

Instead, he crushed her against the fuselage and kissed her.

They parted moments later at the sound of voices outside the hangar, but for Barb, the kiss continued for hours. On the quick flight to the airport, Marty asked if she was excited to be going. “You seem strange.”

“Nervous.” She could remember nothing past Declan’s salty mouth on hers, his hand on her neck, and what he’d whispered as they parted: I shot someone, Barb Wire. The confession started a humming in her stomach that disappeared only when she was halfway over the Atlantic.

About the Author

Leigh Ann Ruggiero

Leigh Ann Ruggiero attended schools in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Maryland before moving to Montana, where she teaches literature and writing and can finally stargaze without the interference of light pollution.

Read more work by Leigh Ann Ruggiero.