When there is no light at the end of the tunnel, how do we get through it?
Many adopt a quote that helps them hold on. For Katie, it's "That which is endured is conquered."
Six Years After the Crash
Her prison cell was dark and dank.
Weak moonlight cut through the tiny barred window, barely casting a thin strip of a shadow on the sand-packed floor. The air lay still, silent and heavy, yet compared to the days of hundred-twenty-degree temperatures, it seemed blissfully cool.
In just a few hours, dawn would come and the desert heat would again turn her cell into an oven. Trapped between the walls in this armpit of hell, the heat swelled and seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the air. Day or night, Katie felt choked. Midday, she often spent strangling, and when the sandstorms came, the misery increased tenfold.
That which is endured is conquered.
She gently held the photo of her husband Sam and their children Molly and Jake. It was far too dark to see it, but that didn’t matter; she’d memorized its every detail. Though it made the ache in her heart so acute she swore it would kill her, each night she forced herself to remember every quirk and expression and sound they made, terrified if she missed even one night she’d forget and never again be able to recall them. She relived each memorable moment and the way it had made her feel, the way they had made her feel, at least a million times and prayed it would be enough to last her the rest of her life.
Eyes are unnecessary to view that stored in the heart.
The photo’s edges were frayed and the images worn smooth in places—one on Molly’s hair and one on Jake’s nose. Katie had always done that; stroked Molly’s hair, and dragged her fingertip down the slope of Jake’s nose. Back then she’d been comforting them. Now she stroked their photo trying to comfort herself.
In the last six years, there had been little comfort.
But there had been an abundance of nightmares.
Nightmares of the plane crash, of her injuries. The pain of setting her own broken bones. When she’d discovered she’d gone down in the lawless tribal area across the border from Pakistan, she’d known that there would be more pain to be suffered. And there had been. Much, much more pain suffered.
Despite the warlords’ bets that she wouldn’t last a week, she had endured and conquered every single violation. She had survived. Yet each abuse had created horrible images that didn’t fade from her memory on awakening. Images that ignited resentment and anger and made it burn as strong in her as the loneliness of isolation and the constant fear of what the sadistic combatants holding her prisoner would do to her next.
General Amid had been a godsend.
Still, it’d taken a couple years to come to grips with being left behind. C.D. had to be dead, or he would have found her by now. She still mourned him. Mourned losing Sam and their kids. Mourned having her life stripped away from her and being left with… this.
It’d taken a couple more years to give up hope of ever being rescued. But on the fifth anniversary of her crash and capture, she’d reached critical-crisis point: accept it or go insane. That night, alone in her cell, she had slogged her way through a minefield of emotions, latched onto a lingering spark of faith, and faced the truth. No one could reach her here. No one would even try—not anymore, if they ever had. Too much time had passed, and living in this cell, cleaning General Amid’s home, shopping for his personal household at the market—that was her life now, and likely that’s all it would ever be.
She refused to think about the general’s leaving. She just wasn’t that brave or that strong. Without his protection, the guards would revert to the way they’d treated her before he’d stepped in and that incited more nightmares, more withdrawing deeper and deeper inside herself, closing even more shutters in her mind, locking away the memories of torture to stay sane.
Yet on still August nights like this one, where she lay alone in her cell on a bare cot with but one thing of her own—the photo—she silently wept inside, crushed under the weight of her darkest fears. She would die in this awful place, still wearing her tattered flight suit because it made the guards feel superior and powerful to hold her—an American—captive. They preened and flaunted it daily. Had she been a man, they would have enjoyed flaunting it more. Being a pilot helped, hence the flight suit. But in their eyes, that didn’t make up for the fact she was a lowly woman. These tribal warlords did not respect women. Use them, yes, but women were regarded as totally expendable. The harsh reality was that she would die here just as surely as C.D. had died in the desert the night of the crash.
She would never again see Sam or Molly or Jake.
She would never again know the joy of watching them play while she worked in her beloved garden. It too likely stood as withered and overgrown as the day she’d first found it. Sam was not a master gardener. He wouldn’t even remember to water the lawn if it were not on an automatic sprinkler system. She had worked two years on that garden. But… Another harsh reality intruded, hitting her hard. Everything in her life ceased to be when she had ceased to be.
Except for Sam and the kids.
Yet even with the most heartfelt and resolute rationalization, she couldn’t convince herself that they weren’t gone from her life forever.
On her cot, she curled on her side, pulling her knees to her chest, trying to shut out despair. God, how long must I endure to conquer this? How long? If this is the way it’s to be, why am I here? I’m of no use to anyone. Why can’t I die, too? I don’t work without them. Nothing works without them. Please, just end this pain…
For the hundredth time that long, sorrowful night, she swallowed a sob and buried her hopelessness. The guard was apt to come in at any time, and she didn’t dare let him see her in tears. She’d made that mistake once early on and would kill herself before doing it again. He and the other guards had tortured her for six hours straight.
Shaking head to toe at the memory, she crossed her chest with her arms and squeezed. The sensation of pressure swept sweet relief through her body. She was awake, not asleep, not dreaming those haunting dreams. She had survived.
That which is endured is conquered.
Rubbing the U.S. flag patch on her sleeve, she wondered. What were the children doing? Was Sam home from the hospital, tucking them into bed, singing them night-night songs? Did he notice that Molly showed signs of being as psychic as Katie’s mother? Did he remember that she hated the crust on her sandwiches and Jake had to have orange juice every morning to jumpstart his sugar? Did Sam remember to kiss them good morning as well as good night? How often did he remember to tell them he loved them? He’d seldom slowed down long enough to give Katie the words, but love had always been there in his eyes. Always there in his eyes. Molly would sense that. But would Jake? Would her babies be secure in the knowledge they were loved?
A tear splashed onto Katie’s cheek and her heart ached. God, how can I keep taking this, day after day? Please, please let what happened today matter. Please let that French doctor report seeing me.
He had seen her. Hadn’t he? He definitely had made eye contact, been startled and quickly covered it up, then pretended not to have noticed her at all.
General Amid, who ran the prison camp, had sent her to the market for his fresh vegetables. There was no danger of her running away. There was nowhere to run and no one to run to, and anyone foolish enough to try would die in the desert or be slaughtered by the lawless hiding out in the region. Either way, the runner would be dead long before reaching help. In the market, there had been a small group of medical workers treating the sick, passing out medicine… That’s where she’d seen the French doctor. He had to have reported seeing her…
But nothing happened that night to verify it.
Katie consoled herself. It took time to notify people. Time to identify her and to debate options on what to do. Time to plan a mission in hostile territory. Warning herself she was being a fool, she couldn’t seem to stop hope from flickering to life inside her.
Nothing happened the next night, either, and doubt seeped in. Maybe she’d just seen what she’d wanted to see, and the Frenchman hadn’t noticed her at all. Or maybe it was just taking a little longer to get the wheels moving. It had to be taking just a little while longer…
But a week later, when still nothing had happened, her certainty disappeared. The Frenchman hadn’t noticed her, or if he had, he’d chosen to ignore seeing her or he’d thought nothing of it.
The most important glimpse of her life—but to him it’d been too insignificant to even notice.
You’ve got to stop this, Katie. Stop hoping. It’s insane. Nothing is going to happen. Keep hoping, and how are you going to handle the letdown? Hope is a luxury you can’t afford.
She paced her cell in the darkness, bitterness burning her throat, her chest so tight she could barely breathe. Die hope. She pushed a fisted hand over her heart. Die!
And whether it did, or it was buried so deep she couldn’t feel it anymore, she put the Frenchman from her mind, locking him behind the shutter to forget him, too, and then returned to stroking her worn photograph in the sweltering heat, missing Sam and the kids, mourning C.D., and scrubbing General Amid’s quarters, longing for her weekly bath and swearing she’d trade her eye teeth for a hamburger, cola, or a bottle of skin lotion. And conditioner for her hair. She squeezed her eyes shut and indulged in heartfelt longing. She’d give a molar for one squirt of conditioner. Just one…
While she hadn’t dared to hope, she had put herself in General Amid’s presence as often as possible, in case he wanted to send her back to the market. The medical workers still being around was highly unlikely, but it wasn’t impossible.
Yet whether or not they remained close by quickly became a moot point. The General watched her with an odd look in his eyes, but he never sent her back to the market. Instead, just before she was to return to her cell one night, he stopped her. “Katie,” he said. “I am to be transferred to a new prison soon.”
Fear sliced through her heart like a knife and she had to fight to find her voice. “Will you take me with you?”
Regret burned in his eyes. “I am sorry. That is not possible.”
Disappointment raised terror and tears clogged her throat. She couldn’t speak, and so she nodded. He would leave, and things would return to the way they had been before he had learned what was happening to her. Inside, she chilled to ice, nearly froze with panic. Oh, God. I can’t stand it again. I can’t.
Shutter, Katie. Shutter. That which is endured…
“I am sorry,” he whispered. “I have done all I can do to protect you.”
He had. Here, and maybe in sending her to the market. Maybe he’d meant for her to be seen. On the chance he had, gratitude swelled and her chin quivered. She cleared her throat to hide it. “Thank you.”
He too had given up hope. She was lost. Lost, hopeless and defeated.
Knowing it, she walked the dark pathway back to her cell. The defeat had her despairing, but even more than despairing, she was terrified. She had been trained to die with dignity, but she had not been trained to live long-term like this. Not like this…
Long after midnight that night—exactly two weeks after she’d seen the Frenchman in the market—Katie paced her four-foot wide cell until her feet ached and then collapsed onto her cot, exhausted. Her stomach growled. She hadn’t been fed since yesterday, and she hadn’t been able to steal anything from General Amid’s. If he ever noticed food missing, he never mentioned it. But she didn’t flaunt stealing his food in his face, either.
Holding the photo over her heart, she ignored her rumbling stomach, closed her eyes and shut down her mind.
For the first night since she’d seen the Frenchman, she didn’t drift to sleep seeing his face in her mind. Every other night, she had alternated between praying he’d think of her and the thought of her would nag at him until he did something to help her, and cursing him for not being more aware, seeing her and doing something to set her free. But this night, she didn’t think of him at all. General Amid, the man whose protection had kept her alive and safe, whose food had kept her from starving to death, was leaving. A new commander would take his place and things would return to what they had been.
She would be dead within a month.
If God was merciful, sooner…
A scuffle started outside her cell door.
Katie awakened abruptly. Every nerve in her body sizzled, hyper-alert and warning her to hide, but she forced herself to stay perfectly still. For her own protection, and until she discovered what was going on, she best served herself by not letting anyone know she was awake.
“Colonel Katherine Slater?” a man said in a crisp, sharp voice.
Colonel? She didn’t respond. It could be a setup for torture.
A second man’s hushed voice carried through the bars to her. “Call her Captain, Dan. She doesn’t realize she’s been promoted.”
Katie stiffened. As a P.O.W. she would automatically be promoted, but the enemy knew that as well. And Americans considered her dead. Unless the Frenchman… She stifled a gasp. Oh, God! Was it possible?
“Captain Slater,” the first man said, then recited her code word that only she and her superior officer knew.
American! He had to be an American! She sat straight up. “Yes? Yes, it’s me.” She strained to see him, but it was a moonless night, and she could barely make out his silhouette. What did this mean? Had they engaged the tribal warlords in the lawless area and been taken prisoner, too?
“Captain Daniel Wade, ma’am,” he said, his husky voice catching. “We’re here to take you home...”
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