Thank goodness for my critique partners, Kay Beckett and Maya Darjani. They gave me solid advice, edited my comma splices (I don’t even know what a comma splice is!), and helped me get my way-over-word-count story under control.

This is why critique partners are invaluable, and I’m not talking about your spouse or best friend. Find someone who will give you constructive criticism, not just tell you they loved it. Other writers are the best at this, in my opinion. I run a critique group every Monday night at the public library branch where I work. The group is comprised of writers of all forms and genres: poetry, non-fiction, memoir, novels, shorty stories, we’ve even had a song writer. They don’t all write what I write but they each bring a unique perspective to a critique.

Back to my Writer in Motion critique. They pinpointed my flaws and led me to a draft 3 that is much stronger (and shorter!).

Not the Grand Tetons – Draft 3

The photo of the Grand Tetons in the National Park book Elly perused, reminded her of that rusty Airbnb she and Al rented one weekend in the Adirondacks. Advertised as a yurt, the pictures looked lovely, the reviews were great and they looked forward to a quiet retreat to read. When they arrived they were greeted with a shed-sized, concrete building – nothing soft, round or yurt-like. They made the best of it. Damn she missed Al. At least, for a moment, she remembered happier times.

            She ripped the photo out of the book and stuffed it in her bag. As a librarian she never dreamed she’d destroy library books but she was no longer a librarian–she was simply a survivor.

            Five years into the pandemic and the government decided to empty every city. So many had died, Al included. Officials assured every Remainer in New York, Boston and D.C. would easily fit inside Kansas.

            “Did you find anything, Elly?” Jackson asked on her return.

            Dropping her knapsack, Elly pulled out a box of bandages, a tube of triple antibiotic ointment, three rolls of paper towel and a Motor Trend magazine. She tossed the magazine to Jackson.

            “Not too much today but you’ll like this.”

            Elly and Jackson met on the bus going west. With his salt and pepper hair, love of classic rock bands, and muscle cars, the sixty-seven year-old Jackson reminded Elly of her oldest brother, also gone.

            Jackson stared at the magazine. “Motor Trend with a 2015 Camaro on the cover. What a beauty. Where did you find this?”

            “In the library. Just like the others.”

            It took five days for the buses filled with Remainers from cities along the east coast, to reach Columbia, Missouri. Each passenger had been given thorough exams, background checked and DNA tested. They had to pass each step to qualify for the relocation program.

Rumors spread at every rest stop: there would be no room for them; they were going to prison camps; they’d been tagged during the DNA test, and Kansas only held danger. Elly never bought into conspiracy theories but nonetheless erred on the side of caution. She’d found a kindred soul next to her on the trip west and together they decided to run at the next stop.

Relieved it was Columbia, Elly knew the city from her years living in St. Louis. Great college town, lots of libraries. They put their plan into action as soon as the bus arrived. They grabbed their carry-on and headed toward the restrooms. Each stayed in a stall until the bus left. Seemed too easy but it worked. Six months later they lived in a dorm filled with squatters, and scavenged for supplies.

Loud voices filled the hallway as Elly put away the last roll of paper towel. She’d devised a Franklin mirror months ago so they could investigate any disturbance before they ever opened their door.

Jackson peered into the mirror. “Three armed men heading our way.”

            She had a revolver at the ready, a gift from Al. Jackson had rigged up a device to hurl household objects at any intruder. He watched through the mirror as the men threw people against the wall and showed them the clipboard. Bob Down-The-Hall, pointed in their direction.

            “This is it,” Jackson shouted.

            They had agreed, if ever surrounded, they wouldn’t leave without resistance. They each desired safety but would rather go down fighting than be disappeared. Elly took her position next to Jackson, just as they’d practiced, and waited for the door to be kicked in.

            Then came…a knock.

            Jackson shook his head and grabbed her wrist. “This is some kind of ruse.”

            She nodded. “Homeland security guys don’t knock,”

            “Keep still a few minutes.”

            Another knock, this time paired with an explanation. “We’re looking for Elly Sanchez. We know you’re in there, don’t do anything stupid.”

            The spot in her lower back where she always felt hot flashes began to warm. “Maybe it’s ok? Maybe we should let them in?”

            Jackson grabbed her tighter. “Are you nuts?”

            “Why knock if they’re gonna drag us away.” She tucked the revolver into the waist of her pants, and gave Jackson the silent finger signal. “This is Elly. What do you want?”

            “We need some identification before we can share that info with you. Put your eye up to the peephole.”

            They scanned her eye and the machine made a familiar beep. “We need a librarian, ma’am.”

            “You have a library emergency?” She looked over at Jackson who shrugged.  “How did you know I was here?”

            “We know exactly where you’ve been since you left the bus. Come with us. It’s best if we do this peacefully.”

             “I’m going,” she hugged Jackson, “I have a good feeling about this, it’ll be okay.”

            “You shouldn’t.”

            “It’s easiest this way.”

            She opened the door and followed the security force.

            “Can you please tell me what this is all about?”

            They guided her to a car and indicated she should step inside. A woman, seated in a gray suit and a perfect bun at the nape of her neck, held her hand out to Elly and they shook.

            “Suzanne Hall, Secretary of Homeland Security. Nice to meet you. You’re a librarian, correct?”

            “Was,” Elly nodded.

            “And again, you’re the last surviving librarian in the U.S. and you’ve just been named Librarian of Congress. It’s the only library still intact, there’s been so much burning and looting. We need you at the LOC.”

            Elly rubbed her hands on her jeans. “This is some kind of joke, right?”

            Ms. Hall pulled out a tablet and showed Elly the headlines. She knew certain professions were wiped out by this virus but she hadn’t heard librarians.

            “This is crazy,” Elly finally responded.

            “Indeed, but we need you back in D.C.”

            Elly returned to the dorm room and told Jackson to pack up. “We’re finally getting what we’ve desired, safety. You’ll be able to read all the car magazines ever published.”            

He grumbled but went with her. They left with a few bags and climbed into a van. As it drove away, the doors locked and that’s when she saw it, in small print on the window. “Squad 451℉.”