March 2, 2024

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An excerpt from the novella Three Miles: When a Dream Vacation Goes Terribly Wrong, Who Can You Trust?

For today’s weekend fun, check out three complete chapters of my first novella, Three Miles.

As Max strolled through the ancient market, she couldn’t understand a single word anyone was saying.

And she loved it that way.

She had gone on this trip to Athens with her coworkers to attend a “shipping summit.” Could there actually be anything more boring that a bunch of logistics people getting together in a stuffy room and discussing commodities, the volatility of the market, and shipping times?

But if it came with a free trip to Greece, Max was ready to suffer through 7 stultifying hours of seminars and 2 stale bagels each day. Athens had always been on her bucket list, ever since she was introduced to Greek mythology in grade school and discovered the places in the stories were real.

The Acropolis, Photo by Daisy Luther

The moment she could make her escape, she was out the door of the Capital Center Hotel, taking special care to flee before a co-worker could suggest they hang out. She hadn’t even gone up to her room to shove her gear into the backpack she carried, so concerned was she that someone would pop up and want to accompany her.

As she left the conference room in the hotel, she strode swiftly across Syntagma Square, noting how the yellow neoclassical architecture of the Hellenic Parliament building shone in contrast to the vivid blue sky and dodging the group of tourists who had gathered to watch the changing of the guard.

She’d been here for three days and visited the Acropolis, had spent hours in the National Museum of Archaeology gazing at ancient relics, had seen the sun set over the sea at the Temple of Poseidon, and had shopped in the flower-covered Plaka neighborhood in the late-afternoon shadow of the Parthenon.

As a history geek, she was in her glory.

Temple of Poseidon, photo by Daisy Luther

At the same time, surrounded by all this beauty, she also couldn’t help but notice that things in Athens were rather tense. Graffiti was everywhere and even though she couldn’t read Greek, the illustrations and symbols were enough to convince her that there were a lot of spray-paint-toting folks who were not fans of local law enforcement or capitalism.

As well, poverty was deeply entrenched. Having no choice but to dig through trash cans for your supper had a way of putting even the best natured person on edge. Max kept coins in her pockets to try and help people out. Some gladly accepted the money, while others politely rejected her offer of 2 Euros and continued scavenging.

The signs of forced austerity and economic collapse were all around, although the country had revived to some extent. Things like that left scars on a nation and people remembered the powerless feeling of desperation they experienced watching their country, with its great history, fall to its knees under the weight of financial pressure and debt.

She paid attention to things like that. Max was a big fan of survival and preparedness and had shelves full of books, dozens of websites saved as favorites on her laptop, and had even attended a few in-person courses on her single-mom budget.

One of the topics that she found the most interesting, particularly in the current day and age, was civil unrest and socio-economic collapse. She rarely left home without a bag stocked with the gear she’d need to travel on foot and escape a tense situation.  Knives, water filters, shelter, and snacks, oh my. She had them all and not just one – a choice for every occasion, almost like an oenophile knew precisely which red or white wine went with every meal. Because, as every prepper knows, two is one and one is none.

Well, except for today when she’d fled the hotel as quickly as possible. But she was just out for a casual trip to the market where she’d grab a pita and see the sights, so she wasn’t terribly concerned about her uncustomary lack of preparedness.

Today, she had gone to the Monastiraki Flea Market. The smells of fresh baked bread and exotic spices wafted through the air. People chatted happily in a variety of languages in the old meeting place. Some musicians were leaning against the wall barricading the ancient Agora and playing traditional instruments, setting the scene as it must have been for centuries without end.

The market was everything she had imagined and more. Today, she thought, she would find gifts for her daughter, her parents, and her best friend. She was determined to find unique mementos that whispered Greece as opposed to the typical souvenir that shouted it in all-caps.

Monastariki Market, photo by Daisy Luther

Everywhere you looked there was color, all against the backdrop of the Grecian-blue sky. (The sky was definitely not that delicious cobalt color back home in America.) From the vivid helium-filled balloons to the deep fuchsia bougainvillea climbing up buildings and across powerlines to the rich fabrics displayed in the store windows of brightly painted buildings, it was a riotous collection of beauty.

Then she heard it. Like a death knell. Or at least the death of her solitude, she thought drily.

“Maxine? Maxine Martin!!! It IS you!”

The voice was like fingernails on a chalkboard and clearly recognizable as Ellen Perkins, one of the co-workers with whom she had come to Greece. Ellen and her husband Robert (no “Ellie and Bob” for them – it was “Ellen and Robert,” thank you very much) actually did not run the shipping company for whom they all worked, but that might be a newsflash to them.

Ellen was the kind of fitness fan who worked out before coming to the office and never sampled anything from the candy dish. She did everything briskly, from answering the phone to delivering shipping manifests to Max’s inbox. Her husband Robert was a salesperson. She was absolutely certain he had been in a fraternity in college and played football in high school. You could just tell by looking at his florid face, close-cropped hair, and beefy build that was now a little more pudgy than muscular.

Max was wildly annoyed by both of them. She wasn’t a fan of small talk, dress codes, or office soirees and she consistently butted heads with Ellen.  Robert naturally backed Ellen in all things, so Max disliked him by default.

With them was Will Simms. He was also a salesperson and completely fit the profile of one. He was the kind of guy who probably used more hair products every day than Max used in a year. He was well dressed, sleekly groomed, and considered himself a negotiator. Max thought he was smarmy, but the customers seemed to love him.

As Max frantically looked for a way to escape the office crowd, Joan and Savannah joined the group. Joan was the comfortably rounded older lady who did the bookkeeping and Savannah was a fresh-faced young intern in the marketing department. Since Max liked Joan and Savannah, she sighed deeply, pasted on a fake smile, and walked over to her huddle of coworkers.

“I was wondering how you got out so quickly, Maxine,” Ellen chided in a slightly scolding tone. “I thought you knew we were all coming to the market today.”

“I like to get an early start,” Max mumbled through gritted teeth. Why did it always seem like Ellen was trying to mother her? She even called her by her full name, which nobody did. Except Ellen and, of course, her mother. “Anyway, we’re all together now.” She hoped the sarcasm wasn’t apparent.

“We were just deciding where to go for lunch,” Ellen informed her. “Do you have any recommendations?”

Max waved her arm around and said, “There’s food everywhere.”

Ellen gave a little huff and began scrolling on her phone, no doubt seeking the place with the best reviews and highest prices. Max turned and looked wistfully at the colorful market. She had planned on grabbing a pita full of something delicious and walking around while she ate.

“This is so cool,” Savannah said, looking around with a similar enraptured look on her face.  She reminded Max of her daughter, Ariel.

“I found a place,” Ellen stated as she linked arms with Robert, turned on an impeccably clad high heel, and strode away, naturally assuming everyone would follow her. She looked pointedly at Max. “We’re here for team-building.”

Will kept pace with the couple and Savannah stuck her tongue out at their backs. Joan stifled a giggle and elbowed Savannah. Max felt better that she wasn’t the only person who was annoyed. The three women trailed companionably along behind Ellen and her snooty entourage, pausing here and there to look at especially unusual items.

They ended up near the front of the market walking into a narrow hallway. Ellen commandeered the elevator and said, “We’re going to the roof top. We’ll send it back down for you since you’re slow.”

The door closed abruptly in their faces. “Do you guys want to take the stairs?” Max asked.

“Five flights? I don’t think so,” Joan shook her head. “But you two go ahead, I don’t mind waiting for the elevator at all.”

“No, we’ll wait with you,” Savannah said warmly, grabbing the older woman’s hand. It didn’t take long until the tiny, groaning elevator had returned, and they squeezed in, headed for the roof.

Couleur Locale Athens rooftop bar

The restaurant they were at was called Couleur Locale Athens and from the top, you could see the entire market as well as Monastiraki Square. The Acropolis gleamed from a nearby mountaintop as the fading sun shone through the pillars, and domes of the buildings in the square appeared to be dipped in gold.

Dang it. Max hated to admit it, but Ellen had made an excellent choice.

The food was excellent, although not the traditional fare Max had been planning on eating. She finished before her dinner companions and wandered over to take some photos with her phone.

She got some great shots of the Acropolis and the ancient Agora as the sun began to dip further in the sky, but it was the Square that really caught her attention. She heard the slamming of sliding doors and looked down. The shops were closing in quick succession. She looked at her watch, puzzled. She had read that the shops were open until later in the evening.

Then she saw the reason why.

In the square, a group of young people dressed in black with bandanas over their faces, stood with signs. Max couldn’t read the signs, but she could read body language, and these guys were not happy.

“We’ve got trouble,” she said, turning to the others. “We need to get out of here, NOW.”

Chapter 2

Ellen got up and strode to the side so she could look down. “That’s not a big deal. Just protesters.”

Max replied, “Protests can turn bad in a hurry. We should go back to the hotel.”

Ellen shrugged and said, “I’m having another drink. Who’s with me?”

Robert summoned the waitress and ordered another round. Max shook her head in refusal.

“You see doom everywhere, Maxine,” Ellen lectured smugly. “You need to learn to live a little.”

“I’m going to go grab a few things,” Max said. “I’ll meet you back here in half an hour and then I really think we should head to the hotel.”

Of all the times to be without her bug-out bag, this was probably the worst one she had encountered, she thought grimly. Max needed supplies and she needed them quickly. She wouldn’t be able to replace everything, but she could probably put together a reasonable, if somewhat unusual, kit from the vendors of the market.

She hurried down the stairs – no way did she want to get stuck in that rickety elevator – and headed to the little kiosk that sold drinks and magazines. There she purchased 3 liters of water, a map of Athens, some single serving bottles of vodka for cleaning potential wounds, and an armload of small snacks like nuts, candy, and Pringles.  She also found some disposable rain ponchos, folded into tiny squares. They weren’t ideal, but they were better than nothing for a barrier against the elements. She paid the vendor and popped the supplies into her backpack.

Then she went to the bank machine and took out the maximum amount on every card she had with her. She looked around to see if anyone was watching but all attention seemed to be on the square. She left the ATM when her last transaction failed to go through – she had drained it of cash but had 950 Euros. She separated the bills into different pockets, her wallet, and her backpack. You never wanted to keep all your eggs in one basket, and the same philosophy applied to cash.

She quickly walked down the aisle to see if any vendors were still open. She picked up half a dozen scarves, 3 baseball caps, 2 pairs of sunglasses, and 4 extra-large black hooded sweatshirts that read “University of Athens.” It might pay to have some protection against tear gas or other irritants, and also to not look quite so much like tourists. She found a store that sold knives and chose a large folding knife with a solid blade. She folded down the sides of the bag and put the knife in her right-hand jacket pocket. It was within easy reach if she needed it but with the bag, could also look like a souvenir she had just purchased if she was questioned about it.

Her shopping complete and her backpack full, she hurried back toward the restaurant. The crowd of protesters had grown, and their chants filled the air. You didn’t have to speak Greek to know that they were pissed.

“Do you know what’s going on?” she asked a shopkeeper who stood, arms folded, in the doorway of her store, watching the spectacle in the Square unfold. Max hoped the woman spoke English.

“They are protesting capitalism,” said the shopkeeper, rolling her eyes widely. She was an ageless woman who spoke English in a delightfully exotic accent, with unlined brown skin and thick dark hair generously streaked with silver. “The protesters believe that greed and profit are ruining our society. Maybe they should try to work instead of waiting to have things given to them.”

“Does this happen a lot?” inquired Max.

“It happens,” replied the shopkeeper. “But usually not this many people and not quite so angry. Today it will be dangerous.”

“Stay safe,” Max said politely. “Thank you for the information.”

The lady squinted at her. “You seem smart. Don’t just worry about protestors. The astynomía – the police – are not your friends either.” With that, the shopkeeper turned and abruptly closed her door, locking it behind her.

Chapter 3

As Max hurried up to the restaurant, her coworkers were just exiting the building. Ellen was laughing and leaning on Robert, and Will looked flushed and slightly disheveled. Which for him meant there was one strand of his impeccably groomed hair out of place.

“Great,” Max thought to herself. “These a**holes are drunk.”

Savannah and Joan didn’t appear to be impaired, and they had the common sense to look concerned about the protesters.

Then she heard a cacophony of automobile horns and saw that a bus full of police officers had stopped in the middle of the road, infuriating the drivers behind them. When the cops disembarked, she realized with dread that they were laughing, strapping on their helmets, donning body armor, and holding clear shields. The police officers were enjoying this – reveling in the anticipation of violence.

Some of the officers turned their backs to the marketplace, making only a minimal effort to hide what they were doing. She was shocked to see that these men appeared to be snorting something right out in the open. High fives were exchanged, and you could see by the fix of their shoulders that they were about to escalate the entire situation. The atmosphere was charged with their anticipation of a fight.

“Guys, we have to go NOW,” Max insisted. Something in her voice seemed to catch the attention of the group. Their heads swiveled toward the cops and back to Max almost in unison.

But they’d waited too long to act. With what could only be called a battle cry, the cops and the protestors rushed toward one another, and it was game on. The sides came together with a crash and a chorus of shouts.

Max dashed to the door of the restaurant and ushered the group back inside. One of the waiters came to the door shaking his head and scolding them in Greek, trying to keep them out, but they ignored him. Savannah was the last person to come in and Max reached past the waiter to grab the younger woman by the arm and yank her into the narrow corridor.

The noise of the fight crept into the hallway, where Max and her coworkers were packed in with a few other tourists and the staff. Other employees came down from the rooftop and sat on the stairs. It looked like there was no option but to wait out the chaos.

Max wiggled through the crowd to see if she could safely get to a glimpse of what was happening outside. She avoided the large plate glass windows and found one tall, narrow window that looked out onto the square that she could peek through while keeping most of her body behind the concealment of the wall.

The fight was heated and unlike anything she’d ever seen in person – it looked like something out of a movie. She could hear the meaty thunks of police batons hitting human flesh, the screams of the injured, the cries of rage. Through the glass, she could smell the fire from the petrol bombs that had been flung. She checked to see if her phone had service. So far, the internet was still working in the Square. She went onto Google News to see if she could find out any information about what was happening outside.

Photo: AP News

She felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she read. The protests were not just confined to this area. Syntagma Square, where their hotel was located, was filled with an estimated 5000 protestors. Dumpsters were burning throughout the city. Cars were being set on fire. Authorities were barricading the main streets to traffic.

The sound of shattering glass jolted her away from her phone. One of the large windows of the restaurant had been shattered by someone throwing a brick through it. The brick was followed by a whiff of gasoline and a flaming bottle. Max was on the move as she recognized it for a Molotov cocktail just as the bottle shattered. Flames spread rapidly across the dining area and Max yelled, “Go, go, go!!!! Go now!”

The person closest to the door fumbled with the lock in a panic. One of the waiters pushed him out of the way and got the door open as smoke began filling the hallway.

Max grabbed Savannah and Joan by the arm and yelled, “Come on!”

People were pushing, shoving, coughing, desperate to get out the door. When they got out, they stopped, unsure which direction to take. Some of the people rushing out of the restaurant headed toward the battlefield in the Square where the main entrance to the market was.

Max was absolutely certain which way they should go – she wanted to go in the opposite direction from the chaos.  She looked around for her coworkers. Ellen looked scared, for once not trying to take control of the situation. “Come on,” Max said, still hanging onto Savannah and Joan. “This way.” She turned right, away from the Square.

“But our hotel is that way,” Will argued.

Max let go of the women’s arms and whirled around.  “Do you want to go through that riot? I’m not arguing with you. Come with me or don’t. It’s your choice.”

She turned and headed down the alley to the right, not looking back to see if anyone was following her. She slowed her pace out of consideration for Joan, but the older women showed no signs of being winded.  Nobody spoke as they made their way through the dark, uninhabited walkways. The only sounds were the ridiculous clomping of Ellen’s high heels on the cobblestones and the distant din of the riot behind them.

If you want to read about the rest of Max’s escape from Athens, name your price for the novella here.