By David R. Topper

She’s hidden in a cavity of my car. If discovered, we’ll both die. Quickly “dispatched,” as a gangster would say. No questions asked. That’s the way it works with the thugs running this country.

Her life is in my hands. How I look and act. My body language. If I elicit just the slightest suspicion. If I tip the scales, and she’s caught, she dies – and so do I. We’re in this together. 

Now comes the acid test, as I pull up to the checkpoint at the border. I suddenly realize: this is the first time – and maybe the last – in all my 35 years, that I am responsible for the life of another person. Whom I don’t even know. I only met her last night.

For some bizarre reason I am reminded of many old Hollywood movies where a State Trooper in the Southern USA stops an out-of-state car. With his large, dark sunglasses and a swagger in his walk, he barks to the driver: “Let’s see your Driver’s License.” Or later, “Get out of the car with your hands up.” Today the scenario would probably involve a Trooper and a black person driving what the Trooper deems an expensive car. 

Why is this thought crossing my mind now?  Cripes, I’ve got to focus. Yes, focus, stupid.

I stop my car and roll down the window, while the guard with a gun and a creepy grin – accompanied by a likewise large and creepy dog – approaches my car. I take a deep breath: “Here goes,” I say to myself.


I was what I guess you might call a math geek in High School. I fell in love with Algebra and Geometry, while other guys were captivated by girls. I remember having read that Einstein’s uncle once told him that algebra was a game or puzzle you played with symbols and numbers, and that the aim was to find the mysterious Mister X. I agreed, and savored the search for Mister X. Ah, algebra. 

Geometry too came easily, since I have a very visual mind. Congruency, similarity, and such – it was all a piece-of-cake for me. In mechanical drawing class, which took geometry to three dimensions, I was the go-to-guy for my fellow students needing help. “How do you know what the other side looks like, if it’s hidden?” they’d say. But I could see in my mind what was hidden. At least, that’s one sense of what the word “hidden” meant to me in my youth.

I was not very tall, and not very athletic, and so I gravitated more toward the brainy kids than the brawny ones. Yet – and this may seem unusual for such a math geek – I also took a course in auto mechanics. I suppose I thought it might come in handy in the future when I had a car, so maybe I could fix it myself. My aim was to someday save a few dollars, I suppose. It never occurred to me that someday I might use it to try to save a person’s life.  

You see, I came from a working-class background. Being practical was the hallmark of my family, who had grown up during the Depression. It haunted them throughout their lives. One consequence was the frugality that pervaded everything linked with the material world. My idea of saving a few dollars by fixing my own cars was an example of my parents’ monetary prudence influencing me. Hence, I took the car course. 

At the start of the fall class we were given a car to take apart, piece-by-piece, and then supposedly put back together by the end in the spring. It was a domestic model built by GM. Well, we did dismantle the thing, mostly – but we never got it completely back together by the end of the course. I mention all this for two reasons. I soon realized that this seemingly practical course that I was taking was really, for me, a branch of geometry. The car’s parts were just another three-dimensional puzzle, here with real stuff – well very dirty, grimy, and greasy stuff.  Not the clean, abstract ideal world put forth in the math textbooks. But still, the two worlds had this 3-D geometry thing in common. 

Which brings me to the second reason: I discovered that in the way the individual parts of this car were put together, there resulted within the geometrical arrangement a cavity or space of several feet of volume. (I later discovered that this cavity was in almost all cars at this time, even Japanese models. It’s just the way most of them were made back then.) The cavity was not very big, but big enough to store (or to hide) stuff. Such as even a person; surely a child. And probably a petite woman or a very small man. So, here was another way in which the word “hidden” became associated with geometry for me. 

But I never mentioned this to my fellow students; not to anyone. It seemed that 

only I noticed this feature of the car. (Later I checked and found that this cavity is only found in models up to a certain year.) But still, I told no one about my discovery. Why I noticed it, while as far as I know no one else did – well, I’ll never know. So, I kept my discovery “hidden” too. 

Until now, for she too knows about the cavity, obviously. But only we two.


In many ways all dictatorships are alike. They close all borders, and punish those who try to escape illegally – at least, what their authoritarian governments regard as illegal. Hence, it’s always a harrowing experience crossing their borders, even if you have nothing to hide. All the more so for me at this crossing, for I do have something to hide. Yeah, she’s in the cavity.

I told – begged her – that if we got through this thing, she would never reveal my discovery, for maybe I could use it again to save more lives. She agreed: she would take this knowledge to the grave – one way or the other. 

As I said, this potential humanitarian act of mine is really a test. To see if my discovery will work as a way of smuggling people (well, really only relatively small people) across otherwise closed borders. She is, hence, a guinea pig for my experiment. But at the same time, so am I, for if she’s caught, we both will be executed. And I hasten to add: not without first being sadistically tortured. This is a very cruel régime. And I don’t want to speculate on what they would do to her, being a woman.  

It did occur to me that I could have tested my discovery by just taking some contraband across the border. If I got caught it would result in a fine or some other unpleasantness – but not death, surely. I guess, in retrospect, I am quite stupid doing this now. 

Oh well. Too late. Here comes the guard and his dog. Ya know, they all look alike. Generic tough guys with their generic nasty dogs.


I am in this country on a special visa. As an expert in an esoteric branch of computer programming for high-tech stuff, I was offered an exceedingly lucrative contract, for they needed me more than I needed them. The naive and gullible Canadian that I am, I could not pass up so much money, having grown up – well, not poor – but working-class frugal, as I said. 

I was, of course, drilled to stay out of politics, to keep my nose clean, and just do my work, take the money and leave in a year. With all that moolah, I could goof off for some time. Maybe for a long time, if I invested it properly and didn’t splurge. It was a strong incentive to do my job, keep my mouth shut, and get home to Winnipeg in a year. 

I was offered this job also because I could speak the language. I grew up in a bi-lingual home. My grandparents were from “the old country” and I learnt their language because they lived with us, a common arrangement for working-class families in those days. As a result, I discovered in High School that I could easily master almost any language. I had that knack. So, in University I had a double major: Mathematics and Slavic Languages. That’s another reason why I am working here.

I quickly adapted to the nuances of the language of this country, but not to the – how should I say? – the politics. Being woken up in the middle of the night with harrowing screams of people being dragged from their homes to God-knows-where? – well, it rattled me, and I started asking questions. I was quickly brought into contact with an underground network of dissidents. All dictatorships have them. Journalists, politicians, ordinary citizens and such – all opposed to the unyielding power structure. Wanting the simple freedoms that I take for granted back home. 

I know it’s trite to say this, but I must: in Canada, if I write a letter to the newspaper complaining about the mayor, no one knocks on my door the next day. It would never even occur to me that such a thing could happen, until now. Here. Living under this totalitarian régime. Well, no longer was I naïve, but rather, reckless. I was putting my life in real danger by getting involved. 

For this clandestine group, however, I was a prize, a real prize. With my visa I was able to cross the border with little hassle. And I did so, weekly, getting my mail at the embassy in the bordering country. In time, they asked me to take things across the border to contacts in that country. I said it was too dangerous to take real things but I could take information to those contacts, as long as it was not too long for me to memorize. The border guards, I joked, could not search my mind. Nor could their dogs smell my thoughts. And thus, I did: bringing names, numbers, and whatever I was able to commit to memory for a day, back and forth. 

 Of course, I could have tried bringing things in the cavity. It would have been a test. But I didn’t. I don’t know why not. Too late now.

So, my first test – which may be my last – is with a real person. She’s in the cavity, I’m sitting behind the wheel, and they (guard and dog) are about to initiate the test.  

Because I went to that special meeting.


It was my last week of the contract, and I was about to make my final trip across that border, going eventually home to Canada. I said I would take anything they gave me that I could memorize. But they insisted that I actually attend a meeting – in person, for the first time. A special meeting, they called it. I said I couldn’t. It was the night before my departure, and I needed to pack for the trip. They begged me to pack early and come to this one meeting. 

And so, I did, expecting to get my list of things to memorize. Plus, I assumed they wanted to thank me for what I had done ever since I contacted them. Which was true, for as I entered the dark room, I recognized them all as contacts who had given me names and numbers at various times. And they all gave me big hugs and thanks and kisses.

But looking closer I saw that across the room in the darkest corner there was a woman I had never seen. I was immediately told that she was a very well-known journalist who had been openly critical of the dictator and that her life was now in danger. If caught she would be executed on the spot. No trial, nothing. 

“You will smuggle her out of the country in your car” – I was told with no hesitation. It was taken for granted. I was taken for granted. 

How uncanny. It was almost as if they knew of my knowledge of the secret cavity. Which of course they didn’t.

Now, I thought, what does this stupid Canadian do? 

I tried to get out of it. “There’s no way to hide her in my car,” I said. They suggested taking out the spare tire and putting her in the well. She’s small enough to fit, I was told. “The guard will go through the stuff in your trunk, but after finding nothing among your stuff, he’ll probably let you go” was the speculation. “Yeah, speculation, right,” I thought.

Adjusting my eyes to the darkness, I asked her to step forward. As she did, I saw at once that, yes, she was not very tall; in fact, she clearly was petite enough for my car’s cavity. Yes, I thought, I could do it. But would I?  

Having looked at her body first, I only then glanced up at her face. It was too dim to see much detail, such as the color of her eyes. What I saw was dark hair just below and covering her ears, on both sides, with the hair on her left sweeping across her forehead and just slightly covering her eyelashes. A seemingly perfect oval face, eyes slightly squinting – saying “help me” or “here I am,” I’m not sure which – a straight, not overly large nose, and very full and sensuous, slightly-parted lips.  

I guessed that she was about my age – and to be honest – I was attracted to her. 

It immediately occurred to me that in other circumstances, I might ask her to dance with me. (Strange, the thoughts that come to mind, even in such stressful times. Maybe it had something to do with her being quite short, like me.)  

Anyway, here was my chance to test my discovery, I thought. 

“I can do it,” I said out loud – without thinking any further. 

Thus: the die was cast. Little did they know that I had a much better place to hide her. Better, but still risky – very risky in this repressive land. 

She immediately collapsed into my arms, tightly wrapping herself around my waist and not letting go. She said nothing: her grip said it all. I had to pry her loose. 

And, no, we didn’t dance. 


And so, here I am at the border, with her in the cavity of my car, and with an intimidating guard and his dog approaching my open window.

He comes closer and I see his face. Oh crap, it’s not the usual guard whom I know. Some rookie, no doubt? Trying to show off, probably. Bad luck at the start. “Show me your papers,” he shouts. 

I have them ready on my seat, and I hand them to him. “Get out of the car and open the trunk.” I say nothing. I obey.

As the guard looks through my paper, the dog sniffs my crotch, and I wince, pulling back. He yanks the dog away, as he puts my papers in the pocket of his jacket. He then moves to the trunk, which is empty except for my two small suitcases. “Are they locked?’ “No,” I say, “you may search them” – as if he would not do so without my permission. I purposely did not pack things neatly, knowing they would be gone through at the border haphazardly. 

As he’s going through my things he says: “You’ve an English accent. Where you from? I say, “Canada,” nothing more. No details. I don’t want to get into the same old “Where’s Winnipeg?” crap.

He then throws everything back in – slapdash, as expected.  

“Big country, ain’t it?” I say nothing, but just grunt. 

 “Open the hood.” I’ve been waiting for this, for I already pulled the latch under the dashboard before I got out of the car. I immediately open the hood and step back, trying to avoid the dog, who is heading for my crotch again. Being on a short leash he can’t get at me, as the guard starts probing around the engine and other parts under the hood. 

The guard wants the dog to pay more attention to the car, inside and out, rather than my crotch. And so, he has me open all the doors and has the dog walk through and around – sniffing everywhere. He shows no sign of unearthing anything. As the dog starts heading toward me again, the guard pulls him back and tells me to close the hood, trunk, and all doors. “Get back in the car.” I do so, with my window still open. 

The guard then approaches me with my papers in his hand. For the first time during this tense encounter, I feel an iota of relief that this might really work. That I (well, we) will not get caught and die.

But suddenly the dog acts as if he smells something, and starts making some growling sounds from deep in his throat. “Get out,” the guard screams at me, as he shoves my papers back in his pocket.

As I get out of the car and pass the dog, he darts to my crotch again. For it seems that this, and this alone, is still the focus of his attention. Indeed, it is: for though the guard tries to direct the dog’s attention back to the car, he turns away and comes to me.

I have an idea. 

“Ya know,” I say, “I ate a large soggy roast beef sandwich with lots of mustard and horseradish this morning, and the juices spilled on my lap because I was in a hurry. Does your dog like roast beef with mustard and horseradish?”  

“Shut up, and get in the car.” I obey, trying not to smile. Biting down on my lower lip helps. As he hands me my papers through the open window, my thoughts go to the cavity in my car, and I realize – for the first time – that I don’t even know her name. 

The guard waves me on. As I pass them, I can hear the steady growl of the dog.  


After leaving the checkpoint, crossing the border, and getting about a kilometer into free territory, I pull over and take a deep breath. The air from the open window wafts in and smells – well, smells free – yes, free. Free air. I can’t think of any other way of describing it.

I put my hands to my face, as if I were throwing cold water on it, and as I pull away, I see blood on my hand. Looking into the rearview mirror, I see that I bit right though my lip, without even knowing it. “I am starting to feel again,” I thought, as I accept the pain, “and that’s good.”  

“I don’t even know your name,” I shout.   

“Esther,” comes a muffled voice echoing from the cavity.

“Esther, you’re free, er, we’re free!” I shout. There’s no response, nothing specific, except for a barely audible moaning. 

Instantly, I feel a release deep inside, and I start crying nearly hysterically.


Esther is not her name anymore. The Canadian government gave her a new name and a completely new identity. That was five years ago. And I am only writing about this now.

 She lives in another city, far from me in Winnipeg. But we keep in touch. About once a month, we have a short chat on the phone – she prefers this to email. So do I. There is something comforting about hearing her voice. She says she feels the same way about me. We have this bond that’s impossible to describe. 


Not long after the event, I thought about using my discovery further. To rescue others, as I originally thought. But I am fundamentally a coward, with only this one case of being heroic – or whatever you want to call it. It worked because I had that contract in the country, so I was not seen as very suspicious when I crossed the border. If I did this over and over, at some point I would get caught.

It also occurred to me to sell my secret. At first, I hesitated because I thought it might jeopardize her new life, somehow. But ultimately I didn’t do it because I didn’t need the money. I got that nice chunk of change for the work I did, which I invested wisely, and so my portfolio has almost doubled these past five years. Plus, I am frugal and live a simple life, as I think I said. Well-off is good enough for me. I don’t want to be rich, let alone wealthy. Cripes, my family barely survived the Depression. 

If you are asking yourself why I am writing this now and therefore spilling my secret freely, you need to know this. After I complete this document, I will put it in my safety deposit box. In my will I have already referred to it. It will then be freely available for anyone to read. Consequently, if you are reading this, I am dead.  

Regarding my secret, remember that the cavity only existed in older makes of cars, and by the time I die, assuming I live (say) into my seventies – well, then, in thirty or so years those cars will rarely be available. 

Consequently, as far as I know, that secret cavity was only used once, to save the former Esther’s life. Although, if after I die my secret is revealed, and my story told, others may come forward with more tales of smuggling small or petite people across borders in that cavity. 

But I’ll never know.


Even though, as I said, we still talk monthly on the phone, in my mind I keep coming back to the last time we were together. You see, I was with her in Ottawa when she was given her new identity. I also was there because External Affairs wanted to quiz me about my job and what I learnt about that repressive government. When they were through with me, I was eager to get back to tranquil Winnipeg and to resume my previous boring life. And she too was set – plane ticket and all – for her new life, elsewhere in Canada. 

For dinner that last evening we crossed the Ontario border into Hull, Quebec, and went to a small, quiet, out-of-the-way French restaurant. Only a few tables, but all filled with either one or two couples. There was recorded orchestral music – of the easy-listening variety – playing softly in the background. 

We had a traditional meal, starting with Soupe aux gourganes accompanied by Oreille de Christ. The entrée was Cipaille (filled with venison, I believe), and Grands-pères au sirop d’erable for dessert. All washed down with a bottle of L’Acadie blanc, which we didn’t quite finish.

We both savored that meal, as if we had been starving for days. And I guess, in a symbolic, or maybe a psychological way, we were. 

We had much to talk about, considering how close we both came to being dead. “This almost unbelievable encounter has created a unique something between us,” I said. She agreed. 

But we also were acutely aware that we could not jam the stories of two lives, a total of over 70 years, into this one meal. 

And so, we decided to speak only of the present: the here and now. We had the rest of our lives to have periodic chats about other things of the past and future. As we eventually did.

Instead, we relished the sensual pleasures of this small room. The decor, the aromas, the music, the tidbits of chatter and laughter among the other couples – just as we savored the cuisine. Indulging in the joy of being alive at this moment, taking in all that this three-dimensional space had to offer our five senses – right now. That was more than enough to focus our attention and mutual bliss during our last hours together.  

 Right before we were about to leave, I stood up, took her right hand in my left, and pulled her toward me. We danced. Danced to the background music. The song was, “Someone to watch over me.” We danced around and between the scattered tables. The patrons smiled. The staff smiled. … Yeah, if they only knew.

It was our first dance. 

It was our last dance. 

It sealed the bond.

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