“If we had any kind of decent shelter, I think I’d stay put today,” Catherine said, frowning at the sky. “This ain’t no kind of weather for children to be out in.”
I agreed, but figured with our two tarps, we could keep the kids dry enough. So we hurried to make them a hot breakfast, then bundled them into the wagon with all of our blankets and anything from my packs that I didn’t have enough plastic to cover. We were tying the tarps into place as the first drops began to fall.
We plodded along the interstate all morning with the wind and rain at our backs. It was miserable going, but we kept on pace until around mid-day, when we came upon a man directing people onto a detour. “Bridge out ahead,” he told us. “And this ain’t no day to be trying to cross the creek on your own.”
I was reluctant to trust him because his rain slicker looked like military issue. For me, the United States military stood for cruelty, death, and needless destruction. But since all the other travelers were taking the detour, Catherine and I followed. And sure enough, we soon came to a sturdy little bridge that took us across the creek, which was running high and fast.
“There must be a lot of rain to the north,” I told Catherine. “One rainy morning isn’t enough to do all this.”
Wet and bedraggled, Catherine didn’t seem interested in discussing the matter and slapped the reins against the mule’s back to encourage him to hurry.
I fell in behind the wagon, waving to the children when they peeked out from under the tarp and thinking how strange it was to be in the United States. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t the same country that had done all those horrible things—the resource wars, the draft, the anti-hoarding laws. This was a new government. What had happened in Valle Redondo was long over. And besides, this was the country where Kentucky was. There were Unitas groups here, too, operating on the United States payroll. Some of their highest commanders served as advisors to the United States government on how best to win back the regions that had seceded or been abandoned during the worst of the manpower shortages. This was a new country, and I needed to quit living in the past and be a proud citizen until they gave me reason to feel otherwise.
Having made up my mind on this matter, I made a point of thanking the man who directed us back onto the interstate.
He smiled and touched his hat to me, as polite as anyone I knew back home. His good manners and nice smile gave me confidence, and I drew near.
“How much farther to the next town?”
“There’s a rail town about another twelve miles up ahead, Miss.” He glanced at the sky. “It looks like it might be clearing soon. If it does, you should have no trouble making it there by nightfall.”
“Are there places to stay? My friend has three kids, and they need better shelter than a tarp.”
“You’re right about that. There’s still a motel in operation, but with the weather like it is, it’ll probably be full. You may want to plan on finding an empty building, instead. There’s plenty of them. Town was hit pretty hard by the pandemic a few years back.”
I thanked him for this information, caught up with Catherine and told her what I had learned.
“As long as we can find someplace where my kids can get warm and have some food and a good night’s rest, I don’t care if it’s a fancy hotel or a hole in the ground.”
True to the soldier’s prediction, the sky began clearing in late afternoon. We stepped up our pace and made town by early evening. We had hoped to buy some fresh food, but the first shops we came to were closed.
Since the children were by now hungry and impatient to get out and move around, we made camp in the first abandoned building that looked acceptable. Several windows were already broken, but we broke a few more to get good ventilation, and built a fire. It was so nice to get warm and dry!
It took awhile for the children to settle down. They had been lying in the wagon all day and were excited to have their freedom. It made me a little nervous the way they went running heedlessly all around, sometimes falling, sometimes crashing into things. It seemed like a good way to get an injury and infection. But Catherine was exhausted and the rain seemed to have dampened her mood even more than her clothes. She sat by the fire, staring listlessly into the flames, making no effort to quiet the children at all.
So finally I made up beds for them and promised them stories if they would lie down and be still. I told them one of my Indian stories, and one I remembered from Aesop’s Fables. I told them about my adventures in the white sands, and made up a few things to make it all more interesting. The boys eventually drifted off to sleep, but Jessica remained awake, watching me.
“Is that all?”
By now I was exhausted and only wanted to sleep. “Yes, that’s all,” I told her. “But I’ve got an idea. Wait here and be quiet.” I went and rummaged in my packs, and when I came back I gave her the doll I had gotten at the carnival. “I think this little girl is having trouble sleeping, too,” I said, placing it in her arms. “So why don’t you tell her a few stories until she gets sleepy? Whisper them, though, okay?”
When I returned to the fire, Catherine smiled faintly. “That was nice of you.”
I shrugged. “What was I going to do with a rag doll?”
She turned back to the fire. “Thanks for putting them to bed and telling them stories. Some days are harder for me than others.”
“I guess that’s why there’s so many of us on this planet. We’re supposed to help each other out.”
“It’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose.”
We watched the flames in silence for a little while, then Catherine laid down near the children and went to sleep.
What a day. I hope the weather is better tomorrow.
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