Day One Hundred Eight
After we had our coffee, we went to the community kitchen where people were pooling the food they had salvaged from the storm. While we ate, I talked to a few people about cleanup plans. I asked how I could be of help.
“Probably the best thing you could do,” a man said, “Would be if you went and got us some assistance.”
“What do you mean?”
“Go to Springfield. We’ll tell you how to get there. Go to the government offices and tell them what’s happened. We’ll give you a letter to take.”
“You really think they’ll help you?”
“Sure. That’s what government is for.”
It crossed my mind to tell him that where I was from, the United States government didn’t do anything but conscript our men for useless wars and kill people who tried to save food and gold against hard times. But that was in the past, and perhaps the new United States government really was helpful, just like the local dons of my own country. Still, the thought of actually going into a government office worried me.
But as I looked around, it was clear this community needed more help than what I could provide with my two hands. Springfield was on my way. If I delivered their message, I would still be making progress on my journey. It was too perfect a plan for me not to agree.
It would take all day to get to Springfield and I wanted to minimize the number of stops I would have to make. So I traded some of my food, like the wheat flour, for things that didn’t need cooking, like raisins and nuts. I filled my canteens and made sure my gear was properly balanced and strapped onto my horse. A man gave me a letter for the authorities and drew me a detailed map with instructions and advice. I wished everyone well and set out.
The roads were muddy, but other than that, it was a maddeningly beautiful day. Even back home, the nicest days were always after a storm had passed through. The tornado damage seemed to be sporadic. Some areas were almost bare of trees, while others remained lush and green with spring leaves.
Alice and the others had told me that tornadoes could destroy one area while leaving a place just up the road looking as fine as if there had never been so much as a breath of wind. So I wasn’t surprised when about an hour later I saw a cluster of buildings still standing, off to one side of the road. I approached, thinking maybe there were people here who could go south and help while I continued on to Springfield. But closer inspection revealed it was a dead village, deserted for many years.
I looked at the map and instructions I had been given. They didn’t indicate that I would find a town along the way where I would find people to send south or a radio operator who could make contact with Springfield. I needed to quit second-guessing my instructions and just travel.
So I turned Flecha back onto the road and we continued on our way, sometimes trotting, sometimes walking. The road wasn’t very good, and we did more walking than I would’ve liked. As we neared Springfield late in the afternoon, the countryside grew hillier and I was glad I could soon give Flecha a rest.
On the outskirts of town I asked the first person I saw for directions to the government offices. I found them without too much trouble, which surprised me, because I always seem to get turned around in a city.
But I was glad to have found the government building so quickly because it was late in the day and I was worried the offices would be closed. I tethered Flecha to a post and went inside, feeling pretty pleased with myself.
Big mistake. I was sent to one office after another, where I had to wait each time to talk to a bored-looking clerk who acted like I was delusional for thinking they could help. And when they would tell me where to go instead, I would write the instructions down very carefully, to make sure I got it right, only to find myself in the next office, being told I was yet again in the wrong place. The clerk at the fourth office was trying to send me to a building across the street when a young man walked past and paused to listen to our conversation.
“But I’m already where I’m supposed to be,” I was saying. “Are you telling me that all the other clerks in this building are liars?”
“This office only handles rescues and disasters within the city. Your situation is outside the city. That’s state, and you need to go across the street.”
The young man approached me. “What seems to be the trouble?”
I had already explained the situation to at least half a dozen people and had no mind to repeat myself again. I handed him the letter.
He read it, then frowned. “Tanya is right that it’s not a matter for our office. But I know who you need to talk to. Come with me. I’ll make sure you don’t get the runaround.”
His name was Craig Fontaine, and he walked with me across the street, where he flashed a badge to a woman at a desk and led me up a flight of stairs and down a long hallway that was rapidly growing dim as the sun went down. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “Jason always works late, and he can call up the emergency personnel any time of day or night.”
Jason turned out to be another impossibly young man. But he was neatly dressed and had an air of authority about him. Craig handed over my letter and explained the urgency of the situation. I remained silent, answering only the questions they asked me. To my relief, Jason took the matter seriously. He had a working telephone on his desk that connected with the other state offices in the building (although not the city offices across the street for some reason), and he began dialing numbers and giving orders with a swiftness and certainty that impressed me.
Craig smiled. “See? You just need to know who to talk to. Your friends will have help within twenty-four hours.”
I thanked him and Jason, and since there seemed to be nothing else for me to do, I walked out of the building and into the darkening streets, so relieved and happy to have accomplished my mission that it took me a few minutes to remember that I had no place to sleep tonight. There was a stone bench near where I had left Flecha, and I sat down to eat a few raisins and think.
I had just about resolved to ride around until I found a city park I could camp in for the night, when Craig came out of the state building and saw me. “They’re getting a Guard unit ready. They’ll be heading south in a few hours, if you’d like to go with them so you’ll have company on the road.”
I started at the sound of the word “Guard.” Of course Craig had no idea what images that word conjured up in my mind. How could he? And I knew in my head that modern Guardsmen weren’t murderers. But no way did I want any dealings with them. I wasn’t going south, anyway. I shook my head. “I’m not from that town. I was just passing through. I’m on my way to Kentucky.”
“Oh.” He considered for a moment. “So do you have a place to stay tonight?”
“I was going to find a park and camp,” I said, wondering what he was up to.
“You can stay with me and my grandma tonight, if you want. We’ve got space, and it’ll be cheaper than a hotel. I wouldn’t advise camping in a city park. We don’t allow that sort of thing, and the cops might give you a hard time.”
It was growing dark and I wanted to save my money to buy food in the morning, so I figured I would give Craig’s idea a try. I waited while he collected some things from his office, and then we walked to the apartments where he lived, with me leading Flecha while he told me about himself, his small city and his grandmother.
“Now, I don’t mean to worry you, but Grandma’s a drinker. She doesn’t get mean or violent. She mostly just gets sloppy, then falls asleep. I’m telling you so you won’t be surprised.”
“Not much surprises me anymore,” I said. “And if it does, it shouldn't.”
It didn’t take long to get to the apartments. I thought they were pretty nice.
We tethered Flecha in a sort of open stable with other animals, as well as bicycles, rickshaws, carts, and even a few motor scooters and an automobile.
“This used to be just for cars,” Craig explained. “Before I was born, of course. After Grandma has had a few, she likes to tell me all the way things are different from when she was my age.”
“My grandparents were the same way,” I said. “They would’ve talked all day about the old times, if it wasn’t for all the work we had to do. I grew up on a farm.”
“Really? What was that like? Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, I bet. Must’ve been nice.”
“It was a lot of hard work, was what it was.” I told him about my family’s sheep and chickens. And I was explaining about honeybees and the correct way to collect the comb when we arrived at a door. He dug a key out of his pocket and let me in.
The room was illuminated by a single electric light. It was messy, shabby, and had a smell to it. I tried not to breathe too deeply and hoped my nose would adjust quickly. How was I supposed to sleep in this stinky place? I looked all around, and a shadow stirred on a chair in a dim corner of the room. “That you, Craig? You got someone with you?”
Craig whispered in my ear. “I forgot to mention she’s also half-blind from cataracts.”
The grandmother was sloppy, with greasy hair and an odor of stale wine about her. She insisted on clasping my hand and touching my face while Craig made the introductions, and she leaned in close, breathing her sour, fetid breath on me and staring with her milky eyes. Her words were nice enough, but in every other way, she was a horror.
Thankfully, Craig was under no illusions. He led me away as soon as was decent and showed me a room I could sleep in for the night. It was dusty, but neat, and it didn’t have that same foul odor that the front room had. A window was cracked open, and that helped.
“This was my grandmother’s room until she decided she’d rather just stay on her chair in the front room and drink. She hasn’t come back here for anything in years, and it’s sort of a guest room now.
I thanked him for his hospitality, and when he had gone, I set down my packs and opened the window a little wider, pushing the curtain aside so I could see the stars and moonlight shining through the branches of the trees. This was a nice place. Or it would’ve been, if not for the grandmother. There was a tap at the door and I turned around.
It was Craig, bringing me a bowl, a pitcher of water, and a towel for washing. “Want to go get something to eat, or go out for a drink? I know a few places that are nice without being too pretentious or anything.”
“Thank you. But no, I’m exhausted. Really. I spent yesterday looking for tornado survivors, I had a bad night’s sleep in a damp cellar, and then a hard ride today. It’s nice of you to ask, but I need to rest.”
“Well, if you need anything, I’m right across the hall.”
I thought I detected a glimmer of a suggestion in his eyes when he said this, but I could’ve been mistaken. “I know. Thanks.”
He left, and to my relief, he hasn’t been back. I thought I’d go straight to sleep, but instead, I tossed around on the unfamiliar pillow and couldn’t shut up my chattering mind. So here I am in a chair by the open window. It’s peaceful just to sit and gaze outside, listening to the chirping of spring insects, and the music of a nearby wind chime.
Maybe I can sleep now. I hope I’ll have pleasant dreams.
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