Chapter 27: The bridge
“Anna, come on. Dad says you have to move the car.”
I opened my eyes. My face still burned, but not so hot anymore. Theo. Where’s Theo?
“Hurry up,” Laura said and climbed into the backseat.
Mom dozed in the seat next to me. Ahead all was dark, except for the taillights of the tow truck proceeding down the tracks. I flipped the headlights on, put the car in gear and waited for Dad to move.
We traveled along the tracks. The ride became smoother when the railroad ties gave way to steel plates. When I crossed under the bridge girders, I knew we were above the river. Soon we would be gone from St. Louis for good.
Susan stepped from the shadows and motioned for me to stop. I halted where the girders ended. Twenty feet separated me from Dad’s truck.
When I stepped from the warm SUV, I noticed the wind, or the absolute lack of it. Still, when the bitter cold penetrated my exposed flesh, my face felt like a thousand knives stabbed at it. Stars twinkled bright in the dark and moonless sky.
Susan lit two oil lamps and placed them in the center of the tracks.
Two lamps. A memory stirred. Laura had awakened me from a dream. Yes, a dream, with lamps. What else? I struggled to remember. A woman, seated, had held a third lamp. Yes, that’s it. She had spoken to me. What, I could not hear. Behind the woman and drowning out her voice had been lightning and thunder. What did it all mean?
I walked over to Susan and asked, “What’s up?”
“Get George out of the truck. I think Dad fell asleep when he stopped the car.”
I opened the door to let George scramble out. “Hey, Anna, how you feeling?” Dad sounded just a little past exhausted.
“Okay,” I said as George scooted past. Before he could scamper away, I told him to go help Susan get everything set up.
Dad yawned, one right after another.
“Dad, you really need to get some sleep.”
“Got to eat first,” he replied, with another yawn.
“How’s Theo?” I asked none too smoothly.
“Well, pretty banged up. But fine I think.” Dad pointed behind him. “He’s in the Spell’s rig. Go on. Check on him for me.” He flashed a sad smile.
I made my way to the rear passenger door of the black SUV. I stood silent, bathed in light from the open door. Jane leaned inside and took no notice of me. She placed extra blankets over the woman and one of the children we had rescued from the river. Theo sat at the far end of the truck, asleep.
Jane became aware of my presence. “Come here. Let me look at you.” She touched and poked at my cheeks. “You’ll be fine. There’s no permanent damage.”
Damage? I put my hand to my face.
“Just try to stay under wraps and out of the wind.” She paused; aware I had not paid any attention to her.
She followed my gaze. “Your boyfriend’s going to be fine.”
“He’s not-- Not my boyfriend.”
“Like I care.” Jane sighed. “That’s Maria.” She nodded to the young woman asleep. “And her daughter, Carmen.”
“Where’s the other girl?”
Jane frowned and glanced past Theo. “She’s in back.”
I caught a glimpse of the girl nestled between the baggage.
“I don’t know if she’ll pull through. She was pretty far gone by the time we reached her. They all were, but she’s awfully sick.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Pneumonia, Maria says. Pretty advanced case, too.”
“Can you help her?” I found myself frightened of the little girl in a way I could not explain.
“Maybe, if we have reached her in time. Dave had some antibiotics and I’ve started her on a serious regimen. But again, I just don’t know.”
“Your father,” Jane’s voice seethed with disapproval, “tied her up.”
I sighed. Just like he did with Klara.
“I don’t think Dave believes she’ll make it. I know it’s the prudent thing to do, but these folks aren’t going to be happy when they wake up.”
I glanced at Maria and Carmen. My gaze traveled back to Theo, to the scars on his face. His beard and mustache were cut away from the wound. A scar ran from the bridge of his swollen nose to his lower lip. Another gash ran down to his chin. Although neatly stitched, the scars were swollen and red.
Chris ran toward me. “Hey, Anna, you brought some books didn’t you?”
“Wood’s wet. We need something dry to start the fire.”
“Okay, I’ll go get one.” I snuck one last glance at Theo.
At the wrecker, I placed my book bag on the seat and unzipped it. I pulled out the notebook Mom had given me, and hesitated. I pulled out another book. Sorry, Heathcliff.
I returned to the campsite and surrendered the book to Chris, who ripped the pages from the spine.
“Where’s Klara?” I asked.
“Up front on guard,” Chris said while he continued to destroy my book.
Dad sat on a bucket. Between yawns he said, “Well, it’s not a great place. But at least nothing can sneak up on us.”
“Do you think a fire’s a good idea?” I asked.
“No, I don’t.” Dad frowned. “But we don’t have much choice. I can’t leave the trucks on all night; we’re already burning through gas way too fast. Besides, we announced our arrival earlier. Best thing we can do now is to stay warm and vigilant. We’ll get an early start tomorrow.”
“How come you didn’t use one of your books?” I asked Susan while she stuffed the paper into the kindling.
“Well, my books are practical. We might need them.”
Of course they were.
“Anyway, I thought you would be nursing Theo.” She grinned at me.
Chris stopped fanning the flames. He gazed up with a strange expression on his face, almost one of anger.
“He’s asleep.” I blushed under Chris’s stare.
Chris looked over at Susan and in a surprisingly hostile voice growled, “Knock it off. The last thing we need is for Mom to hear you.”
“I’m going to go help Klara,” I said, needing time to think.
With the dim blue of my pen light to guide me, I found Klara.
“Oh, hi, Annabel,” she said when I came into view.
“Hey, Klara. Chris and Susan have a fire if you want to go and warm up.” Now that I was here, I wanted to be alone. “I’ll take the watch. I had plenty of sleep this afternoon.”
“Thanks. I’m starving.”
Klara headed toward the campsite. My footsteps crunched when I walked to the edge of the bridge. I moved to the spot Klara had cleared of snow and leaned against the rail. The moon had poked above the horizon. I turned my light off and accustomed my eyes to the dim light.
My thoughts turned to Nana. Not the wild-eyed, insane woman she became in the last months of her life, but the sweet, caring grandmother she had once been. In days gone by, I spent a lot of time with her, almost every Saturday.
Nana’s food tasted better than any restaurant. Hours I spent in her small kitchen, helping prepare the meals she sold to support herself. I didn’t mind. At the end of the day, there were her cookies for a reward and they were well worth it.
Nana loved to entertain with stories about the old country. She grew up in Hanoi during the Japanese occupation. Strangely, she never had a word to say about the occupiers. Instead, she talked about her simple life in those simple days. Her friends, her school, her fond memories of growing up Vietnamese were the stories she preferred.
Theo’s face would be scarred. Did it matter?
I remembered the day I gave Nana her name. I had been young, no more than seven. We sat on her kitchen floor eating soup. I told her when I grew up and became a grandmother like her I wanted to be called Nana. She broke into laughter and started to call me Nana Anna. I cried, thinking she made fun of me.
She pulled me close, cradled and rocked me until I stopped. She told me if I wanted to grow up to be Nana Anna I better call her Nana, too. I had been so pleased with myself. The name stuck; soon, everyone called her Nana.
No, a scar didn’t matter.
I stomped on the deck to bring feeling back into my feet. Curiosity got the better of me so I flipped my light on, leaned over the rail and attempted to see what lay below. The feeble beam did not penetrate far.
After the Japanese killed Nana’s parents, her uncle took her to live with him in Saigon. Devoutly Catholic, he held the opinion the Buddhist all-girls school she attended was akin to a cult. She had been devastated when forced to leave. She always talked about the time spent at her school. Apparently, these were the happiest years of her life.
Nana loved to awe me with tales of secret knowledge and strange rituals from those days. Out of earshot from her, Dad would tell me not to believe what she said. Nostalgia and the fog of time, mixed with a less than perfect command of English, made most of what she had to say about the school nonsense, he would warn.
Still, it must have been a profound experience for a poor peasant girl. Plucked from the rice fields and given the opportunity for an education at a school her dirt-poor parents could never have dreamed for her. Nana claimed the school selected her for her special abilities. What those unique talents were she would never say. Perhaps she herself did not know.
Theo didn’t get by on looks that’s for sure. Nevertheless, I couldn’t deny it; there was something about him. I smiled.
Behind me, Dad’s truck started up.
After her first stroke, Nana went downhill fast and sunk into insanity. Several times over the next few months, Mom and Dad had to pick her up from police stations or hospitals. She wandered the streets, screaming the end of the world was near. She took to calling people evil.
Theo had been bitten, almost infected, and so close to being lost. To me.
Nana stopped cleaning her house, and bathing too, for that matter. She pasted newspaper clippings to her bedroom wall. These appeared to enrage her. Most of the articles were in Vietnamese or Chinese. However, enough came from English newspapers to follow her newfound obsession. It centered on a mountain range north of Hanoi where archeologists had begun an excavation. I gathered the location served as something of a sacred mountain for Nana’s school.
The whole thing became bizarre, like something you’d see on a crime show. Nana all but stopped speaking Vietnamese. Hell, her English, never very good, was now nothing more than babbling. She was, sadly, by this time raving.
The showdown came with Nana’s arrest for trying to buy poison. Mom and Dad had enough.
Theo had come so close to death. How could he do that to me?
Afraid Nana posed a danger to herself and others, Mom and Dad had no choice but to institutionalize her. They didn’t have an alternative; they could do it or the courts would. She did not last long in there.
Nana died six months later. On our last visit, mere hours before the end, she seemed to return to her senses. Still unable to speak coherently, she babbled to my mother for an hour before she gave her the little brown book.
Theo had frightened me so much.
When I kissed Nana goodbye, all she said, and this she spoke lucidly, were the words Nana Anna. Those were the last words she ever spoke. She died less than an hour later.
She left Mom a large red box filled with spices, spoons, and measuring cups. I could not help think Nana was lucky to die when she did, just months before it all began. Sad and tragic, I had pushed the memories deep inside.
“Everything all right, Anna?” Dad stepped from the shadows of the bridge.
Not quite a full moon, the orb had risen to its highest point in the sky. I felt embarrassed Dad had caught me so off my guard.
“Yeah, fine. Just thinking about Nana.”
Dad frowned. “Go get some sleep in my truck, it’s nice and warm.”
“Sure, Dad,” I replied, happy to leave the cold.