Chapter 28: The book
Dad woke me when he turned the truck off. “Morning, Anna.”
As whirlwinds from the south pass through, so it cometh from a terrible land. It was a warning; I felt it in my bones. Fuck, that’s new. I breathed in deep, kept my eyes closed and clutched at the fading words. A voice. No. The voice. Where had I heard this voice before? I exhaled. These dreams were getting out of hand.
I opened my eyes. Dawn spread its warm glow on the horizon. The sky turned orange as the planet inexorably turned its face toward the life-giving sun. I shook George and Laura awake.
“Hurry up,” Dad said. “We have to break camp.”
Chris helped Theo walk toward us. Toward me. Theo limped badly. He had his arm around Chris’s shoulder. He broke into a timid grin when our eyes met, then grimaced when he took a step. My heart pounded. I blushed but resisted the urge to run to him.
When they passed Susan and Klara, both girls, at the same time, of course, looked right at me and said, “Ooohhh.” Giggling and full of excitement, Susan said, “He’s so dangerous looking now.”
“Yeah,” Klara said, “like a pirate. Ooohhh, a swashbuckler.” She waved an imaginary sword over her head.
“Oh, oh, I know, looking for a damsel in distress,” Susan squealed. Both girls fell into irrepressible giggles.
Theo looked anything but swashbuckling. The bruise along his nose and cheek had grown to cover the entire side of his face. The stitched up scars were red and inflamed and stretched from his chin to the bridge of his nose. Daylight made his injuries look much worse than the night before.
“Hey you,” he whispered when he stopped in front of me, accompanied by renewed sniggers from Susan and Klara.
Unable to speak, I nodded and smiled. I hoped he understood.
“Over here, people,” Dad said while he unfolded his map.
Dad introduced Maria and Carmen to everyone. George and Laura made friends with Carmen in that extraordinary way children do. While Dad explained our travel route, George boasted to Carmen that he also had a map. All three children giggled when he pointed to the smiley face and said, “See?”
Hearing heated voices, I returned my attention to the truck. Tempers seemed to flare as old arguments resumed.
“I don’t think it is a wise decision to move her in the condition she’s in.” Jane had her fists on her hips and glared at Dad.
“We can’t stay here,” Dad shot back. “We can be seen for miles around. If there are people about, we sure did a good job of letting them know we’re here. We have no choice but to move out. And the sooner the better. We’ll try to take it slow, but that’s all I can promise.”
Dad paused and looked over his shoulder at the children. He whispered, “Maria, I’m sorry about your daughter.”
“She’s not my daughter,” Maria hissed, her face contorted in anger.
“Oh right. Then?”
“Michael? I didn’t know him, but he saved our lives.”
“Right, well listen, until we know if Jenny will pull through, we have to keep her tied up. I made that mistake once.” Dad’s face tightened. “With my son.”
Maria’s expression softened. Dad pulled out a map and handed it to Jane.
A strong gust of wind buffeted the bridge. Jane’s head jerked to look down river. “The winds have changed.”
I followed her gaze. Cinders from the fire swirled over the snow and trash blew across the bridge south to north. I wasn’t sure, but it felt warmer than yesterday.
“George,” Dad barked over his shoulder. “Give me your map. Please.”
George rebagged his map and handed it to Dad. “Listen, son, you have it memorized. I need you and Laura to help Carmen learn the way. Keep at it until she can name every road. Can you do that for me?”
“Okay, Dad,” George replied glumly.
“Good, you’re in charge. I’ll make sure Laura understands. Okay?”
George brightened and seemed pleased to be in charge of something. Dad handed the map to Maria and instructed her and Jane to keep the maps close to their bodies at all times.
“If you get separated from the group, just follow the highlighted route, and maybe….” Dad didn’t finish. There was no need.
“Theo,” Dad shouted, Think you can still drive?”
“Good. I need our doctor here to keep a close eye on her patient.” An ominous look of understanding passed between Dad and Jane.
We cleared the bridge and headed into open country. Theo drove about eight miles an hour. At this speed, we went slow enough not to unduly shake Jenny. The railroad stood a good twenty feet above the surrounding countryside. Trees grew thick along the base of the berm on both sides and provided some cover.
The highway stretched out of sight, bumper to bumper with abandoned vehicles. Flat farmland reached as far as the eye could see. On the horizon stood a line of trees, beyond which lay the Mississippi river. The highway parted company with the tracks when the railroad veered to the left.
I pulled a bottle of water from my bag, noticed the notebook and tossed it onto the dashboard. I took a sip from the bottle and offered it to Theo, who just shook his head and kept his eyes ahead.
Fine, go ahead and ignore me, but it’s something we’re going to have to work through. I sighed. Before we left the bridge, we had a rather embarrassing moment courtesy of Jane Spell.
Jane had inspected Theo’s wounds and declared herself satisfied with the stitches. She tossed a bottle of pills to me and said, “Make sure your boyfriend takes two of these every four hours.”
Theo had turned dark red but remained silent. Mom heard the comment and shot Theo a look of deep distrust. It did not help any when I had to assist Theo into the truck. I sighed. Why did he have to switch off now?
I removed the notebook from the dashboard and read the title, ’The Sacred Sisterhood of the Xích Quý.’ Hmm, interesting. I flipped through the pages and read selected sentences that caught my eye. Part history, part -- I don’t know -- religion perhaps. I found myself on the last page and read the final sentence. ‘And you, my chosen sister, know we stand guard to this very day’.
Inside the pocket of the back cover were two letters. My heart sank. Acceptance letters from Notre Dame and St. Louis University. My full ride scholarships until the schools ceased to exist. Seventh highest A.C.T. score in state history opened a lot of doors. Who knows? Someday I might make it; the books at least, still exist.
We headed due north. The road slipped out of sight. It continued its great sweep northeast toward Illinois. Bored and with no conversation from Theo, I started to read.
A little while later Theo exclaimed, “What the hell is that?”