CHAPTER 7 – Things Can Only Get Better
As they worked their way through the park, a square block island of green in a sea of varying shades of gray a couple of blocks south of downtown, Matti and Woody peered into a couple of dozen faces. Tear streaked, ashen, pain scarred, and many nursing injuries, survivors reclined beneath bushes, against the boles of sturdy trees, on the few scattered benches, and crowded in and around the central bandstand. While most remained silent, others mumbled greetings, questions or comments. One man made threats that Matti and Woody would suffer terribly if they attempted to take what the holder claimed was now rightfully his.
“You’re right, man,” Woody was quick to respond and back away as the man began to rise. “You’re right. That blanket is absolutely yours, no question, no argument.”
After two rounds through the park, Matti was forced to admit that Jamal wasn’t there.
Their roving search took them around the western portion of downtown, a couple of blocks from where Matti’s earlier attackers had accreted. They met people similarly roaming about, singularly and in twos and threes, many likewise looking for missing loved ones. The number of bodies lying about, as well as their condition, especially in the downtown area, amplified her dread at the odds of finding Jamal upright and breathing. At least Woody was with her and could do the closer looks at any of the bodies with the potential of being her brother.
They even ran across Robert, one of Jamal’s friends, but he hadn’t seen the boy, either. He did suggest, though, that they check a new hobby shop that had recently opened in the Riverside Shopping Center. He said Jamal had mentioned a few days ago that he wanted to check it out.
When he mentioned it, Matti felt her stomach drop, but not because she had neglected to think of it as a possible place to look for Jamal. She remembered intently watching activity in front of the building that housed the model shop. It was where she and Woody had ditched the men chasing her, in the long building that backed up to the river, the very building that Woody had emerged from after flying her across the river. And she remembered noticing, too, the damage to the building as the men poked and prodded into the still smoking, blackened ruins in their search. It had taken several direct hits, at least one pretty close to the area where she recalled the model shop was located. She had been so focused on eluding the lynch mob that such a mundane matter as Jamal’s hobby simply hadn’t registered in her mind. That his charred body could be there, still, lying un-mourned among the warm ashes, almost drove her off at a dead run.
She forced herself to thank Robert and ask if they could do anything for him. When he declined their offer, Matti wasted no more time before striking off down the debris littered street. The most direct route went right through the middle of downtown. When her personal tormenters failed to materialize, she assumed even they must be trying to reassemble something from their own all but destroyed lives.
As soon as they crossed over the Washington Street Bridge, Matti broke into a run down the sidewalk and into the large, central parking lot. Woody caught up to her standing near the front of the destroyed hobby shop but fearful of going farther.
“I’ll look,” Woody said as he slipped past her.
Matti remained standing there, statue rigid and eyes clenched shut. Both of her hands clasped her mouth to hold back a whole barrage of screams straining to escape.
It seemed like it had been forever that she stood there with her eyes shut, her hands unmoved. When he stepped back out beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder, she instantly interpreted it as a gesture of sorrowful commiseration. Her eyes flew open to gaze through welling tears at Woody’s face, waiting for the fateful words.
Instead, he shook his head and said, “Not there. Owner is – a big guy behind the counter – and a woman; no one else.”
Matti felt her legs beginning to go wobbly, then Woody’s hands grasping her arms to catch her weight and to ease her to the ground. He sat beside her, unspeaking for several minutes while she quietly sobbed, washing away the anguish that had built to an almost unbearable level on their hike across town. Not knowing if Jamal was lying dead somewhere beneath slowly cooling ashes and forever beyond any need of aid, or if he was alive and possibly in pain that she might relieve if she could only find him, meant an anxiety loaded angst very different from the unrelievable grief for her parents.
When she finally was able to look at Woody without his face blurring behind sheets of tears, she forced a smile on her lips and muttered, “Thanks. I don’t know what I would have done if—”
“S’okay.” After more long, silent moments, he nodded toward the east side of the parking lot and said, “Let’s go over there and see if we can find something to eat before it gets cleaned out.”
Matti glanced that way and noticed the flatbed truck with stake sides at the front of the supermarket. Two men were carrying boxes from inside and loading the back of the truck.
“Think they’ll let us? I’ve got no money. Do you?” Matti asked as she rose to her feet.
“No, but they’re probably looters, too. It’s a big store, should be plenty for all of us.”
But when Woody asked one of the men if they would mind sharing the store with two more looters, the man looked sternly at them and replied, “Looting is a serious crime.”
Matti had no stomach for arguing niceties. The man might have been an owner or manager of the store, but she doubted it. She figured he simply didn’t want to share and was falling back on the law, whatever that was in the present circumstances. She nudged Woody and turned to walk away, hoping they could find something somewhere else to assuage a growing hunger that had hardly been noticeable until Woody had brought it up.
“Wait, come back,” the looter said.
As Matti and Woody looked back at him, the man said, “Come on back and find yourselves something to eat.”
Matti and Woody exchanged looks, then Woody said, “Really?”
They stepped through the entrance as the second man, shorter and younger, came walking from the back and carrying another box out to the truck. He came back in and stood for a moment beside the first one, both watching as Matti and Woody begin prowling about for something easy to eat on the spot. Matti had an uneasy feeling they weren’t going to get out of the place without paying a price for their pickings.
Having found a clear area on the floor, Matti and Woody gave their feet a rest while they leisurely chewed on half of a salami stick that Woody broke in two. The sounds of the two men carrying boxes and crates of goods out to the truck were constant, and the men made no move to interrupt the meager meal, at least, not until they had consumed most of their sausage and wandered over to the soft drink aisle to wash it down.
“You two take care of your hunger, okay?” It was the smaller man who spoke. He had assumed a perch on one side of a thawed and dripping, open-topped, freezer case.
“Yes, thank you,” Matti replied. “You’re very generous.”
“Well, hey, it ain’t ours, you know. But we wouldn’t turn down a little pay-back.”
And, here it comes. Sure didn’t take ’em long. God, are all men the same? At least Woody’s with me. With just two of them, we can probably fight our way out.
“What’d you have in mind?” she asked. Go ahead, creeps, commit yourselves.
“The Judge and I are gonna take this load up to the Veterans Memorial building where they’re settin’ up relief headquarters. It’s about the only place big enough still standing. We’ll be back in half an hour or so for another load. It’d sure be nice if someone had it already stacked outside and ready to load up.”
“Yes, that would make it possible for us to make more trips,” the tall man said as he came walking down the aisle. “If this stuff is just left here unattended and unguarded, it might be taken and hoarded. People are going to need a steady, reliable supply of food over an indeterminate period. If it isn’t controlled, things could get pretty bad before anyone can get to us from outside. That’s the thinking of the few city leaders still with us. Frankly, I don’t think … well, no matter. My name is Thomas Woodall, by the way. My friend, there, is Charlie Dickerson. I apologize, again, for my initial reaction to your request for food. I’ve never been accused of looting. It rather took me by surprise.”
“You are a judge, aren’t you? Like he said.” Woody thumbed towards Charlie, then smiled at Matti. “I recognize him, now.”
“Yes, I am The Judge, as Charlie calls me. I’m retired, but I’m afraid I’ll be stuck with that title forever.”
Charlie said, “Yeah, well, I figure if the governor and the president can keep their titles after retiring, so can a judge. It’s about as important a job as anything I can think of.”
Matti actually felt guilty when she said, “I’m glad to hear someone is still in charge of things. And I’d really like to help, but I sorta need to try to find my little brother. He wasn’t home when … it happened.”
The Judge stepped up to Matti and reached down to take her hand in his. His voice was soft, and kind, and sincere. “I’m so very sorry. Of course, you have to find him.”
“Hey, Judge, why don’t we check that list when we get back to the school?”
“Good idea.” The Judge turned back to Matti and explained, “They’ve got a contact list of survivors and where a lot of them are staying, so friends and families can get back together. We’ll take a look for you. What’s your brother’s name? Oh – I guess I should have yours, too.”
Matti gave Jamal’s full name as well as hers and Woody’s, carefully spelling each name and watching as he wrote them down.
“And where can he reach you? Still at home or staying with friends?”
Matti glanced over at Woody, then back at The Judge and shrugged. “Our houses burned down. Our parents are dead.”
“Oh, my Lord,” The Judge whispered.
“I wasn’t home at the time, either. Same with Woody. We haven’t found any friends, yet, so I guess we’ll just stay here in the store tonight. It’s probably as good as any place I’ve seen.”
After a brief, whispered conference with Charlie, The Judge said, “When we finish, today, why don’t we meet you back here and you two come up to the house with us? Your brother, too, if you find him by then. It’s a big house, although, it has been filling up, lately. But, I’m sure we can find space for you. Do you have any idea where to look for him? Can we give you a lift someplace?”
“No,” said Matti. “The only lead we had brought us here, to the model shop that used to be over there. I guess we’ll just wander around town.”
The Judge said, “Well, before you take off to spend the day just roaming about, why don’t you wait until we come back for the next load? We’ll know by then if his name is on the list and where he might be. Or, if you like, you can ride over there with us to check the list, yourself.”
She turned to Woody and asked with her eyes what he thought.
He answered with a shrug and, “Whatever you want.”
Feeling a little foolish for what she had thought before, Matti turned back to the men and said, “Okay, you check for Jamal on that list, and we’ll have your next load ready when you get back,”
I guess all men aren’t the same. And, someone is still in charge. We shouldn’t get into any trouble here, doing what a judge tells us. Things can only get better, now.