Ellis was a bust. The town was locked down so tight that you could barely pass by it on the interstate. There’s still a lot of traffic on the interstate but it was all foot and pedal powered. You didn’t see horses on it too much; I guess the blacktop isn’t real good for their hooves and stuff like that.
There were people on the interstate still living out of their cars and campers and RVs. It was the weirdest thing I think I’d seen thus far … well, outside of that little town that was trying to replicate the 1800s. There were clotheslines, container gardens, artificial turf put down, just an incredible mess. But the people looked depressed for all they seemed to be trying to create some kind of lives for themselves. And they looked hungry. I swear as I passed by some of them it was like they were sizing me up, not to come to dinner but to be dinner.
The town of Hays wasn’t any better and actually felt some worse. I began to doubt my plan to follow the interstate; it seemed to be where all the misery was located. I was able to get on the other side of Hays before I got too exhausted to think straight and then hopped off the interstate and picked up Highway 140 and started looking for a place to bed down for the night. Except for the road I travelled the land was flat and featureless except for the few lonesome trees that dotted the landscape. It was close to midnight and I was shivering with exhaustion before I found a burned out building that I could crawl into without having to worry too much that it was going to fall in on me. I didn’t like the scurrying rodents that I heard but they left me alone so I gave them the same gift.
Not having a traveling partner of any kind was starting to tell on me. I had to do everything. I had no one to share my chores, no one to create any conversation with even if it was just grunts, not one to share night watch with. I can’t say I was bored exactly but I was tired and tired gets you stupid. It was June and I’d had more than my fair share of luck, but it was about to run out.
The next morning I just kept walking, and frankly getting more and more depressed and more and more tired. Everywhere I had been since leaving Joe’s place there were people who stared at me like I was fresh meat, both figuratively and literally. I kept going for as long as I could each day just trying to get beyond the mass of humanity that seemed to be congregated all along the interstate. I wasn’t on the interstate anymore, but on the highway that paralleled it very closely but that was the problem, the road simply wasn’t far enough away to get away.
I was so tired it took me a while to realize that Highway 140, also called Old Hwy 40 if I didn’t confuse the few road signs that were still standing, had taken a jog south. First came this little spot on the map called Black Wolf and it was as scary as its name implied and I cut through there as fast as I could, keeping myself to myself. After there things started clearing up and I was some relieved. I stepped over off the road to take care of myself … monthlies are the pits when you are on the road and mine never did like to find a regular schedule; oh no, it liked to surprise me. After that I looked at my maps, wore badly in places but luckily in places I didn’t need them, and I saw I could follow the road I was on and eventually it would loop back to the interstate nearly Salinas, Kansas. I decided the extra miles would be worth it to avoid everyone’s misery.
I taped my shoe back together one more time and then got going. The town of Ellsworth was empty and ransacked. There wasn’t much there to begin with although by some standards it had been huge since it had a Best Value Inn and a couple of historical museums. Unfortunately what hadn’t been ransacked had been burnt over. I just didn’t understand the destruction, it seemed about the most illogical thing you could do under the circumstances.
Outside of Ellsworth the weather started going funny. The wind got a little worse than it had been but it was the feel of it that bothered me more than anything. I saw some clouds off in the distane that promised some kind of storm but I wasn’t sure if rain was part of that. When I started seeing lightning coming out of the leading edge of the storm along the skyline I knew it was time to find me some shelter. Lightning was nothing to fool with back home, out in the open flatness that was Kansas it seemed even more of a danger.
I looked around and finally spotted a house and barn that sat back off the road a piece. Another rumble of thunder decided it for me and I added what speed I could to my gate.
The house was further away than I had thought; like an illusion, the longer I walked the further away it seemed to get. It was taking forever to reach my chosen destination. But the storm didn’t have any trouble traveling fast, it was closer to me before I was closer to the house. The funky grey-green color spread to take over the whole sky. I had finally reached the drive when a gust of wind almost picked me up off my feet and that is no small task.
And that one gust seemed to signal a change for the worse. That’s when I saw two kids struggling towards the backyard. There was a little girl with long blonde braids and an even smaller boy she was trying to pull along. It wasn’t that the little boy didn’t want to go with her it is that the wind fought them every step of the way. Then she happened to glance my direction, pointed, and let out a scream that I didn’t hear.
I know a stranger could put fear into some people, and these were kids, but I got the feeling it wasn’t me that had scared her so bad. I turned to look behind me and nearly screamed myself.
I’d never seen a tornado in real life but I had on TV. It didn’t do it justice, no mere picture or video ever could. When you see this flavor of God’s nature in action I don’t care who you are, you will turn and run like the world’s biggest coward. But the wind wasn’t cooperating, it was taking all my energy to go forward; those poor kids didn’t stand a chance. The girl had grabbed a hold of the T of the clothesline but the little boy was wrenched away from her.
I scooped him up as soon as I could get to him and then grabbed the girl by her arm. I tried to head to the barn but she twisted and then slapped me pointing to a hole in the ground. The sound around me was like nothing I’d ever heard, no have a desire to hear again. It was like some unimaginably large giant had picked up an entire orchestra and was just slamming it on the ground over and over and over. It was a god-awful scary noise.
I threw the kids in the hole and saw it actually had a door but it took nearly all the strength I had left to pull it closed. I thought I would have to hold it closed against the wind until the girl came up around me and slammed an old pipe bar down into brackets on either side before scrambling as far back as she could; I didn’t know if it was from the storm or me. If it was possible at that moment the sound got even louder and a slat came out of the door and the wind started pouring in.
I ran to the back of what looked like a root cellar and not asking their permission pinned the two kids into a corner and did my best to keep the flying debris from hurting them. My pack took the brunt of the worst of it and then something hit my head and all was darkness.
I couldn’t have been out very long. My eyes popped open and I had to swallow back a yell. Two little faces were staring down at me. The boy, later found out he was five years old with hair as dark as his sister’s was light. “You’re heavy.”
I’d dealt with enough little kids to know that you played along or you might scare them to pieces. “I know. Did I squash you flat?”
The little boy turned bashful but the sister wasn’t as easily pacified. “Mister, how come you are in our yard?” She wasn’t belligerent but she wasn’t friendly either.
With kids honesty is always the best policy. “The storm started to look bad so I was looking for a place to shelter until it was over.”
“But you were going to the barn.”
“Well, I told you, I was looking for a place to get out of the storm.”
She looked at me like I was more than a few bricks shy of a load. “You never go to a barn when a big wind comes. The barn could fall on you.”
“Good to know.” I stopped and looked around and didn’t know quite how to broach the subject. “Hey, uh, you know … where’s the adults around here?”
She clammed up for a minute and then started shaking. “Are you going to hurt us?”
“What?!” I scooted away from them and kept my hands visible. “No. Absolutely not. I’m … look, I know I might look scary but, honest, hurting a kid is the last thing I’d ever chose to do.”
Well she started crying and then the little boy started crying and I didn’t know what to do without making it worse. Then I remembered.
“Hey … hey girl … is your brother allowed to have c-a-n-d-y?” I crinkled the bag to get her attention.
She sniffed and with a suspicious look on her face said, “We aren’t supposed to take any from strangers.”
“Well, that’s why I asked before offering it to him. My parents always told me the same thing. But I’ll save it in case it gets to a point you don’t think I’m a stranger anymore.” I stopped with a sigh. “I don’t want to upset you again but aren’t there any adults around?”
“You promise you aren’t going to hurt us?”
“I promise. Look, it might not mean a lot to you but I grew up with some … er … kids that had lots of health problems and stuff. I would never have hurt them or stood by and let anyone else hurt them. It kinda makes me mad when people hurt kids so if someone is around here hurting you I’ll … er … talk to them if …”
“No. No … we came home from school and there was a note that mom and dad went to Salinas to some shopping only they never came back. It got dark and I tried to call Aunt Beth and she told me to stay put that bad things were happening and that mom and dad would get home as soon as they could. We waited and waited but they’ve never come back. The school bus never came back. Nobody ever came back.” She started crying again and so did the little boy.
I stepped out of the hole and looked around at the damage. The barn was missing part of its roof. The house had some missing shingles and part of the porch had collapsed under the weight of a tree that had landed on it. There was another tree split on the other side of the yard. There was all sorts of debris in the yard but that looked to be about all there was.
I started to walk around when both kids scrambled out and the girl asked in panic, “Are you leaving?!”
“Huh? No but I’m not sure what to do. I’ve got a headache and I’m just so tired. I know you don’t trust me but, would it be all right if we went in your house and I laid down for a few minutes? Even laying down on the porch …”
“No! The coyotes will get you!”
“I’m too big for a coyote to eat,” I said trying not to smile.
“Not just one coyote, a bunch of them. They got the chickens first and then a bunch of big dogs came and got the cow and her baby. It was … it was awful.” She turned a little paler than she was already.
“Well, if you are talking dogs … A big one tried to turn me into a chew toy several weeks back. Maybe … maybe the barn.”
The girl finally said, “If I let you come inside, will you stay?”
I looked at her and said, “I’ll stay until we figure something out.”
It took three days and a lot of soul searching along the way to figure that something out. I knew as soon as I heard they were alone that these two kids couldn’t have survived on their own for much longer. It wasn’t just four legged predators roaming around, there were the two legged kind and if I had run across their house eventually someone else would as well. I’m flaming surprised someone hadn’t done it before; it had to be God looking after them and hiding them from eyes he didn’t want seeing them.
But I had seen and once I had seen there was no way to push off the responsibility. The girl was named Trish and she was ten but looked younger. The boy was five and was called Mickey though his proper name was McDonald. “That was Aunt Beth’s name before she married Uncle Henry,” or so I was told.
It just broke my heart to see how hard Trish had been trying to take care of her brother. Lot’s of sorrow to their tale. But the biggest gotcha for me? Their last name was Marshall. And it gets even creepier. The dad’s name was Jonathon. I mean … come on … I’d already decided to help the kids but did God really need to kick me upside the head with a more obvious pull to the heart strings? I had been wondering in my heart whether or not there was some way to make up for not saving Jonathon and Nana. I’d prayed about it and … well Dad always said be real careful of what you pray for because you just might get it.
The first problem we had was that there was no way those kids were going to be able to walk to Topeka. The aunt and uncle lived outside of Topeka around some lake. I found their address in the family address book that was conveniently beside the kitchen phone. I gathered up some other stuff that I thought the kids might need or appreciate – mom’s jewelry, a few mementoes of their dad, the family picture albums, the stack of home movies on DVD, the family Bible that had all of their important papers in it like birth certificates and shot records, a few other little odds and ends.
I tried to remember what it was that my dad had found so important to keep when his mom died. The blouse she went to the hospital in, her glasses and keys, her hair brush, her pocket book and all of the junk in it. He always kept a pack of Juicy Fruit in there so that it would always keep that smell he remembered his mom’s purse having ever since he was a little kid.
Then I had Trish help me go through the house and find what little food was left. There wasn’t a whole lot but it was better than nothing, plus it was all home canned stuff. The cornmeal and flour had weevils in it but like Mom said, “If you don’t tell ‘em then they don’t know the difference.” I sifted the flour and cornmeal into zip bags that I added a bay leaf to. When I saw the boots in her parents’ closet I asked before taking two pair of boots. They weren’t a perfect fit but they were a ton better than what I had. I gave my boots a proper burial … they needed it so that they wouldn’t stink up the house when we closed it up.
Most of the last day I spent fixing a pony cart that had been out in the barn. “Grandad made it for Mom when she and Dad moved out here. Only ponies are too expensive and they had to get rid of it when I was little.”
“Well, I’m a sight bigger than a pony but I think this will work. Sometimes you might have to walk but hopefully not all the time. But I can’t fix that shade thing that goes over the top; you make sure you and your brother have hats and rain gear just in case.”
The last evening there I ran into trouble. Trish is a smart kid. I’ll say it again like I said it a lot growing up … kids are a lot smarter than people give them credit for being.
“Rocky, how come you sound like a guy but you talk like a girl. You say the same kinds of things that Momma and Aunt Beth say.”
“Uh ….” I couldn’t do it. I know anyone else would have done it with a smile and been able to make something believable up. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t just stand there and lie to her face. “This is a big secret Trish and I guess if we are going to be traveling partners I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell another living soul, not even Mickey.” I proceeded to give her a very abbreviate version of my life up to that point. “So you see,” I told her after about an hour of story and followed by her questions. “I want you to be able to trust me but I understand … well, I just understand. But I also can’t leave you here. We’ll leave that letter just on the off chance someone comes looking for you guys and then we’ll go find your aunt and uncle.”
She swallowed it all a lot easier than I know an adult would have. Maybe that’s one of the good things about childhood, the ability to believe in the fantastic. But something was still on her mind. “What if … what if Aunt Beth and Uncle Henry aren’t there? What if they de … disappeared just like mom and dad?”
“I’m not promising that they’ll be there but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But what I do promise you is that I won’t just leave you and Mickey alone without someone to help you. OK?”
It wasn’t OK. This poor kid was scared but it was the best we could come up with.
I woke them up early the next morning and we got on the road so fast they didn’t have time to get scared or sad about leaving. It was still mostly dark and soon Mickey was back to sleep and Trish not too far from it. I pulled them and their belongings along in the pony cart. I looked like some where kind of rickshaw driver. If there had been a bicycle I would have tried to figure out some way to use it as the power but there was only Trish’s bike and I had to cannibalize it to fix the pony cart.
For the kids the traveling got old real fast. Trish was quiet but Mickey wanted to get down and run around. I tried to take breaks to let him run his wiggles out so that his bouncing didn’t throw my stride off so much and make a hard job harder but it didn’t always work. Mushroom State Park was the only place that day where they seemed to calm down; apparently they’d gone there often enough with their parents that they were too busy remembering to get rambunctious.
It took two days to get to Salinas and I got through there as quick as I could. It was a knot of misery the likes of which I hadn’t even seen in Laramie. Laramie had been alive, this place was full of the walking dead. I wasn’t even walking in the middle of town but south of the interstate. The further east I seemed to go the worse it got. Or maybe it was the closer we got back to merging with the interstate.
I stayed on old Highway 40 as much as I could. Sometimes I had to cut through fields, parking lots, or around buildings to get around obstacles, mostly of the manmade variety. I just kept pulling. After Salinas the kids didn’t want to get out of the cart and walk. The place had scared them. I tried to ignore the fact that there parents had disappeared in that city but Trish couldn’t ignore it and Mickey picked up on his sister’s sadness and fear.
After Salinas we stayed the night in Solomon. I had hoped to get through there before night hit but just couldn’t. I was tired and getting more tired. Pulling that cart wasn’t like walking and carrying my pack; it was like fighting upstream. If the terrain had continued to be flat I’m not sure what I would have done. Two more short days because of Mickey’s stomach – I only found out then that he wasn’t a very good traveler – found us in Chapman, Kansas.
A day after Chapman we were in another sizeable town, this one called Junction City. I got all kinds of turned around trying to find a road that we could travel that wasn’t the interstate but had not luck. It seemed like the I70 was the only piece of blacktop that took you anywhere. What was worse was that as I left the city the next day the interstate turned into a dog track. Something had happened at Marshall Airfield. Cars and trucks and all sorts of stuff that I’m not sure I want to ever know what it was originally littered the entire area. The only good thing is that there was a National Guard presence keeping the roadways moving along. No stopping and gawking, be about your business.
I was more thankful every day that I had thought to fill all the containers I could with water from the kids’ house. There just didn’t seem to be any place that you could stop and get a drink from. It was after the Ft. Riley Military Reservation that we started picking up the rowdy element. Some of these people were scary. If I hadn’t had the kids I would have been OK I think but this being a guardian just took it out of me. I was constantly having to warn people away from the pony cart, away from the kids, trying to lure Mickey away, the men taking notice of Trish and saying things that would have been inappropriate to say to a grown woman, much less a 10 year old girl child. I couldn’t sleep at night as the one time I had I woke up to find someone trying to steal stuff from us. I was scared to death I’d wake up too late and someone was trying to steal the kids next.
I was already way on the other side of exhausted before we went that next two days to McFarland. I knew part of the reason that things were getting worse is because it was summer and all the goods that had just been lying around up to that point were all gone. I saw sites that had obviously been ransacked more than once. People were getting hungry and hungry people get mean. When the road started dancing in front of my eyes I knew that I had to find someplace safe so that I could get some sleep.
I had been following the frontage road as often as I could but when I saw it was getting towards dark and most sensible people were already off the road I took the next exit. McFarland is nothing but hand full of streets backed up against some railroad tracks but it was all I had at the moment. The town itself was deserted of original residents and only those of us who were vagabonds remained.
I was heading for a badly tore up building hoping with other better buildings available no one would be in that one. It was dark. I was practically tripping over my feet but I was determined not to go down. Then I heard a sharp cry from Trish and I spun around looking for the threat. He towered over me and the moon made his outline even more terror-inducing to my exhausted brain.