Passing around Mayfield was an eerie experience. There were signs all over the place warning people off but the worst was seeing the roadblocks off in the distance on the main roads and seeing the corpses on the other side of them. Whatever it was, it had been bad … bad enough that brute force and the might of the military had been used to contain it to a single location.
There was all sorts of theories talked about as we road – plague, anthrax, something definitely airborne – but I didn’t participate in it. Made me feel too much like I was dancing on the graves of those poor souls trapped by whatever it had been.
Thor, sitting up beside me on the wagon since his ribs were still a little too iffy to risk riding yet, tried to silently comfort me. Later, as we stopped at some little dot on the map called Hicksville to grab a bite to eat he said, “Don’t let it get to you so much Hon. They don’t mean any harm.”
“I don’t hold it against them,” I assured him. “I just … I don’t know … it makes me feel … feel weird … and bad … to treat it like a school project to talk about it. It feels the same way dissecting that fetal pig did. I know there was really no harm in it, but it still twanged me in a way I can’t explain. Which is double weird because I helped butcher every year … and I’ve been in battles and in bad spots these last several months. Why talking about that one town like that should bother me makes no sense and I know it.”
Thor shrugged, “It hits you funny on some days. Now eat that sandwich. You’ve been off your feed for a couple of days and that’s not like you.”
I gave him the squinty eye. “Do I look like a farm animal?” At his raised eyebrows I added, “I’m not ‘off my feed’ I just … I don’t know … nothing seems to suit me. I like sprouts and beans probably better than the average person but I’m getting burnt out on them. I ate that roast boar just fine.”
“No you didn’t. You gave me at least a third of what was put on your plate,” he said giving me the squinty eye right back.
“Don’t growl. I’ve just got a lot on my mind. I feel … anxious or something I guess.”
“We’re gonna need to talk about that. I don’t want you going around all twisted up inside.” After a few minutes he asked, “Is it me? Am I … pushing too much?”
“Huh?” Then understanding what he was getting at I told him, “No. Not pushing. I’m just … look, I’m still trying to figure things out. I … I want things … but there’s so much going on and so much we still need to do. I just don’t feel like I’m spending enough time doing what I need to do for us because I’ve committed to helping the rest of them first. And every time I think we are getting a little closer to getting them where they need to be we slide backwards just as far and that means it is going to be that much longer for me to be able to get going the direction we need me to go and …”
“Whoa,” Thor said quietly. “Slow down. Don’t think you have to do all of that thinking yourself.”
“I know that, but you have your responsibilities and …”
“My primary responsibility is to you. It always will be. I’ve been letting things go, trying to get Chuckri to take more of it on since it is going to be his responsibility anyway once we get them where they’re going but he’s slow to take it up. Between what he figures he owes me and how to handle his uncle and older brother it’s not as easy as just telling him ‘here, you do it from here on out.’ And I know we expected to be closer to our destination by now – and yes I’m a little frustrated too – but delays are to be expected. We’ll take some time tonight to talk. Would that make you feel better?”
I told him it would be but that I didn’t want to sound like a child needing comfort.
“You don’t. But you are going to have to learn to trust me a little better.”
I was surprised and told him so. “Trust? I trust you like I have no one else … ever. Not even … not even Jonathon.”
“Then trust I’m not going to bite your head off … or laugh … if something is bothering you.”
That night we stopped a little early at a place called Brewers, Kentucky. It was so small it wouldn’t even have rated a Wikipedia entry and that was saying something. But there was a small outpost of people there that catered to the travelers on 402. Uncle Bedros had melted down those silver spoons I found what felt like a life time ago by that point and used some of the resulting ingots in the trading post there.
Thor had also melted down the ones that I’d kept for us and came back with some news of the road and some fruit. After dinner as everyone settled down and headed to bed I noticed that Thor had set us up on the wagon, rather than on the ground.
“What’s up?” I asked, curious.
“Heard a couple of the locals said that it felt like rain. Figure this way even if we get a little wet, at least one side ought to stay dry.”
I laughed in appreciation and then climbed up and into the sleeping spot he’d fixed, grateful that I’d taken guard duty while during meal time and could spend the rest of the evening with him. I told him, “Hurry and shut the tent, the fewer mosquitoes I have to kill before we go to sleep the better.”
We were a little squished but neither one of us cared. “Now, about this lack of appetite …”
“Thor, I told you not to worry about it,” I told him, embarrassed that he had indeed been thinking about it.
“I’m not worrying … I’m doing something about it. Now, close your eyes and open your mouth.”
“What?!” I laughed.
“You heard me Ro-chelle. Now mind me,” he said playfully.
“Oh honestly.” But I did as he asked and he surprised me with the treat that he’d snuck by me.
“A strawberry?!” I whispered. “A real strawberry.”
“Just a pint of them Hon, that’s all the woman had left on her cart. But I got to them before Bedros did and I want you to eat every one of them.”
“Not by myself I won’t.”
“Unless you are allergic you are going to eat your share.”
I saw him smiling even though it was dark. “But they’re your present.”
“So? Presents are more fun when you can share them.”
So we sat there and savored those berries while we talked of the farm and the woods and the other stuff that was worrying me.
“I wish I knew if everything is going to be there when we get there. And even if it is, I’m worried that even if there is enough for us to make it through the winter that spring is going to be awful rough.”
“We’ll have to face that when we get there. For now though, why don’t you assume that at least the buildings and woods are going to be right where you left them and take it from there.”
And that’s what we did, making a list of things that we’d need and the most likely place to find it. We didn’t stay up too long but it did do me some good to talk and I promised myself that I wouldn’t try and play Atlas and would talk to Thor more often rather than letting things build up.
The next morning started out promising enough and at least Thor and I were in a good mood but the closer we got to our destination that night the emptier the land seemed to get rather than the opposite which is what we expected. Thor and Chuckri stopped and talked to a group of travelers going the opposite direction from us and what they found out floored us all.
“About a week ago, the dam must have given way. The bridge at Aurora is still there but damaged. Everything is a real mess. Most people that have heard the news are turning away and either going north or south to find a different crossing.”
While Chuckri discussed the development with his uncle I asked Thor, “What’s the next best crossing point?”
“Nothing up river until you get passed Paducah and I really don’t want to do that. Everything is a mess for miles from what we were told but I’m taking it with a grain of salt. People can make things out to be worse than the really are without much effort. We’ll probably continue on to Aurora and see how bad the bridge is for ourselves and then make the decision. If we have to re-route I’m going to suggest going south to the Donelson Parkway and crossing there and then taking Dover Road in Tennessee around Clarksville and then back up into Kentucky again and into Hopkinsville.”
“Didn’t you say you had belongings in Clarksville?” I asked suddenly remembering.
He nodded. “Outside of Clarksville in a little spot call Oak Grove. There’s no guarantee the stuff is there. It’s on some land a friend of mine owns.” He shrugged.
“Don’t you want your stuff?”
Another shrug and he said, “Yeah, but I’ve tried not to hold onto things too hard. It’s just stuff.”
I knew he meant it but it still seemed a little strange to me. I suppose that was mostly a good way to look at things because you never really knew what was going to come in the future. For his sake though I knew it would be nice for him to have stuff that was distinctly his once we settled on the farm.
The closer we got to Aurora the more traffic we started to run into, opposite of what had been predicted by the people the previous day. I hadn’t seen anything like it … well seriously … ever. There were people, animals, wagons, and other types of carts all over the place trying to funnel into a more and more narrow area. Eventually it became primarily two narrow “lanes” – one pedestrian-only and one comprised of everything else – and I found it completely bizarre. I was looking at everything as much as I could and still deal with driving when out of the blue Thor nearly gave me a heart attack by standing up and getting on his horse from the wagon seat.
As I fought to keep my normally placid mount from standing up in his traces I growled, “Little warning next time would be nice.” Of course no one was listening because Thor and Chuckri had both taken off towards some men on horses that looked like they were dressed in some type of uniform.
I tried to keep Thor in sight but it took nearly all of my concentration to manage my unusually skittish horse. “Blast you mule, you pick the worst time to suddenly get temperamental on me. What is your problem all of a sudden?!”
Pilbos hopped out of the wagon he was in and up into ours and said, “Stop sawing at his mouth. He’s never pulled the wagon in conditions this crowded and he knows you aren’t where you normally are and he’s not liking it.”
“He’s never been like this,” I said while trying to be gentler with the reins while still letting the horse know who was in charge.
“It’s probably the noise and so many other strange horses making it worse. We’re all having more trouble than usual. Can I borrow that tow line? We’re going to be forced to put all of the animals on lead strings.”
“Sure.” And with that he was gone. And just in time too as Thor was back.
With the carefully blank face he used when he was referring to Pilbos Thor asked, “What did Pilbo Doughboy want?”
“The tow line. They’re putting all of the animals on leading strings because of the crowd. Did you find … dat burn it!!” A kid – not one of ours – had run between the wagons and nearly under my horse’s hooves. “One more kid does that and I’m going to go thermonuclear. Don’t their parents have any sense than to let them run loose in this kind of mess?!”
“Easy,” Thor said putting his hand on my arm and feeling how much I was shaking. “Hold off on the ruckus if you can. It’ll tighten up passed the check point up ahead.”
“Check point?” I asked only now noticing what looked like a bunch of people and wagons piled up along a long, tall fence.
“People out of Ft. Campbell, they were out this way assessing damage from the dam break. They’re all up and down here keeping the peace. Day before yesterday there was a riot and several people and a couple of wagons got pushed off the bridge from too many people trying to get over at a time and some knuckleheads trying to jump the line or push it along too fast. Now if anyone causes problems you lose your place in line and there are no line jumpers either. Makes everything feel like a cattle chute but it’s more organized. And the bridge is closed from dusk ‘til dawn by armed guards on both ends because they lost a lot of the railing. At the current rate it is going to take us a couple of days to get our turn to cross but we will get across which was the worry.”
I sighed, “Sounds just like all kinds of fun.” I had to swiftly avert my eyes as some guy just … er … watered the grass right out in the open for everyone to see. “Geez,” I muttered in disgust.
“Easy Hon, you’ll probably see worse before we get out of this mess.”
“Well aren’t you all kinds of comfort.”
I felt Thor looking at me. “What is really bothering you?”
It felt like a goose walked over my grave. “Sorry for being a grump. It’s … I’d honestly forgotten what it was like.”
“Forgotten what what was like?”
“All the staring. Too late to go back to being a boy I suppose,” I asked half serious.
He chuckled, “Little bit. You might pull off the ribbon in your hair but the t-shirt is a dead giveaway.”
I blushed, “Shaddup. I’m … I’m blossoming is all.”
That did make Thor laugh and when the man really let go you could hear him in the next county which only made more people look. “You’re gonna blossom right out of your shirts if you keep this up,” he finally said after he’d quieted down.
“Trust me, I’m aware of the problem. All of my button downs will no longer button where I need them to. My body fat ratio has gone up from lack of training. I’m trying to watch what I eat but I’m already so hungry all the time that …”
I got a look and then Thor said, “That’s why you haven’t been eating? You better not be dieting. There’s no sense to it. You’re working, you need to eat.”
“I know that. I’m not stupid.”
“I’m not saying …”
“Forget it. It’s a girl thing. Just … it’s … I don’t like the stares I get. Makes me feel like the Jolly Green Giant’s ugly half-sister. I don’t care exactly what they think, it’s just that the staring bothers me enough to think my own thoughts.”
“Well don’t. And next bit of salvage …”
“I’ve got stuff at home. We don’t need to weigh us down anymore with fluff. I can make do with the t-shirts I’ve got and I’ll just throw the shirts over the top of that.”
“Thor don’t. I feel silly enough. Let’s just get through all of these people and then get gone.”
He gave me another look and said, “You aren’t this way with me … or the rest of the caravan that I’ve seen.”
“That’s because you’re you and I trust you. And the others I’ve gotten used to and they aren’t rude when they stare. I don’t … all of these strange eyes … it’s just too much like the old days. I’d forgotten what it was like is all.”
“OK. I’m going to ride for a while but I won’t be far. Anyone get too close …”
“I can handle it Thor,” I told him with a thin smile. “I’m not going to fall apart. But I do admit I’ll be happier to be away from here as soon as we can. Nothing good can come from having this many people crammed into this small of a space.”