Confessions

“I love you.”

I couldn’t believe I’d said it. How many years had I known Nancy? How many times had I wanted to tell her? All those years, from grade school through high school, I’d known she was the woman I wanted to be with. In high school, other guys had made fun of her, called her ‘washboard’ and ‘carpenter’s delight’.

I didn’t care. She was kind, never laughed at my awkwardness, but always smiled at my lame jokes. Then high school ended, and I never saw her again. I followed my love of the stars into astronomy. College passed in a pleasant haze, surrounded by others who shared my interest and feeling at home at last. A degree, then another, brought me to manage one of the observatories atop Mauna Kea. Discoveries, even a measure of fame followed, but never love.

I don’t know why I started following my high school class on social media. I saw people I’d envied go on to fame, then failure. Others popped up, only to disappear again. The passing years brought something else: death. First one, then more of the people I’d gone to school with passed. Some died in accidents, others from disease. None of those notices bothered me. Then I saw the single line announcement that went through my heart.

“Nancy Phelan ne Coulette, died Feb. 25.”

Getting to her funeral was impossible, the notice appearing a week after her death. But I knew I had to go. So I’d made the flight, rented a car, and drove here. A mound of raw earth stood behind a plain gray granite tombstone. That was all I had to speak to, the only thing that could hear my confession.

But I had said it at last.

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A vision of the future?

Paullus Lucius Decimus reclined on the cheap mattress in his rented room and watched the prostitute undress. Modern America had many things his native Rome had never had, but as an immortal, one thing he missed was brothels. He’d lost his virginity in one, and as a legionnaire, he’d frequented the brothels around Roman frontier forts rather than trust a local woman to not slit his throat as he slept. Now, rather than being able to go somewhere that he knew women were available, he was forced onto the seedier parts of the Internet in hopes of satisfying his sexual needs.

After discovering, in the disastrous aftermath of Teutoburg, that he was immortal, Paullus had refrained from long-term relationships out of self-preservation. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to trust a woman to keep his secret. No, many men he’d known had gone mad with grief after loosing a wife of lover, and Paullus knew his heart was no stronger than theirs. But no matter how many centuries passed, his desire for sexual release did not diminish.

So here he was, marveling at how like all those other prostitutes this one was. Her lips wore a smile that never entered her eyes, she told the same old lie about how ‘big’ his manhood was, and like every other prostitute, promised him she’d ‘show him a good time’. The sex itself was a series of mechanical acts interspersed with more lies about how ‘good’ he was in bed, what an ‘incredible’ lover he was, and when Paullus achieved climax, her theatrical exhibit of pleasure at the same moment was no more convincing than any of the others he’d seen.

Her job done, Tina, as she called herself, peeled the condom off his member and moved to throw it in the wastebasket beside. She stopped in mid-movement, her eyes fixed on Paullus’ diary. He’d left it open on the stand next to his bed, having no reason to suspect a random prostitute could read Latin. This one clearly did.

Latine loqueris?” she asked in a Latin that might have come from a patrician’s mouth and not a whore’s.

Maybe it was the shock of hearing his native tongue in such an unexpected situation that caused Paullus to blurt out “Facio, ita.”, but he collected himself before continuing in English “And how do you come to speak Latin?”

She gave him a smile, a real if wary one. “I studied Roman history in college, and knowing Latin was pretty much a requirement for accessing the original texts. You can only learn so much from someone’s translation. If you can read the original, in the original language, you can almost hear the writer speaking to you. How about you?” She pointed towards the diary. “This Latin’s not quite classic, it’s more like colloquial Latin. Only a few scholars can read that, let alone write as fluently as you do. Where did you pick it up?”

Damn, she would know the difference! Paullus had begun to suspect that Professor Upton knew his knowledge of Latin was far too extensive to put down to parental hectoring. That was one of the reasons he’d been happy to finish translating her cache of letters he himself had written before the final battle of the XIX Legion. How could he explain to this woman, who clearly knew his knowledge was uncommon? Better to change the subject. “You studied Roman history in college? How did you…?”

She finished the question for him. “How did a classic student end up a prostitute, a whore? You don’t have to be polite, I’ve been called worse. I came from a poor family, and scholarships only go so far. So I needed to raise some extra cash, and believe me, working a part-time job for minimum wage isn’t a good way to make ends meet, not and study. A girl I knew told me she ‘dated’ a guy and steered me to one of those sites where rich old guys go to find a ‘sweet young thing’ they can ‘financially assist’.” She even raised her hands to emphasis that she was quoting some standard line. “Well, I learned pretty quickly that the only reason most of those guys were willing to ‘assist’ me was if I’d ‘assist’ them in their desire to get laid.” She shrugged, and gave him a cynical smile he’d seen from far too many prostitutes. “So I could either have sex with some random guy and get paid for it, or I could starve. Not a hard choice. Problem is, once you get started, it’s hard to stop. You get used to having the extra cash, to not worrying whether you’ll have something eat or not. After a while, I started paying more attention to keeping my ‘friends’ happy than to my course work. I went from a GPA of 3.8 to 1.3. When my adviser told me to either get serious about my classes or I’d flunk out, I decided to drop out and go into prostitution full-time.” She smiled again, perhaps the first honest smile he’d seen on her face since she’d walked in the door. “What can I say? It isn’t always easy. I’ve had a couple customers decide they wanted to do the rough stuff with me, which I never do, no matter how much men offer me. The few who tried learned real fast that my cop dad taught his little girl how to defend herself. One idiot thought he’d be my pimp. I left him screaming on the floor with a nice compound fracture of the lower arm. No one’s been dumb enough to try that again.” Her eyes move back to Paullus’ diary. “And none of that explains how you know one of the less common dialects of Latin. So, care to spill, or should I just speculate?”

Time to fall back on the lie he’d told Professor Upton. “My father was a classics professor, my mother was a linguist. Between them, I learned the rudiments of around twenty languages. As for why I use that language, I always liked colloquial Latin because the cuss words are so very inventive.”

Tina laughed at that. “Yes, it is pretty good for insulting people, isn’t it?” Then, she looked at Paullus, at the web of scars that covered his body. “For a guy who’s smart enough to learn twenty languages, you’ve sure been injured a lot.” She tossed the spent condom in the garbage, then sat on the bed. “Modern medicine’s good, but these scars look like they’re from wounds that should have killed you. So either you were special forces, or you’re both the luckiest and unluckiest man alive to suffer these injuries and be close enough to care to keep you from dying. Which is it?”

Several centuries before, Paullus had killed a man who’d witnessed him surviving an attack by a huge brown bear in what was now the Kamchatka Peninsula. He’d seen too much of the attack to believe that Paullus was just lucky, but his fate had been sealed when started talking about how interested the local Koryak chieftain would be in a man who couldn’t be killed by a bear. Would he be forced to send this woman to the afterlife to spare himself the unwanted attention of modern society? Perhaps sensing he wasn’t going to answer, she settled her fate with her next words.

“Well, it’s not like we’re besties or anything like that. You don’t owe me an answer.” She dressed without wasted effort, scooped up the envelope holding the price of her company, and leafed through the bills with the practiced speed of someone who had done the task many times before. Satisfied that he hadn’t shorted her, she walked to the door.

“You’ve got my number, and I’ll be around for the next couple of weeks, so give me a call if you want another date. Di conservent te D. L. Paullus.” and she was gone, leaving Paullus to wonder how she’d managed to extract his name from one brief glance at his diary. He picked up the book and saw his name was nowhere on the pages she could have read. But on the stand, a coin winked at him. It must have been under the book because he was sure he hadn’t seen it when he picked it up. The bronze coin had the familiar weight and shape of a sestertius, and Augustus’ profile could still be made out. So how had a prostitute come to possess a two thousand year old coin that looked as if it had been minted only a few years before? Could she be like him, an immortal hiding in the shadows of modern society? He flipped the coin, caught it on the fall, and looked at the door.

“I think, Tina, you and I need to talk, and soon.”

The Prophesy Tree

I’d been on this trail for over two decades, but now, I had hope my search would be over.

The start of my voyage had been a line in my great-grandmother’s diary. She’d been a Highlands girl who’d gone to London to work in the war effort, the First World War that is. It had been just a single, cryptic line: “Just like the Tree said I would, I met Justin at Paddington Station.” Justin had been great-grans one true love, and he had died at the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. My grandfather had been born in November 1918, just short of a month after his father had died. With a child and the war effort winding down, great-gran had taken employment with a rich American family living in London. When they went home, they took their maid/governess with them. That’s how I came to be an American.

Now, I was back in the land that had given birth to my great-grandmother, sitting in a pub not far from where she’d been born. The King’s Head felt like a place that had existed since time began. There was dirt ground into every crack in the worn-smooth half-timbers sticking out of the plastered walls. No one smoked, but generations of smokers had flooded the fiber of the place with their fumes, leaving the air still smelling faintly of them. One who had added to that nicotine stench sat across from me.

Jamie Smith’s withered hand occasionally twitched towards his shirt pocket before pulling away, like he was reaching for a pack of ‘fags’, as he’d called them when he first sat down to talk to me. According to him, he’d quit smoking decades ago, but the habitual motions were still there as he sat, trying to answer my question without actually saying anything.

“Och, aye, everyone’s heard of Annag MacRae and how she went over to America. Banavie’s sent many a young lad and lass out into the world, and she was one of many who left the Highlands duing the Great War. But the last of her family died, oh, twenty years ago. I could show ye her father’s stone, and the rest of the family, at the church, but that’s all there is to see here Yank.”

I wasn’t about to let him avoid my question. “But why did she leave Banavie? You say everyone’s heard of her leaving, so why is it that one young woman leaving a small town like this is remembered?”

Jamie’s eyes, which had darted everywhere while he was talking to me, became even more determined not to look my way. “Ah, well, old stories like that get handed down….”

“But why? What was so special about my great-grandmother?”

That did it. Jamie started sliding towards the end of the bench he was sitting on opposite me, sliding away so he could get out of the small booth we shared. “I’m sorry, but I’ve to be going now. It’s good to see someone who’s family came from here return, but…”

I’d seen Jamie’s eyes following every tray full of drinks that passed us, so I decided to play my trump card. “I’m sorry, my manners are slipping. I haven’t offered to ‘stand you a pint’. I think that’s how you say offer to buy someone a drink over here, isn’t it?”

It worked. Jamie stopped trying to get out of the booth and moved back in front of me. “Well, if you’re willing to buy me a drink, I’d be happy to have it. But I’d much rather a wee drop a’ whiskey than a pint, if that’s all right with you.”

If it got the old man to open up, I’d have bought him a case of whiskey. “Of course, and you being the local expert, I’ll let you pick a good whiskey for both of us.”

#

Jamie upended the whiskey bottle, the last few drops making tiny rings on the surface of the amber liquid that filled his glass to the brim. He sat it down with exaggerated care, slowly took up his glass, and cocked it ever so slightly towards me. “Ta yer health, sir!” he said, as he had at the beginning of every glass before. Now, his words were badly slurred and his accent more pronounced. That he was still upright amazed me. I was nursing my second glass of Ben Nevis Blue Label, and my head was starting to spin. The rest of the bottle, plus a pair of ‘tots’ he’d drunk before I ordered the bottle, were all inside Jamie. But he raised the glass to his lips with hands as steady as mine, and drank a third of the glass in one slow swallow. When he lowered it, I made one final try at getting him to talk.

“So, Jamie, you were going to tell me about my great-grandmother…”
Bleary eyes fixed mine. “I was not! Why would I tell a Yank about the…” Jamie stopped, blushing and clearly flustered that he’d nearly said something he wasn’t supposed to. I decided to press my luck and see if I could bluff him.

“You were going to tell me about The Tree, the one that told my great-grandmother about the man she’d marry. So why don’t you start?”

Those blood-shot eyes widened, then narrowed. “Och, you’re jokin’. No outsider knows about The Tree.”

“But I do! My great-grandmother wrote about it in her diary, about how it told her she would meet the love of her life in London, at Paddington Station. All I’m asking for is a chance to go there, see The Tree, and maybe offer thanks for setting my ancestor on the right path. Is that wrong?”

Jamie’s eyes narrowed to thin strips, and I began to suspect he might have seen through my bluff. Then he shook his head and took another, deeper drink of whiskey before answering me. “Tha’ silly chit, writin’ somethin’ like tha’ down. No one outside of Banavie is ever supposed ta know ’bout the Prophesy Tree.”

So my guess was right. But he still hadn’t told me anything about the actual tree. Time to press it to the limit. “Well, she did, and I know about the Prophesy Tree. Would you be willing to take me there, so I can pay respects for my dead great-grandmother?”

That got a reaction from Jamie, not the one I’d expected. His eyes widened, and he recoiled like I’d just pulled a gun on him. “No, not in a million years!” He relaxed slightly and leaned forward to close the distance between us. I did the same, and he muttered. “”Sides, I dinna know where th’ tree is. Only ol’ MacGilleain knows where tis, an’ I don’ think ye kin get ‘im to tell ye.”

Jamie leaned back, glass in hand again, and drained its contents in a gulp. He placed it on the table like it were made of spun smoke, then with a drunken grin, pitched forward, unconscious before his face hit the wood between us. None of the other patrons seemed surprised by this, so I settled my tab, asked the bartender to arrange for Jamie to be taken home, and adjourned to my bed and breakfast.

How was I going to find someone based on their last name, even in a small town like this? My smart phone, when I queried it, came back with several people who had that name, but none of them lived in Banavie. One, though, did live nearby, and when I asked for directions to his house, I found it located in a small valley not far from the base of Ben Nevis. The map showed a road leading up to it, but based on the driving I’d done to date, that tiny, crooked yellow ribbon couldn’t be much more than a pave goat path. “Not something you should be tackling half drunk.” I told myself as I kicked off my shoes and lay down.

I’d planned to get undressed and take a shower before going to bed the night before. The rising late Summer Sun, slanting through my window, woke me. My head felt like a group of tiny men with huge hammers were inside it, trying desperately to beat their way out. The taste in my mouth was indescribable, like what I imagine having a herd of Highland cattle driven across your tongue might taste like. About the only plus was that my stomach showed no signs of rebelling, one of things I liked least about getting drunk.

Last nights clothing off, I got under the shower head and didn’t mind the time it took the water to warm. The initial icy downpour helped wake me the rest of the way up, and brought back what I’d learned the night before. Now, I had to find out of the MacGilleain my phone had found was the same one Jamie had hinted at. I scrubbed myself down, letting my mouth fill with water from the shower a couple of times to help rinse some of the foulness out of it. “Time I got ready to face the next stage of my search.”

#

The road that climbed away from the A82 was almost as bad as I’d imagined it to be. It wasn’t a paved goat path, but a single lane road, a narrow strip of pavement that followed a tortuous path through the bleakly beautiful Scottish hills. Here was not a place to take your eyes off the road to consult a phone for directions, so I was reduced to listening to the annoying voice telling me what to do.

“In fifty meter, turn left. In ten meters, turn right.”

No roads lead off the one I followed, making all those directions redundant. “To borrow the English line, would you sod off!” I growl at the senseless hunk of electronics. It ignores me, so I do what I can to tune it out. The road begins to climb, its back and forth rambling giving way a series of sweeping climbs up steep rocky hillsides, each one ending in a hair-pin turn. The sky begins to change as well. When I’d left Banavie, nothing beyond a scattering of clouds marred an otherwise perfect day. Now, with the mountains growing around me, the clouds joined into an uninterrupted deck of dark gray. Another turn, and the first raindrop spatters down on my windshield. It soon has plenty of company. The rain grows in intensity, becoming an unbroken sheet of that blocks out everything beyond a few hundred feet ahead. And still the road climbs.

I’m in the middle of nowhere, driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road with increasingly bad visibility. Is there another car coming down this narrow path? A moment’s break in the rain, and I find myself hoping there isn’t. Below me, just inches from the door, I have a view down the hill. I can see the road I’ve been climbing, a light snakelike path among the streaming rocks, and there is nothing to stop me from going over the edge. Opposite that terrifying view is a rough rock wall, a vertical slab of stone where the hillside has been carved away to make the road, and it is not much farther away than the drop. The rain closes about me, bringing both comfort and fear, and I continue my drive.

The rock wall grows lower, then drops away as I make a final turn onto a level space that stretches out of sight in the downpour. The road arrows into the center of that space, and I follow it, glad that I have encountered no other traffic. But now, my phone has gone silent, its annoying verbal barrage is no more. I slow to a stop and pick it up. It couldn’t be the battery, not with it plugged into the car. The screen shows the winding path I had come up, but according to it, I had yet to finish the climb. I tap the screen, and nothing happens. Closing the app, then opening it again brings the voice back, but now all it says is “Updating GPS, please wait.” over and over.

Outside, there is a final torrential rush of rain before it fades to drizzle. The road has climbed high enough that clouds surround me, leaving me as blind to my surroundings as when the rain poured down. My phone still complains that it can’t update its GPS system, and I decide to continue without it. I keep my speed low, for while there is no deadly drop-off, stout dry stone walls now outline the road, leaving little room to dodge oncoming traffic. The ground seems flat, but my inner ear insists I am driving up a slope. And the road continues on, with no diversions or branches.

A shape, indistinct, appears out of the mist, and I slow in hope of a house, of some sign of other humans. What I see was a house, but is no more. Rough stone walls rise from rank weeds. No trace of a roof remains. Empty holes, where once windows stood, flank a doorway that, incongruously, still holds a dark red door. I roll past the gap in the stone wall before that door and continue on, glad to put the desolate scene behind me.

The drizzle stops, and while the fog remains thick, I catch an occasional hint of what is around me. Steep, rocky slopes rise on either hand to disappear into the clouds. A swift stream rushes down, swirling below the road as it passes over a stone bridge with a weathered stone plaque bearing the date of 1823. A group of dirty white shapes stand in the grass beyond the wall, sheep grazing in this damp and dismal place, but no sheppard accompanies them. And the road continues on.

My mind begins to wander. My great-grandmother had written many times of her homeland. She had described the mist-shrouded mountains, but her words had made them feel like home. For me, who had grown up on the flat plains of the Midwest, they were an alien landscape, almost a scene from a nightmare. She had longed to see her native Highlands again, while I wanted nothing more than to find what I was looking for and get away from them.

The opening in the stone wall appeared and disappeared as I drove past it like the wall blinked. I step on the brakes, and the car skids, slewing to the left before coming to a stop. Reversing, I come before it. A pair of rough upright stones frame an opening hardly more than the width of the subcompact I’m in. Beyond it is a rutted path thick with weeds. There is no house visible, just the trail that disappears into the mist, but I know this is the path I must follow. How I know this I can’t say, but my heart tells me this is the path I must follow. I work the car around, line up, and drive through those gateposts with fractions to spare.

“Well, I was wondering when I’d end up on a paved goat path. Now, I’m on an unpaved one.” Telling myself that, with the weeds scrap the undercarriage, does nothing to improve my confidence that I’ll make it to where ever this road leads. At least there are no walls hemming me in, giving me hope that if I meet someone coming down this rutted excuse for a road, I’ll be able to get out of their way, A dark shape ahead resolves itself into a boulder the size of a garden shed, and the road jogs left to avoid it. It doesn’t go back in its original direction, but continues up an increasingly steep slope. The road becomes rougher, the ruts deeper. I hear a louder scrap from the underside of the car and know it’s not weeds hitting. No, it’s the central crown of the road, rising to the point where I’m barely clearing it, and ahead, things are worse.

I stop and get out to examine the ground around the road. Uphill, it feels solid, but downhill, my foot tries to sink in as soon as I put my weight on it. “Oh well, at least there’s enough room for me to get turned around on the solid side of the road.” I walk ahead and find my suspicions are correct. There are places where the crown of the road rises above the path by a distance that’s halfway to my knees. So I can get turned around and go back, but I can’t go forward, at least not in the car. But I still feel the impulse to follow this road, and rather than listen to reason, I decide to listen to my heart. The car humps across the crown as I crank the steering wheel all the way around and give it some gas. Three back-and-forth cuts and I’ve got it parked on the grassy shoulder facing downhill. I kill the engine, put the parking brake and emergency blinkers on before lock up.

The air is chilly, and seems to close around me like only a really dense fog does. I make my way to the road, my shoes soaking through from the dew on the grass. Down the hill, the weeds in the center of the road are sheered off inches from the ground. Uphill, beyond where they are beaten down by my turning around, they rise to my waist. No vehicle could come this way, not even a military Hummer, without leaving some sign of its passing. Yet I know without question that what I seek is at the end of this road. So I walk, through the fog that swirls around me, climbing ever higher, and wondering how far I will go before reaching my destination.

Long before I see it, I hear the rush and gurgle of water grow on my right. In the stark, silence-shrouded landscape, the sound of the normal world is welcome. Another dark shape grows before me, revealing itself to be a rock abutment, a bare heel of the surrounding hill that rises before me like a head-high cliff. Before it, the road bends again, a right turn far beyond a right angle. Now, the water does not rush, it roars. The rock fades into the mist, then returns. Before me, close beside the road, it rises in a vertical wall that disappears into the fog. A stream, strong with the recent rain, pours down, making a gray curtain that half covers the road. No way around it, not with the ground dropping away on the downhill side at an angle near vertical. All my surety that I was right were for this?

“So, this is what I came to find? A fucking gray rainbow on the side of a fucking Scottish hill?”

My words come back at me, a muffled echo from the rock before me, and I feel ashamed of myself. Great-grandmother walked this very road, and I have yet to complete the journey she succeeded in making. I walk towards the falling water and find the road continues beyond. I also see that provisions for those afoot have been made. A line of mossy, flat-topped stones rise from the stream feet from the drop-off, spaced to make a dry-footed crossing possible. I take them, one careful step at a time, feeling my feet shift with every movement. The fall is beside me, spray for it sprinkling, then running, down my neck.

A final step, and I’m across. The rock face the stream runs down drops back, a narrow beak of stone thrust from the hill behind it. Here the grass on the uphill slope ends at a stand of trees, huge shapes that peek through the fog and look as though they have stood since the hill arose. Is this what I seek? Does the tree my great-grandmother mentioned stand before me? No, I feel the same pull that has drawn me up this road. It is ahead of me, the thing I am looking for.

The road is no more, now it is nothing but a rough path through the grass and heather. Below me, the hill drops away less steeply, and my path no longer rises. The darkness begins to fade, and detail grow clearer, the fog begins to thin. I see a low structure ahead, but this is no rotting shell of a house. Whitewashed stone walls rise to a thick thatched roof. Windows, one with a candle burning behind it, fill their allotted openings. Smoke drifts towards me from the chimney, and I catch a whiff of earthiness born on the breeze. The door is black, an unadorned surface that might as well be a portal unto eternal night. It opens, allowing a thin stream of light to illuminate the flagstone walk leading to it, and through it steps a man. He is tall, stooping to pass through the low door, and while he carries a heavy wooden cane, his steps are firm and sure. His white hair is long and done in a single ponytail, the beard that hides most of his lower face is cropped short. None of that would be out of place in any of the Scottish towns I have passed through, but what would is his dress. He looks like someone fresh from central casting, a Highlander of ages past. A tartan cape, one I mistake for all black but as he comes closer I see is actually shot through with fine lines of yellow and green, covers his shoulders. He wears a loosely ruffled shirt over a kilt of the same dark tartan pattern, and white socks, or hose, rise to his knees from heavy square-toed shoes. Our eyes are the same height, and as his fix on me, and I feel as though he is looking inside me, not at me. He smiles, holds out his hand, and addresses me.

Beannachdan, coigreach, agus fàilte.”

I take his hand, and find his grip firm. Umm, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you. Do you speak English?”

I feel like an idiot even as I speak, but the smile never fades. “Och, I can, but I ha’ hopes ye might know the Scottish. Ah well, I won’t ask what brings ye here. You were drawn here, weren’t ye?”

“No, I came here because of something I read in a diary.”

His eyes narrow slightly, and I know he can see I’m not telling the whole truth. “Oh, tha’s wha set you on the road, but tha’s not wha drew you here, is it? I’ll wager you didn’t read how to get here in tha’ diary, nor did it keep ye going when it looked like ye’d walked inta th’ middle of nowhere. Am I wrong?”

“No, you’re not. But how…”

The man gives me a sly wink. “You were touched by th’ Tree, weren’t you? Not you, precisely, but someone in your past.”

I nod, suddenly unsure of what I’ve walked into. He lets go of my hand and turns towards the house. “Well, come inside so ye can tell me the story in the dry. Fog like this only thins out when th rain’s about to come pouring down. So let’s sit someplace warm while ye tell me everything.”

I follow him up the walk, lowering my head as does to avoid the low door sill. Up close, the door is not plain. Upon it is an ornate knocker in the shape of a tree. Made of dull iron, the leafy boughs form an anchor plate, tapering down to a pair arms that are split above their joining with the trunk by hinges. The trunk hangs down to end in a spread of roots that serves as the handle. No rust defaces the mechanism, but the impression is of great age, as though it has hung here as long as the giant trees I glimpsed earlier. The inside of the house is warm and welcoming after my walk, and there is no sign of modern technology anywhere. The sole source of warmth is the fireplace, and it gives off no more than a dull light. A pair of candles flank a high-backed chair, a small pool of illumination in a room filled with shadows. It is into that chair that my host settles. He waves towards a small table.

Bring a chair, an’ sit yerself down by th fire. There’s more peat in th basket, feel free to throw nother sod on th fire if ye‘re feeling th chill.”

The chairs about the table are straight-backed, their wood grown dark with age, made smooth by use. I draw one to the fireside, see wickerwork basket sized for a large family filled with shaggy brown bricks, and pick one up. It is surprisingly light, and as it crumbles in my hand, the scent from the smoke outside rises to greet me. I lay it atop others already on the grate and settle myself facing the old man. He watches me, waiting, it seems, for me to speak. So I oblige him.

“You said the tree draws those who have been touched by it to them. What did you mean?”

He leans towards me, eyes locked on me. “Aye, a good first question. Those th tree favors with vision are forever linked to it, as are those who’s lives spring from that connection.” He tilts his head, first to one side, then the other, before nodding. “Ye‘re Annag MacRae child, aren’t you?” I kin see her in your eyes, and the shape of yer nose.

How would this man know what my great-grandmother looked like? There’s not a single photo of her in our whole family. “No, I’m her great-grand child. Annie is the name she’s remembered by, and she’s been dead nearly a hundred years now.”

The old man leans back, shaking his head. “A hundred years? Och, has it been so long in th world outside? But no mind. The Tree’s drawn you back, as it does everone.”

Wait, wait, are you trying to tell me you knew Annie? That’s impossible! You might be old, but there’s no way you’re that old.”

But the old man smiles at me as he nods. “Aye, you’re right…I wa a hundred years old a’fore Annag’s fathers-father wa even a hope in his father’s heart. Ive been here been far beyond all their lives, and until time itself stops, I will remain here.”

Are you telling me you’re immortal?”

The smile grows sly. “Ah, not ‘immortal’, at least not at first. I was a young man when I first touched The Tree and it granted me my sole vision. It showed me this house, this wee glen, and it showed me myself as I am now. I knew the moment I had the vision that I would see this place, and that here I would live far beyond the span of mortal men.”

Now I was confused. “You said the Tree ‘showed’ you this place…but isn’t the Tree here?”

“Oh, it is, yes, right here, not far from us at all.”

“Then how could it have shown you this place if it’s already here?”

The old man threw his head back and let out a laugh that shook the candle flames on either side of him. He continued, until with a slap to his knobby bare knee, he wiped his eyes and spoke to me again. “The Tree’s here because I brought it here, ye young fool. De I have ta spell it out for ya?”

But it’s not here! I saw the only trees, yet the feeling that drew me here drew me beyond them. So where is this mystical Tree?”

The old man rolls up first one sleeve, then the other. The arms under them are pocked with white scars, ranging from snowy freckles near his wrist to larger, ugly circles and lines farther up. “I earned each o’ these, at me own forge. I wa’ considered th’ best smith in all the glens, and one night I wa’ woke by a sound like thunder, but there wa’ never a drop o’ rain. Th’ next day, my laird came round. He had a black rock th’ size o’ me head, an’ said it’d felled a yew tree a’fore his house. He thought it were iron, and he wanted me to make it into a sword. He thought anything tha could cleave a yew could do th’ same to a man.” He shakes his head, eyes unfocused. “The MacLoed he wa’, an’ he wa’ a man o’ blood. I knew before I touched it tha’ MacLoed would use th sword I made ta start a feud wi’ one a’ the neighborin’ clans. He were ne’er happy wi’ just the few glens he ruled. His father wa’ wi’ The Bruce, an’ MacLoed always thought his father should’a been given more when The Bruce came to th’ throne. Then he laid it in me hands, an’ I saw it. My future. Bu’ I knew I could’na just walk away from the like of MacLoed. So I promised him a sword, an’ I made one too…just not fra’ his precious rock. He took’t ta raidin’, an’ one o’ th’ Campbell clan cut him down like a stalk o’ rye.”

The pieces dropped into place, and I looked towards the front door of the cottage. “So the Tree is…”

“Aye, it’s me knocker. I thought it fittin’ ta turn it inta a tree, wha’ wi’ it havin’ felled one. Those as ha’ the courage ha’ come here since, to speak ta me, thinkin’ I know where th’ tree is. Th’ Tree decides, or maybe Fate, who’re blessed with a vision. If they’re ta ha’ a vision, they use th’ knocker; if not, they beat on the door ’til I tell’em ta sod off.”

It made an almost cruel sort of sense, but I was left with a singular question. “But that doesn’t explain how you’ve lived all this time. My great-grandmother lived a long life for her time, but she barely passed the biblical ‘three-score-and-ten’. What’s kept you alive all this time?”

I dinna know. I think time runs a bit different in this glen. Ta me, it feels like Annag wa’ here just a few days ago. I know th’ trees near ne’er drop their leaves, bu’ when I came here ta build me cot, they acted like normal trees. Maybe me Tree does som’thin’ ta time.” He stops, looks me over again. “Ye’ve ne’er asked ta touch it, I see. Why is tha’, I wonder.”

Now that the puzzle was solved, now that I knew what had taken my ancestor away from here native land, I found myself uneasy. Not just with the idea that a piece of meteorite might have the power to grant a person a vision of their future, but with this entire house and everything about it. Especially the ancient man in front of me. He continues to watch me, waiting in silence for what I will say, what I will do, next. And all I want to do is run. I want away from this place, from this timeless man and this piece of Scotland that feels frozen in time.

I…just wanted to find out why my ancestor ended up in America, what drove her to leave her home. And I have.” I stand far quicker than I’d intended, the panic in the back of my mind taking hold, driving my impulse to fly from this cottage. I fight down the urge to run for the door. “Thank you for your help, and for your hospitality, but I’ve taken enough of your time. Good day, Mr. MacGilleain.” I don’t offer him my hand, I walk to the door as swiftly as I can without breaking into a run.

Outside, the sky is clear and the Sun has set. Both the flags and grass are dry, the latter with that dusty coating that speaks of a long period of dry weather. But it had all been damp when I’d entered the cottage. I strike the path down the hill, only to find that the waterfall is now little more than a trickle over the upper rock face. Below it, the stream bed shows fresh growth, as though the surrounding vegetation has taken sudden advantage of the lack of flowing water to expand into the stream bed. A single, none-too-long step carries me across the stream without the need for the stepping stone, and I let myself break into a trot, hoping to escape this place.

In the fading light, the weeds in the middle of the road look wilted, as though they have endured a long drought. I make the turn that carries the road downhill, but when I reach the spot where I am sure I left the car, I find nothing. I keep going, sure I will find it eventually, but I don’t. As the last light is leaving the midnight blue sky, I come to the road. It is strange, not the tarmac I remember driving, but an absolutely smooth surface like a continuous sheet of gray plastic. It’s miles to the A82, so far I’m not sure I could cover the distance if I pushed myself through the night. I’m tempted to sit down and wait for a passing car, but waiting for a ride on this deserted stretch of road seems like the definition of a forlorn hope. And more than anything, I want away from here. So I begin walking down the middle of the road, sure that I’ll see, or at least hear, any vehicle before it become a hazard. The Moon begins to rise, casting a pale light over the scenery around me. Then I hear something. I whistling sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It seems to be behind me, but what it is, I can’t tell. It grows stronger, like it were approaching, but I see no lights, not a sign of a vehicle approaching. Then, I catch a glint of moonlight reflecting off something. Another, closer, and as my mind begins to realize something is coming down the road at me, a dark shape appears. I have a moment to marvel at how fast, and how silently, it is moving, then I feel it hit me. There is a moment’s pain, then it disappears and I am left to marvel at how the starry sky seems to wheel over me before I hit the ground, and all sense leaves me.

#

Ian knew he should have had his pod’s onboard sensors fixed, but the malfunctioning ones were only for night-time use, and he rarely drove after dark. So here he was, stopped in the dark, sitting in the middle of the glide-road between Banavie and Torcastle because he’d run late leaving Torcastle. Without the radar and other navigation sensors, the pod hadn’t detected…whatever the hell it was Ian had hit. But did he really want to get out and see what he’d run into. Modern paint carried taggers, so the farmer who’d lost a sheep would know who’s pod had killed it. And because he’d left the scene of an accident involving destruction of property, Ian would face charges. Worse, his pod would be inspected, and when it was found he’d been operating it without all the safety equipment working, his problems would get exponentially worse.

Open access port.” he commanded, and the pod obeyed, letting in the cool outside air. There was a torch under the seat, and he withdrew it before examining the front. Ian blessed his luck that there weren’t any pieces of sheep or any other animal smeared across the leading edge, then began retracing the pod’s path. Maglev vehicles could stop quickly, and Ian had gone only a few steps before he saw the shoe. It was an old-fashioned one, something he remembered his father favoring known as a ‘trainer’. It was in the middle of the road, and Ian’s blood ran cold. Had he struck a person? Pods were supposed to be designed to cue in on humans and do everything possible to keep from hitting them. But what if more than just his radar and front lights were malfunctioning?

Ian swept his torch beam around, hoping against hope that he would see nothing. What he did see, when the beam of light played across it, looked like a bundle of old clothing thrown against the dry stone wall beside the road. Then he saw the blood, and his stomach betrayed him. Doubling over, he heaved, then again, and supper came spewing out his mouth. Another clinch of muscles, and more of his stomach’s contents splattered on the guideway. A third time, and all that came out was a thin stream of foul-tasting liquid. Ian spit, trying to get the taste out of his mouth, then raised his wrist to his mouth. “Call the police, emergency number.” The phone/browser/tracker sputtered, ticeshen replied. “Calling emergency services.” The double-chirp of the phone ringing came clear in the still night air, then the too polite female voice of an automated system answered. “This is Torcastle Emergency Services, how may I help you?”

I need to speak to an officer.”

Did you say need to speak to an officer?”
Ian fought the desire to scream at the phone. “Yes, I need to speak to an officer. I’ve had an accident on the Banavie-Torcastle secondary guideway…I think I might have struck a pedestrian.”

There was a silence, then a loud click followed by a bored voice. “This is Constable Owens. Did you say you’d struck a pedestrian?”

Yes, officer, I did…and I think he might killed them.”

The voice, when it replied, had not a trace of boredom in it. “I have your location and your identity entered, so if you attempt to flee, you’ll be regarded as a wanted fugitive in a felony criminal act. I’ve dispatched one of our patrol pods, it should be there momentarily. While we wait, I need you to answer a few questions.”

The questions were what Ian had expected: What had he been doing at the time of the accident? Had he overridden the pod’s safety protocols? Had he been aware that operating a pod with faulty sensors was a punishable offense? Constable Owens was telling him the time he faced for the charges hed already admitted to when Ian spotted the flashing blue lights of the patrol pod boring through the night. Like all other emergency service vehicles, the patrol pod wasn’t bound by the speed limits other vehicles were. Ian felt the pressure wave it generated buffet him as the craft came to a stop a scant two meters from him. Its access panel opened, and a young woman climbed out, adjusting the archaic but still regulation hat on her head as she approached him.

I’m Patrol Officer Morris. I take it you’re Ian Ivers?”

Yes, Officer. The man I struck is over there. I haven’t approached him, but I haven’t heard him move. Is he dead?”

I don’t know, but for now, I’m placing you under arrest for vehicular manslaughter. Please turn away from me and put your hands behind your back.”

Ian did as he was told and felt the cold metal of the restraints close around his wrists. “By law, I must warn you that if you attempt to flee, the restraints will deliver a shock strong enough to disable you if you exceed five meters distance from me. I must also warn you that I can activate the shock system if I feel you are acting in a threatening manner. Do you understand these warnings?”

Yes, officer, but if I’d intended to flee, why would I have called emergency services?”

I can’t speculate as to your actions or motives, sir, I’m just here to gather facts.” Her tracker had a small torch in it, and she shone this towards where Ian knew the body lay. When she found it, she extinguished the light and spoke into her tracker. “This is Officer Theresa Morris, ID 772, requesting the dispatch of a crime scene unit to my GPS location. Vehicular manslaughter, one victim.” She tapped the face of the tracker, then did it again. “Victim either does not have a tracker, or the unit was damaged in the accident. I shall make a preliminary examination to try to get an ID, so tell the technicians they’ll have to screen for my DNA on the victim. Stand by, Central.”

Ian watched the officer as she turned her light back on and approached the still form. In the quiet night air, he could hear everything she said to her listening colleagues. “Victim does not appear to be wearing a tracker, and there is no evidence of one near the body.” He saw her reach out and pull the body over, then saw her let it fall back. “Face is too badly damaged to use for recognition purposes. I will search the body for any identifying marks or distinctive items.”

The silence stretched longer this time as the officer searched the body. She stopped at a bulge in the rear trouser pocket. “Central, the victim is carrying an old-fashioned wallet.” She opened it and began rifling through its contents. “Victim has paper money, old-fashioned English pound notes! There’s an ID of some sort here, give me a second to extract it.”

Ian could understand the surprise. Scotland had declared independence from England twenty years ago, and even in England, nobody used physical money anymore. Where had this man come from? He got part of his answer as the officer read the ID she’d found.

The victim has what looks like an old-fashioned American state drivers license, dated as issued in 2019. It was issued by the state of Iowa, in the name of Paul Armando Sanchez, who resided at 328 South Central Street, in the city of Carswells Corner.”

For the first time, the tracker squawked out a reply. “Repeat, did you say your victim was carrying the identification of Paul Armando Sanchez?”

Yes sir, and while his face is a bit too much of a mess to make an ID from the photo, the description on the license matches the body. Why do you ask?”

Because, Officer Morris, you may have solved a missing person case that’s been on the books for over 60 years. Mr. Sanchez was reported missing in 2019, and his rental car was found less than a kilometer from your current coordinates. I wonder where the old boy’s been hiding all these years…and how a man that old could have stumbled into a guideway in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.”

Ian had gotten a good enough look at the body to know the dead man wasn’t much older than he was. Officer Morris clearly felt the same way.

Central, I don’t know who this is, but it can’t possibly be a man who’d be, what, at least 98 years old. The victim appears to be a man in his early thirties, if dressed a bit oddly.”

What do you mean? Describe how the victim is dressed.”

The light played over Sanchez’s still form. “White, I think they called them polo shirts, blue jeans that look as though they’re less than a year old and black laced cloth shoes…didn’t they used to call them ‘trainers’?”

The voice from Central did not respond immediately, but when it did, Ian could hear the anger in it. “Officer Morris, have you been reading the case file on this disappearance?”

No,sir, I haven’t!”

There was a sigh from the tracker. “Then maybe you can explain how your description is a words-for-word match to the description given by the last person to see Mr. Sanchez alive. Never mind. Just stay there, guard your prisoner, and hope the lab techs can sort out how a man can be missing all this time and not age a day.”

Echoes of the past

“…and so, honored mother, I hope you will know that I keep you always in my thoughts and prayers. I hope I remain always in your heart and prayers as well. Your son, Julius Maximius Gabinius”

Claudia Upton looked up from reading the translation to scrutinize the man who had picking it from the mud-soaked, decaying original text. Paul Sanchez had a face that could have been lifted from a Roman mosaic. Dark hair over an unlined, olive-colored face with none of the Mesoamerican features that so often marked those of Hispanic background. Well, the Romans were in Spain and the Iberian for centuries. Perhaps he’s a genetic fluke, a reversion to an ancestral appearance. Those dark, almost black eyes watched her, and she sensed he was waiting for her comments on his translation.

“It’s an excellent translation, Mr. Sanchez. You clearly have a good grasp of Latin. Could I ask you where you studied?”

A smile began to appear on the otherwise impassive face before her. Then it vanished, replaced by the same mask-like appearance that Sanchez always wore when he was around her. “Oh, I studied at home. My father and mother both knew Latin, and they insisted I should be at least slightly fluent in it.”

Claudia knew a snow job when she was being subjected to one, but this wasn’t the time to confront Sanchez about his surprising fluency in a dead language. She was just glad to have someone who could make sense of the badly-decomposed messages Claudia had recovered from a German bog over a decade ago. “Well, you definitely surpassed their expectations. I can read Latin without translating in my head, and even I couldn’t make anything of my find.”

Paullus Lucius Decimus looked across the desk at the young scholar. Needing some extra cash, he’d seen the online ad looking for someone to translate Latin text and been glad for the chance to make money reading his native language. What had caught him off-guard was what he was translating: messages he had written himself over two thousand years ago. As one of the more literate members of his cohort, Paullus had often been asked to write letters home for others. He even remembered the messenger who had been charged with taking the letters home to Rome…and wasn’t surprised to find that they’d been thrown in a bog. Atticus Erucius had been a slippery little shit, more inclined to informing on his fellows than fighting in the ranks. Paullus had never figured out who’s ass he’d kissed to be assignment to carry mail to Rome, but if not for that bit of foresighted butt worship, he’d have been slaughtered like the rest of Legio XIX by the Germans.

Paullus still had nightmares of that time, and they’d gotten worse since he’d taken the translation job. Just the night before, he’d bolted awake from a dream of those dark, stinking bogs so vivid he could have sworn he smelled them in his small apartment. Just reflecting on that moment brought other memories forward, things that made remembering a bog filled with screaming, dying legionnaires seem pleasant.

Are you all right, Mr. Sanchez?”

She was watching him, staring as if she could see the images of death and suffering that hung in front of him. His father had been of the Stoic school, and had enforced his ideas of a proper, impassive visage on his son with a well-wielded switch. To know that he had let himself slip more than embarrassed Paullus, it angered him deeply.

Claudia, watching the man sitting across from her, saw the mask drop away. Sanchez’s face went from its natural darkness to a gray pallor like someone an inch from death. Lines that hadn’t been apparent before became pronounced, giving him the appearance of an ancient. Then, his color returned, but not with a healthy evenness. No, this was the blotchy flush of someone deeply embarrassed…or very angry. Oh, very angry indeed, but why? The eyes that had given away nothing of the inner man were now narrow, hard openings into another person, one that frightened Claudia. Then, like a man forcing a door to another side of his soul closed, Sanchez’s face resumed its calm appearance. Claudia wasn’t fooled by the change, she knew that Paul Sanchez was not someone she would want angry at her.

“I’m fine, Ms. Upton. If I might ask, where did you find the text I translated?”

“I pulled them out of a former bog in Germany. A hiker saw some corroded metal beside a trail and thought it might be part of a bomb intended for Hannover. The German Army EOD team that came to investigate recognized it was too old to be from WWII and contacted the local university. I was studying there at the time and ended up being part of the team that went out to study the find. Turned out to be part of a Roman helmet, and my clump of peat-soaked messages was found nearby.”

Maybe Sanchez sensed her unease, because his body relaxed visibly as he spoke. “So you found a helmet with your mail. Kind of odd to find a single piece of armor, isn’t it?”

“Oh no, we found the remnants of an entire suit of Roman armor…and the person who’d been wearing it too. My German colleagues thought he might have lost his way trying to find his way through the bog. However he came to be there, these messages give us an insight into what life was like for soldiers serving on Rome’s farthest frontier.”

“’And we will know them by the things they leave behind.’ Is that what you’re saying?”

Claudia didn’t recognize the quote, but it was quite apt. “Precisely. After all, until some mad physicist invents a time machine, that’s all we have. I mean it’s not like I can sit a legionnaire down and interview them, can I?” She started searching her desk, digging through the piles of papers and folder before finding what she was searching for. She pulled the battered folder out and extended it to Sanchez. “Now that you’ve shown you can make sense of one of my messages, I want you to tackle this. It’s the prize of my messages, the one I really want translated.”

Paullus took the thin folder of reproductions and flipped it open. He understood her not trusting a stranger with the originals, and he wasn’t sure how he’d react if he had the original documents in front of him. Would they carry the same stink of cold rot he remember so vividly from the bogs? So you weren’t the coward I imagined you were, Atticus? I’ll remember you in my prayers to Mars tonight, and hope the War God grants your spirit rest.

Aloud, he spoke in a different voice, in a language far removed from the plebeian Latin that was his mother tongue. “No, you can’t talk to a legionnaire, can you?” Then his voice caught in his throat. He recognized the scrawled Latin script before him, even if he’d only read it once before. It was the handwriting of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the political hack who’d sent so many of Paullus’ fellow legionnaires to their deaths. Willing his voice to be as calm as his as his face, Paullus continued. “It might take me a little longer than the first letter. I don’t know who wrote this, but their penmanship is terrible.”

“I know! But look at the next page…this is a letter home from Varus, the man who commanded the legions the Germans beat at Teutoburg. I was able to pick that much of it out, but with these eyes,” she gestures at the thick glasses that magnified to huge proportions, “that’s all I can make of it.” She smiled. “I’m willing to pay extra…call it ‘hazard pay’ for dealing with his terrible handwriting.”

Did Paullus want to read the inner thoughts of the man who’s incompetence led to the death of three whole legions, over 16,000 men? Paullus flipped to folder shut. He’d spent over two thousand years wishing Varus resided in the hottest fires in the Christian Hell, but he still needed money. “Well, as a poor, itinerant Latin scholar, I feel I should take you up on your offer of extra pay. Now, how much

extra are we talking about?”

Paullus enjoyed the dickering that followed. In a way, it was comforting that no matter the age, humans always sought the best deal. Now, alone in his rooms, he found himself hesitating. Almost every legionnaire had known Arminius was not to be trusted. The German auxiliaries that had stayed loyal tried to warn Varus of treachery, but neither he, nor any of the other commanders, had listened. What would Varus have to say? Had he been as clueless as Paullus always thought? There was no way to know but to begin reading. The desk he sat at, like every other item in his apartment, as someone else’s cast off. Some bored child had crudely carved “Billie, age 12, 1949” in the upper left corner, but it did the job. He toggled the switch on the magnifier, and its circular florescence bulb flickered to life, bringing the text beneath it into sharp relief. Paullus leaned over it, focusing on the first line and began to read.

“My Dear Wife…”

#

Paullus leaned back, stretched, and scrubbed his eyes. Immortality had saved him from death more times than he could remember, but it didn’t stop his body from aching after spending hours hunched over a piece of paper. Now, after twenty days struggling to understand what was written on those pages, he knew what Varus had meant to communicate. And what he had learned opened his eyes in ways nothing had before. He picked up his notes, the Latin script as neat now as it had been all those centuries before, and ran through Varus’ final message.

“My Dear Wife,

I write you because I know that if we ever see each other again, it will be in Elysium. I wish I could see you again, to hold you and our children one final time, but that is not to be. In my folly, I trusted Arminius, and he has betrayed that trust. I have learned that he intends to attack my legions, hoping he can rally enough warriors to his cause to overwhelm us. He has the advantage of knowing the land, and its people, while all I have is my confidence in the courage and training of my legionnaires. I know that I have no chance to prevailing, but if I were to run, what would become of me, of our family? So I will stay, and fight, to give what honor I can to you and our children.

Know that while I will die looking forward to our reunion, I hope that happy event is many years away. So live, my beloved wife, and keep my memory alive in our children’s hearts. I will not ask you to keep it alive in your heart, because I know it will never die there. Until we meet again, may Jupiter, Minerva and all the gods keep you always in their care.

Your husband,

Publius Quinctilius Varus”

It all made sense now. By dying rather than running, Varus saved his family from the humiliation of cowardice in the face of the enemy. But even knowing why he had done it did nothing to quell Paullus’ anger. No, it made that anger worse. No man’s honor was worth so many lives. But he had the letter copied, and once he’d translated it, he’d be paid…and getting paid was what it was all about. He glanced at the clock, and to his surprised, found it was 3AM.

“Sleep, I think, before translation. Tomorrow will be soon enough to finish. Now, to bed.”

#

Claudia ran her hand across her eyes, wiping tears she hadn’t expected away. Sanchez’s notes, his detailed interpretation of what different words might be, were as good as anything she had seen . What those guesses and interpretations put together was heartbreaking, and the implications of Varus’ letter rewrote one of the most shocking defeats in history. She looked across her desk and found Sanchez watching her. The bland mask was in full force today, not even his eyes revealed what passed through his mind.

“Do you accept my translation, Ms. Upton? I’ll admit some of it’s guesswork, but put together, it all makes sense. Don’t you agree?”

I do. It’s also quite a story, which is why I wonder if anyone will take your translation seriously.” Claudia saw the eyes narrow and held up her hand. “Believe me when I tell you I don’t doubt you’ve done an excellent job translating the letter. I’m just saying that historians are not immune from fearing change, and this letter changes the whole narrative of Teutoburg.” She saw the man’s tension lessen, then with a smile, caught her by surprise.

“Fear of change has always been mankind’s greatest enemy. Perhaps if Rome hadn’t been so focused on victory, if they’d been willing to accept a fighting retreat, Varus might have found a way to bring his troops home instead of leading them to the slaughter.” Sanchez shook his head. “But all humans hate change, don’t they? Well, if you’re satisfied with my work, there is the vulgar matter of my fee…”

Claudia suppressed a chuckle at the old movie reference and opened the central drawer on her desk. She didn’t understand why Sanchez always demanded payment in cash, but she was happy to pay for this sort of quality. She pulled out the fat envelope holding his fee and passed it to him. “As agreed, sir. I’d like to offer you something more to express my thanks for your work. Would you mind if I listed you as a co-author when I submit the paper I intend to write based on this? I’m sure it would bring you more work, if you need more money.”

Sanchez was folding the envelope, and stuffed it into the front pocket of his khakis before responding. “Thank you for your kind offer, but no. I’ve been thinking of doing some traveling, and now I’ve enough money to actually do it. Perhaps after I return…”

“Oh, it’ll take me a couple months just to write the paper, then several more before any journal can do their peer-review before publishing. It might be as much as a year before it hits the in-boxes of anyone who would want to hire you.”

“In that case, I hope you’ll remember my services on the off chance that one of your peers asks for your translation recommendations.” Sanchez gave her a slight bow, not unlike some of her Japanese colleagues sometime would. Then, almost as if he were catching himself in something he shouldn’t do, he straightened and held out his hand. She took it, finding the hand that closed around hers hard, the grip strong. It had nothing of most men’s handshake, that attempted to convey strength without being obvious. No, the fingers that enclosed hers could just as easily close around her throat, or snap her neck, and Sanchez made no effort to hide the fact.

“I’d be happy to recommend you to anyone who needs your services, sir, and I hope you enjoy your vacation.”

Sanchez left, and Claudia began going over his notes, taking in the details of his deductive process. Yes, he’s got an exceptionally detail-oriented mind. Maybe a mild case of ADHD? She picked up another laser-printed block to text, and found something unexpected beneath it. It was a page covered in handwritten notes…notes not in English, but in the so-called rustic Latin. They had none of the hesitation of a person trying to copy a style, no, this was the flowing script of someone who wrote in the language. She saw a letter, then another one, and knew she’d seen them before. That same shape, the way the bar was formed on the “f”, but where? It couldn’t be…. Claudia dug into her notes, found the copies of the first text she’d had Sanchez translate. She rooted in her desk, found the magnifying glass she used these days, and examined the copy. The “f” was the same, right down to that odd little flick on the end of the bar. She examined the rest of the copy, going back and forth between it and Sanchez’s notes, finding more and more similarities with each examination.

Claudia leaned back, letting herself smile even as a chill of pure terror ran through her body. “I guess I could have interviewed a legionnaire…if he didn’t decide to kill me afterwards to keep his secret.” She stared at the door to her office, wondering if Sanchez might have seen the legions march away from Rome to their doom. Did the echoes of that long ago tragedy explain some of what she’d seen?

And what of Sanchez? Would Claudia find him already gone if she went to the address he’d given? No, Sanchez, or whatever his real name was, had lived a long life. She had no doubt that the vacation he’d spoken of was some way to disappear. “Good luck to you, whomever you are. The world must be becoming a much more hostile place for a man like you.”

Amazing stories

Rain roared down on the roof of the police cruiser as Delgado ‘Del’ Salazar rolled to a stop outside Sweet Young Things. He’d driven past the ‘gentlemen’s club’ outside the tiny burg of Myers, Texas more times than he could remember, but this would be the first time he’d entered the place. The single squad car owned by the Myers PD sat in front of the entrance, flanked by the county EMT vehicle and the car driven by Paul Obert, the other county sheriff on duty tonight. The rest of the gravel parking lot was packed with the cars and trucks of the customers who were inside, leaving Del to no option but to park on the grass strip between the lot and Texas Route 23.

“Figures. It’s pouring rain, and the nearest parking spot is a good hundred feet away.”

The rain slicker kept him dry almost to his knees, the the ‘smokey bear’ hat he usually hated stopped the rain from spotting his glasses, but his feet were squelching in soaked shoes before he got to the front door. Inside, the rush of the rain was drown out by the thumping beat of music so loud it set Del’s teeth on edge before he’d even left the entrance hall.

The hall opened onto a dark room centered around a raised oval stage surrounded by a low rail. Flashing light illuminated a pair of polished brass poles that stood at either end of the stage, and a bar stretched along the entire length of the wall opposite of where Del stood. It was packed solid with men in work clothing whom were doing their best to pretend they didn’t exist. Mixed with them were a handful of women a mix of bikinis and an odd assortment of costumes.

The bar was the only island of regular light in the room. Just short of it was a second pool of light. This one came from the Maglites of two police officers, and it revealed a disturbing scene. Two men in EMT uniforms knelt beside a dead body. Del didn’t have to be any closer to know the young man lying between the EMT’s was dead. Nobody alive could twist their head nearly 180 degrees from its normal orientation, nor would a living man’s eyes have that blank stare to them. It wasn’t the first dead body Del had seen, not after two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.

As a deputy sheriff, Del had authority over the local police officer. As the senior officer on the scene, he also had authority over Paul. “Time to get this show on the road.” he muttered to himself as he approached the tableau.

Neither officer noticed his approach, and Del’s shout of “What’s going on?” caused both officers to jump. The Myers PD officer, a young woman with “A. Renald” on her name tag, tried to answer. Del only caught a few odd words of her reply. He turned towards the bar, took a deep breath, and in his best parade-ground voice, shouted. “Could you please turn the damned music off?” It has the effect Del hoped for. A young black man in a muscle tee and tattered jeans pushed away from the bar and almost ran to a small platform in the corner. He twisted knobs on a control panel and the music mercifully died. In the stunned silence that followed, the only noise was the relentless hiss of the rain on the buildings roof. Del aimed a “Thank you.” at the man, then turned his attention to the problem at hand.

“So, what happened here?”

Renald took up her earlier efforts to explain. “911 got a call of shots fired at this location. I was on the scene first, followed by your officer. I found the subject already dead, and a 9MM auto lying beside him.” She pointed towards the gun in question, Del suspected it was a Ruger from what he could make out of it, but kept his opinions to himself. “Witnesses say the deceased, Oberto Soto, entered the bar and got into a confrontation with one of the dancers. Club security approached Soto and requested he leave. He did, but re-entered the club a short time later brandishing his gun. Security here is only armed with hand tasers, so they backed off. Soto then pointed his gun at the dancer and threatened to kill her.” Renald had been turning her head and pointing out the different parties she had been speaking to , but now she stopped and focused her gaze on Del. “That’s when it gets, well, strange. Everyone I’ve spoken to says some kid was over in the corner at a table. They all agree he got up, walked over to Soto, and told him to leave. Soto turned his gun on the kid and threatened to shoot him…and the kid told him to go ahead.” Renald looked away, pointed towards the floor, and Del saw three spent shell casings. “Soto fired three rounds into the kid at almost point-blank range.” She pointed towards a section of wall that framed the entrance to the main room, and Del saw for the first time the three clean holes in it. “Everyone saw the shots fired, and they all agree there was no way Soto could have missed. But the kid just stood there like it was nothing. Then he grabbed Soto’s head, twisted it, and broke his neck. He must have killed him instantly, at least that would be my guess.”

Del looked at the EMT, who was looking up at him. “Yeah, she’s right, but the force it would take to do this….no way a kid could do it. I’m not sure I could do it.” He pointed towards a pair of red marks on the side of Soto’s face. “That’s a hand print. I once read about how they train Marines to silently kill someone by breaking their necks. They wrap their arm around the victim’s head and use leverage to give them the mechanical advantage to snap the spine. From what I can tell, this kid literally put his hands on either side of this guy’s head and twisted it like it was bottle cap.”

Renald took up her narration. “But that’s not the strange part. Look at the floor, at the wall…no blood! Not a drop, anywhere. How the hell does someone get shot three times, and not only manage to kill a man with their bare hands, but not bleed a drop?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll worry about that later. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of people here we need to take statements from. I need to contact the county medical examiner to come out to collect the body and collect any forensic evidence he can. You and my man Paul get started on that. Be sure to get as much of a description of this mysterious kid as you can. Do you know who’s in charge of this place?”

Renald pointed towards an older man standing at the gap in the bar which allowed access to the rear. “Okay, you two get started on the witnesses, and I’ll see if all these security cameras are real or just for show.”

Del approached the manager and waved at the three camera pods he could see. “Any of these working? And if they are, we’re going to need a copy of any video they captured tonight.”

The manager shook his head. “Sorry, but most of them are just there to keep the customers from getting too ‘friendly’ with the dancers. Only one that’s working is the one pointed at the cash register, but it’s got no sound pick-up, so I’m not sure how much good it’ll do you.”

“So, no images of this vigilant kid? By the way, how did a kid end up in this place? Doesn’t your license require you to card people and make sure they’re 21 before you let them in?”

“Hey, the kid walked in, soaked to the skin and looking like death warmed over. All he asked for was a place he could sit out the storm. I figured he was hitching and I didn’t want to just shove him back out in this downpour. Does that make me a bad guy?”

Del waved the excuse away. “We can talk about what a Good Samaritan you are some other time. Where you out here when all this happened?”

“No, I was in the back, in my office, doing the books. I heard the shots, but by the time I got out here, the kid was gone. My security guys said he walked out like nothing had happened. How the hell does someone do that?”

“Damned if I know. Why don’t you go where ever you have your security camera recorder and get me a copy of the footage for tonight while I go call the county forensics people.”

The manager disappeared through a doorway set in an alcove behind the bar, and Del moved to the exit. Outside, under the awning protecting the entrance, he stopped and drew a deep breath. What he’d told everyone wasn’t the truth. A few week ago, he’d seen a report out of Nevada of a group of people who’d been rescued from human traffickers. It had been passed onto Del by an old friend who worked in law enforcement out there who knew of Del’s fascination with strange, amazing stories of crime. The human traffickers weren’t all that amazing, nor was their forcing a group of people to work an illegal uranium mine. What was strange was how they’d escaped: all of them agreed that a young man, a teenager , had managed to overpower not one, but several of the guards. Even stranger, at least one of the people who’d been rescued reported that the teenager had been shot several times, by automatic weapons fire no less, and had kept on going.

A rumble of thunder rolled across Del, then another came, this one close enough to illuminate the parking lot and everything around it. In that moment of light, Del saw a slight young man, a teenager, standing across the highway from the club. Then the vision disappeared into the pouring rain. Another flash, further away, gave a dimmer light to the scene, but the young man was gone. Did he really want to go into the downpour, into the darkness, to find a out who he was? He shook his head. “No, I don’t need to go looking for an avenging angel.” He squeezed the mic of his handheld. “Dispatch, this is Deputy Sheriff Salazar. Wake Doc Hastert up and tell him we’ve got a crime scene for him to examine, a homicide. EMT’s are already here, so he doesn’t need to roll his meat wagon. Just tell him to get his tail down to Sweet Young Things. Knowing that old coot, he probably doesn’t need direction.”

“Rodger that, Del. I’ll pass the word. You want I should wake up the chief?”

Sheriff Don Alperts was a stickler for proper procedure. If anyone would demand Del mount a manhunt for this phantom protector, it was Alperts. “No, Hettie, let the boss get his beauty sleep. God knows he could use it.”

The snort of laughter that got through told Del his joke was appreciated. “10-4. I’ll get the Doc on the way to you as soon as I can, Del.”

“Thanks, Hettie. You stay dry there, hear?”

“You too, Del. Dispatch out.”

#

George watched the cop go back into the strip club. How could he have been so stupid? He was dead, so the rain was little more than an inconvenience. He could have sat down in this drainage ditch and let the thunderstorm hammer down on him without taking any harm. Hell, he could probably have taken a lightening strike without noticing it. But no, he’d begged shelter in the club, then he’d been cocky enough to confront that angry clown when he’d threatened the only woman who’d talked to George. His undead form took no damage from the gunshots, but then he’d been dumb enough to react and kill the man.

George gave a final look at the club before rising from behind the road and walking away. “I gotta be more careful, or somebody’s going to catch on to me.” he told himself as the night and rain swallowed him.

The Fair Tree

The red squirrel stopped, rose in its hind legs, and scanned its surroundings. Its ears pricked up, it took the scene around it. It saw no predators, nor did it see any of its own kind. Sure that it was safe, and that the acorn it carried would not be stolen, it scraped at the ground. When it deemed the hole deep enough, the squirrel dropped the acorn in, pulled the dirt it had dug out back in place, and took a final look around. Seeing nothing nearby, it bounded away, back to the small grove of oaks it had come from to gather more food it hoped would tide it through the coming winter.

Why the squirrel never returned is unknown. Had the winter been mild enough that it had not needed the acorn? Had it forgotten where the nut lay hidden? Or had it fallen prey to a stray dog, perhaps even one of the new metal monsters the humans had taken to driving? Whatever had happened, the acorn remained, and as it should, it sprouted.

Humans moved around it that first year, but none disturbed it. In the second year of the small oak trees life, a human noted its presence. By then, the trees that had supplied the initial acorn were gone. Humans had felled them to build a fair ground, but this one, growing apart, stood near where a band stand was to be erected. Thinking it a good idea to have shade for the people who would be listening to the bands, the human left th oak stand unharmed.

Time passed. Humans came, listening to the local high school band as it worked its way, generation after generation, through “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The other music changed. Sousa gave way to swing, which gave way to jazz before bands stopped performing at the fair ground. Even after the band stand fell out of use, families picnicked on the grass where their grandparents had once listen to music. Children ran madly about the oak as their parents lounged in its shade. A man, thinking to make his life easier, brought a garbage can into the broad grassy space, hoping the picnickers would not leave trash behind. When they began moving it, he wrapped a chain around the oaks trunk, padlocking the looped ends together in the handle.

The oak, free of shade and competition, grew into a giant. Its massive limbs, thick as a man’s body, spread outward. Its trunk swelled outward to match, swallowing the chain over the years. Men who knew nothing of their predecessors reasoning continued to lock garbage cans to the ends that now dangled from the trunk. But inside, the tree began to feel the effects of that intrusion. Rot began, then spread. Even as the band stand was knocked down, replaced with playground equipment for the children who still loved to dash around the great tree, the defect grew.

Other squirrels, distant descendants of the one that had given the oak life, came and took away the acorns it dropped in the thousands every year. Humans, determined to keep the grass, then the playground clear, mowed and sprays, killing any offspring that might chance to rise. Winters snow weighed its branches down, and Summer storms shook it, but the oak remained. But with every season, unseen within the oak, the rot spread. Slowly, it worked its way downward. When it came to the base, it found a small opening and joined up with it. Together, they ate away the oaks connection to the soil. The roots still drew nutrients from the dark soil it stood in, but these now flowed up an increasingly narrow band of living wood to feed the leaves.

Finally, a storm came that shook the oak, bringing gusts of wind that twisted it so that a crack opened. Parents noted it as they tried to gather their rowdy children, snapping photos of it on their smart phones. It caused them some concern, but they had grown up with the tree, like their parents and grandparents before them. It had always been there, and like a mountain, it would always be there. But inside the oak, the final act had begun. The rot had so weakened the tree that little held it to the ground. Winter came, and with it ice from melt water. Ice that grew, spreading the crack like a wedge, further weakening the tree. Spring came, and as they always did, the children ran in circles about the oak. Its leaves sprouted, the ground beneath it knew the shade that had graced it many years before.

Then a storm came in the night. It wasn’t a truly violent storm. It had no mighty gusts of wind, no torrential downpours. But what it had was enough. The oak, now held in place by only a few narrow roots, toppled and fell upon the playground equipment. Children who came the next were shocked to find the giant tree fallen. Some of them were angry that their favorite swings, the slide they’d enjoyed just the day before, were now smashed wreckage. But others walked to the trees base, saw the rot now exposed, and touched the trunk with reverence. It had shaded them, entertained them, hidden them, and in the end, it had given up its existence when none of them were around. In the end, the Fair Tree, as everyone for ages beyond end had called it, had saved them.

Image may contain: tree, grass, outdoor and nature

“Let’s go home, Dad.”

Jack was twenty when an idiot blew through a stop sign and t-boned him. He’d survived because the other car had slammed into the passenger side of the beater he was driving. For weeks afterwards, he’d woken up in the middle of the night, reliving that moment. How the world had seemed to jump sideways as he bounced around the inside of his vehicle.

Memories of that moment came back to him when the New Madrid fault had ruptured. He’d taken his son with him that morning to visit an old acquaintance in Griffin, Indiana. The drive over, the visit, had been an enjoyable break from work for Jack, and an adventure for Lance. Driving home, Lance had chattered constantly about all the things he’d seen that day. They were talking about the bridge over the Wabash when the quake hit.

One moment, they were cruising along I-65, then the ground shot sideways like a table cloth yanked by some giant hand. He felt the pickup lift, a split second when everything seemed to float. Then the truck slammed back down with a squeal of tires, only to launch even more violently into the air as a second wave of energy traveled through the ground hit the road. The sideways motion caused the truck to land the second time on only two wheels. Jack tried to correct that second landing, but failed. Truck and occupants rolled to the right, slamming down first on the passenger side, then doing a corkscrewing roll and spin down the pavement.

Jack remembered a thundering series of impacts. There was a clear image of every loose item in the cab flying madly around, then there was pain in his left arm, followed by a moment of gray nothingness. Then he found himself upside down, restrained from falling by his seat belt. He tried moving his left arm, and the wave of pain from just the attempt told him he’d broken that arm. Lance, when he looked towards him, was calmly sitting in his seat, watching his father, a few minor cuts on his face the only sign the boy had just been through a major accident.

“I think my arm’s broke, so it’s gonna take me a minute to get down. You hang in there kiddo, I’ll have you out as soon as I can.”

Lance might only be nine, but his sense of humor caught his father’s pun. He smiled as he matched it. “Okay, Dad, I’ll just hang out here while you get things figured out.”

“My son, the future Jimmy Kimmel. What did I do to deserve this?” With only one arm, Jack was reduced to unbuckling himself and falling ingloriously to the former ceiling of his pickup cab. Down, he moved to examine his son. Beyond the visible scratches, he found one other wound, a bump on the side of his head that trickled a little blood. Lance moved his head and limbs freely when asked, so Jack judged it safe to release him from his seat.

Getting out of the truck was easy, none of the windows had survived the roll. What awaited them outside was far less easy to take. In the middle of the countryside, and early in the afternoon of a week day, traffic hadn’t been heavy. But there wasn’t one vehicle in sight that sat upright. Not far ahead, a compact car had endured a similar upending, but it had ended when the vehicle slammed into the concrete wall surrounding the end of a culvert. The cars rear end was now only a couple feet from its front end, everything between nothing but crumpled metal and shattered plastic. Beyond it, a tractor trailer lay on its side, a heavy-set man leaning against the cab as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. Further away, a column of black smoke rose from a vehicle that was already burning fiercely.

“You two all right?”

The question caught Jack off guard, but his instinctual attempt to spin around to face the questioner nearly sent him sprawling. He managed to stay vertical, and found himself facing a white haired black man in a sweater, his wrinkled face frowning with concern. “I think my arm’s broke, and my boy’s got a bump on his head, but we’re okay beyond that.”

The old man advanced. “I was a medic in Vietnam, so sit down and let me take a look at you two.”

Jack’s legs folded faster than he’d intended, the rough landing jolting another wave of pain from his arm. Then gentle fingers touched it, applying pressure that sent a spike of agony through his arm that caused Jack’s eyes to water.

“Yeah, arm’s broke all right. I’ve got nothing to splint it with, but give me a second and I’ll get it in a sling.”

Jack focused again, and saw old man slip his sweater off. “This is gonna hurt like hell, son, so you need to, grab my leg or something.” He didn’t exaggerate, and it was all Jack could do to not scream as his arm was moved one more time. Then it was immobilized inside a pouch made of the folded sweater held in place by the sleeves tied behind his neck.

“Thanks mister…”
“Name’s Virgil, Virgil Jeffers, and don’t call me mister. Every damn officer I ever served with insisted I call them ‘Mister’, and most of them were so ignorant they couldn’t have put a band-aide on a paper cut without screwing it up. Let’s see how your boy’s doing.”

Virgil moved over to Lance, who sat calmly while the old man examined him. He paid special attention to the bump before addressing his patient. “I want to put something on that cut you’ve got, but your Dad’s already got my sweater. Think you can spare your tee shirt so I can wrap your head and keep you from bleeding more?”

Lance gave the old man a broad smile as he stripped off his shirt. “Sure, Virgil…”

“Young man like you should call me Mr. Jeffers. Always good to show your elders respect, even if having a grown man calling another one ‘mister’ isn’t right.” Virgil folded the shirt, then carefully wrapped it about the boy’s head before knotting it on the side opposite the wound. He straightened with an effort and looked at Lance. “Not too tight, is it?”

“No, feels fine Mr. Jeffers. Thanks for helping us.” Lance stopped, looked at his father, then back at the old man. “Why’d you have a sweater on?”

Virgil gave the boy a smile. “Cause my wife always…” the smile faded, and the old man’s head turned to look back along the road to an older car that lay on its side, the post of a traffic sign sticking out of the driver’s side windshield. “I was wearing one because my wife always insisted on running the air conditioner whenever there wasn’t snow on the ground. I always felt like I was gonna freeze, but she’d complain about how hot the car was. You can ask your Dad about what us men do to get along with our wives…”

Virgil stopped, wiped the tears that had started running down his cheeks away, and shook his head. “She insisted on driving, after we filled up the last time. Said if I didn’t let her drive every once in a while, she’d forget how to. It should have been me, I should be in that car, not her. Lette was younger than me, she shouldn’t be……..”

It was all he could say, but it made clear what had happened. Jack put his good arm over the old man’s shoulder to remind him he wasn’t alone. The moment didn’t last long. Someone called out for a doctor, and Virgil stepped back. “Sounds like I’m needed. You two should get going, see if you can find a town or some place you can get taken care of by someone with the supplies to do the job right.”

“Shouldn’t we just wait here?”

Virgil had turned to walk away, but the question stopped him. “No, out here, in the middle of nowhere, it’s going to be a long time before anyone comes. Emergency services are going to have their hands full with folks in the towns. Sending someone out here isn’t going to be a priority for them.”

“Even if we call?” Jack reached for his back pocket, then remembered he’d had his phone on the charger, which meant it was in the truck. Virgil understood what he was searching for and shook his head.

“Don’t bother, I’ve already tried.” He pulled an old flip phone from his pants pocket and opened it. “I tried calling my daughter, and didn’t have a signal. I can’t imagine a quake strong enough to knock cars over left many cell towers standing, or that that much shaking did all the electronics much good.” The voice that had called for a doctor called again, this time more urgently, and Virgil turned away again. “Good luck you two, I need to go. Take care.”
“Thanks, Virgil, we will. You take care too. God bless you for your help.”

That brought a wave as their savior trudged down the road towards the shouts for help. Jack watched him go, then looked down to find his son looking up at him. “What do you think, son? Want to wait here and hope Virgil’s wrong?”

Lance gave him a broad smile. “No, let’s go home, Dad. If we don’t, Mom will yell at us for making her worry.” He pulled Jack’s old smart phone, the one he’d ‘inherited’ when Jack had upgraded. “I already checked, Dad. No bars, so we can’t call Mom or anyone else.”

“You sure? It’s gonna be a long walk if we try it.”

“Yeah, I’m okay, let’s just head home. Who knows, we might find a ride if we keep going.”

#

At first, Lance took the strange events as a license to be explore, forcing Jack to call his son back to his side again and again.

Then they passed the first bodies.

A black woman knelt over a pair of small, still forms. Someone had dragged them from the wreckage of the minivan that now rested under a toppled sign bridge and covered their faces. But they couldn’t cover the terrible injuries that had ended their young lives. And though some Good Samaritan had bound the worst of the young woman’s wounds, they could do nothing to for her crushed soul. So she knelt, head bowed and body shaking in silent weeping, watching over the children she could not save or abandon.

After that, Lance clung to Jack’s hand. Any sense of adventure was crushed more completely with every dead body they passed, every flaming wreck with no one around to watch it burn. They saw things they’d never imagined. Slabs of roadway fell near-vertical into open clefts in the ground, or were displaced sideways to stand as if they were islands on sections of embankment.

All around them, columns of smoke rose into the air. A huge one could be seen lifting from the direction of Poseyville, last town they’d passed through. Other, smaller ones rose from houses along the roadside. Not every house they saw was burning, but not one was intact. The quake had shaken ground and frame so hard most of the buildings looked like a tornado had passed over them. And the more they saw, the surer Jack was that getting a ride, or any sort of assistance, was a forlorn hope.

So they walked on, finding ways around wreckage and destruction on a seemingly impossible scale. Others joined them. They were young and old, every skin tone imaginable, but they were all united in their shock. Every face had the same hollow eyes, the same slack-jawed expression of stunned disbelief.

But all kept walking.

Jack had expected the day to grow warm, but the air gre increasingly hot and humid. It carried scents as familiar as spilled gasoline, and as strange as the sulfurous stink that rose from broad chasms in the roadway. They found a small crowd of people around and overturned soft drink vendors truck, and Jack’s parched mouth stopped him from passing the wreck. He took Lance to a car lying on its side and sat him down in the shade it offered.

His question “You thirsty?” brought a silent nodded reply. “Okay, stay here. I’m going to see if I can get us something to drink.”

That elicited a response from Lance. “Dad, look at them, they’re climbing up that truck, and you can’t climb with one arm.”

Jack looked over his shoulder and saw his son was right. “I’ll just ask one of the folks up on the truck to hand me something down.”

Lance stood and took Jack’s hand. “How about you help me get through the crowd, and I climb up to get us something to drink? I’m ten, Dad, not five. I can do this.”

There was nothing childish in his son’s voice, and for the first time, Jack saw something of the man he would grow up to be. Maybe I haven’t done so bad a job raising him. The thought flitted through Jack’s mind even as he ruffled his boy’s hair. “Okay, let’s get over there and see what’s available, shall we?”

No one stopped them from approaching the truck, and in close, the climb looked far less daunting than it had when Jack had first contemplated making it. Lance hardly slowed down, climbing the underside of the big vehicle like it was some gym set at his school. He gained the top and made his way to one of the now-open roll doors before dropping into the cargo box. He couldn’t have been out of sight for more than a minute, but after everything they’d seen that day, it felt like an eternity to Jack. Then an arm appeared, a six pack of sports drink clutched in its hand, and Lance’s head popped up beside it.

“Look, Dad, I managed to find some of the good stuff!”

Jack would have preferred bottled water, but gagging down that garish blue liquid would be better than being thirsty. “Good job, son, now get down here so we can both have something to drink.”

Lance pulled himself back onto the sill rail of the truck and gave a mock bow to his father. As he straightened up, Jack heard a sound unlike any he’d ever heard before. It was like a rushing wind combined with a deep groan like the Earth itself were in pain. Then the ground seemed to drop from under Jack’s feet.

Landing sent a wave of pain through Jack’s broken arm, and the world went momentarily gray. He was aware of the ground under him heaving and twitching like a living thing trying to shake him off. Then the motion stopped as suddenly as it had started, leaving nothing in its wake but the screams of people in fear. Jack levered himself up, but when he looked towards where Lance had been, he wasn’t there.

“Lance! Lance! Where are you?” No answering cry came, and Jack forced himself to his feet. A few of the people who’d been clustered around the truck stood too, but most huddled on the ground as if they feared rising might cause the ground to shake again. Lance wasn’t by the truck, and a frantic circle of it didn’t reveal him. Jack returned to where he’d started and grabbed a man who was still sitting.

“Did you see what happened to my son? He was the boy who was on top of the truck when the earthquake hit. Did you see what happened to him?”

All the reply he got was a frantic shake of the head, but a teenage girl in torn jeans squatting beside him spoke up. “I saw him fall backwards, I think he’s still inside the truck.”

As it lay, the sill of truck was a good ten feet above Jack’s head, meaning he couldn’t just pull himself up one-handed. “Miss, I can’t climb up, could you see if my son’s all right?”

“You want me to climb up there, with the ground shaking like it is? Are you crazy?”

The ground wasn’t shaking, and hadn’t for several minutes, but the experience of a major earthquake had undone the girl. Her eyes were huge, white showing wide around her pupils, and she clutched her arms about her legs like she wished she were back in the womb. A man Jack’s age in a UPS uniform stood up.

“I’ll climb up and see if your boy’s okay.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

It only took moments for him to clamber up the truck and down into the open side, but to Jack, it seemed an eternity. Then Lance’s head appeared, and the fear that had gripped Jack’s heart receded. Jack could see that the improvised bandage around his was askew, and as he pulled himself out of the open door, it was clear his torso was covered in scratches. His movements had none of the energy they’d had earlier, and Jack, worried he’d injured himself, placed himself under his son as he climbed down. As soon as Lance’s feet touched the ground, Jack drew him into a one-armed bear hug.

“You scared the hell out of me, Lance! You okay?”

Seeing his son smile helped dispel the last of Jack’s worries. “Yeah, Dad, I’m okay…but I forgot the sports drinks!”

“Hey, kid, you looking for this stuff?”

Both of them looked up to find the UPS driver seated on the trucks sill, a six pack of the blue drink dangling down and another of the orange-colored variety setting next to him.

“Sure am! Thanks, mister.” Lance caught the drinks when they were dropped, then the ones his rescuer had claimed for himself. The driver followed them down at a slower pace, then addressed Jack.

“Found your boy lying on top of a bunch of this stuff. Looks like he must have taken a nasty tumble, but when I shook him, he woke up and knew where he was.”

Jack took the other man’s hand and shook it. “Thanks for going in there for my son.”

“No problem. I’ve got three kids at home in Carbondale, and I just hope someone’s there to help them if they need it.” He gave Lance’s shoulder a tap. “You’re brave, but you ought to be a bit more careful. Your Dad looked fit to claw his way through this truck to get to you.”

“I’m sorry, Dad, mister…”

“It’s Frank, and don’t worry about it. Now, we’ve got ourselves something to drink, so what say we enjoy it?”

The three of them moved into the shade of an overturned semi and found a spot amongst the mixed bag of people already seated there. Lance opened a bottle for sports drink for Jack, who found the blue concoction tasted as bad as he’d feared it would. But it was wet, and his parched throat welcomed it. Frank chugged a bottle of his orange drink down, then started a second before speaking again.

“Where you two headed?”
“Mount Vernon, but I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there walking.”

Frank glanced at the sky and shook his head. “Even if the roads weren’t torn up, you wouldn’t make it in a day’s walk. It’s got to be sixty miles, and that doesn’t account for any detours you might have to make. Worse, I can’t imagine any of the bridges are still standing. The Wabash is deep enough for barge traffic, so folks aren’t gonna be crossing it unless someone sets up a ferry, or the Guard puts a pontoon bridge across it. Throw it all together, and it might take you four days, maybe a week, to get there on foot.” He stopped and looked at them. “I did two tours in Iraq, spent lots of time dealing with bad roads and detours. Lots of time walking too. You don’t think about how tired you can get walking until you’ve done a lot of it, or how slow you move.”

“Well, then the sooner we get to walking, the sooner we’ll get home. Right, Lance?”

“Right, Dad! I bet Mom’s worried about both of us, so we better get home. How about you, Mister Frank?”

Frank shook his head and raised one of his feet to show a sock worn through to a swelling blister. “Just my luck, I picked today to break in a new pair of shoes. It only took me a couple of miles to get these, so I’m going to stay here a while.”

Jack shook the hand of his son’s rescuer. “Frank, I can’t thank you enough for helping my boy.”

“Wasn’t nothing. You two take care of each other, hear?”

Jack and his son joined the thin stream of people walking past, a stream that now included people carrying make-shift bundles of possessions. One woman walked in the middle of a small gaggle of children, all of them red headed like her, with a bulging quilt slung over her shoulder. An old black man shuffled along, leaning on a cane, as a boy of eight or nine trudged beside him carrying a pillowcase stuffed with can goods and bottled water. All of them headed west, imitating the Sun’s march across the sky, but unlike the Sun, the humans had no clear path to follow.

A concrete culvert had collapsed into what had once been a small stream, but was now nothing but a muddy channel, the water gone from all but a few pools. Jack and Lance waded through ankle-deep mud surrounded by dead carp already beginning to stink in the hot, humid air. They followed other on a long trek around a gaping crevasse that could have swallowed a semi whole. The pavement ran into a low valley now filled with turbid water, its surface dotted with debris and dead bodies.

They had struggled around the edge of the ominous lake and regained the pavement when Lance let go of Jack’s hand, doubled over, and spewed. His boy wretched until he had nothing left the vomit, then after a couple of abortive efforts to bring up more, he managed to straighten up. Jack laid his hand on Lance’s shoulder, and the boy turned his head towards him, but he looked unfocused, as if he were in a daze.

“You okay?”

The question brought more animation to his son’s face. He managed a smile, but Jack could see it was forced.

“Yeah, Dad, I’m okay. We should keep walking, cause we won’t get home if we just stand here.”

“I think this heat’s a little too much for you, so we’re taking a few minutes break.” He pointed towards the remainder of the six-pack of sports drinks his son had brought with him. “You should have another one of them, get something back in your stomach to make up for everything you brought up. Come on, let’s both get some shade and take a breather.”

Shade proved to be more elusive than Jack had thought. The small stand of trees was still upright, but the ground around their trunks had split open near them from the shaking. Others had also had the same idea. Families and small groups of individuals clogged most of the few spots where the ground remained whole. Jack and Lance found an unoccupied spot that was mostly shaded and sat down together. As before, Lance opened bottles for both of them, but now he struggled to twist the tops off. This worried Jack, but he hoped it was just the an effect of the heat and continuous walking. Thirst overruled taste, and Jack was happy to gulp down the warm blue fluid. Lance took longer, sipping instead of drinking deep, and that worried Jack too. Then he heard a sound he hadn’t heard in a long time.

The deep thumping beat seemed to shake the still, humid air as it grew in volume. Jack’s eyes scanned the clear sky, but the silence around him amplified the noise of the rotor wash, making it seem the helicopter that generated it appear closer than it was. Then he saw it, a dark spot moving through the sky, tracing the same path he and everyone around him had been following. As it grew nearer, he became aware of voice, like that of some god calling down instructions from the sky.

“An emergency aid station has been established at the rest stop west of here at Milepost 57. Food, water and emergency medical services are available there. An emergency aid station has been…”

The message boomed out over and over as the copter passed overhead, fading to nothing as it moved away. Jack looked to his son and found he’d managed to down most of his sports drink.

“Feel any better, Lance? I think that rest area’s just a couple miles from here. If we can get there, we can get some real food, maybe even get a ride. Sound good?”

The smile was less forced than it had been, and his boy’s eyes held their old sparkle as he answered. “Sure does, Dad. Let’s get there so we can go home.”

They joined the other people moving out of the trees, back to the shattered ribbon of pavement, part of a growing stream of humanity headed west. Lance held his hand, and for the first mile, he kept up. Then he began to slow, and when Jack looked, he saw his son’s face had taken on the same dazed look it had held after he’d vomited. Then he stopped, fell to his knees, and brought up all of the sport drink he’d managed to swallow. Jack crouched beside him, an arm over his boy’s shoulder to let him know his father was there and to protect him from being tripped over. He was only partially successful in the latter effort, with both of them catching several unintended blows from the feet of passing people.

“Lance, let’s get over to the shoulder and out of this traffic. Think you can get over there?”

Lance’s head came up slowly, his eyes unfocused, but he tried to smile as he pushed himself upright. His voice, when he spoke, was slurred like he was drunk.

“Sure, Dad, I kin get o’er there, it’s not like I gotta walk ta…”

Then his son folded like someone had cut the strings of a puppet. Jack managed to get his good arm under him as he fell, easing him to the pavement as gently as he could, but when he rolled him face up, Lance’s eyes were closed and his breath labored.

“Lance, hey, you hear me son? Lance!”

He saw his son’s lips twitch, form a smile, and heard him murmur “It’s okay, Dad, let’s go home. Mom said she’d pick up a chocolate cake, and I want some. So let’s go home…” His voice trailed off, and his face lost all expression. Jack tried to lift his son, to carry him to help, but he didn’t have enough strength in his one good arm. He looked around, looked into the blank faces passing him, passing his son by.

“Help me! Something’s wrong with my son, and I can’t carry him. Please, help!”

People kept walking, ignoring him, unwilling to seeing the new tragedy unfolding in front of them. Jack opened his mouth to shout at them, and a hand came down on his shoulder. It was black, and dirty, and he could feel the the calloused strength of it through is shirt.

“What’s wrong wit yo boy?”

Jack turned his head to face a man who made him feel like he was in the presence of a mountain. The hand was connected to an arm covered in muscles bigger than those on Jack’s leg. It lead back to broad chest barely covered by a muscle shirt that peeked out from under a ‘high-vis’ vest like those worn by highway workers. The face, under a shaved head, didn’t look like one that smiled, but now, it was filled with concern.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him. We were going home when our truck got flipped by the quake. I broke my arm, but Lance, my son, seemed fine. We’d been walking for a while, then he started vomiting, and he just passed out. The helicopter said there was an emergency aid station up ahead. Can you help me carry him there, please?”

“Sure, I kin get yo boy there.”

That was all he said before scooping Lance up he weighed nothing and setting off at a trot, leaving Jack to scramble to keep up. As he jogged along, the huge black man chanted “Out the way, out the way! Gotta a sick kid here, out the way, damn it!” and the crowd parted for him like the Red Sea for Moses. They kept that pace up for most of a mile, each running step sending a jag of pain through Jack’s broken arm. Then the rest station came into view and the black man broke into a sprint, leaving jack floundering in his wake.

What he finally stumbled into, gasping for breath and in such pain his vision was graying out, was a scene of complete chaos. None of the buildings of the rest stop had survived the quake, but the parking lot had held together. It was covered in awnings, each surrounded by people trying to gain access to whatever each awning offered. Behind them all stood a pair of tents sporting a white circle and red cross that must be the emergency medical facilities. Jack pressed towards them, ignoring everything else.

Each entrance was guarded by a pair of National Guard soldiers in riot gear carrying an automatic weapon. Surrounding the was a churning mass of humanity. Some struggled to get into the tents, shouting various complaints about injuries real or imagined. Others stood, clinging to each other, some with faces set in fear, others weeping. Jack spotted the high-vis vest and smooth black head of his savior amongst them and shoved his way forward heedless of his own pain or any he inflicted on others. He got to him, and surprised himself by yanking the big man physically around to face him.

“Where’s my son? What’d they do with him?”

The way his eyes wouldn’t meet Jack’s said more than his words. “Yo boy’s inside. Doc’s took him right in, said he needed lookin’ at right ‘way.” He saw the big man’s Adam’s apple move as he swallow before continuing. “He din’t look good. I run fast as I could, but he’s…” Jack saw tears start streaming down that hard face, and feared the worst. But this man had done what he couldn’t, and he had to tell him that.

“It’s all right. Whatever happens, it’s all right. You did what I couldn’t for my boy, and I’ll never forget that. Thank you for helping me, for helping us.”

He hadn’t planned to embrace the other man, but he found those huge arms around him, heard the other man trying not to cry. All of it came to him through a wave of pain from his broken arm, now crushed between the two of them. He must have gasped without knowing it, because he felt the pressure release, and through a hazed vision, he saw shock on that stony visage.

“Yo, you bleedin’! Hey, someone, this guy’s bleedin’!”

That was the last thing Jack remembered. His next memory was of waking under a shiny tan plastic ceiling. His left arm felt wrong, far too heavy, and his right had something stuck to it. He managed to lift his head enough to find his left arm encased in a bright blue plastic cast, and his right arm sprouted a pair of IV feeds. Then everything came back to him. The wreck, Lance becoming sick before passing out, the run to the aid station. Jack tried to sit up and the room seemed to twist around him in a gut-wrenching spiral of disorientation. Jack didn’t vomit despite his stomach’s protests, and as his head cleared, he became aware he wasn’t the only one suffering. He shared what he now realized was a large inflatable tent with a dozen other patients. He heard moans of pain coming from at least two other forms, but some of them lay frightening still, as if they’d given up or were so close to deaths door that they could no longer express their pain. Only one other person, a young woman with both legs immobilized in casts, sat upright and awake. She favored him with a smile.

“Good to see you’re awake. They brought you in here last night and had a nurse checking on you every half hour until sometime after midnight, so you must have been in a pretty bad way.”
“Did they say anything about a boy, my son? I was hurt when my truck went over, but he got real sick on the walk here. Has anyone said anything about him?”

She shrugged. “Nope, nobody said anything. A big black guy named Chaz came by after they brought you in, looked like he wanted to talk to you, but when he saw you was out, he left. Haven’t seen him since.”

At least Jack had a name to connect with the man who’d done so much for Lance. But he knew nothing about his son, and when he swung his legs out of bed, dizziness hit him even stronger. He was trying to push through it when a strong pair of hands pressed him back. They were connect to an earnest young man in military fatigues who made it clear he was not going to allow Jack out of bed.

“Sir you need to rest, You lost a lot of blood, and your BP is still low. You try standing, and all you’re going to do is end up on your ass on the floor, if you’re lucky!”

“Blood loss? How’d I…”

The young man, Jack saw he had his name, P. Killian, stenciled over his left breast pocket, firmly pushed him back as he replied. “You had a broken arm, and somebody treated it. But then you did something stupid that caused the bones shift. They punctured the skin, and nicked a vein in the process. Chart says you nearly bled out. We’ve put two units of blood into you already, and I’m going to be hanging another unit here in a few minutes. So just relax and let us get you stable.”

“Listen, I just want to know what happened to my son, a ten year old boy named Lance. He was sick, unconscious, when he was brought in. He had dark blond hair and he had a blue tee shirt wrapped around his head to bandage a scrape he’d got on his head. Have you seen a boy who looks like that?”

Killian got Jack’s legs covered before answering. “No, I can’t say I have. Which doctor did you speak to?”

Jack motioned towards his broken arm. “I couldn’t carry him with this. A big guy named Chaz helped me, he picked Lance up and carried him. I had a hell of a time keeping up.”

That drew a sharp look. “Don’t tell me, let me guess: you ran with a broken arm in a make-shift sling?” Jack opened his mouth to defend his actions, but didn’t get the chance. “No wonder it was so messed up. You got a couple good-sized holes in your arm where the bone came through the skin, then worked around as you ran. I’m amazed you didn’t drop in your tracks, but adrenaline can make the human body do some incredible things. How about this: I’ll ask around after I take care of you and everyone else in this tent. If you’re son’s here, someone will know where he is. He might not be here, though. We had our first evac flight at sunrise, taking folks off to a hospital in Indianapolis that survived the quake. There was some talk of putting you on that flight, but too many folks were ahead of you on the triage list. You say he was brought in unconscious?”

“Yes, he’d gotten sick, vomited a couple of times, then he just kind of keeled over.”

“Okay, I’ll see what I can find out. It might take a while for me to get back, so don’t go wandering around, hear me? I find you’ve dragged my IV stand to another tent, I’ll kick your ass just for principle.”

Young Killian worked his way around the tent, tending to the other patients, then returned to swap the now empty blood bag for a full one. He hung it, swapped out the bag of clear fluids for something else, and then injected something into the IV line. “This is for the pain, so you might feel a little drowsy. Don’t worry about your boy. I promise I’ll find out what happened to him and if I can’t get back to tell you, I’ll make sure someone else does. Rest now, get your strength back for your son.”

Jack felt a wave of almost blissful relief sweep over him, washing away pain he hadn’t even realized was nagging him. It also swept him away from that dismal room, off to a place where Lance sat beside his bed, a smile on his face. It felt safe there, alone in that room with his son, but something told him it couldn’t last. His last memory of the quiet space was of his son taking his hand, smiling, and saying “Dad, you need to wake up, we gotta go home.”

It was early morning when he awoke, Jack could tell from the warm quality the light streamed into the tent through plastic window beside his bed. Several of the beds around him were empty, including the one that had been occupied by the young woman in the twin casts. Jack hoped they were empty because the people who’d been in them had been discharged, and not because they’d died. A figure in olive drab entered the tent, but her coffee-colored skin and short frame was nothing like Killian’s. She saw Jack watching her and smiled.

“Good morning, Mr. Everrets. How do you feel today?”

Jack rarely heard himself called ‘Mr. Everrets’. that was what folks called his Dad, so it took him a beat to respond. “I’m feeling good. How long was I asleep?”

“I wouldn’t know. You were asleep when I came on shift at midnight, and it’s just coming up on 6 AM, so at least six hours. Do you know what time it was when you went to sleep?”

“It was light outside…and a guy named Killian was here. He promised to find out about my son, Lance. Do you know if he did?”

“Killian? Pat Killian? He had the afternoon shift yesterday, so you must have been out for close to twelve hours. And no, I didn’t talk to him, so he couldn’t have told me anything about your son. Your son’s name was Lance Everrets? I can go ask, but what was he admitted for?”

Jack told his story again, and like Killian before her, the young woman had nothing to tell him. “I’ll ask the head nurse after I finish my rounds, but I haven’t seen a boy who looks like that. Now, let’s get your vitals checked so I can get on with my work…”

Her uniform had ‘J. Ochoa’ stenciled over the left breast pocket, and she went about her duties with a brisk but friendly attitude. When she taken her final reading, Ochoa rolled up her blood pressure cuff and stowed it away. “You’re vitals are normal now, Mr. Everrets. You might not remember me, but I was the attending nurse when they brought you in. Your blood pressure was so low, the doctors were afraid you heart would stop. We were pumping blood into you as fast as we could! It’s good to see you’ve recovered so well. Maybe they’ll transfer you out today.”
“I’m not going any where until I find out about my son, miss. I’m sorry, but I have to know how he is, and where he is. Can you please get someone to find out and let me know?”

“I will, sir. I’ll check with the head nurse as soon as I can, and I promise to make sure you know as soon as possible.”

She left, to be replaced by another young woman who asked if Jack felt up to eating, Just the question made his stomach growl, and he had wolfed down two bowls of oatmeal without tasting them. The coffee accompanying them swept the last haziness from his mind and left him feeling impatient. That impatience grew as the light did outside and no one came to tell him about Lance. Jack felt like one of this insects suspended in amber, like time had stopped around him and nothing could ever break him free of this eternal state of not knowing. The tent door opened with the soft swish Jack had become familiar with, and a middle-aged white woman with a severe face entered. She walked up to Jack’s bed and swept a cold eye over him.

“I’m head Nurse Alice Fenton, and I’ve had no less than two of my nurses come to me asking for information on your son. We don’t have a Lance Everret listed as in our care, and there’s nobody matching the description you gave listed as a JD either.”

“JD?”

“Sorry, medial slang, ‘John Doe’. I haven’t asked anyone to check the morgue tent because you’ve insisted your son was just suffering from a fainting spell, is that right?”

Morgue? Jack’s mind shied away from the idea that his son could be dead. There was no way Lance could be dead. “No, he can’t be dead. He just fainted, maybe from th heat. Is there any chance he could have been discharged while I was unconscious? They tell me I was in a bad way when they brought me in, so is it possible he could have been released then?”

Nurse Fenton shook her head. “Both of my people told me your son was a ten year old boy, and there’s no way a minor like that would be discharged without a parent of guardian to take care of them. I can go double check, make sure he wasn’t transferred to Indianapolis General for further care, but if that didn’t happen, then I don’t know what happened to your son. Give me an hour, Mr. Everrets, to make a few calls and find out for you. I hope I can get you an answer, because I also understand you’ve refused to leave if you can’t find out, and as far as the doctors are concerned, you’re fit to be discharged.”

Jack started to object, and she held up a hand to stop him. “I didn’t say I was going to kick you out without your son, or at least the knowledge of where you can find him. It’s close to lunch time, so I will expect you to eat, but hopefully by this afternoon, I’ll have the information you’re requesting and we can get you onto one of the ‘duce-and-a-half’ taxi runs to the Wabash so you can get on your way home. I’ll ask one of my male nurses to help you get dressed. Your pants and shoes are in a bin under your bed, and I’m sure we can scrounge up an OD green tee shirt to replace that blood-soaked shirt they cut off you when you arrived.”

The man who helped Jack get dressed looked like he’d blow away in a stiff breeze. A pale, almost whey-colored face atop a slender trunk, arms and legs that looked more like sticks than human limbs. But for all that, his grip was firm and he didn’t waver as Jack leaned on him to get his pants up. He was also silent. No chatter, gossip or even encouragement came from his lips, and when Jack thanked him for helping, all he got in the way of a reply was an inarticulate grunt as he walked out the door.

Inaction followed, and the longer he was left to stew, the more restless Jack became. Only two other patients were in the tent with him, and both of them were as impatient as Jack to be out of bed and home. Nurse Fenton’s arrival brought all of their attention into focus, but her frowning face stilled any questions. She walked up to Jack and guided him to the exit. “I have something I need you to look at before we can release you, Mr. Everrets. Please come with me.”

#

The truck that took Jack to the Wabash was a dark green, hulking monster. The bed was high above the ground, even with his eyes, and there was no easy way for a one armed man to climb aboard. A pair of guardsmen helped him aboard, one pulling him up from the bed while the other stabilized him as he struggled to get a foot in the stirrup built into the rear gate. His time in the emergency center had thinned out the number of people trying to cross into Illinois, but the big truck was still over half full when it pulled away. The slate seat bit into Jack’s ass, and while he’d been given some painkillers to help with his fracture, he felt each bump they hit.

There were a lot of bumps. The driver followed I-65 for only a short distance before swinging off to churn through the fields alongside it. The road, where it was visible, was now nothing but a string of fractured patches of pavement setting at whatever odd angle the shifting ground had left it at. The closer they got to the Wabash, the more disrupted the ground was. Broad openings in the ground rimmed with incongruous banks of brilliantly clean sand had been hurriedly filled in, but the dip left behind sent the truck bouncing like a wild horse being ridden for the first time. Other spots where covered in water that rose almost to the bottom of the truck bed.

Much of the ground was a soupy, muddy mass that slowed their huge conveyance to a crawl and caused the engine exhaust to rise from an uncomfortable growl to a deafening howl. They were grinding their way through one such patch when the guardsman who’d stayed in the bed gave a shout.

“Looks like you folks are in luck. The ‘Cannonball’ is on this side of the river, so you can board right away.”

Jack raised his head, bringing himself out of the hazy place he’d let the painkillers take him to. What he saw was not promising. The earthquake had caused the Wabash to spread. Trees, still covered in green leaves, rose from the murky river water. Between the water and the muddy ground they now navigated was an low embankment topped with a decaying strip of tarmac. Like the interstate, it too was torn asunder in many spots, but the section the truck aimed for was whole and level. Beyond it was a craft Jack had never seen, or imagined, in his life. Six big rubber rafts stuck out of each side of a broad metal deck, and the whole thing was flanked by pairs of identical rafts. These had men in them, and big outboard motors fitted to the rear. People were already standing on the deck, part of a small crowd that was boarding by walking across metal grates that stretched out from the embankment.

“They can’t be serious. We’re supposed to cross a river as big as the Wabash on that thing?”

“It’s okay, Dad. Look at all those people getting on board. They trust it, so we should too. I want to get home, so let’s go.”

Boarding the floating contraption proved to be far less trying than getting down from the truck. A teen aged boy had to help the guardsman get Jack to the ground, then a few steps across the tarmac that ended in a shaky walk over the grating to the deck. People flopped down where ever they could, but Jack knew sitting down would mean a fight to rise again. He stood watching as the last few passengers came aboard and the gratings were pulled ashore. Someone shouted an order and the motors revved to life.

As they backed them away from the land, Jack saw more evidence that they were now floating over what had once been dry land. A power line stretched out, growing closer and closer to the surface of the water before dropping into it by a roof that protruded barely a foot from the water. Then the last trees dropped away and they motored across the muddy expanse of the new Wabash. A pair of concrete towers, their tops ragged, marked where the I-65 bridge had once stood. Of the mighty steel arch they’d driven across, not a trace remained.

Reaching the Illinois side of the river entailed navigating a maze of trees and ruined riverside houses, a task made difficult by the surprisingly strong currents present on that side of the Wabash. Men in guard uniforms waded chest-deep in the water to bring lines that were used to pull their improvized ferry snug to an identical section of floating decking. It was joined to two more, and beyond them the ground rose to a shelf that backed against a steep hillside. Jack said a silent thanks for not having to walk another flexing stretch of narrow metal walkway as he joined the other passengers headed ashore.

More guard members stood at the land end of the cobbled-together pier, directing Jack and everyone else along a rough path that carried them to a zig-zag path up the hill. A mass of tents stood around the top of the path. Many were identical to the inflated shelter Jack had awoken in after he’d passed out, but the others were as individual as the groups that had set them up. Red Cross volunteers handed out clothing and what they called a ‘disaster pack’. Jack took the one that was thrust into his hand, and found it held hand sanitizer, disposable wash clothes and such day-to-day necessities as a roll of toilet paper. The guard had a pair of tent where food was being dished out in the form of MRE’s. Jack’s stomach growled, and after a brief stay in line, he found himself eating a package of chili so bland that he wished he could ask for hot sauce. It went down, though, and he felt more awake with food in his belly.

After a quick visit to a latrine, Jack tried to find out how he could leave the encampment. Indiana, he soon found out, had been able to spare guard vehicles to move quake victims without vehicle. Illinois, one guard member told him, had all of its vehicles tied up either moving people out of the wreckage that had been Chicago, or evacuating East St. Louis. The Mississippi had been dammed by an uplifted section of land just north of the spot where it had joined the Ohio. The backed up water spread north, and people on both sides of it were fleeing as quickly as they could. There was, however, an impromptu taxi service made up of locals with four wheel drive vehicles who were hauling victims to some of the larger local towns.

The Sun was setting by the time Jack found someone headed to Mount Vernon. He joined eight people in the bed of a Ram with a jacked-up suspension and more bondo holding it together than steel. His arm was throbbing again as he was helped in, so Jack popped another pain pill and relaxed as well as he could while being hauled through more scenes of disaster.

They arrived well after sunset, driving into a town where few building still stood and roads were paths through the rubble. All around them, fires burned. Some of them had people crouching beside them, while others appeared to be nothing more than the remains of the conflagration that had consumed a building. Their path they took went nowhere near Jack’s house, and ended in a broad spot Jack realized had once been the parking lot for the county court house. Nothing of that impressive old Depression-era building stood, only a mound of jumbled rubble marked where it had once been.

With no way to find his house in the unrelieved darkness, Jack found an intact portion of the lawn and laid down. Lance sat beside him, looking out over the shadowy devastation that surrounded them, and Jack wished he could shield his son from the horror of seeing everything he’d ever known in ruins. But there was nothing he could do, no magic he could work to make everything right again. That disappointment was the last thing in his mind when he fell asleep.

Dawn came early, and Jack awoke to find his son sitting beside him, his face turned towards the Sun, a smile on his lips.

“Hey, you get any sleep kid?”

Lance looked towards him. “Sure, Dad, I got plenty of sleep. Sleeps not a problem any more for me. Can we go home now? I want to see Mom, see how she’s doing.”

“Sure thing. I want to get home too before your Mom hunts me down for not calling to let her know how we’re doing.”

Getting up from flat on his back one handed was harder than Jack imagined. He managed it, discovering aches he hadn’t had the night before. The clear dawn light revealed a scene even more devastated than he’d imagined the night before. Every building around the court house had been knocked down, as had most of those he could see. But with the knowledge of where he was, Jack knew he could find his way home. So he set out, Lance beside him as he had been these past days. Neither of them spoke as they made their way down streets they’d both known for all their lives, now stranger than any foreign city. Into the residential areas, past the baseball diamond where Lance had played and people now camped. The charred remains of the local convenience store told them they were close to home. Down the street lined with destroyed homes, down to the end where their home stood. Most of it was still standing, but the roof had collapsed into the interior, leaving nothing but a shell of the place that had been home. But there was a familiar tent standing on the front lawn that told Jack his wife had survived.

He started forward, but Lance didn’t move. “Come on, son, Mom’s still asleep. Let’s give her a surprise she’ll like and let her know we’re home.”

Lance gave him a smile. “It’s okay Dad. Thanks for getting me home. Tell Mom I’m sorry, that I wanted to come home, but I couldn’t leave that tent in Indiana.”

“What are you talking about, Lance? Come on, let’s go home.”

“I can’t go home, Dad. Remember, I died in that tent in Indiana. You cried so much, I couldn’t leave you to go home alone, so I stayed with you. But I have to go now. I love you and Mom, take care of her. Don’t forget me, Dad, but don’t blame yourself.” Lance began to fade, becoming more ethereal, an outline of a boy, not a boy in reality. Then he was gone, and in that moment, Jack remembered the cool, dark interior of the morgue tent. The rows of silent forms covered in tarps. One small one that Nurse Fenton had uncovered to reveal Lance’s still face. She’d told him why he’d died. How the blows to his head, the wreck and the fall into the beverage truck, had damaged a blood vessel in his brain. It had burst from the strain of walking, and he had been dead before he’d made it to the operating table.

Jack’s legs folded under him, and his head tilted down, he began to weep. As he did, like an echo of a voice came a single thought: You got me home Dad. Thank you.

It wasn’t enough, but Jack accepted it would have to do.