“You people need to be careful; something has set ‘em off again.”
“Set who off again?” I asked careful to keep the stranger covered with my rifle.
“You aren’t from around here are you?”
I was not about to give him an answer and was about to whistle for Thor when the man in front of me says, “Whoa big man … I’m not looking for trouble. They just don't usually attack larger groups and I’m looking for a little place by your fire for …”
I didn’t hear what he was saying because I saw these two little eyes peeping out of the bushes.
“Thor?” He was busy grilling the stranger so I said, “Thor, tell him he can bring the kid to the fire.”
The guy looked worried and involuntarily glanced behind him. “Hey, that’s OK. I’ll just be going and …”
I said quietly, “Hey mister, if you’re just trying to find a safe place for you and the kid to rest for the night” … I glanced at Thor … “as long as you don’t make any sudden or suspicious moves, we’ll make room.”
It wound up being not one kid but two, a boy and a girl and Thor really wanted to say something to me about it I was sure but he kept it to himself until later. The boy was the older of the two but not by much; if there was a year between them I would have eat my hat. Richards insisted on looking the kids over and other than the boy having a scab on his knee that needed cleaning and the girl having a bump on her forehead and a scratch on her chin they appeared healthy enough that they weren’t quarantined. They wouldn’t leave the man’s side however but Loosig, Anoush’s oldest daughter, was very good with small children and got them to crawl out of the man’s lap … who turned out to be their uncle … and sit on a small plastic table cover and drink some milk.
“I don’t guess they’ve seen milk in … well, since probably when the power went out,” the man said. “My name is Hal … Hal Jensen. The kids are Jeff and Emmy but we call her Tink, they were my sister’s.” He sighed the said sadly, “She didn’t last two weeks.” He checked to make sure the two kids were otherwise occupied and said, “I … I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, especially not family, but my sister was an accident waiting to happen even when times were good. She was just plain useless when stuff hit the fan. I was home on leave … I was stationed on the southern border – civilian patrol, five years … when everything went crazy. I was crashed on her couch because my other sister and her family were staying at my parents’ place. What a mess.”
After everyone had calmed back down and gone back to preparing dinner – it had been decided to stay in the warehouse we were using as cover for the night rather than risk going into town with no forward intel – Thor said, “Mr. Jensen …”
“Hal. Let’s just leave it at Hal.”
“All right … Hal … you seem to have some information that we need. We gave you and your family space around our fire, you think you feel up to sharing now?”
“Ha. You might not be too happy when I do … or think I’m insane … or worse.”
I looked over since Thor was losing his patience with the delay and to head off any trouble I interjected, “You might be surprised. But either way, let us be the judge of that and just tell your story.”
“All righty then. Like I said, I was home on leave and staying with my sister and then it hits the fan. Two weeks in my sister ODs on her meds ‘cause she was having panic attacks. I don’t think she did it on purpose … she was just … weak. Yeah, one of those weak people that just stands there while the world chews ‘em up and spits ‘em out. Things were really bad in the city for a couple of weeks, all sorts of crazies running around. People were dying but there wasn’t really a mass die-off like I’ve heard there was in other areas, just dribs and drabs here. But something started happening.”
He took a swallow of water and continued. “It seemed to be a good thing at first. Groups would band together and help each other. After a while though it wasn’t neighbor helping neighbor it was color helping color, religion helping religion … that sort of thing … you stuck with the people that were most like you … the outside meant more than the inside it seemed. Then these groups started fighting with each other. At first the fights were just … you know … words; but it didn’t take it long for words to turn to sticks, sticks to stones, and stones to bullets. Sometimes two or three groups would join forces to take out another group … three small groups would take out one large group, weird stuff like hook ups you never expected to see. Like the enemy of my enemy is my friend type stuff.”
Another sip and I noticed his hands had started to shake. “But not being part of any group I started to notice stuff. It was like one or two of the groups would just kind of sit back and let the other ones destroy each other and then they’d come in behind them and clean up … take their supplies, take their territory, take their women, freaky crap that didn’t make any sense. In less than two months there was only three main groups left … a group that is what you’d call kind of a Judeo-Christian umbrella group, then a Middle Eastern group, and the third group was made up of all the people that were left and were generally caught between the first two groups.”
Hal was full of nervous energy and was getting twitchy. Someone handed him a bowl of stew and he didn’t even think about it, he started feeding the two kids. Markrid saw, walked over, and brought another bowl and a good chunk of flat bread. Hal looked up and I swear it looked like he’d walked into a brick wall; his mouth all but fell open. The young boy pulled his uncle’s pants leg and said, “Uncle Hal, that’s the pretty lady that took that baby.”
I’ve got a weird sense of humor about some things and looking at the two of them I had to cover my mouth or I would have laughed out loud. I don’t know who was redder, Markrid or Hal. Uncle Bedros’ didn’t miss it either and I couldn’t help but lean over and whisper, “Guess when God decides it’s time for a prayer to be answered He doesn’t do it in half measures.” Suddenly Uncle Bedros started looking at Hal in a very speculative light and rubbing his chin. That almost broke my composure completely. On my other side Thor put his toe to my ankle and gave me a warning look so I tried to go back to being an old sober sides.
“The JC’s … what I call the Judeo Christian group … they got along fine for the most part though they would have a spat on occasion. The secular group I guess you’d say was a group only because I’m not sure what else to call them. They’d work together but only on a case-by-case basis and I never saw ‘em come together all at the same time. Now them Middle Eastern folks … they’d come together and beat the fire out of the other groups but that’s the only time they seemed to get along.”
Thor said, “That’s interesting Hal but that still doesn’t explain what has you so spooked and what situation created that killing field.”
Hal shook his head, “It does and it doesn’t. I had to lay the foundation for you to understand what started happening about the middle of May. See those Middle Eastern folks, they were here before the collapse but it’s not like they had a huge population of ‘em. We had maybe four or five businesses that were owned by peopling claiming to be Muslim … and two of them were gas stations. I’m not saying that to bad mouth ‘em, just it’s the fact. Now there was a Muslim student union and that could get rowdy on occasion but most of that could be put down to someone getting the kids wound up and not because they’d come up with trouble all on their own. From what my Pop told me most of the Muslims didn’t like it when the kids brought the authorities around and tried to keep a tight rein on ‘em.”
He sighed, “But after the collapse … something happened. You know there were them rumors flying that the Greenies and the Muslims had come together and started the whole thing. Some of the Muslims received a real beat down from the locals over it so they felt they had some scores to settle. It was bad but mostly normal stuff … beat down for beat down, trashing a store, scaring the crap out of the family. Then these guys from over in Cairo show up.” Hall stopped and seemed to be thinking of how to explain things.
“They were hard cases … refused to speak English, wore Muslim garb, treated their women like they were back in the old country. Real America haters … so bad it made me wonder why they were here in the first place. Then they started beating on other Muslims that didn’t follow Sharia law. Pretty soon they had taken over them people … the old leadership are mostly in another one of them killing fields in Capaha Park near the university. There was some kind of purge; I mean that they killed a lot of their own. They tightened up their power base and locked down their community. I’m telling you the blood literally ran in the streets. But the JCs, man when they got wind of what was going on … if the blood ran before it became a flood when they got involved. Both sides whacked each other like they couldn’t get to their version of the afterlife fast enough … and the rest of us caught in the middle died too.”
“The fighting spread to Jackson and from what I hear over into Cairo too. Then people started dying. I don’t mean dying from the fighting I mean dying from some kind of sickness. Both sides died hard even though it was rumored that it started in a Muslim neighborhood. It was so bad that it burnt itself out in two weeks and those left behaved even crazier than they were before. It’s an automatic death sentence for anyone that ‘offends the prophets’ or ‘blasphemes allah’ … or basically does anything that the head honchos of the Muslim camp don’t like. They’ve killed so many of their own women they are having to go steal some from other places. And they ain’t too picky about how old they are either … sick @#$%&?}.”
No one said anything so I asked, “You said they attacked caravans?”
“Not groups the size of this one so much. They’ve spent most of their ammo and what they have left is held by the leaders of the community. Some of us think it is because they are afraid their own people will revolt or assassinate them.”
Alfonso said, “Yeah, if I was them I’d be worrying about that too. ‘Specially if they ain’t got anything to keep their people happy. Them killing all the women wouldn’t make things too comfortable that’s for sure.”
I was thinking and Thor must have smelled it because he asked, “If you know so much, can you tell us if they track groups they are thinking of attacking?”
“You mean have they been tracking you? Yeah I saw a couple of ‘em. They’d been on your tail probably since Jackson. They have an outpost there they use, trying to plant a community up there I guess. They supply the gangs that operate out of Jackson with drugs and in exchange the gangs act as enforcers and informants.”
Barkley asked suspiciously, “How do you know so much?”
Hal took a deep breath and said, “You either wise up or you die around here. They tried to take Tink a couple of times, and some of ‘em ain’t too bashful to take young boys if you catch my drift. The last time they tried to take her we hit the road and started hiding doing the best we can by salvaging, most of us that don’t leave with either of the two camps of people live that way. I’ve been looking for a group to ride out of here with; I just want to get the kids on the other side of Cairo. These kids aren’t going to grow up if I don’t get them gone from this place.”
Then a thought occurred to me. “Hal? This Muslim group … do you know whether they are Sunni or Shia?”
He looked at me offended that I’d think he’d know something like that. “Just how close to them do you think I am?”
“You’ve heard them talking, have been here since the beginning. So, do you? Know that is,” I persisted.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“What about Twelvers? Have you heard anyone saying something about the Mahdi or something like that?”
“Mahdi? Yeah, they’ve used that word. You can hear some of ‘em screaming and preaching or whatever they consider it and they talk about this Mahdi person all the time.”
“You’re sure?” I had to know.
“Sure I’m sure. Sometimes they raise so much racket about it you can’t even hear yourself think and then they all get going and … and it gets scary and you find a hole and crawl in it and pray they don’t see you.”
I got up and walked away to the other side of a wagon and left the men grilling Hal some more. Thor made me jump when he put his hands on my shoulders and slowly pulled me back against him; I hadn’t heard him follow me. “You think this is what you’ve been sensing?”
“Not this specifically but nothing he said contradicted how I felt. Gangs in Jackson would account for the wicked and grody feeling. The fear would have been a result of that. The feeling of being watched was either the gangs or people from the Muslim outpost following us. At some point you can add Hal into that which may have been what Pilbos was sensing.”
“Well don’t sound so disappointed Hon.”
I turned around and looked at him. “That isn’t funny Thor. You act like I wanted it to be something.”
“Rochelle … Hon …”
“No,” I told him shrugging him off.
“Rochelle,” he wrapped his arms back around me. “OK, so maybe I stuck my foot in it again. But you want to know something?”
“”What?” I asked highly irritated.
“Yeah. They bleed Rochelle … just like all the other enemies that I’ve fought. They aren’t some boogie men that I have no chance against.”
I turned around in his arms and said, “I never said that they were.”
“Girl, you just don’t realize how spooky you were getting. Just because I knew it intellectually doesn’t mean I don’t have an imagination too. This situation we’re faced with isn’t good, but it isn’t some supernatural woolybooger either.”
I leaned my head down on his chest. “This isn’t over. Those Twelvers can be as crazy as the Greenies can. Remember when it was all over TV that little guy Ahmadinejad and a couple of guys from his cabinet said that they wanted to cause the world to descend into chaos so as to force the Mahdi to return? Those guys were members of the Hojjatieh Society before Ayatollah Khomeini banned it because even he … the crazy of crazies … thought the Hojjatieh were too violent and fanatical to be allowed to continue.”
He gave me a very weird look. “For someone who is little more than a … God help me … little more than a kid from the country you sure know a lot Middle Eastern politics and religion.”
“Well if you’d had people threaten to kill you all of your life you’d want to know who was out to get you too wouldn’t you? One of the few times my dad let slip that he was really worried was …”
Not wanting to sound pathetic but probably doing so anyway I said, “Look, my folks weren’t crazy but they hadn’t exactly been blessed when they got me for their flavor.”
I patted his chest, “It’s OK Thor. They loved me and I loved them but I wasn’t blind to the hardships having me as a kid caused them. People avoided them or downright cursed them in some cases. There was a financial burden they had a hard time keeping up with. People trying to get into their business that had no right to be there. A group tried to have me removed and put in mental hospital because they claimed I was dangerous and made Mom and Dad out to be nuts because they wouldn’t do what was best for society at large. Lots of stuff like that but the worst was when we’d be physically threatened. We’d always hear the rumors first because of the contacts the Marshalls had and with Jonathon being my best friend … it had its perks I guess. When the rumors started that the Greenies were hooking up with some radical Muslim groups and what that could mean … Dad … well he … I heard him talking to Mom and they were both wondering why God had done it to them; given them me for a baby.”
“What?!” Thor asked, upset for me.
“Easy. They never acted that way with me … plenty of times they both put themselves in front of me to keep me from being hurt by people that should have known better. They didn’t know I was snooping around, listening when I should have been in bed asleep. I figure they were just being human on a particularly rough day or something … but it did make me think … and it made me appreciate them even more. But the thing with the radical Twelvers hooking up with the Greenies to bring about the end of the world, that worried my dad more than just about anything else. He added this room off the basement. We mostly just kept extra supplies in it but it was supposed to be like a panic room or something in case things went bad. And you are only one of two people in the world that know about that room now.”
Thor held me for a moment then muttered into my hair, “Thank you for telling me. I wish I had met your parents.”
I smiled despite everything and told him, “Mom would have been gaga over you and Dad would have come around … though you’d have probably come over to find him cleaning his guns more than once or twice to send a message.”
Thor’s chest bounced with suppressed laughter. “He’d have every reason to as you can well attest to.” Then he got serious again. “I’m not going to ask you to disguise yourself as a boy again. One I don’t like it and two, I don’t know that you could pull it off anymore. You lost some weight when you were sick and your face is softer … and so’s the rest of you.”
“Watch your hands Buddy,” I told him. But I couldn’t deny it was true. I was still lean and hard but all of the traveling and difference in how I worked also changed my shape. I was most definitely girl shaped and it would be harder to cover it up.
“I’m serious Rochelle. You don’t know if you’re a target. I don’t think they would have any information on your personally but I’d prefer not to take those kind of chances. I’m going to quietly get the word around that until our guest leaves I don’t want anyone to mention you know what, not even amongst themselves in case we have watchers.”
“You think Hal is going to ask to come with us?”
“He sure seems to be leading up to it. And speaking of that … just because a kid is involved doesn’t mean you can suddenly go soft on somebody. Kids get used as decoys all the time. I didn’t get any bad vibes off of him and he seems sincere enough but no more of that, you hear?” When he said it like that I understood and quickly agreed to be more careful in the future. But it seemed kind of fated somehow.
When we got back to the rest of the group Barkley was saying, “So you’re saying that the best bet is to make a beeline for the memorial bridge, cross it and then hurry through Cairo as well? Try and get through it all in one day?”
Coming into the conversation Thor said, “No way will that happen. That’s roughly forty miles and we’ve never done better than twenty-three and that put a bad strain on human and animal alike.”
Hal said, “Don’t have to. There’s a JC enclave in this place called Olive Branch. They aren’t much for strangers but they keep the Muslims out and if we leave them alone they’ll leave us alone.”
Chuckri asked, “What can you tell us about this Olive Branch?”
“Not a lot. I’ve done some trading there but the community is pretty closed off from everything. The only thing that brings them out of their shells is if they think the Muslims are encroaching on their territory. And they’ve still got guns and that is what keeps the Muslim group from messing with them too much. They’re still too big a nut to crack.”
Thor pulled out his well worn map and said, “OK, tomorrow we get through town quickly – Girardeau to this Olive Branch – then we overnight there and get up the next morning and make a run through Cairo, cross the Ohio River and get into Kentucky as far as we can.”
The men continued talking but Mrs. Chuckri called me over. “We think we have a plan that will make things easier for the next two days but we could use another pair of hands.”
That was my clue to volunteer which I did readily as I was starting to get that nervous feeling again, like there was someone out there watching us.