Category: The Others
Underneath the old stone bridge, in the summer heat, I first met my friend. I’d come to this spot beneath the bridge for as long as I could remember, following the small creek in our backyard down through the farmers’ fields, and behind the roaring freeway. Beneath the bridge, the dirt was still cool, even in the hottest noonday sun. I’d come to the bridge to think, to play, to cry, and to press my pale chubby fingers into the blessed cool soil, digging deep depressions in the damp earth.
The creek trickled by, but my father had told me never to go in the water; it had a thin scum on the top that reflected the light in an odd, shimmering way, like the shell of a beetle. I’d disobeyed him once when I was younger and the rash that boiled up on my legs had scabbed and bled for a week. Now, I was content to sit among the pale and drying reeds, to hold tight to that primal cold in the place where the sun couldn’t reach.
On the day he was first there, the cottonwood trees were shedding their seeds, bright white silken clouds that drifted in the air like snow defying the sun. The air was thick with heat and exhaust from the freeway, buzzing over the rise like an angry hive. He lay stretched out on the other side of the creek, his body half covered by the shadow of the old stone bridge. At first I saw only a pile of ragged clothes, capped with a wide-brimmed and frayed hat, but then I saw the long, bony fingers steepled across his chest, and his calloused and blackened feet.
Nadja doesn’t make it. I turn at the steps of the bunker and watch as the artillery shell lands on the shattered street between us. I hold our daughter and watch my wife smolder in the crater, deaf to the thudding concussions around us. Someone grabs Inna from my arms, thrusts cold gloved fingers in the neck of my jacket, and pulls me back into the black throat of the small shelter. I see my last glimpse of Leningrad’s cracked and wounded skyline, and then it goes black. The door slams shut, screeching steel and spinning locks clattering in rhythm with gun fire. I finally find the voice to scream Nadja’s name.
Inna is crying in the dark, cradled by the last of Svetlana’s daughters in the small entry way. I suddenly find I have no knees and I am on the floor with a hot choking hand around my throat. Boris and Grigory slide away from me in the darkness, I can hear them averting their gaze, necks scratching against thick coats as they twist away from me. I thrust my tears into my gullet and gag, retching and heaving up the thin watery remains of my last meal. Inna needs me, and I need strength.
The rosy cheeked boy that led our last charge, all ill fitting uniform and tilting helmet, doesn’t have the grace to leave me be, and puts one soft hand on my back. I shrug him off, and stumble to my feet. In the slowly seeping light of his oil lantern, I see his face and his fear, and I look away. He backs away from us, turning down the long dark featureless tunnel ahead. Turning back, he surveys the dozen survivors before him, shivering and broken. The short run from the grand ballroom has taken its toll on our weakened bodies. The last of the ratty birds in the hotel’s eaves had been caught a week ago; a chorus of hollow sunken eyes now stare back at the trembling child clutching a rifle.
There are moments in your life, in every life, where you can look back at the small nodes of causality, those split second forks in which your course and path are fundamentally altered, sent careening in unanticipated or unforeseen directions. I prided myself, once, in being able to see these moments before they arrived, but the truth is, we hardly recognize we are at a crossroad until it has receded into the distance. You can spin the gears of your mind until they grind smooth, wondering what would happen, if only… If only you had refused the last drink, or took a cab instead… If only you had held your temper and your tongue… If only you had believed her… If only.
When I allow myself to drift down these avenues of doubt, I dream of being able to sleep through the night without waking in screams, without the sweat soaked sheets clinging to my shuddering body. I dream about looking on the deserts of my former home, and smelling the dry, warm earth without gagging and trembling like a lamb. If only.
When I arrived at my nexus, a literal crossroad on Indian Route 8064 in the high desert of Arizona, I had not an inkling that I was on the precipice. The sun was low in the horizon, fat and bloated red through the dusty air, and the heat of the day was only beginning to recede. Ahead of me was the long drive to Flagstaff through the great empty patches of the state. Long, long ago, I had taken to avoiding the highways and began taking the old roads, the crumbling delta of blacktop that go almost unused as they silently crisscross the desert. Each time, I would take a new fork, and allow the desert’s quiet purity envelop me as I traversed an unfamiliar path. It was like meditation, a way to wipe clean the slate of my worries: the rising debt, the disintegrating marriage, my mother’s rapidly metastasizing cancer. It was a place of simplicity and calm, earth and sky and quiet and emptiness. It was my paradise, the great panacea to my doubts and worries.
I know this road better than I know myself. I know each of Interstate 85’s 250 odd miles; I know that it takes me an average of 3 hours and 26 minutes to drive west, from Charlotte to Atlanta, and an average of 3 hours and 29 minutes to make the same trip going eastward. I know the price of gas at a dozen stands, and the closing hours of each fast food shack and greasy diner. I know the curves of each low hill and I know each stand of pine and oak trees. I know the stretching dark of the long winter nights and the wet heat of the summer breeze. I know these things well because they are the totality of my existence now.
I know the names of each exit, westward and east. Batesville, Poplar Springs, Spartanburg. They tick through my head as I pass, but the Silver Creek Road exit is never among them. In three years of this endless loop, it has never appeared again. If I ever begin to doubt that it will, then I have nothing left.
The Silver Creek Road exit doesn’t exist on any map, or at least, it no longer does. It may have once, but like the road itself, it has been razed from the earth and from all memory and record. At the beginning, I spent long anxious days poring over old surveying maps and neighborhood planning documents, searching in vain for any sign of the road, or the exit I know I had taken. When there was nothing left in the libraries and city halls to comb through, no meek county official left to interrogate, wide-eyed and frothing, then I began the drive.
September 2nd 1868
Arrived in Cheyenne in the new Wyoming Territory early this morning on the new Union Pacific line. Has been three years since I rode the locomotive. Did not realize it would remind me so strongly of Atlanta. Spent the last day of the journey with the phantom smell of blood and iron in my nostrils, and the bile rising at the back of my throat, but it is over. God willing, I will never have to ride the train again. Cheyenne is new born and mewling like a babe. Immigrants from the east and across the seas teem here, filling the streets with a babel of tongues and the raucous laughter of drunken listless youths. The hound I purchased before leaving tugs at his leash with delight at the sights and sound.
The plot of land is still two days ride across the border and to the Southwest, but true to his word, the man from the bank has hired a guide to take me there. Sent a last letter to my wife and boys with instructions to meet me here in the spring, and have purchased a wagon and the supplies for construction. The guide, a half Indian fellow, I’d wager by appearance, but civilized in tongue, has helped me hire two young men: a Irishman with a sullen chinless face, and a German, watery eyed and stinking of bourbon. Both despicable wretches, but they have agreed to work for a pittance, and both claim to have experience in homesteading.
They may intend to kill me, seeing an easy mark in a naive settler, but I do not fear these drunken children. I’ve seen a generation of these boys spilled open, and I know what they are made of.