In a Safe Country
To return to the main Tacheiru page, click here. To return to QC-L forever, click here. This is the second page of a long, never ending story for Ghostletters The Next Generation. Ask me about them. Here we go....
Quetzalli stood with Xannika and me in the kitchen. "By the time you come back from visitation," she began, "I won't be here but a day or two. That means you are now in charge of your own cooking group. You're not just fixing your own meals so you can get what you want to eat."
Xannika stared at the floor, uneven dreadlocks shielding her chocolate face. "I know you can do it," Zalli continued her pep talk. "You're smart. You're well organized. Your pragmatic." I smiled. Xannika's facial expression remained unchanged. "OK, what I want to see from you are kitchen inventory and marketing list, and menu planning forms. Computer room is in the office or on the fourth floor. Go!"
I did not think Xannika would move but she dragged herself out of the kitchen and up to the fourth floor. Odem and I followed her. Odem and I were the recipients of Odette and Zalli's cooking. Xannika and I helped out. Xannika was a a fifteen. She roomed wtih Quetzalli because she was the only girl in her cohort. She had signed on with Tweetie and Jewels at the end of July last year. She came from the Bronx. Now the Ed-Branch that had intentionally placed her at the edge of their realm had cut her off, and Atlanta Ed-Branch had picked her up. Her Placement Specialist was Li-Av. I knew this because I asked her. "Li-Av always wants to talk movies," explaiend Xannika who was surprised at all the emails and comm calls she and the new Placement Spcialist exchanged. "Their load must be very light in Atlanta," she confided. "They work hard in Atlanta," I responded. When it came to Ed-Branch, Atlanta whupped New York City's ass.
Xannika was competent with a word processor. Odem was impressed. "We're all going to be up to our tits in school work," she explained. "We're not going to be college students on vacation. That means the meals won't be as fancy. A lot of times it's just going to be sandwiches or yogurt and a hot vegetable."
"What about rice salad?" I suggested.
"OK, you make it, but only in rotation. We can't have you stuck cooking all the time," Xannika glanced at me, sizing me up. We'd worked side by side before but never said much. Xannika when she did talk, talked food, recipes. Xannika ate and fixed nearly every vegetable which was fine with me. I liked a variety. Xannika did not cook stuff to death. "You make good Spanish rice too, and chili over rice. Someone's got to teach you to make beans."
Odem folded her arms and pretended to be invisible. Then she made a fake fart. I waited for someone to say "very mature," but no one did.
"You get used to beans. Zalli makes them a lot. OK, I'll teach you beans and pasta too."
"What about kasha?" I asked.
"What's kasha?" asked Xannika.
"Kasha varnishkes," answered Odem.
"Buckwheat groats," I translated. "They have a roasted flavor and, they are very fancy."
"They're ethnic," Odem explained. In our group, Xannika was a relgiious minority.
"We'll figure it out, and you probably want barley too. Zalli taught me about barley." Xannika almost had matters sorted out but not quite.
"And we need to make sure there is enough bread and fruit every week, because we bag lunch because the school food EXPLETIVE DELETEDs the big one.
"And if it's a clan school, we need to bring soda or soft drink. They don't sell any food in clan schools. I saw this on the Priests' television network. They have a show set in the Interior. We're going to have put a deposit on empties and fill them each week, just like we used to do for buttermilk."
I thought of the farm. Then I decided that I really did admire Xannika. "OK, let's take a pantry census and then let's fill out the menu. You do the list last."
We were going to be systematic. We were going to practice. It was Sunday night which was shopping night. Aurora came to see what we were doing as we putzed around in the kitchen. "Wow all of that!" she called out. "Three kids eat a lot," replied a proud Xannika.
"Xannika's a domestic godess," announced Kaylanna who was sixteen years old and ate a slice from a cheese cake she had carefully brought home in a cooler box last night. She ate the chocolate, marble cheese cake as if it were a treasure to be savored and shown off rather than digested. I thought about my mother getting ready to feed the babies while I stood in the kitchen doorway.
"And to think that last year, we almost sent her home." Kaylanna looked up from her cheese cake and snorted. "If you don't believe me ask the leaders, or ask Zalli."
"I had a tough time with roommates," Xannika explained with the kind of explanation that usually closes conversations.
"This is a crowded house," Zalli continued closing down the confession.
"New York City Ed-Branch made a big mistake," Kaylanna reopened the discussion.
"You could say that," Zalli replied. "You can also blame our leaders. They are quite ambitious and that is a good thing. It's great to be a founding sister of a big house, but sometimes they overreach. They did that last year. We all ready had one boy. Say what you like about Dante, but he is a boy. They figured they could handle more."
"Jewels and Tweetie worked out just fine," Kaylanna filled in the story.
"Yes, but they got three kids instead of two," Zalli continued. "Xannika was the only girl in her class. She's the only female fifteen. She couldn't room with Jewels and Tweetie. Now Amarylis and Ondina thought they had a solution. The sixteens, that's Winona, Kaylana, and Fujiko were all tripled up and they thought it was crowded. They didn't like their triple the way you three do, so our leaders made a deal, Kaylana and Xannika would share a room and Winona and Fujiko would share a room. There would now be two doubles, and everyone would be happy
"It didn't work out that way."
"You try living with Xannika," Kaylana all but shouted.
"I do," answered Zalli.
"Yeah well you'll put up with anything. It was gross," Kaylana told an old story though it was new to me. "Xan-ick-a, used to hang her camisoles on her desk chair at night. She said you had to put them out to air, and they weren't even nice cammies. They were these cheap cotton things. Then in the winter, Xan-ick-a, didn't wear a cammie at all. And she put these gross things in her shoes, and she taped all kinds of junk to her wall. She said it was her wall.
"Well living with Xan-ick-a was worse than having two roommates, so I moved back in but we all agreed that Xan-ick-a, shouldn't get a single for bad behavior. Even the leaders agreed. So in went Fujiko. That lasted four nights. Then we had to move all her shit out again except she said Xannika was the one who should go. We all agreed. It wasn't fair, and if no one wants to room with you, I guess you have to go home.
" Then Zalli got real generous and gave up her room. Xan-ick-a went upstairs to live with her on the fourth floor and good riddance. She got to stay. She's stayed ever since, but she barely made it. "
"Go to EXPLETIVE DELETEDing Hell!" Xannika yelled at Kaylanna. "You think you're so cool and so fly because you come from Rhinebeck, New York."
"You think you're really authentically Af-rick-an cause you have dreadlocks."
"I grew up in the Bronx," Xannika finished off the argument, hopefully.
"Well lah-ti-dah," Kaylanna forgot about her cheesecake. "So now you got your own cooking group. You know there's no more math team at the new high school."
"We have to start one."
"You really going to start it?"
"I'm starting the computer club and I'm taking Xannika as my first member," Odem answered. "You can join if you pull your weight."
"A computer club is great until the Priests take down the net," Odem snorted.
"Ever hear of a B-B-S?" asked Odem.
Kaylanna shrugged. "Well join Odem's club and learn something."
"Odem only has a club in her imagination," Kaylanna explaiend.
"Wait until school starts," Odem replied.
"And a-Have-a is going to be the queen of 4-H, aren't you nature girl?" Kaylana smiled showing perfectly white teeth straightened with braces. Kids at Druid Hills Magnet Academy called those Beast Teeth.
"You're going to be Home Coming Queen," Odem snorted.
"Going home to Rhinebeck or here?" Xannika asked.
"I'll am more than you'll ever be right here. How long do you think it's going to be before they start calling this house Fruits and Nuts again?"
"They'll stop when they see what we can do," it was Ondina who emerged from the office, arms folded across her desk in a gesture of adult disgust at our discussion.
"You really EXPLETIVE DELETEDing believe that?" asked Kaylana.
"Why not?" answered Ondina. "You're going to leave all the dead wood back in Vernon. It's only going to be serious students. You have to admit Xannika's smart."
"We need a Hebrew club!" Kaylana would not take a hint.
"Why not?" Ondina called Kaylana's bluff.
"It is possible to be smart without being totally Looney Tunes," Kaylana said as if explaining the obvious.
"Yes, but it doesn't happen too often," Zalli answered. "Here the inmates run the assylum. You're stuck here at least until you're twenty-one, so get used to it."
"EXPLETIVE DELETED off!" Kaylana yelled; for suddenly she was out of argument. She went back to mulling over her cheese cake, which probably tasted better since it had lost its fridge chill.
"Next month when she's doubled over with cramps, she'll learn to eat better," Xannika told us quietly.
I who had yet to stain my panties monthly merely shrugged. It was way too much like my family and my classmates back at Torah Day School to wish illness on an enemy. I wondered where Xannika had learned to hone such a foul tongue. Of course I did not have to look far. One of the culprits was quietly enjoying a piece of chocolate, marble, cheese cake.
Not Quite Exile
"A-HAVE-a!" shouted Kaylanna. "You're going to set the EXPLETIVE DELETEDing kitchen on fire!"
The egg-coated kasha I was frantically stirring to keep it from sticking was beginning to smoke. The grains were also separated and toasted looking. Nothing was catching fire yet.
"Shekit ba-va-ka sha!" I told the sixteen year old twirp who was Xannika's exroommate. Hebrew has it's uses, including a very classy way to say "shut the EXPLETIVE DELETED up!"
"I only speak English," Kaylanna moaned.
"Then your foreign language teachers are wasting their time and yours," I replied.
"Pay attention to what's going on on the stove," Xannika advised me. The kasha was ready to be drenched with rewarmed vegetable stock I had made earlier. The stock was the product of all the raunchy but still edible vegetable leavings. The boiled vegetables now occupied a container of their own. They were due to get mixed back in with the kasha. Quetzalli believed if I could read I could cook, and I had spent this adventure following package directions. I poured in the broth using a gauntlet to protect my hand and still getting a steam bath in the face. Then I covered it and set it on low heat. Ten minutes later it was done enough to mix with the vegetables. I then transferred it to an oiled casserole for reheating at supper time. That left me with two pots and three bowls to wash. I tried to remember if my mom made kasha this way. I had eaten kasha, but did not remember the boiled vegetable part. Boiled vegetables made with salt and spices though were decent enough, and why waste them? Cooking according to Xannika was about nutrition, good sense, and aesthetics.
I did not ask for help washing the dishes. I did not mind cleaning up. I did not mind work when people appreciated the result or I cared about the result. My hands were deep in salty water, applying a scrubby to the kasha pan when Amaryllis bounced into the kitchen.
"How's the kasha?" she asked.
"You missed it," quipped Xannika.
"It's in the fridge," I added.
"I'll check it out," Amaryllis said and then she called out. "Ahava, I have something for you."
I turned my head. "I can't give it to you if both your hands are wet."
I took my hands out of the water and dried them on a towel. Ahava handed me a letter with a return address from Atlanta, Georgia. My parents had written me back! Which parent wrote me? What awful things did they say. I remembered the dishes and put the letter down on the table. I said I'd open it when I finished.
"Here, I'll help you," Amaryllis moved in. We got the pots, pans, and bowls clean in half the time, wiped down the table and washed the work board.
I knew Amaryllis wanted to see the letter. I was not sure, I wanted her around when I opened it. Still she would not leave. Neither would Zalli or Xannika who camped out in the kitchen while Amaryllis and I crowded iinto the office. I opened the letter carefully, and it was written in Hebrew. My parents are not really bilingual, but Shmuel and maybe Dov are. I hadn't written to Dov, but my brother had written me back!
I hoped and prayed that the letter would not be full of admonishments and advice cribbed from religious teachers and books on how a teen or preteen should act, as opposed to how we really did act, even when we behaved morally. Then I no longer cared. I started to read.
I read the letter all the way through. It contained a new address. Two days from now, my brother, Shmuel would take a stick transport to Israel. He would enroll in a yeshiva. His "general education" would end. I mused that this could not have happened to Dov, the next younger brother, and would never happen to Chevie due to her gender. The babies were unknown quantities. Shmuel though would have no trouble "dwelling in the tents of Torah." Sitting for hours with Dad in kollel had prepared him for this trip of a lifetime. Shmuel had no reason to be unhappy.
"Is the letter nasty?" asked Amaryllis.
&qut;Lo," I answered which is Hebrew for "no."
"My brother is luck that's all. Lucky people don't have to attack others."
"I wish I knew what he said," Amaryllis mused.
"Do you want me to translate it?" I asked. I had no problem with sharing this letter, and I have no problem sharing it with you:
By the time you receive this letter, I will be on my way to Eretz Yisrael. I leave Thursday, August 12 2083. I will be staying at:
I am excited to devote myself to Torah and I am sad to hear you are going to Texarkanna, Texas. I do not know exactly where it is, except that it is the wrong direction. It must be in the middle of nowhere, and surely there are no Jews there. I know that does not bother you, since you have dealt mostly with genties since you were younger than I am now.
You still keep up with your learning though. In some ways, that is more admirable than what I do. Go in peace then and have a safe journey. Please write me. I am actually curious to know how you are doing.
And please don't worry about me. Yes, the Arabs now practice idolatry as they did before their so-called, prophet Mohamaed gave them a faith in one God. It is the Priests from the Interior who "convert" them left and right. This makes the Arabs a very bad influence, and the priests who take their side very evil.
Please pray for me and my fellow students that our yeshiva stays safe. We have an IDF detatchment which guards our town, but the Arabs still want to hurt us, and now that they worship idols who knows what they will do?
"Your brother has a lot to learn," sighed Amaryllis, "and I doubt they'll teach it to him in that Yeshiva on the West Bank."
"They don't teach comparative religions at Torah Day School," I told my leader. "I'll explain to him about polytheism."
"Will he listen?" Amaryllis asked.
"I don't care. I'm more worried the IDF is going to start a detatchment of kids and tell them to shoot at Palestinian kids."
"Do you think the Israeli Army operates that way?" asked Amaryllis.
"Maybe not. They draft everyone at eighteen anyway...except Torah scholars. Shmuel has a good thing going when you think about it."
"If that's what he wants," Amaryllis crossed her arms and stared at the floor.
"Well you wanted the letter." I felt confused.
"I need to know that your brother is on your side."
"I think Shmuel is on his own side or he'll be once he's out of the house. He was also on Dad's side, not Mom's."
"You may be right. Can I see what you write back to him?"
"I'm going to have to translate it back into English," I reminded me leader.
"I trust you," Amaryllis told me.
Wednesday morning, August 11, 2083, the Wednesday before I left for Texarkanna, I wrote a letter to Shmuel. I was able to write it on the computer, because Pedra installed a Hebrew font and the software patch for right to left writing. This made my life a lot easier. Here is a copy of the letter.
I hope that all is well with you and the stick transport did not make you too ill, and the bus ride to Kyriat Arba was uneventful.
You are right. I am not afraid of travelling to Texarkana. My roommate, Aurora, and I have become quite close, and visiting a friend's family, is like visiting one's own family. It does not matter to me that Aurora is not Jewish. Most of the world is not Jewish.
I am learning to cook under the watchful eye and gentle hand of Xannika who is fifteen. She will head our mess group this fall and we will cook together. Odem, who is Jewish and from Statesboro, Georgia, will also be part of our group, but she does not like to cook. Having one more mouth to eat and pair of hands to clean up though is more than welcome.
Yesterday, I made kasha with boiled vegetables and vegetable stock. If our kitchen were fully kosher, this would be pareve kasha. I am still learning twice a week with the Rabba. She is a good teacher, and we learn mainly chumash and tanach rather than talmud.
There is one thing you need to know, and it will help you in your dealings with the Arabs. They are NOT idolators. They are polytheists. Polytheists worship more than one god. They generally DO NOT worship statues or art objects, though they like to draw their gods. Christians, who are also NOT idolators used to make stained glass windows, icons, and illuminated manuscripts, none of which were idols. They were illustrations. Polytheists do the same thing.
I hope this gives you one less reason to hate and fear the Palestinians who will be your neighbors. Of course they may give you cause to hate and fear them, but their religious beliefs clearly should not be one of those causes. If they give you no reason to hate or fear them, then you will be one step ahead of the game. Life is easier when you don't have to deal with people that you hate or fear. Think about this.
Also sometimes people in authority have reason to make you hate and fear those who are different. It is an easy way to control kids and grownups. I am not saying your teachers or rabbonim will do this, but if they do, try not to listen to it.
I will write you when I arrive in Texarkanna. You all ready have my address there, though the mail from Israel may arrive after I am gone. I'm not sure the internet will be working in either of our new addresses. Let's try to keep in touch anyway.
"You are a good big sister," commented Amaryllis after reading my translation. I stood in her office dressed in skirt, pantyhose, and sandals, and a clean blouse. Thursday afternoon was my appointment to learn Judaics with the Rabba. I planned to mail my letter to Shmuel from the post office at Seckler Center and then walk back along Upper Highland Lakes Drive.
"I don't feel like a big sister," I told my leader.
"Why, you're the oldest?"
"Yes, but I abdicated when I started going to Druid Hills Magnet Academy when I was ten. My family..." I did not feel like rehashing this.
"It's not easy to give up being a sister," Amaryllis replied. "You know that at some place inside you. That's why you wrote your brother."
"Maybe I answered," but I needed Shmuel as much as he needed me, maybe more. I wrote him only because I thought he might answer, and he had the freedom to write me. That was all. I was sure that was all.
At least the Rabba did not ask to see my correspondence with my brother. I did ask her about Kiryat Arba though.
"It's where the cave at Machelpa is," the Rabba explained.
"I know that. Kiryat Arba means Site of the Four in English. The four are Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca who are buried there. Leah is supposed to be buried there too."
"It's an Israeli enclave inside the West Bank Palestinian Authority." The Rabba had the knack for stating the obvious.
"Will you pray for my brother's safety?" I asked.
"Sure, and we'll both read tehilim for him." Tehilim is Hebrew for Psalms.
I took my letter to Shmuel to the post office at Seckler Center. Mail going abroad needed to be mailed at the counter. The clerk looked over the addresses and shook her head. She did not get letters to Israel every day. She would see a lot more of them soon, I thought. I smiled at the thought. Sometimes distance doesn't matter. Shmuel was lucky, but then again so was I. Perhaps we were sharing a kind of blessing that comes to older kids who have a place in life. I had made my own place. Dad had given Shmuel his, but the important thing was that we had places and so we could talk, even if the letters took one week in each direction. I prayed for patience. I prayed not to lose the link with my brother. There was time to pray for his safety, and yes, I'd read the Psalms.
The Soda Machine is Still Dead
Odem brought up the idea at Shabbos dinner when we got back from the Rabba's synagogue on Friday night before we were due to leave for Visitation. "You know that soda machine you like to play with every time you go downtown," she began.
"Yeah well that soda machine is dead," I responded, and one did not say kaddish for a soda machine.
"Well," Odem suggested. "Let's open up that machine and see if the syrup inside is still good."
Aurora who was keeping us company but shunning our food looked around most uneasily. Amaryllis was not at our table. Ondina was somewhere but either authority figure could walk right in.
"I don't think we should discuss committing vandalism on Shabbos" I reminded my roommate.
"It's not vandalism. It's salvage. The soda company has left that poor machine to rot. At least we can get the cups out of it before they degrade."
"Hello ladies!" called out Amaryllis as she bounced into the kitchen. Odem would have to hatch her diabolical plans up in what was now our two room suite. The expansion which happened at midweek gave us an extra room where we had put the work table and some chairs. It matched the bedroom we had worked so hard to paint. It was satiny egg shell white with lovely, cherry wood trim.
"Hello Amaryllis," Odem chirped as if she had not been discussing trashing what was probably the priests' property just for the fun of it.
"I know that it's Shabbat, but we have laundry inspection tonight."
"What's laundry inspection?" Odem was trying to figure out how she was to be punished. It was pretty much a game to her, and bad kids like her always got punished.
"What it sounds like. In this house, you don't go home with dirties and you don't bring them back. I'm not sure Zalli told you."
"I may have," answered a quiet Quetzalli.
"I can't do laundry," I protested. "It's Shabbos."
"Then Saturday night," Amaryllis took no prisoners. "Get your dirties together and scrub the really bad ones with shampoo."
"There goes the soda machine," complained Odem who realized she was not going to be punished or even recognized for her fabled badness.
"What soda machine?" asked Amaryllis who bit without shame.
"The one by the transfer point in downtown Vernon," I sighed.
"I thought that machine was broken," Amaryllis answered.
"It's been broken since the riots," I replied.
"The soda company never came to take care of it," Odem explained.
"The soda company probably left with The Company. So what else is new?"
"We wanted to sal-vage the machine Saturday night," Odem would not quit.
"Saturday's your last night in this house for two weeks," Amaryllis grew serious. "Is that how you want to spend it?"
"Do you have other plans?" Odem inquired. Aurora shook her head.
"Yes, we're going to have a farewell celebration. Don't you think that's the right thing to do?"
Odem stared at the table. "Is it going to be a big party?" she asked.
Amaryllis smiled. "Each year is bigger than the last."
Saturday night, I stood running laundry behind the kitchen while Maryann and Odette had a wonderful argument over whether the rear patio had been sufficiently swept clean of gypsy moth caterpillar turds. In the kitchen a great pot of minestrone simmered on the stove. I had helped Xannika cut up the vegetables for it and had cooked the beans. Xannika had cooked the pasta. There was also ice cream and sorbets for dessert, transported carefully home from the North Jersey Mall in the insulated box filled with dry ice. There was also a spinach salad that I had helped work on with choice of dressing, white, yellow or red corn on the cob and sweet and sour carrots. These last were Xannika's specialty dish and really quite good. Out on the grill the boys and Maryann's group grilled steaks, chickens, and sausages of various varieties. Odem and Aurora put the leaf in the table.
I rememberd that the last time we had eaten a feast like this, we had received a San Rio priest as our honored guest. I wondered what Shmuel or my parents would have thought of that. I knew it was a political move to keep this house alive so I did not wonder much about it. Instead, as I sat down to eat, I imagined another feast. I imagined the dining hall in the lodge at the Arnot base camp. I imagined tables laden with delicacies or maybe just a big old pot of lentil soup. The latter would have benen just fine with me. All of us, both the other outdoor education kids and my Survival Training class would eat together. The ten year old first timers and us kids about to be initiated would sit and celebrate.
You know that feast never happen, and I knew its time was also gone. I had skipped a page in my book and I couldn't go back and reread.
"Are you OK, Ahava?" Ondina asked. I thought of the fritatta served the first Sunday morning I awoke in Burden of Dreams. My road had taken a different turn than the house in Suffolk County, and most of the time I was all right with that. This wasn't the first time my life had taken a detour, only it wasn't a detour, it was the road, and I was on it, just like the road I would walk on Sunday morning.
Of course the young woman who set out for Warwick, New York with the rest of her clan, msot of whom were going home for Visitation, was no longer the survival camper at Arnot four weeks ago. That kid had graduated from eighth grade and waited to be initiated and begin her trial. The kid who rode down to Vernon from Seckler Center with the rest of her clan had finished her trial. I had a place until I was eighteen or maybe even twenty-one. I had a house name that I bore proudly, not just my initiate name which is my first name, but the name of my house, Burden. I had a future that would make people proud because a good high school education is the gateway to college. In short, I was now not just a kid waiting to be initiated, but a kid with a big, bright future ahead of her.
I walked tall that morning as we climbed down from the local bus and awaited the bus to Warwick. I had on clean, cotton pants, and a lovely orange-red textured blouse to set off my freshly washed brown hair. Over my shoulder I had slung my regulation size duffle, bought for Nationals and now in use for visitation.
I saw Odem over at the soa machine. I wanted to pull her away, but the dead machine fascinated me too.
"What are you doing?" it was Ondina who asked.
"Just checking out the soda machine," Odem acted as if she was not bit guilty of anything, and she wasn't. She'd feasted with the rest of us last night, like a classic, good kid.
"Come on you're going to get dirty," Ondina's argument was a feeble as a newborn babe.
"You can't do anything with the machine," I told my roommate whom I would miss for two weeks. "They've got it locked up with a padlock."
"There are ways to open a lock," Odem would not give up. "Any one got a nail file?"
I didn't have one, but Esperenza, also known as Ruth did. She gave the nailfile to Odem and soon nearly every kid in our house and several other houses was crowded around her. She jammed the file expertly into the crevice where the key was supposed to go. She wiggled it around and suddenly, the lock gave way as if someone had opened it with a key.
"OK," called out Tweetie. "Let's get her open." Ondina shook her head. Amaryllis folded her arms. The boys pushed open the soda machine's sticky door or mabye the hinges were sticky. What they revealed was an utterly fascinating site. Ants crawled all over what had once been the syrup dispensers. What we had been unable to accomplish in four weeks, the ants been doing for several generations. At least the syrup would not go to waste though the cups probably would.
"Ewwwww grossss!" exclaimed Maryann.
"Oh cool!" I responded. "Look at all those ants?"
"Don't they bite?" my college bound clan mate asked?
"Not this far north. You're thinking of fire ants. These are probably just sugar ants."
Meanwhile, the boys closed the soda machine back up and Odem hung the opened padlock on the hasp. She observed there was nothing worth stealing. "We should have got to it sooner," she explained to no one as the bus to Warwick arrived. Once again we all rode together. By tonight I would be somewhere else and trying to make a good impression. Aurora pulled me aside as we got off at Warwick.
"You can't be real wild with my parents," she admonished me. "Kids in small towns are brought up differently."
"I...I understand," I said. I did not say I was not Odem. I was glad somehow that Odem had finally gotten to open up the soda machine. Who knew what she would find when she reached Statesboro. Somehow we all needed to know the soda machine was really gone, just like the feast I would never have or the house I would never join. The soda machine was a part of a time and place that had ended a bit more than three weeks ago. What lay ahead as far as we knew was that the priests were in control. The older kids would have to switch to a new high school when they hadn't expected it and made lives for themselves in Vernon. The young kids like us would have long bus rides. Some adults joined or started clans to get jobs. The priests, by the way, called houses clans, and kids now stayed in clans until they were twenty-one or maybe they stayed forever. No one talked that over with us. We were all learning as we went along.
I was sad to see the New York City bus arrive. New York City was our jumping off point for the direct stick transport to Memphis, Tennesee, and from there we would travel overland to Texarkana. We said goodbye to our clan leaders, and Quetzalli, Odette, and Pedra at Warwick. Aurora cried and I almost cried too. I sat stunned in my seat at the bus made its way down through Greenwood Lakes and then on to Suffern and from there toward the place where Rockland County New York turns back again into New Jersey. We crossed through the New Tunnel to enter Manhattan and emerged into the Port Authority Transport Center. Odem's transport for Atlanta left immediately. We waited with her and saw her off. Aurora cried more. I suggested that since we had two and a half hours to kill that we go and find a carry out lunch. New York City food was supposed to be excellent. Aurora protested she was not hungry.
"Look you're going home to your parents," I reassured her. I was the one who should be tearful and frightened, yet I just wanted to have a good time. Maybe the ants put me in a postiive mood. "Just come with me while I get something to eat then," I persuaded my roommate. She went along. I poked my head in and out of one store after another. I bought dried fruit. Aurora bought a sweet cake and we both bought bagels and soda. Aurora's bagel was strawberry cheese cake flavored. Yes, they make them that way. Mine was pumpernickel.
We climbed on to the stick transport to Memphis. It was only half full. Most of the passengers were older. Several stared at us. For some reason, the stares felt rude. It took me a long while to figure out why the staring unnerved me. Then by the time we hit Memphis and we walked around the terminal there waiting for the overland bus, it hit me. Aurora and I looked like what we were, proud clan girls in our newish, clean clothes, with our heads held high and our faces tan and strong. We were youth. We were the new future. The future had taken a detour and would never look back, but we were on the new road. The others could only stare.
Beyond the No-Go Zone
The gate to the westbound overland bus doors was a curtain of shimmering silver-blue material suspended from a network of white, PVC pipes that nearly reached the ceiling and were taller than the tallest man. A priest in a brown, burlap tunic pulled the curtains open to make a pipe door and slowly, sheepishly, the passengers entered. Aurora and I followed. A priest in a white robe with a blue sash and with a pink shaven scalp directed us not into one line but three groups in front of three tables. The group on the right was those who belonged to mentoring houses or who worked for the Company. it was the smallest group, but there were some kids in it, including a boy with a crew cut and a chambray shirt and cowboy boots. A backpack hung from one of his skinny shoulders. I thought of Jewels and Tweetie now in Cincinnati and Chicago respectively.
The table on the right was for those who were in clans. Instinct said to go to the right. Aurora glanced at the other two tables and then followed me. The center table was for those who had no affiliation at all. Standing on the opposite side of each table was a mixture of soldiers, and various types of police and security. There was also an officer in brown who had a German Shepherd dog on a shorrt, black leash. The dog looked wrestless, and his black nose led him about everywhere. Finally the handler let him sniff a woman's red, plastic suitcase. Meanwhile, the priest in brown burlap directed those of us around the right table to put our duffles, suitcases, and other baggage on the table one at a time for inspection. Soldiers opened the bag. The dog handler came by and let his creature sniff at everything. Once he barked and a man opened his backpack to reveal packs of fireworks. I shivered.
When the inspection of bags finished, the soldiers lined all of us up and we passed a soldier and a priest. The priest asked all the questions. He had a tall far head and a very faint blond mustache. He reminded me on the man who dominates the label of a popular brand of cleaning products.
"What is your name?" the priest asked.
"What language is that?"
"Who is your clan?"
"Burden of Dreams."
"And where do they live?"
"Highland Lakes, New Jersey."
"And your date of birth..."
"June 2, 2069.&quiot;
"May I see your ID card please?" This was a very polite priest. I handed him my red card with my clan name and their logo of a steamboat sketched in black dominated by a scarlet hibiscus flower. The priest turned it over in his hands and handed it back to me.
"Where are you going, Ahava?" he asked.
"Why are you going there?"
"I'm a guest of my friend's parents. I'm staying wtih them for Visitation as a substitute for foster care."
I heard Aurora breathing uneasily behind me. I noticed the priest's eyes were a wonderful shade of midnight saphire. I wondered if he had been genetically modified.
"When did the Scholars' Union accept your clan?"
"Two weeks ago."
"Good then you'll probably get an upgrade before the year is over." The priest smiled. I smiled back. "Sit in the front half of the bus," he told me. "Door three." I walked passed the priest and the soldier and out into what felt like scorching sunshine. The bus said Dallas on its marquee. It was probably a local. In fact, it had to be since transport between big cities was by stick. I thought of my uneaten dried fruit and bagel and undrunk soda. I shivered despite the heat, and the bus was even colder due to air conditioning. I put down my duffle to save a seat for Aurora who joined me a few minutes later.
"You were so brave!" she oohed.
I did not answer. I was glad when we were on the road. I did not resist the urge to stand up and look behind me. The back of the bus was for the freelancers and company folks. An older man held court. I could not hear him, but he talked with his hands. I thought of the Rabba's Shabbos table. Across the aisle from us sat a young girl in a scarlet tunic, sash, and leggings. Her shoes were scarlet too, and her head shaven and shiney. She was not yet a priest, but she looked every inch the part. She returned my glance. Two boys sat in front of her. One busily conditioned a baseball glove while the other toyed with sneakers that laced up his calves. There was another boy in old fashioned, royal blue, military dress, and two kids in matching black pants and white dress shirts with short sleeves. Aurora gave this last pair sharp scrutiny.
I wished somehow that some of us knew how to break the ice beyond stares and glances. I craned my neck to watch the old man talk. Whatever he said must have fascinated his audience or they really needed to raise their threshhold of what amused them. Finally a girl who was very tall, had golden blonde hair and who wore a grey uniform with epaulets and a yellow stripe down her trousers rose and stood at the center of the aisle. "Who died and left this walking fart queen?" was my first thought.
Instead I knew I should ask her what she wanted. If she was going to pick a fight with the old man, we didn't need that, but instead, the girl opened her mouth. Like Aurora her voice had a slight drawl. "OK everyone, my name is Bonny and we have a long ride together. Maybe we should get to know eachother."
"I'm Phylla," announced the priest-to-be in scarlet. The boys with the sports gear were were Daniel and Michael. The boy in blue pseudomilitary garb was Charles. The black and white "twins" were Alex and Ramone. Aurora and I introduced ourselves last.
"OK now let's compare cards," Bonny announced.
"That is not a polite thing to do," Phylla corrected her.
"If you want to do something useful, send one of us on reconnaisance," Charles suggested.
"How are we going to do reconnaisance without getting off the bus?" I asked.
"There are traitors everywhere," Charles stage whispered.
"You don't know what the fighting was like in Rural Ohio. It took them four days to put down the uprising. They didn't put all the terrorists in jail. They had to kill a dozen of them. I saw the bodies.
"And out west where we are now, it's worse. Look out the window if you don't believe me." Outside the window stretched endless green, Arkansas, soybean fields, edammame. I'd eaten edamamme in middle school. I have lots of good middle school memories. Then I saw on either side of the Overland Bus, two military trucks. We were inside a convoy.
"They're still out there," Charles told us. He did not have to tell the rest. I thought of the farmer and his companion. I remembered the broken milk machine and the broken soda machine, its innards now a rather prosperous ant nest.
"I'll volunteer," I said. Aurora went with me. The old man raised his hands in the air as if trying to contain an imaginary bubble. He wore a shirt the color of fancy, sockeye salmon. His hands were not particularly callused and one of them wore a gold ring on tis pinky.
"You see," he continued his perroration not noticing two new audience members. "It's very important for the Priesthood to establish a firm beach head on the Great Plains. This is not like the city where there are portals. Portals are important, and they are a security risk, but the Great Plains have something else everyone needs. Can anyone guess what that is?"
"Petroleum," Aurora volunteered.
"That's more toward Colorado," the old man explained.
"There's drilling in the Front Range," Aurora countered, "and it starts in Nebraska."
"Yes, but there's more."
"Corn and wheat," uttered a plump woman with pasty skin and a sun dress that should have left all that skin to grow goose bumps.
"Yes, the Priesthood wants to make sure there's no disruptions to the food supply. The resistance thinks it can hide in rural America because a lot of it is off the grid, always was and always has been. The Priests won't let that happen."
"You are wrong!" shouted a young man with shoulder length sandy hair. I realized he was about Dante's age, but I could not picture him either going off to college or working on a crew like the Vulcani who were laying sewer pipes and paving a road.
"Care to share why?" The old man smiled revealing carefully crafted artificial teeth, Beast Teeth implants.
"We've got spirit. People would rather die than give up their freedom." This was a lovely platitude, but I knew it was patently untrue. What good was freedom if your belly cried with hunger. I remembered being hungry winter mornings in seventh and eighth grade. What good was freedom if you couldn't get a decent education? I thought about Sussex County Academy for Scholars where I was going to go to high school. Too many people on the grid had too much to lose to walk away and help the terrorists. The terrorists were also a threat to us, and yes, that's what I called the Resistance.
"They've been trying all summer to destroy us," the sandy haired man continued. I stared at the bus floor. Even the priest with his questioning did not leave me this embarassed. I felt like telling the young man to shut up and be more discrete. I actually felt bad for the terrorists.
Then suddenly the driver pulled over. He walked down the center aisle of the bus. "I'd like everybody to sit back down and clan members, in the front of the bus please." Several passengers laughed nervously as Aurora and I slunk back up the aisle. Aurora made me switch seats with her and sit by the window. Aurora dug a book out of her pack. It was by someone named Tertullian and it was the teachings of the early church fathers. I had a feeling that Aurora would be a Christian for the duration of her Visitation. I wasn't going to undo her lie. I stared beyond the military trucks at the soybean fields. Protecting the food supply made sense. I closed my eyes and imagined all those sad women and children waiting for the mall bus on the rough hewn benches outside the Highland Lakes Urgent Care. It didn't matter which side they took. If those strong and healthy enough joined the Vulcanni, they could sing the same song I had sung in my mind. What good is freedom if you don't have a job that you love? You have to sing this song if you are a thinking person. Then you make the decision that feels best.
There are a lot of songs in your mind that are like the song about freedom. What good is telling the truth, if it gets you kicked out of school and isolated by your parents? I valued the truth more than my place, and perhaps there were some willing to risk starving or even getting shot, but what would be left. At least my telling the truth, left the world intact. I let my hands rest in my face. I did not need to see how isolated we were and that the enemy was both present and invisible.
Aurora ate her sweet cake during her rest break in Little Rock. She threw away her strawberry cheese cake bagel and her soda. She got a cup of ice water at the snackbar instead. I ate my bagel on the bus as we traveled further west, washed it down with Apri-Coke, and ate a few prunes for dessert. Aurora switched from Tertullian to scripture. I dug some commentary out of my backpack. The less I interacted with those around me the better.
It was nearly eight pm Central Daylight Time when we arrived in Texarkanna, Arkansas. A red haired, bearded man in a chambray shirt, cowboy boots, and a straw hat, held up a sign that said: "Aurora and AHaveA" on it. I wondered how any one could misspell my name so grotesquely. I almost laughed. With the red headed man was a half balding man with golden brown hair, a swet stained white t-shirt, and a paunch. He wore black twill work pants and black work boots. He and Aurora embraced. Then she introduced her father to me. The red headed man was Mitch which was not short for anything. Mitch had come with Aurora's dad because he wanted to get out of the house and rides in vehicles were scarce in a clan.
We crossed a parking lot that radiated the day's heat and piled into a club cab pickup truck that was cavernous and which smelled of miscombusted ethanol. This far west where the sky was big, and the soybeans and corn grew and black cattle grazed like shadows, vehicles burned ethanol instead of bio-d. "Did you have a safe trip?" Aurora's dad asked a perfectly banal question. I said we had. The less he knew about the arguments on the bus, the better. I'd keep my mouth shut a lot in the next two weeks unless I saw a need to tell the truth. Texarkanna was two cities. One on the Arkansas side and another over the border into Texas. It sprawled with low slung houses and strip malls, built when energy was more plentiful and carbon footprints could mess up the world.
The Nebulae Clan had housing on the Texas side, a low slung, horse shoe shaped, building like a twentieth century motel, except the middle part of the shoe was several stories tall. It was all painted yellow and trimmed with white and white shutters on the windows. It had a veranda. The cars parked out back and we entered through the kitchen. Aurora's dad and Mitch introduced us to Livia, the head cook. She was a handsome black woman with what was left of her hair under a white rag and her forehead furrowed and shiney. I noticed she had collard greens in the sink. I remembered my dietary requirements. "Are you making those greens with ham?" I asked before I could stop myself.
"No," Livia replied. "And no fat back or salt belly either. People ask for pork in their greens all the time, and then just take a little bit to oblige me or for tradition's sake," Livia made a small cirle with her left thumb and forefinger. "The ones who really like the greens and eat 'em by the bowl-ful are the ones who don't have much to do with meat, the Adventists, the Indians, the Moslems, and those fancy vegetarians from back east. You're from back east aren't you?"
"I'm from Atlanta," I told the cook.
"You don't sound like it."
"I'm from Toco Hills. I was raised Orthodox Jewish and I try to avoid treif meat and meat and milk together." That was the explanation. It was not make or break. Livia, the cook, had just met me a quarter of the way. In the days before I joined Burden of Dreams, it would have been half way.
"Well you'll have all the vegetables you want here," Livia assured me.
"Can I help you cook?" I asked. "I need to learn to cook for my clan."
Livia's smile grew even wider. She did not have beast teeth. They gapped in several places because that was their real shape, and no one had bothered to change it with a barbaric device. "Sure I can use help. What do you know how to do?"
"I can cut up vegetables. I make rice, pasta, beans, and kasha."
"Do you wash dishes?"
"I wash dishes, pots, and pans," I replied. "I also sweep up, wash down work boards, and take out the garbage."
"Come by here five am tomorrow morning and I'll put you on the crew."
"Thankyou," I told Livia and I shook her hand. "You go meet Aurora's Mama now," she told me. "You're probably tired from travelling all day."
I wasn't tired. I was too tense to feel tired, and too relieved to be off that bus and away from whatever it is that was out there. Nebula house in Texarkanna felt miles away from the terrorist threat, but there could be an enemy within or those who held them up as a romantic ideal. What good is freedom if it means your fate is poverty and your children starve? Amaryllis' parents had sung that song. What good is freedom if your Dad and brother beat you? Quetzalli had sung that song.
I took one last glance at Livia as I headed out into the central dining hall and then on to the verandah and around to the left side of the house. I was not sure what came next, but I had cooking lessons. I'd be able to help Xannika, Odem, and myself through the long cold winter. The old man was partly right after all and so were the priests. You had to take control of the food supply.
What Lies in Darkness?
Aurora's family lived on the left side of the horse shoe shaped Texarkana Nebula House on the second floor. They had a four bedroom apartment with no kitchen. They did not need a kitchen since they took their meals in the dining hall. It was crowded, but I had seen much the same in Toco Hills. The older two of the four boys, except for little John, who was only two and slept in the nursery and sometimes shared it with Stephen who had been born a month before Aurora went away to Nationals, had one bedroom. A second bedroom was the nursery. Aurora's parents had the third bedroom, and the girls, three year old Sarah and twelve year old Liza, had the fourth bedroom. Aurora and I would sleep in the guest suite, in the leanto reserved for fourteen year old girl guests.
Aurora's mother explained all this in a matter of fact way. She was a plump, solid looking woman with orange hair streaked with grey and a whole galaxy of freckels on a face that was both broad and high cheekboned. While not conventionally beautiful, there was something inviting and relaxed about her appearance. I don't think a gale force wind could have blown her down. She wore Stephen in a turquoise paisley sling over a white t-shirt and blue jeans with an elastic waist to handle many children's worth of baby weight. On her wide feet were blue flip-flops. She had rather intelligent green eyes.
"Have either of you girls had supper?" Aurora's mom asked.
"I hardly ate anything," Aurora confessed.
"Well are you hungry?"
"I'm starving," Aurora confessed.
"The kitchen's closed," I reminded my roommate. "They're doing prep for the next day."
"That's our kitchen too," Aurora's mom corrected me. "You can fix yourself something from the snack pantry any time you need it."
I glanced at Aurora to see if she was ready to try raiding the pantry, but she did not leave. Instead, Aurora's mother led the way back to the center of th e horse shoe to help us find some dinner.
"Don't you have to feed the baby?" I inquired; for this is what my mother would have done.
"He's sleeping now. If he wakes up, I'll just nurse him while we talk. I haven't seen Lula, I mean Aurora, all summer long. I've been seeing Stephen every day."
We reentered the main dining room and then the kitchen. Livia and her crew were running carrots through a machine to julienne them. I watched until Aurora's mother, coaxed me off to one side. There were two refridgerators, a small stove (only six burners. This was, after all a commercial kitchen) and a sink and dish drainer. On the refridgerators was a sign. "SNACK PANTRY -- You fix it. You clean up after it." That sounded fine if there were really food in the snack pantry.
Indeed there was, and the selection was fairly diverse. Aurora had a peanut butter and raspberry fluff sandwich, while I had honey flavored peanut butter on whole wheat. I found some tea bags and asked Livia for the kettle. I put on water for Lemon Zinger flavor tea. There was a big, plastic, Houston Geos mug. I figured it was not bad luck to drink from a mug of a baseball team that sometimes beat the Atlanta Manta Rays, known as the Atlanta Mantas for short. Dov, my second younger brother, was an arden Manta fan. The cup made me think of him, not that we had anything in common. Dov could have cared less about his studies, and I thought team sports were stupid and spectator sports utterly dull. Tweetie and Jewels at least played basketball and fished.
I hardly heard Aurora and her mother talking. When I became aware of them, Aurora's mom was telling her daughter how proud her father was that his child had painted "such a pretty bedroom." There were pictures of the bedroom framed in the foyer and a picture of Aurora and her two roommates, Odem and me, next to it. I remembered Aurora asking Pedra to photograph us standing against the drop cloth tent on the fourth floor balcony. I somehow could not picture a parent putting up such a picture on the wall, but Aurora's mother had done just that.
Then Aurora's mother asked her daughter about nationals. Aurora talked about learning algebra and more geometry so she'd be ready for school in New Jersey. "You think New Jersey's going to be harder than Lawrenceville?" Auora's mom asked.
"It's Scholars' Union. We're in the Scholars' Union now and it's harder than Ed Branch."
"Can I see your ID card?" I knew this was trouble, but Aurora produced her card without a flinch.
"Why did you only get a red card?" Aurora's mother sounded concerned. This was why parents are dangerous. What kids do is never good enough.
"It's what the priests gave us," Aurora had a read explanation.
"Hopefully they'll upgrade it soon. It doesn't matter except there are places in the Interior you can't go."
"The only place we go in the Interior is the North Jersey Mall," Aurora explained. I felt relieved. Aurora's mom believed her and the conversation moved on to Aurora who had read the Lives of the Saints, and now was working on Tertullian.
"You know I was raised in the church," Aurora's mom mused, "But I was never once curious about all that ancient, religious history."
"I'm a scholar mom," Aurora again explained.
"You really are. It's good you found your place. Not all the kids were so lucky. Some of the older ones lost their houses, when the company pulled out. I think the House at Lawrenceville is still in business, but you're better off in New Jersey with your pretty bedroom and a real ID you know?"
"I think you're right Mom," Aurora chirped. I took a bite of my sandwich just as Stephen, the baby, groaned and woke up. I felt the sandwich stick in my throat. Slowly, with a practiced hand, Aurora's mom raised her t-shirt and opened the front of her nursing bra. She gave baby Stephen suck without missing a beat. She and her daughter went on to talk clothes. We talked about the new high school. I asked about 4-H and it if was possible to join a 4-H chapter and not raise any livestock. If I were being nominated for Queen of 4-H, I might as well wear the crown.
Aurora's mom was surprised we had 4-H in New Jersey. I explained that parts of New Jersey were in the country. After our snack, we went back to Aurora's family's apartment and Aurora's mom got her husband's road atlas from the wall and I showed both of Aurora's parents wehre Sussex County was. "If that don't beat all!" Aurora's dad exclaimed. "I guess we just got lucky. One of the fourteens got sent to New York City by the priests. Her parents are worried sick about her."
"Is she happy?" I found myself asking. Then I wished I hadn't asked. Aurora's family and what they did or thought was none of my business.
"She's happier than a pig in shit," Aurora's Dad replied.
"Then it's a good thing isn't it?" I pushed the point and wished I hadn't.
"For her it probably is, but New York is a strange place. Her parents worry," Aurora's mother shook her head.
"Does her mother cry?" I knew this one by heart so why not.
"No, she has nothing to cry about,&quor; Aurora's mom answered.
I stared at the ground feeling embarassed. It was time now to check out the fourteen year old female leanto which was on the second floor of the right side of the horse shoe. It was a large room with eight beds, four of which had occupants. You could tell that becasue there was stuff strewn all around them. Sitting on one bed was a girl with a long, olive face and longer wavy black hair that fell like God's hair in the Hymn of Glory, when HaShem is going out to tread on Edom's winepress.
The girl gestured with her hands as she talked, supporting invisible bubbles like the old man on the bus earlier today.
"Hello Aurora!" a blond girl called out and beckoned Aurora and me to the dark haired girl's bed. The dark haired girl on the bed was named Elena and she had wanted to go to Touscon, Arizona but instead was in a performing arts house in New York City. She was going to dance on Broadway. She had hit the jackpot, the top of the clan world. The priests were her best friends.
The blond girl's name was Susan. She had grown up in Texarkana so she was lucky that way. She was in a clan that was going to send her to vocational high school. She was going to learn fashion design, so it would be "real school." Susan said she always wanted to be a model, but designing clothes for them was even better. "The great thing about the priests is that they give everyone their dreams. What'd you get?"
I caught Susan's odd choice of wording. "We're scholars," Aurora knew the lingo and used it fecklessly.
"Is that what you want," asked a plump girl with cafe au lait skin.
"It sure is," I said. "We can become teachers, scientists, and if we have questions we can get answers. Aurora wanted to know more about the history of the church, since she was saved and just had Sunday School. She got books from what used to be the community college. We needed to fix our bedroom, Aurora read books on decorating."
"And what about you?" Susan was obviously the head interrogator.
I pulled out my copy of interlinear Rashi. I did not really need to read the English unless I came upon a very unusual piece of grammar or usage, something that Rashi also unraveled. "This is Biblical commentary from the eleven hundreds, and I can read it in the original Hebrew," I showed it off. "This is commentary on the Tanach," I showed the kids another book. This one was all in Hebrew. "I'm bilingual Hebrew and English. I hope when my French gets better that I become trilingual."
"I speak Spanish pretty well, but don't read it and write it. That's what I get for growing up Americans. I can talk with the Pwerto-Ricans and Dom-in-ick-ans in New York though," Elenan laughed with a chortle that was less than happy.
"We all got good stuff," the cafe au lait girl tried to make peace.
"Everyone but poor Potter," sighed Susan.
"Who's Potter?" I asked.
"A boy from Paris, Oklahoma like me," Aurora filled me in. "Potter had Ay-dee-aich-dee. There was a doctor in town who gave him medication. He had to have the medication at the nurse's every day at school. When he took his meds he was all right."
"Well the priests didn't know about his meds or maybe he felt he could get along without them," Susan continued the tale.
"Sounds like Potter," sighed Aurora.
"Yeah well they put him in a clan to learn a trade, construction and metal work."
"Welding," Cafe au Lait told us.
"And he forgot safety precautions. He forgot them three times and they threw him out."
"They what?" I did not think of Xannika who had merely had roommate troubles. Dirty cammies or ugly ones are not going to get someone thrown out of an Ed Branch house. I hope I don't have to hammer home the obvious with you.
"Threw him out!" Susan repeated.
"And what happened to him?" The question came unbidden to my lips.
"He got sent to some kind of clan for retards in the interior," Elena finished the tale.
"and what happened after that?" I asked. This could not be the way the story should have ended. ADHD, did not mean a person was retarded. It just meant they needed a therapist to prescribe medications and teach them to cope. Some of my therapists clients had ADHD.
"Well his retard clan sent him home for Vis-it-ation," Susan remarked. He's acros the hall in the boys' leanto. "Why, you want to go see him?"
I realized the boys' leantos were probably off limits and with good reason. No one needed teens having sex under a clan house roof.
"We'll probably see Potter tomorrow," Aurora extricated me from something ugly.
"What kind of movie are they showing downstairs tonight?" Cafe au Lait asked.
"Some kind of dumb comedy," Elena replied.
I picked out a bed as far from Elena and Susan and company as possible. Aurora picked a bed next to mine. Aurora got out her Tertullian. I got out my Rashi. We sat Indian style on our beds across from eachother. Neither of us unpacked. We could always do that later, and there are times when books are your best friends. I really believe that.
Around one in the morning, both Aurora and I went to bed. Most of the kids had gone somewhere else. The few who came back asked for the lights to be turned down to let them sleep. I thought I would not sleep at all in the strange bed with its plain white, rough, starched sheets that had an oddly smokey aroma. Then I was in my family's kitchen back in Toco Hills. Mom was feeding the babies. She fed the oldest one, Yitzi first and then the next one Yoni who waited silently in a plastic baby bed. Standing mutely watching all of this was Kayla, the oldest of the babies. She really wasn't a baby any more. She had been a year old when I'd been taken and refused to lie about being mistreated which had gotten me kicked out of Torah Day School and really involved with Ed Branch. She had no memory as anything but an outsider who had made a mistake, but she had other memories. She was five now. She went to kindergarten at Torah Day School.
I'd pretty much missed all of Kayla's life. I did not even think of her as Kayla but just part of an amorphous group of three little kids who always got fed ahead of or often instead of me. When you compete with someone for food, it is hard to give them their own identity, but there was Kayla waiting and hungry. "How had I not know about this?" I wondered. I woke up crying. My stomach and chest ached.
"What's the matter?" it was Susan, NOT Aurora who asked. I told her it was just a nightmare. My clock said 4:35am. I had a date with Livia in the kitchen at five am. That meant I did not have to try to go back to sleep. That was a major relief.
Potter and Our Turns
"Potter what are you doing back here?" Livia raised her voice. It was six am. I was stirring gritz. I had helped get the juice machine started. We had three kinds of juices, more if I picked up canned ones or frozen ones and kept a pitcher or bottle in the snack pantry. Orange and apple were otherwise all their was, and yes, that disappointed me. "You're a fancy Eastern girl, but that's what the Snack Pantry is for."
"I'm hungry," the boy replied. He was tall. He could have been more then six feet, but there was something about him far too shambling and clumsy to make him a basketball player or a track star. Swim team did not somehow seem like his thing either. Livia shook her head and walked toward the hapless boy with wide, determined steps.
"Look I'd just like some bacon and eggs," the boy told the head cook. "We have eggs and bacon in the Snack Fridge. Why can't I fry me up some. I'm too hungry to wait for breakfast."
"Read the sign on the refridgerator," Livia thundered.
"Yeah....?" asked Potter.
"Well last time you left Dru and me with a sink full of dishes."
"I burned the spahgetti sauce. I said I'd get back to it before morning."
"I found the pot in the sink when I got on duty. Potter, you wait until we get breakfast out, OK?"
"EXPLETIVE DELETED Off!"
"Get out of my kitchen!"
"Are you mad at me?"
"What gave you that idea?" Livia curled her mouth into a snarl. "None of my crew has to hear langauge like that now git, before I call security, and I mean it.&qut;
Potter backed off, but not before he curled his right hand into a fist, and flexed his right arm. He pounded the crease of the elbow with his lef hand and stuck his right middle finger up high and prominent. He walked backward through the swinging kitchen doors so that his curse finger was the last we saw of him.
Part of me wanted to cheer for Potter. Part of me felt sick and angry because Potter needed help not getting yelled at like a little kid. Part of me, the part that was rational, sane, and survival oriented said it was time to get back to work. That last part won out.
I ate grits for breakfast that first morning. They were white grits. My middle school had rotated between white grits, yellow grits, rice, and several other hot cereals. I put milk on my grits even if they were salty. I added sugar too. We had honey, but it had crystalized. The only jam we had for bread and jam was strawberry preseves and they were old. Grape jelly was the other choice, but it had no pieces of fruit in it. I asked if I could revive the honey as a private project.
"I should give you a chit and send you to the mall if someone is giving rides. You could pick up all those fancy Eastern foods you like, and I think you'd make the few other easterners very happy. It's not easy when you get a house of people from all over. Some are geologists. Some are lawyers. We need those to help with land claims when we do oil exploration. We get engineers. I made rice for the Pak-is-tanis. I even make them curry. They complain when they don't get okra or cauliflower and they even eat eggplant."
"Ever make baba ganouj?&qut; I asked Livia.
"What's that?" she asked.
"I never heard of it, but if you can get some, someone here would probably eat it. See, you're a really good easterner. Now if I could only get you a ride."
As things turned out I didn't need a ride. Aurora checked the road atlas and it was only two miles to the city bus stop that led to the Interior which in turn led us to the mall. Nebular House had a refridgerated cart, so Aurora went shopping with me.
"Scholar girls got to take their turns. I forget," she laughed.
We had chits. We had time on our hands. We were both free of gossip, and we took turns pushing the cart along the edge of the highway. Unlike either Atlanta or Hihgland Lakes, Texarkana was at sea level so the morning stayed hot and the day was hot and sticky. Aurora knew enough now not to complain of the heat. "I complained of the rain once in Ithaca and they laughed at me," she confided. The story made her sad, but she had learned her lesson.
"Hey Lula! Lula!" a male voice called out behind us. He was running, and his strong legs carried him with ease.
"Potter, it's Aurora now, just like you're Potter not Tim-oth-ie.&qut; Aurora confronted Potter with a withering stare that hardly fazed him.
"Aur-or-a, what kind of name is that?"
"It's Latin and it means dawn of a new day," Aurora answered.
"And what kind of name is A-have-a?" Potter was on a roll.
"It's Hebrew. It means love," I tried to figure Potter out. He had a florid face that was either flushed or sunburnt, and hair the same color as my own but coarser and dirtier. He had it parted on the side and grown just long enough to flop into his brown eyes.
"Sheeee-ut!" Potter sighed. "You girls got yourselves all fancy."
"Do you call pushing a cart in the heat fancy?" asked Aurora.
Potter did not answer. Instead he asked me: "If you're such a big name scholar, why are you cooking with that bitch, Livia?"
"I want to improve my cooking because I help my cooking crew fix meals," I answered. "There's a very nice kid named Xannika, who is going to be head of our cooking crew. She's just beginning as head of a cooking crew, and she needs all the help she can get. I'm trying to be a good friend to Xannika."
"So you made friends in your new house," Potter shook his heads. "None of the kids in the first house they stuck me in gave a flying EXPLETIVE DELETED about me, you know that? When I left, none of them cried all over themselves. They didn't even pretend to cry."
"I'm sorry Potter," I said, but I knew those words meant so little.
"Want to come out to lunch with us. We have mall chits and we can sneak you in too. You can even pick out your own snacks, something ready made so Livia won't yell at you."
Potter didn't answer. We walked a bit in silence. Then Potter began to speak again. "You know what the kids are like in my new house?" Potter asked but none of us answered. "You really want to know? Some of them drool. Those are the ones who can't walk. One uses a walker because she's a spaz. She has normal intelligence. So does the kid with spina bifida. I'm one of the few normal ones. Then there's the grownups. They're thirty years old and still in their clan. Does that suck and some of them have black and brown cards. That means...they been in jail or they're crazy. My card is red at least."
"So is mine," I commiserated.
I stopped to show Potter my Burden of Dreams ID. It did not matter if they upgraded us to orange or even yellow. It was a red card that August day on a four lane state road in Texarkana.
"How'd you get a red card?" asked Potter.
"It's what the priests gave us. Everyone's a bit cheap with our house. It's not bad though. We're going to a Scholars' Union school in the fall." Aurora had a way of making everything look good.
I knew Potter's life was looking anything but good. I also knew what to do about it."Potter what do you do with the kids that drool?" I asked.
"Not much. Mostly, I run errands for the adults, the crazy ones, the sane ones, the ones who take care of the sick kids. I go get medicine and go get snacks for me, and sometimes flowers for the crazy bitch on the third floor, because she thinks she's my grandmother and I like to pretend it because it's fun for both of us. There..."
"You have a good soul Potter," I told the boy, and I meant it.
"You really think so?" he asked.
"Yeah...Would you see a therapist and get back on your meds?" I asked.
"What EXPLETIVE DELETEDing good would it do me now?" Potter asked.
"It would help you do your job helping the sick and the old better. That's more important than welding, and sometimes you have to throw safety aside like you did with that old woman and the flowers."
"You're trying to be sweet."
"What a shame. I hoped I was succeeding."
"At least it's not bullshit," Potter replied. "I can smell it a mile away."
"I'll talk to my therapist and see if she can recommend somebody where you are," I explained.
"You have a therapist?" Potter was incredulous.
"What for? Are you ADHD?"
"No, but I have a very dysfunctional family," I explained "My therapist helped keep me out of foster care, before Aurora came along."
Aurora laughed. I did not notice whether she had been intently studying the road side, but I suspected she had. Oh well, Potter, had been screwed. He was not a bad kid. He hadn't wallowed in self pity. He had gone straight to work, and he could still be compassionate. That meant he needed the right kind of help and that vocational clan's loss would be another clan's gain. That much I knew.
I don't consider the lunch we had in the biggest food court (I checked the mall directory. Way finding skills have their uses) in the mall, a first date. If it was, Aurora, was our chaperone. We were just three kids running errands in a group. Potter could have been Potterina, though that would probably have been too original a name for him had he been female. Potter asked about why I put green and black olives on my pizza. I offered hm a taste. He said he preferred peperonni though he was having a bacon wrapped fried chicken filet sandwich, and Aurora nibbled on chicken nuggets.
We all took turns pushing the heavy, insulated, grocery cart back to Nebular house, Livia was impressed wtih its fullness. I made sure she heard me thank Potter. He was still personna non grata until he apologized for cussing her out. He left the kitchen silently this time, without raising the curse finger. "What you going to do with all those peppers?" asked Aurora as she examined the half a dozen bags of sotplight peppers I'd picked up.
"I'm putting half of them in the Snack Pantry freezer," she said. "Emergency bell peppers for folks who can't get enough bell peppers are a smart idea."
Livia also split up the various types of canned and jarred olives and the dried fruits. She put most of the jams in the Snack Pantry including the apple butter. "You're making biscuits tomorrow morning," Livia told me out of hand as we continued unloading the cart together.
That night, I dreamed I was watching my brother, Dov play baseball. He aws throwing a ball against a pitch back behnd his Yeshiva. He wore the classic uniform the same as Shmuel, white shirt, black pants, polished black shoes or black sneakers that looked something like shoes. Usually it was the sneakers. Dov caught the baseball with grace and skill. He hardly heard the Rosh with his wooly beard like overgrown steel wool calling in the boys. He called in Hebrew announcing lessons. Dov caught the ball and stared at it in his mitt. He was not sure whether to throw it again or head inside. He looked at me. I did not care about baseball except for drinking out of team mugs. I knew Dov would get in trouble if he did not go in. I thought of Potter. "You don't want to get in that kind of trouble," I told my second brother. "People don't alawys understand and tney can hurt kids very badly." Dov vanished. It was 4:45am. I was needed in the kitchen to bake biscuits.
"A-Have-a!" Susan proclaimed while Elena glared at me. "You almost woke up the whole room with your crying in your sleep. Do you know how much noise you make?"
"No, cause I'm asleep when I make it I answered." I gathered up my clothes, hurridly apologized, dressed, and went to down to the kitchen to learn buiscuit making from Livia.
Letting the Outside World Know
We kneeded biscuit dough with a dough hook stuck in a huge industrial size bowl. I knew this did nothing to prepare me to learn to cook with Xannika in the fall. "You'll kneed your biscuits on a board," Livia even admitted. In addition to biscuits, we also started pizza dough rising. We were having three flavors of pizza, regular with pepperoni, Mixican, and regular with stoplight peppers. I got to run the dough hook machine. Livia gave me the settings. I pressed the buttons, and then I watched the dough. Last night's prep crew, of which I was not a part, had all ready made the sauces for the pizza and grated the cheeses in the automatic grating machine.
I had biscuits and apple butter for breakfast that day. I did not see Potter in the main dining hall. I ate with Aurora and her family instead. They all ate together. I was glad no one had to run off to school. Aurora's mom could nurse and eat at the same time. She also talked between bites to Aurora's younger brother and sister. The children whined and yammered for rides. Only scholars took "turns." Aurora's siblings did not walk, but Aurora's mom had no fuel. As for her father, he was leaving to go to Wyoming to "supervise an explorary" as he called it. This meant he would be gone most of the time his eldest daughter was home, but he'd be back before he left. Work came first, and he was lucky enough to have a blue card and a high status and interesting job.
As for Aurora's mom she worked full time in the nursery minding the infants of the women who went out and worked at other things. The children during the time of Visitation or Break had activities, or if they were teens, they were free to amuse themselves. Aurora said she would miss her father as did several of the other kids, and Aurora's father, said he would miss his children, but work was work. At least there was no one or two favored children who sat with dad in Kollel when dad was not working. I thought of that. I knew what my therapist said about feeling cheated. "When you want to complain, count your blessings first." Well I had watched the dough making machine make pizza crust for lunch, and I would get to eat lunch with what was left of Aurora's family. Livia had also given me time off to see off Aurora's father. Half of the house saw off Aurora's fathers and the others going off to work on the "exploratory" deep, hot well in remote Western Wyoming. We stood in the sticky morning air while a bus that had the Nebular Work Clan logo on it filled with mostly men, packages, tools, and duffles. Also parked next to the truck was a military truck and two armored vehicles painted in angry, olive drab. Somewhere out there, there were still terrorists, and it was as important to control the energy supply as it was to control the food supply.
Aurora's mother cried when Aurora's father left. It was actually good to see her freckeled face covered wtih real tears. It showed she had feeling. I was beginning to think that nobody at Nebular House ever cried except me when I had nightmares. I worked several more hours in the kitchen. Aurora's mom went to work in the nursery. The younger kids went to activities, and Aurora sat in the main dining hall practicing algebra problems and reading Tertullian. That's where her mother and everybody else found her when they came in for lunch. Junior (His real name is Zell which is the same as his father's. NonJewish people name kids after living parents which gets very confusing), asked about the pizza with the peppers. I recommended it. "We got all those peppers at the mall...Ahava got them," Aurora explained.
"You might not like it," Aurora's mother counseled her second son who is about the same age as my brother, Dov. "You're not supposed to waste food here."
"Why not ask for the server for a taste?" I asked.
Zell did that and learned to eat bell peppers. I watched at lunch while Aurora's mom once again seemed to have time for all seven of her children and one bewildered guest. I was glad for my break after lunch. Since Aurora's mom was working, Aurora agreed to accompany me on a "turn." "We don't need chits because I'm not buying anything," I explained. Still we did walk all four miles to downtown Texarkana so I could make a withdrawal of cash money. Then we caught a bus to the Interior and the mall. We had to check the mall diretcory twice. Aurora complained her legs would fall off. We found a cybercafe and I was able to write to my therapist. I was not breaking my promise to Potter.
We walked slowly back to catch the bus to the house. We had no chits or money to eat out without becoming broke fast. "I don't want to do this again," Auorar told me. "It's too far...and I mean it. I'm not complaining. You could get heat stroke."I didn't believe I could get heat stroke. I was in too good a shape. "Look Ahava," Aurora continued "There have to be working computers that can reach the net here at the house....Do you think the lawyers or geologists who stay here would be caught without their internet?" Aurora might have been right. I was not sure I had the status to ask. I was not sure Aurora had the status to ask, or more importantly to obtain a "yes."
We arrived home too late for supper, but made sandwiches from the snack pantry. Aurora made french fries for herself in the oven and I made a pan of Japanese Blend mixed vegetables on the stove. I had a mozzerella and roast pepper sandwich. Aurora had sliced chicken with lettuce and mayonaise. We said nothing as we ate. We needed to regain energy.
Then instead of looking for family night which meant a terrible video, or going upstairs to the leanto to listen to gossip or try not to listen to gossip, Aurora headed straight for the clan offices. Don't ask me how she knew where they were, but they were in the main building down the hall from the main dining room. A couple of brass sat around the table in the room between the officers' offices drinking coca-cola nad eating smoked almonds and playing cards. They were both men. One was fat and balding. They glanced with irritation and Aurora and me.
"What do you want?" was how the fat man greeted me.
"My friend, Ahava, needs to use a computer to send email to her therapist in Atlanta." Aurora got it all out in one breath.
"What do you see a therapist for?" asked the fat man.
"Nightmares and dysfunctional family," I said.
"As long as it's not dysfunctional clan or dysfunctional priests. That can get you in real trouble," laughed a man with a droopy blond mustache.
Well we secured permission and Aurora's legs would no longer fall off from walking and I would no longer succumb to imabinary heat stroke.
Some time on Wednesday I wrote to my therapist about nightmares. They were a regular show. Early Wednesday morning, my Dad and Shmuel found me in Maddio's Pizzaria and yelled at me for eating nonkosher food. I told them that Mom wasn't feeding me. Dad told me that I was not patient enough to wait my turn or I did not come home on time to eat. Thursday morning I dreamed I was teaching comparative religion to Kyla's kindergarten class. Friday morning, the police in my dreams raided my mom's kitchen and asked if Kyla and I were being fed. I forgot I was now in a clan and got to eat regularly or that I got fed at school when I lived home in Atlanta.
My therapist wrote back and suggested the dreams were unfinished business. I had never really dealt with my relationships with my siblings. I thought that it was too late to deal with my siblings except in dreams. That made me incredibly sad.
My worst dream was Saturday morning which would have been Shabbos if there had been a synagogue anywhere nearby which there wasn't. I dreamed that Shmuel, Dov, Aurora, Dad, and I were all reading together at a big table in kollel. That was all. No one kicked Aurora and me out because we were female. We read silently anyway because that was how we knew how to study.
"Saturday night is Steak Night," Livia explained pointing to a huge pile of beef steaks which Dru and her assistant, Trina, were setting out in steamship pans to be broiled in two industrial ovens. I shrugged. Beefsteak was not my favorite food. Usually we had two or three choices at most meals. I hoped there would be something else.
"Now that's what I expected," Livia smiled at me. "It's hard for most folks to believe when they get started in the kitchen, but there's people who don't like steak. In fact, in a house like this which is fairly typical, it's one in every four or five adults, and a handful of kids who will eat the second option over the kiddie meal." Livia's smile broadened. "This makes steak night fun because we can make something for that other group that the complainers don't have to touch since they've got their steaks. OK...fish is a really good alternate for nonsteak eaters. How should we make tilapia?&quiot;
"Are you asking me?" I blinked.
"Why not? You're a fancy easterner, the kind who takes the other entree when there is steak. You're good at this kind of food."
"Xannika is better," I realized. I remembered eating her sweet and sour carrots and her carrot salad and her zucchini in red sauce. Zalli also had "fancy eastern tastes." Odette had them but was a snout to tail girl, and that meant she lusted after offal and organ meats.
"I'm just a beginner," I confessed.
"That's why I'll overrule you if you suggest something stupid. Now, Ahava, what do we do with the fish?"
I thought for a moment. "Can we make tilapia florentine?" I asked.
"Nice idea. Let's give it a try. Frozen spinach is in freezer number six. Bring me two boxes. The folks who'll eat tilapia florentine will want lots of spinach."
I got to cut up the fish into portion size pieces and cook the spinach which took about five minutes and drain it in a huge colander reserving some of the liquid to be thickened with butter and flour. I listened as Livia explained how to make a roux. I even asked her for written instructions afterwards. Dru's assistant watched us and held her nose. "Let 'em alone," Dru replied. "There's people in this house who don't know what good is. They deserve fish and spinach instead of steak."
"They don't deserve it. They'll be grateful for it."
"Do they get a special vegetable too?"
"They get fries like everybody else, but we're also having cole slaw in addition to salad."
This sounded like an excellent meal. "We have Steak Night on Saturday so that the young men don't take the young ladies out. Of course a lot of the young men have gone missing, so tonight the Steak Night is to make the ones left behind feel better. They'll finish feeling better at church tomorrow. Do you go to church?"
"I'm Jewish," I reminded Livia.
"Yes, but as a guest of your host family." Livia did not miss a beat. I shrugged. "I'd rather work brunch shift," I told the cook.
"Randle may not want you to do that. He's the leader here and he worries about you since he learned you were in therapy. It's not my business to ask what went on back in Atlanta except that it has to do with why you're here."
"I don't like to talk about it," I shut down the confession and then wondered, why bother. "I have a dysfunctional family," I began. "My mother refused to feed me or buy me clothes and my parents hardly talked to me while I was in middle school. I'd been thrown out of Torah Day School and almost cut off from learning Judaica because I refused to say I was mistreated when we had a taking for all the hidden children. My parents were hiding me. My Placement Specialist and my Middle School Principal found me a therapist, and saw I got taken care of in other ways so I could stay home. They worked hard to find me a Judaics teacher. A lot of them refused to take me, and I insisted on keeping going to synagogue and keeping up with my friends from my old school. I know where most of them are even now, well maybe not now, but we'd see eachother once a week and sometimes a bit more often."
That was pretty much the end of the story. As a price for what I'd been through, I did not really know my three youngest siblings very well. Shmuel for some reason chose to keep writing me whch meant I owed him a letter. Dov was not worth knowing. Chevie was the enemy. That was my family.
"You're not going to believe this," Dru replied, "But I've heard worse."
"There's worse right in this house."
"They placed a few kids here wtih parents who are elsewhere or won't speak to them because the kids have switched sides. Imagine doing that to your own kid."
I did not have to imagine. "And what about Potter..." Dru continued.
I stared at the floor."Potter needs professional help."
"His placement specialist screwed up," I knew that much. "She should have sent him to the taking with his medication and a credential saying he needed it."
"And what if he just refused to take his medication or threw the credential away?"
"Do you think he'd do that with so much riding on surviving a trial, and what about his leader, why didn't she look at his profile?"
"It's not good to be like Potter," answered Dru. "This is a tough world. The strong make it. The kids with problems...well they're kids with problems."
"I'm a kid with problems."
"Only if you believe you are, and it's pretty clear you don't," Livia settled things to her satisfaction. She was tired of true confessions.
That was fine with me. I helped make the cole slaw and watched the fish bake. We skipped lunch, so I had a peanut butter and apricot preserve sandwich on whole wheat and a nectarine sitting at the kitchen help table. Snack Pantry food was good food. It was too late to go to town, so I went back to the fourteen year old female leanto to read commentary. It was after all Shabbos.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. I looked up in time to see a fat balding clan leader enter the leanto. Suddenly I felt afraid. I drew up my legs and thought it was better to make a run for it, but where would I go. In Texarkana, I was thousands of miles from anything that resembled home. "I just spoke to a Ko-hana Pascal," the clan leader did not beat around the bush. "Your Doctor Bainbridge got in touch with her, after you emailed Dr. Bainbridge about Potter."
I knew I was supposed to say I was sorry, but Potter had been screwed and he needed a therapist and medication. "Does Potter all ready have a therapist of his own?" I asked.
"No, nobody knew he needed one. Not everybody out here believes in that kind of stuff anyway. Well, Doctor Bainbridge got in touch with Kohana so she could find out where Potter's clan has an opening into the real world. That's his interior house, the one that took him after it didn't work out with the Spirit of Ogun." The clan leader shook his head and then slowly lowered himself onto the neighboring bed. He trie dnot to look around at the forest of female shoes and camisoles and an occasional pair of dirty panties. We were not the cleanest girls in the world, and the leanto was close quarters.
"Turns out there's an opening in Newburgh, New-York."
"That's Orange County," I replied. There was probably a local bus from Warwick to Newburgh. "It's a small world. Aurora and I are in Sussex County, New Jersey."
"I figured that out," the clan leader said. "I don't want Potter to screw up again. His father didn't speak to him when he got here for Break and what happened with the Ogun house broke his mother's heart."
I wondered if the clan leader was about to thank me. "Can you eat dinner with Potter's family tonight and be a friend to Potter while you are here, and when you have time when you get home. I know you're in one of those special teacher clans. I always wondered about those, but they've been out there forever and now we have two teacher clan young'uns here. See if you can talk your leaders into staying in touch when you get back to New Jersey."
I said I would. Of course I would. Seeing that Potter was able to go on with his life, which it seemed like he was doing all ready, was going to be easy and pleasant. I had no complaints. What did the rabbis say about doing the easy mitzvos first. A mitzvah is Hebrew for good works or good deed.
The clan leader's orders meant I ate dinner with both Potter's family and Aurora's on Saturday night. We pushed the tables together. Potter was the second of four siblings, the oldest of which had gone off on the exploratory in Wyoming as a laborer. I thought of the military guard and felt my throat tighten about the excellent fish. I offered Potter a taste of my fish. Potter's mom explained that Potter and her family "didn't eat like that."
"You know," she said. "This clan has a branch back in Philadelphia for all those eastern types, but we get them here anyway. Of course they don't train teachers, so you couldn't have joined here if you wanted to."
Aurora and I all ready had Burden of Dreams house. It was smaller, but our leaders were ambitious, and we'd wanted to be Ed Branch since...well since I was ten, to tell the truth, since I set foot in Druid Hills Magnet Academy, and certainly since I went to Nationals.
"The branch in Philadelphia is the lucky branch. It's peaceful there," Aurora's mother commented.
"Yeah, but cities are crowded and dirty. You can't breathe in 'em," Aurora's mother continued. "I'm glad Aurora didn't end up in Nwe York like poor Elena,"
"Yeah, you got lucky from what I heard, but isn't New Jersey awfully close to New York?" Potter's mom inquired.
"It's in the east but it's still out in the country. My husband and I looked on a map."
"You're real lucky then. Now Potter's clan is in the Interior, but their gate to the real world is Newburgh which is also not New York City, but it is in New York State," Potter's mom sighed.
"It's in Orange County the same as Warwick," I added.
"That's the county next to where our house is," Aurora elaborated.
"No shit!" commented Potter.
"Lem, I ought to wash out your mouth with soap!" Potter's mom declared for the edification of the younger children who must learn not to use profanity around hypocritical adults.
"Shit's not a curse word ma," Potter was unstoppable.
"It's mild profanity," I finished the argument.
"Well I don't approve of any profanity," Potter's mom told us. "Do you understand me, and If I catch you using it in church tomorrow...."
I wanted to tell Potter's mom there was only so much she could do before she and her son weren't on speaking terms any more, and then...that was it, but no one wants that kind of advice.
Potter meanwhile snickered. "This steak tastes like....." I waited for him to drop the bomb and cross the line in this game of curse word chicken.
"Shoe leather," I suggested.
Potter made a face.
"I can see why the Ogun threw you out," Potter's mom slipped into mean parental mode. She did not need to hit her son, I realized. He was a bit too big to hit, and what would she do if he hit her back in self defense. Kids did defend themselves, and Potter was a kid with enough sense to do just that.
Potter pushed his food into the middle of the table and bolted out of the dining hall. I stared down at my meal.
"That boy has got to learn self discipline or he'll never make it in this world," Potter's mother sighed.
"I know what you mean," Aurora's mom sympathized. "I worry more about my big ones than my little ones. Take Aurora here. She's so headstrong. She always said 'I want this and I want that and here is how it's going to be fore me. I'm not going to end up like you.' You know how that made me feel. We let the Company put her in Ed Branch. We figured she'd either get tired of all the hard work, or it would make something of her. It did the second thng but fine, I still worried. Now Charlie and Junior are just ordinary boys, but Ed Branch girls stay far from trouble, with boys...well you know."
"I wish I didn't. None of Potter's brothers turned out like him. They'll settle down, learn a trade, finish their schooling, find good clans. Potter...who knows. Sometimes I think it would be better if he were in jail."
I thought about giving up eating and looking for Potter. Then I thought better of it. There were only so many places to go here. I finished supper and went with Aurora's mom and with Aurora to look at the map in the Clan Office. Potter's mom wanted to look at the map too. The little kids just tagged along. No one would have to explain anything to them. They'd pick it up as they heard the older ones and the mothers talk. On the map were areas in red. Potter's mom asked if this was the most current map. The red areas were hot spots, no go zones. The Terrorists were there. There did not have to be very many of them. Just enough to blow up a pipeline from time to time or to attack an Overland bus or stop a train full of wheat or soybeans. In a village of three hundred it just takes one man with a knife. That was how the Terrorists worked.
That night I prayed the Psalms for the safety of the convoy going to the Exploratory in Western Wyoming. Randle, the clan leader, explained that they could not travel through the Interior which was much safer because there was no exit point in that remote part of the Rockies. Control the energy supply, I thought.
I put down my Tanach and put on my sneakers. "Where are you going?" asked Aurora who had her eyes sunk deep into Tertullian. "Looking for Potter," I answered.
I walked toward town. I knew Potter would not be in the fourteen year old boys' leanto. There was too much ugly gossip in there. He also would not be with his mother, not after what he said at dinner. He was personna non grata in the Snack Pantry. Livia and Dru saw to that. Downtown Texarkana, Arkansas/Texas was not very big, and like downtown Vernon partially abandoned. The malls of the Interior and a lack of fuel for just driving around had driven the local strip shopping centers out of business. There was an old movie theater, but it was too boarded up. There was an ATM, but I knew Potter had no access to a cash stipend because he was not a scholar. That left a few convenience stores if they existed, but again Potter had no cash, and the local high school.
The Priests did not believe in education. That was obvious from the red and orange cards scholars carried and the exclusiveness of the Scholars' Union. They did not believe in noncompetitive four year college. I had learned as much from Odem and her parents, and they surely did not believe in community college either. They alsio did not believe in high school as an excuse to keep kids out of the workforce or off the streets. Therefore, most of the high school on the Texas side sat empty and unused. Its windws were broken. The kids did not bother to conceal the fire they lit from old scraps of wood in what had once been a parking lot behind what had once been a cafeteria.
The kids stood or sat in a group. There were mostly boys and four girls. They made way for me as I slipped through the crowd. They talked softly. It was a strange kind of talk. A lot of it was about going north to join the wheat harvest or joining the Army, but if you joined the Army, after all you could get shot. Besides the Army was outsourcing to clans. "Clans suck," declared a boy with white blond hair in his hooded eyes.
"Amen," answered a girl in painted on pants that looked like tights.
"I know what I want to do," complained a runt of a boy with a crew cut.
"Yeah, well why don't you EXPLETIVE DELETEDing do it?" boomed Potter's voice. I saw him across the flames. He blinked.
"I'm trying, but you got to know people," crew cut replied.
"You don't know shit,&quiot; Potter snarled.
"They don't take everybody," the boy confessed. "They only want talent."
"So you don't have talent?" the girl in skin tight pants taunted.
"Not enough...Now Zann, remember him. He could fix cars. He just disappeared. Where do you think he went?"
"Detention," I spoke up.
Heads turned. "Come on we got to get you home," it was Potter who intervened. I tried to suppress a shit eating grin. We walked out of the school yard and back toward a well lighted street. "How'd you find this place?" Potter asked.
"I had intensive urban exploration as a summer activity in middle school," I confessed. "Cities are all similar and I know the habits of the priests."
"Shit!" Potter sighed, and no one threatened to assault him for mild profanity.
It wasn't until we passed through what was left of the downtown on the Texas side that we noticed a car was following us. While we walked what was left of city streets, the car wove around the blocks, tailing us and vanishing again. Eventually the driver pulled up. It was a woman. Her vehicle was black. I thought she looked older, but it was hard to tell. "You want a ride?" she asked.
"No thankyou," I snapped back before Potter could accept.
The woman drove away. "You really like to walk," Potter sighed.
"I'm from a big city. I don't take rides from strangers," I answered. The black car reappeared. "Do you want a ride? Are you sure you're all right?"
"We're absolutely fine and couldn't be better," I replied.
I felt the hairs on my neck prickle. I asked Potter if he knew the woman. He said he hardly knew anybody in Texarkana. He hated the town. It gave him the creeps. The kids in the schoolyard gave him the creeps but at least they did not "judge him." They did not judge any one.
The black car passed us again but did not stop to ask if I wanted a ride. When it passed a fourth time I got its license plate. It was a New Mexico plate. I was glad to get back to Nebular House. I shivered despite the warm evening air. I bolted through the dining hall. Potter followed and then pulled up short, remembering that the prep crew was in the kitchen. I took a deep breath. "We're going to be OK," I told Potter. "No one harmed us," I repeated. "Not a hair on our heads, but we've got to report it anyway." I repeated the number on the New Mexico license plate.
"What you going to do?" Potter asked.
"Find the clan leaders and tell them what happened. The Terrorists were looking for one or both of us, and I think they were looking for me. I am bilingual and I way find. I have outdoor survival skills. They don't recruit people who are just mouths to feed." I blinked back tears. I swallowed. My throat hurt. I really wanted just to sit with a cup of hot teal. I wanted to go up to the leanto and learn sitting on the bed across from Aurora's. I wanted to go back to New Jersey. I needed the Founding Sisters and my own clan leaders tell me it was NOT my own fault.
Since I was not going upstairs and it would be a bit over a week until I was back in New Jersey, I walked back toward the clan offices. I hoped I could speak without breaking down into sobs. I found the brass and two of their friends playing cards and hiding a bottle of something stronger than Coca Cola under the table. There was a spitoon which I tried to avoid but which sickened me anyway.
"What do you want?" asked the fat, balding clan leader.
"The Terrorists tried to recruit me tonight," I began and then I relayed the whole sorry tale. I'd gone looking for Potter. Yes, I had been in the school yard, but the terrorists don't bother with the at-risk teens. Someone tailed me on my way out of town, someone who knew about me because I had traded for buttermilk and tomatoes with an off the grid farmer in New Jersey. That was the connection. I was a marked girl.
"You stay away from the high school at night and you tell Potter that's an off limits area. I'll let everyone know at breakfast."
"What about the car with the New Mexico plates?" I asked.
"I'm going to tell the FBI about it. Good girl for getting the number. You kept your head."
I guessed I was not in any trouble. I told Potter who was waiting in the dining room to stay there. I was going to get us both something to drink. I got Potter some Coke and made myself a big Houston Geos mug of Red Zinger tea.
I blew on my tea. My teeth chattered. While we were drinking in the dining hall, Aurora came in to look for us. I had to tell my story once again. Now it was getting old and not quite as frightening, but the first telling scaird Aurora. "You got to keep away from those drop out kids," she warned Potter. Potter said nothing. "It's a good thing you're going back east next week," I told Potter. He grunted and then sighed.
Then he said: "You'd never sign up with the Terrorists in an EXPLETIVE DELETEDing million years. Why would they go near you?"
"I can pull my weight off the grid," I replied.
Remembering Something Painful
I went to church with Aurora's family and with Potter's family on Sunday halfway through my stay in Texarkana. I went becuase I did not want to sit in the house alone. The service bored and unnerved me. There was a repetive praise choir backed up by an amped band and an overhead to put lyrics on a screen for those who could not read them from a book. The pastor did a lot of yelling and screaming, mostly about young girls needing to stay virgins. Since I wasn't interesed in boys that way yet, I did not feel this applied. Besides, half the men were away and had to travel under military guard. Shouldn't we be discussing their safety and praying for it instead of screaming about the blood of Jesus, whom I clearly do not believe was the Messiah. As far as I'm concerned the Messiah has yet to arrive and he is taking his good sweet time. We also did not get to read a parsha (Please excuse the Hebrew but a parsha is three or four chapters read as a cohesive whole. This prevents people from taking words out of context.)
Finally, I decided I had had enough. I said I needed to use the restroom, which is a universal excuse and slipped out. Of course I avoided the ladies' room. If churches are at all like synagogues, and there is no reason they should not be, the ladies' room is a sad place indeed. Let's just say it's where the middle school and high school kids go to have a private conclave. Woe befall any older lady who walks in to use the bathroom as it was intended.
The ladies'room near the sanctuary in Beth Jacob Village was as wretched as most of them, but some of my friends from Torah Day School hung out in there, and I'd pay them a visit, especially after I got kicked out and was going to Druid Hills Magnet Academy. Let's just say I had a certain notoritety. I showed up for services after the first week with a bandaged hand. I skinned my hand on the ropes and obstacle course we had for physical education. I slid too fast. The nurse patched me up. I nearly cried because I figured this ended my rope climbing career. The nurse and phys ed teacher and my principal all said just to be more careful, and I had a lot more goes at the rope. That I had been to the ceiling of the gym several times impressed me. I no longer cared about my bandaged hand by Saturday.
Anyway, after my hand healed, and the novelty of my continued presence wore off, one of the girls confronted me in the restroom. "Why are you still coming to schul?" she asked me. I was about to reply that Beth Jacob was a public place and I was free to worship there, but something told me this was not what she meant. She knew I was not entirely unwelcome, especially on Saturday morning, but I attended a public, secular, school. I am also female which means praying with a group is not an obligation. In short, no one was making me go to synagogue, so why did I continue? That was what the nosey kid meant.
"I want to be here," I told Ms. Nosey Face. "I believe." It was that simple. It was also so important I did not question it. I even convinced my therapist that going to services was beneficial for me. It was part of who I was. Now I realized it had been so important to hang on to my faith and my connection to it, that I had not cared about forming or maintaining relations with my youngest siblings. In a way, this of course made sense. Two of them did not yet exist when I got expelled from Torah Day School. Still my choice was not everyone else', and at this church, just like at Beth Jacob back in Toco Hills, there were going to be kids who were here because their parents, school, or clan made them go. They suffered through services or escaped to the bathroom or some other convenient spot, and gossiped miserably or joyfully, but more often miserably.
That's why I was not up for the ladies' room. I went outside intead. I figured the front steps would be empty. The late summer sun was both blinding and searing. I was glad for the heat at first, and then I saw Potter, two other boys, and a girl. I thought of last night in the abandoned school yard, and suddenly I wasn't warm any more. "What are you doing outside?" I asked Potter.
"Just hanging out," he answered as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "Services here take over an hour. I can't sit that long, Ahava."
"You doing OK?" Potter asked.
I'd been fine until I came outside, I realized. All right, so I wasn't fine. I'd probably never be fine. I shrugged.
"We met a real Terrorist last night," Potter began my tale. "She tried to kidnap Ahava, but Ahava wouldn't get in the car."
"EXPLETIVE DELETED!" shouted a boy with a wheat colored crew cut. "I thought the warriors killed all the Terrorists last month."
"They didn't," I replied. "That's why the men on the exploratory had to go out with an armed convoy."
"Well that's all up in the mountains," said a girl with very long, blonde hair. "They're all crazy there, living off the grid in teepees and log cabins."
"How about on ranches with solar generators and big gardens and biofuel processing plants?" I wanted to set the record straight. I knew more than I should, but now it was time to spread it around.
"How the EXPLETIVE DELETED do you know?" asked blonde crew cut.
"Kids in my house used to trade with a farmer who lived off the grid. He used to sell buttermilk. It was good buttermilk, and he also grew heirloom tomatoes, the ones that come in all those funny colors."
"Did you're masters know?" asked a boy with a big, red zit on his nose and thick glasses.
"They knew the farmer was off the grid," I replied. "It used to be very common where my clan lives."
"You can't work if you're off the grid. There's nothing out there in most places," long, blonde hair informed me.
"There's the food supply and the energy supply," I thought. Just then Potter whistled loud. "OK, let's cut back inside through the social hall. Hopefully, they'll all forget we were gone," blonde crew cut told us, and the dissidents along with me cut through a side door and down a hall filled with a warren of Sunday school rooms and nurseries for the younger children and lounges for the tired, and I was not sure what else. The place reminded me of parts of Beth Jacob Village.
The hallway connected to the social hall where there was coffee, fruit punch, and some kind of dull looking cake with white icing. There was no hot tea. I found Aurora sipping some red punch minding Junior and John, two of her younger brothers. "I thought I'd give Liza a break," Aurora explained. Liza was Aurora's oldest younger sister and the sibling right in line after her. Liza liked being "Little Mother," but Liza had friends and a social life too.
"Where'd you go?" Aurora asked.
"Out for a breath of air," I did not feel like recapping the conversation with Potter and his companions. I was glad to get back to Nebular House for Sunday brunch. I ate grits with milk, sugar, and fresh blue berries. Suddenly, one of the brass, the fat, balding, tobacco chewing leader asked for everyone to be silent. People shut up, though I thought it in poor taste to have a meeting when the whole clan ate together.
"I want to address all our teens, both placed and not yet placed. The old downtown and the old county high school are off limits after sundown. Do you understand me? There have been dangerous incidents up there. A girl nearly got assaulted last night."
A girl nearly choked on her grits. Then she decided she choked on misinformation or was it disinformation. Either way, I was NOT grounded which in a way was a relief. That was how I found myself with a chit to go to the Interior on Tuesday around nine in the morning. Livia, to whom I told what really happened to me Sunday evening, said: "I think the roads are safe enough in the day time. Besides, we're having a pig roast next Saturday in honor of the men coming back. Now I know you don't eat pig and the Pakistanis don't, but I have a recipe for them. You fancy easterners and the other people who won't touch the piggy, need an alternate entree and I want you to put your little easterner taste buds to work and get those kind of groceries for us."
That was how I ended up pushing the insulated cart up the highway. Aurora was assisting with activities, reading to small kids and playing alphabet and math games with kids who showed an interest. It was "recruting toward the future," she explained.
As for Potter, I could not find him and was not about to turn Nebular house up and down looking for him. Even though I did not think I was interested in boys that way, people often have other ideas and I did not need the gossip, especially after Saturday night.
The trip to the Interior and the mall was uneventful enough. I had a very full cart to push home in very hot weather. I was soon soaked in sweat. The roads were deserted most of the time, and cars and trucks whizzed by utterly uninterested in a teen with a heavy cart. Then as I passed the last abandoned strip shopping center, I realized someone was following me. I turned my head. It was a girl close to my own age. She wore leggings or maybe they were very tight pants, golden sandals, and a shirt that covered only her breasts and left a tan belly bare. the navel in that belly wore a silver ring with what was probably a rhinestone in it. The girl's face was painted as if for the stage. It was a wonder that sweat did not make her makeup run.
As for running away, there was no way I could do that with the cart, and I was not even sure running was the best policy. Gradually the girl caught up to me. "Hey," she greeted me. "Don't you remember me from the weekend?"
I did remember. I could not forget. "The schoolyard is off limits," I told the girl. Anyway, but next Sunday I'd be on my way back to New Jersey.
"Boss Nebuli did that. Figures he would." the girl snorted. "You know, you almost got Sophie shot. She should have known you'd take down her plates and turn her in, but you should be careful who you rat on."
"Go EXPLETIVE DELETED yourself," I replied.
"Look Potty Mouth Shit for Brains, Sophie blew it. I could have told her you were just here to visit and face it, as smart as she thinks you are, you aren't that smart because you let the Company really screw you up."
"Do I hear a dog barking?" I asked everyone and no one.
"Cut the crap!" painted face replied. "You're smart enough to know that people can make it off the grid, and you might even have what it takes to make it yourself, which is why Sophie came looking for you, special. Of course you're totally screwed up which is why you'd turn her down cold. You don't even know what freedom is any more."
"Do you?" I asked painted face.
"It's being able to have sex and not have babies."
"That's not freedom. That's contraception."
"You may know the big fancy words about it, but that part of you is dead. You let the Company and the Priests kill it."
"I'm only fourteen!" I snarled back.
"Yes, but you don't bleed."
"So what, a lot of girls don't bleed until after they're placed."
"That's not how it is if you're normal inside. I've been bleeding since I was eleven and I'm thirteen."
"Don't be. I'm normal. You're the one who's not really alive any more. Ever think about that?"
"I want an education," I answered.
"Nobody just wants an education. You want a good job. Semi-Independent, they used to call it. Well with the Priests there's not going to be any more Semi-Independent. Look at the clan where you are staying. Nobody there's independent. Is that how you want to live when you're thirty?"
"I think it's just until you're twenty-one," I answered, but then I stopped. I could see the Vulcani laying sewer pipes and their new members wearing their trialing pinnies. I stopped pushing the cart. I took a deep breath.
"I'm right, aren't I?" crowed painted face.
"No," I gasped. "It's more complicated than that. You can only fight so much for so much. I don't even know who you are."
"Hannah, and that's my initiation name but I don't care."
"My mother named me Channah, but she spelled it with a 'ch.' Hannah, why don't you ask Sophie to take you, if that's what you want?"
"She won't. She wants me to finish high school. The kind of clan that's going to put me in high school is going to kill me by inches. The priests are going to kill me by inches. You know that?"
"I can't believe you EXPLETIVE DELETEDing threw it all away," Hannah howled. "You had a chance. You think it's ever going to come again?"
"We lose chances all the time," I told my namesake, but I was no longer thinking about freedom. I was thinking about Toco Hills. The Terrorists, whoever they were, did not consider the children or adults of Toco Hills worth saving, except for me. They did not try to steal Dov away from his Yeshiva. They did not approach the unhappy girls in the ladies' room. They did not talk to the parents who could not afford clan tuition.
I thought about my younger siblings, the ones I hardly knew. I'd given up my chance to know them. I thought about my faith. I could have walked away from that. My therapist expected me too. We discussed writing goodbye letters to my friends. Boy did my therapist have a surprise coming! Now I had a few surprises of my own, but they only came for me at night and in my own head.
"I'm glad you're still so satisfied over it," Hannah continued. "You almost got Sophie shot."
"Sophie shouldn't be out on the streets trying to kidnap kids," I answered.
Just then Hannah turned off the road. "I'm staying here if you need me," she told me. I nodded and let her go. I thought about the black car with the New Mexico plates. It probably had several sets of plates. Sophie was not probably even her real name. I was glad Shmuel was in Israel and that my family probably paid full tuition for Dov. I was glad Dov was too young and too much a burden for the Terrorists.
"What you got in that cart?" Livia lifted off the top in the kitchen. I showed her the chard. She asked if I knew how to make it. I did indeed. "You're really going to know how to cook when you get back to New Jersey," Livia told me. I decided to tell only Aurora and Potter about the girl with the painted face.
Somehow I had gotten back to Atlanta. I did not remember, but my best guess was that I had taken a direct stick shot from either Dallas Texas or Memphis, Tennessee. I did not remember the bus ride to Memphis, so my guess was I had traveled at night and slept through it. I had walked back to the transport center. It was four miles and a long walk with a duffle, but not as long as getting back from the mall with a food cart earlier in the day.
I had to flee. I'd explain it all to Aurora later. I was embarassed for not being a good guest of her family, but I was in danger. I knew that much. The Terrorists were after me. It was that simple. I sat on Kohana Pascal's couch shivering. I had gone directly to her apartment from the Stick Transport Center. Did you expect that I'd go home to my parents? They might have laughed. Would my mother have fed me? And what if they didn't laugh? What if the community in Toco Hills had finally turned desperate enough to contact the Resistance, or maybe the Resistance, had a special division that dealt with Orthodox Jews.
"They're after me, Kohana," I stammered. I told my Placement Specialist everything. I told her about Sophie and her black car with New Mexico plates. I told her about Hannah with her painted face and desire for contraception.
"Contraception is not the same thing as freedom," Kohana advised me, "though it can mean freedom to some people. There has to be more."
Just then someone pounded on Koahana's door. I gave a start. It was only Kohana's husband, Frederick, and Frederick's brother, Jimmy. I knew a lot about Koahan's family. I'd met them while I was in middle school. I have very good middle school memories. There was only one problem. Jimmy lived off the grid. True, Atlanta was a company town and Jimmy drove a cab, but whom did Jimmy meet while he drove around?
"You'll never guess who I gave a ride to," Jimmy burst out. He had a shit eating grin on his pale, pink face. He was a very tall man with a blonde crew cut the color of fancy honey.
"It's whom," I remembered from English.
"Sophia Loren," Jimmy laughed. "Boy she's one tough old bitch!"
"Is she from New Mexico?" I asked.
"No but you're warm. Texas! Of course she's here now because the cops are after her. Some stupid snot nose kid turned her in to the authorities."
"You mean the plates on her car weren't bogus?" I asked.
"How's she going to get through the check point with bogus plates?&quiot; asked Jimmy, and it was a rhetorical question.
"Why not use false ID to ride an overland bus?" I asked.
"The Priests man security, and you don't EXPLETIVE DELETED with the Priests," It was Frederick who spoke.
"Of course if your false ID is good enough," I interjected.
"Got a point there. You know, Ahava," Jimmy always got my name right. He got it right even when we used a longer form of it as my nom de guerre. "You would be a real asset to the right side in this struggle."
"Ahava's not joining your side, Jimmy," Kohana declared.
"I want an education," I answered. That was reason enough to stick wtih my placement.
"Why aren't you in Highland Lakes then?" Jimmy asked.
"It's still Visitation. I'll be going back in a few days." I hope that ended this discussion. For some reason I thought about Hannah. In a way she was a kind of doppelganger, except she bled and still had hot red blood left in her veins and passion and desire for boys, unless of course all of that was talk. The problem was, I was not really sure whom to trust.
Of course I trusted Koahana Pascal, my middle school principle, and Amaryllis and Ondina. I trusted Aurora. I couldn't be so sure about Randle, her parents' clan leader. I trusted Odem even if she said she was a bad kid. I no longer trusted my parents or the religious establishment, but in a synagogue it's the worshipers who are the intermediary between God and man. In the end, the rabbis are useless, though I liked the Rabba in Highland Lakes. I did think those she gathered for lunch at Shabbos often talked out their rear ends. There, that was it. It was simple. I just felt bad about being in Atlanta.
"So you're OK with the priests?" Frederick restarted the conversation.
"Kids in outlying areas don't have a choice," Kohana mercifully tried to kill the argument.
"Bullshit!" Jimmy tore things open again. "You always have a choice, and you know it."
"Off the grid you starve," I repeated the cliche.
"I'm off the grid, and I don't starve," Jimmy retorted.
I thought about the farmer with her tomatoes, buttermilk, and soon veal. A calf could provide a lot of tastey, tender meat.
"And do you want to stay in your clan for the rest of your life and not have a home like your parents have?" This time it was Frederick who asked the question, but it could have been Hannah, and I could have been one of the pinney wearing trialing Vulcani ditch diggers, or an engineer on my way to an exploratory in Western Wyoming. I shivered.
"It wouldn't be so bad," I stammered, but my throat was very dry. In fact, it hurt. I closed my eyes. Before me flashed an image of the head rabbi at Beth Jacob, the one who had thrown me out of Torah Day School and nearly cut off my access to religious study. I had told him the truth. I told him the truth in part because I had been raised beleiving that Judaism was a faith of justice. It would have been unjust to lie about Kohana and the others at the Ed Branch Dorm House. I knew that.
Then the rabbi and his friends had changed the rules of the game midway through, just like the Priests. The image before my eyes changed again. Now I was walking down the road with members of my Survival Training class. We had six miles to walk to reach base camp at Arnot. There was a big feast waiting for us and after that our initiation. We never ate that feast. I could hear Theadora, a girl with a knack for dirty rhyme giving us a sound off to which to march: "Comet it makes your mouth turn green. Comet, it tastes like vaseline. Comet it makes you vomit. So get your Comet and vomit today!"
I blinked back tears. We were all scattered to the winds now. The priests had changed our intiations. They had changed how long we would stay in our clans. They had not bothered telling us because we'd learn when we graduated from college which was half a lifetime away if you are fourteen, but they didn't have to tell us. We could see it in the adults around us. My face was hot with tears.
Still I wanted an education! No, that wasn't just what I wanted. I wanted adults I could trust. Could I trust Ondina and Amaryllis? I probably could. I had seen them settle us in with good faith and phone calls to Ed Branch, then when Ed Branch almost disappeared, they had regained their connection. When we needed a temple, they had asked us. Adults who listened to kids were usually good adults.
Would Sophie listen to me? Maybe or maybe she would be like my mother or the head rabbi at Beth Jacob, or something else entirely? Why should I trust an unknown. But how could I trust adults who hid information and who lived close to the Terrorists and yet did nothing to fight them. How could I trust adults who threw a kid out of a clan instead of giving him his medication or checking his medical records to see if he had a problem? How could I trust adults who did not put a kid in therapy who needed it? Both sides were often rotten, and the only side left was Ahava Burden because Channie Weinstein had been starved to death and we know whom to blame for that!
"They're all no good," I told Kohana.
"You're exagerating," she replied and sat down on the couch next to me.
"No, she's realizing the truth," Jimmy answered. "I'm Kohana's brother-in-law," Jimmy stated the obvious. "You come away with me and I'll see we treat you right. How about it. Do you want to spend the rest of your life in a clan? How do you know what else those Priests will do?"
"How do I know your leaders will listen to me?" I asked Jimmy.
"You have my word?"
"Do I want to drive a cab or a living or milk cows? Maybe I can work in the tomato fields?"
"They're going to make you pay with your freedom?"
"Which side will make me pay with my freedom?"
"Fourteen year olds aren't free anyway," Kohana replied.
"If I could bleed I would know I was free," I confessed.
"That will happen when it's ready to happen," Koahan answered.
"That's not freedom," answered Frederick. "Freedom is the right to be left alone."
"That's not enough if you can't do what you want with your life?" I retorted. I realized my words came out mixed with sobs. By now part of me wanted to get off the couch and run, but where?
"Is staying in a clan forever what you want?" Jimmy taunted. "What are they going to do next?"
I tried to get off the couch. I wanted Jimmy to stop baiting me. I needed to go out, to go out for a walk and think. I hoped and prayed I was not grounded. Sophie was still out there. Jimmy gave her rides in his cab, and Hannah might have taken an overland bus back east. She probably had real, clan ID, so she could get past the Priests easily. I did not care if they were out there. I needed to get up, go, out and sort all this out, and think all this through. I needed to do this NOW!
But I could not move. Someone or something had glued my butt to the couch, either that or I was paralyzed. "Kohana, help me!" I cried. Kohana seemed not to hear. Jimmy and Frederick had gone out again or back into one of the bedrooms. "Kohana, I'm glued to this couch and I can't move!"
"Calm down, Ahava. It will get better in a minute," my Placement Specialist advised me.
"I can't get up! I'm stuck!"
Kohana was gone. "Help me! Somebody, help me!" I was frantic and the more frantic I got, the more stuck I became. "HELP ME! PLEASE! Anyone! Are you out there? Can you hear me? PLEASE!!!!! HELP!!!!"
"Stop it," a male voice demanded. "You woke up the whole EXPLETIVE DELETEDing floor you asshole!"
I opened my eyes and for a minute, I could see nothing in the fourteen year old female leanto but a patch of light from the hall where a shadow had opened the door. Then slowly I could make out hte faces of seven other girls and one or two boys inthe doorway and more girls behind.
"It's just a nightmare," Elena explained. "She has them every night, but usually not this bad."
"What time is it?" I asked. I did not want to go back to sleep, but in a way it didn't matter. It was 4:29am Central Daylight Time. It was too early to go for a walk, and enough time for me to collect myself and help out in the kitchen. Yes, I trusted Livia. Of course I trusted Livia. I wanted to learn to cook. I wanted an education. I did not trust Sophie. I did not yet want what Hannah needed. Like my dream self who was glued to the couch there was nowhere to go but this place and Burden of Dreams House, no not House, Clan. I could live with it for the rest of my life, I told myself, but somehow those words really hurt.
Wednesday afternoon while Aurora was helping with Activities so she could be with her younger brothers, I wrote to my brother, Shmuel. Do not ask whether I told him about my encounters with either Hannah or Sophie. The answer is " positively, NO!" I did not worry about any one reading my outgoing mail, because I doubted there was a fast way to translate a letter handwritten in Hebrew. Shmuel's yeshiva in Kiryat Arba was another story. I was sure some well meaning adult read Shmuel's incoming correspondence, which meant he might not get the letter I sent him.
That meant he would not hear about Livia and Aurora's brothers and sisters. He also would not read my plea for news about my siblings. Yes, I was learning from my nightmares. I also believed that one should never say "never."
I also did not tell Shmuel about the pig roast planned for Saturday night. Livia had broken the news calmly to me on Wednesday morning. She thanked me for bringing back a cart full of "fancy easterner goodies." Just as with steak, there was a proportion of any "culturally mixed house" that would want absolutely nothing to do with slow-roasted, sucking pig. That was why Kohloud was preparing special, Bengali fish for Saturday, but that kind of fish was very spicey. We needed a second alternate entree. I suggested Oriental style pasta salad with snow peas and edamamme. I had bought both those things in large enough quantity for an alternative entree.
"Do you have a recipe?" asked Livia. I confessed I did not. She told me to look one up in the Clan Office. I had to get passed the tobacco chewing, smoked almond eating, card playing brass, but they let me used their computer. I ran several recipes past Livia for approval. She picked what she and I both thought would be the best, and eliminated one outright. "You're a smart kid," Livia complimented me. Then we went back to regular kitchen work. Livia had done more than meet me half way.
Thursday on my afternoon break, I went to mail the letter to my brother. Since the letter was going to Israel, I needed to take it to the Post Office in downtown Texarkana, and since I wasn't grounded and nobody gave me a ride, I walked. Well, I had the walk I had wanted in my dream. My butt was not glued to any one's couch. I could have been flying. I did not care about the heat or the dust at the side of the road.
Only the first sight of the abandoned strip malls brought back memories. I glanced behind me and saw nothing but mostly open road bleahcing in the hot, Texas sun. I looked ahead of me and the road made a vanishing point before reaching downtown. A truck passed me. Several trucks passed me. I was invisible. I was just a kid, not worth noticing, and not worth chasing down and recruiting. Besides, I'd almost got my recruiter shot if I believed my namesake. Poor old Hannah could have just been out for drama. My roommate, Odem liked drama. My mom liked drama so why not?
Of course there was a way to find out. Once I found out, I would not have to be afraid any more, and once my fear went away, I would not have any more nightmares. The postal employee in Texarkana did not smile when he saw my letter that was going to my brother in Shmuel. He asked no questions. Maybe they got letters to Israel every day. Maybe he was just bored. Maybe he did not want to be in a clan for the rest of his life, but off the grid you starve.
I walked toward the high school. I had half an hour before I needed to head home before any one missed me. I found the parking lot behind the cafeteria. The burnt remains of several bonfires stood as a charred hulk on the pavemnent. No one was there.
Then I heard a voice, female, a laugh. I walked toward what had once been the cafeteria. The door was rusted shut, but the window openings were at ground level. In the shadows there were more shadows, and a little less heat. I stepped through the windows. A collection of kids sat on upturned milk crates and wooden boxes. Plaster fell off the walls in chunks, showing rusted rebar beams. I guessed we could all get out of the place if it decided to collapse. There were no more cafeteria tables. By now, I had figured out the source for the wood for the bonfires. Someone had sytematically chopped up the tables to make scrap wood, that sat in an oddly neat pile in the corner. There were no carpenter ants in Texarkana, though there were termites.
"Have a seat!" called out a boy with a blonde crew cut. I remembered him from church.
I also saw Hannah and several others whose names I had forgotten. Potter was there too, pacing back and forth just outside the circle.
"The question is," began the blonde boy with a crew cut. "What we're EXLETIVE DELETEDing going to do when we EXPLETIVE DELETEDing turn eighteen."
"That used to be the age when you became an EXPLETIVE DELETEDING adult," commented a boy with longish brown hair, caressing his shoulders in greasey waves.
"All the adults I know are EXLETIVE DELETED whipped by the EXLETIVE DELETEDing Priests," spat Hannah. "There's only one way out."
"Yeah, but that's the hard part," sighed blonde crew cut.
"Anybody heard anything from Zann yet?" asked a tall very dark, African American boy.
"Zann's not coming back," a girl with brown sugar colored skin and straight, shiney, black hair told everyone.
"Did y'all hear. They ran Mama Sophie out of town?" the shiney haired girl added.
"We know who did that," Hannah quipped. "That one," Hannah pointed in my direction "is a regular snitch and goodey two shoes. She took the Priests side."
"And your side is any better," I snarled. "How do you know Sophie wasn't an agent provocateur?"
"An agent what?" asked shiney hair.
"What the EXPLETIVE DELETED is an ay-gent pro-vock-a-toor?" asked blonde crew cut. "Scholar girl, you got to use words that every one can understand."
"An agent provocateur, is a double agent. It's a person the Company or the Priests puts into the Resistance or who pretends to be part of the Resistance. Then they go around making the Terrorists look bad."
"So you think it was Mama Sophie?" asked Hannah.
"I don't know about Mama Sophie, but she didn't do much to earn my trust. I do know about agent provocateur's in Highland Lakes where I live. I know because the night of the riots, they gave kids guns and asked them to shoot their classmates. Two of the kids refused to do it and hid in our house. I can give you their names if you like. You don't have to believe me."
"Shit," sighed Hannah. "OK tell me their names."
I gave Hannah and everyone else Charles and Brandi's address and names. I watched the African American boy take out a working comm phone and start to get the number from his comm phone provider. I wanted to remind him that the east coast was one hour ahead of Texarkana, but then I realized that would make it easier for him to call Charles and get the straight story. And then I realized something else. "You fool!" I shouted. The boy blinked. Potter turned around. "How do you know the comm phones aren't tapped?"
"Shit, this kid knows everything," the boy sighed.
"That's why Sophie wanted her," sighed Hannah.
"You blew it. You know that," Hannah told me.
I shrugged. "You need to find a new place to meet. Any one who would tap a cell phone has this area watched too. That's the military and the Priests."
"Thanks for the advice," Hannah grudgingly answered.
"Good luck," the honey skinned girl with shiney black hair said. I guess she knew I was leaving. She did not know, I was taking Potter with me. "Come on Potter," I approached him. "This is an off limits area. You don't want to get shit canned again."
Potter listened. We walked back to Nebular house together. We didn't say much for a long time. "Why'd you come back?" Potter finally asked. "Were you looking for me?"
"I was looking for Hannah," I answered. "I had a very bad dream, Tuesday night, and I needed to prove to myself that I had nothing to fear, so I went back."
"Are you scaird any more?" Potter asked.
"A little bit," I said. "It's not so hard to walk away you know," I said to Potter and to myself. "You've still got a shot to make something of yourself same as I have."
"Yeah like what?"
"Maybe a nurse."
"In case you hven't noticed, I've got a EXPLETIVE DELETED and two balls."
"You also have a Y chromosome. What do they do when men get sick anyway?"
"How the EXPLETIVE DELETED should I know?"
"Well if a man's sick in the hospital, real sick, someone has to be strong enough to lift him. Also men sometimes don't want to show their private parts to a woman."
"Just what I need, some queer showing his private parts to me. You really are EXPLETIVE DELETED up! Thanks for getting me back home by the way. Randle is a real prick. He could shitcan me any day of the week, cause my no-good moth-er asks him to."
"We've only got three more days," I told Potter. "Then we're out of here."
"I'm back in the EXPLETIVE DELETED looney bin. That's what my KLAN is you know. Hey I know what I'll be. Maybe I'll be an EXLETIVE DELETEDing ther-a-pissed." Potter laughed.
Hope is a precious thing, I thought sadly. Someone or something had come very close to beating all of it out of Potter. Part of me felt like turning back toward downtown and taking Potter out to eat, but I was too young to date, and we needed to be home for early dinner. We sat at the two tables put together. Potter's mom went on and on about the achievements of one of his younger brothers at Activities, and about the message she had received from Potter's older brother. He had worked twelve hour days and after four days back here, he'd go back for a whole eight days more in Western Wyoming. The Exploratory was going to be a success, and Levi, as his mother called him, had been named to the "permanent crew." I thought of the adults trialling for the Vulcani. That was not going to be me. That was also not going to be Potter. Maybe Potter would go back to high school. Maybe he would go to college. Maybe his medication would work and the shit canning would be so much forgotten damage some day.
I decided to learn Judaica Thursday night instead of watching the Family Night movie. Friday evening, after a long day working both morning and afternoon in the kitchen, I got out my prayer book and read the service. I prayed extra Psalms for Potter, Shmuel, my siblings, and myself. From the outside, I heard men talking and laughing. Behind the center of the horse shoe, some of them had dug a pit. Now they filled the pit with scrap wood and lit it to burn slow. On top of this slow burning wood was a spit, thrust threw a dead baby pig. Some time tomorrow afternoon, the piggy would be cooked, and those who liked pork would have a meat feast. For everyone else there would be a choice of Bengali fish and Basmati rice, or Oriental pasta salad with pea pods and edamamme. There would also be corn on the cob, roast potatoes, Mexican dirty rice, steamed rhubarb chard with butter, and sliced tomato salad, a la caprese, but without the cheese. Shmuel's letter was on its way to Israel. I had told him what I could.
Friday night, I had no nightmares. For the first time in nearly two weeks, I nearly overslept. Livia sent Dru's assistant, Antoinette upstairs to wake me. "I think she's out of nightmares," complained Susan whom Antoinette also managed to awaken. i groggily got dressed. I needed to sleep for a hundred years, but there was work to be done.