Two days later, Sara perked up as we drove across the dusty, seemingly endless stretches of Texas scrubland. “We’re getting close to my home!” she called out, sitting forward and pressing her face against the truck’s side window.
I didn’t know how she could tell – it all looked the same to me. But beside me, Jaspers briefly smiled, although he turned it into a cough and held a hand up in front of his bushy black beard to cover the soft expression.
Not that I’d rib him over it. We’d all grown more connected to Sara over the last few days than we’d expected, even though most of us would refuse to admit it, even under enemy torture. We’d done our best to keep our distance from the girl, especially given what unknowns still might lie in her future – but it was harder done than said.
Corinne, of course, had been a goner from the first time that Sara clung protectively to her. Her determination didn’t stand a chance against millennia of Swedish mothering instincts. But one by one, Sara wore down the rest of us, managed to squirm her way into our good graces.
“You just tell me where to turn, honey,” I called to the backseat without turning around, letting a little more of my natural Texas drawl creep out. I flicked my eyes up at the rear-view mirror and saw her beaming back at me. A little flame of warmth kindled inside my chest, about where my heart ought to be.
I knew that she’d managed to get on my good side. It started in that awful moment when I drove away from the crazed rednecks in the damaged, half-dead truck, her in the backseat. I’d looked back at her, held her gaze with my own, told her that things were going to be okay. And I’d put so much strength into those words that she, scared and alone and nearly panicking, believed me.
Since that day, she’d looked at me with trust shining in her eyes. I saw it, and felt a lump rise from my stomach to my throat. I couldn’t think of letting her down.
Now, our convoy – the third truck painted a rusty red, contrasting against the other two in white – rumbled into Waxahachie, Texas, Sara’s home. Home of her father, who she claimed had touched her mind at the moment of the Event. We held the lead, with Corinne and Henry behind us, Feng and Sergei bringing up the rear.
“One more truck,” Sara said unexpectedly, “and we’d be an American flag!”
I just smiled, but Jaspers sat forward slightly. “What’s that blo- what’s that mean?” he asked, and I had to bite my lip to hold back my smile. Big, confident, man’s man Oliver Jaspers, most feared sergeant of the SAS, didn’t want to swear in front of a little girl!
Sara answered his kindness with a roll of her eyes. “The colors,” she sighed, as if explaining a basic concept to a particularly slow pupil. “We have red and white, and we just need blue! Like the flag!”
“Ah. The U.S. flag,” Jaspers said. “You know, those are the colors of the Union Jack, too.”
She crinkled her nose in the rear-view mirror. “The what?”
“My flag.” Jaspers turned so that she could see the insignia on the shoulder of his fatigues jacket, the red cross on the background of blue and white. Sara leaned forward, her fingers brushing lightly over it as she examined it.
“Yeah, I guess,” she finally said, settling back in her seat – but an instant later, she was leaning forward again, bouncing practically out of her seatbelt. “Ooh, ooh, turn here!”
I hit the brakes and spun the wheel. “Seatbelt, missy!” I snapped as she went sliding nearly out the back door of the truck. “Keep it tight!”
“Sorry.” She didn’t sound especially sorry, but I wasn’t going to press the issue. I wasn’t her dad. “Now we need to to turn right when we get to the Icee stand.”
I slowed down a bit as we headed into Waxahachie. There wasn’t that much of it, and it felt a lot like most other small towns we’d driven through. Maybe we’d get more of its character if there were still people around, but it seemed just as deserted and empty as everywhere else we’d stopped. Clearly, however, it held a lot of memories for Sara. She chattered nonstop as we drove through the small center of town, past a cluster of government buildings.
“That’s the courthouse. That’s the fire station, where all the fire trucks park. The police station is over there,” she said, pointing her finger at the buildings we passed. “My dad and I sat on that bench over there one day when he let me play hooky.”
“Hooky?” Jaspers looked confused.
“Skipped school,” I explained.
“Yeah. He thought that I might be getting sick, so he took me out for a fun day so that I wouldn’t get any sicker.” Sara giggled. “I think he just wanted to hang out with me. We went and ate hot dogs for lunch from a cart on the street!”
Driving through this deserted, abandoned, empty ghost of a town, listening to the girl in the backseat narrate it as if it was still full of life, a deep sense of melancholy dropped down heavily over me. This wouldn’t ever be fixed. A whole world, a whole town, gone except for the memories inside this girl’s head. She talked gaily about these memories now, but sooner or later, Sara would also realize that they were gone, that they’d never come back.
I kept my mouth shut, however. No need to ruin her happy mood by pointing out this unfortunate truth. Let her keep her youthful happiness for as long as possible.
Sara kept on directing our path from the backseat, the two trucks behind us keeping up as we turned and wound our way through the town. The route ended at a small but comfortable looking house, tucked in between its fellows on a residential street. Nothing about it particularly stood out.
“That’s my house!” Despite my earlier admonishment about keeping her seatbelt on, Sara bounced up and down so strongly in her seat that she seemed in imminent danger of flopping over the front console and into either my or Jaspers’ lap. “We’re here, we’re back!”
“Sara, maybe we should wait,” I started to caution her, but my words fell on deaf ears. She already had the seatbelt off, yanking the back door open and tumbling out of the truck.
I glanced at Jaspers. “This could end in tears,” I pointed out, wanting to remain the realist.
“Yeah, or bloody worse,” he grumbled. “If we go in there and find her dad’s abandoned clothes, like he bloody vanished into thin bloody air, she’s going to fuckin’ scream to the point that our eardrums bloody burst.”
“Get all that profanity out now, before she’s back in earshot.” I turned off the truck and climbed out. I considered bringing my rifle, but decided against it. The place didn’t feel occupied, felt empty.
“What do you think I’m bloody well doing?” Jaspers also elected to leave the assault rifle in the truck, although he kept one hand near the pistol on his hip. We advanced up towards the house, Corinne, Henry, and Sergei falling in a few steps behind.
We didn’t need to knock down the door. Sara’s father, it seemed, had hidden a key in a fake rock. I didn’t believe anyone actually used those – but Sara unlocked the door and stepped inside. We followed in, fearing what we might find. Would there be screams of fear and panic? Tears? A crushing, slow melancholy?
I glanced at the others. “We’re here for information,” I reminded them softly. “Figuring out if her father really had anything to do with the Event. Look for information.”
They nodded, faces held in emotionless masks, and we entered behind the girl.
To be continued…