A Cafe on Main Street
“We overstayed our welcome. We bullied, we pushed, we invaded… and when we were done, when the world had felt our presence in every corner of it, felt our hand on their backs, shoving our way into every aspect of their lives, faiths, even their very existence… we were hated. God, were we hated. In retrospect, I can feel no real surprise for what happened next. Our time had come. For our hypocrisy, for our crimes, we each paid such a terribly high price. The world we had known, the nation that our parents had been told to be proud of, a place of fast food and freedom fries, home of the consumer, center of capitalism, world leader, it all ceased to exist. It was a slow, painful end, an extended death rattle, as we slowly tore ourselves apart, and then allowed others to finish off what remained. What was left in the wreckage of the world that was? We were. And this is our story, my story, and the story of us all. We have survived. We have found a way to live on… in a world where ghosts haunt us and memories whisper in our ears. Life goes on, one day at a time, and by the skin of our teeth and the force of our will, we will continue. What else can we do?”—Jess’s Journal
“Drink it slow,” an unfamiliar face in the crowd swam into focus.
The woman’s face was prematurely aged, her brown hair streaked liberally with gray. Her brown eyes crinkled at the edges as she smiled at Jess. Jess blinked and accepted the steaming mug offered. She was sitting in a café, at a battered little table right across the street from Banks Grocers. It had been the last place she had stood before being ripped from Belton some seventeen months earlier. She couldn’t see it right now; too many people were blocking the way, staring in through the window, staring at her. Some looked vaguely familiar, but most were strangers. The café, dimly lit and packed full of the mayor, Mr. Banks, and far too many others, was charged with excitement. Jess’s fingers nervously traced the cracked Formica top of the table and tried to will away the rising anxiety. She hadn’t seen this many people in a long time. God, they were close, so close; she could barely breathe.
Tina had scrambled under a table and buried her face in David’s leg as he stood awkwardly. The little girl was shaking like a leaf. It had been a very long time since Tina had seen this many people in one place. David, his dark hair disheveled, a smudge of dirt on his cheek, wasn’t doing much better. He kept attempting to move closer to Jess, seeking some amount of space between this overwhelming mass of strangers and him. Quincy stood at attention, glued to Jess’s side, eyeing the crowd warily.
Another mug appeared before David, who sat down awkwardly, his sister wrapped around his leg, clinging to him with a tenacity that would rival that of a lamprey eel.
The same woman who had spoken to Jess lightly touched his shoulder. “Would the little girl like anything? I might have a packet of hot chocolate here somewhere.”
David shook his head. “No thank you, ma’am. I’ll just try to get her to drink out of my cup in a minute or two.”
The woman nodded and smiled again before slipping back behind the counter, giving up the space to Todd Stevens, the militia leader, Mayor Farley, and old Mr. Banks, who had, after all, been the one to discover them in the first place.
Jacob mouthed a hard, dense biscuit.
Madge had shown Jess how to make them, pointing out their uses, saying, “They are good for traveling, since they never go bad, and when Mi’-da-in-ga begins teething, they will give him something to chew on.” She had winked at Jess. “Believe me, Mi’-na, they are worth the trouble to make.”
As with everything else she had taught them along the way, she had been right about this. The biscuits had provided countless boosts of energy, propelling Jess, David, and Tina down miles of road and kept Jacob from fussing. One tooth nub was finally poking through his little gums, with a second not far behind, and the edge of the sling was now dingy and encrusted with biscuit slime.
Mayor Farley and Mr. Banks had sat down in chairs around the small table. Jess thought that Mr. Banks looked much older than she remembered him. His hair was a shock of white and hadn’t been cut in a while. The mayor, who had once been obese and shaped like a big round ball with skinny legs and possessing an overly large red nose, was now rather lanky, the extra skin hung in folds, but his nose was as red and large as ever. As she looked around the room, Jess couldn’t see anyone who was overly large. The mayor spoke first.
“Now, you are, hmm, Angelica?”
Jess shook her head and Thurman Banks spoke up, “This here is Jessie, Michael and Julie’s daughter.” He said, correcting Mayor Farley’s mistake, “You remember Julie baked bread, taught classes, and helped organize the farmer’s market. Before the…” He looked distinctly uncomfortable, “Well… you know.”
Jess could see by the slightly blank look on the mayor’s face, who she still thought of as the president of Commerce Bank, where Mom and Dad had had all of their accounts, that he didn’t remember her mother at all.
“Of course, Ang… err… Jessie,” he smiled at her broadly, before turning his attention to David and Tina, “But who are these children? And this baby there?”
“This is my son, Jacob,” Jess answered without any further explanation on that topic. “This is David and Tina Farnsworth. They are from Clinton.”
“Your son?” The mayor blinked, looking scandalized. “And the father of the child?”
Jess felt a quiver of anger run through her. “He has none.”
“I see.” The mayor’s voice definitely held a tone of disapproval now.
Mr. Banks, who understood far better than Mayor Farley, put a hand on Jess’s thin shoulder. He could feel her bones sticking sharply through the fabric, and he suppressed a surge of fury at the mayor’s lack of tact. Here was one of their lost children, who had gone through God knows what, returning to find only disappointment and misunderstanding.
“One of our own, everyone, Jessica and her family have traveled a long way to return home again.” He said it loudly, so it would carry to the crowd outside, and he emphasized the words “family” and “home.” He had long suspected the mayor was an officious, small-minded fool, and Farley was proving him right by leaps and bounds.
“What Jess and the kids need right now is food, a safe place to rest, and some time to settle in.”
He ignored the mayor, who was trying to hush him and muttering something about the two younger kids not belonging.
He looked around at the crowd expectantly, “I think we can give them a good home-cooked meal while Todd goes and scouts out the Aaronson house to see what shape it’s in.”
Todd Stevens, who had been watching this whole exchange, nodded and stood up. “I’ll go and do that right now. What’s the address?”
Jess found herself stumped at such a simple request. Her address? When was the last time someone had asked for that? She closed her eyes at the memory of those tents, the group of men sorting the prisoners.
But even they hadn’t asked for an address. It seemed so immensely mundane, so normal, that her mind just went blank for several long seconds before memory kicked in. She rattled it off to him and he nodded, gave her a small encouraging smile, and slipped away through the crowd.
They could hear Sarah, the woman who had given Jess and David the steaming mugs of tea, talking in the kitchen of the small café, issuing directions to a young woman a year or two younger than Jess. Wonderful, mouth-watering smells began to waft their way and the kids’ stomachs began to rumble painfully. Jess was so grateful for old Mr. Banks’s intercession that she could barely speak. And then, of course, she remembered Allen and his visit to Tent Five, the first and last time she had ever seen him since she had left Belton.
She turned to the old man, leaning close so that the others could not hear, and said, “About Allen, Mr. Banks.”
He set a large, callused hand over hers and shook his grizzled head, “Not now, Jessie. Later. You tell me later, all right?”
He could see from the look on her face that it was unlikely his grandson would ever return home. Despite wanting to know, even if the details hurt, he couldn’t bear it in front of such a large crowd. Better to keep his grief close and to care for the living. The girl had obviously been through terrible trauma. And from the wary look on the boy’s face, he and his sister had as well.
“Right now, we need to get you all fed, and a place set up to sleep for the night. I’m assuming you all want to stay together?” Jess and David nodded.
“Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”
Farley, who had been quiet far too long, felt the need to intercede.
“Now Ang… I mean Jessica, where exactly have you been all this time? In Clinton?”
“No sir, Clinton is in ruins, although there continues to be a lot of fighting and different troops moving through there,” Jess answered. “I was held by the Western Front until a year ago. I escaped with Erin McGowen, discovered David and Tina in Clinton, where Jacob was born, and we over-wintered in a cave near Truman Lake before heading back through Clinton and up Highway 71.”
“A cave? You lived in a cave?” The mayor looked incredulous.
He would have said more, but at that moment, the food arrived. Two large plates were set in front of Jess and David. There were eggs, thick slices of homemade bread with butter and a dollop of homemade jam, and slices of bacon still sizzling.
Jess winced as her empty stomach rolled ominously, reminding her of how she had just been sick not an hour before, and also that she hadn’t had such rich food in a long while. Sarah Turner stood near her, her brown eyes soft and kind.
“Is the food too much for you, dear? Do you need something simpler?” David had already inhaled nearly half of the plate before remembering to offer a slice of bacon to his sister, who had folded herself neatly under his chair.
“I, um,” Jess didn’t want to be rude, but she felt exhausted. From hunger, from stress, and from the fear that her stomach would not be able to hold down anything she put into it right now.
Sarah patted Jess on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry, honey. I’ll scrounge up some oatmeal for you that should settle your stomach.”
She bustled off and Jess slid her plate toward David and Tina. The offer of a slice of bacon had been enough to lure the little girl from under her brother’s chair and a grubby set of fingers snatched at a piece of the toast while David eagerly cut into the eggs. Quincy whined once, licking Jess’s fingers, and she offered the dog a piece of her bacon.
Quincy pulled it gently from her fingers and gratefully swallowed the delectable meat, staring at her mistress with a hopeful look, hoping for more. She wasn’t disappointed. David slipped a triangle of toast under the table to the hungry hound.
Farley looked even more disapproving. Jess was surprised this was even possible.
“Dogs use up limited resources.”
Her spine straightened and Jess stared the mayor square in the eye and said, “Quincy hunts for her own meals. Squirrels, rodents, sometimes a bird.” She broke a piece of bacon in half and handed it to her dog, “She’s helped feed us and she’s protected us too.”
Mr. Banks interceded again; he was sitting nearest to the dog, “Sounds like a fine hound, well worth keeping.”
The corners of Mayor Farley’s mouth turned down, but he said nothing. After all, he thought, if the girl was fool enough to get herself knocked up, and take on more mouths to feed along her journey home, there really wasn’t much point in talking sense to her. Was there?
A bowl of oatmeal was set down in front of Jess and Mr. Banks introduced Sarah to Jess.
“Jessie, this here is Sarah Turner, one of our newest residents. She hails from back east, here with her two young ’uns for goin’ on a year now. They were caught in a tussle between the Western Front and the Washington Guard; barely made it out of St. Louis. And Sarah makes the best lemon meringue pie I’ve had since my wife passed on. God rest her soul.”
Sarah beamed with pride. “Not that we see many lemons these days, but I do manage to make a few each time we see a trader come from the Southern routes.” She turned her warm brown eyes on Jess, who had managed a bite of the oatmeal. “Is that better, dear?”
Jess swallowed, her stomach settling some and said, “Yes ma’am, thank you.”
“Call me Sarah.” She reached out and petted the top of Jacob’s head and then turned to look at David and Tina, both of whom had finished the food before them and were now running fingers along the plate to catch the last of the egg. Not a crumb had gone to waste.
“I would give you more, but that’s a lot of food to eat after not eating much for so long. You take it easy, now.” David nodded and thanked her.
Between bites of oatmeal, several in the crowd asked Jess questions about missing friends and loved ones. She shook her head no too many times to count. No, there was no one else she remembered seeing. Only Allen and Erin, but Erin and her family were dead, and she wasn’t going to speak of Allen publicly. That would wait for a private moment with Mr. Banks. He deserved to know what little she knew—but in private, away from all of these eyes and questions. Jess found herself wondering if coming here was a good idea. No Mom, no Dad, no Chris. And the way that stuffed shirt, that bank president turned mayor, Jonathan Farley, kept eyeing Jacob—it made her angry. As if she had asked to have a baby. As if she could have stopped it.
Jacob began to fuss then, turning and nuzzling her shirt, picking up on her emotions and wanting reassurance, wanting food. He was just a baby, innocent and sweet. As her body responded to his need, the milk rushing into her breasts, she was filled with love for him. Never mind how he had been conceived, or the dark thoughts she had had about him while pregnant, walking those long miles with Erin. He was hers, and she loved him deeply. And wasn’t that as it should be?
Jacob pulled at her shirt, more insistent now, and Jess looked for an exit. She wasn’t going to breastfeed here, near this officious stuffed shirt and dozens of prying eyes. Her eyes met those of Sarah, who had seen the baby nuzzle at Jess’s shirt. Sarah slipped out from behind the counter and made a beeline for her.
“I think that Jess needs to rest a little, away from everyone,” she said diplomatically, “after such a difficult morning. There is a couch in the back, dear. Why don’t you and the baby go in there and relax for a few minutes?”
Jess nodded gratefully, stood up, and let Sarah lead the way, the crowd opening for them.
Mayor Farley looked decidedly out of sorts. He had been in the middle of pressing for details on Erin and wasn’t satisfied with Jess’s short answer that she had died outside of Clinton. Jess suppressed a wave of anger; he hadn’t even remembered Erin either, only Erin’s brother Toby, who had been an Eagle Scout and the valedictorian of his graduating class. The mayor looked as if he wanted to follow Jess out of the room. He was the type who wasn’t used to being told “no”—and his recent elevation to mayor had made him even more pigheaded than normal.
Sarah Turner had quelled him with a stern look as he began to stand up and follow, and Farley suppressed a desire to push her out of the way. She wasn’t even from Belton. But at that moment, one of the townspeople had tugged on his sleeve and suggested he update the crowd outside. The mayor’s attention was successfully diverted to one of his favorite tasks: speaking authoritatively to crowds.
The back room was obviously where Sarah and her family lived. There was a large living and sleeping area and a candle gave them a dim light. Jacob was fussing, pulling at Jess’s shirt, insisting on being fed. Jess sat down on the couch, eased her shirt up, and allowed the hungry infant to latch on. He made satisfied little grunts as he greedily sucked.
“Thank you, Sarah,” Jess said. “How did you know?”
Sarah just smiled, moving a small box with the letters SAP carved into it, and put it out of view.
“How did I know the crowd was too much, or that you needed to nurse? Women’s intuition, I guess.” She busied herself clearing a chair free of books before adding, “That Mayor Farley is a real butthead. Don’t you worry one second about what he thinks. He treated me the same when I showed up with two kids and ‘no man to care for me,’ is how he put it.” She rolled her eyes. “As I hear it, they let him be mayor just to shut him up. He was carrying on so about how we needed ‘structure and organization in this time of chaos.’” She grimaced. “I think it was because he just wanted to be able to tell others what to do.” She winked at Jess. “And get out of serving on regular patrol in the town militia, like the rest of us have to do. They even look to me to participate in the patrols, now that I’ve been here long enough to be trusted.”
Jess smiled in return and relaxed for the first time since returning to her hometown. Belton was the same cozy little town she remembered, yet different. But then again, wasn’t everything?
Everything had changed. Jess wondered if her home still stood, and whether they could go there, right away, because she wasn’t used to this, the people, the questions, the judgment. Not from everyone, obviously. Sarah was nice, and so was Mr. Banks. The militia leader, Todd Stevens, was young, maybe in his mid-20s, and he had seemed okay. Belton was organized, well-defended now, which was more than she could say for any of the other towns she had traveled near since this whole conflict began. Jess sighed. Perhaps, just perhaps, they were truly home and safe.
She closed her eyes and melted back into the couch, switched Jacob to the other breast, and barely cracked an eyelid open when Sarah led David and Tina in. They had been walking since daybreak, in the cold, with nothing but the hard biscuits to eat. But that wasn’t what pushed Jess into an exhausted sleep. It was all the people, the questions, and the prying looks. There was that and the black disappointment—after all this, all the running, all the struggles—her dream of returning to her family, to her Mom, Dad, and Chris; to learn they had never returned was overwhelming. If they weren’t here, if they hadn’t made it back by now, then they really were all gone. That was the last thought she had as she succumbed to sleep, and it would be the first thought she had when she woke up two hours later.
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