Episode Nine ♦ Caseville 

Luis followed Avinashika and Joe out of the front door of the diner. Where is he taking us? Why should we trust him? I know I do not.

The trio turned off the main road onto a residential street. It was dark without street lamps lighting their way. Lights shone in some windows. Other homes, while dark, had a lived-in look. Do they really go to bed this early here?

“How big is this town?” Luis asked.

“Caseville? Guess, maybe, eight hundred or so,” Joe said.

“And the train stops here?”

“Well there’re lots of small towns in the area. Caseville just happened to be in the way. Most trains don’t stop — just one in the morning and one at night.”

Avinashika jumped in. “How about southbound? When’s the next southbound train?”

“Late in the mornin’ tomorrow.”

They crossed another street. At the third house, Joe pushed open the gate. “Just go on up to the door. They’re spectin ya.”

“Thanks,” Avinashika said.

“Y’all sleep well.”

Luis let out a deep breath as Joe walked away. “Something about him made me uncomfortable.”

“I think I understand.” Her expression suggested otherwise. “I guess we have until the morning to get out of town.”

They climbed the worn wooden steps to the front porch of the two-story house. It was clean if in need of a coat of paint. A dim light was visible through the glass in the front door. As Avinashika reached out to knock, the door swung open.

A woman with curly, grey hair wearing a floral robe and slippers greeted them. “You must be the couple looking for Ugo. No hotel in town, so we try to find some place for folks to bed down for a night or two. I’m Cordella. Pleased to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Avinashika and this is Luis. We appreciate the hospitality.”

“Well, it’s nothing fancy but the bed’s comfortable and the quilt’s warm. Follow me.”

Closing the door behind him, Luis followed the two women along the dimly lit hallway beside the staircase to the second floor. Ancient photographs hung in chipped, wooden frames. The floorboards creaked as they moved.

“Pa’s already in bed.” Cordella cracked open a door and flipped on the light using a wall switch. “Here’re the facilities if you need ’em.” The light on and the door open, she continued two more steps and opened another door across the hallway, again using a wall switch to turn on the light. “I hope you’ll be comfortable. We’ll see you in the morning then. Sleep well.” She disappeared up the steps.

Avinashika entered the room while Luis stood in the doorway. The dim light from the ceiling fixture revealed walls painted a pale yellow. To his left and next to the door stood a large, antique, wooden dresser. A crocheted runner, yellow with age, was protected by a glass top from a clutter of old, empty glass bottles on display. Faded lettering said “Coke,” “Pepsi,” “Fanta,” “RC,” and “Dr. Pepper.” Above the dresser hung a large mirror; its reflective surface cracked and pealing. Everything had been dusted recently.

A couple feet in front of the door was a busy, floral-print wingback chair next to a small, round table covered by a lacework doily and another piece of glass. On it sat a green “7-Up” bottle used as a vase for a couple daisies made from stiffened lace. Across the room from the chair, midnight blue, damask curtains were drawn shut.

The four-poster bed filled much of the remainder of the room. It was covered with a yellow quilt of various fabric prints stitched together in blocks suggesting flowers.

Luis struggled to breathe. “Do you need the loo?”

“No, you go first.” Avinashika set her bag on the floor at the other end of the dresser.

Luis closed the bathroom door, turned on the tap, and splashed cold water on his face. In the small mirror, he looked deep into his dark brown eyes. It’s only a full-sized bed! What am I going to do?

♦ ♦ ♦

As Avinashika used the bathroom, Luis sat in the chair and studied a needlepoint sampler that hung on the wall across from the mirror. He recognized the quotation from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “God bless us every one!” It was surrounded by a cruciform, a star of David, a crescent moon and star, a swastika, an unknown symbol, and a small circle of blue and green meant to evoke the Earth.

 When she returned, he pointed to the sampler. “Do you know what that symbol is? The one that looks like a 3 with a hook?”

“It’s a pranava, a Hindu symbol. In Sanskrit it’s read ‘aum’. We say ‘aum’ when meditating.”

“Interesting. Um…” How do I put this?

“No, ah-um,” she said enunciating.

He ignored the correction. “Maybe one of us should stay awake. You know, keep watch?”

“We’ll be safe tonight. Maybe someone will be looking for us tomorrow but there have been no Informateur alerts like Willem’s. Let’s just get a good night’s sleep.”

He avoided eye contact with her. “I am not feeling sleepy. Let me know when you are ready. I will get the light.”

He looked away as she removed her pants and slipped underneath the covers. “There really is plenty of room Luis. You won’t even know I’m here.”

“Play Rachmaninov, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Van Cliburn and the Moscow Philharmonic.”

“Okay, you can turn off the light now.”

Luis walked over to the light switch and cast the room in darkness. He fumbled back to the chair, rested his head on the side cushion, and concentrated on the music.

♦ ♦ ♦

“Oh you’re up?” Cordella was at the stove cooking as Avinashika entered the kitchen. The morning sun lit up the room. “I was just going to wake you. Hope you slept well.”

“Wonderfully! What smells so good?”

“We’ve got scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, coffee, and some grits if you like.”

“I usually only drink a couple cups of coffee in the morning. Don’t know about Luis – I mean – I don’t know what he’ll feel like.”

“Well you’ve got a long road ahead and you probably won’t get a decent meal for a couple of days, so you better not let all this food go to waste.”

Luis entered looking much the worse for wear: his hair mussed, clothing wrinkled, and dark circles under his eyes.

“Morning,” Avinashika said. “Cordella tells me we should have a big breakfast since meals might be scarce for a couple of days.”

He looked at Avinashika, his eyebrows pinched together, then mustered a smile for Cordella. “It smells great. I am hungry.”

“What’ll I dish up for you?” Cordella asked as she set down a cup of coffee in front of each guest. “Scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, grits?”

“A little of everything for me, thank you,” Luis said.

Cordella looked at Avinashika. “And for you?”

“Everything but bacon please.”

“Can do.” Cordella started dishing up the food. “Pa’s gone to get a van. We’ll take you part of the way.”

“That’s not necessary.” Avinashika felt the hospitality was enough.

“Well you can hardly walk to Ugo, especially given you’ve no idea where it is.”

Luis looked at Avinashika, wide eyes added to the pinched brow.

Cordella continued, “You’re not the first to come here looking for Ugo. Most folks go to Appledorf, but occasionally people come through Caseville. We put ’em up and get them on down the road. It’s a long trip,” Cordella looked at Luis, “and I was saying that you might not get another meal for a couple days. So you best not hesitate in asking for seconds.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Luis asked, “Can we pay for the bed and breakfast?”

Cordella shook her head. “Ugo takes care of expenses. If you are sure you don’t mind doing the dishes, I’m going to tidy up a bit before we head out. Pa will have the van at eight.”

“Really, it would be our pleasure,” Avinashika said smiling.

Luis took the scrubbed dishes from Avinashika, rinsed them in a sink of water, and wiped them off with a towel he found nearby. He stood the plates in the plate rack, hung the coffee cups, and returned the pots to hooks above the stove. He looked at Avinashika preparing to ask a question.

“Don’t talk about it.” She cut him off. “Try not to think about it, or any of this for that matter. You really should have slept in the bed.”

“It’s nothing personal, I just thought…”

“No worries. It was probably the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in, and from the sound of it we have quite a journey ahead of us.”

His voice hushed, Luis asked, “You think we can trust them?”

“What choice do we have? We’ve got to trust someone. They’ve some connection to Ugo, and we need to get out of town before the morning train arrives.” Avinashika used a rag to wipe down the stovetop. “And frankly, I find it much easier to trust average people like them.”

Luis shook his head and sighed aggressively. I trust technology. Not people.

♦ ♦ ♦

Following the two women down the street away from the diner, Luis wondered at the people who chose to live in such a small, quiet town. The houses were larger than he was used to and there was lots of space around them; there was no sense of crowding like in Hartfield.

As they neared the end of the street, Luis noticed the overhead beam of The Track. High enough off the ground that people could pass underneath with over a meter to spare, it was the only form of automated travel beyond the large cities. Luis would normally be excited by a rare opportunity to ride The Track.

Turning left, they found the lift door open and rode up to the platform. As the doors opened Cordella said, “Good, Pa’s here already.”

The vehicle was almost as large as Luis’ room with a sizable sliding door to the empty, rear compartment. From it they entered the forward cabin through the bulkhead door. Along this wall was a bench seat with two bucket seats in the nose of the vehicle.

“This is my husband, Pasqaul, but everyone calls him Pa,” Cordella said.

A balding man who appeared to enjoy food more than physical labor stood and greeted them with outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you. Well, if you’re ready, let’s be off.” He was a head taller than Luis.

Pa returned to his seat, the doors closed, and the vehicle eased away from the elevated platform. Avinashika and Luis sat on the bench, the bulkhead door separating them. Luis looked out at the village on the left side and farm fields on the right.

Cordella turned around and said, “I need you to use this.” She held up a small canister with a breathing cup at the top. “It’s nothing harmful. It will help you sleep. Unfortunately you can’t see where we’re going.”

♦ ♦ ♦