Episode Nineteen ♦ Together 

George sat looking around the cacophonous, packed dining room. The Scordatos had returned to their cabin. Had they just left or been gone an hour? The faces George could see, passengers and crew alike, told a continuing story of shock, horror, and grief. Some people cried, others comforted, but all around the dining room people reacted to the bombing of the rail station in Indianapolis.

Then silence.

People returned to their seats. Glasses were righted. Napkins returned to laps. The crew dispersed to their appointed stations, replacing dropped forks and cleaning up spilled food. Conversations returned to polite tones. To George’s right four diners discussed, quite calmly, the forecast death count. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing was timed to take advantage of people changing trains,” said a rather smug, prim man. “When I went to Buffalo last year, the crowds at Indianapolis station were simply staggering. Everyone rushing from one train to another.”

At another table George watched a mother chide two children. “There will be no dessert until you’ve cleaned your plate. You know the rules.”

Pandemonium had given way to normalcy.

“Will your companions be returning?”

George studied the speaker, a waiter, and remembered the Scordatos’ fear and pain. “I expect not.”

“Then maybe you are ready for your main course. Tonight we have a lovely beef ragout served with potatoes or rice. Or maybe you would prefer today’s catch, Ohio River bass…”

“Just leave us alone!” Anita’s reaction gobsmacked George. The men looked at each other, at her, and each other again.

“As you wish, madam,” the waiter nodded once. He walked to the next table and said, “And can I bring you any dessert this evening?”

George stared at Anita. Though hard to perceive, her head quivered. She said, “I have to get out of here.” Standing, her chair pushed back and napkin falling to the floor, she walked towards the grand salon.

He reached down for Anita’s dropped napkin, folded it and his own, and left them on the table before following her out of the room. Catching up to her as she ascended the staircase, he said, “Anita, are you okay?”

She stopped, faced him, and looking down on him from her higher step said, “Is everyone insane? Someone bombs a large city. Hundreds, maybe thousands, are dead and dying. One moment they are crying and screaming, the next it’s back to dessert. It’s like someone flipped a switch and the whole thing fell into memory.” She turned and continued up the stairs.

Nothing felt right for George: her words made perfect sense even if the events did not. He followed two paces behind her as she approached their shared cabin. When the door opened, she stepped across the threshold and blocked his entry. “I need to be alone for a while.” She shut the door, leaving him standing in the corridor. His shoulders drooped.

George roamed the corridors of the riverboat. He wanted understanding. He wanted Debussy, Satie, or Ravel. He missed having an Informateur but the imagined notes of Pavane pour une infante défunte offered wistful escape.

Aft, one deck up, George stopped at the door to the Captain’s parlor. A dozen people, mostly men, sat in armchairs and on couches arranged around a low, central table. On it bottles rested with a scattering of empty glassware.

A man wearing ship’s uniform beckoned and George entered. “Come. Pour a glass and join us. Rum, whiskey, gin, and some wine. What’s your poison?”

George wanted wine but noticed the color of the red liquid in the women’s glasses. “Whiskey please.”

A bottle slid gently across the table’s inlaid map of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. George poured trying to ignore the large “40” printed on the label. He held the glass up to the group. “Thank you.”

A man with short, wavy, sun-bleached hair, a thick brown mustache, and a navy blue pullover with the monogram “NLYC” nodded. “Manny was just saying he thought De Authoriteit’s early numbers, while undoubtedly based on actual data from Informateurs, might climb as high as fifty thousand.”

“But is Presiding Minister Brandt’s tough talk just bluster?” asked a balding man with skin rarely touched by sunlight. “Will we really bomb ten Islamic League cities?”

“It seemed pretty clear to me.” This woman – with olive skin, curly black hair, and wearing the single-buttoned waistcoat and dress shirt favored by the power elite – carried a certain gravity when she spoke. “He said, ‘For every bomb that explodes in a Confederation city, ten will find their way to League cities.’ It’s only a matter of time.”

George contemplated the table’s map, sipped the umber liquid, took in the conversation, but remained silent.

♦ ♦ ♦

Anita dried her eyes on the pillowcase as her companion cracked open the door. She said, “It’s okay, George. Come in.”

He ventured a step inside. “Are you all right? Would you mind a little company?”

“Please.”

He closed the door and joined her on the bed. They sat in darkness, their backs against the wall and legs stretched out across the mattress.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It really creeped me out when everyone started acting like nothing had happened.”

“I know. It was very strange.” He paused. “I think I understand what happened though.”

“Oh, I know what happened. De Authoriteit zapped everyone. I heard it was possible. Just never thought I’d witness it.”

“Well, it seems they can change brain chemistry…”

“You know Luis…” Her choice to use his real name felt right, more intimate. “I have been anxious, wondering what I am doing to you and to this baby. How could I ever think about giving birth away from the safety of civilization?”

“Don’t worry about me. I made my own decision. I have no regrets.”

“But where are we going? At least in Hartfield I had family.”

“Something tells me you made the right decision. I don’t want to go back. I promise to stay by your side. As long as you and the little one need me.”

She felt liquid return to the corners of her eyes already puffy from too many tears. “That’s sweet of you.” It pained her to wonder if Willem would ever say, let alone feel, such a thing. “I know you really mean that.”

“The future feels even less certain this evening.” His silence was not uncomfortable. “It seems we are headed for another war with the Islamic League. Brandt’s made some statement about bombing ten of their cities in retaliation.”

Cold spread down her neck and into her back. She shook her head trying to comprehend the meaning of such a threat. “Any word on the Union’s stance?”

“Not that I heard. I didn’t ask any questions. Just listened to people talking.”

She recalled history learned at school. It had been a century since the Confederation warred with either neighbor. During, and since, that war a missile shield protected Confederation cities, but the enemy used suicide devices to mount attacks. Nuclear contamination had rendered Belgrade uninhabitable, Volgograd and Harare had both suffered terrible biological infection, but the ocean was a moat around America. Before today, she was safer than citizens living on the great, contested landmass of Afro-Eurasia.

“I guess no where’s safe anymore,” she said. “If we had gone by train – to Saint Louis as I’d suggested – how would we have gone?”

George was silent for a while. “You mean, would we have gone through Indianapolis?”

“Yes.”

“Seems pretty likely. It’s the hub west of Pittsburgh and north of Atlanta. That’s why it was chosen.”

She willed her mind away from the possibilities, remote as they may have been. “I’m glad we’re on this boat.”

“Me too.”

Anita could feel his hand moving towards her on the bed. In the darkness, she too groped her way across the divide. A finger touched the side of her palm. Drawn together, she interlaced her fingers with his.

“What if we missed Tom or you never went to the library?” she asked.

“But someone knew that would not happen.”

His confidence was reassuring, but… “How?”

“Well, why did Catherine give me books? Where did I first meet Willem?”

“I don’t know.”

“At Hartfield Central Library.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You love to garden, right?”

“More than anything. There is nothing better than watching seedlings grow. I also love everything about harvest time.”

“That is how I feel about books. They are rare and precious in this paperless world. Finding one is like finding a diamond ring lying under a pile of old clothing. But the book speaks. I love the way the words look, the way pages smell, the feel of ancient covers. Centuries ago someone else held the volume and read the words. I feel connected – not only to the author, but to everyone who protected that book and brought it through the ages.”

She understood the passion of his words, if not their exact focus. “You think Willem is sending the clues.”

“Probably not. Does he know you’re pregnant? No. But the pills came. He told someone about my love of books. Someone knows. And who’s to say that there weren’t other clues we didn’t find.”

While she had thought about missing one of the clues they had found, it had yet to occur to her that there might be others. “You think we’ve missed something? Is that why the messages are so cryptic?”

“It’s possible. Maybe the clues were identical, but hidden in different places. Maybe someone selling seeds or sewing stuff in the Louisville market also had the same clue for us. Maybe someone was watching for us at Louisville Station, ready to direct us to the dock. Does it really matter? We’re here. We have them. They are all we have to go on.”

“But what does it mean?” she asked. “We are going, but where to?”

“You have the clues, right?”

“Yah, they’re in my puzzle box for safe keeping.”

He released her hand and rolled off the end of the bed. In the darkness of the room, the light from the now opened cupboard seemed much brighter than before. George handed her bag to her. She dug past clothing until she could feel the inlaid wood and removed her treasure box from the bundle. Having opened the box thousands of times in her life, she only had to find the polished edges of the carved lotus before she could press and slide the sides until the lid was free.

Anita handed George the three pieces of cardboard and promptly resealed the box. She stood and watched as he laid the clues on a shelf in the light. After rearranging them a couple times, he settled on the order in which they were received.

He read the message. “Nick Carraway says Harmonie by the mark. Twain Calaveras and Connecticut. Rails watched. Beware of hucksters. Find Sid & Mary after church. Where Samuel played.”

He stopped speaking. She could feel his mind processing the words.

“I’ve got it!” said George.

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