By Michal Morgan
Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
Tom Lewis woke with a start. It was not uncommon for him to fall asleep in his chair, but this time he’d left the antique oil lamp burning dimly. “Going to burn the place to the ground if’n I ain’t careful,” Tom grumbled to himself.
The sound that had awakened him came again, and Tom looked at this watch. The old wind-up Timex showed 11:23. Who’s running around in the dark at this hour? He wondered as he levered himself out of the worn recliner, and picked up the lamp. The nearest neighbors had run off or been burnt out last week. Tom had seen the smoke, but it was too far for him to walk to go check.
He missed a step as a foot caught one of the books scattered from the tumbled bookshelves. Glass crunched under his slippers as he struggled across the living room, and paused, wondering who was on the other side of the door. The “refugees” who came through that morning hadn’t bothered knocking. They kicked the door open and walked in. Tom had worn himself out trying to put the door right. It was still just barely in place.
Turning up the wick for more light, Tom pulled the door open to three dark brown faces standing on his porch. A handsome woman in her late thirties, a boy about twelve, and a girl of eight or nine. Their expressions said they were expecting to have dogs set on them.
“What can I do for you?” Tom asked. The woman sagged at the soft question. Tom understood she had been tensed to run for her life.
“I’m…,” she hesitated. Taking a deep breath, “My name is Emma Pitts. We’ve been walking for days. We’re trying to get to my folks in Ohio, but we’re out of food and water. Every place we’ve looked has been looted. Could you…”
Tom cut her off, “C’mon in. Mind the broken glass on the floor.” He stepped back to let them enter.
Emma took in the destruction of the room noting the one thing that seemed to be in its proper place was the photo of an attractive elderly woman on the mantel piece. The frame was separated at one corner and small daggers of glass intruded over the image. The rest of the mantel’s furnishings were scattered across the scarred wood floor. A ragged hole in the wallpaper marked a bullet impact. Brown spatters and drops run down the walls explained the chaos.
Tom pushed the door to, and setting the lamp on the end table, he slumped back into his recliner, “Sit down if you can find a clean spot.”
Emma and the children settled cautiously on the edge of the sofa. The children had made no sound, and were still eyeing Tom as if they expected violence.
“Tell me again where you’re going?” Tom prompted.
“Ohio,” answered Emma. “My folks live there, and they said they still have electricity and running water.”
Tom considered, “How long ago was that?”
“Two weeks. We left Biloxi immediately, but when the power went out nobody could get gas. We’ve been walking ever since. Now we’re out of food, and I don’t know what we’re going to do.” Emma fell silent.
Tom rubbed his week-old beard, “Two weeks on the road, and you’re still in Alabama. That’s not much progress, and considering its August, you won’t see Ohio before spring.”
“I have to try,” Emma nodded at the kids.
“You need food, and I might have some things around here you can use,” Tom said. “Got anything to trade?”
“We had to leave everything with the car,” Emma sank back into the couch crossing her arms over her chest. She suddenly flared at him, “Don’t you have any Christian charity?”
“I ain’t a Christian,” Tom replied calmly.
Emma looked aside defeated. “Can we go somewhere? Away from the kids?”
Tom climbed out of the recliner, picked up the lamp, and gestured toward a doorway that gaped darkness.
Emma turned to the children, “You stay put.”
“Nope. All y’all come along,” Tom said.
“Please don’t do this,” Emma pleaded. “They’re kids!”
Tom shrugged, “You want food or not?”
The boy jumped to his feet with clenched fists, “Don’t try to hurt my momma!”
“What’s your name son?” Tom asked softly.
“Jeremiah,” the boy spat still coiled like a snake.
“That’s a fine strong name, Jeremiah,” Tom said. “Nobody is going to hurt anybody. I just need help moving a few things.” Tom went through the door. The lamp revealed a ruin that had recently been an old fashioned kitchen.
“Grab the end of this table,” instructed Tom as he took hold of the chromed metal tube that served as a table leg, and started to drag. The braided rug under the table was folded back. “Get that handle and pull hard,” said Tom.
As Emma raised the trap door a short set of steps was revealed by the light. “A root cellar!” she exclaimed.
“Take all you want,” Tom said as Emma rushed down the steps. Tom looked at the girl who was clinging to Jeremiah’s arm, “Go help your mother.” The girl went to the trap and looked down, but did not follow her mother.
Tom uprighted a chair and sat as Emma came back up the steps and set her armload of cans on the counter. Tom opened a nearby drawer and fished inside. Holding up a keyring, “There’s an ATV in the barn out behind the windbreak.” He gestured to the rear of the house, “I don’t think the looters found it.”
Tom put his hand in his pants pocket and pulled out a revolver. Emma and the children froze. The revolver reversed in his hand, and Tom offered the butt to Jeremiah, “Use it to protect your mom and sister.” A handful of cartridges followed from his other pocket, then he rose, “Now I’m going to bed. Sleep wherever. Make sure to turn out the lamp.”
“Why are you doing this for us?” Jeremiah asked. “Everybody else chased us away.”
“You were polite enough to knock,” Tom replied.