A tale of choice, p.11
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       A Tale Of Choice, p.11

           Alexa Stewart
 
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  ACCORDING TO THE map, if she was on the right road, it went north for approximately 12 miles. How long it would take her to walk it, she couldn’t guess. All she knew was that during these last two days, she’d never walked so much in her life. But, it was worth it, if she could get to the embassy… even if I have to walk for the rest of my life to get there. With an ironic smile she realized, That could be a very short span of time, in this country.

  She followed the dusty ruts of the road through rolling hills, the sun beat down on her hot, tired, starving body. Sparse patches of trees and brush, created a small loosely-knit forest with welcome intermittent shade, though the hot humid air gave her little relief. Then, the road disappeared into a dense wall of tangled vegetation which stretched its matted arms of foliage overhead into a green canopy. As she entered this enclosed emerald world, the air became close and suffocating with its smell of decay and death. Drenched with sweat, hungry and thirsty, she trudged on.

  Walking on the soft earth, covered in a carpet of leaves and moss, the sound of water running somewhere ahead reached her ears. Soon the sound was a muffled roar. Without warning, over the sound of the falling water, she heard the growl of an engine rapidly approaching from ahead, and then another. They were coming fast, too fast. She flung herself behind the nearest tree without looking, for there was no time. A camouflaged jeep carrying armed men and a battered brown pickup truck hurled past her before she could react to the danger. They were laughing and shouting to each other as they passed.

  I wish my heart would stop this incessant pounding all the time. I’m going to die of fright before this is over, she analyzed as she came out of her hiding place, well after the vehicles had gone and only the sound of the water could be heard.

  How am I ever going to find help? There are crazy men with guns everywhere, she thought with disgust. Yet, I’ve been able to walk for miles all alone, most of the time. Its uncanny how empty and quiet this country can be. But, it’s the not knowing what to do or where to go that’s making me crazy. I just can’t get caught, I can’t… Jim! I have to get help and find my husband! she desperately reasoned. When will this nightmare be over?

  She stood in thought for a second, Now… should I go back or continue? I know there are armed men behind me, but I don’t know if there are any more ahead? Okay… behind me for sure, maybe… ahead. I guess its north then. Help for Jim is north.

  Shelly walked on, thinking about him, wondering where he was, what was happening to him. Lost in thought, she came to an old wooden bridge which crossed a shallow ravine were the fast-running creek flowed. That sound had masked the vehicles’ approach. Shaking her head, she realized how lucky she had been, again, not to have been caught.

  She took the opportunity to drink some water. She cupped her hands and drank, over and over again. Washing her face, neck, and arms, she then sat on bank, took off her shoes and socks to soak her hot, tired feet in the cool, refreshing water. She closed her eyes and tears of grief, exhaustion and longing flowed down her face. Sleep started to wrap its arms around her. With a start, she woke to realize she couldn’t go to sleep. Not here. Not now. She still had hours of daylight left. She had to go on.

  Vigilantly she strolled down the dusty track again, watching the sun through the canopy sink lower in the African sky. The forest surrounded her and enclosed her in its cocoon or prison, she couldn’t decide which. She was still walking north, according to her little compass, when a movement far ahead on the side of the road caught her eye. A gentle breeze was stirring the leaves overhead and something red fluttered in the air.

  I wonder what that is, she questioned, her heart jumping?

  As she cautiously drew nearer, she could see that the red seemed to be fabric from a dress. A puff of air played with some strands of golden hair. Quickly, she recognized it to be the body of a woman, face down in the dirt. The body was lying in an abnormal position, arms flung here and there. Then she could see that the back of her head was gone. Trembling and sick to her stomach, she darted past the body as fast as she could. She couldn’t go near it. There was no question that the person was dead.

  Then she recalled the armed men who had traveled this road just a short time earlier. She grimaced at the memory and wondered if they had killed the woman… probably. Anguish for a woman she didn’t know and dread for her personal safety occupied her thoughts.

  I want to go home, she cried in her soul. I wish I had never come to this place. I wish Jim had never brought me. I wish… dear God, I wish this had never happened.

  But it had. It was real. And her only hope for now was to continue north.

  The afternoon was gone and evening was upon her when she came upon the farm. A wooden sign mounted on poles over the rutted road read “Madison Farm” written in bold black letters. Wooden fences bordered both sides of the old road that still traveled north.

  Caution now dominated her senses. What would she find at the farm… gunmen, more death, food, or maybe someone to help her? Should she even go there? Maybe it would be best to skirt around the farm, but her hunger outweighed her caution. She continued down the road toward whatever awaited her.

  This is so dangerous! I wonder if the women on the road came from here. It seems likely.

  Caution soon changed to fear. She left the road, trying to follow it and stay concealed as much as possible. It didn’t take long to come to the house. It stood perishing in an open field. The front door was wide open, smashed and hanging on one hinge. Glass was everywhere. Windows had been broken out. Furniture, rugs and other household items lay smashed and destroyed in a haphazard pile in the front yard, still burning. Hungry flames and smoke rose from the half-burned pile of debris.

  Shelly’s heart beat hard again. She just knew there would be dead bodies in that house. It had the look of death on it.

  Maybe there’s no one in there? Maybe they had fled in time? Maybe there is food or a phone, something to help me out of this horrible situation? Maybe, maybe, maybe! She thought in frustration. What a vague word.

  Gathering courage she approached the house. Silence, nothing stirred. Life here, stood as still as death.

  Slowly, she walked toward the building. She trembled all over and her legs felt like lead, as she walked up to the front porch, her feet making soft creaking noises as she quietly treaded across the wooden boards. She paused by the broken door, reluctant to look inside.

  When she did, she could see the room, indeed the whole house, was torn apart. Cupboard doors were flung open, drawers pulled out and flung to the floor, their contents scattered about like wreckage from a hideous accident. As she cautiously stepped inside, her heart wouldn’t relent its rapid rhythm. She could see a phone on the floor near the kitchen. She ran over to it, but there was no dial tone. It was lifeless, just like the house.

  As she turned to look into the kitchen she saw him, staring unseeing at the ceiling, a man with blond hair and a neat small beard and mustache. He had been shot several times in the chest. Shelly cringed. A sob caught in her throat as her hand went involuntarily to her mouth to stop a scream that was building inside. She turned away in dry heaves, for she had nothing to give.

  Trembling, sick, she forced herself to check all the cupboards and areas where there might be food. Nothing… it was all gone or destroyed.

  A soft noise behind her startled her. She whirled around and almost screamed in terror at the same time.

  There, standing by the back door was a young boy, a small replica of the man on the floor. Tears of grief ran down his cheeks as he stood looking at the body of the man on the floor. He didn’t look at Shelly. He just stood like stone, not moving.

  Shelly’s heart melted in an instant, He shouldn’t be here… he shouldn’t see this… I need to get him away from here, now.

  She went over to him and knelt down in front of him trying to block out what he was staring at. She gently took his shoulders and said, “Let’s go back outside. There’s nothing we can do for him. I’m very
sorry…” her voice faded away.

  The boy finally looked at her, anguish emanating from his eyes. Then his anger came. “Let go of me!” he said defiantly. “That’s my father!”

  Shelly’s expression fell. She hurt for this boy who stood so straight and brave. But she knew it wasn’t going to do him any good to stay. The memory of his father on that floor would stay with the boy for the rest of his life.

  How could God allow this to happen to this family, to this young innocent boy? she grieved in her spirit.

  As she stood her ground and wouldn’t give way for him to enter, he crumbled into her arms and sobbed deeply, just like she had for the loss of her Jim, and in a small way for Mattie.

  Grief runs deep for those you love and have lost, she decided.

  She let him cry, but as soon as he got control of himself, she stood up and firmly but gently turned him around and walked out of the house into the backyard. He didn’t resist.

  We can’t stand out here in the open, we have to find cover in case they come back.

  She walked him over to some bushes near the house. As she walked in among them, she felt hidden for the moment. Holding his shoulders gently, she knelt down beside him.

  “My name is Shelly Ferguson,” she told him quietly. “I’m from America. I was on holiday in Mombasa with my husband when we got separated during some fighting there,” she continued softly. “So, I’m trying to get to Nairobi to get help and see if we can find him.”

  She paused for a second, and then said, “I’m so sorry about your father,” she told him sincerely, with tears in her eyes, for she was tired, hungry, sore and sick at heart. The fear and loss she had experienced in the last two days were expressing themselves in her eyes. The boy looked at her with grief still swimming in his.

  He was about 7 years old, with blond hair and crystal blue eyes. He didn’t say anything, but just stood there looking at this stranger who had ahold of him. She could tell he was trying to make a decision. And then he made it.

  “I need to get back to my sister. You can come with me if you want,” he offered with a slight tremor in his voice.

  Just like that, he had deemed her safe and offered to take her with him to his sister.

  “This way,” he said.

  Shelly was startled to think that another child was out here somewhere, alone, and followed him across the driveway. Both of them were looking around to be sure they were safe.

  On the other side of the driveway a tangle of trees, bushes and ornamental plants formed a small jungle. The colorful tangle of plants thinned out as it spread into the forest surrounding the home. The boy went to a couple of bushes and pushed his way through. Shelly followed. She was surprised to discover stone steps descending into the earth to a wooden door.

  This place is well hidden.

  The boy walked down steps and opened the door into a dark underground passageway. As the boy walked in, Shelly ducked her head and followed him into the gloom. He closed the door, took out a flashlight and illuminated the passageway.

  The walls were built of stone with a ceiling made of large timbers and wooden planks. At the end of the passageway, Shelly could just make out an opening on the right, with a huge, heavy curtain blocking the entrance. It hid the lantern light within. As the boy pulled the fabric aside, a storage room with a small living area was revealed.

  The room was of moderate size. It held a wide cot and kitchen table against the far wall. Four wooden chairs were placed neatly around the table. A wooden bench was against the wall on her right. Wooden pegs, mounted on a board, hung on the stone wall above the bench. Two jackets and a hat hung there. Under the bench plastic containers of water were stored. On her left, she saw shelves full of canned goods and jars of fruit in the flickering light of the lantern.

  Then her gaze returned to the cot and in the lantern light, there sat a little girl of about 4 on the bed. She too was blond and blue-eyed, but her eyes were a darker blue, like the sea at great depths.

  The boy went to the cot and sat next to his sister, wrapping his arms around her protectively. He sat there looking at Shelly as if she had all the answers. But, what answers did she have? She was as lost as the children sitting on the bed.

  “Where’s daddy?” asked the little girl in a whisper to her brother.

  “He isn’t coming right now,” was all the boy would say in a husky voice.

  The little girl sat silent, looking at the stranger that had come into their hiding place.

  Shelly took a seat on the bench and asked the boy, “What’s your name?”

  He said his name was Thomas and his sister’s name was Faith. They had been with their father and mother that morning, helping them pack so they could leave, when they heard a vehicle coming down the road.

  “Daddy told me to take my sister to the shelter and to hurry. He told us we had to be quiet and quick about it,” Thomas told her. “He said not to come out until he came to get us, no matter what. I waited and waited, but he didn’t come,” he said as tears filled his eyes.

  Then a thought occurred to him, panic was written all over his face. He jumped up saying. “I need to find Mom. I didn’t see Mom…” his voice trailed away as he darted for the opening.

  Shelly grabbed him and held him firmly. “Thomas, you can’t go out there right now. It’s not safe,” she said, as the image of the woman on the road returned to her.

  Thomas struggled in her arms as she turned him to face her. The look on her face froze him where he stood.

  Shelly asked gently, “Was your mother wearing a red dress today? Does she have blond hair?”

  Tears formed in his eyes again as he nodded yes.

  “Thomas, I’m so, so sorry,” Shelly said in misery. “I saw a woman on the road a ways from here. She is with your Daddy now.”

  “No! No! No!” he cried, “It’s not true.” As he continued to look at the truth in her face, he tore himself away and flung himself on the cot, crying in anguish.

  Faith started crying too, because her brother was so unhappy. Shelly was uncertain what to do. She just sat there with her head against the cold, stone wall and closed her eyes, wishing, praying that this would all go away. As she opened her eyes, she saw Thomas trying to contain his grief. He reached over and tried to comfort his sister.

  “I want mommy!” Faith demanded. “Where’s mommy?”

  It broke Shelly’s heart to see these two children so alone and in so much pain. With tears in her eyes, she got up from the bench and went over to the cot. She pulled Faith up in her arms, and the little girl let her. Maybe it was the shared grief the little girl sensed on the strangers face, maybe it was her loving eyes, but she didn’t resist when the lovely woman reached down to pick her up. She wanted to be held and she wrapped her arms around Shelly’s neck. Shelly sat down on the cot next to the grieving boy, trying to comfort both of them. She wrapped her free arm around him and drew him close.

  She said, “Thomas, I don’t know what I can do. I’m sorry this has happened, but I promise to help. I’ll do my best to see that you get to a safe place somehow. Will you trust me to do that for you?” she asked.

  Thomas looked up, nodding his agreement and hugged her hard.

  As Shelly sat on the cot, Faith stopped crying and sniffled, snuggling into the woman that was holding her.

  “It’ll be dark soon. I think we all need something to eat first and then we should stay here tonight,” she told Thomas. “It’s safe here, I think, but we need a few things from the house,” she was thinking of something to keep them warm and other items that would help them through the night.

  Thomas’ eyes became large with the thought of going back into the house, but then he put on his brave face and told her, “Okay, I’ll help you.”

  She was shocked by his reply and admired his courage, but said firmly, “No, Thomas, you stay here with your sister. I need you to keep her safe. You can tell me where everything is.”

  He sat there evaluating her for a bit
and then his eyes looked down, at nothing in particular and said softly, “Okay.” Then he added quietly, “My Mom and Dad call me Tom.”

  Shelly smiled kindly and said, “All right, Tom.”

  “We need something to eat first,” she stated. The events of the past few hours had made her forget her hunger, but now it was back with a vengeance.

  “We have a lot of food here,” said Tom as he got up from the cot and ran over to the shelves.

  He opened a wooden box and brought out what looked like beef jerky, wrapped in cloth that his father had prepared. Then he opened a jar of peaches that his mother had canned. It was easy to see that he struggled with the memories of his mother and father as he opened each item. A tin of crackers was next. He then opened a chest containing dishes and eating utensils. Shelly helped him set the table and then serve the food.

  “Why are there dishes and things out here?” asked Shelly.

  “My daddy made this place to store our food in. But when there was trouble a few years ago, daddy turned it into a shelter so all of us could hide here, if we had to,” Tom explained.

  Well, that’s a blessing, thought Shelly as she took her spoon and ate a large piece of juicy peach. Tom had his hands folded on the table and so did Faith, as the children sat watching her with a confused look.

  When Shelly took time to notice that the children weren’t eating, she asked, “Aren’t you hungry?”

  “We are supposed to thank Jesus for our food first,” Tom said. “We never eat until we do, no matter how hungry we are. Daddy and Mommy said so. They said it’s very important,” he finished.

  How can you think of thanking Jesus when you mommy and daddy are dead, she thought in pain and then regretted her hardness of heart.

  I just don’t understand, she concluded to herself, I just don’t.

  Then she said, “I’m sorry, Tom, I normally do say prayer. It’s just been a long day,” she sighed, bowed her head and allowed Tom to say grace.

  “Dear Lord, please take good care of my mommy and daddy. We thank you for this food. We ask that you help us to get to safety, and thank you for bringing the nice lady to help us. Amen,” he ended.

  Shelly took to heart this little child’s faith in an afterlife. I hope they’re safe with God. I hope Mattie is, too. Please, Lord, help me to find Jim. Let him live, Lord. Please keep him safe and help me find him again. Please!

  The dinner was good and refreshing, and she ate to her heart’s content. It made her feel ill to eat so much, but a full stomach was something she could really appreciate now.

  Sleep started to wrap its arms around her sore, exhausted body, once more. It’s going to be so nice to sleep, really sleep tonight.

  She certainly hadn’t slept well last night.

  As she nodded off, she awoke with purpose. I have to go to the house! she realized and started to tremble. She shrank from going into that house with Tom’s dad still there, in the dark, and with the real possibility of danger lurking outside. She thought for a few seconds about not going and trying to sleep in this cold, damp place without blankets, but she couldn’t do that to the children.

  With a quaking spirit and resolve to take care of the children, she said as bravely as she could, “I’ll have to go to the house to get blankets. It’s going to get cold here tonight. I’ll look for pillows and nightgowns for you, as well. Is there anything else you want me to get while I’m there?”

  She could read on Tom’s face that he feared she wouldn’t come back, but he said nothing to her and just shook his head no. He gave her the flashlight and stood in the middle of the room looking forlorn and frightened.

  “I’ll come back, Tom, I promise. I’ll be very careful,” she vowed. “Both of you stay here until I get back. I won’t be long,” she added.

  Taking the flashlight in her hand, she pulled the curtain aside. She looked back into the room. Tom had gone back to his sister. They sat on the cot together looking at her with apprehension. She let the fabric fall back into place.

  As she walked down the hall, she didn’t turn on the flashlight, so reluctant was she to show their hiding place with any type of light. Her hands touched the cold, hard surface of the stone as she felt her way to the door. When she found the handle, she pulled the well-oiled door open to the outside world and stepped out into the night. Shutting it softly, she stood in the dark, looking at the wondrous stars overhead as the moon gave off a soft mellow light. The shadows were deep, black, and able to hide anything.

  As her eyes became accustomed to the dark, she could see the house across the driveway. It was cast in deep shadow and remained darker than the night. The back door was barely visible in the gloomy wall of the house. She thought it might still be open, but she couldn’t see it for sure. She walked toward the house, still reluctant to use the flashlight.

  The fear of entering that house once more overpowered her. She froze, trembling, crying silent tears. Yet she must go in. Again, on feet made of lead, she neared the back door. No sound came from the house. The opening at the back was a deep, dead, black. She just couldn’t enter there.

  In fear and shame she went around the house cautiously, feeling her way to the front porch. With cautious steps she softly tip-toed onto the wooden structure, moving along the wall to the front door, hoping not to get cut on the broken windows she knew were there. Stepping carefully, blindly, she entered the house. Only when she was inside, did she use the flashlight. Covering the lens with her hand, she could see well enough with the pink defused light to avoid falling and she went directly to the bedrooms, avoiding the kitchen altogether.

  She found three doorways opening off a short hall. The opening on the left seemed to be the children’s room, while on the right, the bathroom and what must be the parents’ bedroom. The rooms were littered and void of substance. All of the contents were now in front of the house, smelling of gasoline and smoke.

  Shelly picked through some clothes scattered on the floor. She found a large flannel shirt that Tom could use to sleep in. It must be one of his father’s. A small set of pajamas was found for Faith, but she couldn’t find any blankets or traveling cloths for the children.

  Then in the bathroom she found a small closet hidden behind the bathroom door. As she opened it, she was shocked to see it untouched. It’s just like Tom’s mother had left it before... closing off that thought, she grabbed some towels and facecloths. On the upper shelves were sheets and blankets. She started piling all the things she wanted to carry with her into one of the blankets. There wasn’t very much left to find, so she bundled up what she had and went quickly to the front of the house. She stopped just in time to turn off the flashlight. Standing in the black pit of the broken doorway, she stood still and listened. Nothing stirred. Then almost running through the front door, she tip-toed quickly over the porch and onto the driveway, and ran straight for the bushes and the hidden shelter.

  As soon as she was through the door, she closed it quickly, leaning against it for comfort. She turned back, opened the door just a crack and listened. There was no sign of discovery, no sound, no movement at all. Shutting the door again and making sure it was bolted, she rested her head on its wooden form, relieved to be safe for a while. As she turned and picked up her bundle, the curtain parted. She could see the silhouette of Tom looking down the hall at her.

  “It’s me,” she said softly as she walked the passageway toward him.

  She could see relief in his face as she walked into the hidden room. They made up the cot, for the night. It was meant for two adults, but it was just right for one adult and two frightened children. They snuggled close together in the warm blankets and slept deep and long into the night, safe at last… for a time.

 

  Going North

 
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