We’d been walking for three, maybe four hours? How long since I was standing in front of that t.v.? Around noon, we’d driven then stopped for about 2 hours, and now dusk was nearing.
Mr. Harris–who I now know is Dean, is carrying Jared on his shoulders. John said his boy scout adventures had kept him ready to hike, but we were all wearing down.
“Here we go, boy…ahhhh.” Dean set Jared down and stretched his shoulders back, like they were wings. “What do you say we all take a break? Some grub and listen to the radio. I think we’re pretty safe now. No ash here.”
Dean had brought a very small radio. Its batteries lasted longer than any cell phone, to check the internet regularly. And other items were too heavy to carry.
“Who’dve thought we’d ever go back to listening to the radio, Mave, eh?” He winked and she looked away for a moment, but then turned back and laughed.
There were now hundreds of people around us, and we’d gotten to know some of them. Everyone I asked shook their heads “no” when I asked about the Lemores or my sister. I was hoping I’d come across some of HER teachers. Not yet.
Dean set the radio down on a flat patch of dirt. There was a small ring of grass around us. Others were taking a break, too. A mother wandered over with a boy and a girl, similar to John and Jared’s ages. They all started playing imagination games.
“And it takes an erupting volcano to get them away from the video games!” Dean said and the women laughed. I watched the children out of my peripheral vision (I had already done some babysitting), but I really wanted to hear the radio. Besides, there were three adults nearby.
“Here, sit on this,” Mave handed me a hoody sweatshirt, “it may keep you warm later too. And here you go.” She handed me a granola bar and an apple. “May as well eat the fruit now.”
The radio announcer’s voice picked up…”The fifty-mile radius surrounding Cinder Ridge has been evacuated…bearing in mind the unexpected events of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, now nearly 40 years ago…extra precautions are necessary…activity has subsided at this time…rescuers still unable to get within the ten-mile zone surrounding the volcano.”
My family’s house…right inside those limits. Surely the would’ve seen, and gotten away. I pictured my bike sitting two blocks away from the appliance store, in the park. Was it incinerated too? Blown to bits? Covered up with lava or the mudflows they had mentioned in an earlier broadcast? I shook my head clear. To care about my bike at this moment seemed silly.
The granola bar was peanut butter packed and actually very filling. I saved half for later, in the pocket of the hoody.
“Well, best move on.” Dean dusted off the seat of his pants. Ash burst forth like a reverse-flow vacuum cleaner.
Mave checked her watch. “Whaddya say two more hours? We’ll reach Longville by then, surely.” She turned to the woman next to us. “Diane, would you care to join us?”
Diane brightened. “I sure would. We’ll see how Emily and Jean do. I can still shoulder Emily for a bit longer.”
“Let’s take turns,” Mave turned to the smaller of the two girls. “Emily, is it okay if I carry you for awhile?”
The little girl nodded shyly and grabbed the edge of her shirt, pulling on it nervously.
The next two hours went in near silence. Most of the people around us had tired as well. An older couple had stopped to sleep about an hour in, at a rest stop. When Dean asked if they needed help, or there was anyone we could call, they simply shook their heads.
“Take the children, we’ll be fine. I used to be a forest ranger!” The man tapped a button on his jacket. “Survival is my middle name.”
“It almost certainly is.” His wife had gazed lovingly at him. Dean and Mave had really wanted to bring them along, but really, if they wouldn’t go, how could they be forced?
Longville looked like the circus was in town. Tents had popped up around the edges city. Two tents had large red crosses on them. One said “Field Unit,” the other “Information.” We went to “Information.”
“Hi-ya,” Mave said, “I guess you know why we’re here.”
The woman at the pop-up table smiled. “I certainly do.” She gazed down at a list in front of her. “I have two families left in town willing to host.” She looked at the eight of us. “One can only take two people though…” she bit her lip…”and the other four.”
Dean looked over to Diane and her little girls. “Diane, why don’t you take the house with four? John’s been carrying our big tent this whole time, the rest of us can make do.”
Diane was too tired to argue. She thanked all of us with tears in her eyes.
“Perfect,” the volunteer said. “There’s a woman separated from her family,” she nodded toward the edge of the tent, “who’s been waiting for someone to join her. She should really get some rest and stop waiting here…Joanne?”
The woman had a clean change of clothes, but ash still matted her hair. Her grey face was almost ghost-like.
The volunteer, Rachel, walked with us to the outside of the tent. “You can set up over…let’s see…THERE.” She pointed to a circle of trees with twenty or so smaller tents already set up inside. “There are lots of families already set up.”
I start to open my mouth, then quickly realize it will be smart not to mention we aren’t a family.
We padded over. No sense in rushing now. Dean and John set up the tent in a snap: it had two rooms. “Ladies’ dorm…” Dean held back the tent flap for Mave and I to enter. We had no sleeping bags, but Mave had what looked like shiny long strips of aluminum foil. “Emergency blankets,” she stated, “It’s a good thing it’s nice and grassy here.”
I nibbled a little bit of my granola bar, and wrapped myself in the blanket, using the hoody as a pillow. I was out cold. What seemed a great while later, I half awoke. Mave’s spot next to me was empty. It was still dark, and I heard outside murmurs.
“The weird thing is is that UCAG called me last week.” That was Mave.
“Me too…how odd…” Dean definitely. Then a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand.
“…think they maybe knew about…”
“….couldn’t possibly, been inactive for ages…”
“….better get back to sleep, long day ahead and the kids…”
What on earth was “You-KAG? ” And would my mother be upset with me that I didn’t brush my teeth before sleeping? My sleepy mind was playing tricks on me, I decided. And after all, it had been the strangest day of my life.