THIRTY SIX ‑ HOT SOUP

 

 

They drove their separate ways up through northern California. Each rode alone in his or her car, and each worried about the other two. The plan was to meet at a campground near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest. Since Gideon, of necessity, took the shortest route out of San Francisco, the other two circling down and around the city, he was the first to arrive at the campground. He shopped for vegetables and meats, using some of the money J. had left in the glove compartment. He had taken two armloads of supplies to the counter before he remembered that all of his untensils were in the van, and the van was no longer his. Reality gripped his heart.

     His van was the only thing in the world he considered his, and he missed it. It had been shelter and escape for him, and it was also his home. Everything he owned was inside his van. Gideon's spirits fell steadily as he walked through the store, gathering cheap aluminum pots and pans he found huddled together under a sign that said, Enjoy the Great Outdoors with Kebro Kooking Supplies. The sign showed a picture of a human family gathered around a campfire, waiting to chow down. Around them, wild but harmless creatures peeked out from behind bushes and trees. The pans themselves were practically useless for cooking anything but frozen vegetables, but they were better than nothing at all.

     After stocking his car with provisions, Gideon made his way up the side of a mountain in the direction of the campgrounds. He drove to the end of the pavement and followed a winding dirt road that dodged through the thick forest.

     He parked in a clear stall at the campgrounds and climbed out of the car. There were no other vehicles in the area, and the silence was overwhelming. Gideon put J. and Sarah out of his mind, knowing his roommate well enough to know they would both make it.

     He left the supplies and took a walk through the woods. After strolling in the dark campgrounds for less than five minutes he stopped, his nose high to the wind. He smelled food.

     Gideon tried to keep from running down the narrow path, letting his nose guide him. He thought it might be possible to find someone who would be willing to part with some decent cooking utensils for a good price. J. had left money in the car's glove compartment, and they would need good supplies if they were to survive in the winter woods.

     Suddenly, Gideon was overwhelmed by the knowledge that his life had changed forever, and he put a hand to his head. He couldn't walk up to anyone now without fear. Would they recognize him? Would they call the police? He knew himself well enough to know he couldn't hurt them if they did, and he didn't want to go to jail.

     Gideon loved his freedom.

     Still, the smell was enticing, and he crept up to a line of trees, their images dancing in the light of an open fire. When he came to the trees he peered cautiously into the clearing where a camp had been set. Someone was bending over a fire, stirring soup in a large, deep pot. Beside this figure were spatulas and spoons and forks and knives. Around the campfire were a scattered collection of good pots and pans, and one enormous cast‑iron skillet.

     Gideon's eyes widened, and he grinned.

     "Hey, old buddy!" he shouted, watching the look of surprise on my face as I stood up and did something foolish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought Gideon was still in the hospital in San Francisco, and seeing him hop out of the darkness like a goblin scared me so badly that I stuck my fingers into the boiling soup. After I stopped screaming, I offered him some.

     We ate in silence. I stared at him and thought of how he'd looked the first time I met him. He'd been lively then, and his eyes sparkled. That night, near Lake Pillsbury, he looked very old, and very tired. He had a smudged cast on his forearm and a jagged, purple scar across his forehead, just above his eyes. It looked eerie in the light of the fire. I asked him how he was.

     "Fine," he said, "But, I have been better." Gideon looked over his shoulder. He appeared to be in a fog and, after a long pause, looked over at me.

     "You know Sarah Ash and J. Hubbard, don't you?" he asked.

     I told him I had met Sarah. He asked if I'd seen them, and I said no. We sat without talking again, listening to the sounds outside the camp fire. We heard two cars driving up the road to the campgrounds and Gideon leapt to his feet.

     "It's them!" he said. He put the bowl of soup on the thick, wooden picnic table and ran to the trees, turned once to wave goodbye then disappeared into the night.

     By the time I'd finished my soup and rolled out my sleeping bag Gideon was back. He had his damaged arm resting on J. Hubbard's shoulder and his good arm around the slim waist of Sarah Ash. I said hello to Sarah.

     "This is J. Hubbard," Gideon said. I shook J.'s hand and told him my name. He looked very unusual standing in the middle of the dusty, cold camp, wearing patent leather shoes and a crisp, blue business suit.

     I passed around bowls of soup and mugs of hot coffee, and we all ate. J. and Sarah were starved, and Gideon was still hungry. I told them to eat all they wanted. Even when I was alone, which was most of the time, I made enough food for a dozen hungry people. What I didn't eat for supper I finished at breakfast.

     J. and Sarah told Gideon how they had slipped out of the city, then met again in Sacramento.

     "Oh," Sarah said, "Uriah's still in the car with his cat box. I'll go get him."

     "No, don't," Gideon stopped her with his hand. "Leave him there, and we'll get him in the morning."

     Sarah sat down beside him, and they scraped at the soup with heavy spoons. I sat by the fire all night, almost unnoticed, listening as they dealt with their fears by talking. When they finally walked away I waved and said I hoped they got what they wanted.

     I always hope people I like get what they want. I hope people I don't like get what they deserve.

 

 

 

THIRTY SEVEN ‑ THE CHASE

 

 

"The cat!" Moranne shouted, slamming his fist down hard on the desk. Lobajeski had been sitting in a chair behind the desk, his right cheek flattened on the mahogany top as he tried to get some sleep. They hadn't slept in a long time.

     He bruised his knees on the edge of the desk as he jumped out of the chair. To his half‑asleep brain, Moranne's fist hitting the desk top sounded like a gunshot. Lobajeski thought someone was trying to kill him. Colletti had been leaning against the wall. He straightened, and his eyes came alive.

     "The cat," Colletti said.

     "Exactly!" Moranne didn't even look tired, and it troubled the other man.

     "They're probably out of the range of the scanner," Lobajeski said between hiccoughs. Moranne took that into consideration. He almost ran across the floor.

     "Captain," Moranne opened the door to another room, and held it open. A silver haired man with red‑rimmed eyes and red skin stepped into the room. Moranne told him about the cat, and he perked up.

     "I want this given top priority," Moranne said. "If you get any static from the commissioner, the mayor, anyone! ‑ you tell them you're following federal orders, and I'll take the responsibility."

     "You've got all the help I can give you," the captain said.

     "I want you to call State and arrange for all officers to be supplied with scanners, set to the frequency of that cat."

     "No problem."

     "This asshole is a maniac when it comes to the woods, too," Moranne said, a tiny twitch developing at the corners of his mouth. "Make sure the park rangers get some of the scanners."

     "That's not my ‑" the captain started, but Moranne cut him off with one quick hand slicing the air between them.

     "It is, now," the inspector said.

     "That's a tall order."

     "I'll go beyond that, if I have to," Moranne said. He had become a Gideon‑chasing machine. His assistants had to force him to eat and sleep. He thought and talked of nothing else but Gideon Holley.

     The captain returned to the other room and began making phone calls. By the next afternoon, almost every police officer in the state of California carried scanners set to the frequency of the cat's tiny beeper. Before ten o'clock that evening, police officers in three separate counties conducted raids on three separate houses by following the beeps. In each case, they found families gathered around the dinner table, awaiting food. In each of these households the food was being cooked by a certain new brand of microwave oven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J. had bought three sleeping bags while in San Francisco. They were the finest he could find, fluffy with down and bordered by huge zippers. He'd also bought new outdoor clothing for Sarah, Gideon and himself.

     J. moved his bag close to the cars and built a small, clumsy fire. He fell asleep soon after he lay down. Gideon and Sarah bundled up together and stayed awake for hours.

    Just after sunrise the three of them packed all their supplies into a brown and beige Plymouth station wagon J. had paid cash for in San Francisco. He'd left his rented car in the parking lot of the Sacramento Executive Airport. They left Gideon and Sarah's rental cars parked in the isolated campgrounds.

     J. planted a map in Gideon's car with lines drawn toward Idaho.

     "All for one and one for all," Gideon said to them. Sarah smiled, and put an arm around J.

     "It's not going to be easy," J. said, "but we knew that. Let's get the hell out of here."

 

 

J. Hubbard drove cautiously, his hands locked on the wheel. Sarah sat folded into the far corner, her head turning each time Gideon thrashed around in the back seat, hurting for him as he fought his troubled dreams.

     Earlier, while Gideon was awake, they had talked among themselves. Sarah had explained their plan to Gideon in the hospital room. Because they had wanted to be cautious, they hadn't risked looking for the underground in San Francisco. The Bob Rome sellout had been too much of a shock for Sarah, and J. didn't know anyone to ask. No one would've revealed much to him, anyhow. He looked like someone from the mayor's office.

     "I supposed, at some point," Sarah said, "we'll have to decide what to do next."

     "I can call my dad," J. said. "But he and mom are on a kibbutz until next week. They can get us out of here."

     "But where is here?" Gideon asked.

     "Here," J. said, pulling a map from the dash, "is the Shasta National Forest. It's close enough to keep us from spending too much time on the road, but there should be plenty of places to hide for a week."

     He'd handed the map to Gideon, and pointed to red‑ penciled lines taking them from Mendocino to Mount Shasta.

     "How did you know all this?"

     "You're not the only one who spent his summers in the woods," J. said indignantly. "You're just the only one who looks like you did."

     "Well, you've done a good job here." Gideon looked at the map.

     "Are you sure we have what we need?" Sarah asked.

     "Positive," J. said. "The back of this thing is stocked." Gideon glanced back at the piles of supplies in the station wagon. He had added his own until the rear window was blocked.

     "It's so cold," Sarah stared out the window at the snow.

     "Yeah," Gideon said. "You know, we could all go down to my uncle John's farm after this settles. He doesn't give a damn about anything but one‑on‑one friendship. Folks down there try to stay as far as they can from the government."

     "That's going to backfire on them, someday," Sarah said.

     "No," Gideon shook his head. "Not way out there. It's just a little rural town, Sarah. The people down there grow crops and families, and let everything else take care of itself."

     "I don't believe it," Sarah leaned her head on his arm. "But, I can honestly say there's nothing in the world I want more right now. I want to be there."

     "You will be," Gideon closed his eyes. "I promise."

     Sarah raised her head and looked at J. She felt like crying. The loner was more alone that he'd ever been before. She could feel it. He had given up everything to help a friend. J. saw her sad face.

     "Hey," he said, smiling, "don't worry about me. Nobody but me knows what I can do when I have to."

     "You're wrong, J." she said. "I know."

     "I don't need a library to be happy,” he mumbled.

 

 

They reached Shasta National Forest in a little over four hours. Gideon had slept a good deal of the way.

     Shasta National Forest is a beautiful, green wilderness. Its scenic views are breathtaking, and the unsettled land stretches out forever. The weather turns cooler there where the mountains stop the warm Pacific breezes.

     J. pulled off Interstate Five and eased the car to a stop at a small service station. It sat in a line of rustic buildings ‑ a convenience market, a restaurant and two gas stations. He and Sarah had talked about their upcoming stay in the mountains, and made a list of things they still didn't have. Leaving Gideon asleep against the window, the two wandered through the market, then loaded their extras in the back seat.

     "How about gas?" Sarah asked.

     "I have a half tank, more or less."

     "Shouldn't we fill it now?"

     J. thought it over. "Yes," he held the door for her and slid in after. "That's a very good idea. Better to stop on the way in than to have to stop on the way out. We might be in a hurry then."

     "Are you scared?"

     "Yes."

     "Me, too."

     "Are you having second thoughts, Sarah?"

     "God, no!" she clipped her words. "We knew what we were doing, but that didn't stop us."

     "I didn't mean to make you angry," J. said.

     "I'm not angry," Sarah touched his arm with the tips of her fingers. "It's just that I can't imagine being anywhere else."

     "Me, either," J. put the car in gear and drove up to the ENCO station. The attendant was a tall, gangly man with an acne scarred face and a lopsided grin. Each time J. asked him a question, the man would point his index finger at him, aiming it as though it was the barrel of a pistol. He would drop his thumb onto the knuckle of his index finger, wink his eye and make a clicking sound with his tongue. Then, he'd say, "There you go."

     Gideon woke up and studied the man from the back seat, then lay back down around the extra supplies. When J. pulled the car away from the pumps he said, "Next stop...Mount Shasta."

     Gideon clicked his tongue. "There you go," he said. Within minutes he was asleep again, and Sarah felt his forehead.

     "He's weak," she said. "And he might have a temperature."

     "Gideon will be fine," J. said. I have some medication back there somewhere, too. We'll get it out when we stop."

     A silence settled on them again as they left the scattered houses and small ranches for the desolation of the Shasta National Forest.

     "Listen, Sarah," J. said. "You and I have been walking a tightrope now for almost a month. We've had to totally trust each other, but I really don't even know you."

     J. stopped there, and Sarah let the silence go unbroken, not sure whether or not he was finished. Each pair of headlights coming toward them tied another knot in the pit of her stomach, and each set of lights that came from behind hypnotized her with their implications.

     "And you don't know me," J. said at last. "But, I've always been able to see patterns, you know? Currents and movements and things. I'm a watcher, and you're a doer, I guess."

     Sarah chuckled. "And, what's he?" she thumbed toward Gideon's sleeping form in the shadows of the back seat. Uriah slept in a lump on his chest.

     "He just is," J. said. "I think that's why we're both so attracted to him. I don't have many friends ‑ I never have. And that's okay, Sarah; that's fine. But, I could've no more left Gideon in that hospital back there than I could've left a turtle in the middle of the road."

     Sarah laughed out loud, and clamped a hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry, J.," she said, watching his serious face in the pale-yellow lights of the dash.

     "Me, too," he said. "Sarah, my vision isn't working anymore."

     "What do you mean?"

     "I mean I don't see anything here. No patterns, no currents. I don't know what we're going to do, and I'm not used to that feeling." His hands squeezed the wheel. "I think I'm scared."

     Sarah wrapped her arms tightly across her breasts, looked up into the overcast sky and shivered.

     "You really believe in those things you talk about in your speeches, don't you?" J. said.

     "Yes," Sarah said, without hesitation.

     "God," he said, "I envy you."

     "Why?"

     "Because I think that's where you get your courage. You believe in the future, and I just believe in the inevitable."

     "And that leaves us with Gideon again," Sarah said. "What about him?"

     "He believes in us," J. said simply.

 

 

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