A remarkable thing happened following the hugs, decisions on seating arrangements for the three passengers, latching of seat belts and waves that marked the oddly assorted group of travelers. For the first time in days, they actually traveled.
Once on I-40 they practically flew to Knoxville where they encountered some slowing of traffic due to the inevitable Tennessee road construction. Sophia pretended patience, but Max saw the tensing of her jaw as the Buick crawled along, strapped to one lane and boxed between two semis. Lily had chosen to sit next to “Bertha Mae” and was actually chattering. Nothing she said made sense so it reminded Max of the toddlers he had observed as their gift of gab emerged—gibberish, but an attempt at communication. Amanda sat directly behind Sophia, awake, but distant, deep in thought or bored. It was hard for Max to define the minor nuances Amanda displayed with so little alteration in her typically bland countenance.
Max read the orange highway maintenance signs. “Left lane closed ahead. Merge Right”; “Slow Road Work in Progress”; and, “Fine will be doubled in Work Zone.” They amused him. He turned his head toward Amanda.
“Do you know that Tennessee didn’t invent road construction, but they have perfected it?”
“Huh?” Amanda barely shifted her head to give him a “so what” look.
“It’s a fact. Believe I read it somewhere.” His attempt to mimic her bland look, even slumping his shoulders included failed to bait her. “That’s why all road construction signs and pylons in the United States are orange. To honor Tennessee and the fine traffic conduits they manage to place on every road in the great state.
Sophia chuckled softly in the front seat. Amanda tucked her chin to her chest, furrowed her eyebrows and gawked at him.
“I haven’t a clue as to what on earth you are talking about.”
“Orange. . .University of Tennessee colors…you know.”
“Oh.” Her voice conveyed in that one word a total apathy regarding his attempt at humor. She retreated to looking out the side window at the huge concrete divider that almost touched the Buick as Sophia edged her way through. Max returned to his own reverie as well, closing his eyes hoping to catch a little nap and rid himself of the headache. He’d hardly relaxed against the seat when he felt acceleration as the Buick broke through the concrete gauntlet and pushed forward toward Asheville.
The tenseness in Sophia’s jaw relaxed. Lily quieted; Max couldn’t see her clearly because of the head rest, but speculated that she slept. A somnolence settled over him, too. He yawned a couple of times, his head bobbing forward. The drowsiness nearly sunk him into sleep. He lowered himself into the warm pool of slumber, when two factors delayed him
The first began as a muscle tic at the right corner of his mouth, and then spread its tentacles upward across his right jaw, upward toward his ear. Tiny currents of electrical activity followed the pathways giving rise to yet more involuntary muscle movement. Instinctively, he started to reach up and touch the twitching muscles only to find trunk lines of electrical current in his right arm. He winced with pain, inhaled, held his breath a second or two before releasing the air. Whatever triggered the incident faded away. His sleepiness dissipated replaced by an uneasy feeling. Carefully, he stretched out his arm, flexing it a couple of times. Once sure it functioned, Max touched the right side of his face; the skin felt like, well, like skin.
With some trepidation he glanced toward Amanda. Sensing his interest, she turned her head to face him
“Max,” she said, “Did Greta have her baby?”
He nodded, cleared his throat and remembered the pink bordered birth announcement he’d found in the box of letters. “In August 1939, a little girl, Olivia Levin. She was born in London.” His voice was barely a whisper.
“What happened to her?”
A painful sigh filled his lungs before he answered.
“I don’t know.”
“Does Lily?” Amanda tilted her head toward the front seat
“I don’t know.” An overwhelming sense of loss unlike any he’d ever experienced before threatened to pull him under. There had been nothing about Olivia. He’d gone over it again when Lily mentioned her last night. Greta and Joel had kept his nieces and Olivia in the city until the bombings began. Joel sent them all including Greta to the country in August of 1940; Olivia was a year old. Greta stayed with the girls a month before returning to London. She died in November. What had happened to Joel Levin? What had happened to those little girls? If Lily had only asked, he would have searched high and low for them after the war. Or would he have? Max honestly couldn’t say for sure how he would have reacted. Now he would, but then he, well he just wasn’t sure. The question never arose. Lily never asked and now she never would.
Amanda reached over and clasped his hand with a quick squeeze. She even offered him one of her rare smiles. He returned it
“Carmichael” she spoke almost inaudibly.
“My real name is Amanda Carmichael. I promised I’d tell you.”
He nodded but said nothing, uneasy with the information he had about Amanda, knowing he had to tell her and dreading the possible reactions.
“Welcome to North Carolina.” Sophia announced. “I do believe we have surpassed our mileage record by traveling greater than 60 miles without a stop. At least that’s true since I joined this little trek.”
Interstate 40 sliced into the mountains of North Carolina with the Buick and her passengers ascending more rapidly than they had in Tennessee. Almost in unison everyone’s ears popped as their Eustachian tubes worked overtime to equalize the change of air pressure.
“I may need some gum,” Amanda announced, swallowing hard several times.
“We will probably be climbing all the way to Asheville from here; this part of I 40 cuts right up the mountain range.” Max interjected.
“There should be vending machines at the first rest stop. Ruth packed us a lunch. It shouldn’t be too far; they usually put those Welcome Centers pretty close to the border, so you can find all the fun things to do in North Carolina. Would you look at those rocks?” Sophia pointed to one side and then the other.
“Gosh, it looks like they just came down off the mountain!”
“Looks that way, but this road’s been here a while, so. . .
“What’s that orange netting? Do you see it? Are they trying to catch them as they fall?” Amanda looked upward as if at any second a huge bolder could plummet crushing them all.
Max listened and looked, trying to remember when the rock slide that closed I-40 in this region happened. It hadn’t been all that long ago. Noticing the apprehension on Amanda’s face prevented him from sharing that tidbit of trivia. Instead he said,
“Interstate 40 was in the original group of Eisenhower Interstates. Construction started in the late 1950s during the height of the Cold War.”
A skeptical Amanda shifted her eyes toward him away from the threatening boulders. “What?”
“Eisenhower started the interstates?” Sophia asked suspiciously. “You know that for a fact?”
Max looked between them. Amanda had shifted her bored expression a notch upward to “still bored, but I’ll humor you” while Sophia had cocked her right ear just slightly toward the backseat. It was no surprise that Amanda had missed this part of history—her own history beginning in the latter part of the 20th Century—but Sophia! Lily stirred in the front seat probably uncomfortable with the change of pressure.
“Where are we?” She asked a tremor in her voice. Max spoke before the others could.
“You remember, Lily, we have to travel through the mountains to get to the ocean. I was just telling about Eisenhower building the interstates.”
“Oh,” she murmured, “We are going to the ocean? Will we miss the election?”
“No, do you remember Eisenhower, Lily?” Max probed, uncertain where this would lead.
“Oh, yes.” She looked at Sophia, “My Max served under the General in Europe, during the war. I have a button.”
“A button?” Sophia asked
“I Like Ike!” Lily exclaimed. Soft laughter filled the car, even Lily laughed then fell silent working her fingers in her lap as if she were crocheting.
“Anyway, the story goes that as a young lieutenant in 1919, Ike had traveled in a convoy from the east coast to the west coast in an amazing 62 days. On some roads travel speed averaged 5 miles a day.” Max began only to be interrupted by a short burst of laughter from Sophia.
“Sounds like this trip!”
Max shook his head unable to come up with a quick retort and continued his little history lesson
“Well when Ike was in post war Germany, he noticed that while Allied destruction of airports and railways virtually destroyed those transportation routes, the wide autobahns remained usable. We moved our equipment and men down them. Apparently extensive miles of asphalt and concrete present a far more formidable target than railways and airports.”
“Weren’t there potholes and such from the bombs?”
“Huge ones but the roads were still passable with little repair necessary. It actually impressed us all.”
“So you’re saying Eisenhower built roads here because of the roads in Germany?” Sophia sounded as if she could hardly wait to get to the computer to check out his story.
“That’s right. He saw how important roads could be to a strong defense program. Under his leadership as President, Ike hunted for support to provide adequate roads for the transportation of troops and equipment as well as provide evacuation routes for citizens. So the Department of Defense budget financed the original interstates. Interstate 40, this very road, is one of them.”
“So how long is this one?”
“Interstate 40 starts in California and ends here in North Carolina near the coast. It was completed I think in the late 1960’s”
“How do you know all this?” Amanda pressed with the attitude of an interrogator.
Max looked again between Sophia and her, sighed and admitted what they all could agree on.
With a quick nodding assent, they all fell silent again. Max continued to contemplate this particular section of road. It had been non-existent in 1960.
Some stretches of the roads were easier to build than others. Max remembered that the fifty miles from the Tennessee border to Asheville, North Caroling presented a significant road construction challenge. To Max the man-made valley appeared to have been created by a divine hand with a wedge driven into the mountain range, but he knew the finished product was the result of dynamite and land moving equipment. The angle of the mountains with walls of netting to prevent sliding rocks from landing on the road gave the impression that mountains and Pisgah National Forest might yet retake the road
“Sophia, is there a rest stop somewhere close?” Amanda asked.
“Should be one pretty soon. You all ready to stop? We can picnic. Ruth sent a passel of food for lunch.”
“I’m ready.” Amanda confirmed.
“Me, too.” Max agreed. Lily was silent, sleeping again, no doubt. He smiled again at her “I like Ike” interjection.
Immediately after Exit 7, a rest stop sign appeared. Sophia eased the Buick off the road and followed the signs for cars and picnic facilities.
Flies descended on the sandwich lying on a paper towel in front of Lily. Their frenzied attack matched the activity that surrounded the picnic table. Bertha Mae—or was she Bertha Mae’s sister? —Worked to get all the food in the basket out on the table. The man and the girl had gone off somewhere. They were all together Lily thought. They’d been in a car. But who were all these other people? Children played nearby. Cars and trucks came and went. Voices she didn’t recognize descended on her ears like the flies on her sandwich. Lily’s chest tightened, a clammy feeling draped her. Trembling she gasped for breath, but there wasn’t enough air. The voices were closing in, like the flies; she began to shake both her hands over her sandwich until an uncontrollable trembling began to take over her body. A low moan began in her throat
“Get them off. Get them off.” She cried shaking her hands and rocking. They were closing in. There was no way to escape. Lily screamed.
Sophia dropped what she was doing and tried to calm Lily who batted furiously at the flies as she screamed.
“Lily, Lily, Calm down. I’ll get the flies off.”
Lily struggled away from Sophia, clutching her sweater and sliding off the picnic bench. Purposefully, Lily crumbled to the ground and crawled under the picnic table. She covered her ears with her hands and screwed her eyes shut. Her screaming had stopped but her gasps for air and trembling persisted. Sophia watched helplessly while she drew herself into a tight ball like a trapped animal.
Oh, Sweet Jesus, what am I going to do? Sophia thought. A crowd was gathering though not a single person had yet offered assistance. Taking a deep breath, she dropped as gently to the ground as her substantial frame would allow. If Lily opened her eyes at least they would be eye to eye. Sophia had experience a foretaste of Lily’s anxiety attacks, but none of the episodes prior hinted of the panic this spell produced in Lily and whoever—Sophia being the whoever—happened to be closest. She edged as close to Lily as she could with the concrete bench as a barrier between them. Just as she started to speak, her pocket began vibrating and the William Tell Overture swung into full gear and a voice from above spoke.
“Can I help?” Max asked.
Max watched as Sophia dragged the cell phone from her pocket and attempted to rise off the concrete pad surrounding the picnic table and benches, pointing as she did so underneath the table. Before he examined the situation further Max knew who he would find crouched there.
He scanned the curious circle of people who began shifting their eyes nervously and pulling back from the obviously private drama. Good riddance, he thought. He started to offer an arm to Sophia, when the stabbing electrical current rendered him powerless. Sophia kept talking, but he wasn’t paying her any attention nor was she paying him any. She’d tell him later if it was important. He waved her off and she willingly retreated, chatting as she went.
Holding his arm still, the paralyzing effect of the neural activity began to subside. Getting down on the ground proved impossible, so he sat on the bench and began talking to Lily.
“Lily, it’s Max. I’m here to help you.”
No response, her moaning continued.
“Lily, everything’s okay now. Are you okay?”
There was still no response, but the moaning stopped. He couldn’t see her, but her quieting encouraged him.
“Did you have some lunch, Lily? Aren’t you hungry?”
She moaned again. He changed courses.
“Lily, come on out here and I’ll get you someplace to rest.”
“Flies, everywhere, flies, buzzing.”
“There are no flies now, Lily. I scared them off. Come on out.”
“Who are you? Who are the others?’
“My husband’s name is Max. He’s in the army in France.”
Max nodded thoughtfully. The talk of Eisenhower must have prompted this diversion in her mind.
“Well, I know for a fact that your Max wouldn’t want his lovely Lily hiding under a table from a bunch of measly flies, now would he?”
Max heard her moving from under the table, crawling out. When she emerged, he saw she had scraped her knees and palms. He helped her off the ground and seated her on the bench facing out toward the surrounding rocks and trees and away from the commotion near the Welcome Center and parking area. He uncovered her sandwich and handed it to her. Lily ate without hesitation; evidently her fear of flies had dissipated.
With a gentle hand he dusted the grit from the scrapes on her knees. Max grimaced for her. Lily’s skin was so thin that it peeled like onionskin with the slightest provocation. She would need them washed and an antibiotic cream applied, but that would have to wait till later. Max shifted his body closer to hers on the bench, taking her hand in his, when she finished eating. Lily did not protest. His intention to speak to her about their journey to the ocean, to calm her fears, was denied.
A canopy of light descended on him; sound swirled around him like a tornado dragging him into its core; and the vacuum created at its vortex sucked his internal organs pulling them up to his swollen head threatening volcanic explosion. The last Max remembered was the rigidity of his body and the sound of screaming.
Sophia hurriedly told Millie ‘good-bye’ when she heard Lily screaming and saw a dozen or more folks running toward her. From her vantage point she could not see what was going on, so she snapped the phone shut and started down the hill to the area. Displaying once more her ability to run she covered the distance in seconds. Her attention was directed toward Lily so she had reached the picnic table before she realized that Max had collapsed. Having seen more than one seizure in her life as a hospital chaplain, she recognized in an instant what was happening.
A petite female from the crowd stepped forward. At first, Sophia thought it was Amanda; she shook that perception off when she realized her mistake. She attempted to to stop the woman’s forward progress. Without missing a stride the young woman explained herself.
“Hi, my name is Francine. I’m an EMT. We’re on vacation.”–she motioned toward a man and a toddler, pointing then toward Max—“He’s having a seizure, so I was going to make sure he didn’t hurt himself.” Sophia watched as Francine moved to Max with the self-confidence of a trained emergency technician. Once at his side, Francine looked up at Sophia and said calmly, “Do you have a cell phone?” —Then without waiting for an answer said—“call 911. He is going to need to be transported to a hospital.”
Sophia whipped open the phone and punched in the numbers all the while moving toward Lily who was turning in circles stamping her feet and screaming. The crowd had backed off and given her room after she swatted at a couple of them and called them “Nazi flies”. Sophia tucked her under one of her ample arms while giving what information she could to the dispatcher.
When she clamped the phone shut again she scanned the crowd for Amanda. Where was she? Was she still at the Welcome Center? Sophia squinted and peered toward the Welcome Center. A flock of the curious hovered there also watching the scene unfold below. Surely if Amanda were there she would have heard the ruckus and checked to see what was happening. Sophia expanded her search of the grounds.
Bingo! Sophia spotted her running across the lawn to the truck parking area. A burly man in a sleeveless shirt and baseball cap gestured to Amanda as she ran. Sophia watched with horror as Amanda changed course and headed toward him. He stood on the side of the cab of his tractor-trailer rig with the door open. As Amanda approached he caught her arm and scooped her into the cab then followed her. Swallowing hard Sophia yelled, “Stop that Truck!” but her voice was muted by her own revulsion and the sound of sirens approaching. The writing on the cab was too distant to read and the trailer was devoid of identifying signage. Suddenly, Sophia realized her utter helplessness interceding in the fast forward split screen events that were unfolding. With Max on the ground seizing, Lily in a panic, and Amanda in a truck 200 feet away, her gut gnarled.Hot tears burned her cheeks as Sophia drew Lily closer and began to soothe her. She prayed silently. The paramedics’ appearance on the scene with Max relieved some the pressure. Their professionalism brought a measure of calm to the whole scene. Max’s seizure had resolved leaving him to all appearance like a floppy doll; she heard one of them speak into his radio, “We have an elderly white male with flexion to pain . . .” His voice trailed off. His partner started toward Sophia as Francine pointed toward her. Sophia watched him approach as the truck with Amanda aboard barreled away and disappeared on Interstate 40 headed east.