The Tambinder Engine (part one)
The Tambinder Engine
A McAlley Story
The subject was a Carmadge, from the far side of the world.
She had taken her car on a poking, cautious drive, where guardrails were off, where asphalt webbed itself into cracked rings, undermined by rain squalls come too late. Horses were transport in the hills of her home, and she had ridden to a scenic park, a clearing now of ash and stobs, hay the ironic chief of her needs. But food for herself, water jugs.
The roadside shopping spots were gone. Her saddlebags could hold so much, and she had put her name several places, checked boxes to let them know what to offload at her tent.
Her phone jingled a text. Deenie. How can I help?
I’m alone up here with my yellow mare, and the dog and cat, and if you could find a truck.
I have a truck. Will you meet me at the Overroad. There is a burnt-out town, it was called Evers. A concrete garage standing. That will be the depot.
Deenie had plugged the phone into the car charger, and taken the risk. In the tent were a few last cans of pet food. She chose to leave Ondine, the horse, but not the others, because the road might slip. It was very near slipping. And if she was severed from the place her house had been, she could not bear the cruelty. The horse, at least, had some forage.
These thoughts, and what to wear, and what the weather looked like…
But nothing drove down her anxiety. The cat was good, nestling himself between her neck and the headrest, making Deenie hunch over the wheel, but quiet. The dog shifted, shifted, shifted, on the rear seat.
Deenie belonged to groups—to a preservation group, a crafter’s group, a bartering group, to the Gaia Chapel. She used her days to walk and write inventory in her notebook, what green was left, what roots under the ash seemed healthy, what had sprouted a new leaf.
“Evers, of course I know Evers,” she told the pets.
She slowed for a sign, metal peeled of its paint. This was the sign, though…how could it not be?
“Unless my nerves are that bad, and I’ve got us lost without knowing.”
Driveways then, coming off the road, and block foundations. And the odd things that survive, fuel tanks, chimneys. Kitchen ranges. She saw the haunches of an animal, fleeing. It gave her a pang, someone’s pet that had saved itself. Starving. Stop and call to it.
But don’t stop, she counselled. It might have been a rabbit.
The Overroad, the new construction that impoverished them, passing them by, rose across its modern culverts, its facing-stone still white. “A garage, guys. Help me look.” She spotted the corner, the blocks, behind a great amount of bulldozed rubble.
Isn’t that good, Deenie made herself ask herself. We may all be ordinary before we know it.
Yet unease was the feeling. Dislike, for no rational reason, of the workers who came to shovel off people’s houses. Two in yellow vests had their backs to her, moving char from the lot with snow-clearing gear. She kissed her pets, cracked the windows, and shut them in firmly.
A white truck with small writing on the door was parked. No friend of hers inside or out.
“Careful now,” one of the workers called.
Her concentration carried her through the bay of the garage. She stopped to think, and called back, “Thanks!”
A barbecued counter, a melted register with open cash drawer. Coins thickened with soot sat clumped. Metal shelves along the back wall, carbon-stained, and new plastic boxes…
And what were the rules, if no one stood to supervise? She inched across and popped a lid. Bags of flour. She decided against taking one, took out her phone and under the light of the missing roof, laid it on the counter.
It’s Deenie. I’m at the garage, and you aren’t. Do I load up, or will someone come help?
She let her shyness be content with counting minutes. When plainly the friend was unavailable to reply, she told herself, now go out and tell them you’re in the hills, you need a truckload of hay, clean water, building supplies.
The workers’ voices, in the background, were a buzz buzz. Deenie stopped to see her pets, played fingers above the glass, gauged the coolness of the wind. The smells it bore sickened her—they were not smells of miserable fates, but chemical, and burnt metal.
Buzz buzz, and her feet were under her watch, crunching debris. Rods of iron twisted, exploded building blocks that could turn an ankle…
A crunch answered.
He walked further towards her, smiling. The smile was of distraction, a curve of lips. The eyes looked unrecognizing.
“Oh, Matthew, how has it been for you? Is your house all right? Lynn wasn’t visiting? You never said.”
He had been before her, his gait inexorable, coming so close he could only stop this motion, or tread on her toes. He did not. Deenie blinked and found him vanished.
To the right and left she peered, head lowered. She stood straight, let herself walk ahead, far enough that if the workers had not vanished also, she would see them. She called out, weak-voiced—but for the old reason of timidity.
A wind gust came whistling. She shouted, “Matthew!”
She shouted, “Anyone!”
She dared: “Help!”, and “Help!” again.
Well, it was a relief to be alone. Deenie returned to the depot. The dog was asleep, the cat staring up, curled safe under the pedals. She took flour, canned milk, several…and then all…the foil packets of trail meat. Water?
“Guys, we’ll make do.”
The Tambinder Engine
(2022, Stephanie Foster)