The Tambinder Engine (part two)
The Tambinder Engine
A McAlley Story
Leaving, she scanned hard the direction Matthew would have gone. Maybe I’ve seen a ghost. Maybe I’ve had a fit. The bad air… At her rear bumper, she laid her armload on the gravel.
The white truck had water jugs in the bed. The small writing told her: AHSD 77706-4E4E. No person was inside, somehow tucked, as Bobbo the cat, below the steering wheel. She took the water.
Tirza and Rory, ministers at the Gaia Chapel, had come to Deenie’s homesite, only the two of them. The road was patched and passable, even to a trailer. The Airstream must be a great improvement over her tent, and Rory was lending a generator with a solar panel, so that on a bright day Deenie would have electric, an hour or two’s.
“Do we call this life, getting itself back?”
Tirza gave a preoccupied nod, but spoke of another thing. “You worry about the animals. But think, seriously…we’ve already found places for ninety-eight people. We have. When the supplies come, it makes for a celebration. We eat, we hold a prayer sing for the planet, we walk out to the hillside where we’re putting in the trees. The work is good.”
“Can Rory get that by himself?”
Rory was leveling the camper on its legs.
“Rory, are you done? Deenie wants to know.”
If they were not really conversing, Deenie could count this a fair comeback. The ninety-eight places were a barracks arrangement. The Chapel and its captive workforce had for a horse barn adapted a burnt foundation, walled it in salvage, roofed it with corrugated stuff donated by a greenhouse owner. Tirza said all the cats and dogs roamed happily, the refuge had portable toilets, it had a rain-collecting system for the shower tent, now the rains had come.
“And they’re your friends, Deenie. Kind hearts and kindred hearts.”
It was a saying. “I’m sorry for being a pest.”
“You’re not.” Rory walked back to them.
“Will you two share a thermos with me? Come inside, I mean.”
Tirza’s face, and Rory’s, both showed a search for excuses, but neither aimed to baldly exchange this, and so she had her chance. “I have a question to ask you, that will sound odd. And then, it’s getting for sunset. Sunset is when I see him.”
“Deenie! You need to come to town and be safe!”
“No, Tirza. You need to hear me explain. Come inside.”
At the camper’s fold-down table, two paper cups and the thermos mug were poured full by Rory, while Deenie and Tirza portioned out tiny cookies from a snack box, and saltines.
“You’re dying,” Deenie said. “But let me start like this. What would you think, if you’d known someone at seventeen, and you saw him again, when he ought to be twenty-eight…? How certain, how certain possible…if that makes sense…the face is his?”
Rory was not a large talker, for all he counselled well, and could sermonize. He met Tirza’s eyes. She said, “Maybe work backwards… I’m thinking of you, Deenie. You’re forty-nine?”
Since at Gaia birthdays were always honored, the matter was frank among them.
“And how do you think, with this disaster, I’ll celebrate my milestone? Sorry to have lived to see it…”
“I joke. But what was your point, love?”
“That I can well imagine you at seventeen. You have the sort of face that doesn’t change so much. Rory, for the beard, and the weathering… I’d better suspect an old friend wouldn’t guess him.”
Rory chuckled. “I’m not twenty-eight by a stretch, either.”
“Well. I am not Dustin’s old friend. I’ve never shared it. I’m his mother.”
They took their time, and Rory asked: “Is it that he grew up here, he’s come back?”
“He didn’t. We lived down in Mancie. He was near graduating, and he had a friend I hated a bit, a grown man named Victor. I ought to have a second name, I’m sorry I don’t, but I never pushed it with Dustin. He told me he’d go off with Victor, he was chucking school. He said, why care?”
“He was underage.”
“But I decided the room was empty just for that night. Or that weekend. Or in another week, I’d come home and hear his music. I’d order pizza. I made a charade of it, how I’d act, so not to be a bitch and drive him to Victor again, or some other.”
“You let the time pass,” Tirza said. “No, very forgivable.”
“I was afraid they’d boot me. They had this word, irregularities. Ms. Carmadge, it appears you’ve had another irregularity… I kept my schedule, his eighteenth passed, and I had no case to make. My son wasn’t incapable, I couldn’t pretend Victor was any danger, none I knew of…”
She’d done little more than dream of some right way to make things, to get a house if Dustin, out of school, could help with rent and food. She would save, working at a job would settle him. A year on from his disappearance, she thought of celebrating her son’s birthday by calling his old schoolmates, asking each for names, willing to be the nuisance she’d feared being, when the trail was warm.
Months more passed, Deenie’s days embarrassed by many random prods.
A phone-snatching dad. “Miss Carmadge, we didn’t at all know Dustin. I don’t quite understand why you have this number.”
A giggly girl, hanging up on her.
A boy he’d done sudoku challenges with. “Probably killed himself.”
A snippy young voice: “You’re his mother? Maybe not knowing where he is, is like, a clue for you…”
The Tambinder Engine
(2022, Stephanie Foster)