Save for the tribulation of being denied entry into the eatery that gladly took our shekels the passage from the Red Zone to Amber was uneventful. Aquinas utilized GPS to easily find the rendezvous location Haran had arranged. Paltith sent warning that COVID fear preceded our arrival and had transformed our reception from anxiously anticipated to barely permitted.
Messenger provided communication between Aquinas and the Inn Keeper, alerting us in advance that our overnight accommodations had been downgraded both figuratively and literally. We knew prior to slipping into the inn that we’d be spending the night in the purdah of the inn’s lowest recess and Aquinas, Ryan and I were safely, if spartanly, subterraneanily ensconced well in advance of Paltith and Haran’s just before midnight’s twelve bells arrival.
Haran’s feet made their irregular patter as he slowly followed Paltith down the steps to our below ground level quarters where we lay hiding in wait for them, our accommodations safely shielding us from prying eyes. “Keep your distance,” Aquinas admonished the sexagenarian couple, hand held sternum high, palm facing the pair that peered into the dark nooks where we, Allah willing, would spend but a single night before continuing on to the elderly couple’s home within the Strata of Sanctuary.
Paltith, nodding at Aquinas, asked, “Have you heard from your mother?”
“Yes. She hopes to return to Rochelle within a fortnight,” he replied, pausing, inhaling deeply and adding, “if passage is allowed.”
“She insists on returning?” Haran asked. “We’ve told her she’s welcome to shelter in our home.”
“With Meghan, Marie and Marcia stranded in Red? Save your breath,” Aquinas replied, quietly adding, “you may well need it.”
“Woody, Ryan?” Paltith says to me and my brother, “you’re holding up?”
“Good,” Ryan replies, nodding once from his mat in the cellar’s corner.
“I’m alright,” I reply, adding, “thank you for coming for us.”
“Of course,” Paltith says, nodding but keeping her distance, “we’re family. You fed them, correct?” she asks of Aquinas.
“Yes,” he acknowledges with a single nod, “when we passed from Red to Orange the restrictions lessened and we were allowed to purchase food so long as we did not enter the eatery. We have eaten.”
“I’m sorry about this,” Haran said, extending ‘this’ into a sibilant hiss pausing before adding, “dungeon. My brother and his wife are good people. Fear is, as they say, a little death.”
“Especially fear of death,” Aquinas says with a shrug accompanied by a self-deprecating half smile. “Or imprisonment.”
“I saw a video,” Ryan whispered. “On line? From… Washington? People. With ropes. Dragging COVID Carriers. Through the streets. With their tru-“
“Ryan!” Aquinas barked, “I told you not to watch that shi- that! You’re not infected. Just. Stop. Looking at it.”
“How do you know?” Ryan whispered. “We haven’t been tested. You don’t know. We don’t know!” he finished pleadingly.
“Stop,” Paltith commanded, her voice a coiled whip wrapped in velvet. “You’re out. Out of the Red Zone. You’re coming home with us. Aquinas,” she continued more conversationally, “you’re returning to Rochelle tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he aspirated, “I have to. Dorothia. Meghan, Marie. And little Marcie? Going back,” he said, staring into the cellar’s blackness. “Thank you,” he said, resignation resonating through each word. “Hey,” he added conversationally, “let’s take a little walk. I need some air. You two sit tight, okay?” he said, speaking to Ryan and me. I nodded.
“Come on,” Aquinas said, nodding toward the door by which we’d entered the cellar, “it’s right this way.” I heard Aquinas’ sure footed ascension up the steep, slick steps that led from the cellar to the narrow alley, heard the contrast between his two-score years ability to climb as contrasted with Haran ‘s three-score, I heard the old man falter as he climbed and my heart wondered if they would return for us as promised even as my head assured me that they would. I told myself that tomorrow we four would be safely relocated within the Strata of Sanctuary. I continued to tell myself this until their descending steps announced their return to our living limbo.