"I hope that this is going
to be worth driving an hour out of our way," Thad said.
"Well, we're nearly there, so no point in dwelling on it now," Megan replied. Thad had been grousing about this side trip since well before he would normally have turned south toward Valley View. Megan had sweetly talked her husband into endulging a "short" detour on their way to visit her father in his assisted-living condo. She had not mentioned that "short" meant fifty miles. Thad Billideau was a New Orleans boy; he didn't like all of this flat prairieland. He liked trees and rivers and lakes and hills. If he had had his way, they would have flown straight from New Orleans to Valley View and taken a rental car from one door to the next without having to see any grassland. However, Megan was quite good at persuading her husband with a sweet smile and baleful eyes and what she called her "but please" voice.
So Thad was reluctantly driving their rental SUV down a two-lane concrete highway through what he would have called the middle of nowhere. They had encountered three vehicles; one had been a tractor. Megan turned one of the air vents away from her. Driving with the AC on full blast was a habit Thad had picked up in Louisiana. The temperature display over the rearview mirror read 82. Warm, but nowhere near the suffocating heat and humidity of back home. Now the car was chilly and smelled of processed air. Megan couldn't wait until she could roll her window down and breath some clean country air. Then, before she realized it, they were there.
The sign took her by surprise. Twisted halfway round, as though from a great wind, its surface pockmarked and its paint shattered by shotgun and rifle shells, the name ILIUM was barely visible. The population number was no longer readable. Perhaps that was appropriate, Megan thought.
They turned right onto what used to be South Alexander St. The four lanes of concrete were cracked and potholed from lack of maintenance. Grass and tree sprouts poked up through moat of the cracks. Almost immediately, the devestation was evident. To Megan's right was a large, flat, asphalt-covered lot which was also slowly being overtaken by weeds and grass. She remembered that a pair of new strip malls had been there. On the left, the former McDonald's and Subway buildings still stood, but their windows were shattered and their once bright colors now dull with grime and sunbleach.
Thad kept his speed low, bumping carefully over the ruined pavement. The further into town they got, the more Megan was struck my the magnitude of destruction. Entire blocks were scrubbed clean. The grass and weeds and trees had already begun to reclaim the town. She could tell that many of the damaged houses bad been torn down. Others, she knew, had simply vanished in the night, virtually without a trace. Eerily, many fences and hedges and other lot delineators still stood, ghostly footprints in otherwise open spaces.
She knew that most of the residents had given up and moved away, unable to face the herculean task of rebuilding their ravaged little town. Even the city government gave up. They had temporarily relocated the county seat to Brody, but once it became obvious that most of the town wasn't coming back, they just decided to make Brody the permanent county seat. Megan had picked up bits and pieces from the archives of the Valley View Daily Tribune's web site, but their coverage of the tragedy in Ilium had soon grown sparse, and she was left with only snippets of news to whet her imagination. Evidentally, at some point the Ilium courthouse had caught fire and burned, and that was pretty much the nail in the town's coffin.
So Megan hadn't expected to see many people still living in town, but she had expected at least a few. She saw no one. Not one car (none still drivable, anyway). Not one dog or oat. Only birds and squirrels. Ilium had become a ghost town.
When she first began researching what had happened to Ilium afterward, and begun talking about touring the town their next trip up so see her father, Thad asked why she cared. From everything she had told him about her short time there, he was under the impression that she'd hated the town, hated the people, hated her father for forcing her to be there. She hadn't been able to give him an explanation. Still couldn't. She could only say that somehow she felt an obligation to return. Obviously there was her mother. In fifteen years, she had not once visited her mother's grave, and she felt terrible for that. Every year, when they came to see her father in his sterile, deathly-calm high-rise, she told herself that they would go up next year, when they could set aside more time for the trip. She knew, deep down, that they wouldn't, because she was afraid. Afraid, maybe, that a scolding voice would rise from her mother's grave and demand to know why she had been such a neglectful daughter. Maybe afraid of reliving the terror of that dark night. Maybe (and this she felt to be the most true) afraid that with her eyes opened wider by maturity that she would realize how terribly she had treated her own father in the worst year of his life.
Megan and Thad didn't talk much as they drove around town. She knew that he had long gotten over being grumpy about the trip. That was just the way he was. He'd be mad for short bursts until it was out of his system, then he'd be ok again. She had learned long ago not to take it personally. If neither of them talked now, it was simply because the sheer scope of the destruction that surrounded them made words tiny and insignificant. She suspected that Hiroshima and Nagasaka must have looked a lot like this, and her stomach curdled slightly.
With quiet words and gestures, Megan directed Thad to the cemetery. Their route took them through downtown along Midland Street. They passed the old courthouse, and Megan saw that the fire story was true. The once-great clock tower had collapsed in on itself, and black stains marred the rose quartz blocks above every window. She could see the sky through most of the windows, indicating that the roof and floors were all gone. The heart of Ilium was an empty husk. As she recalled how the interior had looked, the memory of that night flooded back. Her mind filled with the heat and suffocation of huddled bodies in the basement, the screaming--the nonstop screaming--and the sensation-drowning hell of God bearing down to snuff the city out.
She had to look away, her heart racing. Across the street, the plain, flat lot that had once been the library was now a yellow carpet of dandelions. She smiled faintly. It was the first evidence of beauty she had seen in this blighted place.
They continued down the street until they had to turn right onto Evans. Suprisingly, the old Evans house still stood, though most of its windows and a lot of its shingles were missing. It was the only house left on the block.
When they arrived at the cemetery gates, Megan was shocked to find that the big, robin's egg blue watertower had come down in a heap of crumpled metal among the oak trees. Thad got out and tried to push open the heavy wrought-iron gates. However, they had twisted and refused to turn in their hinges. Thad walked back to Megan's side of the car.
"Stuck. We'll have to walk."
Megan reached into the back for the flowers she had bought at the airport, and got out. Together they were able to swing one of the gates enough to sidle through. What Megan saw within the graveyard brought tears to her eyes. Almost every single tombstone had been toppled. Many appeared to be missing altogether, only thin, rectangular strips of stone remained at ground level to show where they had been. It appeared that at least one compassionate person had come through and painstakingly gathered the shattered fragments and more or less reassembled the stones horizontally atop their graves. The grass was also freshly cut. At least this part of town had not been abandoned.
Megan prayed that her mother's headstone had not suffered as the rest. Unfortunately, it had. The polished granite slab lay flat on the ground in three pieces. One of the breaks divided her mother's middle name, Claire. The other ran through her father's first full name, Daniel. She wondered if he had seen this. Of course he had. Although her father never, ever spoke of the town of Ilium, her mother's memory was a constant. She knew that he was out here every week or two to visit with his late wife. He had never gotten over the horror of her death, or the terrible return home to bury her. She suspected that the strain of those combined events had contributed to his first heart attack at the age of 43, and the second heart attack shortly before his 49th birthday. That second was the one which unleashed the blood clot that traveled to his brain and triggered a mild atroke, leaving him partially paralyzed on the right side. He could still walk and talk all right, but they had to buy him a typewriter for letter writing because his handwriting had became an illegible scrawl. He was ok most of the time, but he had his bad days. Every once in a while, his right leg would go out from under him, or he would drop things. So against everyone's heartfelt desire not to, they had agreed that he ought to move into an assisted-living facility. Not a nursing home. Her father would have no part in that, no matter how bad he got. This was simply a place where a nursing staff was on hand--just in case. Pull cords were within easy reach in every room that could summon a nurse in an emergency. Her father grudgingly lived there. He said that he was there only to get his daughter off his back, but she suspected that he knew in his heart that this was necessary. The place was expensive, but between his disability checks and the little bit that she and Thad contributed monthly they were able to cover it.
Megan lay the small bunch of flowers stop her mother's side of the stone. "Oh, mama. I'm so sorry I waited so long." And then the tears came,and she was not able to say anything more for a long time.
She spent about an hour at the grave. While he waited, Thad walked around and looked at the markers and the downed water tower. When she was ready to go, she went to him and hugged him, and they stood and held each other among the shattered monuments.
Megan asked Thad to make one more stop before they left town. She had a hard time finding it. She couldn't remember very clearly exactly where it was, and the landscape had changed so much. So she forced poor Thad to criss-cross a huge part of town until she finally spotted a landmark that was still intact. The castle-like edifice of Harrison Hall was the only recognizable building left at Central Dakota University. After a right turn at the corner of Harrison Hall onto North Alexander, they quickly came upon the burned remains of Alex the Great school. Then one more left turn and a right, and she saw was she was looking for.
The house stood alone on its block. Somehow, it alone had survived undamaged while all of the houses around it had either been obliterated or torn down. Now, recessed behind its large front yard, it was almost centered in the block, like it had always owned the land. The shingles were getting bad, some of the windows had broken, and several layers of dirt covered the siding, but it appeared in remarkably good shape otherwise.
Thad swung the SUV in an awkward U-turn and parked in front.
"You lived here, huh?" he asked. More of a comment than a question.
"So my dad says. Truth is, I don't remember at all. We only lived here till I was four, while mom and dad went to college. Dad said we lived in the basement and grandpa and grandma lived upstairs. He took me by here once, but we didn't go inside. I don't know... I guess I wanted to take a look around now that no one lives here."
"I don't know. You think it's safe inside?"
"Looks ok on the outside."
"All right. But any hint that it's unsound and we're leaving."
"Yes, dear," she said mockingly.
They walked up to the front door, which was ajar. Someone had tried to board up the door at some point, but the boards had been pulled out and tossed aside. Megan imagined that this new ghost town was probably a popular place for teens to hang out at night. Indeed, the first thing she saw upon stepping onto the porch was grafitti upon the walls. As they went through the door which separated the porch from the main house, she wondered what else they would find.
The owners had obviously had time to gather their belongings and move, which was more than a lot of people in Ilium had had. Many families--those that survived--immediately went into Red Cross shelters and never saw their homes again. Most of the houses which were not destroyed outright were so badly damaged that the residents weren't allowed back. Rescue workers went in and retrieved pets and small things such as pictures which the owners had requested. (The Valley View tribune had a small piece about Greg Greene's clock. An antique Seth Thomas, it had survived a cross-country trip by covered wagon to the California gold rush, the Civil War, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the great Kansas flood of 1951, and it continued to tick and chime away on the mantle of Greene's new Valley View home. A picture showed him standing next to the clock. He said it was the only thing besides his dog that he had asked them to retrieve.)
The floors and walls were bare, and their footsteps echoed coldly in the empty house. In the living room, more graffiti, and an old mattress heaped in the corner. The air smelled vaguely of urine. Moues droppings speckled the floor.
"Are you sure we want to be in here?" Thad asked.
She laid a hand on his arm. "It's fine."
"Any of this look familiar?
In the kitchen, a broken window had allowed one of the climbing vines from outside to come in and creep up the wall and partially aross the ceiling. Megan was admiring its determination when Thad called to her.
"Found the basement."
He flicked the light switch at the top of the stairs. Nothing happened. "Wait here, I'll get the flashlight from the car." He left, and returned a minute later with the light. He led the way down the steps, brushing aside spiderwebs as he went. Megan hated spiders, but being a Louisiana boy, spiders were as blase' to Thad as ants.
At the bottom, Thad swept his flashlight around, and they saw...nothing. A bare concrete floor and some framing beams were all that remained of her parent's apartment. Disembodied plumbing fixtures sprouted from the floor where the sinks and tub and toilet had been. Here and there, chunks of sheetrock clung by their nails to the 2x4s. Thad shone the light on a brown stain which came halfway up the walls.
"Looks like a flood came through here. During, or soon after. They had time to remove the damaged stuff. Which looks like was pretty much everything."
Megan split off and wandered among the 2x4s. "I had hoped I could remember this house. You know, give this town a sense of place for me. I'm connected to it, but I don't feel connected to it. I was born here...but to me it's just this place where I had a very bad time. If that's all it means to me, then I should feel glad that it's gone. But that's a very mean thing to think, isn't it?"
"You feel the way you feel. Nothing right or wrong about it," came Thad's voice from across the basement
Megan stepped through an imaginary doorway into the outline of a room where the windowlight was particularly bright. She sheetrock had been more stubborn here and hadn't broken away cleanly, leaving a two- or three-inch border along the rafters to show where the room had been. In the yellow light filtered by the uncleaned window, she could sae something up there...
Thad came running. "What's wrong?"
Megan was pointing up between the joists. "Do you see that? Get me that."
Thad reached up and with a shower of plaster pulled down a scrap of wallpaper, about three inches by five. Megan took it and delicately held the brittle fragment in her hands. It was pink with tiny white flowers.
"This was my room," she half-whispered, her voice filled with awe. "This was my room! I remember this wallpaper!"
Instantly, it all came back. The smell of mom cooking while dad studied at the kitchen table with her on his lap. Playing with grandpa's beagle--Fred?--in the back yard. The swing dad made from two ropes and a plank. Playing with her toys on the big oval braided rug that had been designated her play area. It was all back, along with the sense of how much she loved this house. Not only the house, but her entire childhood, in particularl her dear mother. For the umpteenth time today, tears came to per eyes. God, could she do nothing but cry today?
Thad put his arms around her from behind. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she said. "Yeah. I'm gonna be okay now."