Cincinnati, OH, outside the former home of Tzu Shin
Valery Paz’s lips twisted into a mocking pout. “Now what are we going to eat?”
Tzu Lin Kwan sat hunched in the passenger seat of Valery’s big red truck, belated guilt making her blush. Being here on the Cincinnati street where her father had lived, learning he was alive but had been transferred to a lab in St. Louis, had caught her off-guard. When the neighbor woman asked for the bag of groceries she’d bought to share a meal with Tzu Shin, Kwan had blindly given it to her.
That left Kwan and Valery with nothing.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t think.”
Valery laughed and punched her lightly on the arm.
“I’m totally kidding you. We have to stop for gas anyway, so we’ll pick up something. Come on, let’s go.” She started the truck, then drove toward downtown once again. “Since your dad’s already in St. Louis, we’ll just head on back. We can be in New St. Lou by noon tomorrow, if everything’s clear.”
St. Louis. The thought made Kwan smile. About her father. And San.
Her emotions welled up and bubbled over. So much she’d hoped for was so close now. The mission her father had given her, to bring the zi su ye herbs to America, would be completed soon. He would save the people, and make the world whole again.
She’d followed her defector father to San Francisco, then to Cincinnati, only to find him gone. But now, at least, she had a positive site where he could be found.
Her pride in the promise of completing this mission brought the memory of her now-dead mentor, Li Zhong. He had given up his quiet life in Hong Kong to chaperone her voyage. She, too, had put aside her own desires and wishes, perhaps the largest her own sacrifice in denying herself the right to love Xi San, when everything in her heart told her they belonged together.
Could she really have her father and San, along with a real life?
“Oh, no way. No way. Look!”
Valery slammed on the brakes, pulling over to the curb. Kwan clutched the dashboard, her breath half stolen by the sudden screech.
“What? What?” she gasped, heart pounding. She peered desperately around for a child in the road or some justification.
“Mira! It’s a taco truck!”
Her face split by a huge smile, Valery bailed out. She ran to the open window of the large white panel truck, spewing a string of Spanish. Nodding and waving her hands, she exchanged words with someone inside, then called to Kwan.
“Come on, chica. I’m about to change your life.”
Still rattled by the sharp halt, and unsure if she could handle any more life changes at the moment, Kwan slid out of the cab. Keeping a watch around them, she walked slowly to the food truck. Inside, she discovered a young couple who spoke excitedly to Valery, hardly taking a breath as they laughed and conversed. Kwan hung back, feeling excluded.
“Oh, my God,” Valery said to Kwan. “These two are from back in King City! Their parents ran La Potranca, a place I used to practically live at, pozole to die for. I swear.”
Kwan glanced at the grinning couple, who piled food into some folded flatbread, and then into a white bag.
“They left town when the virus first hit, and brought all their mama’s recipes along. This is just a temp deal until there’s enough local resources and money to open a restaurant.” She accepted the bag from the young woman, reached inside and handed Kwan a greasy, paper-wrapped bundle. “Eat.”
It was Valery; no point in arguing.
Kwan peeled the paper back from the closest end of the handful, and was greeted by a wave of pungent scent. A bite brought her creamy cheese, spicy meat, a crunch of greens and smoky sauce. It was one of the best things she’d ever tasted.
“Mmm,” she sighed.
“Told ya.” Delighted, Valery devoured one, her eyes closed in overwhelming satisfaction. “Que bueno!”
She asked the couple a question, and they quickly prepared another bag of treats for her. She paid them from the coins and bills Eddie had given them for the trip, still chattering, and then reluctantly dragged herself back to the truck.
“So unreal. I can’t believe I could find someone from home all the way out here. It made me feel…” She clutched the paper bags, her face working. Suddenly, she was in tears.
“Val?” Kwan reached out to smooth back her companion’s auburn locks, stunned at the strong woman’s disintegration. “What is wrong?”
“La Potranca was one of my mom’s favorite places, too,” she said between sobs. “We ate there just before…just before…” She couldn’t go on.
The walls that contained strong feelings only held so long. Kwan slid closer to Valery and slipped an arm around her shoulders. So often during their journey from San Francisco, Valery had been the pillar of strength that held up both of them. She’d come along on this jaunt to Cincinnati to find Kwan’s father only to support Kwan. The least Kwan could do was repay the debt.
When Val had cried herself out, with a few empathetic tears from Kwan, both sniffed and scrubbed their faces with brown napkins, then dug into the bags, toasting each other with tacos before starting the engine and heading down the road again.
Kwan checked the notes Eddie had prepared. “Route Fifty is only a few miles from here. We can get gas just before that.”
“Eddie typed his fingers off getting us ready to go.” Valery’s smile was wistful. Her eyes teared up again.
“You’ll see him soon,” Kwan reminded her. And I’ll see the men I love.
They filled up with gas at the station Eddie had told them was safe, and then Valery turned toward the interstate. Kwan caught the sign for the highway out of the corner of her eye.
“But we took US-Fifty out here. That road was approved by the team.”
Valery rolled her eyes. “Look, chica, it’s almost dark. It’ll take six hours or more to get back to New St. Lou. We’ll get there a lot faster on the interstate. Don’t you want to get there fast?”
So much waited for her there…
Kwan looked away, startled to find San’s image in her mind instead of her father’s. No. Not yet. You’re still on your mission. You can’t indulge yourself until you’ve delivered the herbs.
“Well, then.” Valery floored the gas pedal, and they zoomed up the ramp onto I-71, headed south.
Unlike the highways of the West, this interstate was less cluttered with abandoned vehicles, and those were mostly pulled off to the right side of the road.
“We’re going to make great time,” Valery commented, fitting their truck into the sparse line of vehicles taking the middle route down the dividing line of the two lanes.
Kwan studied the bicycles, motorcycles, and to a lesser extent, other cars that shared the road. People here had committed to making a life for themselves again, using as many of the tools as they could keep working. Several drivers eyed the shiny red truck with hungry avarice as it passed them. Valery had proudly cared for and polished the vehicle every day since they’d liberated it from a garage outside Lake Tahoe on their journey east.
Surely, the theft can be forgiven if the family it belonged to wasn’t around to use it.
As many times as Kwan repeated Val’s justification for keeping the truck, the concept did not sit comfortably in her heart. Taking what wasn’t yours was stealing. This lesson had been drilled into her, black and white, since she could remember. Her aunt Ehuang, even in their hardest times, had insisted that they not fall to the common level of street thieves.
But there was no question that having a vehicle made life much easier. Without it, would they have encountered Xi San and his traveling group? Could they have come to St. Louis? Or ever made it to Cincinnati? Now the trip to find her father would take only hours instead of days or weeks walking. Perhaps it was possible that fate had brought their path together with that of the red truck, a gift from the gods to help them on their mission.
It still felt wrong.
Kwan shook the gnawing guilt from her mind. It served no purpose. She turned her attention instead to the impending sunset. A cornflower-blue sky spawned streaks of lavender-and-violet clouds. Vehicles on the road around them turned off, headlights shining, to the side roads. Once it was fully dark, it was miles between sightings of another car. The countryside was dotted with the occasional glow of generator-driven lights from homes in the distance, their randomness making them quite noticeable against the otherwise black landscape.
The monotony lulled Kwan into a state of drowsiness. She laid her head on the back of the seat and closed her eyes, letting her mind sink into memory.
Valery hummed one of her musical tunes. Kwan recognized it as a refrain Valery and Arik Logsdon had sung together in the community apartment building Eddie Garrick had established. Shortly after they’d arrived in St. Louis, the neighborhood had hosted a block party to meet the newcomers. Singing something about “Sisters,” Arik and Val had waylaid Kwan in the hallway and steered her into the room she shared with Val…
“Wait till you see what we’ve got for you, querida!” Valery giggled as she pulled her into their room. Arik closed the door behind them, beaming.
Her traveling companion had a certain look in her eyes, and Kwan recognized it as the one that always led to mischief. But unlike some of the other times, this one didn’t seem geared toward trouble.
“What are you up to?” she asked.
Her friends dug into the closet.
“Look at this!”
Valery whipped out a red silk jacket trimmed in black, with a mandarin collar. The short-sleeved jacket was delicately embroidered in gold. Kwan thought she’d never seen anything so beautiful.
Arik mock-swooned. “Oh, honey, it’s to die for. And size two. I’m jealous.”
After she slipped on the jacket and a pair of dress black slacks, Arik encouraged them both to sit at a table covered with makeup and hair doodads, and he dolled them both up. Valery enjoyed the attention, but Kwan had never experienced such fuss over how she looked. Certainly, she’d never worn such makeup and even false eyelashes. They pulled at her skin and tickled. But Arik waved away her protests.
“It’s about time someone looked glam around here!”
“You have enough to do,” Kwan interjected feebly.
“This isn’t stressful at all, love. Believe me, this is something that relaxes me. You’re the one doing me a favor.”
He finished and admired his work, then he clicked his tongue. “Oh lawd, lawd. I know two young ladies who are gonna get their bones jumped tonight. I’ll bet my sweet ass on it.”
Valery snorted. “Tease.”
“Shut up, sister woman. Artiste at work.” Arik chuckled. “Perfect. Go get your duds, Val.”
Kwan studied the unfamiliar face in the mirror, realizing she might well be a movie star with all this added to her skin. She’d never looked like this, ever. It was uncomfortable, but she had to admit she liked it.
Valery slipped into a black-beaded jacket Kwan knew she hadn’t brought with her.
“Isn’t this fabulous? I found it stuffed in a box in the attic. A huge pile of vintage clothing up there. I think we’re going to recycle it for the new community theatre.”
Valery finished dressing, topping off the outfit with a pair of black platform shoes that she wobbled on the first couple of times across the room. Arik offered Kwan a pair of high heels, but she shook her head. She knew her limits. She wore her usual black flats, the ones that looked like dancers’ shoes.
“Mmm-mmm,” Arik said. He pulled them both over to look in the recently acquired full-length mirror. Kwan saw not two girls who’d traveled through some of the roughest country in America, who’d survived a shootout in Kansas, but two grown-up women who’d found their place in life.
Arik and his partner Mark escorted them to the event, making sure no one saw them until their grand entrance, which caused even the garrulous Eddie Garrick to stop mid-punchline. He stumbled through the rest of his conversation, eyes on Valery.
San’s face when he saw Kwan walk into the banquet room reflected everything Arik and Val had promised. They’d sat together at dinner, and he kept reaching out to touch her, as if she were a dream. She’d felt part of that dream, too…
Now she could live it. She was on her way back to St. Louis and San.
A warm feeling of satisfaction coming over her, she sat up and opened her eyes.
“Should we try to contact them? Ask them to be waiting?”
Valery grinned in the way Kwan recognized as the expression that meant Val was throwing caution to the winds.
“Let’s hope they’re having a great time and letting go for a change. They’ve been so uptight about getting us where we needed to be. Nice that they can just be boys for once.” She smiled wider. “You know…that means we could be wild women on the way home. We could stop at a strip club or something—”
“Val!” Now that her path was clear, the last thing Kwan wanted to do was stop anywhere at all. “Can we please just drive?”
Valery laughed. “I’m just teasing you, querida. I wouldn’t keep you away from either of your men for a second longer.”
Distracting herself, Kwan concentrated on her father’s memory instead. The adrenaline of discovering his whereabouts had begun to wear off, and she rolled her shoulders to dispel the tension.
“I still can’t believe my father is so close.”
Her face ghostly pale in the reflection of the dashboard lights, Valery stared out the front windshield and chewed her lip.
“I’m praying he is,” she said, her tone fading to a serious one. “I don’t want you to get too crazy excited about this, sister mine. Remember, we had good word he was in Cincinnati.”
Kwan refused to allow doubt to cloud her hope. “He was in Cincinnati. That woman actually knew my father. She knew who I was. Somewhat.”
So she called me Kay Lynn. It was close enough.
“She’d seen him before he left here.” She nodded, more to reassure herself than Valery. “Once we get back, we just have to find him in St. Louis.”
“That might not be such a big issue. I know someone who’s a pretty big radio star in the city, you know. If he puts the word out, you’ll hear from your dad in no time.”
Those words were like a warm blanket for Kwan, who took them and held them close. They’d be back in St. Louis before the night was over; and first thing in the morning, she and Val could talk to Eddie about making an announcement over KMOX.
How much easier could it be?
“Do you think we could listen to KMOX now?” she asked.
Valery poked at the dash, and the radio came to life.
“—children of the night,” came the sultry alto voice of Isis, as it had every night during their travels. “We have a whole pile of messages going out to those wandering our highways and byways this fine evening. I’ll get to those in a minute, but I wanted to let everyone know that, here in New St. Lou, we’re expecting a visit from representatives from Washington DC. Rumor has it they will bring presumptive President Eartha Osman. Perhaps then we will be able to help the city acquire some funding to help get things up and running again.”
Valery snorted. “Maybe.”
Kwan frowned at the cynicism in Val’s tone. “Is Washington not your former capital? Surely, they will be able to help.”
“Uncle Dave used to have a cartoon posted on the refrigerator saying ‘We’re your government, we’re here to help.’ Everyone was standing there holding a rifle on some poor little immigrant kid. It was scary as hell. He never trusted the government to do anything.”
Kwan thought back to some of the corrupt politicians she’d heard about in Hong Kong after the Second Holocaust, people who took bribes, people cowed by the military into cracking down hard on some of the poorest people in the city.
Zhong, too, had been with the government at one time, and he had often worried they’d come after him. The government couldn’t be trusted, he’d always said.
“My father thought that America was a better place, though. That the government was free and—”
A figure dressed in white waving its arms suddenly appeared in front of the car, standing in the middle of the road, captured in the headlights.
“Hold on!” Valery yelled. Brakes squealing, she swerved the truck toward the far side of the road. The wheels ground to a stop.
Kwan’s head hit the side window at the angle of the swerve, but she was otherwise unharmed. She unlatched her seatbelt, her gaze swiveling back to the dark in the center of the road, searching out the “ghost” they’d nearly run over.
“You okay?” Valery asked, leaning down to pull her gun out from under the seat.
“Yes.” Kwan checked to see that her long knife was in her boot, then slowly opened the door, trying not to make any noise. She caught a brief look at Valery’s face before the overhead light went out. Val’s jaw was set tight. Not the time to remind her this was not the chosen route home.
Valery scooted out her door, her movements large and friendly-appearing. “Hello? Can I help you?”
No one answered, but Kwan caught a hint of movement in the dark on the far side of the shadowed median. She kept to her place, hidden by the bulk of the truck’s bed. Valery’s advantage was the gun; Kwan’s would be surprise.
A querulous female voice came from the median.
“How far to Cincinnati?”
Kwan saw Valery’s outline in a pale sliver of moonlight that came through the clouds. She moved around the cab of the truck, keeping it between her and the voice.
“About twenty miles.”
“They’ve hospitals running, right?”
“As far as I know. What’s your situation?”
Kwan inched closer to the back of the truck, wishing the moonlight were bright enough to verify how many people waited for them in the night. This wasn’t what she had expected, certainly. Usually, there were a lot more threats, followed by even more shooting.
But that didn’t mean they weren’t in lethal danger.
“My granddaughter’s having a baby. She’s been in labor for two days. It’s breech.” The tears in the old woman’s voice sounded real. “She’s bleeding now. We come from Frankfurt, and we run out of gas. We just gotta get her there.”
Val didn’t answer right away. Kwan guessed she was weighing the odds it was a trap. Only one way to find out.
Kwan dashed to the left, taking cover behind another stalled car, then made her way silently across the two lanes of the highway. She hunkered down, making herself small. A faint light came from a parked car on the other side of the highway. A woman appeared to be lying down in the back seat and another leaning over from the front. From this vantage point, Kwan could dimly see the woman who’d been speaking. She wore a long dress or robe, no hat on her head. Her hands were empty.
“I think she’s all right.” Kwan stood up, placing the woman between herself and Valery. “She’s unarmed.”
The woman took several steps back, visibly alarmed at Kwan appearing so suddenly.
“Please, don’t hurt us! We’re just three women trying to save this little one comin’.”
Valery came out from behind the truck then, and dug in the cab for a flashlight. She shined it on the woman, who covered her eyes from the sudden brightness.
“You need a ride into town?”
“Oh, yes, miss, thank Jesus for you. Thank Jesus.”
The woman in the worn housedress beckoned for them to follow her. Kwan jogged across to meet Valery, still not totally reassured.
“They could have men…”
Valery nodded. “ I don’t think so. Let’s check it out.”
They crossed to the parked car, Valery keeping the light moving, showing them the ground as well as checking out the area around the car. Nothing untoward appeared.
In the car, they found a very young woman, her face white and drawn, abdomen distended with child, barely conscious. Kwan didn’t know much about the birth process, but she had seen people die. This woman was about to leave the earth.
Valery ran back for the truck. She pumped it into gear and drove it over the lumpy median grass. Kwan helped the older women load the younger into the truck bed, the three of them holding her to try to cushion her from too many bumps and bruises on the ride. For a brief moment, Kwan was reminded of the day they’d found the Enforcer, after his encounter with the snake, and the ride that had allowed them to really speak to one another for the first time. Val’s driving, too fast and too furious, wasn’t too different, either.
The women spoke softly to the girl between swerves and bumps, half-shaken to bits themselves by the transit. If the breech baby didn’t kill this girl, Valery’s driving might.
Kwan didn’t know how Valery managed, but she found a hospital with a half-lit emergency room sign out back. She bailed out of the truck and ran inside, returning with several white-clad orderlies with a gurney. They made a quick business of transferring the girl and her womenfolk back inside, and suddenly, it was just the two of them again.
“Chale!” Valery yelled. “Our good deed for the day. We should be, like, Boy Scouts. Out rescuing the injured of America…” She trailed off. “Like your man San.”
Kwan nodded. “I was reminded as well.” She couldn’t help but smile at the thought of San’s face. “So, we should get back on the road home, then?”
“The road. Yes.” Walking with a spring in her step, Valery went to jump back in the cab. “And I know what you’re going to say.”
Kwan, following her, sat demurely and fastened her seatbelt. “What am I going to say?”
Valery snorted. “You’re going to tell me that I should have taken the other road. And you’re right. That could have been a very different situation.” She sighed, then smiled. “But maybe we saved a life. Two lives.”
Kwan agreed. “Perhaps fate led us down that road on purpose. But all the same, couldn’t we take the interstate now?”
“Your wish, dear sister, is my command.”
Valery hit the CD player, and the rugged voice of Willie Nelson rolled out as they left the driveway and headed back toward St. Louis, on the road once again.