It's impossible to know what to expect. We've just left the checkpoint and are now on a bus, on our way to the refugee station in a place called Kettle Falls. If first impressions mean anything, this appears to be a well organized effort to help people escape the ravages of war.
Before anyone can say it, I'll concede that news reports are spotty at best and I don't know if there has been any official declaration. But since before I began working as a journalist, I've been all over the world chasing disaster and devastation. I've seen the results of war in more countries than I can name. Regardless of whether anyone has made the official declaration or not, I promise you, I know it when I see it.
Returning to the matter at hand, as we approached the checkpoint station, there was a lighted sign telling us to tune our CB radio to a particular channel or to dial a number on our cell phone. We called the number and were asked a minimal number of questions to identify us, determine our plans and make arrangements for any medical or mechanical needs that we might have.
Since there are only two of us, we were asked to leave our vehicle and proceed into Kettle Falls by bus. We also had the option of checking in and proceeding directly to the Canadian border, but like most others who have been fleeing for their lives, the lure of this oasis in the endless desert of despair is too attractive to pass up. We desperately need to stop and rest before we can go any further.
I never would have thought that the sight of cars, parked in a field, would cause me any sort of emotional reaction. But the miles upon miles of fields filled with cars, neatly slotted into perfect rows, made me realize that each car represented a person or a family that just a week before, had felt safe and secure in their own home and never could have imagined that they would have to flee for their lives.
When we spotted the parked bus, we knew that we had reached our lot. There was a security officer present to direct us where to park. His courtesy and professionalism were impressive, considering that we were standing in what had obviously been a farmer's field a week before.
Marty, as he introduced himself, told us that he was a 'refugee' like we were and that when he had arrived at the checkpoint, they had offered him a job protecting the vehicles of other 'refugees' and that he is being paid room and board in exchange for his service.
When this is all said and done, I believe that we'll be able to look back and see many heroes who have emerged from the chaos. But I think it's worth remembering that there are also people like Marty who are working to provide a sense of safety and security for people who have lost nearly everything.
As I write this, I don't know what to expect. We've been promised a safe place to stop and rest. That may not sound like much on the face of it, but you have to realize that this whole thing was set up and running in a matter of DAYS. Tragedy and horror can sometimes make it seem as though time has frozen, but it hasn't. On Tuesday, no one could have imagined the nightmare that was to come, but as I write this, it's Saturday and beyond all reasoning, I am feeling hope.
* * * * *
As we got off the bus in front of the high school stadium in Kettle Falls, I was dreading the prospect of checking in. There were so many people, I was certain that it would be a long and drawn out process that would take hours. Although there were literally hundreds of people in the stadium, the process itself turned out to be incredibly fast and easy. The check-in stations were divided into regions of the country, and the information that we had given by cell phone before we boarded the bus had been relayed to them, so that when we gave our names, all the preparations had already been made. They simply printed out a map to show where we would be housed and gave us a list of available activities that we could choose to join in.
While the entire experience impressed me, I suppose that one of the things that stood out most to me was the attitude of respect. I've seen refugee camps before. Typically, callus disregard is the 'best' you could hope for. Open hatred and abuse are not uncommon in such situations. Don't get me wrong, it's always possible that you might happen upon 'an angel of mercy', struggling to ease the suffering of the displaced people. But by and large, most of what you will encounter is weary people who are so jaded by the experience that they no longer see people in front of them. They see animals, with less value than cattle, who simply need to be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible.
However, in Kettle Falls, a volunteer named Katie actually looked me in the eyes and asked me with concern if I needed any type of help beyond what was already being offered. Once she had given me the printouts, she welcomed me to Kettle Falls and wished me well before moving on to the next person. Yes, I said person, not refugee. She saw me as a person and treated me as such. If you haven't been in a situation like that before, you may not see the significance and I don't know if I can effectively relate it to you. Suffice it to say, I walked away from that check-in desk feeling like a hopeful displaced person, not a cowering helpless refugee.
Although I suppose that we could have gone directly to the apartment that we had been assigned, I was curious to know if our experience were typical. So we walked around the stadium to look at some of the other check-ins and found that, indeed, everyone was being treated as well as we had been.
After that, we went outside and began walking to the room that we had been assigned. Since there were two of us, we were given a one bedroom apartment with two beds. Considering that I had been anticipating a tent and a blanket, at best, I was pleasantly surprised.
One of the printouts that we had been given at the check-in showed the locations of several restaurants that were providing free meals to 'guests' in Kettle Falls. Apparently, from what I've observed, there are two classes of people in Kettle Falls; 'Guests' and 'Volunteers'. Not that there's any type of stigma connected with being thought of as a 'guest', but there are a few assumptions being made. First, 'guests' will not be staying on. Second, 'guests' have been displaced from their homes and cannot provide for themselves. Third, 'guests' have been through hell getting here and need to be treated with compassion. I suppose that when dealing with so many people that it's necessary to paint with a broad brush, but I'm still not sure how I feel about it.
Before we left the apartment, I noticed that the cupboards and refrigerator had been stocked with staple pantry items, so that we would have what we needed to cook for ourselves if we felt like it. Neither of us cook, so that wasn't a concern. But I suppose I can see how some people might be able to find solace in a 'home cooked' meal.
Although we were both hungry, we didn't go for the nearest restaurant on the map. The investigative reporter in me wanted to know more about what was happening at the center of town.
As we walked, we passed one of the restaurants and it seemed to be fairly popular. According to the printout, it was a 'full service' restaurant, which I took to mean that they would serve us free food, but they were also serving their regular menu, for those who wished to pay. They weren't 'swamped' with people, but since it was nearing lunchtime they were respectably busy.
The closer to the center of town we got, the more people we saw milling around, going about their business.
When we finally reached the restaurant we had chosen, we were surprised to find that it was a tent kitchen set up in an open grassy area. In other circumstances, it might have been called a 'park' except that there seemed to be such areas every few buildings throughout the town.
There were several people already in line when we arrived, and we briefly discussed going elsewhere. I suppose that I simply thought that all the people were there for a free meal. It didn't occur to me that they might have come to the 'pop up' restaurant because it had exceptionally good food.
When we finally made it to the front of the line, I was surprised to find that we were being served by what looked to be a street punk and a Catholic priest, working side by side. It was such an odd combination, that my reporter's instincts failed me and I didn't ask them any questions about who they were and how they came to be there.
When we moved to one of the many folding tables that had been set up and took our seats, we were treated to the next surprise. The stew that we had been served was the absolute epitome of what a stew should be. I'm not a food critic, by any means, but I've had the good fortune to be able to enjoy a variety of cuisines from around the world. The beef stew served to me by a priest and a thug ranked right up there with any of them. The biscuits that they served were good, but the stew was great.
Once we had finished our meals, we walked further into town. Typically, when I go to a new place, I like to get a sense of the atmosphere before I start conducting interviews. That way I'm more likely to know if what my interviewees are telling me is representative of the experience or something unique to them.
We eventually came upon what really was a park. It wasn't simply a green area. There were play facilities for children and picnic tables for families as well as a variety of other family entertainments. I could see that another pop-up restaurant was in the process of being set up, and it appeared that the entire staff of the restaurant were leather clad bikers.
As interesting as it might have been to talk to them and find out their story, what caught my attention was the group of young teenagers in another part of the park, away from the road. Their flurry of activity intrigued me and I suppose it was my journalistic instincts that drove me to find out what a group of teenagers were doing to occupy themselves during these troubling times. Something told me that that's where I would find my story.
I took a moment to stand and watch what was going on. As much as I enjoy jumping into things feet first and damning the consequences, there are times when quietly observing what is going on yields better results.
All the young teens and pre-teens seemed to be working with purpose, although I couldn't quite determine what that purpose was. I could see some girls going through what looked to be hundreds of CDs. There were also some boys carrying orange warning cones down a walking path. Another group of boys were gathered and talking seriously at the edge of a fairly nice skateboard run.
Every now and then, someone from one of the groups would break away and dash behind a small park building for a few minutes. That intrigued me. Once I noticed that pattern, I paid more attention to the expressions of the people walking toward the building. They were worried or anxious as they approached, but looked to be relieved and assured when they returned. It seemed as though I had discovered the location of the person organizing whatever was about to happen. After one more look around to be sure that I wasn't missing anything, I started walking toward the park building.
As I walked around the corner of the building, I expected to find a group coordinating whatever massive effort was being undertaken. Instead, I found a young teenage boy standing alone, working on a tablet computer.
I could see from his expression of frustration, that he was struggling to understand how to do something. But before I could offer to help him, he seemed to figure it out on his own. As I was about to approach him and ask about what was going on, I saw two older boys emerge from the other side of the park building and run to him.
I watched as they excitedly asked him a question and were immediately given a response. Based on this observation, I decided that I had found the mastermind behind whatever project was being undertaken.
* * * * *
"Excuse me, would you have a minute to talk with me?" I asked as I approached.
"Yeah. I guess. What do you need?" The boy asked curiously.
During our travels around the world, I've interviewed hundreds of people. I've never needed to follow a script or keep note cards with 'talking points' to remind me about what to ask. I was there to get a story, so I would ask about that, then move on.
Somehow, just by looking at me, this young teenage boy completely derailed my train of thought. For just a moment I didn't know what I wanted to ask of him, or for that matter, why I was even there. The boy was just so 'innocent', that expression of guileless anticipation threw me for a loop.
"Hey Laz, Nene said that she thought the dance area is going to be over there, right beside the BMX run. That's not right, is it?" A boy asked with concern as he approached.
"No. We need to keep that area open so that they'll have a place to set up the stage. Have her set up beside the first picnic table. That way, when the band starts playing, they'll still have their dance area. But make sure she checks with Vikki before she does anything, so she won't put anything in her way." The apparent leader, Laz, said seriously.
"Thanks, Laz." The boy said quickly, then dashed away.
Laz did something on his tablet for a moment, then looked at me with question.
"You're in charge?" I asked stupidly. I mean, it was so obvious that I can't believe I asked such a stupid question.
"Yeah." The boy said simply, then looked past me with a smile.
"How's it going, Lazlo?" A man asked as he walked around me and pulled Lazlo into a hug.
"I think everything's going alright." Lazlo said as he hugged the man firmly.
"I brought Jeremy and Hank to help you out. You just tell them what you need done and they'll see that it's taken care of." The man said quietly.
"That's great. This is all getting to be so big that I can use some help." Lazlo admitted shyly.
"You're doing something wonderful and I'm incredibly proud of you. Why don't you show me around and tell me what you've got planned before I have to get back to work?"
"Yeah. I want to introduce you to all my new friends." Lazlo said happily, then stopped and looked at me uncertainly before asking, "Did you need anything else?"
"No. Thank you." I said quietly.
Lazlo apparently took me at my word and started leading the three men away.
Without thought or reason, I followed along.
* * * * *
When it was all done, I pieced together that Lazlo had come up with the idea of having a special teen and tween event in the park. Along with the skateboard feature that was already there, he had set up a BMX bicycle run on the walking paths through the park. He also somehow arranged for a live band to arrive later in the day and the pop-up restaurant. Music had already started playing and kids were starting to gather.
Meeting Lazlo and witnessing his accomplishments thus far had diverted me from my task of investigating what was really going on in Kettle Falls. A part of me wanted to stay. I wanted to see Lazlo achieve his goals. But the investigative reporter within me urged me to move on and find out what lay beneath the facade of warmth and compassion that I had witnessed so far.
* * * * *
As we walked, we somehow found ourselves returning to the stadium, where we had first arrived. I felt a new determination to discover the truth, so I walked up to the first desk that didn't have anyone waiting to be served and abruptly asked, "Who's in charge here?"
I'm not really a jerk, but sometimes I act like one, just to get my job done.
For the second time that day I was stunned into speechlessness. The man behind the desk had light blond hair and sky blue eyes. There was no doubt that he was a beauty to behold, but that's not what stopped me dead in my tracks. Just as it had been with Lazlo, the expression of complete innocence on the man's face threw all other thoughts out of my mind.
"I'll get Rory for you." The young man said cheerfully before walking away. He apparently hadn't noticed my rudeness toward him. Even so, that didn't keep me from feeling bad for it.
"How can I help you?" A young redheaded man in a wheelchair asked in a computer generated voice.
It was only then that I realized that I had gone to the 'Special Needs' counter. Walking up here and taking up this man's time seemed akin to parking in a handicapped parking space. However, since I was already there and had his attention, I decided to plod on with my task.
"I'm a reporter and I was wanting to speak to someone in charge. I have a few questions." I said simply. Straightforward and to the point seemed to be the best way to go. If he didn't have time or didn't want to talk to me, then he could simply tell me so.
"You can ask me whatever you want. If I can't answer your questions, I'll probably know who can." The young man said seriously... or, at least his computerized voice sounded serious. It didn't seem to convey any other emotion.
The blond haired young man that I had spoken to initially had joined us and was waiting for my question.
"I just arrived here and I was curious to know who's coordinating all of this." I said as professionally as I could manage.
"If you want to know about one specific operation, I can tell you about that. But if you're asking about who is coordinating all the different operations, then I suppose the answer would be either Carson or Bug." The young man said seriously, then glanced away from me for a moment to look at the computer in his lap.
I thought about his answer for a moment, then reluctantly admitted, "I don't know who those people are. Should I know them?"
"Have you ever heard of Ryan Brown?" He asked as he looked me in the eyes.
I had to think about it for a moment. I knew that I'd heard the name before, but who he was didn't spring immediately to mind. Suddenly, I remembered something from years before and cautiously said, "I think so. I've done some research about the pioneers of personal computing. Is that the Ryan Brown that you're talking about?"
"Yes. Ryan is Carson's father. Carson is running things, but I think Ryan is financing a lot of it. Don't quote me on that. I really don't know too much about that side of things." He said frankly. The intensity in Roris' eyes told me more than his words that he really knew what he was talking about.
"So Ryan Brown's son is coordinating the entire refugee relocation effort?" I asked to confirm.
"Yes and no. Carson started it, and he's a big part of keeping it going, but he has a group of people that he has recruited to help him oversee everything." He said carefully. I could see that he was being cautious to not say the wrong thing so as not to misrepresent what he was trying to say.
"I hate to ask, but do you think it might be possible for me to meet Carson?" I asked hopefully. I knew before I said it that it was a long shot. But, then again, the chances of me ever meeting him would be a whole lot worse if I didn't ask at all.
"Carson's always really busy and is usually juggling dozens of different things at once. It might be difficult to arrange that." He said with an apologetic expression as he slowly typed on the laptop resting in his lap.
"Well, do you think that maybe you could fix it so I could meet one of those people he recruited? I want to understand what's really going on here." I asked cautiously, not wanting to ask too much of him.
"That's no problem." He said, much to my surprise. Before I could respond, he continued, "In fact, you're talking to one of the people he recruited, right now."
I looked at the young man with question.
"My name is Roris Teeter. I was recruited directly by Carson Brown to help him with problem solving in the overall effort. I'm here, at this check-in desk, so that I can be sure that people with special needs are being accommodated. Since I've been here I've been able to recruit a number of good people who will be able to continue my work here, so I'll be able to get back to my other job, helping Carson solve whatever problems arise." He said seriously.
"You're really part of the inner circle?" I asked in astonishment.
"Why are you so surprised? Do you think that someone in a wheelchair isn't worthy of that level of trust? Or do you think that because I can't walk, that I'm also incompetent and unable to do anything meaningful?" Roris asked with anger and hurt vying for control of his expression.
"No! The reason I'm surprised is because you're here, down on the street level, actually helping people. Usually, someone in charge of a rescue or refugee effort like this is sitting up in a hotel room with some advisors, sipping bottled water that has been chilled, just so. The only time they deign to step out among the 'common' people is when there's a news crew nearby to witness it." I hurried to explain.
"Give me just a minute." Roris said abruptly, then moved his wheelchair back a few feet to where a group of people were talking amongst themselves.
"Can I get you guys some water or anything?" The blond man asked us with a smile as we waited for Roris to return.
"Yes. Some water would be nice." I said past a suddenly dry throat. The man was heartstoppingly gorgeous.
He shot me a smile that I felt in my groin, then dashed away.
"This is Joe. He's going to be taking over for me while I take you to meet some people." Roris said as he slowly returned.
"It's nice to meet you Joe. I'm..." I began to say, then trailed off when I noticed that Joe was using sign language with a man that was walking beside him, which would mean that he couldn't hear me.
"If you're ready, we can go now." Roris said as he looked up at me seriously.
"Where are we going?" I asked cautiously.
"You want to see the operation from the inside, don't you?" Roris asked frankly.
"Yes." I said immediately.
"Here you go." The blond said as he returned with bottles of water for each of us.
"Thank you." I muttered as I accepted a bottle of water from him.
He gave me another one of those heartstopping smiles, then hurried behind Roris' wheelchair, ready to push.
"Lawrence, do you see Victor around? We're going to need a ride." Roris asked seriously.
I didn't know who they were talking about, but as I looked around the stadium I saw a young teenager waving at us.
"There he is!" Lawrence said as he pointed.
* * * * *
As we were walking out of the stadium, the flashing lights of a fire truck and an ambulance drew our attention across the street.
"We need to see what's going on." Roris said decisively.
Lawrence immediately changed direction and we were soon crossing the street.
"If you don't need me, I'll go get the gator while you're checking on things." Victor said as we walked.
"Yes. They probably have things under control here. I just want to check to be sure." Roris told him confidently.
* * * * *
Just as we cleared the ramp to enter the front door of the school, the door opened and two paramedics emerged with a woman on a wheeled bed.
We had to shuffle around a little bit, but we didn't seem to be too much in their way.
A fireman walked through the door next and Roris asked, "What happened?"
The fireman looked at Roris with an expression that clearly asked, 'Who the hell are you?'
"I have a direct link to Carson Brown. I just need to know if this is something that he should know about." Roris explained seriously.
After a moment to consider, the fireman said, "Possible stroke. You really got a direct line to Carson?"
"Yes. I was just asking because if she were suffering from some sort of communicable disease or food poisoning, it might be something that Carson should be aware of." Roris explained calmly.
"Tell Carson that Pete Garrett says 'hi'. I don't think this is anything that he needs to worry about. But I'll keep an eye out and let him know if we get called for anything that might affect you guys." The fireman said pleasantly.
"I'll tell him. Thank you. That would be helpful." Roris said seriously.
The fireman noticed that the other firemen were waiting for him to join them back on the truck and hurried away.
"Let's make sure that everyone is doing alright here before we move on." Roris said as he looked at me.
It was amazing to me that the skinny little disabled redheaded guy in the wheelchair had such a commanding presence. Before it occurred to me to do otherwise, we were already following along behind Roris and Lawrence.
* * * * *
"Can I help you?" A middle aged woman asked from a desk in the foyer. She was obviously flustered, but trying to regain her self control.
"We just saw the ambulance and wanted to be sure that everything's alright here." Roris said seriously.
"I think I heard about you. You're one of the people working with Carson, aren't you?" The woman asked curiously.
"Yes. That's right. I'm Roris. If you're needing anything, you can tell me and I'll let Carson know." Roris said frankly.
"I'm Mrs. Rand, I'm one of Carson's teachers. The only thing that I can think of that we might be needing is another volunteer to help with the children. We've had children trickling in a few at a time so far, but I'm concerned that we might be about due for a flood." Mrs. Rand said with concern.
"If you need help, I wouldn't mind volunteering." A younger woman said from the hallway.
"Thank you Mrs. Kellar. If you're sure that you'd like to stay and help out, I'll go ahead and change your status in the computer." Mrs. Rand said happily.
"Please, call me Hope." Mrs. Kellar said timidly, then continued, "From what I've just seen, I think that this would be a good place for us to stay and wait until my husband can find us."
"It looks like you've got things well in hand here, Mrs. Rand. I'll let Carson know that I spoke with you. Remember that if you need anything, you can contact us with your computer and we'll be happy to help." Roris said professionally.
The more time I spent around Roris, the easier it was to believe that he was one of the architects of the entire relief effort.
* * * * *
When we left the school, I was surprised to see a large all terrain vehicle that seemed to be specially equipped for some reason. It wasn't until I actually saw Roris being loaded into the thing that I realized what it was for.
We all got aboard, then the young teen, Victor, drove the ATV through town, and then out into the countryside.
"Where are you taking us?" I asked loudly to be heard over the sound of the wind rushing by our ears.
"We have some things that we need to do. I thought that since you wanted to see behind the scenes, you could tag along." Roris said frankly.
"Rory needs to eat and I need to take my meds." Lawrence explained.
I couldn't think of anything to say to that, so I just watched the scenery passing us by as we rode past houses and through wooded areas travelling to some unknown location.
* * * * *
When we arrived at the huge house in the middle of nowhere, I wasn't sure how I felt about what I was looking at. I suppose it goes back to some of the third world dictatorships that we've visited over the years. Seeing a secluded mansion strategically placed in a defensible location automatically sets off alarms within me.
Victor pulled us up to one of the small houses behind the massive, main house. As soon as we were all out of the large ATV, Victor drove the vehicle to what seemed to be a parking lot for ATVs at the side of the big house.
Even though we felt out of place being there, the visit with Roris' parents was nice. Mr. Teeter sat and talked with us while Roris and Lawrence had their lunch. Mrs. Teeter seemed determined to feed us, but after multiple assurances that we had just enjoyed a good meal in town, she finally relented.
As we were leaving the Teeters' house, we heard more ATVs racing through the wooded area that we had arrived from. By the time we reached the back of the big house, two ATVs were in view and seemed to each be filled with children.
"Hi Lawrence, I thought you guys would be in town!" One of the boys called out as he ran to Lawrence to give him an enthusiastic hug.
"Rory hired a bunch of people to take care of things in town. We're going to get back to work with Carson now." Lawrence explained as he hugged the boy.
"Guys! This is Lawrence. He's one of my new brothers. The guy in the wheelchair is Roris. He's Lawrence's boyfriend." The boy said happily.
All the children waved or shyly said 'hi'. I suppose it's a sign of the changing times that none of the children seemed to be the least bit bothered that Lawrence and Roris are gay. From all appearances, to them a person's sexual orientation is no more significant than their eye color.
"Are you going to see Bug now?" The boy asked when the hug was finished.
Before Lawrence could answer, Roris said, "Yes. And we're taking these guys to meet Carson. What are you doing here? I thought you would be out making deliveries." Roris asked seriously.
"Lazlo got these guys to help us. I'm just here to get them radios and stuff and I wanted for Bug to meet them while we're here." The boy said quickly.
"Then we should get inside, so you can get back to work. We wouldn't want for people to have to wait." Roris said, sounding as serious as ever, but I could see tenderness in his expression.
That being said, Roris and Lawrence led the way through a side door into the enormous building.
The place where we entered was something like a hotel or possibly a resort. There was a huge, open concept living area, flanked by a large dining table and chairs. At the far end of the room was a kitchen area that would be suitable for a master chef.
"Come on, Guys. The living room's through here." The boy said energetically to his companions as he led the way across the large room.
"That was Bax." Roris said simply.
"My brother, Bug, kind of adopted him as our little brother." Lawrence explained as we followed the way the boys had gone, but much more slowly.
I was sure that there was probably quite a story behind that, but it wasn't the story I was looking for. I wasn't in a position to know what was going on around the country and what was being done to protect average citizens. But in our effort to flee from the hellish nightmare of a countryside being bombed into submission, we happened upon what seems to be a haven for the common man.
When everything is said and done, I feel that this is something that people will want to know about. By all I've seen so far, what I've stumbled into is an example of the best of humanity. Using them as inspiration could help people rebuild their lives into something better than they were before.
* * * * *
"Hang on! There's Ken and Kev!" Lawrence said as soon as we stepped out of the hallway.
I noticed a look of amusement on Roris' face as he was suddenly diverted from our projected course.
We couldn't do much more than follow Lawrence and Roris into the enormous living room.
There were several children gathered together on some couches and low chairs. Lawrence hurried over to them and as he approached, a young man with long braided hair stood to greet him.
As soon as they were done hugging, Lawrence turned and hugged another young man who was virtually identical to the first.
"Ken and Kev are Bug's boyfriends." Roris explained to us as we watched them hug.
"Is everyone here gay?" I asked before I could think of how inappropriate it was.
"No. Not everyone." Roris said simply.
Due to the unemotional tone of his computerized voice, I couldn't tell if I had offended him or not.
"Sorry. We've just been all over the world and have traveled to places where being gay was reason enough for a person to be executed. I guess it's just surprising for us to be around people who are so open." I hurriedly tried to explain.
"Zane's home! We need to go see him!" Lawrence said suddenly, interrupting our conversation.
Although I was a little bit relieved for the break in our conversation, I looked to Roris with question, hoping he would explain.
"Zane had surgery yesterday and we've been worried about him." Roris said to me, then turned to look at Lawrence and asked, "Do you remember where Brother Jacques and Zane's room is?"
Lawrence appeared to be thinking about it seriously before quietly admitting, "No."
"Come on, Lawrence. I'll show you." One of the twins said warmly.
* * * * *
We ended up going back the way we had come.
Once we were back in the part of the house that looked like a resort, we got onto an elevator that I hadn't noticed as we walked through before.
We got off on the third floor and the twin led us down the length of the large common area to a bedroom door.
"Let me see if he's awake." The twin said quietly, then gently knocked.
A moment later a thin young man dressed in mostly black opened the door.
"Lawrence was wanting to see that Zane's alright." The twin explained.
"Zane will be glad that you came to visit. Please just keep in mind that he needs his rest. You won't be able to stay too long." The young man said seriously.
I could tell just by looking at him that the young man was on the threshold of complete exhaustion.
"We won't stay long. Lawrence was just worried about Zane when he heard that he was in the hospital." Roris said frankly.
It was at that exact moment that what I had been seeing since I met Roris and Lawrence in the stadium all began to make sense. It might have been obvious to someone else, I don't know. But right then it hit me that Roris and Lawrence who were both damaged and disabled in their own ways, functioned together at or above the level of a fully able person.
As we walked into the bedroom, I was once again reminded of a resort. It was spacious and comfortable. It was odd to see a hospital bed in the otherwise luxurious setting, but the sight of the pale young man in the bed left no doubt as to the necessity of it.
"Zane. You have more visitors." The thin young man said as he walked to Zane's bedside and placed a hand on his head.
Zane slowly opened his eyes and smiled when he spotted Lawrence.
"Rory said that you were in the hospital. Are you going to be okay?" Lawrence asked with concern.
"Yes. The doctor says that I'm going to be just fine. I'm just going to have to stay in bed for a while." Zane said quietly.
"Do you want for me to ask Bug if I can bring you stuff to do? There's lots and lots of people coming to Kettle Falls and we need everyone to help them." Lawrence said honestly.
Zane smiled at the question, then answered, "Maybe in a day or two. I don't think I'm up to helping out, just yet."
"As soon as he's ready, I'll let you know, then you can ask Bug for us." The thin young man said gently to Lawrence.
"Rory says that since we've got good people working at the stadium now, that we can spend more time here at the house. So you can find me whenever you want." Lawrence said cheerfully.
"That's good, because I don't know what's been going on the past two days. I'm going to need some help getting caught up, so I'll be ready to work when I'm feeling better." Zane said slowly to Lawrence.
"You look like you could use some sleep. We'll stop by again later." Roris said in his computerized voice. Although I'm sure that it doesn't convey any sort of emotion, I guess that I'm getting used to hearing it enough that I'm starting to assign emotional qualities to it. Because that almost sounded gentle to me.
Lawrence stepped closer to the bed and leaned in to give Zane a kiss on the cheek before saying, "Get better."
"I will. Thank you." Zane said gratefully and seemed to be fighting back tears.
As Lawrence pushed Roris' wheelchair toward the door, the rest of us filed out of the room.
I don't know what type of surgery Zane had, but there was no doubt that he was surrounded by people who loved and cared for him. Everyone should be so lucky.
* * * * *
"Brother Jacques looks really tired." Lawrence said with concern as we walked back toward the elevator.
"Now that Zane's home, I'm sure that he'll be able to rest a lot better." The twin said frankly.
"That's right. From what I've seen since we met him, Brother Jacques has a tremendous heart. When he knows that someone is suffering, he suffers right along with them." Roris confirmed.
"Is he a priest or a monk or something?" I asked slowly. Brother Jacques seemed to be awfully young, but I supposed that it was possible that he might be in training.
"No. At least, not in any official way. But considering the way he cares about everyone around him, I suppose that he is just about like a priest in all the ways that really count." The twin said thoughtfully as we stepped onto the elevator.
* * * * *
As we walked back through the living room, the twins fell away from our group and went back to join his brother with the children.
"I know it doesn't look like it, but we're about to enter a high security area. When we go in, it's possible that you might see or hear things that could cause great harm if they were reported. I'm bringing you here to meet the people who are orchestrating the overall refugee effort, but please don't report on any specifics of what you see." Roris said firmly and I got the sense that his computerized voice wasn't doing it justice.
"Yeah. I got that." I said carefully. I mean, it's not the first time I've been in a situation like this. but usually the speech comes with an implied threat, if not an overt one.
"Also, your photographer will not be able to take any pictures once we're inside." Roris said as he looked past me.
I glanced over my shoulder to see that we were in agreement before nodding to Roris to say that we accepted his terms.
* * * * *
"It took you fucking long enough!" An older teenage boy with his hair in a single short braid said belligerently as we walked into the room.
"Not in front of the kids." A younger teenager in a wheelchair said in a pained voice.
"What the fuck ever. Like these guys ain't never heard no one say 'fuck' before." The older teenager said with a roll of his eyes.
I glanced at the children that we had met outside to see them fighting to restrain their chuckles. I noticed that each of them now seemed to be wearing a radio earpiece on their right ear.
"Give us just a moment, we'll be right with you." The boy in the wheelchair said to us, sounding to be embarrassed by his friend's behavior.
"Say it back to me, Bax. What are you gonna do?" The older teenager with the braid asked firmly.
"I'm going to get all these guys tablets and get them signed on to Dizzy." Bax responded in a sing-song tone.
"And..." The older teenager prompted.
Bax thought for a moment, then looked at his companions to see if any of them knew what else he was supposed to do.
"You need to take Oma Shoupe her meds and give her a radio so that she can call us if she needs help." The older teen said firmly.
"Yeah. I'll do that, first thing." Bax said solemnly.
"Go on, then. You've got about a dozen people already waiting to have deliveries picked up."
The entire group of children, led by Bax, funneled out of the room, looking to be fired up and ready for work.
"Welcome to the command center, I'm Carson." The young teenager in the wheelchair said to us.
"You're Carson Brown?" I asked in surprise.
I had naturally assumed that the person running the refugee aid operation would be an adult.
Carson gave a weary sigh, then said, "Yeah. Last time I checked."
"These guys wanted to meet the people who were organizing everything. I hope you don't mind that I brought them." Roris said into the silence that followed.
"Well, I don't want to get into the habit of giving guided tours, but it's okay this time." Carson said frankly to Roris, then looked to us and said, "As I told you, I'm Carson and beside me is Jay. I'm in charge of the overall effort and Jay helps me. The potty mouth at the laptop is Bug. He's in charge of operations and keeping things streamlined. Over at the work table are Ben and Oleksandr. They keep tabs on what's going on in the outside world and warn us about what might be coming our way. The guys at the folding table by the door are Seth and Hobie. Seth is in charge of coordinating things between us and his dad. That means pretty much anything to do with housing and accommodations. Hobie does the same with his dad in regards to allocating and staging the resources we need before we need them."
As far as I could tell, the only person in the group who was actually an adult was Ben. The rest were teenagers. In fact, from the look of Oleksandr, he probably wasn't even a teenager yet.
"You're running the whole thing from here?" I asked in disbelief.
"Yep. And if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to running it." Carson said frankly.
We watched as Carson turned his wheelchair and inserted it into a massive computer alcove.
There were six computer monitors active, all displaying different types of information.
Out of nowhere, a teenage voice suddenly said, "Carson, I've received a report of suspicious activity approaching the front of the house. We have been advised to stay indoors until the situation has been resolved."
"War mode." Carson barked.
The six monitors withdrew slightly then reconfigured their arrangement and eight monitors moved forward to take their place.
"What is it?" Ben asked suddenly.
We stepped closer, standing just behind Carson so we could get a better view of the screens.
I saw a movement in one of the wooded areas as Carson said, "Someone's trying to sneak up on us."
Carson quickly pressed a button, then I could hear his voice on an intercom. "Attention everyone. Please stay away from the windows at the front of the house for a few minutes. We seem to have some uninvited guests."
"Do you need us to do anything?" Ben asked with concern.
"No. Whoever these people are, they've already made a fatal mistake." Carson said frankly.
"Yeah. The dumb motherfuckers approached from the front. They're gonna get their fucking asses kicked." Bug said as he stepped up beside me to watch the impending confrontation.
"Dizzy, increase surveillance of the perimeter. This is so blatantly stupid that it might be a distraction to allow someone to infiltrate from the rear." Carson said firmly.
"Got it, Boss." The mysterious teenage voice said from above us.
"Bax, how are you guys doing?" Bug said suddenly.
I looked at him curiously and noticed that he had a finger on his throat, like he was keying a microphone.
"Good. We've got a situation here at the house. You guys keep on going, just make sure to watch for trouble." Bug said, apparently in response to whatever Bax had said.
"No. Keep going. We'll have this all mopped up before you could get back here anyway. There won't be any gory bits left for you to see." Bug said with a smile.
After a moment, he chuckled, then said, "I tell you what. If anything interesting happens, I'll have Dizzy save the video for you so you can watch it when you get home."
"They're making their move." Carson said in a warning tone.
I turned my attention back to the video screens in time to see about a dozen armed men emerge from a wooded area.
The room was silent as everyone crowded around behind Carson to watch the scene unfold.
I saw one of the men fall to the ground and almost missed the fact that someone much smaller had jumped on the man's back.
Another of the men went down... then another.
There wasn't any sound with the video, so I couldn't be sure if the men made any sound or not. But from the lack of a reaction from the others approaching the front of the house, I would guess that each of them were taken down silently.
"Why are they letting them get so close?" Ben asked in almost a whisper.
"I'm sure they've got a good reason." Carson said carefully.
A movement on another screen drew my attention and I watched as a teenage girl, carrying a machine gun, stepped out of a tent. At first I thought it was an M-5, but it was too big for that. Then I recognized it as being an M-4 with an underbarrel grenade launcher.
"Command center. Situation under control." A young man's voice said into the room.
"Thanks, Lee. Can you tell us what's going on?" Carson asked as we watched the few remaining upright people drop their weapons and raise their hands in surrender.
"Consider it a congratulatory gift from President Ashwood for the fine job you've been doing. Don't worry, we've been expecting this. We've got it covered." Lee said confidently.
"Are there going to be more of them?" Carson asked curiously.
"Probably. But let's see what information we can wring out of this bunch before we start making plans. Expect a detailed report in the next few hours." Lee said seriously.
"Got it. Thanks, Lee." Carson said, sounding to be much relieved.
The video screens once again drew my attention. The prisoners were being secured and taken into custody. The thing that astonished me was that all of the people doing the securing appeared to be children and young teenagers.
"Show's over. Time to get back to work." Carson said as he pushed a few keys on his keyboard. All the monitors dropped back slightly, then reordered themselves back into their configuration of six. Carson then pressed another button and said into the intercom, "All clear."
"I need a break." Hobie said honestly.
"Yeah. We missed lunch." Seth agreed.
"We can cover while you're gone. Go ahead." Carson said seriously.
"What about you guys? Are you hungry?" Hobie asked us as he stopped by the door.
"No, but thank you. We ate before we came here." I answered absently. My brain seemed to still be processing much of what I'd just seen.
"Do you want to go with Hobie and Seth?" Ben asked Oleksandr quietly.
The little boy seemed to be uncertain as Ben continued, "Then, when you get back, you can watch things while I have something to eat."
"Yeah. Okay!" Oleksandr said happily, then gave Ben a firm hug before hurrying to the door.
* * * * *
As soon as the three younger boys were out of the room, Bug turned his intense gaze on us and said, "Now, for the real reason you're here."
Carson undocked from his computer alcove and turned his wheelchair to face us.
"What do you mean?" I asked cautiously.
"You're not going to hurt them, are you? They're nice." Lawrence asked suddenly.
"No. We're not going to hurt them. We need their help." Roris said, then urged Lawrence to sit on his lap.
"Actually, all of this was my idea." Ben said as he got up from his computer.
"What was your idea?" I asked as I tried to understand what they might intend for us.
"It's been my job to watch news reports and blog posts to try and figure out what's been going on that hasn't been reported. From there I've been trying to identify problems and opportunities, so that we can be as prepared as possible for what might come next." Ben explained carefully.
Since we'd entered the room, there hadn't been any indication that Ben was anything other than someone helping out Carson. But I could see now that he was as much a part of their team as any of the others.
"Ben has realized that as the shock of the past few days events wears off, that people will be searching for answers about what has been happening." Roris said seriously.
"If you two decide to help us, your jobs would essentially be two-fold. First, you will be our public relations staff. If anyone wants to contact us for an interview, their inquiry will be routed to you. Also, if we need to make a statement, it will be up to you guys to contact whatever media outlets are still functioning." Carson said firmly.
"Second, we'd appreciate your insights into helping us help the refugees who are coming to us. You've got something important that none of the rest of us have. You have experience." Ben said frankly.
"Do you know who we are?" I asked cautiously. As far as I recalled, I hadn't introduced myself to anyone since we had arrived.
"What the fuck do you think? That we just invite every fucking person who wanders by to come into our command center?" Bug asked with a roll of his eyes, then added, "Duh!"
"Ben alerted us as soon as you checked in at the first checkpoint." Roris said with a grin in Bug's direction.
"We were going to give you a chance to get settled in before approaching you, but then you came to us." Carson explained calmly.
"Why didn't you tell me that you knew who we were?" I asked Roris in confusion.
"I was curious to see how you conducted yourselves." Roris said simply.
"How'd we do?" I asked cautiously.
"So-so." Roris said with a smile, then explained, "I expected you to ask a lot more questions about me and the people we encountered."
"Yeah. Well, I guess all the missiles and fleeing for my life has thrown me off my game." I said grudgingly.
"I'm sure it has." Ben conceded, then continued, "We've seen plenty of examples of your journalistic ability, so we don't have any doubt that you can be a big help to us, that is, if you decide to join us."
"Both of us?" I asked to be sure.
"Of course. You guys are a team. We'd never try to get in the middle of that. The job is for both of you and you guys can work out who does what." Carson said seriously then glanced back at his monitors for a moment.
"What the fuck, guys? We got shit to do. Just flip a coin or whatever the fuck it is that you do to decide shit and let us know what you're doing." Bug said irritably.
I looked over my shoulder and quietly asked, "What do you think, Billy?"
"I think that we can do a lot of good here. But honestly, it's whatever you decide."
Yeah. No pressure. I just get to decide what we're going to be doing with our lives for the foreseeable future.
"We'll do it." I finally said, hoping that I wasn't going to regret it.
"Well, thank fucking god for that! From the way you were agonizing about it, you'd think we were asking you to eat dogshit or something." Bug grumbled as he went back to his laptop.
"Welcome aboard, guys. I figure that you'll probably work best from home. When you sign on to the public wifi in town, be sure to contact one of us and we'll get you set up on Dizzy." Carson said as he moved his wheelchair back into it's alcove to dock it.
"Dizzy? What's that?" I asked cautiously. I had heard them say the name before but didn't understand who or what it was.
"Dizzy, introduce yourself to the new guys." Carson said into the air, then turned his full attention to his screens.
"Hello. My name is Dizzy. If you guys need any kind of computer help with anything, you can ask me and I'll be happy to help you." The young teenage voice from before said from above us.
"You're a computer?" I asked into the air.
"Yes. Sorry. I thought you knew." Dizzy said in a voice that sounded timid and apologetic.
"Dizzy's an AI?" I asked in shock.
"VI, actually, but we'll get him there." Bug responded.
"Dizzy does an amazing job of helping us coordinate things." Ben added seriously.
"And Dizzy is one of the things you can't tell people about." Carson added without looking away from his computer screens.
"Yeah. That'd hang a big fucking target on Dizzy, and if they got to him, everything we built so far would be totally fucked." Bug said frankly.
"I have a little problem about keeping secrets." I said cautiously, then hurried to explain, "Not that I can't or won't keep a secret. I'm just saying that as a journalist, I feel ethically bound to report what I see and experience."
"I can accept that. But how would it be if you held off on reporting certain things until after everything else settles down?" Ben asked carefully.
I thought about that for a moment, then cautiously asked, "Do you think that when this is all over, I could write about what you've done here?"
"No." Ben said firmly. That surprised me, because, even though he was the oldest, Ben seemed to be the most laid back person in the bunch.
"But you could write about what we've done here." Ben said with a smile.
"We... right." I said cautiously, then explained, "Billy and I have been working on our own for a long long time. It might be tough for us to think of ourselves as part of a team."
"We'll keep that in mind. And most of the time you'll be free to go and do whatever you want on your own timetable. Just, every now and then, we might need for you to make an announcement for us or something. Beyond that, the most that you'll be getting from us are occasional suggestions for things to check out." Ben said seriously.
"Okay. I think I can handle that." I said as my mind continued to race over what I was agreeing to.
"What about...?" Bug asked as he pointed upward.
"Oh..." Ben responded anxiously.
"What?" I asked as I looked from one to the other.
"If we don't tell him, he's probably going to figure it out for himself." Bug said simply. He was obviously worried about something.
Before I could ask what they were talking about, Ben looked me in the eyes and said, "We've got another kind of big secret that we're going to need for you to keep."
"How big?" I asked cautiously.
"Carson, should we introduce the new guys to him?" Ben asked hesitantly.
"Let's see if he's still awake." Carson said seriously as he worked on his keyboard.
Bug and Ben guided us over to stand behind Carson's wheelchair.
One of the screens came alive with a streaming video chat.
"Hi Carson. Is everything working better at the Canadian border now?" A man asked Carson hopefully.
Seeing him completely out of context, it took a moment for me to recognize who the man was.
I gasped as I realized that Carson was talking to Eric Carlson, the husband of the new vice president.
"It's too early to tell for sure, but everything looks good so far." Carson said seriously, then asked, "Is Mike still awake? We've got some new team members that I'd like to introduce to you guys."
"Just a second." Eric said before dashing away.
"You're in direct contact with the Vice President?" I asked in amazement.
"You could say that." Ben said with a secretive smile.
"Who do you have for me to meet, Carson?" Mike asked as he came into view.
"Mr. Vice President, I'd like for you to meet Deacon Pierce, an award winning freelance journalist and William Pierce, his brother and an accomplished photographer and photojournalist." Carson said formally.
"It's nice to meet you. I'm familiar with your work, Deacon. You've done an amazing job of putting a human face on the consequences of political decisions. And William, or may I call you Billy? Let's just say that I recognize you, and that Eric and I are familiar with your work from before you turned to photojournalism." Mike said with a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
"Thank you, Sir... I think." Billy said uncertainly.
"Carson, how are the arrangements working?" Someone asked with a British accent as he walked into view.
"So far, everything seems to be working perfectly, Your Highness. Thank you again for your help." Carson said reverently.
It was Arthur, the King of the British Commonwealth. He was right there, with the Vice President of the United States... talking to us!
"Thank you for all that you are doing." King Arthur responded before backing out of the frame.
"Deacon, if something comes up and we need a press secretary for a few minutes, would you consider filling in?" Mike asked me seriously.
"Yes, Mr. Vice President, I would be honored." I tried to say without sounding like a babbling idiot.
"Good. It's nice to meet you both. Welcome to the team." Mike said before signing off.
I stood there, staring at the blank screen for a moment, trying to comprehend what had just happened.
Finally I was broken out of my thoughts by Carson asking, "What was that he was saying about Billy's work?"
Before Billy or I could answer, Bug said, "Just search the Net for Billy Pierce... And make sure the 'family filter' is turned off.
"I'm never going to live that down." I heard Billy mutter from behind me.
* * * * *
To Be Continued...
I really enjoyed reading this chapter, which shouldn't surprise anyone who has read any of my previous notes on this and other stories by MultiMapper.
Poor Billy, I think he just might be right about the fact that everyone who ever saw his earlier work would certainly have that picture deeply embedded in their mind's eye. Oh yeah, definitely.
I can hardly wait for the next exciting chapter.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher