“We can’t stay here. Whoever did this might still be around.” Sally surveyed the damage, peering into the bushes surrounding the camp. By now, it was early afternoon. That meant that the camp invader had come soon after they’d left in late morning and had worked fast. It also meant whoever it was didn’t worry about getting caught. She hitched her tiny rucksack higher on her shoulders and set off toward the path up the hill to the senior center.
“Come on, friends. We gotta go.”
Amanda nodded in agreement, but Johnson wandered, stunned, from one scrap of cloth, one undone roll of toilet paper, one ripped t-shirt to another, fingering the broken pieces like they were his mother’s fine china. He started to collect trash strewn in the bushes into a plastic bag but then collapsed into what was left of an old kitchen chair that had been parked just outside Clark’s tent. He put his face in his hands and started to cry. It was quiet weeping but involved his whole self. There was so much grief pouring out of him that Sally dropped her rucksack to go stand next to him. She patted his back.
His back was thick. Johnson was a heavy-set guy, his gut spread out over his jeans just enough to make a statement. He’d never intended to be a thin guy, he believed in eating too much. He had curly hair, unruly and uncut for probably months, and a beard that sprouted down his neck and up high on his cheeks. He’d never trimmed that beard, Sally could see that, and probably never would, unless you call taking a pair of kitchen shears to that beard once a year grooming.
“I’m sorry, Johnson. I’m so sorry.” That was really all she could say. She didn’t understand any of this. She was just an old lady who took the wrong path on the way to chair yoga and ended up discovering a dead body. When was that? Just the day before yesterday? And here she was, comforting a homeless man she’d just met but in whose tent she’d slept in the night before, standing in an encampment that had been trashed by an unknown but clearly very mean and angry person, and having no idea how to string all those pieces together.
“Come on, Johnson. Let’s go up to the senior center. I can go in and get us some coffee. We can sit in the gazebo and talk. What do you say?”
Johnson pulled his shirt up to blow his nose and wipe his face. It was a slightly repugnant act that caused Sally to look the other way. She’d had occasion to blow her nose in her own clothes, but it was a long time ago in a situation she didn’t entirely remember.
The gazebo was deserted so they had their pick of the three picnic tables. Sally had gotten two coffees and one hot chocolate. It was one thing the senior center did right – keep those old urns full and hot all day.
“Tell me about Clark,” said Amanda. “What was he like?” She’d learned in journalism school to ask that kind of question of survivors. Another variation was ‘What would you like people to know about your friend?’
Johnson swung his legs over the picnic table bench and sat down. Sally sat down next to him, and Amanda sat across from him. She wanted to take out her notepad and pen, but she didn’t want Johnson to feel self-conscious and she wasn’t sure that she’d even want to use what he said in a newspaper article. It seemed kind of personal. Private.
“We were friends. Not for that long but long enough. We met up at New Beginnings, that’s a shelter downtown. Maybe about a year ago. We left there for jobs, but the jobs fell through. So, we just made our own camp, met some people, you know, went here and there. Clark was a good guy but messed up some of the time. He had headaches that wouldn’t go away for days, and I’d go get him food and stuff. Aspirin. Aspirin didn’t really help but he believed in it. I don’t why.”
Johnson stopped to sip his hot chocolate.
“I tried to get him to go to the doctor, but he always said no. Said no doctor could fix his headaches because they were a curse, punishment for something he’d done. He never said what that was. He was mysterious that way. Hiding shit. I just quit asking him. Figured if I needed to know, he’d say. But he never did. And now he’s dead.”
“When did you guys join up with Ace and Beverly?” Now Amanda really wanted to get her paper and pen out but resisted. She prayed she would remember all of it for later. Write something, even if it was a big flashy newspaper article, just write something to remember what Johnson said and how he said it.
“I don’t know. Beginning of summer maybe. It was just beginning to get hot. We’d seen them before at St. Paul’s but one day we got to talking and it seemed like a good idea to throw in with them. They were kind of a pair, Ace and Beverly, not in that way, but they went way back, you know what I mean? They had a lot of history. We didn’t inquire.”
“What do you think happened back there? With Clark? And the camp?” Sally figured that Johnson had to have a hunch about who killed Clark and who destroyed the camp. Were those two things just random events? Or did all of it happen for a reason?
“I don’t know. Its bad, though. Real bad. Clark went off on his own because somebody texted him. I saw him look at his phone and just peel off, like instantly. He never did stuff like that. He was always first to St. Paul’s, ready to talk up the volunteers, get us the best table. Makes no sense to me.”
“Where are you staying tonight, Johnson? Let me put you up in a hotel, just so you can get some sleep. Kind of collect yourself after all this.” This was Sally’s offer. She wanted to go home. She wanted Amanda to go home. And she wanted Johnson to be safe. Ace and Beverly, she figured they could fend for themselves. She couldn’t sort it out. None of them should be sleeping out in the woods tonight, she knew that much. It was time to hunker down.
NaNoWriMo is a national novel writing challenge. 50,000 words by the end of November. This year, my husband, Howard Snyder, and I are collaborating on a mystery novel. You are invited to read, comment, suggest plot lines, laugh at our folly, or cover your eyes and run to the next blog to read. Either way, we’re going to keep at it this November until we run out of gas, which could be tomorrow. We can only hope.