By the time the bus gets through all the checkpoints and we’re allowed to disembark, night has fallen, and the refugee camp is eery. A crowd has gathered to greet us, which confuses me at first, but their eyes give it all away. They scan the newcomers looking for loved ones, left behind, and a few – very few – are successful, the rest go away with their grief weighing just a little bit heavier.
I can’t help but return the gesture – might I see a familiar face? I do not. Who would I be looking for, anyway? The only people I’m missing I watched die – there are no unaccounted for loved ones to find.
What strikes me once I get over the obligatory crowd searching is that I recognize where we are, and I can’t help but laugh at the macabre irony. It’s the Santa Anita Race Track, and this is not it’s first time being converted into war-time housing: last time it was a Japanese internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The expansive parking lot is lost once again under the shoddy barracks – you wouldn’t even know it, except for glimpses of the paint underfoot, and even then they are hard to discern because of the layers of dirt and trash.
As we walk through the narrow aisles between what I can only describe as overcrowded summer camp cabins, I wonder if we’ve made a mistake. A discomfort rises in my gut – we jumped on the opportunity to come here because we had no other option, because it seemed like such an obvious good thing. But was it? Can we change our minds?
We are the obvious newcomers, it seems. Heads poke out from around corners, peak through cracked doors, and eyes follow us. The man on the bus that attacked Nathan and Sonam will do well here – I can tell by the way eyes are already following our bags we’ll ned to be watchful.
Without electricity and running water, the camp is filthy, and smells accordingly. But what most offends the nose – and relieves it by masking the rest – is the acrid smoke. Fires burn throughout the camp as the sun starts to set and the air cools. People gather around to talk and eat, or otherwise enjoy the light.
A young boy catches my attention with a phlegmy cough. It is warm out, but he sits by one of the fires, his emaciated body wrapped in a blanket. And in his hands: a book, whose cover reads The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson. Despite all else, I smile – the book provides something familiar and comforting, however out of place it may feel, and my heart is warmed seeing it in the hands of a child. He may be a teenager, it is hard to tell because of his weight – he looks maybe 12. He is overtaken by a fit of coughing, and my smile fades, and then he disappears from sight as we continue walking deeper into the camp.
Eventually, we reach the cabin we’ve been assigned. The floor is uncovered, revealing more of the asphalt seen outside. Our building is situated over parking spots 89 and 90. Our group files in and stands about, surveying the room – we’ve seen better. When I turn around, Sonam and Nathan are standing in the doorway, growing sheepish as the everyone else stares them down.
“Would you mind if we, uh, bunked with you?” Nathan asks.
I look to Allen, who surprisingly looks not to Aiden but to me. He opens his mouth to answer but I can’t risk him denying them, so I speak first, blurting out, “We wouldn’t have it any other way!”
Sonam embraces me, and, unprepared, I stumble. “Thank you,” she whispers. “Two people can’t make it here alone.”
“Nobody but nobody,” I say. Anna rolls her eyes from across the room – she may be irritated, trying to pretend she hates me or doesn’t care. But she’s not totally checked out – at least she got the reference, at least she’s acknowledging me. I’ll take the eye-roll as a win for me.
“How many beds we got?” Aiden asks, already sounding defensive.
“12 bunks, so 24,” Kara says.
“And how many-“
“There are 23 of us,” she cuts him off. “Including Nathan and Sonam. We have the room.”
“Well that settles that, then.” Allen drops the pack he was carrying on a bed. “Guess now we…settle in.”
“I’m going to see if there’s a medic,” Catherine says, her arm tight around her husband’s waist. If it weren’t for her support, I’m not sure Link would even be standing right now – he needs medication, hearty food and rest, proper and clean dressings.
“Why don’t you take a few others with you – get a lay of the land, see if there’s a food and water station or something,” Anna’s dad suggests. “Showers?”
From the back of the room comes Johnny’s voice, offering himself for the trip. “I’d like to go.”
“Then me too,” his mother adds.
“I’d like to stretch my legs,” Gus says hoarsely, then coughs.
The group heads for the door, and Allen looks at me, nodding in their direction. Point taken. “I guess I’ll tag along, too, then.”
Back out in the labyrinth of barracks, we’re not sure what direction to try first. If it weren’t for Link, I might find wandering around aimlessly rather amenable, but I know we don’t have time for that now. So we’re just gonna have to meet our neighbors.
Not looking to start any fights and remembering the aggressive sensitivity of the man Sonam and Nathan got into trouble with, I skip over a few particularly unfriendly looking individuals, and end up startling a woman who looks about as uncomfortable being out at night as we are. She points us in the right direction before hurrying off again.
The medic tent is on the outermost edge of the camp, and it is overflowing. All of our senses are overwhelmed upon entry. The space is dizzying – the movement and the crying and the shouting are one layer, and then there are the smells of sickness and antiseptics, and then there is the stuffiness of the air itself pushing in on you.
Despite how busy it is, the urgency of Link’s situation earns him a high level of priority; it doesn’t take long for a bed to be prepared for him to lay on. Somehow putting his sick and broken body in the right context makes me see the situation anew. He is pale, sweaty, and shaking from the fever. None of us has yet been willing to voice the fear we’ve all shared watching him get worse: infection.
A nurse gently removes the bandaging Laura managed to give him while we were on the run, and begins to inspect the horror show beneath.
“You should go,” Catherine says, her eyes fearful and wide staring at the stub to which her husband’s hand was once attached. “I’ll stay here with him, through the night, however long he’s here. But you might as well go back now that we found the tent.”
“Oh come on, Caty.” Gus places a grandfatherly hand on her shoulder and gives it a gentle squeeze.
“No. How can I leave him like this? No. Don’t even – no.”
“Let one of us stay with you, at least?”
She doesn’t respond.
Gus turns to me and Georgia. “I’ll stay here the night. Caty shouldn’t be alone.”
“Okay,” I cede. In fact, I think it’s probably a good idea. I’d be just about as uncomfortable leaving Catherine to deal with this here in this strange, scary new place by herself as she is with the idea of leaving her ailing husband alone in it. “You remember where we are, how to get back or come get someone?”
“Yeah,” he winks and smiles. “We’ll be fine. You go get some sleep and we’ll touch base in the morning.”
Georgia squeezes Catherine’s hand and then she and Johnny and I leave. We breathe out heavily once back in the open air, trying to shake the smells and images from inside the muggy tent.
“That was awful,” Georgia mutters. After a few minutes she speaks again. “Do you think he’ll be okay?”
I stuff my hands in my pockets. “I don’t know. He didn’t look good.” I feel bad for not being more encouraging, but it’s about all I can manage. What I want to say is that none of us will be okay, which is kind of how this camp is making me feel. Been here an hour and it’s already sucking all the hope out of me.
At first the shout doesn’t even register since it isn’t a voice I recognize. Georgia seems to walk just a touch quicker, but it may just be my imagination. But then the call comes again, more certain this time.
She stops suddenly, her eyes widening. Johnny wears a similar expression – I can’t quite place it. She starts to take another step forward, but the voice calls out again, “Georgia!”
She turns around. “Kevin?”