CHAPTER 22 - Easy To Be Hard
(Saturday/Sunday - August 30-31, 1969

.


WARNING: Contains racial epithets, and taking the Lord's name in vain


.

Any place it goes is right
Goes far, flies near
To the stars away from here

.

He had been running naked next to the van for some time, but suddenly he realized that he was actually flying.

Sometimes he was flying on one side of the van, other times he was flying over it, and then he found himself flying on the opposite side.

Well, you don't know what we can find
Why don't you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride

.

Severus waved to the people in the van, but only Yesmina waved back…no one else seemed to be paying attention to him, except for Shadow, who Severus could see was standing up against the window closest to him, watching.

You don't know what we can see
Why don't you tell your dreams to me?
Fantasy will set you free

Last night I held Aladdin's lamp
And so I wished that I could stay
Before the thing could answer me
Well, someone came and took the lamp away

.

Suddenly he found himself back inside the van, with no knowledge of how he got there. Azalea was pinching his upper arm.

"Ouch!" Severus complained.

"You be trippin'!" Azalea whispered vehemently, but she looked more afraid than angry.

I looked around; a lousy candle's all I found

.

Severus noticed that Angel and DeWard were also looking at him with some concern, as Yesmina and Shadow were turning from the window. Yesmina just smiled at Sev, while Shadow stared at him. Annie and Benjie seemed oblivious to anything unusual.

"I was flying," Severus explained, looking at Yesmina. She just smiled and nodded.

Well, you don't know what we can find
Why don't you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride?

Azalea punched Sev's arm.

"Ouch!" he complained once again, this time more loudly.

Well, you don't know what we can see
Why don't you tell your dreams to me?
Fantasy will set you free

.

"Azalea, honey," Annie called back to them without turning around, "please don't hit others…"

"He bein' stupid, Annie!" Azalea offered. Annie and Benjie both chuckled.

"Hitting people doesn't make them any smarter!" Benjie offered. "Try talking your differences out…"

Close your eyes, girl
Look inside girl
Let the sound take you away

.

Azalea did not look convinced that this tactic would be any more effective than her usual one; she just glared at Sev, who stuck his tongue out at her and then looked out the window. He realized that even though they were still on the highway, that they were hardly moving.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"Just outside St. Louis," Benjie answered.

"We're still in Missouri," Angel added, seeing Sev's perplexed look. "It's a holiday weekend, so lotsa people are on the road, we're in a traffic jam…"

Since the van was barely moving, it made it all the more hot and muggy.

They drank some cold soda from the cooler, Yesmina helped DeWard color in one of the coloring books he had, and Angel read the sports section of the newspaper that Benjie had bought earlier that morning.

"So…we'll be seeing your family tonight," Severus commented to Azalea, who was staring out a window.

"Hmmm," she answered distractedly.

"Maybe not until tomorrow," Benjie offered. "Not with this traffic…"

Severus was disappointed. Azalea had made Louisiana sound so wonderful that he could hardly wait to get there. However, Azalea did not seem disappointed at Benjie's news, and Severus wondered why.

"What do you think your Granny will make when we first get there?" he asked.

"Huh?" Azalea asked, turning from the window. "What?"

"What do you think your Granny will make? You said she is a good cook, she will be sure to want to make something special for your return!"

Sev was really hoping that Granny would make them all something special to eat.

"Oh, depends," was all Azalea said. After a pause she added, " 'pends on what time of day…if'n we'd gotten there tonight, she'd make us supper. If'n we don't get there until tomorrow, maybe dinner, maybe supper…"

After her previous eloquent listings of all the grand and exotic foods that would greet them in Louisiana, Severus found Azalea's present mood odd.

Annie and Benjie had tried to phone Azalea's grandmother before they'd left Mexico, but there had been no answer. Sev wondered if that was what was bothering Azalea.

Severus gave up trying to talk to her, and picked up the rest of the newspaper. He did not understand the news on the first pages, nor did he find the articles on local happenings of any interest. He settled on the comics section.

They were just reaching a town called "Caruthersville" when Sev turned the comic page into a paper fan to cool himself off. Everyone else thought this a wonderful idea, and soon everyone except Benjie had a newspaper fan.

Traffic eased up as they turned east onto another highway and crossed the Mississippi River into Tennessee. Benjie pointed to a boat on the river that had a big wheel in back, explaining that it was an old-fashioned paddlewheel boat. Then he, Annie, Angel and Yesmina all started singing, "Rolling…rolling…rolling on the riverboat!", DeWard adding a deep bass, "…on the riverboat!" at the end, and everyone laughed.

Except for Sev, who did not get the joke. And Azalea, who faintly smiled and turned to pensively look out the window again, slowly fanning herself.

They stopped for gas and to stretch their legs; Benjie and Annie again helped Azalea to phone her grandmother, and again there was no answer.

Once they had resumed driving there was nothing of much interest to see, so Yesmina and DeWard lay down to take a nap. Since he was hot and tired, and even more so since he had been up the night before killing cockroaches, Severus decided that it was a good idea, and was soon asleep himself.

When he awoke the sun was in the west, and Benjie said that they had just gone through a place called "Dyersburg", and that it had been decided to stay overnight at a state park near Millington, adding that it was outside of Memphis. This seemed to have some meaning to the others, but Severus had absolutely no idea where they were, or how close they now were to Louisiana.

Azalea was still sitting in the same place, gazing out the window. Severus wondered if she had moved at all.

They pulled off at another rest stop, and when Severus got back to the van, he saw Yesmina and Azalea already inside, talking.

Yesmina smiled at him as he got into the back of the van, and for some reason Azalea seemed more relaxed than she had been all day.

"Where's Angel?" she demanded.

"He's coming…he's with DeWard," Severus answered, even though it seemed it should have been obvious, as Angel and DeWard at that moment came walking up to the van.

Angel also had a paper sack, and when he got into the back of the van, he showed that it was full of cold soda.

"Thanks, Angel," Azalea stated, taking a cola. Angel paused and then glanced from Severus to Yesmina, but no one said anything.

Benjie and Annie returned, Benjie lugging two bags of ice, and Annie carrying Judy.

"There was still no answer, hon," Annie told Azalea as she got back into the van. Sev wasn't sure what the look on Azalea's face meant.

Benjie dumped the melted water out of the cooler and added the two bags of ice. Jack came up with another bag, and took out eggs, butter, and milk, which he placed into the cooler before putting the paper sack next to it. Sev could see that there were two boxes of cornflake cereal, a loaf of bread, a jar of jam, and a box of what looked like frosted cupcakes. But before anyone could grab those, Annie warned them,

"Why don't you wait until we make camp and then you can have the cupcakes for dessert after we eat."

Severus had not eaten since breakfast, and he was hungry. But somehow he also knew that at this point they all were costing the Silversteins money, and that there was not a lot to go around. He was all too familiar with that situation.

He contented himself with some of the fruit the Temples had given them.

Azalea joined them in playing cards, but Sev saw that he was not the only one who noticed that she did not seem as animated as usual. For that matter, the Silversteins were also subdued.

Just before six o'clock they reached a state park; there was a problem with getting adjacent spots for the van and the bus due to the holiday crowd, but finally it was agreed that the two vehicles could park in one space as long as they paid for two spaces.

There was no stream nearby, but they had lucked out in getting a space that had a water tap.

Once parked, Azalea grabbed Yesmina's hand and they both went off to find the lavoratories. Angel suggested that Sev and DeWard join him in exploring the site. Shadow, who'd kept to one corner of the van all afternoon, jumped out after Sev and followed the boys.

This park was much more crowded than the one they had stayed at in Pennsylvania. Sev saw cars and pickup trucks and caravans parked one next to another for the 10 minutes or so that they walked about.

For months Sev had deferred to Angel and the others regarding how Americans acted, but this time he felt the familiar, unpleasant feeling he always felt at home when he had to interact with Muggles.

They were outsiders to these people. More than that, they were considered odd…strange…wrong.

Severus sensed that Angel felt it too, and if Shadow had hackles, they seemed to be raised.

"Dint know they let niggas heeya!" Sev heard some man say.

"Come on," Angel muttered softly, grasping DeWard's hand, "let's go back."

They turned onto a path that Angel thought might be a shortcut, but they'd only gone a short way when they were blocked by four white boys who looked to be about 11 or 12 years old.

"Watchoo nigga boys doin' here, huh?" one of them, whom Sev assumed was their leader, demanded.

"Nothin' " Angel demurred. His reaction surprised Severus.

"Just going back to our camp," Angel added.

"This place was nicer 'fore they started letting' niggas in, dontcha think, boys?" The ringleader glanced around at his cronies, who all chuckled in agreement.

"Where you nigga boys from, anyways?" Ringleader drawled, strolling up to them. "You don't sound like y'all from around heeya…"

"We're not," Angel answered, "we're just passing through…"

Ringleader fingered Severus' hair.

"Mighty fine hair for a nigga," he stated, grabbing a hank and yanking it so hard that it jerked Severus' head.

"He isn't a Negro," Angel exclaimed. "Neither am I…"

"Heeya that, boys?" Ringleader asked, slightly turning his head to his friends. "These two sez they ain't niggas!"

Ringleader turned back to Sev, who'd started to slowly reach into his satchel for his wand, wondering what sort of hex or curse he could cast on these tormentors.

"Where you from, boy?" Ringleader demanded.

"I am from England," Severus answered, grasping his wand but not retrieving it.

This answer, and Sev's accent, surprised the other boys.

"You from England," Ringleader drawled. "Guess they don't got no niggas there…but you sure dark enough to be one!"

Sev took his free arm and raised it next to Ringleader's; there was barely a difference in color. Ringleader laughed.

"Yeah, guess you got a tan just like me," he stated, turning to Angel. "So what are you?"

"Puerto Rican," Angel answered. The others guffawed.

"Rican's just another kinda nigga!" Ringleader exclaimed, turning to DeWard. "And don't try to tell me this ain't no pickaninny!"

"Shut the fuck up, you mutha-fuckin' cracker!"

They all turned to where the voice came from, and Sev saw Azalea and Yesmina where another path joined the one they were on.

"More niggas!" one of Ringleader's buddies exclaimed.

Severus at first sensed, and then actually saw, flames surrounding Azalea, much as he had seen back at Woodstock. But he also sensed fear coming from her, as it was from Yesmina, who was almost cowering behind her friend.

"You leave him alone!" Azalea screamed. Severus noticed that the other boys, including Ringleader, were intimidated by her.

"This your pickaninny, girlie?" Ringleader demanded. "Must be one of those N-A-A-C-P meetin's goin' on 'round heeya, boys, y'think?"

Ringleader chuckled as his friends agreed, but Severus noticed he actually seemed nervous. Ringleader turned his attention to Yesmina.

"Hey, blondie…what's a nice white gal doin' with these niggas?"

He reached out and grabbed a hank of Yesmina's hair, slowly fingering it before Azalea slapped his hand away.

It all happened so fast after that. Severus pulled out his wand as Angel yelled, " 'lea, NO!"

Ringleader (or was it one of his buddies?) bellowed in outrage about a "nigga hittin' a white", and Ringleader made a fist, pulling his arm back to hit Azalea, who had both of her fists balled, ready to fight back.

Shadow roared. At least Severus thought it was roaring…it was much more than growling, but no one else seemed to hear it.

Shadow sprung at Ringleader, passing through him. Sev thought that Ringleader looked as if a stunning curse had just been cast on him.

Ringleader stumbled backwards in a daze as Shadow landed on the other side of the path and whirled back around, ready to attack again if necessary. Severus noticed that Yesmina glanced in Shadow's direction.

"What's going on?"

Benjie came running up with Jack and another man Sev only knew as "Pumper".

"Uh, nothing…" Ringleader stammered, backing up to rejoin his friends. "We were just going…"

Jack and Pumper towered over the boys, who retreated, one of them muttering something about, "Niggas, spics, now Jews!"

"You okay, hon?" Benjie asked Azalea, putting his arm around her shoulders. Azalea unclenched her fists, but said nothing. Her shoulders were heaving, and Sev wondered if she was about to start crying.

"We ran into some of them at the restrooms," Yesmina explained.

Severus glanced back at where their tormentors were retreating, still watched by Jack and Pumper. He slipped his wand back into his satchel, and for some reason put his hand on DeWard's shoulder. DeWard looked up at him with a tear-stained face, and then grasped Severus' hand in his own.

"Well, we're in the South," Benjie sighed, putting his other arm around Yesmina and guiding both girls onto the path back to their camp. "We have to be careful."

Azalea kept grumbling about "Fuckin' crackers!", and Sev remembered the story she'd told him about white boys taunting her and pushing her into the swamp when she lived with her grandmother.

"What sort of place is this 'South'?" he whispered to Angel, who'd taken DeWard's other hand. They were walking behind Benjie and the girls, and were followed by Jack and Pumper, with Shadow trailing behind them, a wary eye cast to both sides of the path.

"A whole other world," Angel answered. "We gotta be careful; they kill people down here for being different…"

They got back to their camp without incident, but Severus noticed that everyone was anxious, although they did their best to put on a cheerful façade.

They had hotdogs and potato chips for supper, and as the children finally received the cupcakes for dessert, Sev heard Benjie and the other men discussing setting up a guard for the camp that night, and who would take what shift.

The children bedded down in the van; Azalea started wheezing, grabbing her inhaler from her bag and taking large gulps. Severus realized that it was the first time she'd needed it in months.

As they started to fall asleep, a few members of the commune started playing guitars and singing.

How can people be so heartless
How can people be so cruel?
Easy to be hard
Easy to be cruel

.

Eventually they were joined by other campers, some with guitars, one with a banjo, a woman who played something called a dulcimer, and quite a few others with just their voices.

As Severus drifted off to sleep, he thought that he could feel the anxiety and tension leaving everyone in camp. This opinion was confirmed when Shadow, who had been sitting at alert at the back door of the van, finally made a sound that to Severus sounded like a cross between a snort and a sigh, and then lay down next to him.

Sev and the others were awakened early the next morning by Benjie, who explained that they needed to get an early start.

They had breakfast, and were accompanied to the restrooms and back by Jack, Pumper, and another member of the commune with the name "Rockin' Rye", but no one bothered them.

As they were leaving the park they stopped at the entrance to use a payphone to call Azalea's grandmother, but again there was no answer.

"Maybe she's at church, hon," Annie offered, more as question, as she and Azalea got back into the van. Azalea just shrugged and mumbled, "Maybe", before falling silent.

Benjie had bought a newspaper, and Severus was surprised to find that it had a separate comics section all in color, which he and Yesmina helped DeWard to read.

Angel again concentrated on the sports section, while Azalea disinterestedly flipped through the fashion section and the supplements for local department and clothing stores.

At each rest stop they attempted to phone Azalea's grandmother, but there continued to be no answer. Just outside Hammond, Louisiana, Annie had even asked the phone operator to check that the line was in service, and had been assured that it was.

The Silverstein's van was now leading the commune bus, as Azalea started to give Benjie directions. Annie, Yesmina, and even Severus occasionally tried to engage Azalea in conversation, or to participate in playing a game, but Azalea demurred, and instead folded her arms on the back of Annie's seat and focused on the road ahead.

They reached the town of Opelousas just before 6 p.m., Azalea directing Benjie on what turns to make. They were in a neighborhood of small, neat, narrow, mostly one-story houses that Benjie stated were called "shotgun" style. Azalea was visibly nervous when they turned onto the street her grandmother's house was on, and she was silent when Benjie pulled up in front of the house.

Severus and the other children all crowded at the windows to look at the house. It was painted a light blue with white trim, and had a porch on which there was a rocking chair and a potted palm. On the edge of the porch's roof hung a couple of baskets of bright pink and red flowers, and the bottom of the porch, and the walkway leading to it, was lined with plants with large green leaves and small purple and white flowers.

There was a wreath of dried flowers hung on the front door, and hanging from the wreath was a wooden sign painted in bright colors with the name "Underhill" painted on it.

"I made that for Granny 'fore I left," Azalea said softly, and Severus saw that her eyes were unnaturally bright.

No one said anything, and they sat for some moments, as if perhaps hoping someone inside would notice them and come out.

But all was quiet. Severus had the distinct feeling that no one was home.

"Come on, hon," Annie suggested, turning to Azalea. "Let's go knock on the door."

Nothing was said to the others, but Severus knew that it was understood that they should remain in the van. Annie handed Judy to Yesmina as Benjie turned the motor off, and he joined his wife and Azalea in climbing the steps up to the porch. Annie was the one who rang the doorbell.

They stood there for some moments, and then Annie rang the doorbell again. After another few moments, Benjie rapped on the door.

When it was obvious that no one was coming to the door, Benjie, joined by Jack, walked around the side of the house and then called back, "There's no car here!"

"It doesn't look like a farm to me," Sev whispered. Yesmina and Angel just shrugged, while DeWard looked confused.

Azalea was stroking the name plaque, and Sev thought that it looked like she was ready to cry. Benjie and Jack came back from around the side of the house, and a quiet conversation ensued between the adults and Azalea which the others could not hear.

Severus looked around; across the street was a school yard with swings in the distance, and a baseball field close by. Severus knew that Angel would love to play baseball, but he also knew that this was not the time to suggest a game.

Some of the members of the commune were stretching their legs, leaning against their bus, and a few people who were walking by stared at them and their brightly painted vehicles.

Then Sev noticed a bus stop at the corner ahead of them, and a woman who got off of it walked towards them on the sidewalk, looking at them quizzically.

She paused as she reached Granny's house, obviously uneasy about passing the van and the bus. She noticed the adults on the porch, but when she saw Azalea, Severus saw a flicker in her eyes.

"Can I help you?" she asked, not moving from the sidewalk.

"We're looking for Mrs. Underhill," Annie answered her. "Do you know when she'll be back?

"Sapphire?" the woman asked, turning from Annie to Azalea. "You Azalea, girl?"

Azalea perked up at hearing her name, and looked at the woman intently.

"Yes'm" she answered. "I'm Azalea Wanetta, Mrs. Underhill's granddaughter."

The woman smiled broadly, opened her arms wide, and ran up the sidewalk before wrapping Azalea in her arms and squeezing her in them.

"I thought you looked familiar, girl!" the woman exclaimed. "But y'all grow'd like a tree since'n I last saw you!"

It was like a light bulb turning on over Azalea's head, Severus thought, just like he'd seen in some of the comics.

"I remember you, you're Mrs. Soarse!" she exclaimed, grinning. "You live next door!"

Azalea pointed to the house to the right.

Annie, Benjie, and Jack all in turn shook Mrs. Soarse's hand.

"Do you know when Mrs. Underhill will be coming home?" Annie asked again. Mrs. Soarse's face became serious. Severus glanced at Yesmina and Angel, and they too looked worried.

"She not here," Mrs. Soarse answered, not to Severus' surprise, but Azalea looked crestfallen.

"What happened?" she exclaimed breathlessly, and Severus wondered if she was going to have an asthma attack.

"Camille what happened, chile!" Mrs. Soarse answered, garnering questioning looks from Azalea and the adults.

"It doesn't seem to have done much damage here," Benjie mused.

"No," Mrs. Soarse agreed. "It went east. Hit Mississip' real bad…"

She turned to Azalea.

"Almost alls yo' folks from there, 'cludin' yo' Mama, lost everythin'," she explained. "They's all stayin' at yo' granny's ol' farm, the one in Terrebonne Parish she gave to her cousin…that's where Sapphire's at, she helpin' 'em out…"

She fished around in her handbag, and took out a key.

"Your granny left me with the spare key, I go in every evenin' and shut the curtains and turns on lights," she explained. "Then I come in the mornin' and closes the lights and open curtains…I'm also keeping whatever mail comes, 'tho Sapphire told the post office to forward her mail to Theriot. And I dust and vacuum for her once a week."

She handed the key to Azalea.

"If you want to go in and check, just make sure you give me the key back 'fore you leave."

"Do you have a phone number where Mrs. Underhill can be reached?" Benjie asked.

"Yes," Mrs. Soarse answered. "It's in my house, I'll be right back."

She went into her house as Azalea slowly approached her grandmother's door and unlocked it. The door swung open, but she paused and then turned back to the van, and gestured that the others should join her.

They gladly scrambled out of the hot van, Yesmina carefully carrying Judy. They paused at the front door, allowing Azalea to be the first to enter.

Even though the house had been closed up, it was still cooler than outside. It was very neat, with simple furniture, most of which were covered with sheets as if their owner expected to be gone for some time.

Azalea walked down the hallway, and stopped at a room at the very end. The others peered inside, and Severus saw a sewing machine and a rocking chair by one window, and a pretty daybed under another.

"This used to be my bedroom," Azalea stated, before turning to the room to the right. "This is the bathroom."

She walked back down the hall as Mrs. Soarse came up to the front door. She spoke with the Silversteins, handing them a piece of paper.

Yesmina used the bathroom first, after handing Judy back to Annie. Severus looked in the kitchen, hoping perhaps to find something cold to drink in the refrigerator, but was disappointed to see that it had been turned off and its door propped open, empty of all contents.

As the rest of them waited for their turn for the bathroom, the Silversteins sequestered themselves with Azalea behind closed doors in her grandmother's bedroom, and while Severus couldn't make out what was being said, it was obvious they'd succeeded in getting someone to answer the phone number Mrs. Soarse had given them.

Severus wandered into the small living room, and was amazed at the number of photographs that covered not only the walls, but almost every square inch of surface space.

Some of the pictures were very old, especially one large picture of a bride and groom that hung in the middle of the wall. Surrounding it were more recent pictures, including wedding pictures of other couples, and many pictures of children that spanned decades.

Sev was drawn to one more recent picture, of a little girl of about six or seven, which looked like it had been done professionally. The little girl looked familiar.

"That's Azalea!" Yesmina laughed, coming up behind Severus and startling him.

"No!" Sev exclaimed, turning from Yesmina back to the picture of the gawky little girl in a frilly pink dress and a ridiculously large pink satin bow in her hair.

"What's that on her teeth?" he asked.

"Braces," Yesmina answered. "To straighten her teeth."

"That had to be a school portrait!" Angel observed, coming up with DeWard in tow. DeWard looked at the picture, overwhelmed.

"This is her, too," Yesmina chuckled, pointing out a picture in a frame on a table beneath the portrait on the wall. Severus looked at it intently.

The little girl in the picture looked slightly younger than the one on the wall, and she was wearing what seemed to be a frilly dress of white organdy, over which was a coat in navy blue. She was also wearing white gloves, white socks and white patent leather shoes, and what seemed to be a hat, although Severus was not sure that it might not have been some large exotic white flower.

A very smartly dressed woman, also wearing gloves and a very flattering hat, had Azalea's hand clasped in her own. The woman was smiling broadly at the camera, her hat shading her eyes from the bright sun, but the little girl had a deep frown.

"That's probably her mother," Yesmina observed. Before they could explore any more of the pictures, the bedroom door opened and Azalea came out with Annie and Benjie. Azalea noticed the others in the living room and joined them.

"You makin' fun o' my pictures?" she asked, confirming that it was indeed her image in the photos.

"Was that one taken for school?" Angel asked, pointing to the one on the wall. Azalea nodded.

"I hated that dress!" she laughed. "I hated that picture!"

"You must hate this dress, too," DeWard stated, pointing at the other picture. Azalea picked it up.

"I actually really liked that dress," she mused. "The sun was in my eyes, that's why I'm frowning…"

"Did you like that hat?" Angel asked incredulously. Severus thought that Azalea would hit or kick him like she usually did, but she just smiled at the picture and then put it down.

"It was Easter," she explained. "Had to wear a hat to church, you know. And yeah, I think I really liked the hat back then…but it sure does look funky now!"

"Is that your mother?" Severus asked. Azalea stared at the picture.

"Yeah, that's my mom," she stated. "That's how she looked back then…"

"Okay, we need to hit the road if we're going to get there tonight!" Annie exclaimed. Benjie had a sheet of paper with notes written on it.

The Silversteins herded the children out of the house, making sure to turn on the lights and close the curtains for Mrs. Soarse, before locking the house. As they walked down the steps, they saw that many of the commune members were gathered on Mrs. Soarse's porch, drinking lemonade.

"Come have a cold drink before you leave!" she told them, and the children gladly accepted.

"Did you get a hold of your grandmother?" she asked Azalea, pouring her a glass of lemonade. Azalea nodded.

"Talked to her and Mama," Azalea answered, taking a gulp. "They're waitin' up for us."

"Thank you so much for your help," Benjie gushed, shaking Mrs. Soarse's hand and giving her the key. "And thank you for the lemonade!"

Mrs. Soarse tickled Judy on her cheek as the rest headed back to their vehicles.

"You take care now," she stated, to both Annie and Azalea. "Tell Sapphire I miss her, and I hope she can come back soon! But I'll take care of things for her 'til then!"

They finished their goodbyes, got back into the van, and then Benjie again led the way.

"I didn't recognize her at first," Azalea stated. "Mrs. Soarse. She's lost a lot of weight, she look real good now. She used to watch me if Granny had to work when I wasn't in school…"

They headed south from Opelousas, and about half an hour later they turned onto a highway heading southeast. The drive was longer than Sev had hoped; Azalea told them that it would be about two hours before they got to their destination.

It got more humid the farther they went, and once they got through the city of Lafayette, Severus thought the plants and trees looked almost tropical. There was definitely more moss hanging from the trees than they'd seen to this point, and Azalea confirmed that they were now entering what was known as "bayou country". She had to explain to Severus that a bayou was a swamp.

When they'd reached a city called Houma, they got off the highway and headed south. They'd been on this road for about 20 minutes, and Severus noticed that it not only was very rural, but the buildings were extremely run down, even the houses. He wondered what Azalea's grandmother's farm was going to be like.

They traveled for another 15 or 20 minutes; Azalea was keeping a sharp eye on the road, as it was now dusk, but she recognized the correct turnoff to reach her grandmother's farm.

It was a long dirt road, and Severus realized that in some ways it was very similar to the approach to the Temple's farm in Indiana.

Finally, just after 8:30 Azalea exclaimed, "There it is!" She eagerly pointed to a house off to the left.

Benjie pulled up in front of it, and the commune bus parked behind them. Severus looked closely in the dusk, and saw a large farmhouse some yards back from the road. It was obviously very old, and did not look as well-cared-for as the Temple's house. Neither did it have the number of out-buildings as the Indiana farm.

The house did have a much bigger porch than the Temple's, this porch spanned the whole front of the house and wrapped around both sides. There was a building that looked like a small barn off to the far left, and a smaller building in back between the two.

Across the street seemed to be a small field, but it was surrounded by tall oaks dripping with moss, and indeed the rest of the street farther down seemed to be all uncultivated.

Between the house and the barn there were many cars, a few tents, one trailer, and a pickup truck with something on its back that looked like it had been designed for sleeping.

Indeed, Sev could just make out a couple of people inside this contraption; and some people came out of the trailer and the tents to look at them. There was also a fairly large group of children standing in the entrance of the barn.

Annie and Benjie got out of the van with Azalea, Annie this time taking Judy with her. Again, the others understood that they should remain behind.

As the three walked towards the house, Severus could see an elderly woman and a middle-aged woman come out onto the porch.

"That's Pearl's chile," Severus heard muttered somewhere from the growing darkness. "That's Azalea?" he heard one of the older children ask.

Severus assumed that the two women who came out of the house were Azalea's mother and grandmother, which was soon confirmed when he saw first the younger woman give Azalea a big hug and kiss her, and then the older woman did the same.

They all went into the house, and Yesmina, Angel and DeWard sat back, sighing.

"That seemed to go well," Angel observed. But Severus remained silent. He was remembering what Azalea had told him weeks ago at the concert. He knew that the happy reunion would not remain so for long.

There were lights on in the house, and a few lights in the tents, in the trailer, and a spotlight mounted outside the barn. But night fell quickly; the people in the commune bus remained on the bus, and for once were relatively quiet. And the people outside were also quiet, in fact Severus noticed that a couple of them who had been sitting on the porch got up and left the porch. Some people stared at the van and bus in curiosity, but no one from one group said anything to the other. Finally the sounds of a radio wafted softly from the bus to the van.

At first Severus could hear animated voices from within the house, although the actual words could not be made out. By the tone of the voices, it was obvious that the Silversteins were explaining how Azalea came to live with them, and Severus guessed that Azalea's mother and grandmother were explaining about the hurricane and the current living arrangements.

But after awhile the voices got low; Severus could barely make out first Benjie, and then Annie, saying something. There was a pause; it was as if the group inside had gone mute, but Severus then decided that Azalea was probably telling her story, and that she was speaking in a low voice.

This was confirmed when a shreik emanated from the house, so loud and pathetic that everyone started, even the people on the property outside, who all looked at the house and mumbled amongst themselves.

"Oh, Jesus!" Azalea's mother Pearl wailed. "Oh, Lord Jesus! Lord Jesus help me! Help me! Help me! Help me!" And then she continued shreiking.

Angel, Yesmina, and DeWard all looked like the blood had drained out of their bodies; they sat frozen, Yesmina's eyes so wide Severus thought they'd fall out.

They could hear Azalea wailing, "Mommy! I'm sorry! I'm sorry, Mommy! I'm so sorry!" Both Annie and Benjie could be heard saying something, but the actual words weren't audible. Mrs. Underhill could be heard sobbing, "My baby! My baby! My poor baby!", but Severus wasn't sure whether she was trying to comfort her daughter or her granddaughter.

Mrs. Wanetta continued to shriek at the top of her lungs, at one point actually coming out on the porch and screaming "JesusLordJesus! HelpmeJesusIwillkillherJesus!", before Benjie managed to calm her down enough to guide her back into the house.

Azalea continued sobbing, "I'm sorry, Mommy, I'm sorry! I didn't want to do it! Forgive me, Mommy!", and Mrs. Underhill continued crying, "My baby, I'm so sorry baby, forgive me, baby, I didn't know!"

This continued for some time, at one point Severus thought that he heard Annie crying also, and then he definitely heard Judy wailing. This seemed to refocus the group, and while they could still hear sobs from inside the house, the loudest of the wailing subsided.

Judy was fed, or her diaper changed, whatever inconvenience had prompted her outburst of displeasure. By that time the lights downstairs had been turned off, but lights had gone on upstairs. It looked like perhaps they were all going to bed, and that the Silversteins had been asked to sleep in the house.

Severus could see the outline of Azalea and her mother through the curtains of a window at the front of the house. They were hugging, but Azalea's sobs could still be heard.

"My baby, my precious baby," they could hear her mother say through the open window. "I am so sorry, baby…"

Azalea just sobbed as her mother stroked her head, and then their shadows moved away from the window, and all was quiet, save for the strains of a song being played on the radio in the bus.

"What the fuck?" Angel finally whispered vehemently. But both Yesmina and DeWard were crying; Sev just lay down, pulling his satchel over his head to try to drown out all sound.

.


.

I like to dream yes, yes, right between my sound machine
On a cloud of sound I drift in the night
Any place it goes is right
Goes far, flies near, to the stars away from here

Well, you don't know what we can find
Why don't you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride

You don't know what we can see
Why don't you tell your dreams to me
Fantasy will set you free
Close your eyes girl
Look inside girl
Let the sound take you away

Last night I held Aladdin's lamp
And so I wished that I could stay
Before the thing could answer me
Well, someone came and took the lamp away
I looked around, a lousy candle's all I found

Well, you don't know what we can find
Why don't you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride

Well, you don't know what we can see
Why don't you tell your dreams to me
Fantasy will set you free
Close your eyes girl
Look inside girl
Let the sound take you away

MAGIC CARPET RIDE
Steppenwolf
1968

.


.

How can people be so heartless
How can people be so cruel
Easy to be hard
Easy to be cold

How can people have no feelings
How can they ignore their friends
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no

And especially people who care about strangers
Who care about evil and social injustice
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend

How can people be so heartles
You know I'm hung up on you
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no

And especially people who care about strangers
Who say they care about evil and social injustice
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
Oh, I need a friend

How can people be so heartless
How can people be so cruel
Easy to be proud
Easy to say no
Easy to be cold
Easy to say no
C'mon

Easy to give in
Easy to say no
Easy to be cold
Easy to say no
Easy to say no

EASY TO BE HARD
Three Dog Night
1969