The rain never let up while they were in Sector 84. The runoff water from the high ground to the left of them ran over Thort’s and Evanor’s soggy stuffed boots as they trudged forward pulling their heavy wagon load. Thort had had to fix the wheels three times and the rear axle once. He hoped the jerry-rigged axle would hold until they crossed the border into Sector 85. The rain washed away the wheel grease and made the wood expand, so the wheels turned with difficulty making the pulling that much harder.
Thort told Lem to keep out of sight because he didn’t know how folks around that place would react to a blue child. There had been that one stranger who’d stopped to help Thort change a wagon wheel that had gone all wobbly. They’d got to talking and that was the first time Thort and Evanor had heard blue people called “Rats”. Thort glanced anxiously back at the oiled blanket and hoped his son would keep low and silent so the stranger wouldn’t get too curious.
“Why do they call them Rats?” Thort asked the stranger, trying to sound like he was just making conversation.
“Where’d you say you’re from?” the stranger asked suspiciously. “Everybody calls ‘em that.”
“Not in our village,” Thort wished he hadn’t asked. He could see the worried look on Evanor’s face.
“You ain’t no Rat-lovers, are you?” the stranger asked Thort.
“Do I look like a Rat-lover?” Thort growled back in a threatening way that didn’t brook any answer but one. Thort’s presence was huge, burly, and intimidating.
“No, I suppose not,” the stranger allowed. “Anyways, we rounded up a couple of Rat-lovers who called those blue abominations Rationals ‘cause they’re more intelligent than us plain folk. We gave ‘em a nice warm tar bath and sent ‘em on their way to Rat country. Rationals sounded too good for them and, besides, they look more like blue rats to us than God-fearing people.
Thort thanked the stranger for his assistance but was relieved when he left them and was out of sight. Evanor’s dark sunken eyes flashed with fear. She climbed up into the wagon and slipped under the oiled blanket to enclose Lem who was still shaking in the warmth of her arms. Thort’s reaction was delayed until the stranger was gone and it would have been difficult to say whether it was more anger than fear.
He pulled the wagon holding all that was dear to him in this miserable life through the incessant rain.
When they finally crossed over the border into Sector 85 a month later, Thort almost didn’t notice the small stone border marker. The rain was a little sporadic by now and it didn’t seem as bone-chilling. The food was running low. He figured it’d last another week at the most. Then they’d have to work or beg for bread and water. Evanor suggested they look for the local church of every village they passed through and fall on the mercy of the preacher to get a warm meal of soup and bread. “They can’t all be mean-spirited,” she said. “There’s gotta be a few decent ones along the way. It’ll make our money last longer.”
Some nights Thort had to climb over a farmer’s fence and steal some fruit or vegetables from the fields.
There was no honor in survival, but they managed to survive until they reached Sector 86 two months later. The rain abated but the winds were still chilly. Sometimes when there was a small patch of sky for the sun to peak through and the wind had slowed or stopped, Thort and Evanor could feel the warm hope of this sector. The pulling was easier because the roads were drier and less rutted. A few hours after they’d start out in the morning, Thort would pull off his coat and toss it back into the wagon. Evanor would open a button of her blouse to let the cool breeze in. Lem was allowed out of the wagon to walk beside his parents, but Thort told him that, at the first sight of people, Lem was to climb back into the wagon and under the blanket. Lem liked the walking and he was getting stronger.
Lem asked his father to let him help pull the wagon. Thort laughed but said, “Sure, have at it!” Lem’s shoulders and arms were not wide enough to hold onto both wagon handles at the same time. He gripped one handle with both hands and leaned forward with all the strength his thin arms could muster, but the heavy wagon scarcely budged. Thort laughed again but added kindly to Lem that even his mother couldn’t pull the wagon as far as he had. Lem made a thin blue muscle proudly for his father and Thort whistled appreciatively.
By the time they crossed into Sector 87, the rain was a distant memory. The air was warm and dry. The sweat evaporated off their skin and damp clothes. Their throats were parched with the ever-present dust in the ground and in the air.
By this time water was more of a problem than food.