The sergeant of my escort had olive green eyes that matched his uniform and a gray mustache which hung over his upper lip. He was about fifty and radiated an aura of experienced assurance. When he nodded up the road and said “Three kilometers,” he stood with his hands together behind his back.
What he meant by ‘three kilometers’ was that in that distance there was a youth hostel which would take me in for the night.
Off the side of the road, in the shade of the short pines, I considered the prospect of laying down for the day after just three more kilometers. I didn’t feel well at all. I was lightheaded and my legs had that jello feeling from too much sugar and not enough calories. I couldn’t concentrate on anything either. My eyes seemed to go in and out of focus. Every mile had been a slog.
I wanted to call it a day, but it was only one o’clock. If I finished my day at two I’d be sitting in my room for eight hours before falling asleep. Just to leave the youth hostel I’d need the escort with me and that was such a hassle I knew I’d simply end up hunkered in my room.
But if I didn’t stop in three kilometers, the next city wasn’t for another twenty-five. I’d already walked five hours, and that was an added five hours in the remaining five hours of daylight. If I decided not to stay at the youth hostel I’d have to walk five hours straight.
I wasn’t sure my legs could handle that.
“It’s too early,” I said to the sergeant.
I don’t think the sergeant understood me but he was nodding. Behind him, beside the narrow road, the mountain was shorn away so there was tan stone and no vegetation. Cars rolled in neutral downhill and roared as they worked up it.
“Tamalous?” I asked.
“There’s a hotel there? In Tamalous?”
“Yes. Hotel. Tamalous.”
“There’s a hotel there? I can sleep there?” I put my hands together beside my cheek to signify sleeping.
“Yes. Dormir. In Tamalous.”
I thought for a minute about the five hours on my weary legs. I rubbed my palms into my thighs to get a feeling of just how sore they were. There was an ache deep and near the bone. Two of the previous three days I’d walked ten hours to get to a hotel. If I walked to Tamalous it would be three out of four.
But after Tamalous the city of Skikda was only thirty-five kilometers away – a normal day’s distance. If I pushed through now things would be easier on the other side.
I opened a translator on my phone and typed.
I’m very tired today, but I’m going to walk to Tamalous. If you see a store with Red Bull, STOP!
“Red Bull good.” The sergeant patted his chest.
“Yes. Energy.” I hit my chest with a fist.
Though I relied too heavily on Red Bull in the Americas I hadn’t had one in months. I’d been reducing my sugar intake. But Red Bull worked wonders while walking. The energy from it was more physical and less mental than coffee. Today I needed that.
“We will go?” asked the sergeant.
“Yes. To Tamalous.”
I clambered onto my weary legs and could feel the exhaustion in them like knots.
But the decision had been made and that helped. I knew what I had to do. Five hours. No stray thoughts, just walking.
I put my earbuds in and cranked electronic music. Savannah was at the ready; stood beside the cart, pointed up the road and her tail curled high. Once I clicked off carts break Savannah started. The leash went taught as she pulled ahead. We crossed the road and walked against traffic.
There were brick and concrete houses dotting the green hills. Few of the houses were painted. Paint was too expensive and cracked too readily on concrete. So the homes were left a drab concrete gray. Most second and third stories were exposed with rebar jutting out in all directions. Without the prospect of loans the homes were built as money came in; over ten, fifteen, twenty years.
The music had me walking at a great pace. After thirty minutes we entered Boutias.
In the moderately sized town the sergeant was out of his car and waving me into different cornerstones in search of Red Bull. I tried a few shops but there was none. I ended up buying a knockoff in a plastic bottle. It had taurine in it so there would be some effect at least.
I drained the taurine-infused sugar water and navigated my way through town. Weaving between cars, curbs, puddles, people, vendors, motorcycles and potholes. With music in my ears most of the noise of the city was drowned out. Smoke whirled across the road from a pile burning trash. Savannah sneezed and I held my breath.
After a bit I could feel my heart bumping behind my eyes. The taurine had worked. My focus was narrowed. My legs didn’t feel so weak. There was a long day ahead, but I knew I’d make it.
Over the mountains the road descend to a plateau. The walking was easy and the air wasn’t humid like it was on the coast or in the valleys. In the west and central coast of Algeria the land was dry, but as I moved east the land grew steadily greener. There weren’t bountiful forests on the way to Tamalous, but there were shimmering fields of grass like I hadn’t seen in a month. They gave me a longing to be laid out on my tarp at the end of the day. I missed the smell of the outside at night, everything turning dewed and cool. Savannah deserved to spend her nights outside too. The hotels were cramped and boring for her.
After twelve kilometers the sergeant and his team passed off responsibility of me to a new team. While they did the paperwork I stopped at a café beside the checkpoint. A man pressed out an expresso from one of the many gorgeous, massive silver coffee presses which along with mosques were the focal points of every town in Algeria. I shoved a stale croissant in my mouth and worked it down with the potent coffee.
“What country?” a man in the café asked.
“Las Vegas.” The man grinned.
“Philadelphia. Rocky Balboa. The Seventy-Sixers.”
For some reason a lot of people in Algeria knew Philadelphia from the Seventy-Sixers.
“Café?” The man offered me a small cup of expresso.
“No, thank you. Too much.” I tapped my hand over my heart rapidly.
“Here.” He handed me a few coins.
“No, no. Thank you.”
“Here.” He took my hand and pressed the coins in them. “For your café.”
I put the coins in my backpack and got back on the road.
A few more hours of flat walking I arrived in Tamalous as the sun was setting. Gray clouds were backlit by the burnt orange light of the sun behind the mountains. I crossed a short bridge then was in the thick of a bustling second-world city. There was a sidewalk but the trees planted at the center of it meant the cart wouldn’t fit so Savannah and I walked the road. My legs gave their final kick. Two cops walked behind me and directed me to the police station.
The police station was at the center of town. It was a white and blue block of a building with a tall concrete wall around it. Once reaching it I stood outside at the gate and twenty cops poured out of the station to filled in around me. In their presence, and having reached the station, I finally let my guard down for the day. The last bits of energy my body had dug up to cross the city vanished. The fifty kilometer day came crashing against me.
“Is there a hotel?” I asked an officer.
“No hotel in Tamalous.”
“A youth hostel?”
He shook his head.
I walked fifty kilometers on the word that there was a hotel in Tamalous, but I wasn’t upset to find out there wasn’t. I was accustomed to the miscommunications. Besides, I knew the police would find me somewhere to sleep.
The captain of the Tamalous police ushered me off the street and into the police station. The entrance hall was large and occupied by nothing but a wooden desk and gleaming linoleum floors. There was a waiting room off to the side where I was told to wait while they made some calls.
I sat on a metal bench there which nearly gave out under my weight. Savannah laid at my feet and was asleep immediately. An officer came in for my passport.
I gave it to him then put my head back and closed my eyes. My entire body ached. My back ached from pushing the cart uphill all morning. My legs ached from walking a hundred and fourteen miles in four days.
My eyes watered from exhaustion.
A young police officer with blond hair, blue eyes and a particularly square head came in.
“Relax. We will find you a place to sleep.”
I nodded. “No worries.”
The officer stood with his hands in his pockets.
“It’s tired.” He nodded to Savannah.
I could think of nothing else to say. I glanced at the man and smiled, then I rested my head in my hand and closed my eyes. My trust was entirely with the police.
For twenty minutes I dipped in and out of sleep. Then a few officers came in and told me they had found me a place.
I took Savannah and my cart and with two officers we walked a few blocks further into the city to another police building. We loaded my cart into the back of a police van. Savannah and I climbed into a car behind it. We trailed the van through the city. It was dusk and the light was blue. A weak orange light emanated from the shops. People cut across the street. Wet trash stuck to the curbs. I could have fallen asleep.
Soon we were trundling down a dark backstreet on the outskirts of Tamalous. We pulled into a mechanic shop and parked in a large dirt parking lot. There were two buildings – a three door garage and a three story concrete home. At the far end of the garage four men leaned over the open hood of a new Mercedes. Beyond them were chickens. In front of them was a macaque monkey chained loosely to a post. I hit the officer in the passenger seat on the shoulder and pointed to the monkey. He smiled then stepped out of the car.
I stepped out with Savannah and two relatively plump and clean dogs appeared barking from the garage. A chubby-cheeked boy of about eleven came over to shoo them off.
Savannah seemed unconcerned with the dogs and went wandering, sniffing the ground as she went.
I peered around. The place was dirty, dusty and unknown, but I had to put my trust in the police.
A few officers helped me take the cart out of the van. Once I had the wheels on the boy and his father appeared. The boy was holding two blankets and a pillow. The father was wearing a fuzzy gray sweater and oil-stained khakis. He held out a hand. He had the same build as my father; like an old-world sailor. His hands were huge from clauses. His teeth were small, his cheeks a little chubby, and his nose a touch round at the end.
The father didn’t speak English or Spanish and I didn’t speak Arabic or French but he smiled reassuringly and led me to the garage. As I passed the younger men working on the Mercedes I held up a hand then touched it to my heart. They did the same in return. Peace be upon you.
In the back of the garage was a ten by ten room with a throw rug, a table, a heater, a wooden bar and two sofas.
“C’est bon?” asked the father.
“C’est bon,” I said.
A police officer was behind me. He peeked his head into the room then said something in Arabic to the father.
The father took a lighter from the bar and lit the heater. Two flat flames licked alive.
The boy set the blankets and pillow on a sofa. Then the boy, father and officer left. I moved the cart into the room. Savannah circled the table.
I looked at the uneven concrete walls and realized I had no good sense of the average home in Algeria. I’d been staying at hotels and they couldn’t be used as a comparison. The walls were concrete but the place was clean, the dogs were healthy, and the police trusted the father. On a second appraisal it looked like I was being giving shelter in the break room. That was good.
Still, being in a strange mechanic shop on the outskirts of town led me to thoughts of the girls murdered in Morocco. They were thoughts I needed to cut it off before the emotion of them took over. The cops had led me here. And ten million tourists visited Morocco every year.
I unpacked a few things then sat on the sofa beside the blanket.
A police officer came in and I put pinched fingers to my mouth.
“To eat?” I asked.
“Food. It comes.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
I was starving.
The police officer sat on the second sofa and stared at the wall without saying anything. I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate with the officer sitting there. I wanted to lay down but thought that’d be rude.
After what felt like an hour the father entered with a baguette and a huge clay pot filled with an olive and meatball stew. He sat it on the table in front of me.
I dug in.
The father left and the police officer stared off in silence.
As I ate I looked at the wall where I’d sat Savannah’s bowls. There was a long dark stain on the concrete.
I looked to my right. Above the heater was a rectangular hole in the wall with a pillow stuffed in it. I looked back to the stain, then up at a narrow window six feet above the police officer. If I stood on the sofa I could reach it. Savannah would have to cling to my back; I’d need both hands to pull myself up. What I’d do with her on the other side I didn’t know. Maybe I could put her on the roof then climb after her. But what would we do stuck on the roof with people after us? It’d be better if we jumped to the ground and ran. I could call Rachid and hide in the woods until he made the five hundred kilometer drive from Algiers.
I turned back to my stew and tapped an olive so it bobbed in the red-orange broth. I was glad my mind ran through these plans, but if they went any further they’d just ruin my night.
I attempted to turn my concentration to the officer.
“Cold, eh?” I said.
He cocked his head and said something in Arabic.
I laughed then pointed to the heater. “C’est bon, no?”
The officer smiled, then a hefty silence filled in where our languages fell short. I returned to the stew.
Once I was finished I placed the empty pot on the bar then sat back on the sofa. For another fifteen minutes the officer and I sat in silence. I wanted him to leave so I could lay down.
Then abruptly he glanced at his watch and stood up.
I followed him out the doorway. He turned in the garage and held up a finger to me. “No outside. No outside. No outside.”
“Sure. C’est bon.”
“Tomorrow I come.”
We shook hands and he left.
He went out a doorway in the garage outside my room. The door was a flimsy plastic without a lock. But there two metal brackets for a lock which I slid a pen into. It held shut the door, but there was an entire garage door that could be opened at the click of a button.
I went into my small concrete room to find Savannah asleep on the sofa. The room was warm from the heater. That made me drowsy. I shut the door but again there was no lock. I dug out parachute cord from my cart and tied my cart handle to the door so it would act as a weight to keep the door shut – though if someone wanted to get in badly enough one good pull would open the door enough to enter. And anyway, there was a large hole in the wall covered by nothing more than a pillow.
With my cart tied to the door I inspected the stain on the wall. It wasn’t blood, that was obvious in a second. Probably it was oil.
Behind the bar I noticed a chainsaw. Good, something to defend myself with, I thought insanely.
I laid on the sofa and pulled the soft blankets over me. It was only eight but there was no cell service and I was exhausted. I was too tall for sofa so I rested my feet off the side. The heater was a few feet from my cheek. Its flames cast the room in a warm hue. For a bit I read more of The Bone Collector but put it down once I noticed I was having violent imaginations of men with machetes climbing through the hole in the wall.
I turned on a comedy podcast and soon the good thoughts came in.
The mind needed guarding.
In the morning I woke before sunrise. All my muscles ached worse than they had the day before. I could have slept longer but it was very hot in the room and I was sweating beneath the blankets. I rolled over and stared at the flames flickering on the heater.
Eventually I dressed and went outside. I was greeted by the father and son. Savannah trotted to the chicken coop and stole some food. The father had coffee, hot milk and pastries for me. The police hadn’t arrived yet. I’d have to wait for them to leave.
It was cold outside. The town was covered in a fog and I could see my breath.