First, the world was shaken to its core when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11. Then the world suffered during the SARs outbreak. Then there was West Nile … and Corona Virus … and now this.
With each pandemic, the world became a little more frightening. What was even more frightening to Sansa, was that the entire globe was adapting just a little too well to each new threat.
As Sansa edged her way through the gymnasium – keeping the regulated social distance between her and everyone else, of course – she shook her head and shivered.
It shouldn’t be this easy. We should be really scared, she thought. But everyone was acting like Oh well, it’s no big thing, we’ve been through it before. The world was just too damn complacent.
Sansa took a deep breath and focused on her mission. She was here to find someone to fill her spare bedroom. She looked up and gazed around the room as someone bumped against her. Sansa’s first reaction was to recoil in fear, but instead she laughed mockingly at herself.
Everyone who’d gotten off the plane had been tested and cleared. The town limits had been restricted and everyone who’d been allowed through had also been tested and cleared. There was no Cardio-Respiratory Obstructive Disorder in North Burlow, Vermont. C-ROD is what they were calling this one. Still, everyone was being careful. Goods and services were still coming in from outside their safe little haven. All it would take is one sick factory worker or one contagious vegetable packer on a farm somewhere. They couldn’t spray every piece of fruit or Lysol wipe every bottle of dish soap.
Shake it off, Sansa told herself. Just shake it off.
Sansa reassured herself that the now practiced reaction to any kind of threat, be it terrorist or biological, had been swift and sanitary. As soon as the news of a global outbreak had been announced, all air traffic had been immediately grounded.
This is a bad one, Sansa remembered thinking.
The planes almost literally dropped from the sky, landing at the most readily available airport or landing strip. Since the major cities and airports were immediately overrun, many flights had been diverted to smaller towns with sleepy airports and private strips.
The same thing had happened just after 9/11 although Sansa had been a lot younger then and didn’t remember much from back then. And besides, she’d been living with her family in Chicago at that time. But she did remember reading about small towns that had taken in stranded travelers. That’s exactly what was happening now.
The plane that landed at Tully Field had been diverted from Montreal. The Royal Air 747 out of London, UK fortunately had not been a crowded flight ensuring that everyone on it would likely find a place to sleep in their new, temporary home.
Avoiding the small crowds of mingling people, Sansa stepped off to the side of the gym and scanned the crowd. She had one spare bedroom with a twin bed to offer up. If necessary, she could take in a couple, take the spare room for herself, and give them her bedroom.
Whoever she invited into her home, he … she … them … fuck it! … whoever … would have to be quiet and leave her alone to do her work.
Sansa smiled politely as the mayor’s wife offered her a cup of coffee. She sipped it, winced, and resigned herself to chewing on the rim of the paper cup to avoid actually drinking the disgusting swill they’d brewed. How could anyone not realize how horrible this shit was? But, she kept quiet and drank it because she was trying to become a part of the community.
It hadn’t been easy when she’d first arrived in North Burlow. It was a small quaint town that didn’t easily accept outsiders. But during a crisis like this one, everybody showed their community spirit, their neighborliness and worked together to overcome the obstacles. If Sansa was going to prove herself to be a real part of this community, she certainly couldn’t snub her nose at helping out right now.
So … at the very least, she was taking in a border. A border, she reminded herself, who could be stranded with her for weeks, maybe even months depending on how bad this pandemic was. She would have to choose carefully – very carefully.
Sansa decided to bite the big one and get in there and mingle. Her first target was a young couple about the same age as her – early thirties, she guessed. They looked like a typical suburban couple, smiling, arms lovingly around each other as though they were protecting each other from the big, bad strangers.
As soon as Sansa stepped up to say hello, the woman erupted in verbal diarrhea. Sansa never even had a chance to introduce herself. Instead she listened as the woman complained that she would be missing her stories. By the way she said the word stories, Sansa assumed the woman was referring to a soap opera.
“We’re not even in the right country!” the woman declared haughtily. “Of all the backwater burgs to stuck in …” She turned to her husband and whispered loudly out of the corner of her mouth. “They probably don’t even have indoor plumbing here.” Then she turned to Sansa and smiled a very wide and toothy smile that was about as genuine as her bleached-white caps.
Sansa smiled back, turned on her heel and fled. She was nearly bowled over by a short, fat balding man, his haggard wife and their three demon spawn. The young boys, who ranged in age from 4 to 12, were running haphazardly screaming at the top of their lungs and grabbing handfuls of people’s clothing as they tore around the room.
The wife looked almost desperate as she approached Sansa with her hand out. Sansa shook it, then stepped back to maintain a psychological distance as well as a physical one.
“Hi, we’re Joanna and Phillip Peterson and those are our three boys –” She was cut off when Sansa yelped loudly. The oldest of the hellions had run behind her and yanked painfully at her ponytail.
Sansa shook her head and gazed pointedly at the parents. “No. Absolutely not,” she informed them as she hustled away.
Sansa spied a quiet woman standing next to her teenage daughter. Both were smiling pleasantly as their eyes searched the room. Sansa gulped, said an internal prayer and walked toward them.
“Hi, I’m Sansa.” She offered her hand and the woman shook it politely.
“Hello. I’m Daphne and this is my daughter Madison.” Sansa and Madison nodded at each other.
“It is just the two of you?” Sansa asked. “I only have one spare room, so you’d have to share.”
Sansa noticed Madison’s eyes widen ever so slightly.
“Yes. It’s just me and my daughter. We were on our way to visit her father in Ottawa, but frankly I’m not going complain about not seeing that son-of-a-bitch.” She chuckled in an attempt to cover the malice in her voice, but Sansa already had her reading on them. It was confirmed when Madison finally showed her true colors. The girl snorted loudly.
“Maybe you don’t care, but it was my birthday and now I’m not gonna get my new MacBook. At least if we were in Montreal, Daddy could have come and picked us up, but noooo. So now I’m stuck here with this piece of shit,” she said waving her iPhone threateningly in her mother’s face. The girl swiped at her phone and began texting as though she was stabbing the phone with knives instead of her thumbs. “Better have fucking good internet in this shithole town,” she muttered as she texted.
Sansa drifted to the edge of the crowd. She had pledged to take in a border. If she didn’t choose someone soon, she’d end up with one of the leftovers that no one else could stand. Knowing what the people in North Burlow were like, that would be pretty damn bad.
Sauntering toward the edge of the gym, Sansa rotated her head on her neck and heard a loud crack. She nonchalantly dumped her coffee in the waste bin, then turned to survey the quickly thinning crowd. Just as she was about to give up, Sansa spied a very large man sitting alone in the corner.
The man had his head down, elbows on his thighs as he focused on the pocket novel open between his knees. His longish hair hung limply around his face, obscuring his features. She watched for a moment as he flipped a page in his book and continued reading. He seemed completely oblivious and indifferent to everything that was going on around him.
Sansa waited a moment longer, watching and studying him. He was definitely a passenger because his carryon suitcase was sitting on the floor beside him. He flipped another page, took a deep breath and flicked his eyes over the crowd before refocusing on the book. Something about the set of his shoulders hinted at reluctant resignation for his predicament.
He was quiet, he liked to read, and he was obviously comfortable with his solitude. Perhaps he even preferred it, wanting to be left alone, just as Sansa did. She found herself gravitating toward him, eyes locked on the mysterious stranger.
Sansa stopped a few feet away in front of him. The man must have noticed her feet, because he lifted his head slightly and peered at her through his hair. Impatience exuded from him as he set his bookmark and begrudgingly sat up straight.
“Oh!” Sansa gasped. In his upright sitting position, he was face to face with her. Standing, Sansa realized, would have brought him to a towering height. But that wasn’t what had startled her. The right side of his face was a mass of scar tissue that extended from the rear edge of his chin to almost the crown of his scalp.
The man swept his fingers through his hair on the right side and pulled it back displaying his face for her. He even turned his head slightly to the left so that she could get a good look. Sansa noticed that in addition to the missing patch of hair near the top of his head, his right ear resembled a mangled chunk of cauliflower and his right brow drooped over his eye giving him a permanent look of spiteful melancholy.
After a long moment, the man let his hair fall back down and he flashed his hands at her as if to say, there, you’ve seen it, so what’s it going to be? Choose me or move on, I don’t care.
Sansa couldn’t move. He was kinda scary looking but nothing gave the impression that he was different from anyone else in this room … aside from his size and his dreadful wound. Sansa hadn’t even realized that she was no longer looking at his face, but unconsciously, she was absorbing the other minute details that were helping her to form an impression of him.
He was neatly dressed in clean Wranglers, a lightweight navy blue pullover sweater with a short zipper near the throat, and dark brown suede running shoes that looked almost new. His full beard was neatly trimmed as were his fingernails. He wore a stainless steel chronograph watch. Sansa knew they were fairly expensive, but nothing so showy or flashy as a Rolex. Overall, he was neat and clean.
Assuming that she was deciding against him, the man dipped his head and went back to his book with no concern whatsoever. Sansa turned her head to gaze over what was left of the disappearing passengers from the plane. It was either him or one of the others that she’d already decided against. She gave the man with the mangled face another cautious glance.
Sansa took a step closer. The man closed his book, waiting, but didn’t look up.
“I have one spare room if you’re interested,” she offered hesitantly. The man finally looked up at her. He seemed to be making his own evaluation as he gazed at her from top to bottom.
“Alright, then,” he said in a thick belly-rumbling voice. He sat up and waited, undoubtedly giving her a chance to bolt in the event that she was having second thoughts. Sansa attempted to smile pleasantly, but she could feel the corners of her mouth faltering as her eyes drifted over his horrifying scars one last time.
After sizing each other up a moment longer, the man set his bookmark again, straightened up and stretched as he stood. From behind him, draped over the chair, he grabbed a tan car length canvas jacket. It reminded Sansa of a Carhartt work jacket, but clearly that hadn’t been its purpose. It, too, looked brand new.
He put on his jacket and grabbed the handle of his carryon as he followed Sansa across the gym floor. At the exit, Sansa approached the mayor’s wife, one of the three women who were registering placements.
“Sansa Stark,” she said as she dug her driver’s license out of her purse. The mayor’s wife took her ID and recorded her name, license number, and home address. She handed it back and turned to the man who was about to become Sansa’s house guest.
“I’ll need your passport,” the mayor’s wife told him. But he had already retrieved it from his coat pocket and was holding it out toward her. He didn’t need to say his name, since it was on his passport, but he and his host hadn’t introduced themselves to each other. He spoke his name, more in Sansa’s direction than to the clipboard lady.
“Sandor Clegane,” he said nodding to Sansa.
When all their information had been taken down, Sandor followed his host out to the parking lot. She aimed in the direction of a little Volkswagen Beetle that was painted to look like a lady bug. Plastic eyelashes had been added around the headlights.
Sandor scrunched his mouth up and cursed internally. Are you fucking kidding me? he thought tossing his head. But Sansa walked right past it. The only other vehicle in that direction was a dark burgundy Ford F-350 Super Duty with a quad cab.
Sandor looked at the sky. Thank God for small favors, he thought with a sigh of relief. Let’s just hope my luck holds out.