Phil had gotten so used to her not answering that he had to scramble for a follow-up. "What happened? I mean, how did you end up here?"
"I was thirteen. I ran away when my mother married the man from the Dollar Store. He was a bad man."
“That’s awfully young to be on your own."
“I wasn’t alone long." She stopped walking and stared toward the large building he’d seen from the road, a wistfulness in her eyes. For a moment, Phil thought she might start to cry. “Simon found me. I was alone on the street. He saved me. When he came here, he took me with him."
"What's Simon like?"
They made it to the long hall in the center of the encampment and Carmen pulled the dirty canvas flap aside to allow him entry. Phil ducked and entered, unsure what he would find inside.
Sunlight spilled in through the doorway, and through cracks in the walls, but most of the light came from torches on long poles planted in the ground. A long table ran down the center of the hall. It was really three or four tables put together, tablecloths covering the joints.
Though they were standing on bare earth, there was a boardroom feel about the place. The man at the head of the table sat in a leather armchair, while the rest sat in folding chairs on either side.
The man at the head of the table stood. The jacket and pants he wore hung off him. He was a skeleton, tall, gaunt, with striking blue eyes that made the rest of him appear even shabbier.
"You must be Phil Templeton," he said, coming around the side of the table to shake hands.
His voice was rough, but melodic, a scratchy rumble Phil associated with blues singers. His grip was stronger than Phil had expected from one so skinny, the fingers long and cold.
"Yes," Phil said. "You must be Simon Heller."
"Just Simon," he said. "Please, sit down."
He was grateful when Carmen sat next to him, creating a buffer between Phil and a foul-smelling man with a bushy white beard who rocked in his seat, eyes fixed on a spot on the table in front of him. The man wore a battered maroon coat that made him look like a downtrodden Santa Claus.
Simon returned to his chair, threw a leg over the arm. "You've been trying awful hard to get a meeting with me. Now I’m flattered, naturally, but I’ve got to wonder why.”
"This place," Phil said. “Fort Promise. It makes me curious. This isn’t like anything I've ever seen before."
"What, this?" Simon waved a hand in mock humility. "You've never seen a group of like-minded individuals joining together for a cause?"
Phil cleared his throat. "Pardon my saying this, but don't most people in your situation wait for the government to step in? You know, social security, unemployment, homeless shelters?"
"Been there, done that. Look at these people. Half of us are already close to retirement age. They’re supposed to be getting ready for their golden years and the only thing they’ve got to look forward to is more of the same bullshit. We're tired of waiting. That's what brought everyone here."