Monday, November 14, 2011

Update ...

The following stories are now complete:
A Will To Survive
Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men
Forsaken Harvest (completed as of 11/14/11)
Over the Mountain and Through the Fire
This Is Me Surviving

Stories Currently in Progress:
All Roads Lead Somewhere
Carry On
Gurl
Mom's Journal of the Zombie Years
To All Things There Is A Season
Il Agita Di Amore
And the Geek Will Inherit the Earth

I plan on a very short break and then will begin to try and complete another story. I hope to have at least two more completed before the end of the year.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Just a quick note ...

I'm trying to finish up Forsaken Harvest. I hope to do that no later than tomorrow so you might want to check out the two chapters that I've already put up over there.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chapter 37

Chapter 37

Traveling in the winter is nasty. In the city I used what cover I could but sometimes there was no help for it. Water, sanitation, and food … the first year or two on the street I didn’t intellectually realize what I was doing but let instinct lead me. I knew that if I didn’t get out I would freeze in place. Traveling in the wagon with Carmine was better but still no piece of cake.

After being forced to dig the wagon out yet again Carmine finally threw a man-sized fit, kicked a little snow and said, “That’s it. We’re done for the day. Let’s look for a likely place to hole up until tomorrow.”

I’d been seeing the signs for the last couple of miles and finally decided that he was far enough gone that he might let me help. “You’re tired; I napped before first light for a while. Why don’t you let me drive for a bit.” As he tried to hide his surprise and reluctance I told him. “We’re going slow. If I can drive in the woods to check the trap lines and not get us stuck, I can certainly drive through here. Besides I need the practice. We’ll be able to get more time on the road, charge the solar generator while we do it, and the wind will blow away our tracks.”

I wasn’t overstating the fact that Carmine was tired. He tried to hide it but he was nearly shaking from fatigue and lack of a warm, solid meal since we’d gotten on the road. “I must be crazy.” He scratched his head and said, “All right. But if you run across anything that does look like a good place for the night go ahead and stop. We’ll need to in a couple of more hours anyway. You may be fresher than me but not by much. We both need some food in us that isn’t like chewing on icicles.”

We switched places and though he tried to fight it Carmine was asleep within five minutes, the light droning of the wagon adding to the weight already forcing his eyelids closed.

There was a fine layer of ice on the road bed of the old highway we were on but because I was going slow and the wagon and trailer were so heavy it broke before it could cause me to slide around. The wind added some danger to our travels but was also a Godsend as it blew away the sign of our trail. My concern was the solar batteries in the wagon that were charging and discharging.

Temperature has a strong effect on solar batteries. It takes extra power to charge when batteries are cold and less when it is warm. Solar panels are the opposite; they give more output when cold and output decreases as the surface temperature of the panel increases. So long as the wagon was moving under input straight from the panels we would be fine; but, if we had to switch to batteries things would get rotten pretty fast. That was the main reason we were going to limit our night time travel even though it would be the safest as far as not being seen.

I drove for about two hours and then came to a crossroads. I hated to do it but I nudged Carmine awake and he was instantly alert. In a gravelly voice still tight with fatigue he told me, “Shouldn’t have let me sleep like that; you didn’t have anyone to cover you.”

“Are you kidding? You wake up even faster than I do. Stop grousing and help me figure out which road to take from here. None of the roads go the direction I want to head.”

He snorted but not in a cranky way. “Detour. You can’t see it but … yeah … head up that way. Through that pass is the remains of a little one-horse town. Hardly anything left of it but after we pass through there a couple of miles on, there is a road that turns off towards an old dude ranch. After that we’ll be back into the hills again and should be able to find a place to pull off that isn’t too exposed … if we can make it that far. Has it been blowing like this the entire time?”

I nodded and pulled down the road he’d indicated. “Gusting steady. There’s no real snow in it, this is all just stuff the wind has picked up from the ground and is throwing around.”

“Well that’s something I suppose.”

Those were the last words he spoke until I woke him up again right after I pulled into a tunnel. “Yo … sleeping beauty.”

I was on my last dregs of my fifth or sixth wind I’d caught or I might not have been quite so terse. After Carmine finished pitching a man-fit I turned it around on him and told him thank you for the compliment since I must really drive well for him to have slept so hard. He opened his mouth to say something and then snorted and told me to trade seats with him.

I did with absolutely no problem and I began to doze as I felt Carmine cover me with our trusty buffalo hide. Next thing I remember Carmine saying was, “Come on Saloli, wake up and drink some of this tea before it gets cold. The tunnel protected the fire from the wind but it is still cold as an old maid’s heart out there.”

I sat up and realize the only light was from the fire right in front of the wagon. Carmine had gotten into the wagon to bring me some tea. I mumbled from inside the mug, “What time is it?”

“About nine. Can’t tell if this wind is the forerunner of a storm or if it is just blowing to blow. Last time I was up here I couldn’t find this tunnel … I think it was under a bunch of snow.” I was sipping the tea and trying to get my brain to turnover and go when he reached out and brushed the curls out of my face. “Good job getting us this far. Looks like we might have cut nearly a whole day off of the traveling time I figured. You must have been driving lickety split.”

“Uh uh, you said slow and steady so that’s what I did. I just stayed on the highway rather than try and take any detours. Anything off the road looked too level and I knew there had to be uneven places. I didn’t want to spend time digging out again.”

He nodded. “Good eye. As cold as it is out I doubt anyone is going to be moving around too much but I’d rather be safe than sorry. I’ve had a good long rest. You sleep some more and then in a while I’ll wake you up and we can trade off. Sound good?”

“Mmm,” I told him right before I buried under the buffalo and went back to sleep. Carmine didn’t have to wake me because nature did. I saw him by the fire and when I got out I jerked my thumb back down the tunnel to let him know where I was going.

“Careful. Couple of slick spots where water has dripped from the ceiling. Ain’t gonna tell you how I found out. Man’s gotta have some dignity after all.” The humor of the picture he’d intentionally painted blew the last of the mully grubs from my brain just as the wind blew my nether regions cold while I took necessary actions.

I walked back to the fire in search of warmth and told Carmine, “I’m good if you want to go lay down in the wagon and grab whatever warmth is left in the covers.”

“Sounds good. Would be better if you were in them covers with me.”

I just smiled as I knew while the sentiment was true that it wouldn’t be happening. I took my sharpening stone out and grabbed the box of pits and pieces that I’d been collecting. Carmine asked, “You gonna tell me what you’re doing yet?”

“Throwing blades if these turn out as planned. It will give me something to do.” He just looked at me, shook his head, and went to go get in the wagon.

My watch was mostly uneventful and I had a breakfast of warmed over fry bread and stew waiting for him when he woke up. I told him, “Wind tried to die down around three in the morning but it picked right back up an hour later.”

“Bad? Sounds nasty.”

“Sounds worse that it looks. I think it is the wind blowing across the tunnel opening. And there were some dogs or something last night too. I got one and the rest …”

That torched his tail feather and I got a long dissertation on proper communication as we went out together to take a look. A large canine carcass … or what was left of it … was about fifty yards from the tunnel mouth. Something had been eating on it. “Mixed breed,” Carmine muttered.

“Thought so. The few wolves I’ve dealt with have a lot more sense nor do they run away like coyotes at a few pellets from a sling shot.”

“And just when have you had anything to do with real wolves?!”

I had to laugh, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. “Haven’t we had this conversation already? Where do you think all the zoo animals went when the cities were abandoned? Those that could adapt did. Wolves are highly intelligent and took over the parks and overgrown places. Mostly they attacked animals but during lean times they would take out sick or weak humans as well. It’s their nature and I don’t blame them for it … but I’m not looking to be a meal either.”

Carmine sighed, “Don’t mind me. Stupid must have found me in the night ‘cause now that you say it I remember we did talk about this; I just didn’t know wolves were part of it. I would have liked to have seen that … from a safe distance of course.”

My smile turned real as I told him, “They were beautiful. I heard that the ones that lived in the city where I was taken were being bagged and tagged and returned to the wild places. I hope that is true and some nitwit didn’t just go around killing them for sport.”

“Strange words from a street rat on the bottom of the food chain.”

I shrugged. “Maybe there was a little human in me too … at least enough to appreciate what the wolves were and their place in nature. Eat your stew before it gets cold while I finish this pot of tea and put it in the thermos.”

“Yeah, yeah Granny Squirrel.”

Carmine’s vim, vigor, and vitality was obviously back. I let the fire go out and sprinkled a little snow on it and then dug out the dead coals and put them in galvanized bucket. We had some wood in the trailer to get us started – sadly we had been forced to leave so much of our wood pile behind – so the coals would come in handy for the next fire.

We made good time that day. “What time tomorrow will we make it to the cabin?”

“I’m not gonna jinx it … but …”

“But …?”

“If nothing bad happens and we drive some into the early evening … and barring any detours and road hazards … we could be there by midnight.”

I yelped, “Midnight?! As in tonight?!!”

“Easy on the ears Saloli,” he laughed. “Yeah, midnight tonight. Driving as far as we did and making good time really helped. Horses or on foot would have taken much longer. I was only hoping to make it as far as the dude ranch but you got us into the pass before stopping. This wind blowing the roads clear hasn’t hurt either. But we aren’t going to have the highway for much longer and I’m thinking that at some point we are going to be driving into the wind which will slow us down considerable. See that little town up ahead?”

Seeing the remains of what looked like a couple of buildings at an intersection I told him, “Yeah.”

“We’re going to get off the highway there and head up into the hills. Forest has been taking over and that tells me that there aren’t too many people through here if any. That’s good for us; it’ll mean plenty of game and no neighbors to worry about. Feel a little cut off but right now that’s what my instincts are calling for.”

Chapter 36

Sorry for the delay. Daughter's bridal shower took more out of me than I expected and then got a cold on top of it. It is hard to think and sniffle at the same time.

--------------------------

Chapter 36

The weeks ticked by. I interacted with Carmine’s family a few times a week but it was obvious that I kept mostly to myself; I wasn’t nasty about it but I chose caution over camaraderie and I stayed away from Chandra and her drama. Carmine didn’t mind and Sally understood and what anyone else thought I don’t know and cared even less.

I would circle around behind the main stretch of houses that the clans had started to habitat and rehab and come to visit by the backdoor rather than the front. It made for less commotion that way. Sometimes Clarey or Bina would tell me someone needed something to be sharpened and then I would find that person and deal with them one on one. People began to learn if they wanted something they’d never find me in a crowd. The men seemed to send messages through Carmine and the women through Clarey or Sally. Only the true elders – those older than sixty years – seemed to not care what sex I was; if they wanted something they asked it … or told me, depending on their personalities.

I honestly didn’t mind for some reason when it came from the oldsters. The elders are … well, they’re cool. I can’t remember meeting too many old people. I know I must have at some point but the “old” people in the city weren’t really old even though they looked it. Old in the cities could mean your thirties. Life on the street is brutal and short for most people. Clarey liked the elders too and it was her special mission to make sure they were all cared for, especially U-gu-gu. When an elder became sick it was a huge deal for everyone.

An old woman that had taken to wandering in her mind, and sometimes wandering away physically, scratched herself pretty badly and it started to get infected. I knew from my experience as a street rat that honey was good for scratches and I took some down and cleaned and dabbed the wound with honey. Sally didn’t mind, she was still treating major injuries from the battle at the winter camp. Clarey didn’t mind because she had all she could handle taking care of the ambulatory elders and fetching and carrying for them.

I didn’t mind because I like the old woman. She had wonderful stories to tell. Sometimes they seemed to be mixed up but there was a lot to learn if you would listen. I especially liked the one where she would tell of her and her sisters picking huckleberries and making huckleberry sodas and shakes and preserves to sell to the tourists that would frequent the area they lived in.

She would laugh at my inability to say her given name so I called her what the children did. “Granny Lark, do you know if huckleberries grow around here?”

In a voice that quavered a bit from age she answered, “I don’t think so child. But there are chokecherries, raspberries, currants, and wild plums. My father loved currants … better than raisins and I had an aunt who would send him a large box of picked and dried currants every year for his birthday.”

She seemed more lucid than usual so I asked, “What was your father like?”

“Oh he was a fine man, tall and lean. Our mother left when my sisters and I were very small. She used to go out of our little valley to work seasonally at the hotels to bring in cash money but then when she would come home she would be less and less satisfied with our life; outside the valley she was a single woman with an income, in the valley she was a wife and mother with too many responsibilities to, in her words, enjoy life. One season she decided to stay in the city for an extra few months. A few more months turned into yet a few more and then a year and then we grew old enough to realize she was never coming back. Mother’s family was embarrassed by her and treated us bad since she wasn’t around to punish for the loss of honor so Father broke tradition by divorcing Mother first and when he went back to his mother’s family and his sisters, he took us with him. We were raised not by our mother’s sisters but by our father’s mother and sisters. It was hard to be a child and understand these things.”

“But I bet it made you strong,” I told her.

“My father and aunts saw to that; we would have withered like trampled pasque blossoms without their constant encouragement. When my sisters and I wanted to quit school because of the cruelty of the other children they forbid it. Eventually we learned to be strong in spirit, but it was hard. Hard like learning to live again after the Outbreak took so much from us all. Hard like learning to return to the ways of our ancestors, not just for ceremonies and shows for the tourists but day-to-day. Hard to learn new places and new old ways to live because the old ways to live we once knew were no longer available to us. Sally is a good girl to have been able to pull so many of us who are so different together to make a new family.”

I had to smile at the idea of Sally being called a “good girl” like she was a child. I looked up to ask another question only the old lady had dozed off. I sighed, she seemed to be doing that more and more. I knew what it meant. Sally did too. Clarey though didn’t seem to realize it yet and I worried that when the old woman’s time came, as it inevitably would, she would be hurt rather than happy that Granny Lark had gone to meet her Creator that she longed to see so much.

I was tucking a robe around the sleeping elder when the light was blocked from the fireplace. “I’ll sit with her a while.”

I turned to look and it was Chandra’s husband Johnson. I didn’t know what the protocol was then he added, “She is my mother’s aunt and I would never hurt her.”

I shook my head but didn’t know what to say exactly. He seemed to understand and told me, “It’s good that you were looking after her. It’s a fine thing to share of yourself with the elders.”

Clarey chose that moment to come in and then stopped short. “Oh, hi Johnson. Granny Lark is asleep? I brought her some soup.”

“We’ll set it by the fire and when she wakes I will make sure she eats.”

It was obvious that Johnson was who he said he was, or at least was close enough to it that Clarey, very protective of the elders, didn’t seem to see a problem with him there. I’d never seen a man as a caretaker and knew Johnson, for all his size, probably got made fun of by some of the more traditional men. But that wasn’t my problem and I didn’t plan on inserting myself into something that was none of my business.

I was heading to the back of the house to disappear into the woods when I saw Bina and she was in trouble in a small clearing directly ahead of me. This I decided was my business. I marched over and stood beside her. The three boys circling around her like a dog pack were Chandra’s and I knew the potential for problems were pretty high but it was a situation that couldn’t be allowed to continue.

“Go,” I told them tersely.

“You ain’t our boss.” Only they didn’t end the sentence with boss but with a very vulgar word that I’m sure they’d heard from their own mother’s mouth.

I decided it was time to let a little of the real me out. “Listen punk. It isn’t smart to take on an enemy you know nothing about.”

He looked at me. Smiled. Then called me the vulgar word again. I looked at him. Smiled. Then backhanded the little creep hard enough that it put him down with a broken nose. That scared the crud out of the two other boys, both of whom were younger by a year or two. The punk on the ground however had some stuffing to him. He came up at me fast and mean with a little pig sticker of a knife; and he did it well enough for me to know this was far from his first brawl. But it was far from my first as well.

I slid out of his way as he lunged at me and I grabbed the hand that wasn’t holding the knife. He was strong for his age but he was no match for a street rat. I dislocated his thumb and he screamed in pain but he still tried to come back around at me with the knife. I slid out of his way again and took his legs from in under him and he went face down into an icy mound of slush.

That’s when the little monster showed his true colors and revealed more than he probably meant to. “You just wait until Chandra gets ahold of some Harvesters. They’ll do for you. They’ll use you until you’re …”

I was actually contemplating whether to end the little psychopath’s misery right there but a bull’s bellow drew us all up sharp. Carmine was … well, I’m not sure exactly what you would call what he was. Furious didn’t even scratch the surface. Crazy might have but he wasn’t crazy. It took Jerry and three big guys to get in front of him and Carmine still managed to make the slide backwards in the snow until I put my hand on his arm and asked, “Did you hear what he said?”

Carmine stilled a bit and growled, “I heard.”

“Is it common for your family to turn each other in to the Harvesters? Could it be the boys or Chandra had something to do with what happened at the winter camp?”

Carmine growled, “No, no one in the clan does that to each other.”

He would have said more but Sally, white with shock and a deep fury of her own had shown up and told the men, “Let go of Carmine and take the boys. Tie them until we have a meeting. Find Chandra and tie her as well until will get to the bottom of this. Send my daughters to me and call the elders together.”

The boys were fighting tooth and nail but I could tell it was now in fear; they obviously knew something I didn’t. Sally turned to Carmine and asked, “You’ll abide by the Elders’ decision?”

Carmine was still so angry he could do little more than work his jaw and squeeze his gloved hands into fists. Sally’s question had only made him angrier. I squeezed his arm through his coat sleeve, looked at him and then looked at Sally. “Carmine and I can take care of ourselves Sally. But if what that boy says is true? Carmine and I have some talking to do … and we’ll try and let your council or whatever it is handle it, for the sake of family. But that kind of danger, if it is real, can’t be allowed to continue.”

It wasn’t what she wanted but it was all she was going to get and under the circumstances I thought it was pretty generous. She nodded and then turned as the three boys were dragged away, still kicking and screaming. I heard a scream of rage that came from the direction of the town square but it was followed by increasingly incoherent sounding nonsense that I couldn’t make out because of the distance but fear was definitely part of the noise. That told me a thing or two; and told those of us left what we needed to know.

Everyone had left the scene except for Carmine and I and Jerry. Jerry’s face was carefully blank as he watched Carmine struggle with his control. Suddenly I was crushed in a hug that nearly took all the breath from my lungs. He turned loose of me less quickly and then said, “Remind me to ask you how you learned to fight like that.”

“No need to remind you later,” I told him. “I guess you’ve never considered the potential for violence of forcing over a hundred emotionally stressed out and hormonal females to live together in a jail-like fashion.”

After a moment both Carmine and Jerry blanched. I nearly smiled but the situation was too serious. Jerry sighed. “Brother … there’s nothing I can say that will make this easy. You know what they will decide.”

I looked between the two men trying to understand. Carmine nodded. “I know. And you know what actually needs to happen but you won’t do it.” Then Carmine shook his head and added, “And I’m not sure I could order it done either except in the heat of the moment … and then I would spend a lifetime second guessing myself.”

Jerry nodded and walked in the direction his mother had taken. Carmine looked at me again and said, “You sure you’re OK?”

I nodded and we started walking towards our cabin. Carmine asked, “Are we all packed up?”

After a pause I told him, “Except for our everyday stuff and what is upstairs.”

He nodded. “How would you feel about taking a road trip?”

I shrugged then said, “Depends on whether you are doing this to protect me or if there is something else involved.”

He was silent until we got back to the cabin and went inside. He looked at the skins that were still hanging in their frames and asked, “Gonna hurt these to roll them up for the time being and pack them?”

“No. But you still haven’t …”

He stopped then looked around. I watched him shut the door and throw the bolt across it leaving us in near total darkness; he hadn’t done that in a long while. He flicked the solar flashlight that we seldom used but which was always close at hand and he took my arm and drew me down to the basement. It was cold but not unbearably so with our jackets still on. He started a fire while I continued to wait for why he’d interrupted me.

Finally he said, “Those little piss ants really didn’t hurt you?”

Growing a little concerned I said, “Carmine, if I was hurt I would have said so. He never even came close. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t reasonably well versed in using a knife but apparently he’s never come up against someone that was a real street fighter like he wants to be.”

Carmine relaxed but only a little. “The boy Charlie … there’s something wrong with him. Everyone knows it but no one …” He stopped and shook his head.

I asked, “What is going to happen to them?”

“The boys – probably Chandra too – will serve a bondage period; most people would call it slavery but it is more like extreme community service with no freedom and an overseer at all times. When not working they’ll be chained up. Normally they would be cast out but under the circumstances and what Charlie’s threat revealed, the clans won’t be able to afford that risk. Charlie is either a psychopath or a sociopath, either way he’s dangerous. The two younger boys, if they are taken away from Charlie and Chandra, may be worth something eventually. Charlie – there’s no fixing whatever is broke in that boy, he’s too far gone. Jerry knows it. Most of the men know it. Now the women will too. And the elders. But they won’t do what should be done. The kid is like a rabid animal. If Chandra …”

His fury was choking him again so I leaned against him to give him human contact. Gradually his shaking stopped. He grabbed me in a one armed hug and into my hair he whispered, “You know what I want. You know what I need.”

Uh huh. He needed to know I was really there and whole and safe and sound. Sometimes there is only one way to prove that to a man apparently. Afterwards, as his passion was finally spent on something more constructive than worry and fury, we lay under the covers and talked.

“Saloli, we need to go check out that other cabin.”

He said it like he wasn’t sure I would really go for the idea but I had already come to the same conclusion. “We can make our leaving out to be a good thing. Leave a note for Jerry – or Sally if that is more correct – and tell them we’re leaving so that whatever the Elders choose can be put into action without our presence causing any debate. When we get to the cabin and see whether anything can be done about it you can contact Jerry by radio and let him know when or if we’ll be back.”

He was relieved and it showed in his voice. “Jerry will know that’s a story.”

“Good for him. Hopefully he’ll be smart enough however to let it go at face value. When do you want to leave?”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

I smiled despite everything that had gone down and he gave a little one in return as well. The question and answer was a little bit of a ritual between us, a kind of affirmation that I was really in it with him and not just giving in to get through. It was also his way of saying he was still open to discussion if I needed it.

He groaned and started to get dressed in the cooler than comfortable room. “How quickly can you get the hides and furs rolled up and packed?”

Thinking I told him, “Hour, hour and a half. There’s a lot of them and I don’t want to tear the edges as I unlace them.”

“OK, you start that while we have good light and I’ll start hauling up our gear from down here and also make some fry bread to pack with the pemmican you made the other day. I’ll hook the trailer to the wagon and we can start loading once we see what all we have. The less we have to leave behind the better.”

Wondering I asked, “Will anyone come by before we can get out of here?”

“No. They’ll be debating and talking well into the night. I plan on leaving no later than midnight. We’ll run without lights … it’ll save the battery anyway. I’ve got a couple of night rider helmets. We’ll have to run slow and careful but once light catches up to us we’ll be far enough away that moving faster won’t be such a problem. Hopefully there won’t be too many detours between here and the cabin. A lot will depend on how much snow has built up in the cuts.” He turned to look at me. “Traveling this time of year is not optimal.”

I shrugged. “No, but better to do it now and get dug in rather than wait for spring and a possible attack from SEPH or their minions.”

He nodded and with it settled with both got busy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Chapter 35

Chapter 35

It did not take me long to figure out who Carmine’s old girl friend was but it kind of blew me away at the same time. She was built about as opposite of me as it was possible; only an inch shorter than Carmine, statuesque, beautiful bone structure and auburn hair that would have been gorgeous if she didn’t keep it buzz cut short and spikey … it looked like a piece of brown colored berber rug on her head. Boy was she giving me heck with her eyes; it was like being looked at with chips of black ice.

I would be lying if her looks didn’t cause me a twinge. Carmine felt my attempt to cover it. “Saloli you told me you wouldn’t have a problem with her.”

I shook my head. “No. I said I wouldn’t have a problem with her unless she gave me one. The woman is simply drop dead beautiful. Do you want me to pretend she isn’t?”

“She’s a sour puss. It takes her a month of Sundays to warm up. It got old trying to wheedle her into a good mood all the time.”

I snorted. “Yeah and I’m sunshine and pancakes all the live long day.”

He barked a loud laugh that drew more attention than I was comfortable with. “That’s my Gurl. Better go pay our respects to Sally.”

A harassed looking Clarey jogged passed us with a large plastic jug of water. She’d overheard Carmine and said, “I wish you would. And Gurl¸ you wouldn’t have happened to have brought your sharpening stone would you? Grandmother’s needles are as dull as ditchwater from all the stitching she has had to do. She’s being forced to use a surgical awl to make holes to pull the stitches through.”

I looked at Carmine and said, “She means sewing up people?”

He sighed, “Yeah, I’m afraid so.”

We found Sally under an awning changing dressings of different people. When she was between patients I told her, “Clarey says you need some sharpening done.”

She looked up and started to say something but her eyes widened for a moment. “What on earth are you wearing?”

I did an exaggerated pirouette and then twisted this way and that like I’d seen teevid models do when they showed off what they were wearing or their assets underneath. “Like it? Carmine made it. It’s probably a litter mate to the one that went into the river with me. And he made me moccasins lined with rabbit too. Carmine got the cat but I got the rabbits.”

She asked, “What did you do, track it?”

I shook my head. “No. It was gonna eat us so we decided to eat it first. I wasn’t too fond of the beastie at first but I like the irony of a rat wearing a cat.”

Sally looked like she wanted to smile but was just too tired. “Ask Clarey, she knows where I keep things.” In just a matter of seconds we were forgotten as the next patient groaned.

I looked at Carmine. “I can hang with Clarey and see what I can here do if you need to go pay any more respects … like to U-gu-gu or Jack?” He was debating and I could tell he wanted to say something. I gave him a small grin and told him, “I’ll stay out of trouble as long as trouble leaves me alone.”

He gave me a small grin and then added for my ears alone, “Don’t become a push over just to stay nice. You do what you need to.”

I would have anyway but didn’t say it for the sake of keeping the peace between us. I walked into the house behind where we had found Sally and was nearly run down by Clarey as she came from the back with a bucket full of dirt. She stopped and saw me, “Don’t tell me Grandmother has another errand for me already? I’ll never get this cleaned up in time for U-gu-gu to take his afternoon nap in peace.”

“Relax, just point me in the direction of the stuff that needs sharpening.”

She wilted a bit. “Sorry, that was a rude way to great you. Things have been … but I guess Father told Uncle Carmine and he told you. By the way, I never asked but what do you want me to call you … Auntie or something.”

I nearly choked on my spit before saying, “Uh … if it’s not some family thing could you just stick with Gurl?”

She grinned. “Sure. To be honest that’s a relief. I’ve got enough Aunts and Aunties to make a respectable size herd.” I told her as soon as I was done sharpening I would help her clean unless Carmine needed me for something.

I had just put the last one back into its case when the sun was blocked from the door. A box of things got thrown at my feet. “I’ll be back for them shortly so you better have them done.”

I looked up and sure enough it was the old girlfriend. Clarey stood there looking embarrassed and upset. The woman had already started to walk away and I shoved the box hard with my foot and it caught her heel right as she was about to go down the porch steps. Instead of going down gracefully she went down them like an old bag of bones that had forgotten out to walk. She didn’t land in the dirty snow but only because she did a fancy two step and had grabbed the porch railing.

“Why you little …”

But I was already up and on the porch facing her. “Just because I’m small doesn’t mean I can’t be dangerous and mean if I need to be. You treat me with respect you’ll get the same from me but I won’t be treated like a slave … I’ve already lived that life under SEPH and will not repeat it.”

The woman started to come towards me but Sally called imperiously, “Chandra. Where are your manners? Saloli is my niece by marriage and you will treat her with more consideration.”

The woman named Chandra said, “With all due respect to you Sally, you are not my clan leader.”

As quick as lightening a very angry Sally told her, “Then I suggest you go to my daughter’s caravan and stay out of mine.”

Ouch. Sally might as well have slapped the woman and it was obvious that Chandra was embarrassed at being called out in such a way by an elder. Sally wasn’t too happy either. I hadn’t meant to cause problems and was going to say so but Sally read it on my face. “She was due a reminder Saloli so don’t worry about it.” It was odd but she had picked up Carmine’s name for me and I decided to just let it stand. “Just stay out of her way. She needs to pay attention to her own family instead of things she has no business being into. Those boys of hers are about to drive the men into doing something drastic.” With another shake of her head she asked, “Were you able to do anything with the needles or were they hopeless.”

“Just finished the last one, cleaned it and put it in the case it came from.”

Sally looked relieved and nodded then went back to tending to patients. I went back inside to find Clarey trying to move an old broken sofa. With me lifting on one end and her on the other we managed to move it into a side room that looked like an old utility space. Clarey groaned. “Father doesn’t want to throw any of the furniture out until he looks it over to see if anything is salvageable.” Since we were both covering out faces due to the smell of dust and mildew I was tempted to tell her that the sofa was a lost cause until I realized that there was probably a frame underneath the stuffing that possibly could be made into something.

We headed upstairs and saw there were three bedrooms up there. Clarey told me, “Grandmother and Jack will sleep in the big room. Bina and I will share the small room and Father will take the room at the head of the stairs. U-gu-gu will have the bedroom downstairs so he doesn’t have to climb. I’ve stripped most everything from the rooms that wasn’t worth saving. What do you think?”

I saw ropes coiled on the floor in each of the rooms and asked, “What are those for?”

“I’ll weave them around the existing bedframes and we’ll put our sleeping pads and furs on them so we don’t have to sleep on the floor. Bina and I will share this bed so we won’t need a stove to keep us warm. Grandmother’s room has a fireplace in it and Father’s room has a small wood stove. So does U-gu-gu’s room.” She headed downstairs and I followed her. “Help me with U-gu-gu’s bedding?”

We were in the middle of it when Bina ran in and said, “Uncle Carmine is looking for you Gurl.”

I was pulling the ropes tight so that Clarey could tie them off and started to say, “Tell him …”

“… that he’s the love of my life and I miss him desparately?”

I looked at Carmine where he was leaning against the door jamb and said, “No, tell him that if he doesn’t come help with this we’re never going to finish it which means he’ll be waiting even longer for me.”

Carmine chuffed a laugh and took Clarey’s place and with that the job was done in less than five minutes. Carmine said, “Bina, help your sister. I need Saloli for a while.”

We walked into the woods and I thought he wanted to show me something when he pulled me behind a clump of trees and kissed me breathless. “What was that about?” I asked.

“Just making sure I hadn’t imagined how good you taste.” I arched my eyebrow at him and he added, “And I’d heard you’d had a run in with Chandra.”

“Sally intervened. I don’t like your old girlfriend Carmine. I really, really don’t. But I’m not looking for a fight.”

“I know Saloli. Just do the best you can. She’s bit off more than she can chew by taking up with that Johnson and his younger brothers and trying to turn them into her sons. I think she had in mind starting her own clan until she realized what a weak man Johnson is … but then again she seems to like it that way. I’ve already heard from several people the boys are out of control. Jerry is about ready to knock them on their backsides if they don’t settle down. We should keep an eye on them, they don’t respect other people’s property very well. In Ishana’s clan … that’s one of Jerry’s sisters … everything is community property. The differences in the way the clans are operating have already caused some problems just on the way here. The boys are making it worse.”

I growled, “Nice neighbors.”

“Hopefully it will only be until snow melt but Jerry has mentioned making this the new winter camp … or possibly just staying here year round. Our people are farmers by culture and the hunter-gatherer system doesn’t come naturally so some of them. Others are talking about it too.”

I wanted to shout no, that we had found this place first – that I had – but didn’t. I’d run into this several times as a street rat. Sometimes it was just best to move on when things got crowded.

Carmine tipped my chin so that I had to look at him. “Hey, you are disappointed aren’t you?”

I shook it off and told Carmine, “I guess I was just wanting this to be the place but you’ve already pointed out there are some problems with it.”

“Well, remember I said that I had a couple of other places I wanted to check?” At my silent nod he said, “One isn’t too far from here; really just over that ridge over that way. Cabin is a little bigger but what used to pass for a garage needs some roof work. Well was clean and clear last time I was there, covered with a real cap and not just a piece of sheet metal like we’ve got. It has a finished basement as well. Even has composting toilets downstairs and in the basement too. It sits back in a little v-shaped area and with not too much stump pulling I think we could have a flat place to have a field and garden. Garden will have to be fenced and I’d like to have a dog or two to roam the field to keep the varmints out. We could take the glass out of this place and see if it’ll fit in the few broken windows that place has.”

I thought and then asked, “What about fireplaces?”

He smiled, “For your cold feet? Nice one down in the basement, another one in the great room, a wood stove in the kitchen, and a couple of small ones in the upstairs rooms. The loft is smaller than the one where we are now but that’s made up by the fact that there are two bedrooms upstairs and a bedroom down. Kitchen is bigger too which might mean something to you down the road; has a nice island in the center and all of the counter tops in the place are all made of local granite.”

“Stone counter tops and all of that other stuff? What kind of cabin is that?” I asked.

“A rich man’s hideaway more than likely. There’s all sorts of furniture left in it – some of it even salvageable – but the location is real remote so anything we want we’ll likely have to make or haul in by hand. There’s a small creek that runs beside the cabin on the opposite side from the toilet clean out that is good for fishing but not for moving supplies up and down. The remains of a helopad is just barely visible if you know where to look. But no one has lived in the place since before the war if they even lived in it then … didn’t feel like a lived in kind of place, more like a vacation home that didn’t get used very much.”

I’d been in a couple of places like that and understood the difference. I thought about it but there wasn’t really much worth debating. “How’s the hunting?”

“As good as here which is why I wanted dogs for the place. Even have mountain goats if we want to walk and do some hunting up on the ridges. Wouldn’t mind having some horses … or maybe mules would be better … and …”

“Whoa Carmine, aren’t you getting a little ahead of yourself? Or,” I said looking at him a little suspiciously. “Have you had this planned all along?”

He shook himself to come back to earth and realized how he must have sounded. “I’ll admit that place has been on my mind but only comparing it to this place. I would have stayed here – the apple trees are a plus – but not if the clans are going to set up camp every time I turn around. Family is all well and good but I think the two of us, we need our own space away from crowds.”

I relaxed because I could tell Carmine was being honest. “OK. I’m willing to take a look at this other place. Just makes all the time and effort we put into this one …”

“Not wasted so don’t think that. We still need a place for the winter and we don’t know that the other place is still available. It’s been a little over a year since I was there last. I haven’t told anyone else about it, keeping it in mind for my own getaway. Let’s just let it be for a bit. No use counting our chickens before they’re hatched.” We walked back towards the road and the noise of the clans getting moved in and Carmine asked, “You feel like showing that coat off a bit. I want Jerry and Jack to see it up close and see if any of the other hunters have seen any cat like it.”

It didn’t take long for the men to start wondering if there were any more where the one I was wearing came from. One guy that was dressed like a mountain man said, “Looks like a half breed between a snow leopard and a mountain lion. It’s spotted like a leopard but it’s too yeller to be purebred. And look at that tail what you used to trim the sleeves and collar … can’t see it being any less than half snow leopard unless it’s a throwback of some type. Didja keep the head and paws? I could mebbe tell you more from them.”

Since the face of the thing made up part of the hood of the jacket it was easy enough to show. “Yep, head’s more like a mountain lion but lookit them eye sockets; that there thing had some leopard in it. You say it was as brazen as a painter?”

I looked at Carmine who mouthed, “Old word for panther.”

I left the men discussing what the animal was and wasn’t and wandered over to look and see if I could find any of the woodpeckers that I had been hearing all morning. I don’t know why but I find woodpeckers to be just about the funniest creatures I’ve ever seen. Academically I know they aren’t banging their head against whatever they are pecking at but it sure does look like it.

I was standing, listening for the birds and a direction to take when the world went dark.

*****

“Don’t give me that Chandra, that branch was partially sawn and she was under it, not on it like she’d done it to herself. We also found a bunch of other branches done similarly and your boys were caught red handed up a tree, sawing branches in another area!!”

Carmine’s voice had once again punctured my haze. I know I’d heard him bellowing before but couldn’t remember exactly what he’d been saying. I was lying on a pallet in front of a fire. It felt like I was roasting on one side and freezing on the other.

“If Bina hadn’t seen her moccasins under the branches who knows how long she would have been … she …” I could hear the very real fury in his voice but something else as well that caused his words to have an emotional catch to them. “If she catches sick again because of those boys of yours you better hide them long and deep. As you’ve so often pointed out I’m not one of the clan. I won’t make excuses for those little brutes like everyone else is doing. And in case you hadn’t given it good thought, several of the Elders like to take walks in the woods to have some quiet place to think and enjoy nature. What if one of them had been under the branch instead of my wife?”

I heard some quiet muttering from other people at that before Chandra said defensively, “You can’t prove that it was my boys and it wasn’t an Elder, it was your little …”

Obviously Chandra didn’t have a very high opinion of my morals but I bet mine were better than hers. And I was about to show her that it was nasty business to take on an educated rat. And I’d gone up against a lot more clever and brutish women than her.

I rolled over and up trying to get into a sitting position so I could stand but Sally and Clarey were there to stop me. Ignoring them for the moment I said, “Carmine, don’t try and talk sense to brick walls because they are incapable of it. An easy way to solve this to everyone’s satisfaction would be to say what happens to the boys from here on out. Isn’t it the culture of the clans that after the boys reach a certain age they are given to the men to raise? Maybe there weren’t enough men before to follow through on this tradition but there certainly are now that the clans have all but merged.”

Carmine started to open his mouth then closed it slowly, fighting the knowing smile that I could see hiding behind the beard and mustache that he’d allowed to grow for the winter.

It was U-gu-gu that nodded and in a sage voice said, “True, true. Boys are taught by their uncles while girls are taught by their mothers and aunties. And Chandra’s sons are passed the age this should have started. They are many years off the cradle board.”

Carmine and I never had to say another word. Everyone jumped at the chance to put the incident behind them but at the same time I suspected there would be a good bit of surprise in store for the boys in question. Clarey muttered, “Thanks, now I’m going to have to take care of the terrible trio.”

Sally said, “You will be too busy tending to your own lessons and those boys will be with the men, not sitting around waiting to be taken care of.” She gave me a brief look that told me she knew exactly what I had done but didn’t seem to mind it in the least. She did call Carmine over and say, “Saloli doesn’t look like she has had any lasting effects but I would suggest that you go to your place and perhaps keep her out of the cold for a while. Monitor any headache and let me know if it gets worse or if she begins acting oddly.”

Carmine muttered for my benefit, “How would I tell?”

I looked at him and said, “You are getting good enough that you could take that on the road. Perhaps you’d like …”

“Nope,” he said quickly realizing that I wasn’t quite in the mood for that much teasing. “Like it right where I am thanks. You up to walking or you want me to carry you?”

He was serious so I didn’t let it bother me. Instead I told him, “In this snow? We’ll both wind up face first and covered in slush. I’ll walk; I just may need to do it slow.”

My admission caused him some concern. The fact that I was actually willing to admit to needing to move slower than normal let him know that I really wasn’t feeling top ace. We left – escaped more like it – before Chandra could really spew in our direction. She was too busy dealing with the fact that the whole clan thing and tradition that she’d tried to use against me had had the opposite effect.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chapter 34

Chapter 34

“Stay here with the wagon?”

I looked at Carmine and trusted he wouldn’t ask without a good reason to do so. He’d been having fun teaching me to drive the foul, cranky thing saying that it matched my personality somewhat. I couldn’t completely disagree with him which might be part of the reason I wasn’t able to be on completely easy terms with it yet. “All right. But give me a time that I should … I don’t know … do something if you don’t come back.”

He nodded. “You know them whistles I been teaching you? I’ll give you one within fifteen minutes. If you don’t hear any of ‘em you git and stay gone.”

His response and subsequent disappearance into the forest didn’t give me any time to argue. Thankfully well within the fifteen minute mark he whistled that he was coming in and he wasn’t alone, but things were OK.

I heard the horse before I saw them. I remained where I was however because the look on Carmine’s face was full of both anger and irritation. He turned to look at me and said, “We’re gonna have company. Lots of it.” He turned to look at Jerry whose face was intentionally blank and nodded. Jerry left and then Carmine said, “Let’s go. I want to get the wagon back to the cabin and in storage before people get a gander at it.”

“Carmine?”

I could see he was fighting frustration but I really wanted to know what was going on, thought I had a right to know. Finally, after a few minutes he said, “Sorry. Just hacked at Jerry for bringing his problems here.”

“Someone take over his winter camp?”

Sarcastically Carmine growled, “You could say that.”

I was almost ready to go ahead and tell him to spit it out when he finally said, “I’ll shred every one of them if they’ve brought trouble down on us. Just to be on the safe side I want to get our necessities packed up and keep ‘em that way until further notice in case we need to make a fast exit. I swear no good turn comes without a freaking kick in the pants.”

Finally irritated I said, “Carmine will you please explain.”

“Wha …?” Then he shook himself and said, “Sorry Saloli, just so dang mad right now. This was looking more and more like the place I’d been hoping for and now I’m back to not being sure … thanks to my own ding blasted family. And if they’ve brought SEPH anywhere near you by God, family or not I’ll leave ‘em to rot.”

At the mention of SEPH I immediately tensed and felt like diving for cover. I didn’t have time to really get scared though because Carmine started giving me details. “Jerry and the clan made it to their winter camp, no problem. Didn’t even get any of the ice we did around here. Maybe if the weather had been bad nothing would have happened … but if wishes were horses as they say. Anyway, seems the activities of the Harvesters and their ilk haven’t been producing enough results for the bigwigs in the branch of SEPH that monitors such things. Frankly the Harvesters are illegal as far as the public knows and their activities rarely make it to the media to be reported. Of course you got folks on both sides pushing and pulling.”

I sighed, “Yeah. The facility I was at was targeted several times for protest because people said that the Fertiles weren’t being … we really liked the way they put it by the way … we weren’t being shared out equally. Like we were some kind of property or public resource … which is how we were treated but … whatever.” I stopped before I could get started. That was a road I was trying to stop travelling down. It was in the past and I wanted it to stay here.

Carmine reached out and patted my arm and I knew he knew what I meant. “Right. But SEPH does use the Harvesters for their own ends; there’s rumors they even bank roll them though the proof on that is a hard trail to follow. But I’ve never heard of something happening like what happened to Jerry’s clan and the other ones that camped in that area. I can only hope it was a rogue group and not a new policy they intend on following.”

“What exactly did happen?” We’d arrived back at the cabin, started to empty the back of the wagon and haul things in.

“SEPH hit them directly.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. “SEPH … it’s out here in the Wastelands?” I started backing towards the cabin ready to spring to my backpack … and throw some things in there for Carmine. I imagined knocking him on the head and dragging him away if he wouldn’t come willingly.

“Hang loose Saloli and let me finish the story. Yeah, a unit of people bearing the SEPH insignia attacked the clans. They were in the process of rounding up everyone for testing and transporting – you can guess what that meant – when a US military convoy shows up and whoops up on them pretty serious.”

“The US military? The real deal?”

“Yeah. This is still the US whether we get treated like it or not. We get military patrols through here a few times a year, just usually not in winter. No one makes a big deal out of it which keeps the ruction down to a minimum. They’re mostly after marauders that attack the Outland farms and foreign terrorist groups that try to set up bases on the western and southern boundaries of the Wastelands. The military also go into the hot spots and make sure the nuclear sites aren’t being exploited by anyone. The Black Hills is one of the best of the areas out here, there are some areas where you’ll die within a day of entering. You got lucky that you picked the right direction to blunder down when you first escaped.”

I nodded, “I had some idea was out here from looking at aerial photos I hacked into at the facility. Later on Asa marked all the known areas on maps for me.”
Carmine snorted, “At least he did that much right for you.” I didn’t make a comment; it seemed the wisest course of action to take. “The military didn’t stick around after they took the SEPH personnel and their equipment into custody. They left SEPH’s medical supplies but none of their own personnel to help Sally and the other people she has trained to take care of the injuries or to help bury the dead.”

I swallowed, “Anyone … anyone I know?”

“No one from the family, at least not this side of it; Jerry’s sisters’ clans lost some people and they weren’t very big to begin with. Both groups opted to follow Sally … remember I told you how it works … but nominally Jerry is the head as far as security goes.”

“Why’d Jerry come up here by himself if it was so dangerous?”

Carmine sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Honestly I suppose he was just trying to ease the tension that is bound to happen. I don’t get along real good with his sisters. They don’t like that I live outside the clans … they’ve all but said I’m too white. Not like I care what they think but it makes it hard to get along with them. Not everyone in their clans are like that of course, some are better than decent folks, but they set the tone and can make it hard on anyone that doesn’t tow their line.”

Not liking what I was hearing I said, “Sally didn’t seem like that.”

“And she’s not. Which, in case you haven’t guessed, is one of the reasons that mother and daughters only get together as seldom as they can without tearing up the family. They’ve said some pretty cutting things about Jack and Sally has had a hard time forgiving them for it.”

“How about I stay as far from the lot of them as I can?”

We’d finished putting things away and he grabbed me in a bear hug and said, “How about you let me come with you to whatever mouse hole you find?”

I finally gave him a small smile and said, “Have to be a pretty doggone big mouse hole.”

“I’ll squeeze in somehow. It’ll keep us warmer.” After a moment we both turned to the sound of vehicles moving along the mountain road that wove into town. No one from the road could see us but we could hear them and knew the neighborhood was about to get crowded. Carmine got an uncomfortable look on his face and said, “Look Saloli, I’m no saint and before … a couple of years ago … well … there’s a woman come to town that … she and I … it used to be … well … people were expecting that we’d … aw, blast it.”

I finally understood what he was trying to say. “You mean one of your old girlfriends has come to visit?”

He snorted. “She was a little more than that for a while and she didn’t exactly give me up willingly. She’s got a man now – whooped up on boy by the name of Johnson – but she’s never failed to try and get a dig in whenever we’ve run across each other the last couple of years. If she hasn’t changed she might take a few pot shots at you and … well … make it seem like something is there that isn’t.”

After I finally figured out what he was worried about I told him, “You mean she’ll try and make me jealous. Don’t worry about it. I trust you.”

Surprised he asked, “Just like that?”

I smiled at him because it was so obvious it really bothered him. “You’re an easy man to trust Carmine … at least for me.”

Well, one thing led to another and we didn’t wind up going down to the camp until early the next morning.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Chapter 33

Chapter 33

Call me a scaredy rat but I left the skinning of that great cat to Carmine. What I didn’t plan on was actually eating the cat that tried to eat us.

“Well now … I never would have figured you to be someone that would pass up a meal.”

I could have just about kicked Carmine. “Well … I’m not. But if you expect me to cook it you’ve got yourself another think coming.”

He came over and bent down and whispered in my ear, “I thought you said you said you didn’t get cranky.”

He jumped back laughing when I turned around to swat at him. “Very funny. Ha. Ha. And that shows just how well you listen. I told you I’m always cranky.” After a moment Carmine stopped laughing like a loon. “Honestly, are you fooling with me about that cat being edible?”

Carmine eased up carefully and then kissed the top of my head before grabbing some of our stored sinew. “No Saloli I’m not fooling with you. And to prove it, I’ll make dinner tomorrow. The meat needs to finish cooling anyway and I want to get this sinew prepped. Your feet were practically blue by the time we got back here. No more getting into the snow until I get these things finished.”

“Aren’t you over reacting?” I asked him. “You make me sound like one of those silly women that can’t do anything but sit up on the porch and tat lace while some big he man does all the work.”

He rolled his eyes as he took the sinew out of the plastic box they had been stored in and started the tedious work of pounding them into workable pieces. “Gurl I’ve seen too many people lose toes or worse from frost bite.”

Shrugging, “Guess you never looked too close at my feet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means all those scars aren’t from walking on glass. I’ve still got all my toes but the middle one on my right foot is pretty useless and doesn’t have a lot of feeling left in it where I lost some of the bottom of it … a prostitute named Big Bertha had a soft spot for street rats and showed me how to hack the bad place out before it could spread … and on my left foot I have a circular depression where I had to cut out a bad place myself the next year after her pimp had killed her.”

He got a terrible expression on his face and ground out, “That’s it. You even think about putting a foot, hand, or any other body part in snow before I get these fixed for you and I swear …”

Confused by his sudden anger I asked, “Why are you being so nasty? I didn’t ask you to make any moccasins.”

He stretched his shoulders like he would when he was getting angry or frustrated. “I didn’t say that you asked me for anything. Lord knows to actually get you to ask me for something would be tantamount to a cardinal sin in your book. But hear me good Saloli … you don’t have to live like that anymore. I’m here and I intend on looking after you.”

Feeling a little offended though I wasn’t completely sure why I said, “Now just one minute Carmine. You make it sound like I was a complete failure at looking after myself and I wasn’t … and I’m not now. I didn’t hook up with you to have someone to take care of me. I thought we were together because … well … I thought it was mutual and stuff.”

That seemed to make him even angrier. “We did not ‘hook up,” at least I didn’t. You’re my wife and I’m your husband and it’s my job to take care of you!”

Getting a tired of being shouted at I yelled right back at him, “Well, call it whatever you want to but I’m not gonna be a job to anyone. I’m not with you to be thought of as a burden!”

Carmine grabbed his coat, slammed his hat on his head, picked up the box with the pieces of sinew in it and then stomped upstairs, slamming the door though it didn’t have quite the impact I’m sure he meant it to since the sound was muffled by the hide hanging across the stairwell. I knew I had to be missing something obvious but for the life of me I couldn’t figure what it was. I also figured it was probably a guy thing which made it twice as puzzling. I stared into the fire trying to work it out so long that I must have fallen asleep in the chair holding Carmine’s shirt that I had been mending.

I only half woke up as I felt the shirt being tugged from my hands. “C’mon Saloli, turn loose.” Since I recognized Carmine’s voice in a far off kind of way I reluctantly let the shirt be taken from me and then felt my foot being tugged at.

I grumbled, “Uh uh … your hands are cold.”

He chuffed a quiet laugh and said, “Cold hands, warm heart, hot temper.”

“Whatever, but your hands are cold and my feet don’t want … ack!” He picked me up and carried me over to the bed. “Hey, I can walk.”

Giving me a wicked look he said, “But then your feet really would get cold.”

I stuck my tongue out at him and quickly burrowed under the covers when we got to the bed. He scooted in beside me and then looked and said, “You gonna let me off the hook?”

I was trying to remember what for when I realized he must have been talking about his snit about stomping off upstairs. I looked at him and shrugged. “Just remember how magnanimous I am when next time it’s me that stomps off.”

The sound that came out of him started as a startled chuff and quickly turned into a full belly laugh. “Oh Gurl, we are made for each other. I swear I don’t think I’ve laughed this much in years.”

I rolled my eyes, happy that he was happy. “Yeah, like you are just a million years old Carmine. Drop the Grandpaw Methuselah act. Now give me that shirt, it needs finishing. You’ve torn it out in the shoulder seam.”

“I’ll give you the shirt if you give me your feet. I need to get a pattern off of them for the moccasins.” He got serious again after a moment as he had me stand on a piece of thin bark so that he could draw around my feet with a piece of charcoal from the fireplace. “Saloli what do you think we have together? Do you just want me for a foot warmer or something more?”

I looked at him and sighed. “Is this one of those what-do-we-call-it questions?” At his look that didn’t answer my question I finally told him, “I’m … I’m not much of a label person Carmine. About as far as I go with it is to call myself a street rat and lately I’m not sure if that is even true anymore; I think I’m turning into a forest rat … or a tree rat like you call me; a squirrel. If you’re asking me do I mind you calling me your wife? The answer is no. If you’re asking me would I mind calling you my husband? Again, the answer is no. It just seems to me that a lot of people use those words and they don’t mean much. You said yourself that even in the culture you were raised in a woman could toss a man’s belongings out and that was enough for a divorce and then poof … no more husband, no more wife.” I sighed again¸ not sure if I was getting my point across. “I just want to be with you for lots of different reasons and I want it to be for as long as we can make it. I don’t know what you call that but we can call it being husband and wife if it makes you happy. I like it when you’re happy. Seeing you happy and knowing … really know … that I had something to do with it makes me feel like nothing else ever has and I’m not sure if there is a label for that.”

He got up and sat on the bed beside me and looked at me for what felt like a long time, long enough for me to worry that I’d said something wrong. Then he said quietly, “You make me see things like I haven’t in a long time … if ever. I guess in your shoes I’d be averse to labels myself. But Saloli, sometimes we need labels to remind ourselves of what something is supposed to be, supposed to mean, how it is supposed to work. Yeah, I consider you my wife and I want you to think of me as your husband. It holds us … to a higher standard I guess you’d say. I know people misuse them words but we aren’t basing it on what other people say and think and do … so humor me. It does make me happy.”

It was easy enough to agree to and I said, “OK.”

“Just like that?”

I rolled my eyes. “What did you expect? A fight? I told you, I like to see you happy. I might not always do things to make you happy – I’ll probably do things that even make you mad on occasion – but if this makes you happy, for me to call you husband, then sure, why not.”

He snorted, “That was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be.”

Now it was my turn to snort. “Don’t look a gift rat in the snout or you risk getting your own nose nipped. I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”

“Who are you? Popeye?”

Confused I asked him, “Pop who?”

Shaking his head Carmine said, “Never mind. You make me feel old.”

“Well I can’t do anything about that for a few more days so you’ll just have to suffer along with it.”

I thought he was choking on something for a minute and then he started laughing again. I’m slowly being convinced that there is something a little off in Carmine’s attic.

The next day as promised Carmine cooked our dinner. Hey, if he was going to volunteer to cook I wasn’t going to stop him … and I wasn’t going to help him either. Just something about that cat curled my whiskers and toes.

Turns out I would have only been in the way which was good because I was feeling less that my usually energetic and ratty self. I had forgotten that I usually slept a lot when my monthly came by after being gone for a few months and this time was no exception. I felt like someone had opened my veins and all my energy had been bled off. Carmine told me to stop worrying about it and to sleep while I could. I tried to finish sewing the hides to finish another layer of cover for our bed but I kept dozing.

I’ll try and write out Carmine’s mutterings for his recipe but to be honest he fussed more than an old woman and told me to stop asking for exact measurements because it was making him nervous.

First he took about three apples worth of the dried apples and rehydrated them with melted and boiled snow water. Then in his big pan he melted two spoons of buffalo tallow. He sprinkled two pounds of the back strap from the cat with salt and pepper to season it then he seared it in the tallow on both sides. Then he put the lid on the pan and set it in the reflector oven where it back for about an hour.

While the back strap was baking I woke up enough to make biscuits – real biscuits – and stuck them on another level of the reflector oven while Carmine too the apples that he’d rehydrated and added half a coffee cup of brown sugar, about the same amount of clarified butter that he’d traded off of Jerry for some of the sharpening I had done, and a half a coffee cup of water. He cooked the apple mixture for about five minutes and then left it to stay warm until the back strap was completely finished baking.

When the meat was done he sliced the back strap and put some on our plates and then dished the apple mixture over it. The biscuits were also a hit and Carmine pulled out a jar of saskatoon preserves that he’d brought with him and between the preserves and some honey the biscuits were as much dessert as either one of us had had in a while.

“So, how do you like mountain lion?” he asked with a smirk.

Without missing a beat I told him, “A lot better in the pan than on the paw.”

I had to pound him on the back where he inhaled a bit of biscuit getting caught off guard in a laugh.

“Well, speaking of that cat, I need you to come upstairs and lay down on the floor so I can use some charcoal to outline your measurements so I can get that fur laid out and see how much else that I’m going to need to piece it out.”

A little embarrassed over the fuss I’d been making I told him, “You don’t have to do that. I can sew Carmine.”

He nodded, “I know but I didn’t court you or anything like that so I’m gonna bribe you to stay with me by making you the coat and these moccasins.”

“That … that’s … gee Carmine. I’m not with you so you can give me … well, they’re presents aren’t they.”


He turned to look at me and must have understood my expression better than I did. “Uh oh. Look at me Saloli … I was just foolin’ with you. A joke. I know you aren’t with me just so I can give you stuff. But a man likes to know that he can even if he doesn’t have to.”

Trying to understand I said, “So … the whole making the coat and stuff for me is a guy thing?”

“A man thing,” he corrected.

“And there’s a difference?”

He gave me a sharp look and then caught on that I was teasing him a bit. “Uh huh … keep that up and see if I make you your surprise with this next batch of snow coming through.”

“I never asked you to make me anything to begin with.”

“Humph. And exactly how am I supposed to court you if you don’t let me?”

I laughed, “That’s a little backwards from the way it usually happens isn’t it? If you already have me what’s the sense in doing this other stuff?”

He growled playfully and told me, “’Cause I want to. Now hush and come upstairs and let me measure you out. You’re not much bigger than a tea cup but …”

I swatted at him with the bag of buffalo hair that we shared for a pillow and he just laughed.

*****

Our days continued like that on into the end of January. The “treat” he made me was boiled honey poured on fresh snow. It wasn’t quite like glass candy he said but when it was cold it would still snap into small pieces so that I could suck on them. Carmine was like that, just doing strangely nice things for me.

In return I tried to do things for him too. I made him a pair of tough hide chaps for when he had to break the snow trail to check the traps. The chaps kept his pants from getting soaked. I made him a second pair of gloves out of some of the better leather because his first pair were getting thin in places and the seams had holes in them. I finally finished the “fur quilt” to add to our bed, the warmth a real good thing as it seemed to be getting colder rather than warmer the longer the snow hung around.

After yet another snow store we were out gathering fallen limbs so that we wouldn’t have to do so much chopping. We were really just kind of goofing off though as we were both a little silly from being cooped up in the cabin for so long.

I was just about to throw a bit of snow his direction when I heard something.

“Gurl, wha …?” He stopped when I raised my hand and shut my eyes. Carmine has learned to pay attention to my moods and movements. I swear sometimes it feels like he knows me nearly as well as I know myself.

“I hear something,” I told him quietly. “It’s not an avalanche like last time … this … this rumble is different; almost like …”

Carmine stiffened having finally heard a bit of what had caught my attention. He slings his rifle off his arm and practically picks me up like a little kid in one arm and gets me back onto the packed down area near the solar wagon we had driven out in. Catching his urgency I’m silent as I pull out my trusted sling shot and try and warm up the straps.

Carmine is just about ready to head for the cabin when there is an odd, piercing whistle; loud, yet far enough away that it sounds eery in the clear, cold air. Carmine mumbles a less that nice word under his breath. “Don’t suppose it would do any good to ask you to stay in the wagon.”

I gave him a look that let him know the answer was obvious. “What – or who – is it?”

“That’s the whistle that Jerry and I used as kids when there was trouble in the family. The danger isn’t immediate but …”

I calmly finished his sentence. “But you need to know what it is and why he’s here instead of at the winter camp.”

Friday, October 28, 2011

Chapter 32

Chapter 32

After the big personal reveals by both of us we had to find our comfort zones again. We’d keep running up on the subject and then backpedaling quickly in hopes the other one didn’t notice. We didn’t want to hurt each other. I’m not sure why I cared that Carmine now knew the whole truth; I mean honesty is a good thing. I guess I kept expecting him to do the same thing that Asa did and change his mind. The thing is I could see that he didn’t like the wall that had grown between us. He wasn’t relieved, he was irritated by it.

I kept wanting to ask him … what I didn’t know precisely but I guess for some unknown reason I wanted reassurance that he wasn’t grossed out by me, by my past, by the things I had done to survive.

A few days later we had our answer … I was not pregnant. I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject with Carmine because I wasn’t exactly regular, mostly due to the fact that my general diet was low in fat. I also wasn’t used to discussing my feminine nature with the male of the species, it had just never been an issue. All of the regular staff at the facility I had been confined at had been female. My cycle also righted itself, at least partially, due to the halting of my endurance type lifestyle and the sudden inclusion of things like the pemmican that cleared up the earlier problem.

Carmine was whittling some wooden pegs to use to fit together a table he was making. “Uh … Carmine.”

“Hmm?”

I sighed, sometimes you just have to be blunt. “I’m not pregnant.”

He continue to whittle for about five seconds before all four legs of the chair he’d been leaning back in made floor contact. “Uh … you sure?”

“Do I absolutely need to spell it out for you?”

He shook his head and grinned and said, “No, I’m not that big a chucklehead. You sure you’re OK with that?”

I shrugged. He said, “That’s not really an answer.”

“What do you want me to say? I hadn’t thought seriously about making babies after things blew up with Asa and even then I wasn’t for sure that it would happen. Finding out that we can make them together was a bit of shock if you want to know the truth. But then you said you don’t want to make them and …”

“Whoa,” he said. “I didn’t say I didn’t want to make babies with you. As a matter of fact the idea of it gives me way too much satisfaction and turns my libido inside out; but I’m a man not a rutting stag. I need a place to tuck you up and keep you safe when you get pregnant and I still haven’t decided if this hole in the ground is it.”

Something inside me I hadn’t realized was tied up, loosened. “This isn’t a hole in the ground, it’s the basement of a nice cabin.” When he hiked up his eyebrow I said, “OK, it could be a nice cabin. I know what dilapidated is and this cabin isn’t it. It needs some work but even I can see how it could be done.”

He started to whittle again. “You don’t want something bigger?”

“Bigger means more space you have to heat and insides you have to take care of. This place has a big fireplace in the main room and a fireplace here in the basement, plus that Franklin stove over there. A couple of the other places around here have wood stoves that we could dismantle and bring over here too … could even put one in the kitchen and we would only have to use the fireplace for baking.”

“I was thinking that for the warmer months I could rig up a summer kitchen; build a mud oven. A lot of people use summer kitchens out here to keep the house cooler, keep the mess out, and to lower the risk of burning things down. We’d need a smoke house too so we wouldn’t have to dry everything though we will certainly need to continue doing that. I could even dig a hole back into the hill and make us an ice room – always wanted one of those just never had the time to do it – but the real challenge would be to get domesticated animals and have a place to grow crops.”

“Grow crops? Carmine we don’t even have seeds for that.”

“Actually Saloli we do. When I said I outfitted my getaway caches I didn’t do it by half measures. I always wanted a place of my own so I tucked away for it, just in case.”

Curious I asked him, “Why didn’t you do it before now? Get your own place I mean.”

“Didn’t have the time or more honestly didn’t make the time. Didn’t have the place. But mostly didn’t have the woman. Got the time, got the woman. Not sure though if this is the place.”

“You’ve got …?! Well aren’t you arrogant!”

Giving me a grin he said, “You saying I don’t?”

“No that’s not what I’m saying and I hope you know it. I just mean … I mean what if I’m totally unsuitable? What if I’m ..?”

I didn’t get the chance to finish what I had started to say because he was on me like a cat on a mouse … just that fast too. “Don’t you ever, ever use that word again. No one is more suitable for me than you. Got it?”

I looked at him and hated that I felt so needy and inexperienced. “Carmine are you sure? You … you heard what I was like before. You’ve seen what I can be like now. I don’t do people really well. I tried with your family but … but I was kind of glad when they went on own the road.”

Expecting him to be upset I was surprised when he said, “You and me both. I love my family but they give me a headache after a while. I’m afraid you’ve got a man that don’t play too well with others.” I thought back to when I first met him and started to grin.

“Being cooped up with Rob must have been hard.”

He read my mind and smiled. “Oh Gurl, you have no idea. I just don’t do rainbows, Skittles, and unicorn farts.”

Never having heard the phrase I asked, “What’s skittles?”

“You don’t know wha … maybe you wouldn’t. They are a kind of chewy candy I was fond of. When I was a kid there was an old Teevid commercial where they would fall from the sky like rain and make everyone happy.” At my disbelieving look he held up his right hand and laughed before saying, “I swear it’s true.” At my continued strange look he said, “Pick some of the newer candies and I’ll try and compare them for you.”

I shrugged, “I don’t know. I’ve never had candy.”

“You’ve never had … now you’re pulling my leg.”

I shrugged uncomfortable for some reason. “Street rats learned that anyone bearing candy wasn’t to be trusted and if you’re so smart you can guess why without me having to explain it. At the facility they closely monitored all of our food intake, especially sugar. I came in with real bad teeth and I was forbidden to have any kind of sugary treats, even if I won a competition.”

“I noticed your teeth are a little on the perfect side and remember you telling Rob you’d had some dental work done. But you aren’t just talking candy are you. No cakes or cookies or things like that?”

“Eh, some at the end when I was being groomed to be sent out but they were made with these artificial sweeteners that always gave me heartburn.”

“Well that explains why you’re so fond of those fruity teas with honey in them. One of these days I’ll fix it so you don’t have to only have the memories of that facility in your head or your hard life on the streets.” He sighed looking around the shook his head. “It might take a while but … wait, just wait one minute. I got an idea. It’ll have to wait until we get a fresh snow fall but I’m pretty sure I can remember how it’s done.”

The wicked gleam in his eye made me suspicious. “Remember how what’s done?”

“You’ll see. But for now, you feel up to going with me to check the traps or you need some time to yourself?” When it was obvious I didn’t understand what he was referring to he pointed and said, “Your monthlies, most women seem to need their menfolk to vacate for a while or they get cranky or weepy.”

“One, I’m always cranky. Two, I make it a personal policy never to get weepy because it gives people the idea that you’re weak. Three … I’m not most women; the most that happens is I get the munchies and since I can rarely indulge I usually just keep myself busy until it’s over with.”

He barked a laugh and said, “Well, good to know. So do you want to go or not?”

“No reason not to.”

That made him bark another laugh. About half the time I didn’t understand what he found so funny but if it made him happy so be it. We took the solar wagon but not deep into the woods. The big tires worked as well on snow as they did on sand but we still drove real slow.

“I don’t want to be out long. The battery on this bucket is charged but cold makes it discharge faster than normal. Just a quick check. Good idea to bring the buffalo hide. Hopefully we won’t get it wet and we can put it back on the bed tonight.”

“I’ve almost got the other hides sewn together for another one.”

He looked at me and said, “Been meaning to ask, you seem to have taken to the sewing and cooking and such a lot better than I would have expected.”

“You mean why would a street rat know all of that stuff?”

He shrugged as he carefully navigated the path we were on. “I could lie and say that isn’t what I meant but it wouldn’t be the complete truth. It just seems odd if you don’t remember being with your own Ma that you seem to be so good at the housewife stuff.”

I snorted. “How exactly do you think I kept clothes on my body as a street rat? I didn’t exactly have a fairy godmother you know. I clothed myself, fed myself … you learned or you went naked and starved. And trust me some of that did happen. There was no one to take care of me so I was forced to learn what I could. Besides, I aced household management at the facility. There’s nothing wrong in taking pride in something … as long as you don’t let it be used as a weapon against you.”

“Why the heck would they make you take home ec if all they wanted you for was …”

Caught off guard by his bluntness I said, “Hey! Watch it bud.”

“Sorry.”

I shrugged as I quickly settled back down at his apology. “To be honest you are more right than not. But they had to make themselves feel like they weren’t just doing what they were doing but make it look like they were trying to improve the human race. That meant we were to be educated sleeping buddies and we needed to shine in all areas to prove how good, how magnanimous, and how right SEPH was.”

He shook his head. “Kilbrian was a piece of work but the ones in charge now seem like they are living in la-la land.” I shrugged, there wasn’t much I could add to it that we hadn’t been over already.

The traps were disappointingly empty. Carmine said, “Well, I didn’t expect a lot because of the storm but it would have been nice …” I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye and then crowed in glee when I got a big rabbit. Carmine looked at me and grumbled, “Smart aleck.”

I grinned and jumped out of the wagon and a yard onward I went down through the snow. Carmine, worried at first, started roaring with glee of his own when I popped up covered in the white stuff. I told him, “I would be careful getting that buggy out of here. The ice is holding up the snow in places and it’s a lot deeper than it looks. Ow!”

“What are you owing about? Didja twist something?” He was back to being worried again.

“No. Stay in the wagon. If I’m making this break you certainly will. Let me grab the hopper and I’ll be right back.”

“But what …”

Calling back over my shoulder I told him, “The ice is sharp. It scraped me a little.”

When Carmine saw I was leaving little pink dots on the pristine surface of the snow he really started fussing. “Get back here right now! How bad is it?”

I had the rabbit and had turned back when I froze. Carmine saw my look of horror and asked, “Gurl?”

“Cat. B…b.b.b.big cat. In … in the tree just behind you.”

It was Carmine’s turn to freeze. My run in with the other cat kept floating through my brain as did the fact that not only was I on my monthly but that I was holding a dead rabbit and dripping blood on the snow. The cat … could have be the twin of the one that I had already had a run in with … was sniffing the air and looked like it was ready to get extremely interested in me. I’d never out run it. I was one dead rat.

Then the forest rang with first one and then another rifle shot and the cat fell from its perch and didn’t move. Carmine. He hadn’t really frozen … but I still was. I tried to move but just couldn’t do it.

Carmine jumped out of the wagon and made his way over to me, intentionally breaking through the snow and ice to make a path for us to return by. I felt stupid. The danger was over with, I just couldn’t make myself move. Carmine took the rabbit from me and tossed it into the back of the wagon then picked me up and carried me back. That did it.

“Pppput me down. I …”

“Hush. A man likes to know he can play at rescuing the damsel. Besides you’re frozen through. We’re going back as soon as I put that cat in the back.”

Totally appalled at the idea I asked, “Why?!”

“Because you need a better coat that’s why and with as big as that thing is and the coat that thing appears to have, it’ll make most of one for you with just a little piecing out.”

I opened my mouth but then closed it. It was true, I needed a better winter coat. I had to be practical but when Carmine tossed the cat’s carcass into the back of the wagon I swear I could still feel its eyes staring at me

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chapter 31

Chapter 31

“Oh there’s a story there. There’s lots of stories. I just don’t know where to start.”

He could tell I wasn’t just talking to hear the sound of my own voice. “I know what put you on the street. You were an Outbreak Orphan. I know that you don’t remember much of your life before the streets … but that things trickle in every now and again. I can guess that your life on the street was hard. Even if I didn’t have any commonsense some of the things you said while you were fever struck would have been impossible for even a blind man to miss. And I know – and something you shouldn’t be upset by me knowing – that your life on the street … you had to do things to survive.”

I shook my head. “Carmine if you’ve never been there I don’t know if I can explain it to you. I had no one. I mean no one. I was nine when I found myself alone on the streets. I could try and explain it and justify it and rationalize it but it all boils down to one thing … I went completely feral. It was the only way I could stay alive. The only thing that tied me back to my humanity was the fact that I couldn’t pass up reading and … and the occasional glimpses I would get that Some One was looking out for me.”

“Now Saloli …”

I looked at him and tried to get him to understand. “Carmine … I didn’t talk. Not just didn’t talk but refused under all sorts of pain and punishments. It isn’t that I couldn’t … it’s that I had decided that I would not. As a street rat a lot of the kids … my peers … lost their voice until it was little more than animal noises like grunts and screams and cries and slang that only another street rat could decipher. We had nothing but the rubble around us to live on. We hadn’t just lost whatever we had had before … a lot of us … Carmine it was like we weren’t orphans so much as we were birthed by the mating of the War and the Outbreak and then turned out to survive if we could. No one cared.”

“What about those people you said tried to help the street people.”

“The church people?” At his nod I said, “OK, some people cared but I was never sure if they cared because we still had bits of humanity in us or if they cared because by caring they could alleviate some of the problems we caused.”

“What problems Saloli? I’m not sure I’m understanding.”

I sighed. “Rats. There’s a reason why we are called street ‘rats.’ Throughout history rats have been destroyers and contaminators of food storage, and disease carriers. In this country, the most common rat – the brown – arrived on ships around the time of the first Revolution. By the 19th century rat fights became a popular form of entertainment. Another form of entertainment was having dogs compete to see how many rats they could kill in a period of time. I read that the record holder was a dog that killed 100 rats in five minutes … it was called Jocko. Rats have been used in all sorts of science experiments supposedly for the betterment of the human race.”

Softly, like he was afraid I would stop talking if he interrupted too much, Carmine asked, “Are you telling me you kids got the nickname not because there were so many of you on the streets but … but because …”

“Of how people saw us … yes. Because of what people did to us … yes.”

Carmine groaned, like he was almost sorry he’d opened the Pandora’s Box but it was too late to close the lid. “Carmine, you do know what eugenics is.”

“Yeah, it’s when the science of genetics gets out of hand.”

I shook my head. “No, it isn’t a science at all … it’s a social philosophy that hides behind science. Kilbrian and his crowd violated every human right that you can imagine. Even simple privacy is something they can’t seem to allow. There were cameras everywhere in the dorm … and I mean everywhere, no place was off limits and the male guards, some of the female ones, loved to rub it in and give away private information. We were filmed day in and day out. Every infraction was a punishable offence. They would weigh them at the end of the day and week and month and punishments for individual infractions and sum totals would be dealt out or added up to put the person on major punishments. The object was to distill out the cream of the crop, the best … it started with genetic screening but after that it took off into areas that have absolutely nothing to do with what really makes a human a human. For a year I fought and fought and fought and fought. If Kilbrian had survived I would have been dead … culled from the pack due to psychological deficiencies or for some other excuse. But the committee that headed our facility had some brains to them, I’ll give them that. They knew they couldn’t cull everyone that didn’t meet Kilbrian’s high standards or there wouldn’t be enough genetic stock left to repopulate the earth.”

I felt Carmine tensing as some of what I was saying was beginning to form a picture in his head.

I continued. “So the eugenics program envisioned by Kilbrian never really existed. Even before he died it was out of his control. He was still hailed as the great scientist but he was no longer in control, if he ever had been in any practical sense. Someone had decided that a class structure would serve the human race better than total perfection in everyone. Total perfection was too costly. Why not have propagation of the species and make a profit at it at the same time? There would be kings and queens, workers, and drones.” My laugh was ugly and Carmine tried to hold me but I couldn’t handle it. I moved out of his embrace and closer to the fireplace.

“I feel badly about not being able to warm up to Sally, I can tell she’s a nice person and I tried to make it up to her by sharpening her medical tools, but she just triggers something in me. I hate being touched without my permission. I learned to let it happen, to tolerate it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still react on the inside. I nearly killed Asa over it until Rosie got my attention.” At his confused looked I explained, “It was that night you and Rob showed up that first time. I probably would have hurt him Rosie hadn’t been there to bring me back to myself. It was like waking up in one of those infernal exams rooms at the facility. And you … I’m surprised I didn’t hurt you if I was out of my head with fever.”

“Let’s just say I didn’t get where I got as sec boss turning into a sissy just because someone landed a couple of good punches. Besides you were as weak as a curly headed kitten. I did trim your nails though, them things smart when they reach skin.”

I hung my head in shame. He’d never told me that. “Uh uh. Don’t you even Gurl. You were out of your head and remembering bad things. And I was going someplace … well … I wasn’t exactly paying a whole lot of attention to your need for personal space.”

He wanted me to blow it off, let it go, but it was hard to. I sighed. “Carmine, you have no idea what I was like in the beginning … not just like but what I actually was. I can look back now and see that I did it to survive but there are things I’ve done in the name of survival I will never talk about. I never went so far as to be a cannibal but the things I did eat … it would make you sick to hear it, makes me sick just to remember it.”

“Was it always like that on the street?”

I shrugged, “Depended on the season and how many others I had to compete with. Once I learned to raise rats like cattle things weren’t quite so bad again. Once the adult street people started being taken away it was almost a playground for a while until we realized what was happening.”

He gave me a questioning look so I tried to explain. “You have to remember we were basically living in the Dark Ages all over again. No radio, no teevids, no newspapers, no phones, no nothing. The only thing we had was word of mouth and hardly anyone talked to street rats, they were beneath contempt, the lowest of the low. So we listened when people talked but didn’t know enough except to be scared … like rats. We were prey and knew it, the adults were our predators as much as hunger and disease were. And now something was hunting the predators … it was something new, something frightening.”

Remembering when I finally put two and two together I shivered. “Finally some of us figured out it had to be the white coats … the scientists. They’d come and sweep up some of the slow rats or the sick rats and take them away but they’d always left the adults alone. We couldn’t imagine what they wanted, all we knew is that some areas of the city were now off limits to any rat that wanted to stay alive and free. As we smartened up and became harder to catch their methods became more brutal. Our former water sources were drugged, they would gas whole buildings, our food sources were destroyed … they introduced a disease into the rodent population, it was like a reverse bubonic plague and we no longer knew what was safe to eat. We left our areas and pushed into areas already occupied by other street people and other street rats. It made life … complicated. Too many mouths and stomachs for one area to support. Then at some point the white coats had taken the underground areas … the areas most street rats were afraid to go unless they were suicidal or drugged to the whiskers. If the white coats could take the tunnels then what would they take next?”

I shivered. “I was so tired that night from running and trying to avoid several warring gangs. Crazy people need space or they turn on each other and there wasn’t enough space anymore. Gang territories started to overlap and you never knew who you had to be careful of. The only place off limits for the fight were the no man’s land of the Barter markets. There was an old building right across from the market and I crawled into the smallest space I could and finally went to sleep. But I didn’t wake up there.”

“That’s when SEPH took you?”

“Yeah, from what I gather they have been watching and gathering information all along. Why they chose me, what … what drew them to me I have no idea.”

He looked at me seriously, “You really don’t know?”

I shrugged. “I know why they kept me, why they didn’t throw me back into the holding station before transporting me to who knows where for who knows what purpose … but why they targeted me specifically in the first place, no … I don’t know.”

“Gurl …”

Getting jumpy I started pacing around the basement. It wasn’t a huge room but even with Carmine’s gear all over the place there was still enough room for me to work the floor with my feet. “All my parts still worked, OK?”

Accurately deciphering what I was saying he said, “You were fertile? Were?”

Still unsure how far I could take my story I said, “Look, you wanted me to tell this story so are you going to let me finish it or not?”

At his nod I continued. “I was a lot more well-read than even my handlers suspected.”

“Handlers?”

“The doctors at the facility where they eventually stuck me. There was one there in particular that thought she had me figured out and I let her continue thinking that. It was a year and I still hadn’t made a sound even though they knew from examination that there was no physical reason for my muteness. Then out of the blue I just started talking and it was mostly to embarrass her. She went from contempt to hate which was fine by me because the feeling was mutual by that point. If she could have sterilized me out of spite I’m sure she would have. She said I was the antithesis of everything they were striving to give mankind and I was happy to oblige her. The problem was that due to the Outbreak there were too few fertiles in this country. Sterilization wasn’t an option, at least not with the female population. They were always worried that other … less fit … populations would over breed and upset the balance of race-less purity they were seeking to achieve. What a crock. Just like in the forbidden texts I eventually gained access to in the library, they were trying to replicate the European ideal in looks. Blonde haired, blue eyed Fertiles were the most soft after.”

“Your height didn’t make you stick out?”

I shook my head. “No. They decided that it was all due to a lack of proper nutrition during early puberty. I probably would have been below average in height but at least I would have cracked five foot and better. As you can see the rest of me is pretty normal.”

He got a look on his face and then said, “If you want to keep this conversation on target and serious you’ll knock off asking me my opinion on the rest of you. I like it better than just fine thanks and it is hard enough for me to keep my eyes in my head and my brain turned the right direction without you making it harder.”

I wondered just how he could be thinking of that when I was telling him all this other stuff but then decided his pragmatic side was one of the things that had attracted me to him in the first place.

“Anyway … like I was saying … they approved of my genetic screening results. In fact my screen tests were pretty high and they expected me to be all grateful for it. They also just about jabbered in ecstasy because I’m immune. I don’t remember being sick but I had to have been exposed because three members of my family died in our house of the Outbreak. My brother was buried in the back yard and I have no idea how long I was in the house with my parents’ bodies; I don’t remember much. So I could have been sick and not remember it or maybe I got my immunity from being exposed to them. Regardless of how I’m immune the fact is the antibody to the right clade flows in my blood which means that I would have passed along my immunity to any offspring. They liked that and I got moved to the top tier of females in the facility.”

The cold was getting to me but I didn’t know how to go to him and ask to get back under the covers. I didn’t need to though because he came to me and we went to sit on the bed and crawled under the covers.

I slowly warmed up but the shivering didn’t go away. “We were being groomed. The threat of being sent to the Egg House … where they sent all the bad little girls … hung over our heads like a death sentence. You know what that place is?”

“I’ve heard … even seen the results when a couple of women turned up in one of the other territories and Rob was called in to see if he could do anything for them. They’d aged. Both of them were late teens but they looked forty or better. They’d had gone through menopause early due to all of the drugs pushed through their veins. Rob had to give them both hysterectomies just to keep them from bleeding to death when their systems continued to go haywire from all the drugs forced on them. And you say you lived with this for two years?”

I laughed dully but it wasn’t funny. “I still live with it. If they catch me … if they catch me they’ll send me back.”

He got real quiet. “You saying what I think you’re saying?”

“Just let me finish Carmine.” He fell silent again. “For all that eugenics tries to purport to be a science it isn’t. It hides behind science, uses some science, but the bottom line is that it is all subjective. It’s just social engineering to some subjective criteria; not objective as they claimed it to be. To continue the human race they needed all Fertiles – both male and female – but not necessarily to be egg providers. If you were completely fertile but your genetic profile was compromised in some way, they would utilize your body and you would become an incubator or an egg hatcher. If you were fertile but weren’t good egg hatching material they would take your eggs and give them to women who were fertile but genetically compromised. There are more women out there that can no longer produce eggs of their own because of the Outbreak virus but there’s nothing wrong with the plumbing. They wanted a pool of enough females so that they could be as picky and choosey as they wanted to be.”

I wasn’t the only one shuddering. I could feel the distaste coming off of him in waves … but none of it directed at me. He was holding me protectively and I didn’t know whether to be relieved by that or not.

“They are getting into genetic engineering but because of the low fertile population they have to be careful or they’ll upset the whole apple cart. They’ve got this sperm bank full of donations – both willing and unwilling – from geniuses. They are already capable of determining sex and basic characteristics of the babies once there is enough amniotic fluid to screen with.”

“Wouldn’t that be important to know?”

“If you are trying to decide whether to abort the baby or not,” I told him outraged.

“Hey, I just meant to prepare in case the baby has special needs.”

Trying not to be so sensitive and take what he was saying out of context I said, “OK, but that’s not why they were doing it. The fetuses were just tissue. If the tissue didn’t meet their standards it was excised like a cancer.” I remembered the faces of some of the females that had been sent to the hatchery; it was like part of their souls were missing. “The whole program is racist too. They claim to want a race-less world population but it sure seems strange that to accomplish this they screen out most of the non-white, non-European ethnicities. If a race is known to have a higher than normal incidence of a genetic problem … Ashkenazi Jews have tay-sachs, blacks have sickle cell anemia, in men from Tobago it is prostate cancer, the list is pretty long. I know it sounds all well and good on the surface but it is what it can lead to that is horrifying.”

Carmine was touching me, trying to comfort me but I didn’t want comfort, I just wanted him to understand. “Eugenics always leads to ethical problems. You take away people’s natural ability to procreate and you’ve taken away the most basic human right. We aren’t talking about someone who can’t procreate for whatever reason, or someone who chooses not to, we are talking about intentionally denying people that right. But we are also talking about the reverse of that. If someone can procreate SEPH seeks to completely take over all choice in the matter. There aren’t even words for the moral issues that gets into but even scientifically it makes terribly bad sense.”

He kept stroking me and it was the only thing keeping me in my skin. “If SEPH continues they will create the very problems they are seeking to eliminate. Genetic diversity will cease to exist. For a species to continue there must be genetic diversity. The Creator worked it into our very being. Animal populations that lose their genetic diversity – the Dodo bird is probably the most widely known example of this – die off because they stop creating viable offspring. Eugenic thought is just scientifically unsound. Under normal circumstances it is only possible to eliminate a dominant allele from the gene pool. Recessive traits can be severely reduced, but never eliminated unless the complete genetic makeup of all members of the pool was known, unfortunately I think that is what SEPH is going for.”

“What do you mean?”

“They gene type everyone. With the Fertile population being only a percentage of what it should be they can focus more resources on a smaller number of people. If they can catch all the Fertiles, even if they do it in a catch and release program like the Harvesters do, and gene type them and put it in some database then pull the ones they want to examine more closely … catching them using the implanted tracking chip … they can do a full genetic work up and then take what they want to engineer and implant in another female body.” Looking at his face I sat up. “What?”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry Saloli … I believe you, it just sounds like science fiction.”

“Better believe it is science fact. They might not be as successful as they pretend to be … to the public or themselves … but what they are messing with is dangerous and has long term implications.” Hugging my knees I said, “I’d rather be dead than go back to that life.”

He sat up as well and pulled my resisting body into his embrace. I eventually relaxed. I was to the point I had to trust someone. Carmine would either betray me or he wouldn’t.

“How did you escape?” he asked.

“Some One was watching over me,” I told him quietly.

“OK … now spell it out so I can see it.”

I explained how I’d gathered stuff along the way including information and food in preparation. Then how I’d been locked in and ultimately simply walked away while my prospective “mate” was busy fighting with his father and his pregnant girlfriend. “I have no idea how that turned out for them. SEPH doesn’t like to be mess with but the Outland Oligarchies are pretty powerful. It will depend on which side the government sides on.”

“I’ve heard some rumors.” I wasn’t sure I was interested but I didn’t stop him from telling me. “Seems the Lupton family is up on tax evasion as are several other families they are allied with in the Outlands. Several of the young people from those families have disappeared. I thought maybe their folks moved them off shore or underground but … mayhap they’ve been taken by SEPH.”

I shook, “Don’t ask me.”

“Not asking Saloli, just trying to put the pieces in some kind of order.” I could hear the sec boss in him. I didn’t hold it against him; in his shoes I would have done the same thing. “We need to talk.”

I clinched up tight but refused to let he see how it hurt. I jumped out of bed and headed straight for my backpack. I started throwing things in, trying to think and not having a lot of success. “What the Sam Hill are you doin’ Gurl?”

I jerked away from him. “I want take your pity … your … your … I won’t be told that come spring you need me gone so I don’t bring trouble on you … I won’t … I … I …”

He flattened me against the wall when I tried to avoid him. “You even think of trying to leave me under these circumstances and I … will … become … highly … highly … did you hear me say highly? … hacked off. I will follow your around the whole of the Wastelands if I have to wait out whatever snit you are in and when you finally wind down I swear we will have a rip roaring discussion of giant proportions and …”

I did something I couldn’t in living memory remember doing … I broke down crying and slid to the floor in front of him. “Wha … ?!”

I didn’t cry long and I started fighting again. “Uh uh … too late Saloli. See you’ve got me now you’re stuck with me.”

He helped me over to the bed and got us both in. He pulled me over and I laid limply in his arms. He sighed, “Saloli, I … I’m not good at this but I didn’t think I was so bad that you’d believe I’d turn you out just because you’re running from some SEPH. I already knew you were, I just didn’t know why. Now I do. It don’t change the fact though that SEPH can’t have you, that I’ll die rather than see it happen. Just now we need to be more careful of the Harvesters too … and the other crazies. Specially as we ain’t sure that you aren’t carrying already. If you aren’t we’ll be extra careful until we can find a good place to hold up. I’ve got an idea or two but I don’t want to write it in stone until you take a look at my ideas. Heck Gurl, I don’t even know if you want to pop any rug rats out … you could be scarred for life after your experiences.”

I was groggy and out of it but not so bad that I didn’t understand what he was saying. “So you’re fertile too?”

He sighed, “Yeah, most folks don’t know … not even Gill … but I got took by some Harvesters one time when I was out looking for Asa. They were a weak lot and pretty easy to exterminate. They gave me the answer to my questions though and I took most their equipment back to Rob. I trashed the stuff they used for harvesting of course but most of the rest of it was just regular stuff.”

I brushed the hair from my eyes and then tucked my feet behind his calves trying to get them warm. “You say it so … so prosaically, like it’s just a normal every day thing.”

“Do I? Don’t mean to … just out here I guess it is more commonplace than it is where you’re from. People just naturally want to be free. Those that can’t live with the rules that SEPH has placed on society have been gravitating away from their areas of control for years. We’ve got problems with the outliers like the harvesters but not with SEPH directly. If that’s coming then we need to dig in and get prepared.”

“I don’t want problems with SEPH, I just want to be left alone.”

“You and me both Saloli but if it comes to a fight, better to be prepared ahead of time and have it not happen than to hide your head in the sand and have the enemy shoot you in the a …”

My elbow connected but only half-heartedly. He chuffed but it was only a shadow of his usual one. Then he took me in his embrace. “We’re a mess, you and me. Good thing we have each other isn’t it?”

I knew the answer he wanted and I was more than willing to give it to him. “Definitely a good thing.”

Nothing happened for a while but human nature is what it is and despite saying that we’d be more careful we only paid lip service to it. One day soon we’d have to face reality but for that night we needed only what the other could provide.