No one ever escapes their past; they can only learn to live with it. For some people that’s a lot easier said than done. I was one of those people. The cold air seared my lungs and then started to make them snap, crackle, and pop. I stopped being able to draw in the life giving oxygen I needed to keep going and I fell to my knees as I had another involuntary coughing fit trying to clear my breathing passages.
On my knees I recognized the steps in front of me and crawled up them and into the cabin. I didn’t stop crawling until I was down in the basement and wrapped around my backpack like it was a talisman that would ward off the evil that threatened to carry me off.
I don’t know how long I lay their shivering; it couldn’t have been too long. I was just starting to warm when boots clattered down the basement stairs. Carmine cursed softly but rather than berate me for embarrassing him in front of his family I felt him scoop me up from the floor and put me on the bed and then cover me. He didn’t even try to take my backpack but lay down beside me and wrapped his arms around me.
Eventually my shaking stopped. I wanted to apologize but couldn’t pry my teeth apart to let any sound out. I was afraid that if I did the only thing that would come out was a scream.
Carmine sat up and I heard a woman’s voice ask, “Is she like this all the time?”
He answered, “I’ve never seen her quite like this. A few times when she was sick and delirious she came close but she didn’t go catatonic and unresponsive. Usually I could tease a few words out of her.”
The woman sighed. “It was probably connecting with Bina. Couldn’t you see it? It was instantaneous recognition and understanding of a similar experience. I’ve treated a few SEPH escapees and they’ve all been damaged in some way; some can’t stand to be around anyone they can’t identify with like that. But none of them had been held for two years and only one of them was from back East. That one they’d only had for four months before throwing her back after finding some genetic predisposition towards cervical cancer; she was mentally a mess and the stories she told … Carmine are you sure about this one?”
I shivered waiting for him to say that it was obvious I was too damaged and that he’d be leaving as soon as he made sure I wasn’t going to cough myself to death. Instead he said quietly, “I’ve lost Gurl twice before this. I’m not going to lose her a third time. So what if she has a few issues? It ain’t like I’m exactly free of them myself.”
A pause and then Sally said, “True.” Another pause and then she said, “Stay with me while I see what I can do to help. She’s already traumatized enough and having you nearby will at least make her more comfortable.”
“Uh … I don’t know if she’ll … uh … appreciate that.”
There was an extended pause before Sally asked, “You two aren’t sleeping together?”
Stiffly Carmine answered, “In the bed … yes. For shared body heat … yes. Nothing else. Honestly Sally, you’d think you’d know me better after all these years. Do you think I would really expect sex out of someone that’s been as sick – is still as sick – as Gurl is?”
I missed whatever she responded as I was starting to shiver again. Sally had pulled the covers off of me. I did however hear her tell Carmine to stop calling me “girl”, that I must have a name.
“She does. G-U-R-L Noname.” He pronounced the last name the way most people did, with three syllables. “And if you think I’m kidding ask her yourself. The only thing she will respond to is Gurl; it’s even what is on her gizmo … that tablet she is attached to.”
I could hear her eyebrows go up even if I couldn’t see them. “Tablet? She is a techie?”
I felt Carmine take my cold hand in his and the shivering faded away. “No, not like Uncle Jack is. She’s … hmmm … she is a … well, I don’t know what to call it without sounding foolish. She likes to read … obsessed with it almost. Doesn’t a day go by that she isn’t reading something, mostly useful stuff but I’ve caught her reading old fiction authors from before … Pierce, Nix, Tolkien, Poe, Wilder and lots of others. She hates for me to say something about it though. She treats it like it is a secret but doesn’t hide it unless I act like I’m noticing. We’ll be cleaning and stretching hides and she’ll have that thing set up and reading it out of the corner of her eye while she works. It looks like she is ignoring everything around her completely except she can carry on a serious conversation with me at the same time. She’s taught herself to divide her attention up enough that she can do three, four things at the same time and none of them suffer. She calls herself a street rat – and obviously lived like one before she was captured by SEPH – but she’s the dang most educated street rat I’ve ever met; more educated than most people regardless of where they came from. But whatever you do, don’t say something to her about it or she’ll clam up tight.”
He knew I was listening. He wanted me to react, say something even if it was shut up, that he was sharing things he didn’t have any right to share. I still didn’t want to talk but I squeezed his hand and he turned and helped me to sit up. He looked at me and asked, “You want me to stay … or go?”
I kept telling myself that I controlled my body that it did not control me. Eventually my voice returned and I croaked, “Go. Help with … with the buffalo. I won’t run again.”
I’d surprised him. “You sure?”
“Yeah. Meat’s important. We’ll … we’ll need it.”
A slow smile spread across his face. “Yeah, yeah we will.” I heard the slight emphasis on “we” and knew he understood that I was trying to tell him that when I ran, it wasn’t away from him. Then he turned to Sally and got serious. “Don’t upset her. If she gets twitchy just leave her be.”
She snorted in a way that was at odds with her regal bearing. “Don’t try to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs. She said go so I would suggest you do so.”
Carmine left and as we both heard his boot steps fade and then the door shut behind him Sally turned to me. Her first question caught me off guard. “Is SEPH likely to try and come after my granddaughter?”
I sighed, fatigued despite needing all my wits to deal with the woman in front of me. “Depends what they originally wanted her for and if they think she is alive or dead.”
“Jerry says he cut the chip out of her before they even left the building so they couldn’t track her. The building was already on fire by then so I can only surmise that the chip was destroyed. Either way no one tried to follow them. The town the facility was in had started to riot at the first sign of trouble at the compound. The SEPH personnel weren’t well liked.”
I shrugged. “Then maybe they think she is dead and the reason why they wanted her doesn’t matter. Just teach her to keep her mouth shut; open books are easily read and not always by the right people.”
She nodded then got down to business. “Is your name really Gurl?”
“It’s the only one I’ve had for almost a decade. Whatever I was called before that I don’t remember so don’t bother asking.”
I shrugged unsure myself whether it was something physical or mental that caused the blank spot where my childhood used to be.
She asked a few more details that I was no more forthcoming on and then she shook her head and chuckled. “You’re enough like Carmine that he’s going to be paid back for being the pain in the backside he is. You’re younger than I would like for him; don’t want people to talk about him cradle robbing … or worse. Does he know your age?”
I shrugged. “I don’t really know how old I am so how is anyone else supposed to?”
“Hmmm. That excuse might be enough for some but not for everyone. Knowing Carmine he will just use it to do what he’s wanted to for a long time anyway. He’s not much of a people person. You two will likely wander the Wastelands until he is ready to set up housekeeping some place as far from people as he can get away with.”
Another shrug was her answer.
Her lips twitched. “Don’t teach that habit to Bina. My son would not appreciate it.” She made it sound like she almost hoped I would which told me Jerry had given her some trouble when he was younger and a little payback wouldn’t be unappreciated. It was almost funny but facing a doctor – a female doctor – kept what humor I found in it at bay.
“Now that you’ve seen I’m not an ogre will you let me listen to your lungs? I can hear the occasional wheeze out of you and I’ve heard you cough. I want to see how far down the congestion is and whether it involves one or both lungs.”
Had I not broken all of my figernails since leaving SEPH I would have probably put holes in my palms before she was through. I never managed to relax but I let her examine me. She was calm and professional although she did pause at a couple of my scars including the ones left from where the big cat attacked me. After she asked me what they were from and I explained at the same time explaining how I got sick in the first place she shook her head. “For Carmine’s sake I hope you don’t make a habit out of taking such risks.”
“Only when there is no other choice. Unlike the cat, I don’t have nine lives to waste.”
When she got to my biopsy scars she hesitated then turned away to take a blanket from the rocker and wrap it around me. “We need to talk.” I had worried this would happen. “Are you being harvested?”
That wasn’t the question I had expected. I shook my head no. “Good, but you do know what the harvesters are?” I nodded. “I won’t say anything to anyone but you should seriously consider talking to Carmine if you haven’t already. He had a young friend that was harassed by the harvesters for a long time.”
I finally spoke. “Asa Butcher. I know him and the story.”
This time she nodded. There wasn’t a whole lot that could be said about the situation and what there was wasn’t nice. “As for the rest of it, if I had to guess you are somewhere between sixteen and twenty; without more investigation I can’t be more definitive because you’ve had a lot of dental work done. That dental work also tells me you’ve suffered significant malnutrition but it is doubtful that it was in the earliest years of your life or you’d have learning challenges. The fact that you are self-educated tells me you had a good support system at least through early childhood. Malnutrition started prior to puberty however which is why you have some issues with short stature. You’re four ten, maybe four eleven with a slight build. Do you know if this is a hereditary condition?”
Unwillingly I admitted, “I have a few pictures. My father was a tall man, the top of my mother’s head came to his shoulders. In the few pictures I have of my brother and sister they don’t look particularly short for their ages.”
“You have family?” she asked surprised.
I shook my head. “No. Gone before the end of the Outbreak.”
She nodded, “Which explains the change in nutrition and why you call yourself a street rat; you’re an Outbreak Orphan.” I shrugged at the obvious. “Any allergies?”
I shook my head no. “Good. I’m going to give you some comfrey root, peppermint, wild cherry bark, and a few other goodies and instructions on how to utilize them. They’ll help with the chest congestion and coughing until your body reaches a point that it can finish healing itself. However, you’re going to have to help yourself by using some sense. Don’t stress your lungs any more than necessary … avoid doing things that could cause a cold or recurrence of your previous illness. You need to put on some weight and since it isn’t an appetite problem all I can suggest at this time is that you add fat, lard, or tallow in some form to all of your meals. I’ll tell Carmine to make some pemmican and if you are going walking or doing any kind of exerting yourself I want you to consume a piece of pemmican at the same time.”
I nodded and then she sat beside me and got rid of the professionalism. “Gurl … I’m not quite sure how to approach this. Carmine is like my own son but I’m not blind to the fact that he has his own way of doing and seeing things. It’s obvious he wants you in his life. Are you … prepared … for what that means?”
I looked at her and asked, “You mean sex?”
She grinned softly. “Yes and no. I had all but given up on Carmine settling down again. You know … uh … that …”
“That he was married when he was younger? He mentioned it.”
She nodded, relieved. “That girl did some damage that runs deep. He’s had a few women in his life since but none that I’ve seen him react to the way he does to you.”
Shrugging I said, “He says it’s a relief to be with someone that he doesn’t have to worry about breaking.”
She sighed in exasperation. “Yes, that sounds like something that boy would say. And it may even be true but there must be something more to it or he could have gone out and plucked up any number of the females that have been after his sorry hide over the years to satisfy his desire for female … er … companionship.” She shook her head. “Be that as it may he’s picked you. You’re now part of him … and part of us. Family. I’ll make sure that Carmine tells you how you can reach us if you need to and if something should happen to him, you call … or better yet come. You’ve got a place with us now. Do you understand?”
I did but I couldn’t imagine myself ever taking advantage of it without Carmine being there; however I didn’t say that and my nod sufficed for her. “I’m going to go see that my grandchildren aren’t distracting their grandfather and father from working. If U-gu-gu is right, we need to finish the buffalo with all speed or we’ll be forced to work in a storm and having done it once I hope to never do it again. If you come help – and I think you should for a time just to show Carmine you are all right – come well wrapped, with two pairs of socks and a scarf if you have it; a hat at the very least. You may have impressed the men with that sling shot but the women will want to see what you are made of in a different way.”
As she walked up the stairs and out of the cabin I realized she was the epitome of what I had always imagined a real grandmother to be … wise and slightly more concerned with the condition of your clothing than was strictly comfortable.