I was cold. I mean really freaking cold. Then I realized why I was cold.
“Whoa! Hey! Slow down or you’re going to open up that gash again. Rosie! Sit on her!”
Rosie giggled and said, “If I woke up to some guy feeling me up I’d do my best to beat on him too.”
“I wasn’t … stop! … ouch! … wasn’t feeling her up! And you know it! Hey! That hurt! I’m only trying to wash the blood off of you so we don’t have any nasty visitors to come in the night and try and drag you off!”
That slowed me down. “Dang girl, them’s some sharp elbows and knees you’ve got.”
I heard Rosie giggle again. I was more interested in figuring out why I couldn’t open my eyes. My hand went up to my face and it was all sticky. The man said, “Don’t put your hands in it; I just got those fingers clean I’ll have you know.”
I hesitated and then slowly put my hand down but I used it to cover myself. I drew up to hide what I could. “It’s OK, there’s just me and Rosie. I figured under the circumstances you’d choose clean over modesty.”
I found my voice and told him, “Well I don’t. I … I want my clothes back.”
“They’re almost dry. They were dirty anyway and a dunk in the river hasn’t done them any harm. Now sit still and stop trying to emasculate me; I’m almost finished then Rosie can help you wash out your hair.”
He was right, he was almost finished and as soon as he finished getting my face clean he turned and walked out and said, “Rosie, give her a hand. I’m gonna try and get a signal.”
I looked at the raggedy girl and her smile faltered. “Asa didn’t … you know … touch anything he shouldn’t have. He isn’t that kind of guy.”
Looking at her I asked, “Is he your guy?”
“Is he …? Oh wow … no way … that’s ick … besides my mom would kill me and Daddy and Uncle Gill would skin him and cut his vital parts off and staple them to the outside of our cabin.” She giggled again and added, “But I would sure like to see Asa’s face if you ask him that question.” She was smiling again and got up and went over to a bucket. “It’s not cold but it isn’t exactly warm either. You might want to get your hair washed quick before the sun goes down all the way.”
I took my hair down and started unbraiding it and her eyes got really big. I looked at her and asked, “What?”
“Cool hair. How do you make it curl like that?”
“No clue, it’s always been like this as long as I can remember. I’d cut it short but it would only make it worse.”
She shook her head and said, “Oh don’t … cut it I mean. My sister Violet would give a body part if she had hair like that. How do you brush it?”
Rosie is one of those people that ignores boundaries and walls. She picked up a hank of my hair was petting it like it was something in a pet store. I’d never met anyone quite like her. I decided to distract her so that I could wash my hair with a little privacy. It was going to be hard enough to get my head in that bucket without sticking my bare backside in the air. “If Asa isn’t your … er … guy and he isn’t your father, and I assume he isn’t your brother, what are you doing with him?”
“Oh … that. Here, wrap up in this tarp and I’ll wash your hair for you.” I knew a change in subject when I heard one. I let her though because the sooner I got my hair washed the sooner I hoped to get my clothes back and then figure out how to get away. Moving around I knelt so that my hair could fall down into the bucket and in short order, with Rosie’s help, most of the blood was washed out.
“That gash where Asa took that thing out really bled nasty. And then Asa knifed one of the dogs and it kinda bled all over you too. I thought you were dead but Asa said you were just knocked out. Did it hurt?”
I just let her talk. It seemed like it was more important to her that I let her talk than that I actually answered any of her questions. When I sat up and finally got most of the water squeezed out Rosie took one looked and started laughing like she’d just seen the funniest thing she’d ever seen. I knew what she was looking at because I had been forced to live with it every day of my life. I looked like I had been blessed with a head full of long, brown, curly spaghetti. The curls start at my scalp and cascade all the way down to the ends that hit me right below my butt. One of the girls that had been friends with DJ all those years ago had warned me if I ever cut it short it would probably stand straight out from my head like springs from a ball point clicker pen. Refusing to believe her I’d tried to give myself bangs one time to keep the hair out of my eyes and it was a disaster. I looked like a mutant poodle.
But it was Rosie’s outsized reaction that really caught my attention and I realized something. Rosie was … different. Most of the kids her age that I had ever met were a lot more like little old people – like me – than the way kids supposedly used to be at that age. I suppose there were still some protected kids that were as innocent behind the eyes as Rosie was but I’d never met any … at least any that I could remember.
Asa stepped back into the firelight, I guess drawn by all the noise that Rosie was making. “Hush Rosie,” he said gently. I started to notice how he handled her, which was kind of different as well. He didn’t treat her like she was different but he did make allowances for how she saw things differently.
He look at my hair and seemed to want to make a comment but then decided not to. Instead he said, “This stuff is dry but the coverall is still damp.” He tossed my shirts and undergarments at me. “You might as well wear one of them skirts from your pack.”
I immediately felt a burst of fury that he’d been through my pack and then I realized he’d gotten passed the finger print lock and I shut down. I don’t know why exactly; no that’s not true. It was just like when I was capture by SEPH, a complete invasion of privacy. I’d made a mistake, a really bad one. Had those two years at SEPH changed me more than I thought? Where were my instincts? I would need them to survive.
Something must have shown on my face or maybe Rosie sensed it. She patted my shoulder and said, “Don’t mind Asa. Busting tech is what he’s good at; that’s what got him into so much trouble with the people in the big house.”
Asa crossed his arms, “Yeah, what Rosie said. I didn’t take anything but I got some questions.”
I didn’t want to but I glanced briefly at his face and then stopped breathing. He knew. Somehow he knew. Of course he knew. If he’d been in my pack he would have seen the clothes – the “uniform” of the Fertiles that was always being blasted on the TeeVid, would have seen the tablet, would have seen everything. Did he take anything? The tablet? The slingshot? The tool belt?! My skin crawled with my effort not to let my panic take over and move me before I was ready. The desire to look for and in my pack was like a monster gnawing at me. My eyes flew all around until they settled on the beige mound near where I had woken up. Why hadn’t I looked for it before now?
My brain was on fire, my heart was beating so hard they had to hear it. I wouldn’t go back. I wouldn’t. They might go for the bounty of finding a Fertile but if I went back they would send me to the Egg House. I had to get away. Had to get away now.
I was ready to pounce and then run naked into the night when my vision was filled with Asa as he squatted down in front of me. If I hadn’t already been up against a wall I would have scrambled backwards but there was no place to go.
“Relax Gurl.” I realized he knew my name and it only added to my panic. “Relax, OK. I won’t stop you from running … but you don’t need to, don’t have to. I wouldn’t even recommend it but not for the reasons you might think. We’re still on the boundaries of the Wastelands. You come with us we’ll get you passed the worst of the … er … obstacles let’s call them for now. There’s safe places but not a lot of them.”
My heart had slowed down. Was it his voice? Was it that he was so obviously not touching me? Not trying to stop me? I told him, “Safe is nothing but an illusion. You live then you die, that’s all.”
He shrugged acknowledging without verbalizing it. Then he said, “It’s pretty obvious you aren’t ready to die, but are you ready to live?”
Then all three of us heard something; the hum of some kind of vehicle. I knew it was a vehicle but it wasn’t one I knew. Rosie thought she did. “Daddy!”
She jumped up to run out and Asa and I tried to grab her at the same time; I was faster and still managed to keep my vital parts covered by the tarp. She looked at me with a huge smile and said, “It’s all right. That’s my dad.”
He looked at me and sighed, “Well finish this later. Keep her in here while I make sure it is her Pop.”
I scrambled for my slingshot – I refused to be any more vulnerable than I already was. My nerves stretched taught but eventually I heard Asa call, “We’re coming in.”
I didn’t let go of Rosie until another man walked in and she shouted, “Daddy! Uncle Carmine! You came too!! Hurray!”
“Daddy” was a man that looked a lot older than he was. I could tell because I’d seen the same thing while I was on the street. But unlike many of the street people there was someone still home behind his eyes. They were joyful when they were on Rosie, respectful on Asa, cautious when they finally got around to looking me.
Rosie said, “Her name is Gurl. Look at her hair Daddy, isn’t it funny?”
It was “Uncle Carmine” that gave me the cold look. He was younger than Rosie’s father but harder. I recognized what he was right off the bat … an enforcer or sec boss of some flavor. His type had run me off too many times for me to not feel the fur stand up on the nape of my neck. He registered my feeling about him and in turn it made his distrust even bigger.
It became thick in the closed in space but in a surprise move it was Rosie that said, “Don’t Uncle Carmine. She saved us from the bad dogs and got hurt. Asa was fixing her and was trying to talk her out of running. You’re only making her want to run more. You’re using your scary eyes.”
She’d irritated him and there was no way I was going to let that dog snap at her so I drew his attention back to me. “Don’t bait a sec boss Rosie. Besides, I’ve outrun his kind more times than I can count. It takes a long time to get that high in the food chain and by the time they get there they start slowing down because they’ve got enough people to do the running for them.”
I heard Asa snort before saying, “Leave off Carmine. If you’re that anxious to get back then take Rosie and go.”
“Fine. Get your gear,” he growled, not at Rosie but at Asa.
Bad move. Asa’s ruff started standing up. “You don’t own me and you don’t tell me nothing.”
“You didn’t finish the job and I know for a fact Gill paid you up front because I told him it was a mistake to trust you. You gonna prove me right by welching Butcher?”
The questions I immediately had must have shown on my face because Rosie’s father said over the top of Rosie’s head, “It’s his name, not what he does. Asa Butcher.”
I looked at Asa and he got defensive. “I was born with it, blame my parents. Besides, better than Gurl Noname.” He prounced it No-name like it was meant.
Now it was my turn to get defensive. “I won’t answer to anything else so don’t even try.”
Rosie’s sweet voice asked, “Why?”
I can’t remember anyone ever asking me why. They berated it, condemned my stubbornness, made fun of me, gave in rather than deal with it but they’d never asked the simple question of why. I sighed and said, “I don’t have another name, at least not one I remember.”
Asa asked sharply, “You’re memory’s been wiped?”
“This isn’t science fiction. I … I just can’t remember any other name. Gurl is all I remember being called. The ‘Noname’ – most people pronounce it no-nam-mee – was the computer’s idea, not mine.”
Asa said, “You’re an Outbreak Orphan” at the same time that Carmine said, “You’re a street rat.”
I looked at them both and answered, “Yes.”
Carmine went all sec boss and started asking questions I had no intention of answering. I was ready to let him ask them until he was blue in the face and give him the silent treatment when Asa asked quietly but with a hard edge to his voice, “You stoogin’ for the government now Carmine?”
Rosie’s father decided it was time to step in and said, “That’s enough, both of you. The Wastelands are one of the last free places in this country. And even if this is well outside my brother’s area of influence you know how Gill feels about personal privacy.”
Carmine snapped, “Privacy is what got Rosie snatched Rob. How do we know this female isn’t another plant?”
My head was starting to pound and Rosie, who seems to be able to read emotions pretty well even if she doesn’t react to them like you’d expect, said, “Daddy, Gurl has a bad headache.”
Again I had no good place to squeeze into when Rosie’s father got into my personal space faster than I’d seen him move thus far. Rosie, sensing my distrust and discomfort said, “It’s OK, Daddy is a doctor.”
Rob said, “Used to be. Now I just do what I can.” He looked into my eyes and when he pronounced them clear he unknowingly brushed the place behind my ear making me jump. He grabbed my chin firmly, and handling me like he had experience with reluctant patients, turned my head so he could get a look. “Was there a chip implant taken out? Who the bloody blue blazes did this hack job?” he asked irritated.
Rosie said, “Asa, took it out for her because she got the keys for him. Only today a big concrete block ran into her.”
That necessitated an explanation to which Rosie added, “She was about to cut it out herself Daddy. Ew.”
Carmine had gotten a little too close and demanded, “What did you do to get tagged? What prison were you in?”
“You’ve answered your own question already. I’m a street rat, SEPH doesn’t need any other excuse.” Mocking a common commercial that showed several times a day on the TeeVid I repeated in a sing song voice, “Clear the cities and give them back to the citizens. Bag and tag, it’s just that simple.” I caught a warning look from Asa. I suppose he thought he was doing me a favor but I wasn’t that dumb.
Still fishing, Carmine said, “You sound too educated to be a street rat. All of those people in the inner cities are brain damaged from eating spoiled food and drinking bad water. They aren’t good for much and are just a drain on society.”
I laughed but it wasn’t a nice one. “Yeah, you sound just like a good little SEPH-bot.” Giving him as hard a look as he gave me I said, “Don’t be naïve. You really believe everything they say? They lie about everything. I notice you don’t trust them to govern you since you live out here in the Wastelands. Why should the cities be the one thing they tell the truth about? The truth is the people that work for SEPH lie so much that most of them have come to believe their own lies. They have to to keep believing in their ideology because if even one fallacy comes to light their house of cards falls and people have to start blaming something other than genetics for the mess the world is in. Genetics didn’t cause it and genetics isn’t going to fix it. That improving the genetic pool crap is just that … crap. They want power, not improvement.”
Rob gripped my arm briefly and then said firmly, “Enough Carmine. You may have talked Gill into letting you come with me to help get Rosie but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to let you abuse Gill’s rules, even outside his territory.” To Asa he said, “Your friend here has a nasty gash and she needs at least a day’s rest. No way is she fit to do a lot of walking. Come back with us. You can finish your job and my wife and I can say a proper thank you to the two of you for saving our Rosie. I know Gill will want to hear any news you’ve got about Lupton as well.”
I was not at all inclined to be dragged into whatever drama was going on. Rob and Carmine went out and Rosie followed them. Asa came over and sat by me. “I have to go back. Carmine is right about one thing, they paid me up front for repairing one of their main sec comps – security computer – and my reputation is on the line. But I don’t want to leave you out here alone, not ‘til you are on your feet. It’s not a bad deal they’re offering. Roof over your head, three squares, and your own bed … at least for a day or two until you get the lay of the land. You’re gonna need that; people are funny out here about their territory. Even better is that Cargill is a decent guy and runs things by the Constitution which is more than a lot do.”
The idea of getting some idea of where I could go or who I might have trouble with was tempting. The Wastelands sounded like it was going to be just as complicated as the city only on a bigger scale. On the other hand, running was still upper most in my mind. Sensing this Asa added in a voice only I could hear, “About the rest of your … er … history. I … I wouldn’t say anything more than you already have. And I’d wear that coverall even if it is still damp in places. And keep that stuff in your pack out of sight. Not a lot of Vid feed out here but there’s enough … and what people don’t know for sure they like to make up in gossip.”
Cautiously, admitting nothing, I said, “If there was something to see Rosie would have already seen it.”
He smiled and said, “Yes … and no. Rosie is color blind; from birth. Colors mean nothing to her so what she might have seen wouldn’t register with her like it would someone else. Come on, whaddya say?”
Irritated I told him, “Stop being friendly. I don’t have friends. I don’t want friends.”
He shook his head. “That might have worked in the cities but you won’t make it in the Wastelands without at least one or two.”
“How do you know I’m not some … some plant like that guy Carmine said? How … how do you know … know …”
He shrugged. “I’m a fairly decent judge of character. For instance, I can tell you Carmine is a jackass, but he’s loyal to Gill to a fault. That’s his only real problem, but Gill just recently figured it out. Carmine doesn’t have the objectivity a guy in his position needs. Gill has him paired up with a manager back at the ranch and it balances his authority but out here away from Gill’s influence, Carmine is all bull and horns and damn the china shop. That doesn’t make him a bad guy but it does make him one you want to walk careful around. For another instance, I know you were a street rat at one point … your mannerisms are too true to be something you are just playing at … but that’s not all you are.” He sighed. “You’ll hear it so I might as well go ahead and tell you, I was busted for hacking when I was a kid … this was before the Outbreak. I thought I was going to save the world from itself only I found out the group I was involved with actually was string pulled by groups that had the exact opposite in mind … but not until after it was too late. I’ve spent my time on both sides of the law and gotten to know all kinds of people, including street people. I can tell you’ve spent time on the street but you don’t seem like you’ve got too many obvious short circuits. You’ve either been cleaned up or there’s more to you … or a combo of the two. And given the other issue we aren’t talking about, my guess is that there’s more to you if they tried to place you with Lupton’s group.”
I muttered, “Mind your own business.”
He smiled, “Sure. And I know how to keep my mouth shut too. But I am curious and I like to satisfy my curiosity. I don’t like itches I can’t scratch and for some reason you’re turning into a big itch. So, help us both out and just say yes. I’ll scratch your itch if you’ll scratch mine.”
I gave him a look that would have burnt sidewalk and he blinked and then said, “Whoa, that … uh … didn’t come out exactly right. I just meant …”
Rob stuck his head back in and interrupted with, “Asa, I can’t hold him much longer and I really need to get Rosie home to her mother. Are you coming or not?”
Asa looked at me and I rolled my eyes and muttered to him, “Give me the coveralls … and forget about this scratching business. I’ll tell you what I tell you when I tell you and not because you asked me to and not because you itch. If you have fleas go get dipped.”
He nodded and said, “Fair enough. You need some help?”
“Back … off,” I snarled. “Are you brain damaged?”
He chuckled, “I’ve been accused of it a few times.”
With that the two men left and I scrambled out of the tarp and into the coverall, stuffed the rest of my crumpled things into my pack – just holding it settled my nerves some – all the while calling myself three kinds of fool. First rule of the street is never get involved and I’d broken it so many times the past two days it’s a wonder something worse that nearly being dog kibble hadn’t happened to me.
I had to figure out how to put the brakes on this bizarre turn my life was taking before I lost traction and went over the edge and wound up a fiery mess on the rocks below.