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.

Chapter 30

Chapter 30

“You don’t have to tell me Carmine.”

He nodded. “I know I don’t but … I think it needs to be said, for both our sakes. So when I say I understand about SEPH and what you went through, you don’t wonder whether I’m being honest or if I’m just blowing smoke.”

I shook my head, “Please don’t take this the wrong way but I’m not too sure you … or any guy for that matter … could understand what I went through.” I didn’t add that Asa probably came a lot closer than he could. It wouldn’t have served any purpose except to start something that didn’t need starting.

“Just … just hear me out.” I didn’t object when he pulled me into his lap. First off it was warmer and I liked it. Second off I also liked that Carmine seemed to take some comfort from holding onto me like a dolly though I never told him that. “You ever heard of a trophy wife?”

Casually I answered, “I’ve read what they are … and I understand the concept.” Boy did I understand the concept considering what SEPH had had planned for me.

“Well that’s what my first wife was to me.” When he felt me stiffen he quickly added, “Not the whole fertility thing, that came later. She was a more traditional trophy wife. By marrying her I felt I had somehow overcome my upbringing and ‘made it’ in the world. I wasn’t ashamed, not really, but I was tired of the poor-boy-on-the-block life I’d lived since leaving home. Her dad wasn’t just a doctor, he was a civilian scientist contracted with the government at the CDC. He hated me on sight and I really didn’t get what that meant. My mother in law liked me and I thought that was all that really mattered … basically my ‘culture’ was showing. If my mother in law liked me and her daughter accepted my proposal I thought that was all that I needed.” He snorted. “Hard to believe I was ever that young isn’t it?”

I looked at him and then said quietly, “No. Not really. You came from a loving family even if it was from a poor and not necessarily conventional one. Let me guess, you thought there would be time to bring your father in law around.”

He chuffed ruefully. “You could say that. Or you could say that we were just too young and dumb to be allowed out without keepers. I was in the military and assigned to a patrol around the CDC grounds. The terrorists had tried too many times to break in. Gill was a captain to my private but wasn’t near the stuck up snob that a lot of the officers who came from families with money were. He tried to help me interface with my father in law but it never worked; never would have worked though I didn’t want to see it at the time. My wife was too immature and the constant tug of war had her running back and forth; she’d run to daddy when it got tough at our place with money or the arguing then she’d run to me when she wanted out from under daddy’s thumb. My mother in law and Gill kept me from going off half-cocked at the old … at my father in law or I probably would have been confined to quarters or been booted out of the service.”

He turned his head this way and that trying to work the tension out when I got the idea to move around behind him and massage his neck and shoulders. He liked that and slowly relaxed and started to tell the story again.

“I was so involved in my own problems that I really didn’t take in what was going on around me. There was a huge disconnect between the military and the people we were protecting. They all treated us like scummer on their Italian leather shoes but I only saw that my father in law was that way. Wifey and I had problems to the point we weren’t … well, we weren’t being intimate. She had been gone a couple of months and I was finally pulling myself together when she turns up on my doorstep in the middle of the night. She’s crying and all that she’s pregnant and I have to help her because she’s scared of her father.”

From the look on my face he guessed what I was thinking. “Yeah, that’s the first thing that I thought too only her old man was a jackass but he wasn’t an incestuous one. You ever heard the name Patrick Kilbrian?”

I stilled, completely in shock. “Yeah. He’s the Father of Modern Eugenics, the movement that created SEPH.”

“He was also my father in law.”

He leaned back more than he had to, trying to feel how I was reacting to the information since he couldn’t see my face. I tried to relax but it was very hard; my thoughts were in a complete whirlwind. I thought if I kept massaging him I might hurt him so I tried to hide it by just draping myself over his back limply.

“It’s OK Gurl. If you can’t stand …”

“No!” I gasped surprised at what he was picking up from me and what his brain was turning it into. “Just … just give me time to take it in. I know enough to know that you aren’t like that … him … any of them.” After a moment I quietly told him, “I saw him once. He … he came to observe the group I was in. They made a huge deal of his visit and what it meant. Lucky us. I found out later that if he hadn’t had the stroke and died that day I would have been culled from the test group I was in; he didn’t like me very much apparently.” I didn’t mention it was because I had thrown a lamp hard enough that it cracked the plexiglass right in front of where he had been standing, causing him to openly show fear. I was still three-quarters feral at the time and it wasn’t one of my smartest moves.

Concerned Carmine asked, “Why would he have observed the group you were in?”

Shrugging, trying to conceal things a bit longer I told him, “Who knows? I’m sure his motives were as pure as his heart.”

Carmine looked at me a moment and then his lips twitched. “You couldn’t have loaded that with more sarcasm if you had tried.”

I shrugged again, like it didn’t matter. “A little dab will do ya.”

Caught off guard Carmine barked a surprised laugh. He pulled me back into his arms and grinned. “You are something else. I couldn’t have wished for anything better than you in my life.”

He meant it and I was touched, deeply touched. I hugged him back. “Dr. Kilbrian was a toad among men. You are nothing like him. If that’s what you were worried about me thinking …”

He sighed, “I wish that was it then I could call this done and over with. The truth is Gurl that you have no idea just how … how twisted Kilbrian and his associates were … are … I don’t know nothing about the crop that came after him but nobody can be as warped as he was. My wife hadn’t had an affair, not even an incestuous one; her father had been responsible for her being pregnant though. She was one of his … get this … he called them his First Mothers. It had already been found that the Outbreak virus was leaving people infertile. Only those of us that had been found to be immune were even allowed on the grounds of the labs.”

Something he said caught my attention. “Wait¸ you’re … you’re immune? You’ve had the virus?”

He sighed, “Yes I’m immune but not because I’ve ever had the virus. They were using the military as test monkeys for the vaccines they were trying to develop. None of them worked well enough to put into production but some of us did gain immunity from them. I was immune based on one of the first vaccines; Gill caught a mild case of the virus from a vaccine he was given – without his permission – but is infertile because of it.”

He completely blew through the explanation and I knew I would need to ask him to explain further but he needed to finish his story. “When our guys found out what the scientists were doing there was a revolt. DC turned on the Pentagon … on us … and we became Enemies of the State. My mother in law actually died trying to help us escape, all she asked was that I take my wife with me where ever we were going. I tried … I … I was too late. Some tests run by her doctors revealed that the baby’s genetic structure was somehow not quite perfect enough for Kilbrian and he had ordered my wife to have a … a term … termination so that they could start again. Because of course it couldn’t be his precious daughter’s eggs that were at fault, not since she was carrying his genes.”

Trying to clarify what he’d just said, “He’d … he’d turned his own daughter into an Incubator? And because … you mean … he forced an abortion on her?”

He sighed, “Yeah. But something went wrong. They never think it’s going to happen, that just because it is a ‘routine outpatient procedure’ that anything can go wrong. But it does, and it did. I found out she bled out so fast that not even the top surgeons of the group could save her. Kilbrian was already warped but the only way he could live with the guilt was to become completely cracked. Tissue – people – with what he considered bad genes were worse than a disease to humanity. They needed to be completely eradicated so nothing like what had happened to his daughter could ever happen again.”

Carmine closed his eyes and sighed. The pain, even after all the years, was still a powerful thing to see. “I didn’t love her anymore, never really had. I’d only loved the idea of her and it was the same for her where I was concerned. To me she was the princess that would make me a prince and to her I was the freedom she was looking for to escape being a princess. We’d gotten that far with coming to terms with it before her father had found her and taken her back to the institute. But I … I still felt enough that … that to have that happen to her … and not be able to stop it …” He scrubbed his eyes. “Gill and some of the other people in our unit had drawn up a plan to bring the whole institute down. I was a mess but decided with nothing left to lose that I was in too. And we did … bring down the institute I mean … and then we scattered. The Outbreak had gotten way out of control as the second wave hit. There wasn’t anyone to chase us all down even had the government wanted to. I thought that was the end of it until a few years later when the Harvesters and their like started showing up. Maybe if we’d done a better job … maybe if I had killed Kilbrian like I wanted to … you would never have had to suffer what you did.”

Of all the things he’d said the last sentence is what shocked me the most. “Don’t,” I told him vehemently. “Don’t you dare ever … ever … blame yourself for what SEPH has done to people. Kilbrian was just one man. He had colleagues. Do you really think that it could have gone as far as it has without the willing participation of so many people? Hundreds, thousands … for all I know millions of people.”

He shook his head in denial, “Not millions.”

“Yes, millions Carmine. Look at me. I’m a product of … of people simply turning a blind eye. Choosing not to do something is still a choice. People so concerned with their own miseries that they were either too numb or too needy to even consider what SEPH is doing to people to supposedly fix what the Outbreak virus wrought for the human species.”

“You don’t consider it a punishment from God? This Some One you talk about with such reverence? A lot of people do.”

Shrugging I said, “I don’t know … maybe. Or maybe He let it occur, let man suffer the consequences of our own arrogance. I’ve heard that the Outbreak virus wasn’t naturally occurring, that it had help becoming what it was. Are we supposed to sit around and blame the Creator for not saving us from ourselves? Sometimes I wondered why He didn’t let me die with my parents … until I figured out that I kept asking the wrong questions.”

“Wrong questions?”

“Yeah. I kept want to know why? Why this and why that? What right did He have to do to me what had been done? Then I realized, if He is indeed God … the Creator … it didn’t matter. He made me, He could unmake me if he wanted to and since He hadn’t unmade me by letting me die then there was something left He wanted from me. Even if all He wants is for me to struggle to survive day in and day out, to strive to be stronger because I struggle, then so be it. The rest I’ll figure out as I go along but I’m done asking the questions that I never really get the answer to I want. If you’re willing to kick back and let the Creator of All be what He is … some church people that used to come down and try to help the street rats used to call Him the Great I Am, the Alpha and the Omega … then you’re less likely to get in His way when He does help you and more likely to see it when it happens.”

“Like your clumsy elk.”

“Yeah, and all the other things that there really isn’t a good explanation for the timing of why it happened. Like you of all people showing up right when I was about to tumble down into a well and likely drown. Like the cat not escaping from the river while I did. Like Asa and Rosie being there so I wouldn’t cut my ear off trying to get the chip out of me … Asa who just happens to be a genius techie mechie and who just happens to be tenderhearted enough - or crazy enough - that he would help a SEPH escapee when everyone knows the price you pay for that kind of interference with the state. If I’ve learned nothing else it is that timing is everything. Timing is what got me captured by SEPH in the first place.”

Carmine swallowed and took his courage in hand. “Yeah, about that …”

I sighed, “You really want me to share don’t you?”

A little hurt he said, “Not if it’s going to upset you.”

I leaned into his embrace to let him know I wasn’t being nasty on purpose. “Of course it is going to upset me Carmine. But it’s more than that. To understand how I feel about SEPH and my time there you’ll have to know about the rest of my life. I feel … naked … and … and vulnerable … and not in a good way … to have you know about how things were … and are … in my head.”

Enlightenment dawned. “You think by knowing about your life before I came into it that somehow that will mess up what we have now.”

“Bingo.”

He shook his head. “Wrong. Absolutely not gonna happen.” I gave him a look that told him to be realistic. “I’m not saying that it might not reveal a few things but I’d rather know so I can avoid making mistakes that might drive you away.”

I closed my eyes for a moment before telling him, “You are way more complicated and deep than I thought you’d be. Why aren’t you just a mangy ol’ cowboy like you try and pretend being.”

He gave me a goofy grin, “Ah ha … you just found out my secret power. I disarm people with stupidity and …”

I elbowed him and he stopped abruptly with a kind of woofing noise as the air left him. “The last thing you are Carmine is stupid so stop playing at it with me.”

He rubbed the spot my elbow had connected with and admitted, “OK, I was laying it on a little thick. I just want you to not be so … so scared of what I might think or say or do. If you can accept me for my connection to Kilbrian, don’t you think I can accept you for being a victim of him?”

“I’m not a victim of your father in law. I told you I only glimpsed him the once … that was definitely enough for him however.” I tried to hide the wicked grin the memory brought but he saw it.

Cautiously he asked, “Why do I have a feeling there is a story there?”

Chapter 29

Sorry readers ... am out of town and have a hard time logging into my blogspot account from the access I have.

Chapter 29

Cold. Wet. Cold and wet. And ice. Ick.

At first it was just cold and a little wet; then the rain really started coming down. It was like that for a few hours then the rain got lighter but the situation actually got worse. Trees started coming down. We could hear them crash.

Not afraid but definitely unnerved I said, “Carmine?”

“Hmm,” he grunted where we were both huddled upstairs around the fireplace there. We were trying to keep too much ice from forming by keeping the temperature in the house above thirty-two degrees. And if we were going to have a fire we might as well take advantage of it. We were also eating the crayfish and didn’t want the smell of them down in our room. If I didn’t pay too much attention to what I was doing they tasted good; when I noticed what I was picking apart and putting in my mouth¸ not so much. That was the trick of staying alive as a street rat; you eat to survive, but it isn’t always a good thing to pay too close attention to the shape of what goes in your mouth.

Uncomfortable with the nostalgia the crayfish and cold weather was bringing to me I continued, “Ice storms were bad in the city but not like this. Ever so often a storm could bring down a building but it was usually snow weight rather than ice that did it. I assume what I am hearing are trees falling.” He grunted an affirmative. “Just how much damage is there going to be?”

Carmine shrugged and then thought better of doing it again when he let in a puff of cold air under our blanket. We burrowed down and our body heat eventually drove the cold back outside the covers again. Carmine muttered. “Don’t know. Ice storms usually prune out the weak branches and some trees so how bad is relative. It only takes a quarter inch of ice to bring some of them down and I’m pretty sure we are going to get more of that a quarter inch. There’s already a half inch on the rail of the back porch last I checked last. Good thing for us is that around here the trees are primarily average-to-strongly resistant types to ice storms. There are some that give way pretty easy but I’ve looked around and we don’t have too many that surround the cabin that would be a danger. Nothing growing directly over the cabin but them aspens around the trail head are gonna give us a mess of wood for the pile if it gets cold enough for them to explode.”

I looked at him and tried to decide if he was pulling my leg or not. “Excuse me? Exploding trees?”

He laughed at the look on my face. “Usually happens in the early part of the year around here; if it happens at all. First you have to have a day or two where it is warm enough to make sure the tree sap is fluid. Then you need a sudden hard freeze. What happens is the sap freezes so fast that it doesn’t give the tree an opportunity to expand slowly. Think of it like … well … do you remember what a balloon is?”

As it happened I did. “Yeah, I know what they are. I hate them. They used to give them to the little girls at SEPH to make them stop crying. Stupid things always popped and then they would just cry harder.”

“Ok,” he backtracked. I could see he hadn’t meant to trigger such a bad memory and I shook it off; it wasn’t Carmine’s fault that I had memories like that. “Anyway, if you blow a balloon up too fast or hard it will explode because weak spots can’t adjust fast enough. Or better, say you have a closed glass container of water and it freezes; it breaks the glass expanding. Well, same for some types of trees only it causes the trees to shatter and they make a sound like a shotgun going off.”

I was full of crayfish and warm from shared body heat and had started getting drowsy when Carmine said, “Let’s head on downstairs. Getting too cold up here.”

Not wanting to move because it would mean waking up and getting cold again I mumbled, “I thought we would need to keep the ice off up here.”

“Not going to work. It’s dropping too far too fast. This is a bad storm for so early in the season. We were just sleeping on the ground last night and the night before. I hope Jerry got his people some place tucked up good.”

“They had hours to get away.”

He nodded, “True, but when you are traveling with a group of any size you move a lot slower. And those RVs aren’t really made for driving on icy roads. The only reason they were up this way is for the hunt. Their winter camp is getting hunted over because a couple of groups have made that area their year-round home.”

“Can they do that? Just take over someone else’s territory?”

He sighed. “Some people don’t think of the land as territory. The land just is. What is on the land can belong to someone but the land itself can’t.”

Getting a little irritated I said, “You aren’t going to start doing that ‘white man vs. everyone else’ thing are you? Because I’m not stupid. Just because I don’t know if any of my ancestors are Native American doesn’t mean I don’t get the concept. I got that a little bit from a few of Jerry’s people, not many but there were a couple. It’s like they were trying to make me feel guilty for something that my ancestors possibly did generations and generations ago.”

“Don’t be so sensitive,” he told me. “Things are different out here is all. I understand what you’re saying and it isn’t just Indians that do that … we got people of all makes and models out here that have baggage left over from different historical events. The Japanese bring up the internment camps of WW2, the Chinese bring up being the slave labor that built the railroads, the Mexi’s talk about how their ancestors used to own most of the West, the blacks bring up slavery … you only got a small taste of it and I can just imagine the ones that you got it from and don’t worry Jerry normally keeps ‘em in check by having them take a look in the mirror ‘cause they’re not full breeds and asks ‘em which side of their ancestry are they going to hate the most. I used to have to listen to people whine and moan and blaming other people for their current situation all the time as sec boss. It’s personal choice and a lack of personal responsibility that puts folks where they are, not who gave birth to them … it’s what they do or don’t do with what they’re born with that tells the tale.”

He shook his head, irritated at getting off track. “Look, you’ve got a lot of stuff going on in the Wastelands I doubt you’ve ever faced back East and most of it has to do with the type of people that have chosen to live here as well as those that have don’t have a lot of other options. There are folks that claim they are anarchists but they aren’t, not really, not in the strictest meaning of the word. Then you’ve got the feudal warlord types that watched too many TeeVids as a kid; crazy as a drunk pig most of them but that don’t make them less dangerous, maybe only more so. Then you’ve got the types like Gill who are idealists but who keep making the same mistakes as everyone else did that got us in this situation to begin with. Plenty of variation in those groups too so it gets too hard to put a single label on them. Then you’ve got the groups that are from the Outlands and back East that want to bring the Wastelands back into the fold so to speak.”

Curious I asked, “What kind are you?”

“A lot closer to your type than I am to the other ones.”

Even more curious I asked, “And what exactly do you think my type is?”

“You want to be free to live without having to worry that someone is going to come snatch you and take what should only be yours to give. You just want to be left alone and not have to worry about looking over your shoulder every minute of the day.”

He was right. I just want to be able to live and sleep without fear for a change. I was beginning to wonder if that was even possible. I must have dozed again because I woke up laying back against Carmine who was leaning against a thick lodge pole beam that supported the loft overhead. His hands were starting to go places that they’d never been before. I woke disoriented and jerked away; he tightened his arm around me.

“Easy. It’s just me.”

That stopped me and I turned and gave him a look and asked, “And exactly who else did you think I thought it might be?”

He back pedaled but it was a little on the clumsy side. “I’m … er … well … you jumped. I … well … I guess it was a dumb thing to say.”

I turned back around, “Not dumb just … don’t think I’ve ever made it a habit to let anyone get this close. Just because I didn’t always win the battles with SEPH it doesn’t mean that I let just anyone get this … er … close.”

Thoughtfully he asked, “What about Asa?”

Irritated at being woken and my reaction to his touch I said, “I thought we already had this discussion.”

“Well, we started it I guess. Now, this time let’s really move downstairs. When we start this conversation I don’t want it to get interrupted.” He was right, it was time, maybe passed time.

It was pitch dark in the cabin except for the few glowing coals left in the upstairs fireplace; we had to feel our way down the basement steps. As soon as we closed the door I could feel that it was going to be warmer than staying upstairs would have been. I hung a hide “blanket” across the door to keep drafts out while Carmine got the fire going toasty.

When he had finished he said, “C’mere.”

I wanted to give him a look but to be honest his goofy expresison kinda made me want to laugh. Apparently that wasn’t the effect he was going for because he asked affronted, “What are you laughing about?”

I shook my head trying hard not to let it out. “I’m … I’m not … not laughing.”

“Well, if you aren’t laughing it looks like dinner didn’t set too well with you.”

That did it. I’m not a person to let my feelings show very easily … well, except perhaps for contempt and anger and such … but with Carmine and some privacy I could let my walls down. “I’m … I’m not … not laughing … really … really I’m not.”

“Humph,” was all he said but he didn’t seem to be that put out by it. Instead he said, “Are you going to come over here or do I come to you? Either way is fine with me, just … it’s a lot warmer up here on this bed where we can share the covers.”

I gave him a look like I was considering it and then I gave in and said to heck with it. “Move over and don’t hog the space.”

“Can I help it if you’red just so …”

Looking him dead in the eyes I said, “If you want to get very far with this particular conversation I would not start ragging on my size if I were you.”

Carmine started smiling and said, “Oh ho … like that is it?” Then as I was kicking off my boots and climbing in he got serious in a way he hadn’t before. “You are a tiny little thing. And don’t go getting your knickers in a knot Gurl. I do worry a little about … er … hurting you.”

Trying to avoid his concerns I told him, “If SEPH couldn’t break me with their fold, spindle, and mutilate practices I doubt seriously if you can hurt me … at least physically.”

He sighed and then pulled us both down under the covers where we lay until the shivers … at least from the cold … went away. “Gurl, half the time I don’t … look, you … you may know things but at the same time there are things in this life you haven’t experienced. It’s the difference between book learning and life learning.”

I laid my head on his shoulder and he groaned. It made me smile. He felt it and groaned again. “You are not helping,” he complained.

I sat up enough to look at him and for him to see me. “Carmine, I’m ready … or as ready as I’m ever going to be. Just promise me … when you get to the point that you don’t want to be around me anymore that you’ll be honest and tell me up front. I don’t want to have to guess like I did with Asa.”

“When?” He groaned and kicked off his own boots. “OK, this is gonna stop before we go any further … and I do intend on going further so you better listen to me. It isn’t ‘when.’ And it isn’t ‘if.’ I’ve waited too long to find someone like you and I don’t aim on turning loose. I will if you toss me out, I do have some pride; but, it ain’t gonna because I wanna leave.”

I was touched, really I was, but I’m a realist to the bone. “Asa said that too. And he meant it too. I just don’t want you feeling bad when … well … we’re friends and I don’t want you to think I’m going to hold you to some promise that is making you miserable.”

“You better.”

Confused I asked, “Better what?”

“Better hold me to my promise. ‘Cause that’s what people that make promises are supposed to do. I’ve waited long enough for you … or an idea of you … and here you are and if you think I’m so stupid as to let you slip through my fingers you got another think coming Gurl. I’m not going to hold you captive against your will but I wouldn’t mind if you let me pretend every so often if you’re in the right mood.”

He was nuts. Certifiable. On the other hand I could not ever remember wanting to laugh the way he made me want to laugh. Only I didn’t know for sure if I was supposed to be laughing. Because it wasn’t that I was laughing because he was crazy but because he made me … well … he made me feel good … happy. But I wasn’t going to say that out loud. No way was I going to jinx things. So instead I decided to show him.

He finally pulled back and tried to catch his breath. “Whoa, whoa, whoa Gurl. What’s the rush?”

“I thought that’s what you are after.”

He snorted, “Between you, me, and the animals skins what I want is gonna knock your socks off … but we are going to go get it slow. By the time I’m through you’ll be in no doubt as to my intentions … my permanent and serious intentions … as in you’ve got me lock, stock, and barrel forever and ever, amen kind of intentions. Got it?”

I suppose it is like learning to ride a bicycle. At first I really didn’t know what all the fuss was about. I mean I wanted to but it just didn’t seem like something that would turn people inside out like it did. I was satisfied that Carmine seemed to be getting so much from it. But the more often he … er … gave me bike riding lessons the more I realized it really could be something. And then kapow … there it was and I was just as enthusiastic to explore the new facet of our relationship as he was.

The storm seemed to rage day after day after day. Three days then a day of calm. Two days and then half a day of calm before starting up again and not letting up for four days. Two clear days and then it slammed back into us again for another three. Occasionally we would get a little stir crazy but we occupied ourselves with practical things like working the furs and hides, bringing in wood, and melting and boiling snow for water to cook with. When we weren’t occupied with the necessities of living Carmine and I occupied ourselves with what he called honeymooning.

“Is that what it’s called?” I asked, having reached the stage of being so comfortable with Carmine that I could actually try to tease a bit for fun.

“It’s what it’s called when it’s between you and me. Or … at least that’s what I’m calling it.”

Uh oh, my teasing backfired. It felt so strange to see this incredibly strong man go all needy and in need of reassurance. He didn’t do it much and the only time he seemed to do it was with things that concerned the him-and-I thing. It gave me a strange feeling, like I had a power that I’d never had before. But like with all power you have to know how to wield it or someone was going to get hurt.

I went over to him and sighed. “I think I goofed. I was just trying to … er … play with you. The same way you do with me. I think … no, I know … I’m still learning the rules with all of this. If you want to call it honeymooning then I’m fine with that; that’s what we’ll both call it. To me you and I are pack and this cabin is our nest … but it really doesn’t matter where our nest is, we’re still pack … together, you know … forever if that’s what you want.”

That made him smile and draw me to him and the kind of power that came into the room then was the shared kind. “You don’t use the same words but you mean the same thing I do. And yes, I mean forever.” There wasn’t a lot of noise after that for a while.

All things have to come to an end eventually and finally, after nearly three weeks, the storm went away and stayed away and the sun came out. There were several inches of snow on the ground and beneath the snow was a thick layer of ice that had never had the chance to melt off.

Carmine and I stared at the mess from the porch of the cabin but we didn’t stay out there long it was too cold. I asked, “OK, so what did you do in Gill’s settlement when it was like this?”

He snorted, “I was mostly busy trying to keep the stir crazies from tearing things up at the saloon and making sure the border patrols all got back safe in case they’d been stuck out in the storm. This was a hum dinger and if it got as far as Gill’s I can guarantee that he’s got his hands full at the moment.”

I looked but didn’t see any signs of satisfaction at the idea. It made me realize something that I had only vaguely been thinking. “You really didn’t like leaving the settlement did you?”

“Huh?” He looked at me and then frowned, obviously chagrined. “Let’s just say I didn’t like leaving under the circumstances that I left under. But the way things were moving it would have happened … would have had to happen … one way or the other. Gill and I were fighting too much and his pride couldn’t handle the fact that I was no longer his devoted servant. It was like if I didn’t agree with him totally I was being totally disloyal. It was getting to be too much for me to stomach; I’ve got my pride the same as any other man. As far as the settlement goes, with any changeover there will be trouble but I have a feeling they’ll have more trouble than they expect. I had to bust heads on occasion but not as often as people said, certainly not as often as this new regime seems to want to. Most folks have some sense if you can talk them into using it but I don’t know if the new ones will know that or not. And I kept the freeloaders and takers from overwhelming the community. Kept the patrol groups sharp so that when we did have an incursion we handled it swiftly and with finality. Can’t say if it was me that I would trust the guys that Gill is letting in.”

Curious I asked, “Do you ever see yourself going back? Letting them know you are alive? Trying to pick up where you left off?”

He sighed and thought about it. “Part of me does but … I think I’ve found what I want right here. Maybe not here, here … if we are going to stay long term we need to find some place where we can grow some crops … but here as in with you. I don’t like to ever say never – it’ll bite you on the backside every time – but I can’t envision too many scenarios that would have me going back to Gill and his group.”

I looked at him and saw he was serious. I told him, “Good. They were starting to feed on themselves – like a pack with a weak leader and no direction. Too much infighting and too much … I don’t know Carmine. I just don’t think it is a healthy place to be and I’m glad I don’t have to follow you back into it.”

That gave him pause, that I’d follow him even against my personal wishes. “What about Asa?”

I shrugged. “What about him? Asa chose his path. Maybe he and I can be open friends again – I don’t hold anything against him no matter how it ended – but I don’t go looking to get hurt any more than I can help it. Asa made his choice and that was Violet; the rest of it isn’t any of my business. He’ll either deal with his demons or not. For the rest of it … that’s none of my business either unless you going back makes it my business.” Wondering I asked, “Did any of that make any sense?”

He chuffed. “Yeah. Yeah it did … and I’ll get over bringing up and testing the waters where Asa is concerned. Just give me some time.”

“I didn’t say anything about that.”

“I know you didn’t but you’ve thought it … and so have I. I feel like an idiot boy every time I do but can’t seem to stop myself. The … the two of you could have been good together. You were and I was jealous as … well, it was bad and I acted like an ass to hide it.”

Turning from the pot of soup that we had been cooking I looked at Carmine and said, “Maybe, but at the same time that’s why you brought me the horse and that’s why you were so bent I got beat up wasn’t it? I didn’t understand what your game was … and part of me wishes you had … had tried to get my attention sooner. Maybe with more options I wouldn’t have jumped at Asa’s offer so fast. Be that as it may, Asa and I didn’t turn out that too well and that’s just the way it is. Mostly it was Asa but maybe some of it was me too. I … I think I tried to fix him or be with him to fix him. I could have left it alone and accepted him the way he was but it always bothered me that he seemed so sure in most of his life except in that one area. I thought maybe, since I survived SEPH and all they did to me, that I could help me. My mistake. It was the wrong reason to be with him. And I was too full of myself to see it until it was too late and he was so miserable he couldn’t even stand to be around me enough to tell me the truth.”

Carmine growled, “Last I saw, Asa was a grown man. He could have …”

I leaned over and kissed him, catching him completely off guard because it wasn’t something I normally did. “Over and done with and in the past. You asked, so I explained, but that’s all it is Carmine; a piece of my past that needs to stay in the past. Digging up bones rarely brings anything good. Asa and I both made some mistakes. I’m owning up to mine and this time I made a flaming brilliant choice about who I’m with. He’s a terrific person who I know I can trust with my back … and my front.”

Carmine gave me a bit of a stupefied look and asked, “Is that a fact?”

“A grade A gold one.”

“Well now, I do believe you are brilliant at that.” We both smiled and soon our dinner was dished up into a couple of large, mismatched mugs I had found and used as soup bowls.

Carmine mentioned, “Good thing you found and dried what you could before you got sick. If we had to depend on what was in my supplies alone we’d be hurting before spring got here. Between your clumsy elk and then the buffalo, elk, and mulie we’ll be set for dried meat as long as we’re cautious and we can try and bring in fresh to add to it … we’ll need the hides anyway.”

I shrugged. “I didn’t know you would be coming.” After a pause I told him, “I think Some One was looking out for me again when you did happen along. There’s no telling what would have happened if you hadn’t found me when you did.”

Carmine shuddered, “Don’t remind me. You coulda been dead twice over … shoulda been after that cat got you.”

I shrugged again. “Almost got me. Almost doesn’t count for much in this life. SEPH almost made my worst nightmares come true … but they didn’t. I think I would rather be dead than walking the path they had wanted for me.”

Thoughtfully Carmine said, “I … I haven’t teased you into telling me. I still won’t if you don’t want to. But … but if you do trust me I wish you would tell me.”

Not sure I wanted to go into it I asked, “Why?”

He sighed and looked into the flames. “I’ve had my own run in with them people … or those like them … but it was years ago, before it got the acronym SEPH. Had to do with my first wife. Her father was … well … he was a doctor and looked down his nose at me for a lot of reasons. His daughter …” He scrubbed his face with his hands. “Been a long time since I thought of all this.”

I leaned against him and pulled the buffalo hide around us. “Carmine, if it bothers you that much why bring it up again?”

He looked at me and I was reminded in a way I wasn’t too often that he had ten years or so of life experience on me. “Because sometimes there is profit in digging up bones.” He sighed. “Let me hold you while I get this off my chest. Next to Gill you’ll be the only one that knows the whole story. I’d rather tell you now than let it sneak up on me down the road some place and have you wondering why I kept it from you, having you wondering why I never trusted you enough to tell you.”

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chapter 28

Chapter 28

Shivering woke me but it wasn’t my own. “Carmine?”

“We are not sleeping on this ground again,” he muttered through teeth gritted against another round of shivering.

We both got up and took care of nature but I felt bleary-eyed and sore. Nothing I hadn’t felt before or worse but it still made me want to go curl up in the cabin and rest. Carmine must have felt the same way because he said, “I’m gonna check and see if our part of the dried meat is ready; if it is I’ll carry it to the cabin and store it if you want to finish up what you were doing last night.”

I nodded. I had helped to rack the bull buffalo hide on a big eight-foot by eight-foot frame. We’d left the hair on it since we wanted it for a bed covering this winter. Ma-di, the wife of the pair of tanners, told me for us it was a good choice and she was glad to have to the two cow hides as they needed them for softer projects.

“Save the hair from the areas you trim off. The hair is dead useful. You can stuff pillows or make mattresses if you can collect enough. You can spin and then braid it into a rope strong enough for a lariat. And if you can spin and weave it can be made into a kind of fabric or turned into something called linsey-woolsey. We always have the children collect the buffalo hair when we find where they have been scratching.”

Hauling the dried meat wasn’t a problem, it was bulky but light and Carmine and I just hauled it away on our backs; that buffalo hide and the elk and deer hides was another matter. First off there was the issue that Ma-di and her husband needed their frame back. Carmine and I spent a couple of hours cutting straight, sapling trees, trimming them, and then hauling them inside the cabin. We built our own frame and then leaned it against the loft area. Next came the fun part of taking the buffalo hide off of Ma¬¬-di’s frame, hauling the hide to the cabin, and then re-lacing it to the new frame. I climbed up and down the loft ladder so many times that I started coughing again and Carmine called a halt.

“You need to drink some tea.”

Shaking my head, “I need to get this finished.”

“Gurl …”

“Carmine, it’s weird having you look after me … kinda … kinda nice … but still a little weird. I’m not used to it. I’m not trying to … to be …”

Carmine smiled, “Stop apologizing for being who you are. I still want you to come down and drink a cup of this tea. I’ll pull and lace that thing – I’ve done it before – and then when you’ve finished this then you can go back to working yourself to death. Deal?”

He made me want to smile which just added to the weirdness factor. “Deal.”

I think we were all in a rush. We could all sense the weather change coming. Carmine and I brought the elk and deer hide up to the cabin but we left them rolled up. I would have to soak them and start all over but at least all of the flesh was off. While I brought in all of my other hides and furs to hang inside the cabin – it was starting to look like taxidermy hell in there – Carmine brought wood inside so we wouldn’t have to go out in any bad weather. “This place needs a lean to instead of just that little shed off to the side. Matter of fact there’s a couple of things this place needs, starting with some chairs to go with that table we brought back; a bench if nothing else.”

I shrugged, “Don’t you think we have enough work without making more?”

“Hmph. I’ll need something to keep me busy when we get snowed in. You can play with your furs and hides and whatever else but what am I going to do?”

Then he looked at me and he went kind of still. When I figured out where his imagination had gone off to my stomach started to feel all strange and I felt the heat in my face. Nothing was said but there was an understanding between us and the word “soon” floated around making us hyper aware and sensitive.

We both went outside to see if Jerry’s group needed anything to help them along and we were both – or at least I was – surprised to see that their camp was broken down and everything was nearly all packed.

Jerry and Uncle Jack came over when they saw us. “I was just coming to find you Brother. You feel the change?”

Carmine nodded, “Rain is coming.”

“Yeah. We need to be down off this mountain road before it starts which means leaving now.”

There was a lot of hugs and back pounding and I backed up hoping they wouldn’t pull me into it. U-gu-gu just appeared behind me and said, “Carmine is a good hunter and you are a good homemaker. You need him and he needs you. Take him into your Clan and keep him. May you both be blessed by Yahweh and may your Clan grow in number and strength.”

I couldn’t remember ever having been blessed before … blessed out, yes; blessed as in being given a blessing, no. Carmine came over and smiled. “I don’t plan on giving her any reason to toss my belongings into the yard.”

U-gu-gu nodded and said, “See you don’t. It would be a bad day indeed for both our clans.” The dignified old man limped over to one of the RVs and was helped up the stairs by a young boy that even from the distance I was could see he idolized him.

We watched the caravan pull out. I looked at Carmine’s face and he was sad and it made me wonder if he had chosen to stay at the cabin for the wrong reasons. “Carmine …”

He snapped out of it fast enough and it was like he read my mind. He sighed, “I like to visit with family but I’m too Alpha of a wolf to live under Jerry and Uncle Jack’s roof for long. Although by rights it really belongs to Sally and Ma-di.”

“Huh?”

He smiled. “The old ways of Grandfather and Sally’s mother is that things run matrilineal … through the female line of the family.”

“I know what it means … I just have a hard time seeing you as OK with that.”

He shrugged. “Actually doesn’t bother me. Male and female had their own roles and there wasn’t a whole lot of overlap. Didn’t matter whose name stuff was in so long as both people knew that the goal was forever. My great grandparents lived their whole lives that way with no problem. It was their son and then his son¸my father¸ that couldn’t live with things that way and married outside of the Nation. Sally’s first husband was native but Jack is a half-blood. Jack’s first wife was white which is why Ma-di is so light skinned.”

“Ma-di is Jack’s daughter? I didn’t know that.”

“They were estranged for a while because Ma-di’s mother couldn’t live the traditional way her mother in law wanted her to. During the Outbreak Jack gathered his children together and Sally gathered hers … Jack’s wife had divorced him and he doesn’t talk about her much – neither does Ma-di so I’m not sure if she lives or not. Sally’s husband died and she and Jack paired up. U-gu-gu actually is the one who played matchmaker. Jack is a techie and is almost as good as Asa though years older as you can see. Jerry liked him right off the bat but two of Jerry’s sisters, not so much; they thought their mother was rushing into things and on top of it they thought Jack was beneath her. They started their own family group and have a base camp not too far from Jerry’s so they generally get together in the winters. There was another brother but he died in the war. Nearly everyone in Jerry’s group is related by blood or by marriage.”

I asked a question that had been bothering me almost from the beginning. “I … look, it isn’t any of my business but where did all of the really young children come from?”

“Bothered you?”

“Not bothered exactly … just … you hardly see that many little kids all in one location. In the cities they are taken away and live in crèches … sort of like orphanages I guess only really taken care of. Even of the Fertiles, being fertile doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you are going to be permitted to keep the babies you have.”

He looked like he was going to say something, stopped, and then said, “I wouldn’t mind a rug rat or two … adoption is a lot more common out here than it is back East where neither one of us would likely qualify. There’s women that do that out here as a living.”

“They … they … there are … sur … sur … surrogates … here?”

I nearly felt in a panic. It was like my secret was out and I was in danger again. “I don’t know if I would call it that exactly. These women choose it. And medicos like Sally try and track the babies so that we don’t wind up with a lot of problems down the road of brother and sister marrying. But hey, no need to hyperventilate, if you don’t like the idea of kids …”

“The kids aren’t the problem though I’m not too sure anyone would want me for a mother … it’s … it’s the idea of not being given a choice to say no.”

“Hey, don’t freak on me sweetheart. We don’t have to adopt.”

“Not me … us … I mean the surrogates. It’s not right to make someone do that.”

He finally understood. “No Gurl, they do it because they want to, not because they are being pressured to.”

I looked at him and then asked, “No harvesters or SEPH or anything like that?”

“Nope. They don’t live on every street corner, nor in every town … but I know a couple.”

It still made me uncomfortable but I nodded. “OK, but only if it is completely voluntary for the woman involved. No egg stealing or baby stealing or anything like that.”

He gave me a look and I said, “You really hate SEPH don’t you.”

I growled, “And everything that stand for. It’s wrong and stupid. They are looking for some genetic map to Utopia and it doesn’t exist because DNA is just a vessel that holds the soul, it isn’t the soul itself.”

I was immediately embarrassed when I saw Carmine’s eyebrows shoot up into his hairline. “Whoa … that sounded educated.”

“Don’t. It’s not funny. I know I’m a street rat …”

“Nope. You’re my Saloli and I’ve teased you enough … and kept you out in this cold. And what is that you’re doing to your hands?”

“Wrapping them in strips of fabric. I’ll make some mittens when the furs are finished.”

He looked aggravated. “I should have thought. You don’t have any gloves. Here, take mine.”

I shook my head refusing. “They’d just fall off. Besides this way I can feel to pick up acorns.”

“What’s that got to do with … wait, what do you mean pick up acorns.”

“Bina showed me how to use acorns and I wanted to gather baskets of them before the rain starts.”

“Don’t suppose I can talk you out of it.”

I looked at him and he laughed. “Well, sounds like a fine idea even if it is getting cold as blue blazes. Not much time for anything else anyway and we can sit in front of the fire and crack what we need as we need them. Can store them up in the loft in baskets as soon as we dry them off. I think I know where we can get hickory nuts at the same time and check the fish trap and I might have a surprise for you. The boys mentioned it while we were on the hunt and I set a trap out yesterday before coming back from the hunt.”

*****

Carmine wound up using the solar wagon to help us transport our finds back to the cabin before it got dark. We found not just hickory but black walnuts that the squirrels had somehow overlooked.

“It wasn’t too far from here that the cat and I went into the river,” I reminded Carmine.

“Which probably explains why there’s still nuts on these trees.”

I was trying to figure out the connection when he explained what he meant. “Big cat needs lots of food. I can’t say for sure but I bet the cat had exhausted most of the small prey in this vicinity and when you came along it was too good of an opportunity for the beast to turn away from.”

“Don’t care,” I muttered. “Just don’t want it to happen again.”

My coughing became increasingly aggravating and because of that I began to feel irritable. Carmine noticed and said, “OK, this is enough. We’ll be cracking nuts and acorns from now ‘til doomsday as it is. Let’s check the trap line and then head back to the cabin to unload.”

The trap line caught three coyotes. Carmine wasn’t happy. “This was not what I was after.” He sighed again. “Well, I’ll make … whoa … will you look at that.”

“What is it … an antelope?”

“Pronghorn. Now we know what the coyote were after. This is someone’s old basement or root cellar. I’ve been through this area nearly every day and never even saw this.” “This” was a hole in the ground. The pronghorn fell in when it collapsed.

Carmine climbed down and came out with the pronghorn. He looked at me and asked, “You up for doing another hide?”

“Sure, why not?” I smiled. Some One was watching out for us again.

“This one isn’t very big … a juvenile … which is probably why it got caught. Usually they are more sure-footed. And there’s some jars and stuff down in here, old ones from the look of it and empty thank good ness. Give me something and I’ll try and bring out what I can. Another day we’ll come back and dig it out more and see what we can find.”

We couldn’t take the wagon near the river – too many trees in the way – so we parked and walked. “Carmine! Are you crazy?! That water is cold!”

“Yes Granny,” he chuffed.

It wasn’t funny. He was balanced on the bank and a couple of stones and pulling something up out of the water. “Eureka!”

I asked him, “What are you shouting Eureka for? You didn’t actually find gold with that contraption did you?”

So I was a little snarky and wasn’t paying a lot of attention. I turned around and the cage was right at my face and all I could see were little monsters. I yelped and just about climbed the hood of the wagon until I realized what he was holding. “Little lobsters?”

“Rusty crayfish. The boys found some yesterday and were using them to bait some fish traps but these are good all on their own. We’ll boil them for dinner and with some antelope steaks have us a feast. I don’t know about you but I’ve had just about all of the buffalo I can stand for a day or two; was hoping for a rabbit or two but what we’ve got is nothing to sneeze at or take for granted. This is probably the last time we’ll get to do this so easily if the weather is really going to turn sour on us.”

And the weather was definitely turning sour. We hurried back to the cabin and had just taken the last of the nuts and acorns into the cabin when I felt the first wet drop. “Here it comes Carmine.”