Carmine smirked and said, “Just give it up Gurl. Everyone around here has had to suffer the kindess of Gill’s family at least once. But make no mistake, they’ll kick your backside if they think you are a threat to their community. And you don’t want to know what I’ll do to you if you mess with Gill and his family. Just watch you p’s and q’s.”
Carmine reminded me of what my life really was. I had been letting myself equate freedom with friendship. It wasn’t. I did need to “watch my p’s and q’s.” For one I didn’t know these people from Adam. I had no idea what kind of burden their “thanking me” was going to bring to bear on my plans. For two, I had no idea what Asa meant by he wasn’t done with me. That implied he wanted something or expected something from me. For three, this whole “friendliness” thing was creeping me out. How many different ways does a person have to say they don’t want friends? Perhaps it was past time I returned to silence. I told myself, just get through this, let them sate their curiosity and then I could be on my way. It was easier to say it than do it.
At SEPH it had been every man for themselves … or woman, female, girl, whatever; I’m sure it was the same at the facilities that held the males and possibly worse because of the hormonal drive of the male to pass along their DNA. We were always being played off of one another. The common wisdom was that competition built character and made us stronger. And it did to a certain extent, but I’m pretty sure some of the staff just got off on seeing us fight and claw for a piece of anything too.
Rosie ran ahead to tell her sisters leaving me with her mother. “My name is Carlene. Is … is your name really Gurl?”
“Rob and I want to thank you for saving our daughter.”
I wanted to just shrug it off but I couldn’t. “I don’t know why people keep saying that. Asa is the one that saved her. I just happened to cross their paths twice.”
“Asa said you would say as much.”
I wanted to growl what the heck business was it of Asa’s what I said and what I didn’t. Instead I remained silent.
“Hmmm. I heard you yell … uh … tell Asa that you’ve been on your own for ten years. You don’t look old enough to have been on your own that long.”
I replied with as few words as possible. “Outbreak. Street Rat.”
Yeah. I was curious to see what she would make of that.
“So, how old are you?”
“They say I’m seventeen. I don’t know for sure.”
Another pause. “You were quite young when your parents … family …”
She was fishing and I wasn’t biting. “All Outbreak Orphans that became street rats were young. If they were old enough they joined the adult gangs or were drafted by the military. I thought that was common knowledge.”
Looking disturbed she admitted, “Well, yes … yes of course it is. We aren’t completely out of the loop out here in the Wastelands. I’ve just never met a real street … er …”
I shrugged again. “Street Rat. That’s what I am and I’m not ashamed of it so stop worrying you’re going to be rude or hurt my feelings. Better to call a person or thing what it is.”
“Hmmm … well this isn’t the city. You don’t have to be a street rat here.”
“Being a street rat isn’t my job Carlene or a hobby that I can decide to do or not do. A street rat isn’t just what I do it is who I am.”
Kindly she tried to offer, “People escape to the Wastelands to get away from who and what they are all the time.”
“I came to the Wastelands not to escape what I am but so that I could be free to be what I am.”
I’m not sure what she would have said to that because we’d arrived in front of a log home that looked like some picture out of the old vacation brochures you could find online if you looked. There were several girls in the yard all older than Rosie and a couple of those were older than me as well.
Rosie said, “This is Violet, she’s the oldest.” A young woman in her early twenties stood her ground like she was prepared to defend her family to the death. I wasn’t sure if that was her normal self or if she viewed me as some kind of threat. Rosie added, “You gotta show her your hair. Hers stays as flat as a pancake no matter what she does to it.”
Violet was not pleased and neither was I but I hid it rather than hiss at Rosie to stop being a brat like a couple of her sisters did. The next girl down was Lily, she was older than I am too and even though Rosie said Violet was oldest I would have pegged Lily and the sister named Jasmine to be the oldest two. Iris and Daisy were just a little younger than me then there was a gap of years before Rosie who turned out to be twelve though I would have never guessed her to be that old.
“There’s two brothers too. Ash is a year older than Violet and he’s married and has a place of his own. He works with Uncle Carmine. Rowan is my twin and he works with Daddy at the clinic.”
I had a hard time computing that. Of all the things I’d never thought about Rosie having a twin. Carlene broke in, “Girls, we’re going to take our meal over to your Uncle Gill’s place so everyone grab something and come on.”
Rosie volunteered me to push a wheelbarrow of full of bread and table linens. I could tell that Rosie was just about to jump in with the bread when Violet snapped, “Rosie! Don’t you dare!”
For the first time I saw Rosie be less that nice. The bottom lip came out and she stuck her tongue out at Violet and then stomped off to be with her mother where she promptly went back to a good mood. Violet dropped back to walk with me and said defensively, “Rosie is … a little different.”
I shrugged and said, “Nothing wrong with being different.”
When Violet saw that I meant exactly what I said she relaxed. “You haven’t asked, most people do.”
“What made her that way, or are you assuming that it is living here in the Wastelands that did it.”
I shrugged. “Either way it’s none of my business.”
That took the wind out of her sails. After a second she said, “When Rosie and Rowan were six there was an Outbreak epidemic. Everybody in the house caught it. We had a brother named Linden that died and when Rosie got well … she never really was the same. Dad says the fever did something to her brain.”
I shrugged again. “Like I said, nothing wrong with being different and it’s none of my business anyway. Rosie is Rosie.”
Violet didn’t know what to make of me and I could tell the other girls didn’t either because they had been listening in and then giving each other silent but speaking looks. I pushed the wheelbarrow over and then stood back because everyone but me seemed to know what they were doing. After Rosie had done her part she came over to me and pulled me to a bucket and said, “We wash up here. Eating with dirty hands will make you sick.”
It sounded like something her father had drilled into her. As I was finishing Asa, Carmine, and a few other men came around the corner. I recognized Rob who said, “I’m starved!”
There was a teenage boy with him and I thought it might be Rowan. I had thought right when Rosie went over and dragged him to an introduction. Rosie said, “This is Rowan. He’s my best brother!”
One of the young men said, “Hey! What about me Pipsqueak!”
I realized that would be Ash. A man a little older than Rob stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Gill, I’ve been getting an earful about you young lady. You certainly turned Asa inside out.”
I sensed steel under the surface of his genial face. He was reserving judgment but he wouldn’t reserve it for long because he was the leader and had to make the hard choices. I sensed I could either prove I wasn’t a threat or I could hit the road. He’d let me choose which but I would have to choose soon.
Asa said, “Hah! At least you didn’t disappear again.”
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I didn’t disappear the first time. I walked slowly and calmly down the road and out to get some experience before it gets cold.”
Shaking his head he repeated his earlier opinion. “You shouldn’t have just taken off like that.”
“I don’t tell you how to fix that junk everyone says you fix and you don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t do.” I turned away from him and left him with his mouth open. Unfortunately when I turned I found everyone standing there staring at us like we were a piece of performance art. It made me want to freeze up and leave.
Carmine laughed and said, “Butcher, stop putting your foot in it. This one doesn’t need molly coddling and won’t appreciate it if you try.” It was neither compliment nor insult and I wouldn’t have cared either way; he was telling the truth. He looked at me and said, “After lunch. I’m serious now. I wanna see that rubber band of yours.”
Well that necessitated an explanation for those that hadn’t heard and while it took place Carlene directed us to sit. Before the plates were filled Gill caught me by surprise and said Grace over the meal. Rosie, as boundary-less as always, spotted my surprise before I could hide it and asked, “Don’t your family say Grace?”
Rowan groaned and tried to elbow his sister but I decided to answer her … because frankly if I didn’t I wasn’t sure where she would take the questions next. “I don’t have a family. I think we might have when they were alive but I can’t remember for sure.”
“You … you don’t have a family?” she asked like it was the most tragic thing in the world.
With a finality that even Rosie could understand I said, “No.”
Gill, Rob, and Carmine pelted me with questions all during the meal about what it was like in the Outlands and in the cities. “I can tell you what it was like in the inner city where I was but anything else I said would just be a repeat of what I saw on the occasional Tee-Vid display I saw.”
They seemed content with that so I told them about the inner city. “But don’t count on it being like that now. They bagged and tagged all the street people to reclaim the area for resettlement.”
Rowan asked, “Is that what you’re running from? Being … er … bagged and tagged?”
I hadn’t planned on getting involved with these people so I hadn’t made up a cover story of any depth. I decided it was better to stay as close to the truth as possible. As I hesitated Violet said, “Maybe she doesn’t want to talk about it Ro.”
I shook my head, “It’s not that. I’m not sure how to explain it. You people are too nice, you wouldn’t understand.”
It was Carmine that sat back in his chair and said, “Well I’m not nice. Explain it to me.” So I did.
“There was no chance to escape. They gas entire blocks when they are ready to expand and you never know which direction that is going to be. I went to sleep one night and woke up already bagged and tagged. They shipped me off to what amounts to a re-education facility. I either performed to their satisfaction or I was … persuaded to do better next time; punitive work, lost meals, tasers, gas, drugs, climate control, sleep and sensory deprivation, corporal punishments, all the typical stuff. Some street people can conform to that and some can’t. And some of us, we bide our time. I waited until the opportunity to escape presented itself and that’s what I did.”
Rowan asked, “I still don’t understand. Why were they doing those things to you?”
“Because they have a cause they believe in. They think that people fit into genetic profiles; that your genetics is what determines your value to society because it determines what you can do for society. They control the masses by telling them that something makes them more or less valuable than the person next to them and that no one can change that, it’s a given from before birth. You are born with a label and can never be more than that label implies. So it isn’t your fault if you are less than the guy next to you, it just is and you have to learn to live with that. To fight the label you are born with is to fight society. And society is their all-consuming god; and the only thing anyone can do is serve their god. The only way to express your humanity is to give it up and serve society. The individual means nothing to them.”
It was Gill that said, “And that is why they are doomed to fail and why we have to be ready to pick up the pieces when they do. If the individual means nothing then there is no such thing as individual responsibility. The problem is that individual and personal responsibility is what this country was founded on and what made it great. People were allowed – encouraged – to rise above whatever situation they found themselves in. Birth, wealth, or anything else means nothing compared with doing the best you can with what you have; not sitting around for society to take care of you and give you something.”
The talk shifted for a moment to discuss another settlement that was coming together and whether they would follow the Constitution or whether they were going to be run by a war lord.
The sister named Lily asked, “Are they like the last one that was trying to recruit all the non-sterile young people?”
That caught my attention but I pretended I was busy listening to Rosie prattle. Violet said, “Geez Lily, will you drop it about that already?”
“Yeah, well you don’t have to put up with strange guys trying to come around to sniff at your all the time. You aren’t the one that always has to walk around with a bodyguard because someone has tried to steal you so many times. You aren’t the one that gets stuck at home …”
It was obviously an old argument but one that Violet tried to pretend didn’t hurt. Carlene tried to step in but Lily added, “Violet doesn’t have the burden of it all.”
I said, “And you don’t have to, it’s up to you what to do with your body. And in case your dad hasn’t gotten around to teaching you basic biology, being a Fertile doesn’t guarantee that you can carry a pregnancy to term and being a Sterile doesn’t mean you can’t have a baby. There’s in vitro, egg harvesting, and all that other stuff they are developing so it is more widely available. As a matter of fact, even being Fertile is no guarantee that SEPH won’t just ship you off to the Egg House. If you’re too big a pain in the butt, or your genetic profile isn’t high enough, or they don’t think you’ll carry to term, they’ll simply dope you with hormones and harvest your eggs and implant them in Sterile women after they’ve been fertilized.”
Rob asked with deep interest, “They’ve reached that stage of production? They’re implanting Steriles now?”
I shrugged, “Willing or unwilling. If your profile gets pulled they’ll requisition you from general population and repurpose your job description. Men are required to … er … participate in the program too. They’re using what they call Intentional Selection rather than natural selection to get the population back to full fertility while at the same time making it large enough and diverse enough so that the gene pool won’t collapse in one or two generations. Continuation of the species is their stated goal.”
Rob sighed, apparently deeply disappointed with the human race in general, and told me, “Sounds like some of the problems we have even here in the Wasteland with some of the settlements. Fertiles are paired up until a baby is conceived and then after it is born the couples with no real choice in the matter if they wish to keep their children instead of having them raised by someone else chosen by the elders of the community.”
After a moment the sister named Jasmine turned to me and said, “You don’t sound like any street rat I’ve ever heard. I’ve seen them on a few video loops the communication people have recorded – you sound educated.”
“And most people that I’ve met think all people who live in the Wastelands are corrupted and too vicious and ignorant to live in polite society. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve had about my fill of people.” I looked at Rosie and said, “Not everyone is like Asa. There are bad people in the world and they want to take your freedom from you. To keep your freedom you need to treat it with respect. And respect the threats to your freedom.” When she acted like she didn’t understand what I was saying I told her, “Don’t act like a brat and mind the ones that are set to look after you.” That she understood because she wrinkled her nose.
To Asa I said, “I don’t know why you were so worried about something eating me. You’re not responsible for me, I am. But now you can see I’m OK so stop wasting the energy.”
I was walking away but then I stopped and turned around. “Carmine, it is going to take me most of the rest of the day to get back to where I meant to explore but I guess I can spare a few minutes to show you the slingshot.”
Carmine shook his head and mumbled something about “cussed independent girl children” but he did direct me to a nearby area open enough for me to do some shooting without worrying that I was going to break something. I wasn’t showing off exactly but demonstrating for Carmine - and Asa, Gill, Ash, and Rowan that had silently followed - did give me the opportunity to test myself and make a point.
I told him when I was finished, “A lot depends on the ammunition and your experience with the slingshot you’re using. I’ve being using rocks and haven’t done half bad but in the city there was also bits of metal like nuts, ball bearings, that sort of thing that that can do some serious damage.”
“Kill people?” Carmine asked.
I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes.” It was a silent acknowledgement that I had done just that and that I would do it again if necessary.
He nodded and I told them, “I’ve gotta go.”
Asa stopped me and asked, “Why?”
“Why do you have to go?”
“Because I do. Why do you gotta fix things?”
“Because it’s what I do.”
“But I’m curious.”
Carmine laughed and said, “Lord Gurl, now you gotta run. Asa getting curious about something is about as dangerous at that peashooter of yours. When he takes aim he don’t miss.”
Asa told him irritably, “You’re not helping.”
Carmine said, “Didn’t know I was supposed to. You saying you need help getting women now?”
The last thing I was interested in becoming was a topic of conversation so I waved to Gill and started walking. I was just into the tree line when Asa caught up and I was close to losing patience with him.