Thursday, October 13, 2011

Chapter 21

Chapter 21

“I don’t like dogs very much but I’m pretty sure I don’t like cats now either. Especially big cats with big teeth. Little Red Riding Hood should have had a big cat in it, not a wolf.”

“Is that a fact,” the man chuffed in a half chuckle. “Here, let’s get some more broth into you.”

“Don’t throw away my rose hip tea! I don’t have it to waste!!”

“Easy now, just rest easy. You already drank it. Remember? Wouldn’t until I put honey in it like you’re the flaming Queen of Sheba. And where you got honey from is just one of a long list of questions you’re going to answer when you get better.”

“No I won’t, don’t like to talk.”

He snorted. “For someone who don’t like to talk you sure been doing a lot of it.”

I remember trying to turn away, upset that I was talking to this figment of my imagination. I might be crazy, but I still had to be me.

“Now, now … don’t go doing that. I like to hear you talk, even if I can’t put half of what you say into any kind of reasonable order.”

Another time I woke I was so cold I felt like I could barely breathe. “Now hold still. I’m not going to hurt you or take advantage of you. Be still now I said. Yeah, that’s right. Here, now let me hold you. Better?”

There was a figment in my bed. But it was a warm figment so I decided to ignore the obvious illogic of it all. It seemed to take forever but I finally stopped shivering long enough to go to sleep.

Next time I came to myself I was already awake and fighting with the figment which seemed really bizarre. “No!”

“Why in the Sam Hill have you gone so all fired stubborn all of a sudden? Now come on Saloli, drink this broth or … or I’ll sing.”

It was such a strange threat that it stopped any argument I was going to make. “That is a dumb thing to say.”

“Not if you’d ever heard me sing.”

I thought that one through, or at least as far as my foggy brain would let me, and said, “I’m not Rosie. Don’t treat me like a child.”

“Then don’t put me in a position of having to treat you like one to get you to use your common sense. A bit of me has died twice over because of you, I ain’t going down for a third time. You’re getting better if I have to drag you kicking and screaming back to the land of the living. Now drink this dat burn broth or I’ll force feed it to you.”

For the first time I started to really register his presence. His words were ferocious but the tone he used was gentle. On the other hand I knew him well enough to take him at his word so I made the choice to comply with his demand. Being force fed in my experience was messy and I had no desire to have to get up and change my shirt as cold as it was.

Which led me to trying to figure out where the shirt I had on had come from and what it was doing on me. Too late, the warm broth had done its work and I was asleep again.

I eventually woke once again, but this time to the sensation of prickles against my forehead. “Ugh.”

He must not have been hard asleep because he jumped a little and mumbled, “Thirsty?”

“No. Move your prickles, they itch.”

He eased me back and sat up and I groaned as his body heat was taken away. He wasn’t gone long, in fact he wasn’t really gone at all; he’d just reached over to turn on a lamp that nearly blinded me.

“Where did that thing come from?” I asked squinting at the brightness.

“My gear. Let’s have a look … yep, looks like you’re really awake this time. How you feeling Saloli?”

Focusing on a word that made no sense to my ears I asked, “What’s … what’s that you called me?”

“Squirrel.”

“Why … why are you calling me squirrel?”

“Don’t know, just seems to fit. I think you’re going to sit still in one place but go to look and you’ve scurried someplace else. You sit and bark at me and just when I think you’re within reach, you’re gone and nowhere to be seen.”

“Oh.” I sat for a minute absorbing that while he watched me. “Are you really here Carmine or am I cracked?”

He gave a familiar chuff that I must have heard a hundred times while I was fever-ridden. “Well, if you was cracked I’d most likely tell you I was real anyway but you aren’t cracked so if I tell you I’m real will you believe me?”

Irritated I told him, “If you are going to make me think that hard I’m going back to sleep.”

His chuff turned into a chuckle and I felt him gently sitting me up and then fluffing something behind me so I wasn’t against cold the hard wood of the wall that served as the head board of the bed. “You got a nice little set up here Gurl. Nice and tight against the weather and it looks like you’ve managed to get you some supplies laid in too. Mind a little company? I’ll throw in what I’ve got and we’ll be set up like Midas.”

I looked at him and then looked around noticing piles of stuff that hadn’t been there before he came. “OK, but only so long as it is you.” I felt like folding up on myself and whispered, “And only you.”

He pulled me back up into a more comfortable position and said, “It’s only me; don’t even have any animals.”

I nodded. After he came back from his ablutions I asked him, “If you don’t have a horse how did you get here?”

“Solar hybrid wagon. Kind of like the one I met you in.”

A picture formed in my mind but then I shook my curiosity away and asked, “But what are you doing here? I …” I groaned as my head started thumping.

“I’d ask you to stop thinking but if our positions were reversed and you said that to me I’d be cussed mad. I’ll explain it all after you’ve gotten washed up and I’ve changed the bedding to something fresh. Looks like you finally sweated out the last of the fever.”

It was then I noticed I smelled pretty ripe and while I tried not to be upset – I mean why the heck should I care – I was still uncomfortable. “Come on, let’s get you up and I’ll put some warm water in the tub and you can have a soak while I take care of this.”

“I’m not going upstairs, I can feel the cold pressing in. Besides, there’s only a shower up there.”

“Cranky,” he chuffed. “It’s a hip tub and it’s over by the fireplace. I’ve been dunking you in it for the past five days.”

I was shocked. “Five … five days?! I … I don’t … remember … I …”

“Hey. ‘Nuff of that,” he said noticing how confused I was. “I didn’t tell you to get you upset and you don’t have anything to be upset about anyway. Come on, you always seem to feel better after a soak.”

I was having a hard time articulating why I felt as I did. It wasn’t over modesty – or at least that’s what I told myself – though there was some of that in there. Intellectually I knew that I had been sick and he’d been trying to take care of the fever the best way he could. Still, the very idea of being helpless for five days and have him in total control of me right down to feeding me and bathing me … I trusted this man but I’d never really thought about trusting him that much. And here I was finding out I didn’t have to think about it at all, he was simply trustworthy. It was like the universe had shifted.

I started coughing and it felt like I was bringing up a lung. “Whoa, easy there … maybe a dunk isn’t such a good idea. I’m going to lay you down on a pallet by the fire and …”

“No … I’m … I’m fine. Just … coughing.”

He sat on the bed and said, “I know you’re awake now Gurl, but don’t start fighting me. I swear that I’m not going to take advantage of you or force you into anything. I’m not them SEPH people that locked you up. I’m not Asa who took advantage of you to hide his own inadequacies. I’m not any of the people you were forced to learn not to trust. When I say something it isn’t to control you or hurt you or manipulate you … at least not on purpose. I wouldn’t like it if I was in your shoes and if I’m ever down I hope I can trust I’d get the same from you.”

My head was throbbing. “Don’t play me Carmine. Please … don’t play me.” I hated the whiny weakness I heard in my own voice.

Like a promise he said, “You won’t ever get that from me. You might not like me all the time, but it won’t be because I’m playing you. I’ve got too much respect for you Squirrel.”

“I’m not a squirrel, I’m a rat.”

“Squirrels are just tree rats, so what’s the difference?”

I couldn’t come up with an answer for that so I let him help me over to the tub but then made him turn loose of me so I could go to the bathroom. I washed up at the wash stand I had put in there and had to admit I did start to feel better. My legs still shook but my head was clearer than it had been in a while.

I came out and Carmine was coming back down to the basement. I looked the question at him and he said, “Been hanging the bedding upstairs to air out. And the cold air kills any germs that might be hiding in them. We’ll do a washing if we can get some clear weather. Right now there’s got to be twelve inches on the ground.”

“Twelve inches … of snow?!”

I tried to go look and Carmine said, “It can wait until you aren’t just inches back from having the Outbreak.”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t have the Outbreak virus. I’m immune.”

“Immune to which clade?”

“Immune, immune as in from all of them.”

His head jerked up and he asked, “You sure?”

“If I still had my chip and you had a reader I could prove it.”

He shook his head, “Then there’s no way you couldn’t have brought it in.” I stumbled and he tried to guide me back to the bed but I indicated I wanted to sit by the fire. “Let me put a quilt over that rocker first,” he said and then did so. After I sat he shoved a camp stool – must have been his – under my feet and then put a heavy blanket I didn’t recognize over me, another item that must have been his.

After I settled I asked, “What couldn’t I have brought it in?”

“That’s part of why I’m out here. You … you sure you’re up to this? It ain’t nice and pretty.”

I looked at his face and there was a deep sorrow behind his eyes that he was trying to mask. “If it concerns you being out here by yourself then it’s important.”

He humphed but not in a sarcastic way, just a little surprised and gratified at the same time if I was reading him right. He pulled a folding camp chair over and then I moved my feet so he could share the stool. He looked at me and chuffed. “You don’t do things by half measure do you?”

“Huh?”

“Is this how it was with Asa? You just said you’d go with him and then you tossed in a hundred percent, no questions asked?”

Talking about Asa made me mildly nauseous given how things had ended but I suppose Carmine needed to know so we wouldn’t be forever tripping over it. “I’m not sure exactly what you mean by that, and I’m not exactly sure what you being here means except … except I’d be dead if you weren’t. And …”

Grumpily he said, “I ain’t after no gratitude.”

It was my turn to chuff for a change. “No worries there. I’m not a very grateful kind of person, ask anyone. I just mean it’s the truth; I would be dead if you hadn’t shown up. I know Some One is watching over me but He only seems to do it in obvious ways when there’s no way for me to do it for myself. I was pretty far down Starvation Road when he sent me a clumsy elk, something I had no reasonable expectation of. And I was well on the road to being sick … I was ready to climb into that well to get my bucket and would have probably drowned or died of exposure but you … you of all people … show up.”

Shaking his head he said, “That thing isn’t a bucket, it’s a pot with a chain attached to it. And don’t even get me started on the fright you gave me when I figured out just how sick you were. I’d just come from what was left over from the epidemic and there you were so puny and gaunt …” He shuddered like a goose had walked across his grave. “We’ll get back to clumsy elks, giant cats, and honey and apples in the middle of nowhere when my nerves have settled down a bit.”

Ignoring his obvious silliness I focused on what he has said of import. “An epidemic? Of the Outbreak virus? Was it bad?”

“Was it bad she asks.” He sighed and then stared into the fire. “I almost don’t know where to start. Things had been going downhill for a while. Even before Rosie got took. But Gill used that as just one more excuse to tighten the screws. He … I’m pretty sure he did anyway … had the best of intentions, wanted what was best for everyone, but he didn’t seem to understand that it was having the opposite effect of what he meant it to. Instead of the settlement getting stronger as individuals became stronger, the settlement became weaker as people grew dependent on him doing their thinking for them. A few weeks after you left with Asa, Gill and I had a public falling out; bad enough to embarrass him and he … uh … gave the whole job of sec boss to that Hendricks.”

Still shocked despite having known for months I told him, “I couldn’t believe it when Asa and I found out about it. That man was not fit to walk in you boot prints much less your boots … and Gill knew it.”

Surprised he asked, “What makes you say that?”

“About Gill?” At his nod I answered, “By the face that Gill made every time Hendricks opened his mouth to put his foot in.”

Carmine seemed to relax at my answer. “Well, good to know I suppose though after all that happened still hard to believe.”

He sighed and stared into the fire thinking deep thoughts. I didn’t rush him and eventually he continued the story. “I knew which way the wind was blowing. I still owed Gill my life but couldn’t stomach that he expected me to shut up my opinions and look the other way. People ought to know what their limitations are so they don’t embarrass themselves and I know I’m no politicker. People kept trying to pull me in and I just couldn’t do it. I’d lost some of my respect for Gill by then and a lot of other folks in the settlement too and I couldn’t figure out what the sense was of putting my life on the line day in and day out if no good was going to come of it, if things were just going to get progressively worse. Under the guise of vacating the rooms that had been the sec boss quarters so that Hendricks could have them, I started caching some of my personal things further and further afield. I claimed I was looking for a little place to maybe do some farming – which always brought a laugh until some of the original settlers remembered I’d had a spread of my own until I became sec boss. Someone must have noticed what I was really doing though and after coming back from caching some of my things out of Gill’s territory I got ambushed.”

“I thought that was people trying to push into Gill’s territory?”

“Made to look like that but I had my suspicion even then; but when I came back to the settlement busted up but alive there was a little too much surprise on a few faces. Nothing I could prove but with nothing holding me down I was all but set to leave when you and Asa show back up.” He shook his head. “I swear you’ve got a way of setting things upside down so that people have to look at ‘em in a new way. That little fiasco you had with them fools that Hendricks hired was the last straw for some folks. Your artful collapse broke the heart of more than one hard case.”

“Artful collapse?!” I yelped. “I’ll have you know …” I started coughing, the force of my yelp having dislodged a wad of phlegm that wanted to choke me. Carmine jumped up from his chair and pounded on my back until it was loose enough that I could spit it out. “Sorry,” I wheezed.

“Don’t be; better out than in, same for the poison that was building up in the settlement. It’d been festering for a while and them over eager troops of Hendricks brought some things to a head that needed it. When you disappeared the next morning people said it was because you were afraid that Hendricks was going to come after you personally.”

“Did not,” I grouched. “Hadn’t even thought of that.”

“I know that. You know that. But that’s you and me. Even Asa started to think it but mostly because it was easier for him to think that than to think you’d run off because he’d broken your heart.”

That was almost as bad as the other and I told him so. “Asa did not break my heart. Didn’t even come close. I’ll … ok … I’ll admit that … that I hadn’t expected what happened to happen but he didn’t break my heart.” He looked at me and it was about the most uncomfortable thing I’d felt in a long time. “What are you staring at?” I demanded.

“I’m trying to figure out what did happen if he didn’t break your heart.”

Irritated I snapped, “I don’t have those kinds of feelings. I told you that.”

“Yeah and the moon’s made of green cheese and the stars are the mice chasing after it. Fess up, what happened.”

I sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know. We were friends and getting along great for the most part and then one day we weren’t and I just realized … that he was sorry. I didn’t know he was sorry because I wasn’t Violet, he never made me feel that way, I never even suspected it … but I did know he was sorry he’d gotten himself in the situation he was in. I found out he was keeping things from me – calls on the radio from Rob and maybe from Gill too. I wouldn’t have cared but just the way he reacted to it set me off. Then some things were said and … look, it just wasn’t nice and I don’t want to hash it out again. Bottom line he wasn’t strong enough to admit he’d made a mistake and I had to be friend enough not to keep making him miserable. End of story.”


Quietly he asked, “What do you mean for the most part y’all got along? He … he didn’t hit you did he?”

“Are you kidding? What do you take me for? Besides, you saw what I did to those guys of Hendricks. If Asa had been like that it would have only happened once and that better be all I need to say on the subject.”

He gave a startled laugh and said, “Heard loud and clear Saloli.”

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

“Because I know it irritates you.”

I rolled my eyes, “An honest man.”

“Yeah.” Then his smile faded. “You know I looked for you. I didn’t just take it in stride that you ran off.”

I nodded, “I was afraid you would.”

Frustrated he asked, “Then why did you run off like that?”

Uncomfortably I admitted, “Because if anyone had a snowball’s chance in Hades of talking me out of leaving I was afraid it would be you. And I couldn’t stand the idea of you feeling sorry for me because things didn’t work out between me and Asa. I needed to go. I didn’t know … know that … that maybe we could have … you know … maybe … travelled together.”

I started coughing again and Carmine reached over and poured a cup of what turned out to be rose hip tea that he liberally dosed with honey. “For your disposition,” he said when he handed it to me. “You need the sweetening up.”

He sat back in his chair and scratched his head for a second before saying, “Maybe you did need to leave. Not because I wouldn’t have gladly travelled with you but because I still had too much baggage hanging around my neck and if I’d had to consider a second person I might not have thought leaving was a viable solution to my problems.” He scratched his head again and then leaned back and put his slipper covered feet up on the stool next to mine again. “A week after you left the first case of the virus showed up at Rob’s clinic. He quarantined the man but by then it was too late. It started popping up all over the settlement; up in McCullough’s territory and in the squatters camps, and in a couple of settlements to the south as well. Of course only one in ten or something like that is completely immune to all the clades. But usually if you’ve had one, any subsequent infections are milder than if you’d never had it. But none of the kids under ten in the settlements are immune and most of them hadn’t had it. Rob did the best he could but it hit the school.”

I winced waiting for the horror to leave his voice. “You forget what it’s like. You can’t believe you ever can but you do. I’m immune too so I did what I could but it wasn’t enough, it’s never enough for some. Gill’s territory only lost ten percent of its population … McCullough’s, already suffering from lack of food, lost closer to forty percent and that may have climbed, I don’t know. The epidemic was heading into the Outlands last I heard but it’s easier to control the further east you travel because of the tech they have available and the medical care which is better.”

“A lot of people wanted to know where it came from. Rob has strict rules about contamination and contact. Hendricks floated the story that you brought it in and since you weren’t around to deny it or prove otherwise too many people were willing to believe it. Asa said it wasn’t possible but people will believe what they want to … and I never even thought to ask him why he was so sure either.”

“Why? Is it so hard to believe?”

“No, just … by that time Rob was having kittens after finding out about Asa and Violet. He’d been wanting Asa to … er … I mean Jasmine and Lily …”

“You mean that Rob was thinking about doing a little social engineering and having Asa impregnate one or both of his younger daughters.”

“Sounds even nastier when you say it than when Asa said it.”

“I’m just calling it what it is … not that Asa could have done it. He … er … I mean …”

“Has problems in that department?” he guessed correctly. “I still remember what you said that night.”

“Let’s just say … you don’t need your imagination for your answer. I’m not so sure he’ll have the same kind of problem with Violet but it’s none of my business either way. So go on with what you were saying.”

He saw how uncomfortable I was discussing it and let it go. Continuing he said, “Carlene got bad sick and so did the rest of their house, except for Rosie who may be another immune. Even Rob got sick but just enough to knock him down for a day or two. Jasmine and Lily … it’ll be six to twelve months before Rob can tell whether they’ve lost their fertility or not. The girls ain’t near so detached about it as they try to play they are. And after Rob spewed his anger all over – acting a lot more like Gill than I’d ever seen him act – Carlene asked Asa to take Violet and Rosie and go to his place for a while until things calmed down. Part of me feels bad for that family and part of me …”

At his tense shrug I told him, “Don’t be mad on my account Carmine. It’s done and over with. It’s not … comfortable to talk about but I’m not pining away for him if that’s what you think.”

“Good.”

I didn’t know what to make of that so I asked, “But you still haven’t said what finally made you leave.”

He sighed and answered, “It was Gill. Despite all that had happened he still believed his way was the best way and Hendricks, the bootlicker, told him exactly what he wanted to hear. He also started turning Gill against me. I didn’t want to leave on hard terms and tried to talk to Gill about it but he kept turning it around to make it seem like I was being disloyal, that I needed to prove myself to him even after all the years I’d willingly followed him, even after he didn’t have any more real authority over me. That was the last straw. I got out just in time too it seems. I was running with no lights heading to the west when I noticed a glow in the rearview mirror. The house I’d been shacked up in had been set ablaze. From what I gathered from the radio communications that night and the next day they believe I died in the fire.”

I didn’t know what to say except, “It was wrong what they did. It shouldn’t have happened that way. People should be able to come and go on their own terms.”

He put his feet on the ground and stood up before saying, “Yeah they should. Now … if you don’t mind me telling you something for your own good you need to get back in that bed. I’m gonna go out and bring in some wood before dark sets in and I’ll be a lot more easy in my mind while doing it if I know you are tucked up under them quilts.”

I drew breath to automatically say the exact opposite of what he wanted me to do but stopped. It took a lot but I finally said, “OK. This time. Next time I get up I’ll be stronger.”

He smiled like I’d given him a gift. “No doubt about it Saloli.”

8 comments:

  1. aawww carmine. you old softy ha ha ha

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  2. Seems now no one is looking for either one of them. Awesome! Can hardly wait to read were you take this story.

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  3. Thank you for the new chapters!

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  4. Cherokee: saloli (pronounced sah-lo-lee) Chickasaw

    So, he might be a Hot Native American after all... Kathy is so sneaky.

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  5. “Then there’s no way you couldn’t have brought it in.”

    Do you mean there's no way you could have brought it in?

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  6. @anonymous ... Yeah. I!ll edit that when I get back to the right comp.

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  7. Why edit it? It's the way Carmine talks isn't it?

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