Getting back on my feet was more difficult than I expected and harder than I wanted to admit. I tried to use sense but it bothered me to have Carmine all but waiting on me hand and foot. OK, maybe not waiting on me hand and foot but in the beginning certainly close to it.
“Will you stop? You make my ears hurt with all that complaining. I mean, it isn’t like you didn’t just die on me or anything. I mean you don’t still sounding you are trying to cough up a lung in the morning, oh no nothing like that. Nope, you should be out there chopping wood so I don’t have to. Lord knows you’re so big you should be able to …”
Caught between being irritated and chagrinned I told him, “Stop it. You’re being ridiculous.”
He snorted, “Now you know how I feel about this. You were sick Gurl; bad, bad sick. If you want to get well so you can do all those things you’re trying to do then you’re going to have to decide that you’ll compromise for a while. Tell you what, to take your mind off of it why don’t you tell me about this clumsy elk you keep mentioning.”
He was good, I’ll give him that. He had me talking more and easier than all those super trained Ph.D.’s and MD’s at SEPH had ever managed. He never tried to force me to follow his lead. What’s more sometimes he just got out of the way and let me try … and make a fool of myself. Like the time I was bound and determined to wash my own clothes. I nearly fell in the tub several times and by the time I was done I was so exhausted I slept the rest of the day away and had taken two steps backwards where my cough was concerned. At least he didn’t say I told you so.
But eventually I did get all the way better, or nearly so; I wouldn't be completely free of being careful with my health until the spring, or so Carmine predicted. I had lost a lot of weight and had trouble putting it back on.
"It's the cold," Carmine explained as my lack of patience with the issue increased. "The problem is two-fold. You have no fat reserves so you have to work harder at staying warm. And because you have to work harder at staying warm you use more calories which keeps you from being able to put on any weight. Catch-22. Just be glad you've stopped losing weight. You barely weigh more than Pixie dust as it is.”
Irritated I asked, "Did you have to add that last part?"
He gave me a look and said, "You didn't strike me as the vain type."
I gave an unladylike snort. "I'm not. One look in the mirror would cure me of that. But you don't have to rub it in."
He grumbled, "It's been too long since I've done this; I'm all thumbs."
"Done what?" I asked.
He sighed. "My point exactly. C'mere so we can talk. I need to concentrate and there’s enough holes in this rode to trip up a mountain goat."
"I thought that was what we were doing,” I said, referring to the fact we were conversing.
He shook his head. "No, we're just nattering at each other like a couple of magpies. We need to really talk. And don't look at me like that. Talking isn't a crime and it isn't going to hurt. And ... frankly I'd like to clear the air so I know where I stand."
We were out walking the town. I had already gone through all the buildings but Carmine wanted to look. That day he found an old monster of a bedstead that he said he would move to the cabin. The futon was well enough but apparently Carmine had some idea of eventually saving enough feathers to make a real mattress top to go over the top of a straw tick. When he said he wanted to talk we sat down on the steps of a front porch right off the road that cut the town down the middle long ways.
I had a feeling I knew what he wanted to talk about and decided to save some trouble and just be open about it. "Carmine, it's OK if you want to but you don't have to you know. It isn't like I'm going to ask you to leave if you don't."
He got the strangest look on his face. "Gurl, you have the dang strangest way of turning what I mean to say upside down."
Concerned that I had made a mistake about what he had meant to talk about I asked, "You mean you weren't talking about being intimate?"
"As a matter of fact I was," he said with a chuff of laughter. "But I don't think you are."
"Yes I am."
"No Saloli, you are talking about sex. I'm talking about being intimate which is more than sex." I was starting to get uncomfortable. "You don't seem too happy about that."
It didn’t take me long to get more worried than uncomfortable. I blurted, "I don't know exactly what that means. I'm not sure I know how. And what if you try it with me and you decide, just like Asa that you don't like it. What happens to this that we have now? Does it get messed up just like my friendship with Asa did? I don't want that to happen. If it is going to mess up this then the other isn't worth it."
He grinned but not in an unkind way. "So I mean more to you than someone that can reach things for you ... Like buckets that have fallen just out of reach."
I'd never had an inside joke with anyone so it was nice when I could joke back to Carmine, "That's not a bucket. It's a pot on a chain."
He smiled and when he did I admitted, "Yeah. You mean more to me than that." Looking down I added, "I thought I had more with Asa and I was wrong. He did NOT break my heart, but ... he made me feel foolish and stupid. I don't want to be wrong again."
"I'm not partial to the idea myself. Now here's the thing, I'm done with the stage of my life where looking around is more important than settling down. I like what I see in you. I don't have to be forever worried that you're going to break if life gets a little rough with us. Had me a woman like that when I was younger and it didn't end well. When she died I blamed myself even though looking back nothing I did could have saved her when she kept running back and forth between me and her parents, unwilling to grow up and unable to accept that I wasn’t gonna be just another daddy to her. I'll admit finding out you're immune don't hurt my feelings any either."
Not quite ready to buy into his explanation I told him, "Asa thought he was ready to settle on forever too."
He made a face. "If I didn't know for a fact that you have reason to be leery I'd be getting a little tired of being compared to another man."
I told him, "I'm not comparing you to Asa; I know you two are very different. I just don't have anything else to compare this to but that situation."
"Don't have anything else to compare it to? You're joshing me. You've had boys on you since ... Well ...". He stopped what he was saying when he saw my face.
Beginning to wonder just what kind of rat he thought I was I told him, "Just because I lived on the street doesn't mean I'm the kind that sold myself to survive."
By way of apologizing he said, "Told you I was out of practice at this." Quietly he asked me, "If you only have Asa to ... er ... compare this to and you say that he never ... er ... took ... uh ... Well, does that mean what I think it means?"
"Pretty much," I admitted. "Is that bad because you look a little green at the idea."
"Ain't a game changer but it do add some pressure for me to get it right."
"Why? Don't I need to get it right for you to? I thought that was how it worked."
He chuffed. Then he chuckled. Then he outright laughed. Finally he stopped and said, "Gurl, I am up to my armpits with the unknown on this. Just tell me whether you are agreeable to for the next eleventy dozen years, give a century or two, being together and that it'll be exclusive."
I had said yes to Asa with that in mind and look where it had got me. Looking at Carmine though I realized if I said yes to him it would be different. Beyond the obvious it would mean giving up the idea of making babies. Asa might be the kind willing to let me look for another stud but I pretty much could tell Carmine wasn't likely to feel the same way. Could I live with that? Thinking it over quickly I decided that yeah, I could. Being a Fertile had never made me feel special, but like a commodity on the auction block. I knew where I stood with Asa and I knew that's not what he wanted me for. Why did he want me?
"Carmine, you aren’t just doing this because you are lonely or anything like that are you?"
"Don't take this wrong Gurl but that's never been a problem for me."
“Great,” I grumped.
Trying to chuck me under my chin which only irritated me even more he said, “Aw Saloli, don’t be that way.”
“And why do you keep calling me that? What language is that?”
“Cherokee. It’s what my grandfather used to call my sister.”
Then I asked a dumb question I regretted as soon as it left my mouth. "You had a grandfather?"
He laughed and answered, "Nope. The woman I called Ma found me under a cabbage leaf full grown, felt sorry for me and brought me home. I grew up calling the scarecrow that ‘cause I didn’t know any better." I rolled my eyes and he stopped teasing. "He was my great grandfather actually. My grandparents were never in the picture. My great grandparents raised my father and when he died after my sister was born, they took us in so my mother could find work in Knoxville. We'd see her a couple times a month but it was really Grandfather that raised my sister and me. Grandmother was already frail when we went to live there and didn't have much patience for two rowdy, half-wild kids. I grew up along the Blue Ridge Parkway picking apples to help pay the bills. I got drafted straight out of high school, didn't even get to finish my senior year cause I turned eighteen so early."
It was like meeting him for the first time. "What happened to your fam ... uh ... maybe it is none of my business."
"I'm trying to make it your business if you'd cooperate." He was smiling so I knew I hadn't offended him. "Grandmother died before I even got out of basic training. My sister got drafted into the medical Corp the year after I went in and grandfather just gave up after that since he sensed that no one needed him anymore. Ma sent me an email but I couldn't get leave to attend the funeral and my sister held it against me. We kind of lost touch between that and the war and other things. Ma remarried and lives in what's left of Gatlinburg and my sister is a Major in the Army and serves in the mobile medical units."
It was strange to think he still had family alive. "Do they know you're alive?"
"Sorta. I ran into my sister about five years ago when I went on a trade run with Rob. I don't know who was more surprised, her or me. It was too dangerous for her to acknowledge me outright as they would have changed my designation from KIA to AWOL, but she did give us more than favorable terms on what we were looking for. Never got the chance to talk privately but she knew I was her brother. Ma I don't think she told. Found out she was living on the bennies from my death. I wouldn't want to take that away from her so if you’re looking to cash in on me it ain’t gonna happen."
I kicked at his ankle with no real intent of connecting. A colder blast of wind that smelled like there was more snow on the way had us up and moving towards the cabin when he asked, "What about you?"
I had been dreading the question and tried to shrug it off by saying, "I don't remember. I mean I have those pictures you saw on my tablet but it's like looking at someone else's childhood. Intellectually I know it is me but I don't really connect with the girl in the photos. I know my parents are dead and that my older brother and sister died before they did but if there was anyone else that could or would have taken me in after they died I don't know."
"You can't remember anything?"
"Just scraps and most of it is hard to put in any particular order. Half the time I'm not sure I am remembering or just imagining that I am."
He put his arm around me when a sudden gust caught me unprepared and nearly knocked me over. "Tell you what, when you feel like showing me them pictures you can tell me you what you do remember. I'd be interested in hearing about the people that gave birth to you and gave you the foundation to be so strong."
I was about to tell him it wasn't strength so much as stubbornness when we heard a rumble coming from the other end of town.