Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 13

Chapter 13

It took us a week to reach Llewellen and the only trouble we ran into was a broken axle. Luckily there was an abandoned wagon with a busted tongue and bed on the side of the road not too far from where we broke down. I’m not sure what we would have done if we hadn’t found it, none of us had the least idea how to fix it. We cannibalized the disabled wagon for parts but it still took a whole day to change everything out despite all of the muscle available to do the work. It was a learning process all around. I had a feeling lots of people are going to be learning new things now that you couldn’t just go out and buy something new when the old one broke. Or in the case we were in, there were a lot of things that had stopped working since the EMP and could never be fixed.

We were two days out from Llewellen when Evans was finally well enough to sit a horse. It put him in a good mood and everyone from the men to Joe’s crowd was happy for him. Evans was the oldest of the men in Thor’s group and he looked road hard and hung up wet. It made him appear older than he was; he wasn’t but forty years of age. His pride had been hurting at having to be so dependent and it was nice to see him looking more like his old self.

I saw Thor thinking and looking at me and decided to make it easy on him. “Thor, it’s OK. I know you gave the guys grief but … it’s really what was going to happen anyway. I’m … well …,” I stopped worried that I was sounding too much like a girl then I said the heck with it. “I’m glad that things got straightened out but now that Evans is mended I … well I don’t expect you to hang around babysitting me because you feel like you have to be responsible for me or something.”

It’s like he hadn’t even heard me. “What are your plans Kid?”

“Can’t you just call me Rocky like most folks do? It isn’t my fault that I’m younger than you all you know.”

He just looked at me and said, “Stop avoiding the question. And don’t lie to me.”

That just made me mad. “Why are you always thinking I’m out to lie to you? You may not know everything there is to know about me but I’ve never intentionally done anything to put you guys at risk. You act like I’m … well sure … I know I had a learning curve but geez.”

“You’re avoiding the question again.”

“I’m not avoiding the question, you keep bringing other stuff into it. Besides, my plans haven’t changed, I’m going home.”

“And home is off the Blue Ridge Parkway,” he said like said like he didn’t quite believe me.

“Well … yeah,” I said surprised he’d remembered at all.

“And how exactly do you plan on getting there?”

“Walking. Riding. Whatever it takes. I’ve gotten this far doing it that way. I’ll get the rest of the way that way if necessary. I still don’t see why that should matter to you anyway.” He was starting to get under my skin again.

He looked at me like I was something that irritated the fire out of him for some reason. “You’re too young to be doing this.”

I couldn’t help it, I started laughing. Thank the good Lord my laugh is more of a baritone belly laugh than a light feminine chuckle. Thor obviously didn’t appreciate the humor I was seeing in it all. “Man, listen to you. How many of you guys were out the door and on the road at eighteen? And I bet at my eighteen I have more survival skills than you all had … except for maybe Evans who sounds like he had it rough growing up. I can handle myself just fine.”

A growl preceded, “You aren’t indestructible.”

“Well no, of course not. No one is. But do I look like the fragile, will break on contact type? Come on dude, you don’t even know half of what I can do.”

In this really snarky voice he asked, “So what are you then, some mutant superhero?”

All the funny went away right then and there and I don’t know what came over me but I pushed him back, hard enough to make him trip back into some bushes. “You don’t know nothin’,” I snarled as I walked away.

I stayed away from Thor and he stayed away from me until sack time. Joe woke me up to take last watch. As I got up he grabbed my upper arm, “You shoulda told him Rocky.”

Immediately I went into a panic. “No, I don’t mean about being a girl … though that would have been a doggone good opening for that too. I mean about … about being a GWB. I put my dang foot in it.”

I was furious. “You promised,” I growled stepping close enough that we were almost nose to nose though I had to bend down to do it.

“No, I promised to keep quiet about you being a girl,” he whispered back a lot calmer than I was. “And I will until you say otherwise. Including keeping it from the rest of my family if that’s the way you want it though I’ll have to catch Mom and Dad to make sure in case they remember you. I think you’re making a mistake but it’s your right to make it. I hadn’t thought the GWB was an issue. I came up on him while he was trying to climb out of that Skunkbush. I’d overheard the last bit and it made me mad. It just kind of came out during the … er … discussion.”

I turned to walk away from him angrily but he grabbed my arm, “I’m saying I’m sorry Rocky. It was an honest mistake. For Thor it was too. He didn’t say much but he looked like he regretted the comment coming out the way it did. Don’t burn that bridge because of your pride. I have a feeling you’ll regret it if you do.”

“I won’t have anyone feeling pity for me. Not you, not Thor, not anyone. Just because GWB is what I am doesn’t mean it defines who I am. Got it?”

“A long time ago Rocky,” he said softly with a gentle slap on my shoulder.

I wasn’t ready to let go of my mad but I had responsibilities to tend to. I picked up my rifle and started to walk quietly around the camp perimeter, nodding at Orland’s son who was watching the horses that night. Then I found a comfortable spot and settled in.

A boot scuffing on the ground had me looking up. “Got a second Kid?”

“I’m on watch Thor.”

“Yeah. This won’t take long,” he sighed as he sat down. “Joe …”

“Yeah, I know. He told you. He didn’t have any right to say anything but now that you know … so what,” I told him in a dead voice that dared him to say anything more.

“You never said nothing.”

“It didn’t matter. And if it had it wasn’t exactly your business either.”

He was quiet and I was hoping he’d just go away. But he didn’t. “I heard all them kids had health problems. Seems like there was something on the news at least once a year about another one dying.”

“Them kids? I was … am … one of them. You sound like everyone else, like we had a choice in what we were. Like we were contaminated.”

“You know what I mean.”

I sighed. I’d explained this so many times over the years that it was like a prepared speech. “Just like no two people anywhere are the same, no two GWBs are the same. Whatever issues each of us faced was strictly determined by our own family’s genetic history. Some of us got the worst flavors … conditions or defects that barely let them live long enough to be born. Some of us you couldn’t even tell from the outside that they had that label. Most of us were somewhere in between. I had a tumor that caused me to get big really early. They found it and killed it and I stopped growing so fast. The problem was that I was nine when they found it and it took me a long time to grow into my body size … I could be klutzy and banged into a lot of stuff, I couldn't play the same games as the other kids because if I had I would have hurt them or I didn’t fit on the equipment. Unlike a lot of non-GWBs that have the condition that causes them to get real big real early my heart and lungs were never a problem. The worst for me though was that it took a while for my features to settle down; your face does a lot of changing and maturing as you grow up, I had a baby face stuck on this huge body. People used to say … some pretty …” I sighed. “It wasn’t a fun time. I freaked people out. A lof them treated me like I was mentally deficient when I scored well above average for my age on all the tests they would give us over and over as they did their stupid little experiments and stuff. It wasn’t until I found football that I really felt good about my size even though my parents did the best they could.”

“You don’t have any of the … bad defects?”

“No. All my parts are where they are supposed to be I’m just oversized compared to most. Jonathon …” I wasn’t sure just how much I was going to let him know. Time, distance and life was putting a bandaid on that wound, it was no longer a hemorrhage but picking at it would only make it scar worse.

Another piece fell into place for him. “He was one too, the kid you said was your best friend. The one …”

In for a penny, in for a pound I thought as I began to give him more information than I had ever meant to. “Yeah. We … the national support group … had been having our spring social event. All of those left living came. It was kind of like ...” I stopped and snorted. “Jonathon’s parents were the organizers. Ever heard of the Marshall family out on the West Coast? That was them. They set it up to be like a … a prom … or a coming out or something like that. Most of us had already turned eighteen. It was a real swanky party.”

“In San Francisco.” And I saw another piece fall in place. “The Green terrorists were threatening to target the GWBs specifically for years.”

“Yeah, they targeted us all right. Or whoever it was that claimed to be them that night. It was stenciled onto their clothes just like you’d see in the news.” I stopped and heaved a sigh that felt like it came from my soul. “You are looking at the only GWB left alive on the planet so I’d appreciate keeping it under your hat. I don’t need people giving me funny looks or pity or anything else. Life is hard enough without that extra kick in the pants.”

“So you don’t have any of the other … er … eccentricities of …”

I looked at him trying to understand what he kept going on about. “If you are asking whether I have any deformities or challenges some of us had I already told you no. I’m just big … and stronger than even my size would seem to make me. It has something to do with the density of my bones and the fact that I have a pain tolerance … or at least that is all the eggheads could come up with. But you don’t have to be big to have high pain tolerance, lots of people have it. Jonathon was the opposite.”

“Your friend.”

“Yeah. He was a late bloomer in a family full of tall, pretty people. If you had stuck him in almost any other people you never would have known he was a GWB. But why God decided to stick him in that one I can’t even begin to guess. His brothers were pretty rough on him. Why we wound up best friends is even stranger, they used to call us Mutt and Jeff when we were growing up because there wasn’t a thing alike between us, from size to coloring. But he was getting taller and stuff because at the dance he was only a couple of inches shorter than me … he was just skinny and it made him look frail, but he wasn’t normally. His asthma was also better than it was than when we were little. But he needed medication to manage it. That part he inherited from his grandmother’s family … the one that was with us as we tried to escape. They would have been dead if we had stayed, just like my parents, but escaping killed them anyway. Life sucks all around.” I’d had enough sharing and stood up to take another turn around the camp.

“Kid, if you insist on doing this crazy thing, ride with us til we get to Chuckri’s place. We’ll figure something else out from there.”

“Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?” I asked him getting mad again. “I don’t need your pity. I don’t want your pity … nor anyone else’s either. I know how bad life sucks and I know how careful I have to be to get through it. I also know there is a chance that I won’t make it. Stop treating me like I’m handicapped or stupid.” Then I did turn and walk away before I said something I would really regret.

See the problem is that I know people like Thor and Joe mean well. They’ve just never had to walk in my shoes. I always hated it when people try to do things “for my own good.” My parents were the only ones that came close to having that right over me and they never made me feel like I was helpless or incapable; they did it out of love, not to make me beholden or to trap me against my will. I wasn’t just going to give that power over me to someone else just because it made them feel better.

I no longer trusted Thor … or Joe … quite the way I had before. Maybe some of that is growing up, getting the idealism kicked out of you, but it made me mad. There had never been too many people in the world that I fully trusted and to have two of them turn on me in the same day hurt in a way I refused to let anyone see.

Llewellen was a dot on a map and Joe’s family was outside of the town and that area didn’t even qualify for a dot; heck, the roads didn’t even have gravel on them, they were just ruts in the grass. You never saw such a welcome as everyone got. To add to it, rather than trying to make it all the way to Omaha, Orland’s family decided to move across the road from Joe’s family and help out the elderly, childless couple who lived there.

Orland said, “I just can’t see the risk in going further. There’s water from Lake McConaughy. The land’s fertile. And there’s people here to share the load with and learn from. Things being what they are likely to be for a long time, I just don’t see that I could put my family in a better spot by continuing on the road we were going.”

That gave me a lot to think on. Could I do better than staying right here? Was I crazy for thinking my destiny still had something to do with going home? In the end I just couldn’t settle to the idea of staying. If something had been pushing me to go I would have probably dug in my heels but the truth was I was being pulled. Pulled to what I wasn’t sure of but I did know that I needed to go.

I was feeling boxed in. Joe had tried to talk to me about staying and when that didn’t work he set his mother on me. Whether he knew it or not that had the opposite effect of what he’d meant it to have. His mother really didn’t like me. As nice as she was she had this prejudice that she just couldn’t hide though she really did try hard for Joe’s sake … and maybe even a little for mine. But everything she said made me feel a little more like I didn’t belong and in the end I apologized for not being able to do what Joe wanted me to … and I know I didn’t imagine the relief she tried to hide.

Thor was a pain in my sitter as well. He never approached me directly, I didn’t give him the chance, but it was plain as day he was planning something for my own good. And of the other men only Evans seemed to refuse to pay any attention to my invisible “keep off the grass” signs. I didn’t tell Evans anything either however as I knew he’d carry it straight to Thor, or he’d say something to one of the other men and it would get to Thor that way.

I knew Chuckri was eager to keep going but Joe’s father had offered the group some grains and other things to take with them if they stayed to help put up the framing and walls of two houses they were adding to the homestead. It was an offer they really couldn’t afford to refuse. I still had a good bit of the stuff left over from Nana’s wacked out buying spree but even my supplies were low. Instead of working at Joe’s place I went across the road to help Orland and the elderly couple get set. Mrs. Dunlop was good to me, she reminded me a bit of my own grandmother … feisty; I had to laugh at the way she managed everyone so well.

After six days I had everything I needed including supplies. The next day was the Sabbath and Joe’s dad had set that day aside for most of us to go out to the lake and maybe do some fishing. It was a good day but I kept thinking of my gear which I had hidden the previous night. It would have looked suspicious if I had taken all of my gear with me for a simple fishing trip.

After a huge noon meal most people were just lying around basking in the sun and I knew it was time for me to go. Joe’s nephews though weren’t ready to settle down so I took them a little away and started them on a football game. After a bit they were playing without needing me to encourage them so I told the two oldest I was going for a hike. I tucked a note in Sheila’s handbag that was in the wagons that were between the relaxing adults and the rowdy kids, then I was off. I put one in there for Evans as well; of all the men I figured I owed a goodbye to him.

I’d been careful of what I’d eaten so it wasn’t difficult to get up to jogging speed, grab my gear, and then head off at a quick pace. My goal was a small campground on the east end of the lake outside of the little town of Keystone; if not in the campground, somewhere near it so that I could fill up all of my water containers before really getting in some serious miles.

When I got near the campground I was glad I planned for the possibility of staying somewhere else. There were several groups just hanging out there but I didn’t see a wagon between them; horses yes, wagons no. They looked rough; not dangerous, just used hard and dispirited.

I found a pocket of darkness and just hung the mosquito netting so that I could keep the bugs off but still have little or nothing to do before I put feet to trail the next morning. I’m glad I’d avoided people as not too long after full dark in road the oversized bad attitude I’d been trying to avoid showed up.

After they had questioned all of the campers whether they’d seen me … their description caused a little fear no matter how they phrased it and made the groups there uneasy … they walked their horses even closer to my hiding spot than they realized. I heard Evans chuckling.

“What the @#$% are you laughing about?” Thor snarled.

“The Kid. Not too many grown men that can pull something like this off much less someone as wet behind the ears as he is. Reminds me a bit of myself at that age.” I could hear the laugher in his voice.

“That ain’t exactly a ringing recommendation,” Thor snapped back.

“Now, now. No need to get nasty,” Evans said with some less humor in his voice.

“Kid’s too young. There is no way Rocky can know what is out there.” Thor definitely wasn’t happy with my decision not to stay under their watchful eyes.

It was Richards that said, “None of us know for sure what is out there. Communications are down all over. Joe said that Rocky has a lot of survival skills because of the way he was raised.”

Thor kept up his bellyaching. “Joe said. Joe said. I don’t give a @#$% what Joe said. The Kid is too young.”

Montgomery said, “That was what you said when we lost him in Laramie. He seemed to do all right by himself. I know the kid is only eighteen but I was out of the house at eighteen and I reckon most of the rest of us were too. I still don’t see what his age has to do with it.”

Evans said, “Try sixteen for me, and that was with a whole lot less going for me than the Kid has. We’ll keep our eyes and ears open. Kid like that will stand out in a crowd about as much as you do Thor. But other than that I don’t see what we can do. The Kid made his choice and he had the right to. It’s not like he didn’t …” He stopped. “Well, I’ll just go ahead and say it ‘cause no one else will. The Kid ain’t stupid. He knew that he wasn’t really one of us. He may not have understood the reason for it, but he still knew it. He told me so.”

Thor stopped his horse and asked, “What’d the Kid say? Did you explain?”

“Explain what? Explain that we’ve seen things in life that sets us apart? That we’ve done things in life that sets us apart? We agreed to keep it quiet so no, I didn’t explain. All the Kid saw and felt was that he wasn’t part of our crew and that he never would be, you all made sure he felt it and don’t go jacking my jaw for saying it ‘cause it’s the truth,” he intoned belligerently. “If I couldn’t explain what was really going on, that it weren’t nothing personal and why, there was no sense in trying to explain that we were only doin’ it for his own good. I imagine y’all boys remember how well you would have taken that when you were the Kid’s age.”

I was beginning to think that if they had explained that part of it I would have dealt with the rejection better. But they didn’t know I was a girl and used to dealing with the touchy-feely things in life better than boys were. But it was too late. I wasn’t going to bound out of my hiding place and let them rescue me. For one thing that would shoot down the whole male persona thing I was still living, for another … well, I was just stubborn enough to need to prove to myself, if to no one else, that I could do what they doubted I could.

Finally they moved off. I’m not sure what they planned but I figured that now was as good a time as any to add some extra miles to my day even though they’d be slow ones in the dark. And I’d need to stay off the main roads if I had a hope of avoiding them. Maybe they had given up and maybe they hadn’t but I wasn’t going to take any chances.

I really didn’t want to run into problems and I’d been listening to the campers who turned out to be travelers from all over looking for a place to roost or family that might take them in … or who had had family turn them away and they were now lost as to what they were supposed to do. My original plan had to be to take I80 through Lincoln, Nebraska and then turn south to get to Topeka, Kansas but from what I overheard anywhere near Lincoln or Omaha was bad. There was sickness and Omaha had even had a couple of tactical bombs go off destroying key points of entry and exit.

I decided that instead of going through all of Nebraska before turning south I would turn south first and go straight down into Kansas and try and follow I70 into Topeka. To pull off the route I had changed to required me backtracking a bit and I was hoping that was the last thing they’d think I would do.

I figure I started walking at about three thirty in the morning. It was slow going and I kept looking over my shoulder; not because I felt someone watching me but because I was worried they were. I lucked out and caught a ride from a farmer that had dropped a load of hay bales. I helped him reload faster than he ever thought possible and I got off my feet and was able to add about 15 extra miles that I didn’t expect I was going to make. He offered me a roof for the night but I politely declined and decided to hoof it until it got dark or I ran out of energy, whichever came first.

I made it all the way to a little place called Grant, Nebraska. I had to laugh when I saw the welcome sign. They took their sports serious in this town. Their highschool teams were state champs several years running and they let you know it before you even hit the city limits. It made me feel right at home, but man oh man I’d never seen a place so flat. If there hadn’t been any buildings or trees I could have probably seen all the way to the Missouri state line … and maybe a little further.

It was just passed dark and I was feeling so good about the time and distance that I’d made that I was tempted to keep going, but I knew that was stupid. I’d already done a little traveling in the dark and not know what was in front of me I didn’t want to take the chance. This was flat as a pancake country but that didn’t mean it didn’t have holes in it here and there.

Someone claiming to be a city cop started in on me as soon as my foot cross the city limit line. Who was I? What was my business in their fair city? Where was I heading? I was respectful despite the crankiness of his questions. He sounded like he’d been saying it a lot.

“Sorry sir, if I’m not allowed in town could you direct me to a likely camping spot outside of here? I’m just passing through but I sure don’t want any trouble.”

I got a hard look and said, “Boy, don’t give me that dumb as a stump act. You may have got away with it with other folks but I got one just like you at home and I’ll tan your behind just as soon as look at you if you sass me.”

I thought, “Wouldn’t he get a surprise if he tried.” I had to smile at the thought but was careful to say, “Yes sir” with a little less drawl in it.

“Humph,” he said giving me a look. “We’ve got a station for strangers in the city park but the rules are strict. The signs up at the entrance. If you can’t follow them you’d best carry yourself along. We don’t want trouble anymore than you claim to.”

“Yes sir. Thank you. Point me in the direction please?”

An out of patience sigh accompanied the hand flung in the general direction of some signs along the road. Most of them said things like “Security system by Smith and Wesson” or “Trespassers will be killed dead” but I didn’t take umbrage at it. Heck knows my own little burg was likely to be much worse.

When I finally made it to the park I was starting to feel my first day on the road on my own. The rules were fairly simple: No spitting, no loud noises, no bothering the townfolk, no fires, if you’re in a fight whether you cause it or not you and everyone in your party were in a heap load of trouble. Since none of the above interested me I found a corner in the nearly deserted park and set up my mosquito netting and got some sleep.

Hunger woke me the next morning before the sun came up but I wasn’t about to show anyone that I had food that didn’t have to be cooked. I packed up, made sure I’d cleaned up after myself and then quietly walked back to the park gate. Something blew past my foot and I looked down to see a label off of a can. I bent picked it up and then made sure it went into a trashcan right off the walking path. I was nearly gone from the park when the sound of a throat clearing brought me around fast. It was the cop from the previous night.

“Boy …,” he started like he was going to say something else and then changed gears. “You watch yourself out there. Not every place is as welcome as Grant is.”

“Yes sir.” I could have been a smart aleck but in the end I worried that his words might be more true than not. And I had a lot of miles ahead of me to find out.

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