I was jittering worse than that time I was idiot enough to take the bet that I couldn’t drink three of those energy drinks one right after the other. It was early days and I wanted to belong so bad I made a bad choice. The things tasted disgusting, the reaction I had to them was worse. I think that was the only time my dad really doubted that I should be playing football. He told me if I was going to give into peer pressure just to be part of something then he’d find me something more constructive to do with my time and that what I had done was idiotic, dangerous and a whole slew of other things. I am taller than Dad was by a couple of inches but I swear I felt about two feet tall by the time he was done reading me the riot act that night after he came in from the fields and found out what I had done. But I did learn my lesson; I was sick as a dog for two days but the first one was the worst. I felt like I was trying to crawl out of my own skin. I couldn’t stop shaking for love or money. My dad called the special docs I saw because I was a GWB and they said to bring me in. Oh brother, after Dad got done the doc started in on me and told me it was likely only my size that kept me from needing to be in the hospital and that if he ever caught me doing something like that again he’d yank my eligibility faster than I could beg forgiveness. I swear I was afraid to drink a coke for rest of the year.
I learned the hard way that size of body does not indicate strength of common sense and that I was apparently just as prone as the next person to do something dumb on occasion. And now I was praying that I hadn’t done something dumb and made things worse for Chuckri. I mean sure, he and I’d had rough spots but on the other hand he was the first one that gave me any kind of chance when I first started with Thor’s crew. I knew I had to say something about the childish crayon scrawl I found but at the same time if it turned out to be bad anyway I was going to kick myself for not leaving well enough alone.
No one talked much as we rode along. The men would take turns riding up beside Chuckri, offering silent support but the horse he rode didn’t care for the bicycle much and between not wanting to get kicked, not knowing if I even had a place in his support group, and worrying that I was only making things worse I stayed back and just watched.
“There should be people. There should be something by now,” I told Evans as we passed through a little town called Napoleon. I was anxious and couldn’t help worrying.
“Didja notice the buildings?”
“Yeah, they’re all empty.”
“Yeah, they are.” I looked at him and then looked at the buildings more closely finally realizing that they were empty but in a neat kind of way compared to KC and other places we’d been through. Like they’d been cleaned out; not ransacked, but cleaned out. All of the buildings looked like that. Then I noticed that some attempt had been made to get any dangerous mess out of the way, most of it piled up neatly here and there. Evans said, “Someone’s done a good job here. Organized. Must be a group of decent size too for them to have done all of this.”
Chuckri stopped and we all stopped with him. “We’ve got to go through town, cross the tracks, and then towards the river. It’s not the best land around but my uncle bought it cheap and owns it free and clear and that is saying something for an immigrant’s kid who came to this country with barely the clothes on his back.” He was obviously proud of what his uncle had accomplished.
We rode following Chuckri’s lead. As soon as we crossed the tracks the road got rough. I noticed the other men slowing, even Chuckri. I biked over to Evans and asked, “What’s wrong? What’s up with the spooky dudes attitude.”
“Too quiet,” he muttered under his breath. “No people, no animals, nothin’, but no vandalism or ransacking either. This don’t fit with what we’ve seen so far.”
Once I started to pay attention I saw it and felt like an idiot for not noticing it earlier. Had I been at home I would have felt the difference but out here … I made a note to myself to be more aware of my surroundings.
I gave myself a good mental kick in the pants then pedaled up near Thor to ask him if he wanted me to go a little forward. I had no sooner got there than a shot rang. I felt my arm go numb and then it wasn’t numb no more as I crashed. Thor’s horse reared and I tried to roll out of the way. Everyone else was dismounting and looking for cover that didn’t exist.
I rolled over into a ditch in time to see someone barreling in this direction. I almost shot him until I realized he was a little on the short side to be a bad guy.
Well, since I knew he wasn’t talking to me and the fact that Chuckri practically ran over me to get to the kid I figured he must be one of the missing kidlets.
The kid was hysterical and blathering so much and so fast that I only caught a word in three. Lucky for me it was in English so what I got made sense once I was able to string it together. Friends of his mothers had shown up as they were leaving town and “escorted” them out of the danger zone. Everything had been fine for a couple of weeks but when Chuckri’s uncle wouldn’t take their suggestions about how to farm without scaring the earth and being vegan and all the trouble started. And when the family had flat refused to include pagan nature worshiping activities into their lives things fell apart quickly. The family was basically enslaved with the children being held to make sure they behaved and did as they were told. It was psychological war rather than a truly physical one. Only when the adults tried to revolt a cousin had been murdered and another badly wounded.
They – the ones that had come in with his mother – had been trying to brainwash the children and it was working with the youngest ones but the older ones were having none of it. When they’d spotted riders the older kids had made their move covering for one of their number to escape to warn the incoming riders, they just hadn’t known who it was.
“Dad, you’ve got to get ‘em. They hurt Uncle Lud bad. And … and they hit grandmother because she won’t stop praying. You’ve got to …” Chuckri hugged his son, kissed him and handed him off to Delia.
“David, listen to me. You stay here. This is Delia … she … she and I ...” I could see him struggling.
I broke in. “Hey … David, right? How many are there and where are they? I owe somebody for this arm and I’d like to get it done before it starts hurting too bad.”
That broke the weird tension and about that time Thor made it over to our position despite the bullets that continued to fly.
“Kid …” he said after getting a look at me.
“Not now Thor. You can have your horse thank me later for saving it from getting shot,” I told him trying to grin though I’m not sure it worked by the look on his face.
In the middle of battle things seem to go slow and fast at the same time. Really I don’t remember what happened except in flashes. There wasn’t the worry that we’d hurt Chuckri’s family because they’d been locked into the a shed that doubled as a root cellar and the children were in a different location on the back of the property. Anyone shooting at us would be fair game.
Those men and women were nothing but bullies. They were dangerous but not well trained. There was no way they stood any significant chance against a well trained crew that had been together as long as the men had. I did my share but it was from the outside. Delia was in charge of the kids and I was supposed to help her but I wanted to do more than that.
I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit around waiting for the pain in my arm to totally make me useless. “David,” I started. “If I can get up in that tree what would I see?”
“The house and stuff like that,” he answered giving me a look that told me he wasn’t too sure he cared for me much.
Ignoring the look since I’d seen it from little kids more than once I said, “Sure, but could I see any of the places the bad guys are hiding behind?”
He started to shrug while searching for his father but then looked at me and slowly grinned. “Yeah. Yeah I think you can.”
He wanted to climb up there with me but I asked him – “man to man” – if he would take over looking after Delia and Trish and Mickey. He nodded, not fooled but seeming to appreciate the effort anyway so that he could save face.
Getting up that tree was no fun. The bullet had only barely got me through the meaty part of my arm in a quick in and out and didn’t even have much velocity when it did. It had been more of a lucky shot than a good or deliberate one. But it was definitely screaming at me that I was an idiot to do anything more than crawl up into a ball and cry like a baby. I told my appendage too bad, that I had work to do and suddenly found myself high up in the tree without remembering doing the actually climbing part.
I got set and then pulled the same tricks I did when I had been on the roof. One of the things that I had picked up when Chuckri and I were getting ammo was a good scope. A good scope can make a mediocre rifle into something better than it was ever meant to be. My shoulder and arm let out a yelp every shot I took but I still hit what I was aiming at thanks to how tight that scope brought the targets in. And I intentionally did what I wasn’t sure the men could have or would have done. I went after the female shooters.
When it was over with, and it didn’t take that long despite my description of it, the small farm was a mess. I wasn’t the only one that took a hit on our side. Chuckri had to have a dressing put on his rib cage, Alfonso had to have some gravel dug out of his arm from a ricochet, and Evans had taken another knock on the head by a woman who’d run out of bullets and attacked him with a piece of 2x4. None of us felt like dancing with the fools who had switched from being dangerous bullies to pleading for their miserable lives to whining like the scum they were all in the space of a few minutes.
“You … you killed the women!” one of the women I hadn’t shot screeched. Of course she was screaming at the wrong people but I wasn’t about to explain that to her. It would make me sound like some kind of serial killer or something.
“Shut up Linda,” Chuckri said with this kind of nonchalant rage I’d never seen anyone use before. Guess who Linda was? As she continued spewing acid I began to wonder if it was a good thing I hadn’t shot her after all.
After one such long stream of foulness I had finally had enough and turned on her. My arm was really singing and I’d had just about all I could take. “Will you shut your oversized yap already? If you haven’t got the sense to realize what a complete fool you are making of yourself could you at least show a little compassion for your poor kids? You’re a traitor, an embarrassment, and a poor excuse for a human. So shut it or you are going to find out I could care less what your gender is. Find some manners or find yourself shut up by me.”
I said the last as I got down in her space and gave her the same face that Freight Train Charbonneau used to give the big boys that thought she was easy to intimidate. She backed up so fast she fell on her backside and then she tried the poor pathetic route.
“Forget it,” I told her before any of the men could get taken in. “Crocodile tears mean nothing in this world any more. Your actions are what tell a person’s story and yours isn’t pretty, neither are you anymore. Your silliness and vanity may have paid your way before but they won’t get you anything these days except maybe pain and death.”
I was starting to freak a few people out, including a couple of our men and after a look from both Evans and Thor I stopped, but only grudgingly. Linda managed to push all of my buttons without even trying. I had my own hang ups it’s true and since I was having a hard time differentiating between whether it was my hang ups or her actions or the fact that my arm was throbbing like mad that was causing my oversized reaction I decided it would be the best thing to just stay away from her. Her calling me an ugly freak as I walked away pushed a few more and it took a lot to ignore her. To play it safe I stood near Evans as Richards was bandaging his head.
There had been a tussle to get the last of the bad guys who were using the little kids as hostages but the older kids inside wound up beating the snot out of them with chairs and anything else they could get their hands on once they knew they had adult support waiting to come in and help. Some help. Thor actually had to take the weapons away from some of the kids and carry them out so they wouldn’t have to live with murder on their hands. I heard him mutter, “Buncha little feral chimps.” I nearly laughed as he tried to peel kids off of him; they clung to him like burrs. The last couple wouldn’t let go until they recognized Chuckri at which point the look on Thor’s face said he lost an eardrum to the squeals of the little girl that had grabbed hold of his neck with a death grip.
At the same time the surviving adults in Chuckri’s family were set free from the shed and it was like being in the middle of a bunch of geese having a family reunion. Half of them weren’t speaking English, the other half were, there was crying and carrying on, there was laughter and pounding of backs. I’d never seen such a noisy love fest.
It was a long time settling down. As soon as I made sure Evans was comfortable and minding Richards who had his hands full with all of the injuries minor and not so minor I headed over to call Delia and in with Trish and Mickey. She drove the wagon while I gathered up the horses and as it was still too chaotic for me to feel comfortable – not to mention I was trying to avoid Richards and his poking – I went back out and started picking up casings.
“Hey! Hey! You … big guy!”
I turned to see a much younger version of Chuckri walking towards me. Since I knew this couldn’t be his son I waited for him to introduce himself. David was eleven and his little girl was about Mickey’s age.
“Yo … that giant dude, the one Uncle Tavit calls Thor, is looking for you.”
He looked at me like he was beginning to wonder if I was mentally slow. “Yeah. He works with you and …”
“Oh,” I laughed. “You mean Chuckri. I’ve never heard him called anything else.”
The kid … well, he wasn’t much younger than me so I felt weird calling him that … smiled and said, “You call Chuckri and more than half of us will turn around.” He held out his hand, “I’m Taniel. Ludvig Chuckri is my dad.”
“Oh. I was beginning to wonder. You look a lot like Chu … uh … your uncle.”
He laughed, “Which one? My dad is the oldest, then there are a couple of aunts, then Uncle Tavit, after him another aunt, and then my uncles Tovmas, Soghomon, and Pilbos. Uncle Pilbos is about your age I guess but the others are all older than us. Come on, Uncle Bedros wants to say a blessing for the day and good fortunes and he doesn’t like waiting.”
As we walked I asked him, “Who is Uncle Bedros?”
“My grandfather’s brother. My grandfather passed a couple of years ago but you’ll meet my grandmother. When she gets a good look at you she’ll probably put you to work in the field pulling the mules.”
I laughed because it is the kind of thing my own grandmother would have said to a young man my age and size. I walked up and into Thor’s bad mood. “Where were you?”
Rather than do something that might start an argument that would embarrass us both I started emptying my pockets and forcing him to juggle all of the empty casings that I’d been picking up. As I kept trying to hand them to him even though his hands were now full Taniel walked away trying not to smile.
Thor sighed then shook his head. “Next time tell someone and I won’t chew you out.”
I said, “Oh, were you? ‘Cause you just asked where I was and …”
“Kid …” Thor said warningly.
“All right Rocky, think he’s got the picture,” Evans said drawing my attention. All the good feeling I had went away with one look at his face.
“Aw, get off me Kid. It’s just a bump.” It was a bump all right, there was a goose egg shaped swelling above his eye that was so big it deformed his hairline. His skin had that nasty gray shade to it that I’d started to associate with his bad turns and I could see when he stood still he kind of listed to the side. Regardless of what he said he let me pull up a chair for him to sit in under a tree then told me, “Now you listen, this ought to be good. He looks like someone whot can give a good sized and powerful prayer.”
I looked up to see a man that was some shorter than I was and very lean and wiry looking. His eyes were black and could have been forbidding but somehow they weren’t. And Evans was right, the man certainly did know how to pray. The words weren’t fancy, the sentences were long, but they seemed to be packed with a lot of feeling and power.
I looked at Evans with a smile and he said, “What’d I tell ya. Knew he had it in him. Now I don’t need no nursemaid. Go on. Git. Do what Thor tells you to and stay o’ trouble until I’m feeling better. Ya hear?”
I laughed, “I hear. And you’re one to talk about staying out of trouble, look what you got into when my back was turned.”
“Aw pshaw,” he snorted back at me, laughing a bit.
I turned and saw Thor staring at me with a funny look on his face. I walked over, “Well, what now?”
Instead of answering he asked, “What’s with you and Evans?”
“Huh?” I turned around and saw Evans talking to the man that had to be Uncle Bedros.
He glowered at me and explained, “You two sure are getting on.”
I shrugged, “We watch each other’s back. What am I not even allowed to be friends with any of your crew?” I meant it to be sarcastic but I guess part of me was starting to wonder and it must have shown on my face.
I swallowed, “Well … I guess … I guess not,” I whispered trying not to sound like he’d hurt my feelings again. I backed up and turned away as Chuckri came up with some other men that all looked like him enough for me to know they were either brothers or nephews.
Evans didn’t like me to hover but I couldn’t just stand around doing nothing. No sooner would I stand still than my arm would call for me to notice it more than I wanted to and Thor’s words would start eating at me. I decided to go over and start picking up limbs and stuff that had fallen in the yard which was a real mess. I’d seen a yard lot look as messy as this one did. My family made a habit of picking stuff up anytime anything fell and putting it in the wood pile; even my grandmothers did it that way.
A little girl, maybe six or seven, came up to me and said sharply, “You aren’t supposed to do that.”
“Why?” I asked her surprised.
“Because of nature.”
I was thinking what the heck when David came over and patted the little girl and said, “Remember, we talked about this.”
In a bossy tone she retorted, “But Momma said …”
“I know what Momma said,” David said carefully. “But …”
The little girl was having none of it and started to pitch a fit, egged on by her mother and the other weirdos we’d freed the Chuckri family from.
Kinda out of left field I through out, “You know, if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten that apple we wouldn’t be in this fix.”
The little girl stood there with her mouth hanging open thinking maybe the big guy in front of her had head problems. I shrugged. “They disobeyed God and got into something they weren’t supposed to so He kicked ‘em out of the Garden and said, ‘From here on out you are going to have to work for everything you get in this life.’ He said that we’d have to deal with thorns and all sorts of bothersome things. I reckon that’s why he has the limbs fall from the trees too. It gives us something to do besides sit around whining about stuff.”
All the while I was saying this I was getting catcalls and worse from the prisoners, one in particular had a nasty mouth. I’d been called a freak too many times in my life for it to bother me very often but when he said it I was fast losing my patience. I looked over and there was a handy dandy hook on the side of the barn about five feet off the ground. Sometimes I’m not a very nice person.
I walked over and picked the guy up from where he’d been sitting on the gound, bearing the weight on my uninjured arm. Irritated enough to not care that my other arm wasn’t happy with me at all I told him, “Here’s a wedgie man … they build character” right as I none too gently hung him by his britches on that hook. Reckon it creased him pretty good in a tender spot because he commenced to howling pretty loudly.
Then I turned and stepped out of range of being kicked and turned to the kids and said, “Now see here? This man is what you call a hypocrite. He claims to be a vegetarian and not believe in killing animals but just look at him, claiming to be all humble and junk. That belt is a good quality one and made of leather. Everyone here knows where leather comes from?” They all did. “That’s right. Now look at his shoes, those are expensive leather cowboy boots if I ever saw a pair. And if he really was a peace loving sort like they’re trying to play at I don’t guess he would have treated your family the way he did or take shots at us.”
The little girl was still hanging onto what her Momma said so I bent down and said. “Look Sweet Pea, I know you love your Momma but was it very nice of her to try and hurt your Daddy?”
That really flipped her switch. “Daddy left us!!”
“Excuse me Shorty but if I have the timeline down right your Momma knew what your Daddy did for a living when they met and married. He put his life in danger to make sure that you and your brother had a free country to live in and a roof over your head.”
“Rocky!” Chuckri came over with a snarl.
“Hey man, I know you don’t want me upsetting your kid but do you think it is any better for her to believe some lie told to her?” Before he could stop me I turned around and told David and his little sister, “Your father survived bombs, bandits, and bullets with the only goal of getting to you all. It is what kept him going and he talked about getting to you guys as soon as we could. When we finally did make it to your other house and you weren’t there and he thought the worst had happened he just fell down in the yard and started howling like his heart was broke into a bazillion pieces. David, the only thing that reached him was when your note was seen. It gave him hope and we came lickety split here. He loves you two just that much. In fact, he loves you so much that it made his heart big enough that he met these two little kids that didn’t have parents anymore and a woman that had a heart ache of her own and he’s made room for her too. Stop believing what everyone else is telling you to believe and just give him a chance and take the time to get to know him again.”
It was David that asked, “Those two kids with that woman over there?”
“Yep. The girl is named Trish and the little boy is named Mickey. Their parents never came home after the bombs fell and they don’t have any family left. Trish took care of her brother for months by herself but as you can imagine since you have a younger sibling it wasn’t easy.”
“And that woman?” he asked.
“Her name is Delia and she and your dad have gotten to be real close. Kinda the opposite of what happened between your dad and mom. I know it’s bound to be confusing on top of everything else.”
David sounding way too old for his age said, “No. Mom had a lot of boyfriends all the time. She explained it to us already.”
“Er … um … well … uh … don’t think that is quite … uh …,” I turned. “Chuckri!”
He sighed and cross his arms the best he could in spite of his ribs, “So now you expect me to rescue you?”
I realized I’d way over stepped my place and I tried to look contrite but couldn’t quite pull it off. Suddenly David laughed at me. “You’re funny. I’m not stupid. Delia is Dad’s girlfriend. But Dad never had girlfriends so he must really like Delia. It’s cool. I told Dad last year he needed to get a girlfriend since Mom had boyfriends.”
‘David!” Chuckri was turning red with embarrassment.
“You know, I knew there was something about you I liked,” I told David. “Now if we can just get your sister to give your dad a chance.”
“Oh, she will. She always comes around. Don’t you Vika?”
The little girl’s bottom lip started to quiver, “It was scary and Stupid ran away and didn’t come back like he said his would. Daddy wasn’t there either. He should have been there. He should have.” Then she started to cry and Chuckri scooped her up.
I asked David, “Who’s Stupid? A dog?”
David snickered, “Mom’s boyfriends. I kept forgetting all their names so I just started calling them Stupid when no one was around. Vika heard me one time and then she started doing it too. Mom didn’t care, sometimes she would call them that too.”
I mean, what do you say to something like that? From a ten year old? It sure didn’t say much for their mother in my opinion but that was something else that was none of my business. I’d put my foot into it just about as far as I could get away with and probably some beyond that.
I got out of the way and let them do the family thing. To get out of the way I had to pass by the weirdoes and I began to be able to separate them. Most of them were just the weak go along types. Of these some were blustering and some just looked in shock and defeated. Then you had the angry ones that were fanatics and willing to fight about and over what they believed in. But there were a couple whose behavior warned me they were well and truly dangerous. It was debatable whether they truly believed in the same things as their comrades but they believed in something. These were the ones that would willingly become cannon fodder; these were the recruiters and the ones that sent them to battle, who designed the acts of terror at some level.
Whenever the GWB thing would make it to the mainstream media every couple of years these were the ones that would go on television and sound so reasonable about how we were mistakes that shouldn’t be encouraged, how we needed to be watched so we didn’t pollute the gene pool with our unnaturalness, blood, how it might even be safer and better if we were put into a camp (for our own good), and lots of other stuff like that. Some of these people had the ears of people in government and in the medical community because when I was about eleven they made a rule that the GWBs couldn’t donate blood and that all of our tissues and fluids were to be considered toxic waste and had to be disposed of separately from normal human hospital waste.
They reminded me of the fanatics that joined Hitler’s movement and picked out portions of the world’s population for annihilation. Singly they were bad enough but I counted five in this group plus they had all of their underling idiots to support their power base. One woman in particular gave me the heebies and she kept watching me as I continued to pick up limbs and right all of the overturned stuff in the yard.
A guttural whisper said, “I know you from some place.”
I did my best to ignore her and walk away. “As soon as I figure it out you and I will have a little … talk.”
Linda added, “Yeah, you just wait until the rest of us get …” The woman knocked into Linda hard. I pretended I hadn’t been paying attention to what she’d said but my head was spinning.
Lucky for me Thor bellowed for me so I made my escape without having to be sneaky about it.
“Yeah?” I asked him tiredly. My arm was next to useless by that time and was well and truly throbbing enough that it was draining my energy.
“Has Richards looked at that arm?”
“Yeah.” I was being polite because I didn’t have the energy to get into a snapping contest. Bad move on my part because it let Thor know that I was worse off than I wanted to let on about.
“OK Kid. Off your feet for a spell.”
“What? Wait … no … I’m fine.”
I got a cocked eyebrow. “Don’t try and bluff this one out.”
I whispered under my breath, “Act like you’re mad at me.”
“What?” He said it loud enough that we got a few looks.
“Yeah, go with that,” I continued under my breath. “Look like you’re angry with me and then point over to the wagon and get behind it so we can talk without anyone hearing.”
He looked like he was all out of patience but he did what I asked and we wound up behind the wagon. “Now you want to tell me what this stupid display was about? You thinking about taking off right this second or something?”
“Stow it Thor. Look, this is going to sound nuts so just let me say it and then you can decide. I pick out about five of those greenies to be high up in the food chain. I can’t explain how I know just that I’ve met people like them before and those five are the real deal in contrast to the rest of them.” I told him which ones I was talking about, especially the woman and what she’d said to me. “That Linda … Chuckri’s ex … well she said that basically we’d be in for it when their other friends get … get something. I’m not sure but I thought she might mean get here. The other woman sure tried to shut her up without me noticing and I played like I hadn’t heard. For some reason most of them seem to think I’m a few fries short of a Happy Meal.”
Straight faced Thor said, “I can’t imagine why.”
“Thor …” I stopped and hated myself for what I said next. “Thor … please … if I have to beg I will. Those five are dangerous with a capital D. I’m not freaked out. I’m not being a baby. Those people … or people just like them … killed my parents. Premeditated murder just because of what I am, what the rest of us were. Please, I can’t stand the idea of them starting their movement back up, not at the further expense of Chuckri’s family. Please.”
“Hey,” he said quietly. “Take it easy Kid. It’s OK. No need to be scared.”
“I’m not scared … OK, maybe I am … but with good reason and …”
A voice caught us both by surprise. “What do you mean at the expense of my family … and what are you exactly that would get your family killed?”
Chuckri and Alfonso stood there looking suspicious and I knew that things were about to get messy.