OK first off, I’m not fond of people invading my personal space. It drives me crazy because for too many years I didn’t have much control over the doctors who were always poking at me and the curious who were always touching me to see if I was real or just some adult dressed like a little kid. Some of that went away as my growing began to slow down and my peers began to do their own growing but by then it was too late. You could say that I was real touchy about being touched.
Thor’s bad habit of grabbing me by the arm to make me do what he wanted me to do drove me nuts. I’m just too big to appreciate having some guy be large and overpowering on purpose. It made me feel aggressive and defensive at the same time. But Thor didn’t just grab me by the arm this time; he pulled me to him in an embrace. It was still automatic for me to start struggling.
“Stop that!” he said squeezing me. “I don’t want to hurt your arm.”
“Then let me go!”
“I want to but I can’t. I said stop wiggling. You make me feel like a cat after a mouse … and I’m having problems not enjoying that.”
“Wha …” I never got to finish what I was going to say. Frankly I can’t remember what I had been going to say to begin with because suddenly he was just there, in my face.
He sounded like he was doing some struggling of his own. “I keep trying to tell myself you’re too young, but it isn’t working. I keep trying to tell myself that I have no business wanting you.” He came even closer. “Unfortunately for both of us I don’t seem to be listening real well.”
I’d been kissed before. Once by a guy in school that was trying to prove that I didn’t belong on the football team because I was “just a girl” … I left him on the ground, holding his tenderbits between the locker rooms where he’d caught me. Then there were Jonathon’s tentative and gentle attempts. Getting kissed by a man … a real man … was a completely different kettle of fish.
He wasn’t rough. He didn’t try to overpower me. What I got was a glimpse at why some people get stupid and mistake sex for love. I finally understood what physical temptation was.
He let go but didn’t step back. “What are you doing to me?” he asked in a husky whisper.
Breathless and a little shaky I answered, “I have absolutely no idea. And how did this wind up being my fault all of a sudden?”
“Rochelle … give me time to figure this out. I’m not going to stand by while you take all of the risk and just walk way.”
I pushed off of him, “Don’t even think about it. I can’t believe you’d try something like this. Have I ever given you the impression that I’m the kind of girl that can be manipulated with sex?! Why would you …”
“What?! No! Rochelle look at me. Two completely and totally separate issues here.”
“Yeah right. Like I’m supposed to believe that,” I told him.
“Yes, you are. I’m not some boy that doesn’t know the real deal from a play thing. And I want … look at me Rochelle … I want to take the time to show you what I mean but we have to prioritize here.” He stepped back into my space again but the only thing he touched me with were his eyes. “How anyone cannot see you’re a woman … they have to be blind. Thank God for that.”
“Excuse me?” I was flabbergasted. Not even Dad had ever phrased it like that.
He stepped away from me and ran his hand through his already messy mop of hair. While I’d done my best to keep my hair neat, short, and boyish the men had actually let their hair grow every which way, some had gone so far as to stop shaving all together assuming they had the kind of beard that didn’t grow out looking thin and stringy. “I’ll go into it when the time’s appropriate. Right now we need to focus on the most immediate problem at hand. If more of those greenies are coming we need to know when and how many, then we need to prepare some type of defense.”
“And how exactly are we supposed to find that out? Go up and ask them? Yeah sure, that’ll work.” I laughed at the absurdity of it.
Thor got a serious look on his face. “Let the men do their job Kid. They’re very good at it.”
First I noticed he’d stopped calling me Rochelle and that usually meant he was putting some distance between us, but I didn’t miss his message either.
“Is this what you did? Before? Out … out there?” I waved my hand around indicating simply away since I wasn’t sure where they’d worked beyond the few locations Evans had mentioned.
“Not often. You’d be surprised how easy it is to bribe most people. Every chain has a weakest link. But yes, on occasion we … we used violence as well as other techniques to acquire information. But unlike how they always made it seem in the media or on those idiot TV shows, the violence wasn’t indiscriminate and it was only when we had no other options left at our disposal.”
Well at least he was being honest. It bothered me but I wouldn’t judge him or the other men because I didn’t know and hadn’t been there. Instead I said, “Well … um … as long as you’re … er … asking questions, ask ‘em how they knew to come here. Seems to be a weird place for a rendezvous. I sure as heck haven’t seen any working radios.”
Thor nodded. “There were some. Problem is that with the multiple catastrophes that hit in such a short period of time that even if the EMP effect didn’t get the equipment, the germs and violence may have gotten the owners. Any still viable radios are probably so few and far between that you wouldn’t just accidentally run up on them and the owners would certainly keep their existence a secret; more so than if they had a horde of gold. As far as the other, it’s on the list. I suspect though that it may have something to do with the river. We’re practically on top of the Missouri. The could have sent a runner to a predetermined location or locations to leave messages …”
“Or …,” broke in Alfonso who had come in looking grim. “They could have just run into another group accidentally who sent back their own runners to a couple of other groups they knew of.”
“How bad do you make it?” Thor asked him.
“Bad, but not insurmountable. They’ve been coming in in just twos and threes up to this point. The primary group brought in by Chuckri’s ex so far has had the only real leaders in it. Rocky …” here he stumbled, flashing me a brief look out of the corner of his eyes “… was right. There are five real toughs but of those only two didn’t break or brag during interrogation.”
I couldn’t help it. I said, “That was quick.”
“Most of ‘em are weak, the rest like to talk and show how superior they are. That’s how we separated the wolves from the sheep.”
Alfonso turned his should to me, obviously uncomfortable. When he started talking to Thor it was also obvious that I wasn’t included. I decided to go check on Evans again but as I was walking out I had to know. “How big a threat am I? I mean just how hacked about me being around are they?”
When his discomfort turned into a defensive wall I said, “That bad huh?” I looked at Thor and turned away when he opened his mouth on something I refused to give him a chance to say. Instead as I walked away I told him, “Make whatever plans you want but I won’t add to the danger these people are already in from these lunatics.”
I spent the next few hours sitting with Evans who came in and out of consciousness; sometimes he was clear headed, most of the time not. It was Elsapet that gave me even more to worry about.
“Your friend, he is quite ill.” It sounded even more ominous coming as it did in a cultured voice that was comfortable using very proper grammar.
“Have you got any idea what this could be?” I asked her, afraid of her answer.
“I suspect but without tests I cannot be sure.”
I looked at her then just shook my head in defeat. “When a doctor stops like they’re afraid they’ve given you too much information even before they’ve said virtually anything at all you know it’s bad.”
She sighed. “You must understand, I am a researcher not a clinician. I cannot prove what I suspect.”
“Tell me anyway.”
In a gentle but detached voice she told me of Richards’ concerns regarding the head injuries that Evans suffered at the hands of the gamblers. Subsequent injuries only added to the damage caused by the original injury.
“I could give you the correct medical terminology but it would not help your feelings any. Repeated concussions, even mild ones, can lead to a total effect of a single traumatic brain injury. It could also be either an epidural or subdural hematoma on the brain, most likely subdural given his symptoms and how they’ve progressively gotten worse; it could even be an intracerebral hemorrhage. We have no way of knowing without the proper equipment.” She gave a delicate shrug, not in indifference but in mild helplessness at being unable to provide a better diagnosis.
“What can we do?”
“I am unsure that anything can be done at this point beyond what is already being done. All of the conditions I mentioned usually require emergency surgery; we simply do not have the skill or facilities to do this. Even if I am wrong it is obvious he has suffered some type of brain injury, perhaps a significant one. Only time will tell what the long term effects are going to be; or … or if the effects will prove fatal.”
I was angry. “So we just sit around and wait? Do nothing?”
A warm male voice said, “There is always prayer.” I turned to see Chuckri’s Uncle Pedros limping towards us. It was obvious that he’d been roughed up at least once in the last few months. Another man, older that Chuckri but looking much like him, also stood there. That had to have been Ludvig Chuckri.
My mouth got ahead of me again. “What? Did your parents have you, like the way you looked and just stuck you in copy machine whenever they wanted another son?”
Ludvig and Pedros both smiled, “Tovmas was right. You are very much a match for Pilbos.”
Evans moaned softly and what little warmth their smiles had brought was gone in an instance. I knelt back beside him but he didn’t wake up. Pedros said, “We should pray that God’s Will be done.”
I was raised to be respectful to my elders and that was the only thing that kept me from telling him that God’s Will could cause just as much pain as doing nothing. No amount of praying had saved Jonathon or his grandmother; no amount had changed the fact that my parents were dead.
Pedros must have read it on my face. He said, “Child, God’s Will is always best even when we don’t understand His whole purpose.”
“Yes sir,” I answered to be polite.
“Ah but do you truly believe that?” he asked me.
I sighed, “I want to. I’m just not sure I do. What about all of the choices and actions bad people make? Those can’t be in God’s Will. Those crazy people out there don’t even believe in Him. They think it is some Goddess, or maybe the earth itself, that will save them. How can they be in God’s Will?”
“God’s Will always conquers what tries to do battle with Him. God may even choose at times to use the actions of the evil to further His Will.”
I shook my head, “I heard that riddle growing up. It always drove me crazy.”
He smiled. “All things work to the good of those that love the Lord. It is faith child. I spent a lifetime constantly trying to solve what you call that riddle. But in the end it always came back to faith. Sometimes we simply have to trust even when we don’t understand.”
I guess the question was whether I had enough faith. I wanted to say I was sure that I did but I wasn’t … sure that is. I did know I didn’t want to sink to the depths that Evans had fallen when his little girl had died. I knew that my parents would expect more and better of me than that. But good intentions aside, I wondered if I was truly strong enough to face what was coming.