When I awoke at dawn that morning I was alone, but a light jacket I’d seen Thor wear before was draped over me. I knew he was being nice by leaving it over me but it also felt like he was staking a public claim; strangely enough that didn’t bother me one bit. Thor had agreed to come home with me and for a brief moment the future seemed full of endless possibilities.
But as Evans made a slight noise all of my elation disappeared in a rush of embarrassment and shame. Here this man who had befriended me was struggling to stay in this world, and I was all but canoodling right beside his death bed. I immediately hurried away to get myself awake and then returned to find Richards in my place.
“I was just washing up,” I hurriedly said.
“Relax Rocky. Or do you want to be called Rochelle now?”
“Rocky … please. It’s weird enough hearing Thor call me something I usually only heard when I was in some hot water. Having everyone call me that would be too much.”
He grinned, “Try having your mother scream ‘Ralph Royson Richards!’ down the block a few times.”
“Pardon me but you don’t look like a Ralph,” I told him, relieved that he didn’t seem to be judging me.
He shook his head ruefully. “I’ve never been fond of the name. It was my maternal grandfather’s name. Not to mention too many people tried to call me Little Ralph or Ralphie when I was a kid.”
“Ooo, you have my sympathies all right,” I said in mock pity.
Richards smiled, then became more serious with a sigh. “Rocky, when’s the last time Evans was conscious.”
“Late yesterday, right before it turned full dark. I … I checked on him in the middle of the night but he was sleeping.”
He was very quiet before telling me, “I … I don’t think he’ll last out the day. His autonomic and somatic reflexes are failing. I think his kidneys have already failed and his other organs will rapidly follow.” He shook his head. “I’d give anything if I could make this easier on him, better yet that it never had to happen in the first place.”
I was having a hard time not feeling overwhelmed at what I know was bound to happen. “Thor said you were going to talk to me … about Evans.”
“Yeah. I’d planned to give you some time but it might be better to just go ahead and tell you. Evans knew something was wrong. It had concerned him since his rescue but he kept it to himself until he couldn’t hide it anymore. The mess back in Topeka really spelled it out for him and he finally came to me. He’d planned on talking to you as well but … time just ran out.” I was trying very hard not to cry at that point. “Look Kid, he really liked you. He’d even started a letter to you but he never finished it. It’s in his gear but I wouldn’t recommend reading it right now. You’ve got enough on your plate.”
I finally mastered my emotions and then sat up straighter. “You’re sure he isn’t in any pain? Thor said that’s what you told him.”
“No, I don’t think he is any pain. We’d probably know if he was because that’s one of the more primitive reflexes and one of the last to go.” After a moment he said, “You and Thor are getting pretty close.”
I must have blushed because he smiled, “Good for you. Good for both of you. Something worthwhile has to come out of this mess.”
I asked him, “Are the men … are they … are they talking about it? I don’t want to get Thor in trouble.”
“Listen Kid, I’ve known Thor for a long time and I’ve never seen him like this. Whatever it is, the two of you work it out and you stop worrying about what other people say.”
“Which tells me more than it doesn’t.”
Richards shrugged. “What do you expect? To find out that someone could fool them for as long and as well as you did and then to find out that it was about your gender … that’s a lot for them to swallow. It’s easier for some to swallow than for others.”
Remembering what I’d heard the previous day I said, “Alfonso …”
“Kid, they’ll get over it, all of them. Give them time. Montgomery is already acting like it was a fantastic prank that he plans to tell his grandkids about. He and Barkley will bring Alfonso around.”
“What about Chuckri?” I asked.
“Chuckri’s got bigger problems right now. You aren’t the center of the universe that everything and everyone revolves around,” he told me with a wry look on his face.
The last nearly had me laughing despite everything that was happening which I think may have been his purpose of saying it. One of the reasons I liked Evans even in the beginning when I thought of him as foul and cranky is because I could count on him to be honest to a fault. I needed that. It used to be Jonathon, then it was Evans. Now it seemed that there were other people who would pop my bubble if I would just pay attention.
“Do you … I mean did Evans ever say anything? I … um … really didn’t figure things out until … well … the fire. I was afraid to think about it too much before then. But Evans would say things every once in a while. Make me think about Thor as more than just the boss.” I shrugged, afraid to show how important it was to me that Evans would approve.
“Evans? Yeah, and he’d nudge the two of you every once in a while. On the other hand, I suspect that mostly he didn’t think anyone was good enough for you and whenever Thor would do or say something that upset you Evans would then start meddling and needling to make Thor feel guilty about it.”
“Oh no. I …”
“You do get bent out of shape too easily. Stop it already before you have a breakdown and really need my services. Evans was being a friend … to both of you. But Evans also thought of you as a type of foster daughter. He obviously told you about Annie. I think you helped him to spend some of those pent up feelings he had about that.” He made to stand up. “I need to go give Elsapet a break. She’s been up most of the night with Vika, Chuckri’s little girl. She’s badly traumatized by all that has happened. I won’t be far though so call if you need something or if Evans noticeably worsens.”
About an hour later I was washing Evans’ face and hands. It seemed to soothe him. I kept up a quiet running dialogue just in case he knew I was there. A sound of nothing behind me brought me around fast. It was Mrs. Chuckri. She was wearing that Mona Lisa smile that made her seem so serene and was holding two bowls.
“You eat now. The men have all eaten so we eat now.” She handed me the bowl and a spoon and it would have been rude to refuse to eat while she was. It looked like mush but the first bite told me it was a sweetened cream of wheat type cereal.
“Khavits,” she said quietly.
“The dish. It is called Khavits.”
“It’s very good. Thank you.”
“You are welcome. Tavit has told me some of your story.”
It was a blatant request, if a polite one, to fill her in so I told her leaving out the parts where I got into tussles with the men. Her raised eyebrow and knowing look told me that she was aware I’d left some facts out.
“This woman … this Delia … do you know much about her?” A more direct question this time and one that I expect any mother would have asked so I answered her with everything I knew. She seemed more at ease and then left to go to Pilbos who was calling for some attention.
Evans started mumbling incoherently again but it wasn’t like before; he was not delirious exactly but he wasn’t really there in his head either. It’s like his brain was misfiring. People would wander in and out of the tarp covered area but couldn’t or wouldn’t stay long. It was obviously hard for them to see their friend in the condition he was in; I’d already been through this before with my grandmother and understood a little of what was happening and why.
Richards came by and patted my arm then left again. Another hour passed and Elsapet came and did the same. Evans’ breathing started having a wet, gurgling sound to it so I propped him up a bit. I was wiping his face when I noticed his skin had started to get a bluish tinge to it. I turned to call Richards but out of nowhere Evans reached out and clamped a hand tightly over my wrist.
I’ll never forget what happened next. His eyes were open and seeing … really seeing … something. In a voice that barely registered above a whisper he said, “Look … look it’s all true … every last bit of it.” And then he said, “Annie.” But he wasn’t looking at me when he said it and I knew he wasn’t talking to me. An incredibly content smile appeared on his face … and then he was gone.
I don’t know, it was a while later I guess, someone must have said something to me and I didn’t respond. Then Richards was there and Thor. I guess the others were as well.
“Rochelle …” Thor said quietly.
“I’m … I’m all right. He’s … he’s gone. I … I think he saw Annie … he … he seemed to anyway.” My eyes were dry even though my chest and throat burned. “What … what do I do for him now?”
“You let us take care of that. I want you to go sit with Delia.”
“Rochelle, we’re going to take care of this part.”
Somehow or other I was suddenly sitting under a walnut tree on the other side of the yard and Delia was sitting not too far away. I looked at her and said, “Really … I’m OK. I … I can …”
“Thor asked you to let them do this.”
Her tone of voice caused me to look at her. “You don’t really like me do you?”
She sighed, “You want me to lie to make you feel better? I don’t really want to make you feel worse, not now.”
“I prefer honesty.”
“OK … I don’t like you. You lied. You lied to all of us. I was right there, another female amongst all the me, you could have told me but you didn’t. How am I supposed to explain this to Trish and Mickey?”
“You shouldn’t have to. Trish figured it out within a day of me finding them. Mickey never seemed to care one way or the other.”
“What?” she asked shocked.
“Little kids are smart although Trish isn’t really all that little. She wanted to know why my voice sounded like a man but my words were the same thing her mother would have said. Good, logical question that I hadn’t even thought of.”
“She knew? All this time?” She sounded like her feelings were hurt a little.
“Yeah. It was always a lot harder for me to lie to some people than it was to others. I hated all of it but some of the people made me feel horrible. Then to find out that three of them knew, nearly from the beginning … Thor, Evans, Richards … and then there was Trish … even Nona back in Topeka knew without me having to tell her. It doesn’t make me seem like that much of an actress does it?” I was talking just to talk. It was easier than being quiet and having to let everything sink in. But Delia was done talking to me, I think she was shocked that Trish had known and she hadn’t.
We couldn’t afford to wait, there was no real chance to grieve, or prepare or anything. The bodies of the greenies had simply been burned in the remains of barn and then their ashes scattered along the railroad tracks. The ground was tough and hard on Bedros’ farm so they placed Evans’ … his corpse rather because I knew that Evans wasn’t really there any more … in a partially dug new root cellar and backfilled the hole with dirt and ashes from around the farm.
As the sun went down Bedros gave a grave side service. I could tell some of the men were uncomfortable but I think that Evans would have gotten a kick out of it. It wasn’t until everyone had filed away and Thor had been called to deal with some minor crisis that I finally felt the need to really cry and I didn’t intend on doing it where everyone would be able to stare at me. I wandered away onto the path that led down to the river and finally found a corner of privacy to let the wall fall down and my heart break in peace.
I jumped as something small suddenly rushed at me out of the bushes. “I hate you. This is all your fault. I hope you die.”
The absolute malice in the young voice horrified me. I looked up to see Chuckri’s daughter bearing down on me with a big stick. I was too shocked to move and she hit me a couple of times hard before I even registered the added pain.
“Geez, Vika …”
“Don’t you talk to me. You’re a monster, just like Momma said you were. You should have died not her! I hate you!! I hate you!! I hate you!!”
I could probably have taken the stick away from her but not necessarily without hurting her in the process. It wasn’t until she was about to use it as a spear that I did any more than bat it away when she swung it at me.
“Vika!” It was David that ran up and wrenched the stick from her. He pushed her back and she fell as he was calling, “Dad! I found her!!”
Chuckri came running while I held my sore arm. “What did you do?!” he bellowed at me.
Vika started crying, telling some tale how I’d been about to hurt her when David said, “Dad! Don’t … don’t listen to her. Rocky didn’t even take the stick away I did. Vika was the one hurting her not …”
Chuckri turned on me and said, “Look, now you’ve even got my son defending you. Can’t you just stop causing trouble?”
Then Thor charged up and I thought that he and Chuckri were going to come to blows and I’d finally had it.
“That’s enough!!” I yelled. “We just buried Evans! Isn’t that bad enough? Do the two of you have to go crazy on top of it?!” They both had the grace to look startled, especially as they both seemed to notice for the first time that I’d been crying. “You two have been together how many years and you are going to wait until now, barely hours after seeing one of your best friends go on to the next life, to turn on each other?”
Thor stepped towards me but I stepped back. “No. Thor, if I let myself fall apart now I might never be able to put the pieces back together.” Then I turned to Chuckri who was trying to listen to David and Vika at the same time. “Chuckri, I’d never use your daughter like your ex did. Vika’s just messed up after going through everything. She … she needs someone to blame and I guess I’m it. I won’t hold it against her, you, or anyone else for that matter.”
I wanted to be able to say something to make everything better but my supply of smart comebacks seemed to have all dried up. “Please don’t do this,” I begged. “Wait … I know … get Uncle Badros. He can fix this. I know he can.” I was grasping at straws but that seemed the most likely to fix what was happening.
The man in question suddenly appeared, having been out looking for Vika as well. “You embarrass me child with such confidence.” He gave me a troubled smile before turning to Chuckri and saying, “Come Tavit, bring your daughter back to Elsapet and that Dr. Richards. David, come along, I wish you to tell your father and I what you saw.”
After they had walked away Thor said, “This is wrong.”
“Wrong?! The whole world feels wrong.” I stopped to try and pull myself back together but I was shivering. When Thor reached out for me and I didn’t pull away that time. I needed to believe that there was someone I could count on, that was in my corner. “Just let it go Thor. That kid – Vika - I can understand how she feels. Her world has been turned upside down, inside out, and sideways. Her mother died right there in front of her. She’s just … just messed up right now.”
I kept shivering and it felt good to be held. Thor topped me by nearly a head. I became distracted by the unique experience of being able to tuck my head beneath someone’s chin.
“Better?” he asked.
“I’m … I’m OK. You … you don’t think I’m turning into a wimp do you? I’ll stop if you do, I’ve just never felt like this before.” I didn’t want to stop but I would have. I wanted his respect as much as I wanted the other things I felt with him.
“I don’t think you’re a wimp and … and I’ve never felt like this before either,” he told the top of my head. “Walk with me down to the river bank. I want to hear what happened without all the shouting and hysterics.”
We didn’t make it to the river but instead found a handy fallen tree to sit on. I told him how I’d just needed to have a little space to let it all out and rebalance myself and how I’d been so distracted that when Vika had come out of the bushes I hadn’t been prepared to deal with her.
“Thor, I know how manipulative those greenie folks can be. If I’d been in her shoes I’d probably be just as bad if not worse. I’m a decade and some older than her and when I finally accepted my parents were gone I was pretty shook up. It wouldn’t have taken much to make me strike out the way she did.”
“It’s not her that has me upset, it’s Chuckri.”
“Well, Vika is his daughter and he’s probably feeling guilty he couldn’t protect her from all of this. My dad always said I would understand stuff better if I ever had any kids of my own. Parents seem to strike first and then ask questions later when it comes to protecting their kids.”
“Maybe so. But I don’t need anyone to give you any more fuel for that fire you have under your feet making you want to run off.”
I looked at him in the waning light and realized that he did understand a lot better than I’d ever given him credit for. I could also see that what was between us was just as new and different for him as it was for me. Why hadn’t I seen before that maybe he needed as much reassuring as I did?
“What?” he asked me finally noticing I was looking at him kind of strange.
I reached out and his whiskers tickled my hand as ran it down his cheek. “Thor, I promised you I wouldn’t run because of the greenies and I’ll keep my promise if I can. But this thing of somehow getting in the way of your crew, it bothers me. You and Chuckri have been together over a decade. I won’t be the cause of making a mess of that … I won’t. Both of you are needed to get Chuckri’s family to Kentucky. If either one of you bails, or the other guys think something is going on, things might start to fall apart and there are still too many bad things out there to let that happen. I wish Evans was here, he’d know just what to say to make this all die down to nothing. If … if it comes down to me not being able to ride with your crew I … I won’t go far. I’ll track your path, cover your backside or break the trail ahead. I’ll … I’ll do what I can to let you know where I am.”
Thor stiffened and I thought I’d said something wrong until I saw him looking over my shoulder. I turned and I jumped. Chuckri stood there with a strange look on his face. Great I thought, now he was going to really lay into me. Instead he reached out and put a hand on my shoulder that kept me sitting when I would have stood up.
His face wasn’t friendly but it didn’t look like the face of an enemy either. “This whole thing with you being female … it’s just weird.”
“You should have been on this side of it. Half the time it felt like I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I’m sorry I lied … I’m even sorrier for why I felt I had to.”
The sigh he responded with didn’t exonerate me, nor did it let me off the hook exactly, but it did seem to offer more acceptance than he had since he’d found out. Then he shook his head. “David told us what happened. Vika …”
“Is a scared and upset little kid. That’s all we have to say about it.”
“You’re willing to let it go? Just like that?”
“What do you expect me to say Chuckri? She’s what? Eight years old? Like I told Thor, if I was her I’d probably act out at least as badly. She just isn’t old enough to deal with all the lies that those people … including her mother … told her.”
Chuckri looked a little embarrassed but he finally said, “She’s saying some pretty peculiar things. She said they told her ‘the truth’ about you and the other GWBs.”
“Oh good gravy, let me guess. We were actually a science experiment by the government gone bad and the greenies were only getting blamed to cover it up. That the GWBs aren’t even real people and that there was even debate on several levels as to whether we have a soul or not. That we actually bred to be super soldiers with hidden, secret powers.”
I could tell by the way he was acting that I’d pretty much hit the high spots. It was the same old rumors and conspiracy theories I’d been hearing my whole life. “Chuckri, tell me something, if I was so all fired strong and powerful would I have let that blasted dog chew on me like I was a soup bone?”
“Rocky, I’ve … I hit you. Most men I’ve known would have gone down in the fights where you’ve continued to stand.”
I snorted, “I’m a big ol’ farm kid Chuckri. For whatever reason – man or God – this is just how I’m put together. If you take out all else in my life, every year I tossed more hay bales than most men toss back beers. I’m not invincible; just big, hard, with lots of stamina. It’s just the way I am … and it has nothing to do with being bred like some super secret, super soldier test tube baby.”
He shook his head. “No father I know would let their daughters be like that.”
Trying not to be offended I told him, “My dad loved me for who I was … am, not for what I wasn’t. If it had been up to a lot of people - and I’m not just talking the greenies here - I would have been aborted as soon as they confirmed I was going to be a GWB. If you found out that Vika wasn’t going to be what people call normal, what would you have done?”
He didn’t answer me. It made me wonder if he actually knew what he would have done in my dad’s shoes. I told Thor I was going back; it was up to him and Chuckri to work things out between them.
People seemed to be carefully avoiding looking at me. I couldn’t just do nothing, I’d be nuts in short order, but no matter who I asked there was nothing that I could do to help … or that’s what I was told. I was getting pretty desperate … desperate enough to be willing to even go try and help with the sheep that Pilbos had warned me about.
In one last attempt to avoid that I wandered over to where I saw Grandmother Chuckri and Uncle Bedros sat packing what family treasures had been rescued into boxes filled with hay. Uncle Bedros saw me and beckoned me over. “Come child, I wish to show you something.”
He patted the ornate bed coverlet they were sitting on. “Sit here.”
I sat as he picked up something and wiped it with a soft cloth before putting it into my lap. “Do you remember this?”
Then it clicked. It was the box that I had used to break the window so that I could escape. He told me, “In English it is called a casket, but not the kind you bury a body in. It is for treasured things. The wood it is made out of is olive wood and it has been in my family for many generations. It is one of the few things we were able to save from our home before escaping the muslim persecution. It holds our greatest treasure. Open it.”
I carefully opened the box that still smelled faintly of smoke. I lifted the lid and looked … and then had to look again before I could start understand what I was seeing. It was a book with a dark cover etched in beautiful designs. The binding had been repaired many times and the pages that I could see didn’t look like the machine cut edges I was used to seeing. Just looking at it I could tell that it was old.
“It was my father’s grandfather who brought this treasure into our family. He was a merchant and took this in payment for a debt. It called to him every night. He would lock it in this box at night, trying to stop it. He tried to sell it but too many were afraid once they found out what the book was. Finally he gave in and opened the book and started to read. The story is that before he read the book he was a ferocious man with a terrible temper. He began to change as what he read began to sink in. And as he changed so did the fortune of our family. The Muslims were without mercy. It was always my father’s dream to immigrate to America where we could be free to believe and attend a church of our own choosing. But this book … this Bible … guided us here. It would have been a great blow to have lost it. I thank you for saving it.”
I was still looking at the beautiful book with its ornate cover and hand painted color plates inside it. “I didn’t save it … it saved me. It was the only bit of light I could see in all of the smoke. And then when I couldn’t break the window out it was the closest thing at hand. I hope I didn’t damage the box.”
“There are a few scratches but they only add character and another story to our family’s history.” He was silent for a moment. “I believe you were meant to save this treasure. I have never understood how it wound up under the window, I always kept it on a stand on the other side of the room. God meant for it to light your way and save you, just as it has lit the way for my family and saved us for generations. It is a lesson we should all remember.”
I carefully closed the Bible and then closed the wooden box that held it. I thought of my great grandfather’s big Bible that always say on the coffee table in the cabin’s sitting room. Generations of births, marriages, and deaths were written inside. There were names and relationships on those pages that you’d never find in any public records. I told Uncle Bedros about that Bible and he nodded and smiled, pleased that I understood what it represented.
“Your Mr. Evans, he is at peace, possibly for the first time in his life. Do not begrudge him for it.”
“What? Oh … no … no I’d never …” But I stopped, realizing that maybe I did. And from Evans I thought of my parents and something inside me unknotted. Then I looked at Uncle Bedros and said, “Thank you.”
He smiled and nodded to something behind me. “It looks like you are wanted … but a word if you will.” I stopped and turned back to him. “You are a young woman alone. Be careful of your choices. I believe that the man that you’ve chosen is honorable and means well, but do not undervalue yourself and be careful of temptation.”
I blushed because it wasn’t hard to understand what he was talking about but I nodded and then turned to see that it was not just Thor waiting for me but the other men as well. I walked over carefully, unable to read anything in Thor’s expression.
It was Richards who said, “I have a hand written note from Evans. We are planning to leave tomorrow so I believe, before we go much further, I should read it to everyone.”