You know how there are days that when you wake up the sleep in your eyes leaves them all cloudy until you’ve blinked a couple of times? Well, I couldn’t blink it away. I also noticed that it was lighter than it should have been and I jumped up but luckily didn’t wake Thor up in the process. It had taken him a while to finally fall asleep.
I crawled out of the tent and into … white cotton. Actually that is an exaggeration but it was just about as foggy as I’d ever seen it outside the mountains where I’d grown up. It was pea soup bad but still not as bad as the worst stuff that used to close down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I heard the animals lowing off in the direction they’d been confined for the night but I couldn’t see them. I heard the swish, squirt of someone milking and given the way the cows were pitching a fit I would say it was a goat as the cows were complaining about waiting in line.
I couldn’t rush to find Chuckri or Barkley because I really couldn’t see what was around me. I nearly stepped on Alfonso when I did finally … literally … ran into someone. “Whoa Kid,” he said quietly. “I was just coming to see if you two were awake. Chuckri needs to see you.”
A sudden groan followed by the front end of a curse that got bit off told me that Thor was awake. Alfonso looked at me and shook his head. “Man, he’s going to be fun to be around today. Here, this is some of that funky tea that Delia makes. See if it will help clear his head. Ain’t as good as coffee but, and don’t you tell her I said it, it ain’t half bad either.”
Poor Delia, seems the men had all adopted her like a sister and regularly ragged on her and Chuckri pretty badly. I carried the insulated mug to the tent and said, “Coming in. Don’t bite my head off. I just got up myself.” After I stuck my head in I saw him trying to get into the pill bottle and then get a closed off expression. I ignored his upset and turned it around by saying, “Thank you for not giving me a fight over it. I hate to upset you and I know you’re only doing it so you can keep going today. Here, you take this and I’ll open the bottle.” I handed him the mug which he could deal with one handed then popped two of the pills directly in his mouth. “My hands are clean so don’t make that face.”
He growled, “It’s not your hands, it’s taking these things. They irritate my gut.”
“You weren’t able to eat much last night. I wish you’d let me do more for you. I know you don’t really need me to … Chuckri told me you’re pretty self-sufficient as far as the male species goes … but still, I don’t feel like I’m not doing my job. You took care of me when I was sick which was a lot more work than letting me do a little for you now that you’ve got to be careful with your arm.”
He gave me a look that would have burnt a hole through me if I’d been made of less. “Had practice schmoozing guys have you?”
I put a real innocent look on my face and played up the southern belle angle, “Why, I just don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m sure. All I meant is that …”
I never even got a chance to finish. He snorted and said, “Fine, just drop the Scarlet O’Hara act until I can play Rhett Butler. I assume there’s a good reason we aren’t on the road yet.”
“Well, come on out big boy and take a look at this fog and mist. I’m from the Smokies and not even I would want to travel through this stuff. Besides, Chuckri needs us.”
He straightened up, “Well why in the Sam Hill didn’t you say something before?”
“Because there isn’t an emergency apparently or Alfonso would have said hurry and you certainly deserve a short moment to pull yourself together. You went all day yesterday without a break even after getting shot and who knows what is going to happen today.”
He kissed me as I was holding the tent for him to get out and then said, “Don’t do it again Rochelle. I have to stay sharp … more, I have to look like I’m sharp even when I’m less than 100%. People expect it and for now I’m still in a position I have to give it to them.” I sighed but nodded. I guess that was one of those compromises that Montgomery had been mentioning the day before.
We started walking slow and careful in the general direction that Alfonso had pointed when suddenly this guy I’d never seen before barrels into us. I could just make out the momentary panic on his face while I tried desperately not to give him what for for joggling Thor’s arm.
Thor rumbled a little laugh at the lingering look on the guy’s face before asking, “You OK?”
“Er … yeah. You two must be Thor and … er … Rocky. Got a little sichiation we’re trying to clear up and we’re waiting on you.”
I bent over a little and said, “Well we’re coming obviously. Any particular reason you came instead of one of our own?”
“Uh … er … thought to … uh … hurry you up a might … and … er … We’re over this way.” He scurried off in the direction we had been heading.
Thor gave me a look and I asked innocently, “What? Was it something I said?”
“Behave or you can go back to the tent.”
Still in a half teasing mood I asked, “Why is it always the guy that gets to say something like that? I’d like to get a chance to …”
I didn’t get a chance to finish my teasing because we finally came around the last wagon to see some big guy take a swing at Chuckri. Pilbos, who was standing right there, bows up but the big guy pushes him back hard and he trips over something in the fog. I could hear like a buzz in my head the Olive Branch people hollering at their guy but it was too late. I’d been on the wrong end of things for too long and I can’t stand bullies.
Pilbos stepping in had cleared everyone out of the way and they hadn’t had a chance to fold back in. I stepped up and in close, catching the guy laughing. Well he stopped laughing and started squeaking when my knee piston up into the place it would hurt most three times. I stopped the annoying sounds he was making by head butting him like a ram. I stepped away from the guy, to watch him fall like a tall oak tree and decided to leave him retching on the ground.
I turned to Thor and asked him calmly, “What do you want me to do with him?”
Thor says, “So now you ask me?” just as calmly. I think the way we were talking freaked the Olive Branch people out a little bit.
Then I looked at the men from Olive Branch and saw a man I could at least call by name. “Mr. Rhodes any particular reason Samson there thought he was such a big prissy deal?”
I saw his mouth twitch just a bit before he said, “I do believe JR may have made an assumption that some of the people in the caravan were the same as those we fight.”
“Well, you know what they say about assuming anything. Let’s see how many different ways ol’ JR was wrong besides the fact that he is a donkey’s rear end. For starters, he don’t know jack. The Chuckri’s are ethnically Armenian … but they’ve been in this country longer than some of you people standing here have been alive. They came here legally and worked their tails off to make a better life for their immediate and extended family. They are a strong Christian family – which if it wasn’t for Uncle Bedros standing here would make me won’t to stomp ol’ JR a little more – and have suffered through a horrifying genocide of their own in the early 1900s. They came through it not only with their faith in tact but with it strengthened. In recent months they tried to open their arms to an ex-daughter in law who then turned around and did them dirt by bringing over some greenies that proceeded to kill one of their family members, seriously hurt another, and enslave the rest. The greenies also damaged a little girl to the point that it will take a long time for her to heal. Now just where you people get off …”
“Whoa Missy,” Rhodes said, holding up a hand. “I said that is what JR thought. I did not say his thought was shared by the rest of us.”
“Then why did your people just stand there and let him act the fool?!”
“Young lady, when two trains are about to collide do you think standing between them is going to do any good?”
I sniffed and then was further irritated when I heard some of our own people trying to hold back their laughter. But it was Thor that said, “Enough.” His deadly calm voice had an immediate impact on everyone, me included.
“Rhodes, my people have done nothing to warrant this kind of attack. I don’t know why I should have but the fact that you were a Christian community led me to believe that you would behave differently than most would these days.” That made me flinch. I wondered if the snuggling he and I did made a bad impression. “Apparently I thought wrongly.”
One of the other men said, “You have no cause to say that to us. We could have just left you to fend for yourselves against them moooslums.”
“You did,” I said. “I didn’t see any of you all covering our back trail or clearing the road for us to get here. So while I thank you for the ground to sleep on for the night, you are making your hospitality out to be more than it was.”
Mr. Roads mouth twitched again. The man must have a wicked sense of humor. “She’s got a point Burt.” Then he turned back to Thor. “On my word alone I can get you another day to wait out the fog – it do hit funny around here sometimes – but that is all I can offer. Our community, for good or ill, is a democracy and we’ve had our share of trouble and don’t want no more of it.”
“If it were possible we’d leave now rather than create more problems for either of our groups,” Thor told the man. “Do I have your word that the trouble is over?”
“What does your man say? Does he want a pound of flesh from what’s left of JR?” Thor turned to Chuckri and at his nod though I could see it cost him some to give it Thor said, “Tavit says that it’s done.”
“Then I’ll make sure JR is done as well.” He turned to his other men. “Drag JR in and take him to the Center. He’s got some explaining to do.” Rhodes is a man of honor, I’ll give him that. He was the one that stepped over and held out his hand first to Thor, then to Chuckri, and last but not least of all to Uncle Bedros which I thought very fitting. Me he just looked at and tipped his hat all the while trying to keep his twitching lips under control.
There is nothing like a ruckus first thing in the morning to get your blood bubbling. I had adrenaline and nothing to use it on. Pilbos was feeling the same thing from the look on his face. “I coulda took him.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “On the other hand the guy looks like he’d done enough street fighting that maybe it would have been harder than you expect.”
I shrugged. I didn’t want to hurt his pride. “Next time center your gravity better. Set yourself. You know, like when you are about to throw a football. You went at him all bowed up and chest out ‘cause you were angry. If your opponent had been smaller than you that might have been OK assuming he didn’t just knock your legs from under you. Small guys can fight dirty ‘cause they are used to having to beat the odds. But guys bigger than you … you need to think like a tackler. Center your gravity and act fast, take ‘em before they have a chance to get their center of gravity set … use their size against them. The best way to end and win a fight is to act and end it quickly. If you have an opponent that you are roughly equal to then is when you need to think about stamina and trying to outlast them. But never go in with your chest or chin stuck out … you are just asking to get knocked out.”
Pilbos just looked at me and then said quietly, “You didn’t learn all that on the football field.”
“But you’re a girl.”
I smiled a little and told him, “You aren’t the first quarterback to say those words.”
He snickered a laugh and said, “I suppose not.” Then a moment later he said, “You got picked on pretty bad.”
It was a statement and not a question. I shrugged. “Life is like that. You either learn to deal with it or you curl up and die. My parents raised me to learn to deal with it. Most of the times that meant just ignoring the ijits in the world but there are times that you do have to stand up and fight. I avoided fighting when I could. It didn’t always work. I tried to turn the other cheek like we’re supposed to … but sometimes I just flaming got tired of being slapped around. Don’t use me as an example of what to be when you grow up. If I’d been all that great I could have figured a way to avoid most of the trouble I’ve seen in the first place and I wouldn’t have had to know how to fight.”
It made me sad to think that although my life had changed a lot in one respect it had also hardly changed at all. The players had changed. The weapons had changed. But it was still a whole lot like the playground where people couldn’t decide whether to use me to win tug o’ war, hide from me because they were afraid of me, or ridicule and distrust me because I was different. I was finding out too that people never really outgrew the playground mentality no matter what they claimed.
And just like that I was in a blue funk. Pilbos was called away by Ludvig to help with something leaving me to stare off into the mist and see nothing. “Hey, where are you?”
Thor was looking right at me so I didn’t understand. “I’m … right here.”
“You’re a literal little thing. I meant your thoughts have taken you someplace and it doesn’t look like a happy one.”
I sighed. “Don’t worry about it.”
Thor’s eyebrows snapped down. “You know just because I’m hurt doesn’t mean you can’t talk to me. I’m not about to pass out or …”
I put hand on his chest and rubbed. “I didn’t mean it like that. Sorry. I’m just … I’m not sure it’s worth talking about. Lord when will this fog lift? I need to get out and do something.” Walk, run, carry … anything hard and physical that would let me get passed the feelings that I was feeling.
Thor put his hand over mine. “Rochelle, spit it out. You might as well know I won’t let up until you do.”
I figured he was right. “Do I ever embarrass you?”
“Thor I’m serious. I’m trying really hard to use some self control, not do things that will irritate you or cause problems but they still happen. Or worse, I wind up doing things that make people forget I’m a female … and while I may not want anyone to make excuses for me because I’m female I don’t want people to forget it either and … oh botheration. Just forget it.”
“Don’t make me chase after you, my arm is too sore for that. What has brought this on?”
“I didn’t even think what it might have meant to you for me to take that JR guy on. It just slipped out. I saw a bully and I wanted to stomp the bully. I didn’t think beyond that. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, Hon … look at me. You do not embarrass me. You’ve scared me a few times. You’ve irritated me more than a few. But I’ve never been embarrassed by you … or of you which is what I think you’re really asking.”
I sighed. “Yeah. I guess. I … I’ll try to be more ladylike.”
“Don’t. I like you just the way you are … well, you could let your hair keep growing. I’m having all sorts of fun times imagining what you’ll look like with long hair.”
“Thor,” I said. “Honestly, you were shot yesterday and we are in the middle of a real pickle here. How can you still act like a randy ol’ goat?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or not.
“You make me feel like that, that’s why. And for your information Hon, you are the only one that has ever made me feel quite like this. I swear I’d likely follow your skirts to the edge of the earth and back just on the off chance one of these days you’ll say yes.”
I shook my head. “You’ve never seen me in a skirt. And … and I’m not saying no because I don’t want to. Just … just …”
“C’mere. This needs a little privacy.”
We walked down a ways and out from under the rest of our group. “Sit here, it’s not so damp. Now listen up. In case I haven’t made it plain I’m completely mad for you. But I’m not completely ignorant and I’ve got concerns of my own. I keep letting myself forget how young you are … and how inexperienced.” He stopped like he was trying to find the right words but I didn’t know how to help him. “Rochelle, on the practical side, to make things as right as they can be it takes time to get to know your partner. If we jumped right into sex there is no saying that we could ever have it as good as it could be. And there is also the issue of protection. Right now would not exactly be the prime time for you to get pregnant but neither one of us can just walk to the corner drugstore and buy something to fix that. Even if you said yes I’m not sure I would. Things are too … too dangerous and out of sorts right now. On the other side of things is the fact that I know … and don’t deny it … you’re struggling with whether sleeping with me is right or not. And I don’t know how to fix that. I’m not sure I even believe that a piece of paper can sanctify people sleeping together. But I know that you do … I just don’t know how to provide it for you Hon.”
I bowed my head, “I’m sorry Thor. I’m trying, I really am …”
“I know. I’m not blind Hon … you want it too but then I see the guilt in your eyes. I wish you wouldn’t feel guilty but I know that it isn’t my fault that you do.”
“Of course it isn’t your fault,” I told him, upset that he might think that I thought it was his fault.
“Well, then we agree on that. The rest we’ll work on … when the time is right. For now I’m enjoying the torture.”
I wanted to believe him, I really did but what he was saying didn’t fit anything that I’d heard from other people.
“You’re worrying at it again,” Thor mumbled. “I can hear the marbles rolling around in your head at breakneck speed.”
“Thor … it scared me yesterday. Maybe I’m being selfish, but I’ve already lost so much. I don’t know if I could stand losing you too. I never really expected to have this … whatever this is between us. To lose it before I’ve even had the chance to understand what it means … It would be bad enough if someone else did it. But if I did it simply by being me … I just …”
“Hush now,” he said gently. “I’m not going anywhere. You aren’t the only one that has suddenly discovered that there is something left to lose in this life … and something left to live for. And if something does happen, we’ll just have to work on having no regrets. Bedros said …”
I looked at him and said, “You sure are talking to Uncle Bedros a lot lately.”
“He’s a man worth talking to. I’m starting to see things I was too busy to see before. And one of those things is that sometimes you just have to wait on the timing to be right. You can’t force it. And … I’m remembering things my dad tried to teach me when I was little. He meant well, I just don’t think he knew how to reach out … or maybe my mom got in the way of it too much.” He shrugged, “That was a long time ago but I do remember my dad and I walking across the street to go to the chapel that was there a couple of times a month.”
“Not your mom?”
“Nope. She called it … well, never mind what she called it. The older I get the more sure I am that as happy as she seemed when my dad was alive, a part of her never was. And if you don’t mind that is just about as far down memory lane as I feel like travelling right now. I need to go talk to Chuckri, check on Montgomery, and make sure everything is prepped to get out of here as fast as possible tomorrow.” He hissed in pain when he accidentally hit his arm but eventually we both got on our feet.
Suddenly from out in the fog came the unmistakable sing song sound of a prayer … a Muslim prayer. Uh oh.