The next night in the state park I was going nuts. I had the fidgets so bad I couldn’t settle for love or gold. I dreaded what I’d find in Ewing no matter what it turned out to be. It was so bad that when I tried to clean the carcasses of the tree rats that Thor brought me I did a real hatchet job and ruined them for much of anything.
I wasn’t so bad however that I was willing to show the mess to Thor so I quickly changed the menu to Squirrel Fried Rice. I had rice left over from breakfast that I had intended to make rice cakes out of but instead, after cooking the squirrel meat, I put it in a hot skillet that I’d melted some bacon grease in and then added some chopped wild onions, a little diced and cooked smoked bacon, and a restaurant packet’s worth of soy sauce. It was a little high in sodium but I hadn’t seasoned the squirrel as I was cooking it so it balanced flavor-wise.
That night I awoke from three different nightmares, all three ending with my relatives – whether dead or alive – blaming me for my parents’ deaths.
“Hon! Wake up. This is the third time you’ve moaned in your sleep like that. And are you …?! You’re crying this time! Rochelle, it it’s this bad do you really want to stop tomorrow?” Thor was worried about me. I could hear it in every syllable, feel it in his arms as he held me.
“If I don’t face the fear now, I may never find the courage. Besides, I need to know. Either way I need to know.”
Thor kissed my forehead. “They’ve got no reason to blame you Hon. For your parents’ end or for being a GWB. You’re the victim here as much as your mother and father.”
“People are strange Thor. I thought you of all people would know that.” I sighed and then sighed deeper as Thor began to massage my neck and shoulders.
“You’re as stiff as a new trigger. Would it help if we just got up and got going a little early?”
I shook my head. “You’ve lost enough sleep.”
“Nah. Besides, it’s about time to put the coffee pot on anyway.”
Sure enough it was but Thor tried to insist on me making my tea first. I reminded him we had to percolators and what hot water I didn’t use for tea I used to make up some instant grits and cornmeal fry bread. The leftover coffee and tea went into our thermoses and the extra fry bread I made I wrapped and put in our lunch box.
“Put some of this applesauce on your bread. Get some sugar in your system.”
“Thor I’m fine … really,” I told him.
“Then why are you shaking?” he asked, not unkindly.
“Adrenaline and nerves and we both know it so I won’t deny it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not OK.”
Thor shook his head. “I’ve seen you face down wild animals and crazy people, including me when I was pushing your around, and never even break a sweat or blink an eye. This family of yours much really be something else. You’re starting to make me nervous now.”
He was being a little facetious on purpose, trying to make me smile so I obliged him with a small one. “They’re no better nor worse as families go. It’s just an unusual dynamic with me thrown in the mix.”
Just before Ewing’s city limit sign my aunt’s driveway wound steeply up between the trees. I looked at Thor and said, “I know you don’t like me going off on my own but there’s no sense taking the horses and wagon up there until we know if anyone is at home.”
A voice from the bushes had Thor and I pointing our weapons at a spot on the other side of the ditch. “There’s no sense going up there period as all you’ll find is a burned out frame Rocky.”
A man about Thor’s age but looking older carefully stoop up. He looked enough like Dad that it hurt. “Dart?”
“Yeah,” he said in a tired voice. “Good thing it was me on duty or they might have given you a hard time. We’ve had some trouble so people are skittish.”
Dart was eyeing Thor, then me, then Thor again. I cleared my throat. “Dart this is …”
“… her husband. Gunnar Thoresen. We’ll get along better though if you just call me Thor.”
Dart took his time but then smiled and held out his hand. “So long as you don’t call me D’Artagnan. You can see I have you beat in that area.”
The two men continued to size each other up but not in an unfriendly way. While we waited for Dart’s relief to come I asked about the family.
“Mom … she’s about like she’s always been. We do what we can for her but there are days when you can’t do nothing for her.” I nodded in understanding. “Cellie’s fiancé never came back the day the power went out. She pined for him for a while then let a man that had lost his wife and one of his kids the same day come court her. She married him … oh I guess it’s been almost two months ago now and she’s as happy as I’ve ever known her to be. Getting out from under Mom’s thumb helped. Jack and those two kids of his fixed her up the rest of the way.”
I later explained to Thor that Cellie had lost her only baby to the flu the year it was real bad. It had caused pericarditis and he’d been too young to survive the damage. To make matters worse she’d suffered with infertility afterwards.
“What about Edgard?” I asked.
The look on his face had my eyes watering. “Oh Rocky girl, it … it ain’t that bad and … well I’m sorry I made you think we’d lost him. We thought we had until he showed up back in July. It’s just he ain’t the boy he was. He’s finally getting his strength back; that girlfriend of his that helped him get home has had a lot to do with that. I doubt you’ll recognize him straight off. He might not recognize you either at first. The fevers seem to have affected his memory in places but it comes back when he works at it.”
His relief showed up, gave us some suspicious looks even after being introduced, and then Dart was leading us into town, or what was left of it.
“I know it looks bad but still, like I said it’s better than it was. We’ve just had trouble off and on since everything fell apart. Folks around here didn’t have much and what we did have others tried to take. Made you feel real untrusting of anyone outside of your family and some families couldn’t even trust their own members. We didn’t have five hundred people to start with, now we are down to about a hundred and fifty inside the city limits and about that many outside of it, or at least we think. People keep just up and disappearing on us but mostly things have settled down now that everyone is so busy trying to get set for cold weather.”
“What about your wife and boys?” I asked.
I could see he wasn’t real comfortable answering at first but not for the reason I thought. “Boys are fine, growing like weeds after we finally got the garden up and producing. It filled up the whole yard, both front and back, except for the chicken coop I built and attached to the back of the garage. That area was too shady to grow anything in and the chickens keep us in eggs. Well … the things is … Darlene had a breakdown or something along those lines and flat out refused to have anything to do with me. I took her out to her parents' place on the other end of town thinking it would help her and she'd eventually come back home but in the end her folks asked me and the boys to stop coming to see her as it got her too agitated. She's worse now than when I took her out there. Believes she is back to being a little girl and seems to be set to stay that way.” He shrugged. “Don’t know how you’ll take the rest but … I needed help with the boys and her sister Ilene lost her husband and moved in with us 'cause Darlene took something against her too. One thing led to another and we … well, with her parents blessing, we made it as official as we could last month. But Mom is taking her time getting used to the idea and you know how people love to talk.”
“Do I ever,” I muttered.
He gave me a guilty look before turning to Thor. “Some family you married into.”
Thor shrugged. “I’ve heard worse and besides Rochelle’s worth it.”
Dart barked a laugh and looked at me. “I thought you hated being called that.”
I glanced at Thor and rolled my eyes, “Sometimes in life you just have to give in to the inevitable.” He and I smiled a private smile and Dart was considerate enough to ignore it.
We were approaching a group of men when Dart suddenly turned serious. “Look you two, I’m sorry to drop this on you like this – thought I’d be able to get you home and ease into it – but the town has put a moratorium on new settlers until after winter is over. Temporary visitors are OK but …”
“Not a prob,” Thor rumbled as he stepped between me and a man that looked like an angry rooster.
The man took a few steps back when Thor gave him the eye and then calmed all the way down when we told him we’d be staying two nights at most.
As Dart led us to his house he asked, “Two nights? You sure?”
Thor left it up to me to answer while he surveyed the places we passed. “We’re sure. I … I’ll be honest Dart, I wasn’t sure ‘til today we would stop at all … too afraid I guess.”
“You gotta tell Mom that. She’ll live on it for months.”
Thor gave me a questioning look and I told him, “Aunt Belle likes her a bit of drama now and then.
She’ll dress the story up a bit and then tell it over and over again like a fairy tale.” Thor just grunted. He wasn’t much for unnecessary drama which was fine by me.
A tall woman, not as tall as me but close, stepped onto the porch as we approached. She was a lot thinner than I remembered her, even after she’d lost all the extra weight, and she’d gone completely gray but I still recognized her.
I was surprised to see real tears streaming down her face, “He said you were still alive when he brought your parents’ bodies back for burial. I … I wanted to believe him but I don’t know if I did or not.”
I went up the stairs and put my arms around a frail old woman where my aunt had been standing just seconds before. I couldn’t seem to get beyond her words and when I turned loose of her I stumbled and would have fallen if Thor hadn’t run up to the porch to steady me.