Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 74

Chapter 74

“Well, well, well … look who the cat drug in.” Sarah was shaking and had tears coming down her cheeks when I hugged her. I could have picked her up just by standing up straight but I respected her too much to treat her like the porcelain dolly she looked like.

The petite blonde woman hugging me back like I was her long lost twin was my complete opposite in nearly everything except when it came to her mouth. As bad as I could be she beat me all to Flanders and back. I try to only get riled up at people I’m not worried about scaring. Sarah Ann Winkle didn’t care if you were man or beast, big or small, young or old … if you got in her face or threatened someone she cared about she’d light up like a Roman candle and aim. Most people with sense learned to walk soft around her after witnessing a couple of her blow ups. If you were who she was blowing up at it only took once.

At the same time she was so sweet and nice she could just about turn you cross eyed. Dad tolerated her because Mom loved her. She was the daughter of a good friend that had died too young. Mom never compared Sarah and I but I often did it to myself. I guess I was about thirteen when Dad took me aside and told me he’d consider it a blessing if I wouldn’t use her as my role model. When I asked why – I really admired Sarah’s prettiness and what I saw as her ability to stand up for herself – he said that I couldn’t get away with it like Sarah did and I’d wind up miserable.

Now that hurt my feelings at the time but then I realized Dad was right. It didn’t make it fair but he was most definitely right. Sometimes you just have to hear the truth whether you want to or not and it was better to hear it early and from someone that cared about me as a person than to grow up being foolish and blind. Besides, after I’d matured enough to look at both sides of things I realized while people might avoid putting Sarah into a temper they rarely took her seriously whether she was in one or not.

Put bluntly I’m an English Mastiff – big, loyal, and scary looking unless you get to know me, but also more than capable of doing the job as needed; overall not a dog most people wouldn’t even consider having just because of size and lack of “cute” factor. Sarah Ann is like one of those poofy Pomeranian dogs – small, inquisitive, vivacious and spirited, so cute most everyone wants one … or at least until they realize how strong-willed they are and how surprisingly loud and yappy they can be. Sarah Ann is bows and pompoms; I’m bandanas and boots. She Ann grabbed life in both hands and hung on tight; I was always afraid of grabbing it too hard and breaking it. And still somehow we managed to be friendly and not just because of Mom.

“Oh my Lord Rocky! When Sand told me …”

“Geez Sarah, don’t turn into a watering pot. Please. Sand will run me off.” I was trying to joke her out of her weepiness because if Sandford Winkle got to be an old man he was going to be one of those little old men who will carry a big cane. He was about five foot seven, not impossibly small, but he was thin and wiry and that made people think he was smaller … and when he stood next to me or Johnson he looked downright petite. On the other hand he could hold his own in any fight … Sand was sleek and flexible as a cat and took some kind of krav something or other self defense classes. When he left highschool where he was ROTC, he spent his four in and survived, and then spent three after that in college finishing up a Business degree online from Liberty University. Sand was easy to underestimate but I’d warned Thor that he wasn’t anyone to mess with. And Sarah and I both knew it so she knew I was being facetious.

“Oh stop,” she said, finally laughing. “And who is this?” she asked somewhere between extreme prejudice and extreme interest.

“Knock it off Sarah, you already have yours. This one is mine and his name is Thor.” I’d also warned Thor about Sarah and he was fairly tolerant though I noticed he never got within arms reach of her. Sarah is a hugger and toucher and Thor shared my need for personal space. Usually Sarah ignored that in people but strangely enough she gave Thor a wide berth … maybe because Sand was around, or maybe because she was learning there were less tolerant people in the world than the ones she had grown up with.

“My my, so you found yourself a big ‘un to match you. Your mom …” she stopped and we both nodded.

“Yeah, Mom would have eat him up. She always told me that if I let God handle things it would come when I least expected it, but needed it most. Well, I wasn’t expecting it that’s for sure – didn’t even know that I wanted it to be honest – and it took me a while to even admit that I needed it, much less anything else along those lines. I think Dad would have come around but … it would have taken a bit. He would have liked Thor as a person, geez Louise if they wouldn’t be two peas in a pod, but the love stuff … now that would have taken more time than we certainly gave it.”

It was easy enough to say such things to Sarah, she was pretty blunt, and Thor and Sand had gone off to check out the stream that was nearby. “But look at you,” I told her. “Sand didn’t say a word. When are you due?”

She blushed a little but I almost didn’t see it because of her blindingly bright smile. “We think in about four and a half months, give or take a week or so on either side. I’ve never been regular and after what the doctor told us … well, you know we thought we would have to go to a fertility specialist to hatch our own. Looks like the doctor was wrong.”

I shrugged and said, “Or maybe God just decided it was time or something. Maybe it was His way of saying ‘My time and not yours.’ Or something like that anyway.”

She tilted her head and looked at me. “You would think that … oh and don’t ruffle your feathers, you know what I mean. Besides, I’m pretty sure I agree with you. Look we don’t have much time, Sand wasn’t real comfortable stalling for me. Are you seriously OK? I mean, it’s just so unexpected.”

I got a little irritated but didn’t let it show. I mean I know people never put me at the top of the list when it came to man-catching ability … at least not that type of man-catching … but it still hurt a bit. “Thor and I are good for each other. I … look … not that it is anyone’s business but Thor loves me and I love him. And …” I stopped feeling the need to say it but not wanting to at the same time. Needing won out. “Sarah, Thor’s the man for me. I trust him. We didn’t even … you know … until we got here and even then he didn’t jump on me or anything.”

“Didn’t what?” I didn’t know if she was being sly or stupid but since I’d started it I decided to finish it.

“Canoodle. We were together and committed and everything but we wanted to be someplace safe and secure before we potentially did anything to put someone … especially a little someone … in danger just because we couldn’t keep our zippers up.”

She was trying really hard not to laugh. “You called it canoodling.” She was bent over with her hand over her mouth, snorting and giggling for all she was worth. Knowing Sarah, I knew all I could do was let her finish up.

She finally wiped her eyes and said, “I nearly wet myself. I still can’t believe you called it…”

“Yeah, yeah … you know what I mean. And looking at you, you know why we made that choice. Don’t say anything to Thor please. He’s a guy and might not get your sense of humor until he gets to know you better.”

She hugged me again and said, “Don’t worry. Sand made me promise to behave, especially after he found out how rough Johnson and the Hefling boys were on him. I can’t believe he didn’t take a swipe at them.”

“Yeah, well I almost took a swipe at them. If Thor had they would have been in for some serious hurt. He’s …” I stopped not sure exactly what I wanted to tell her. Some secrets were worth keeping.

“Yeah he’s big all right and Sand said he gets the vibe he’s seen action. Not many men could have kept their temper in that situation.”

“Yeah,” I answered. But that is all I answered. If Thor wanted information leaked I’d let him do it himself. “Anyway, now that the girl stuff is done, can you tell me what has been going on around here? The boys … well, were boys and I didn’t have time to really ask Sand, Coach, or Mr. McCarter about anyone in particular. I can guess a couple … Janie’s parents and grandparents must be gone if she had her little brother. Stro and Lawson’s mom at the school gym. And I guess Sand told everyone about Uncle Bentley.”

“Yeah, he … Rocky, be careful when you mention Mr. Griffey around folks. He … he isn’t well liked.”

“You mean his memory isn’t.”

“Either or. We’ll pass the word around … and that you weren’t involved in any of it … but you still be careful for a while ‘til you get the feel for how things are. You weren’t here and don’t understand.”

A little impatiently I said, “No, I was just fighting to stay alive and nearly getting killed a couple of times trying to get home from the other side of the country. Was nearly killed by some rabid greenies half way here and got here and nearly got killed by some more.”

“What?! They didn’t tell me that! Sanford Charles Winkle!!”

No one likes to be called by their full time, especially in the tone of voice she used. Sand had just come out of the bushes with Thor … with a sheepish looking Johnson between them. “Don’t fly up at me Sarah, I didn’t know it either. One of the reasons I wanted to meet with them was to try and get the full story; there wasn’t time for it yesterday.” He gave his little brother an aggravated look and told him, “You might as well call any of the others that are out there. Thor may be willing to let you slide for this but I swear I’m about ready to send you to the moon.”

Johnson said, “Rocky knows …”

“Don’t look at me. Stupid stuff like that can get a body shot these days. You aren’t a kid anymore Johnson and this isn’t the school yard. Use your head.”

Johnson gave me a strange look and then whistled. A little better than half a dozen young men came forward out of the trees. Sand muttered something that sounded like, “Mangy buncha puppies” but none of them took it personally. But I didn’t have time to enjoy the reunion because I noticed Thor go on alert which in turn made me go on alert which meant bringing my weapon down and forward.

“Rocky? It was just a gag.” Then he shut up when he noticed Sand had also stiffened and looked towards the trees the boys had just come out of.

I told Johnson quietly but with a real serious edged, “If anyone is out there playing ‘possum it would be a good time to tell them to knock it off.”

I moved around so that Thor and I were back to back. “Rocky?” This time it was Sarah. Before I could answer Sand said, “Hush Sarah Ann. Johnson …”

“It’s not one of us. And I know it ain’t Mr. Hefling as he is at Mrs. Crenshaw’s with that racked up leg. Stro?”

“Dad is out of it … but with that tea that Granny C made up, not out of his head out of it … Just sleeping.”

Quietly I told Sand, “You take care of Sarah and the boys. Thor and I have done this too many times and if I’m a target I don’t want y’all to get caught in the middle.”

“Now just a …” he started but I ignored him and followed Thor into the forest. I could feel it now too. The animals were too quiet; there was something in the woods.

Thor and I did what we had done for months but if it wasn’t for his previous career and experience we would have both been badly hurt. A trip wire and a couple of other hastily placed booby traps had been laid. A sudden burst of activity to my right had me spinning and I got a good shot off at a man running away. From another direction came return fire but whoever it was found themselves caught in a crossfire between Thor and I and Sand and the boys.

When I heard movement from their group to head into the woods and help I yelled, “Stop! The woods are boobied!” Things got real quiet but we finally sweated the last two of the enemy and they broke and ran and Thor and I put a period to their escape. We waited a few more minutes but it was easy to tell from how the forest returned to normal that whatever threat that had been sensed was no longer in the area.

Thor wouldn’t let me take point despite the fact we returned the same path we had come. I whistled an all clear like in our games of Man Hunt but then added, “Don’t leave the clearing. Thor and I are going to check for boobies and see if we can disarm them.”

Sand said, “Thor, I was in an IED disarming team.”

Thor rumbled approvingly and when we stepped into the clearing told me, “Switch out.”

I wanted to object for a lot of reasons but for just as many reasons I didn’t and kept my mouth shut. Thor caught my eye and gave me a half wink. I didn’t know whether it was approval or commiseration but I took it and it made my choice go down easier. I expected a lot of questions about when Thor and Sand disappeared but instead there was silence and even Sarah look at me like she was having trouble recognizing me.

My defenses slammed in place so hard I’m surprised they didn’t echo in the trees. I turned as if I didn’t care and went to scan the forest on the opposite side of the small clearing. I could just make out the body of one of the enemy and was trying to determine if I recognized him. It was Stro who joined me and ignoring everything else I asked, “Anyone you know? I can’t place him from this angle.”

“Could be. He’s dressed like a local.” I raised an eyebrow, not understanding exactly what he meant. “Them crazy people dress funny … or they did over the summer when there was a lot more of them around. They tried to make out like they were hippies or some such. Dad said they weren’t nothing but a buncha commies. Half of ‘em were always going around with chiggers and skeeter bites all over ‘em. I swear, and people call me dumb, but at least I’ve got enough sense to put on clothes when the bugs are bitin’. Their feet was always dirty too … nasty, oh my laws were they nasty. Didn’t wear proper shoes but flip flops, sandals made out of flat tires, and some that looked like they were made out of twine … and that’s when they bothered to wear shoes at all!”

I couldn’t help but smile a little at Stro’s outrage. For all the things he and Janie got up to he was one of the straightest boys in our group and didn’t really care for anything that seemed strange or too different from his version of normal. I used to wonder where I fit into his idea of what was right and what wasn’t and even got up the nerve to ask him once. He said that he and I were more alike than different because neither one of us had a say in the flavor we turned out to be. As a result I’d always had a soft spot for Stro but not the kind most people thought; we were just friends of a type that most folks could never understand because they hadn’t had to walk in our shoes. Stro had been a “blue baby” and though they’d gotten him breathing right away he still grew up with academics being a lot harder for him than most other people. But you give him a hammer and nails and there isn’t too much he couldn’t build. He measured things with a knotted string that his grandfather had made for him rather than with a ruler or tape measure.

I said, “Well, if he’s local, he isn’t anyone that I recognize from the back … at least not at this angle.”

I stopped talking and was trying to listen for Thor and Sand. Stro wasn’t finished yet so I expected the others had let him to their talking for them. “You … uh … you been doing things different while you been away.”

Even though it was a statement and not a question I answered him anyway, “Stro, my parents were murdered practically in front of my eyes along with a lot of other innocent people. Jonathon and I were the only GWBs left in the world at that point and we were scared to death. We ran for our lives … ran to his grandmother’s place. From there the three of us tried to get back here but the craziness of the roads and then the EMP stopped us. Eventually stopped his grandmother personally – she had a pacemaker – and the road took Jonathon from me too because he ran out of his medicine. I’ve done things I never imagined I’d have to do just to survive from one moment to the next.”

“OK.”

And for Stro that was enough. Bad things had happened and I hadn’t had any choice to but “tough up.” The explanation sufficed … but not for Sarah Ann Winkle. “That’s just ridiculous Rocky. You can’t tell me you went all Mad Max. Look at you. Except for your hair, you look more like a girl than you used to.”

“Believe what you want Sarah Ann. My hair was a lot shorter than this for a while and …”

“… And I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t encourage her to cut it short again. Just because she went around pretending she was a guy for a few months doesn’t mean I want to see her forced to live that way again.”

Thor, along with Sand, had quietly come back into the clearing and his words freaked everyone out.

“A guy?!!”

It was Stro who crossed his arms and gave me a disgruntled look and said, “You did not.”

“I did too. That doesn’t mean I had to like it but I was on my own and didn’t know who I could trust and who I couldn’t. I don’t know what it was like around here but …” I shrugged. “But being female out on the road alone, even one like me, wasn’t exactly safe. Sand, you try and imagine what could have happened to Sarah if she’d been stuck away from home all alone.”

He shook his head. “Won’t do it. It’d just give me nightmares.”

Lawson finally put a word in and then was echoed by the other boys, Stro included, “Well, then tell us. How did you get home?”

I looked at Thor who said, “Why don’t you tell ‘em. I’ll go clean up.”

“No. We’ll clean up and then I’ll tell ‘em if there is time. The story has waited this long and we need to know who would do such a thing as this and what their motive was,” I said right back.

In a dead voice it was Sand that answered. “They were some of Kemper’s people. None of ours as far as I can tell but those that he took in from the highway refugees. Except for the one … that blonde over there was his cousin.”

Stro bowed up. “Kemper?!”

“Easy Stro,” Lawson said. “You knew he was bad news when his people shot you just for making a fuss about wanting to see Janie and the baby. You gotta get ahold of yourself. You don’t want Dad going on a tear and getting hurt … or hurting anyone he shouldn’t.”

It took a lot of effort but Stro did eventually ratchet it back down. People had a bad habit of underestimating his ability to understand but Lawson never had; and they both knew they needed to protect their father. Lawson turned and said, “Sand, you think they were trying to get Dad blamed for anything that happened?”

Sand shrugged, “Hadn’t thought of it that way but maybe so. I just don’t see what they thought to gain from this.”

I looked at Thor and a silent thought passed between us. “I’ve …”

Thor interrupted with, “We’ve been …”

I sighed, “We’ve been then. We’ve been doing some salvaging since we got back to town. We didn’t know anyone was still around … at least not in the numbers that there apparently are. And no Sand, we aren’t asking for everyone’s name and such. That’s y’alls business the same as ours is ours. But, if Kemper is maybe running out of supplies, if maybe he’s pulled too many people under his umbrella of protection …?” I looked at Thor for support of my theory.

“Certainly possible Hon. If he thought the town and surrounding area was his to pick from and we infiltrated his territory then we’d be considered a threat.”

Still thinking out loud I said, “But none of the houses we’ve been into have had much.” I intentionally left out a couple of the big finds we had made. “Mostly just seasonings and a few staples here and there. Same for the restaurants and food places in town. And the mice and the rats are taking the feed as we are standing here. Those thousands of mice at the dairy that came pouring out of the silo gave me nightmares … nasty dirty little boogers. And the dogs are taking out the livestock.”

Johnson said, “We’re all having trouble with our livestock and those danged dogs. We shoot ‘em when we can now. People have tried to catch ‘em and train ‘em but once they go feral you might as well forget it. They stay too mean and the idea of livestock being food is too ingrained. And it isn’t just dogs … we’ve had trouble with bears, bobcats, foxes … and Coach swears he saw a cougar.”

Stro muttered, “Still not as bad as the llamas.”

The water Thor had just swallowed tried to go down the wrong pipe. As soon as he finished spitting and wheezing he asked, “Llamas?!”

Sand smiled, “There was an outfit not too far from here that offered llama treks through the Smokies. We think they escaped from there.” Then he sobered a bit, “At least we haven’t run into anything really strange yet. We had a guy come through here from Richmond that said the Metro Zoo had a mass break out of their animals after they ran out of food in their habitats. He said some of the animals got killed by the big predators in the park before that food source ran out but that from anywhere between twenty-five and fifty percent of the park animals had gone on the lamb.”

I hadn’t even thought of that and said so. “I’m surprised hungry people haven’t killed most of the zoo animals.”

Sarah said, “I’m sure a lot of them have but maybe the Greenies kinda helped things along some or moved them to secure areas.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sarah, don’t take this the wrong way ‘cause the Greenies have proven themselves to be dangerous … but they seem to have a very narrow command level and when that isn’t present the troops seem to fall apart fast. It was like somebody turned lemmings into terrorists and then when there wasn’t anyone smart enough to lead them in the right direction they either all jumped over the cliff or ran around like chickens with their heads cut off … doing damaged but nothing like if they had an organizer around to channel their energy. It isn’t the Greenies that are the real boogie men but the Twelvers that used them to put their own plans into effect.”

She wasn’t done being upset with me and said, “And you know this for a fact.”

“You believe what you want to believe Sarah Ann, you’ve always been like that. I’m telling you from being a GWB and from what I’ve experienced while I was away from home … including another nasty run in with some Greenies out west …” It hurt to remember the battle at the farm, even all these months later.

Thor stepped closer, offering me comfort. He said, “Look, let’s just get the clean up started and over with. Arguing who was the bigger a@@ in this conflict serves no purpose at this time.”

I took a deep breath to clear the unhealthy feelings away and nodded. “If there’s time after we do what needs doing, and y’all are still around, you can ask all the questions you want.” What I didn’t say is that I was reserving the right to not answer what I didn’t want to answer.

Thor and I started off into the trees but Stro stopped us, “You don’t gotta do it by yourselves. If you two take that ‘un then we’ll divide up and deal with the rest of ‘em and bring all the gear and stuff into the clearing and we’ll split it … assuming you want to share it.”

Thor looked at me with a cocked eyebrow and I shrugged, not objecting. Then he glanced at Sand and a look passed between them before he nodded. We resumed our walk into the woods towards the man I had been trying to identify earlier. When we got there we methodically stripped the corpse right down to the clothes and then covered it was with leaves and fallen limbs. While we did this I asked, “What was the look?”

Thor no longer felt the need to hide things from me so his reply was truthful and direct. “Sand and I agreed to split the material from the IEDs fifty-fifty. That stands. Not too much else of interest though some of it is useful enough. And don’t worry about having to split it too even; Sand didn’t say outright but they’ve got some people that are really hurting.”

“Why? The whole town has been theirs to salvage for months now … all the houses in the area too.”

Thor shook his head. “Like I said, nothing was said outright but it seems they are just now getting anything close to the start of organizing. People have just been making do or getting by; too afraid to go into the town or the houses because of the spread of that infection that swept through here. The greenies … they were more organized, kept them off their game, kept them penned into the outlying areas even if they had been inclined in the beginning to do some salvaging. You have to remember it wasn’t the immediate catastrophic event that it was in a lot of places out west; here it took longer and resources were used up without being replaced. They were busier trying to keep and maintain what they already had and less able to go out and find new or replacement resources.”

“Probably knowing their neighbors made it harder to just go in and take things too.”

“Yeah, he sounded pretty outraged at that Kemper’s group for doing it so quickly. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until they pulled this. Just wanting to survive is no crime, setting IEDs to kill people with no notice is. You’ll need to give me what intel you can on this Kemper.”

“Well, Dad didn’t care for him much. Called him arrogant and a slick willy type. It wasn’t an open feud or anything, just Dad wouldn’t do business with him; he upset Dad and Mom a couple of times by saying the town should get up money to help take care of me, like I was some kind of accident that needed cleaning up and hiding away. Mr. Kemper owned the only Laundromat around and kinda stuck it to the tourists and hikers that came through. Dad said he talked out of both sides of his mouth and took people in, like he had too much experience doing it. Mom just thought he was a do-gooder that tried to control things too much so that it was only his brand of ‘good’ getting done. She and Mrs. Kemper were both in the Quilting Guild friends of a sort I guess.” As a memory flitted across my mind I pulled a face.

Thor wanted to know, “What was that about?”

I laughed, though it was a world weary sound. “I heard Mrs. Kemper tell her daughter once to be more lady-like or she’d wind up like that unfortunate Charbonneau girl.” Thor rumbled but I told him, “She’s not the only one I heard say stuff like that. I had a bad habit of listening in on conversations I had no business listening in on. You never hear anything good about yourself doing that. People forgot I wasn’t as mentally challenged as they’d thought I’d been when I was small. They just sort of didn’t see me … I was like the furniture. And let’s be honest, when we don’t think other people are listening we tend to say things that we wouldn’t otherwise. That’s just life.”

We’d finished bundling up everything and Thor turned me and wrapped me in his arms. “I wish I could deny what you’re saying but I’d only be lying. I know people are people but I promise they won’t do that while I’m around.”

With a smile I told him, “I know that. But thanks for saying it aloud.” A quick kiss and then we hauled everything back to the fire ring. I hadn’t quite managed to get the satisfied look off my face as we walked in and Sarah Ann at least took it the wrong way.

“You’ve been doing this a lot then? Is this a good haul?” she asked.

Kinda blindsided I stumbled, “Uh …”

Thor snorted impatiently, “Ms. Winkle I don’t want to offend you for Rochelle’s sake but crank it back a bit.”

Sarah, finally took her foot out of her mouth and said, “Call me Sarah and don’t mind my mouth. It gets ahead of the rest of me sometimes. You two just seem too … I don’t know … comfortable with this and that makes me uncomfortable.”

This time it was Sand who said repressively, “Sarah.”

I took matters in hand and said, “Well if that is all it is then why not just come right out and say that. You know good and well I’m not that easily offended.”

It was Stro rather than Sarah that said, “OK. Fine. You’re different than you used to be. What made you get that way?”

While Sand and Thor organized what had been brought in from those that had tried to attack us and looked over it the amount and condition of everything, I told a very trimmed down version of my story from the night in San Francisco until today. Sarah was silent after I had finished but the boys all thought it was a hoot of a story despite the fact I hadn’t meant any of it to be funny. To them it was an adventure, and one that had – at least in their opinion – ended well. Kind of like a guy’s version of “and they lived happily ever after.”

Amazingly it had taken me an hour to tell the tale and we all needed to head ‘em up and move ‘em out. Sarah needed to make a pit stop before they got on the trail and given all that had happened I followed her to the compost toilets and acted as guard.

She came out gagging although they didn’t smell as bad as they sometimes did during the summer. Talking to no one I asked, “I wonder who will clean them out now?”

After spitting into the bushes Sarah said, “Uncle Freeman said that he planned to come out during one of the thaws after the new year and see what he could do. He wants to put it on a couple of fields that are on their fourth year rotation. They were due to go fallow anyway.”

“Lordy that is going to stink.”

“Can’t be any worse than all of that rotted horse bedding at that vet place near Konnarock. Gag, that was awful.” He washed her mouth out but when I tried to walk her back to Sand she stopped me with a hand on my arm.

“I’m sorry Rocky. Tell your Thor … well, you know how I am.” I nodded and told her not to worry about it, Thor’s skin was even thicker than mine. “Be that as it may I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.” Then she gave me a searching look. “Are you sure you’re OK? The boys might think it was a good story but I can read between the lines.”

I tried to be as honest as I could. “Sarah, I’m not the same person I was … for a lot of different reasons. But there’s still a lot of the old me in here too. I’ve just … been forced to grow up. Sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m just eighteen but that is the way it used to be in the old days. Girls just married young. But … not to offend you or anything but I don’t want to wind up like that just yet.” I pointed briefly at the pregnancy she couldn’t hide.

“You need to talk to Granny C then.”

I asked kind of embarrassed, “You don’t know anything about it?”

“Good grief no. I was trying for the opposite result. Sand and I have been at it like forever. I was almost afraid to believe it when I realized I was late. Are you afraid that … you know … genetics and all that …”

“Huh?” I asked. When I figured out what she meant, “No, not really. My size is mostly from the tumor they got rid of. I had an aunt with similar problems but instead of up she grew out if you know what I mean. My genetic milkshake mostly seemed to just make me better handle the extra size … my heart is healthy, my bones are dense, my lungs are good. And besides, Thor is bigger than I am and …” Then I noticed it … the forest had gotten quiet again.

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