I’d given into Evans but the truth was I really would have preferred to have found that hole. I was stressing badly. I was once again tired beyond measure. My shoulder felt like someone had taken a sledge hammer to it. The thing with the kids was a load off my mind but an added load to my sorrow … I knew in the end they’d never pick me but still, sometimes in the back of your head you want someone to pick you first just once. Almost getting caught had really flipped the panic switch. And the lying … I was getting tired of it. I didn’t feel like I had the luxury of telling the truth but at the same time I was getting so tired of the pretense. I felt like I could never quite get clean. And if I did tell any of the men the truth, would that always interfere in a friendship or destroy any chance of friendship. I felt boxed in no matter what I wind up choosing.
And the time was coming that I would have to make some decisions. I would do what I said and get the kids to Chuckri’s place but after that I was beginning to doubt if I could carry on this farce in the company of so many. I started to realize that “being a male” might offer me some freedom and protection but it also kept me from some of the things that made me who I am. I’d never been a girly girl but I’d never wanted to change my gender to male either. There may have been some that questioned what my true gender was – that whole hermaphrodite thing I was teased unmercifully about for a while – but I was never in any doubt, not even when some people tried to tell me I should be confused about it. There were a lot of things I hadn’t counted on when I’d made my original choice to masquerade. I even missed my hair which was about the dumbest thing of the entire situation.
I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to keep up the disguise. I only wanted to get home, I hadn’t planned on making friends along the way. It made me feel bad to lie to them. I was collecting intimate secrets that made these people I was with who they are but I was unable to share my own. And if I did I wondered if they’d turn on me as so many others had.
I also hadn’t planned on growing up. I had only a vague idea of how young I was when I started this odyssey; you never really realize how young you are until you are passed the point of no return and look back. Maybe I was mature for my age as people before had told me, but what I’d lived through since that night in San Francisco was bringing about a whole ‘nother level of maturity. I felt older; mentally, physically, spiritually. I even looked older when I bothered to look in the mirror and try to remember who I used to be.
Part of my problem was that I was also realizing that it wasn’t just that I was tired of being a male and wanted to go back to being a girl. Frankly I didn’t want to go back to being a girl. What I wanted was to move forward and be a woman. And be acknowledged for being a woman. And I wanted that acknowledgement from someone in particular if for no other reason than to see him swallow his teeth; which quite honestly was stupid beyond words. First off he had a good ten years on me. Second I’d seen enough women giving him the eye to know I didn’t stand a chance. More than either of those I knew the last thing I needed was to start experimenting with the kind of problems that kind of longing could bring me. Thor was out of reach no matter how I looked at it.
I also wanted to be honest with Evans; he was turning into as much a mentor as a friend and I figured I owed him the truth even if it wound up disgusting him. He wasn’t replacing my father by any stretch but I appreciated the time and effort he put into teaching me things that I didn’t know. For all his cantankerous gruffness he was a lot easier to be around than the other men because he was solidly real … and made it plain that so long as I didn’t act like a complete fool I could count on him. I came real close to telling him that morning but right away I could see something was wrong. I wasn’t sure what it was exactly but his coloring wasn’t good and he seemed to be having trouble with his balance.
I’m not a tattle tail by nature, and goodness knows that I’m hard headed and would try and work even if my leg was falling off, but something about Evans upset me. It upset me enough that I did the last thing I wanted to do that morning. I tracked Thor down and lucked out by finding him in the office warehouse by himself trying to figure everyone’s take home pay.
“Decided I’m worth talking to or did you just want your pay so you could skedaddle?” he asked sarcastically.
“Knock it off Thor. Have you seen Evans this morning?”
“Is he missing? Where’s the last place you saw him?” he asked like the man was a lost sock.
“No. I mean have you seen him this morning. Something’s … off.”
He finally took notice of how serious I was and put the clipboard down. “Off how?”
“I’m not sure I can explain it exactly. Just … weak … and his balance don’t look so good.”
He said carefully, “Kid, you know that Evans is a hard drinker when he falls off the wagon.”
“Yeah, he told me but I haven’t seen him doing it all the time I’ve been with you guys. And he wasn’t drunk last night. It’s like he woke up this way. This isn’t hungover and still slightly drunk, this is … I don’t know what. Team me with him today so I can keep an eye on him.”
That got me a surprised look. “Didn’t you just off load those two kids? You looking for somebody else to babysit?”
“Thor … don’t. I wouldn’t mess with Evans’ pride like that ‘cause I don’t like it when you guys do it to me. This is … different. I can’t explain it but it is.”
I could tell he was thinking it over. He crossed his arms across his barrel chest – and why I needed to start noticing that was beyond me, bad enough I’d started dreaming of running my fingers through the thick hair and wondering if his moustache tickled. “You sure you aren’t creating a situation to get out of working with … the other men?”
Trying to be as serious as he was since he was finally listening to me I said, “You mean with Chuckri. I told you yesterday that I didn’t have a problem with Chuckri and Evans explained stuff so that his attitude makes a little more sense. It doesn’t excuse how he acted and I plan on avoiding him as necessary so the kids don’t get upset but I’m not afraid to be around him if it is all about work and nothing else. How’d he behave is something different though, I personally think he is being an idiot to try and instigate something with me. Y’all have only seen me get hurt pretty much, you’ve never really seen me put my whole effort into a fight. On the playing field wasn’t the only place people used to rag on me about … about being a GWB. And it wasn’t just kids either.”
I wasn’t bragging. A couple of adults had tried to make a point that I was a freak of nature and they found out the hard way that Dad had taught his girl how to handle cretins like that. I had considered going into boxing when I’d been denied football and had never really put the idea away though I suppose by that time that was gone on the wind just about like every other goal I’d ever thought I’d had. I had even trained a bit but had to be careful that the school didn’t get in trouble for me using their equipment. When it came to a serious one-on-one fight Chuckri may have had an inch or two on me but our reaches were about the same; he may have been wiry but I was built for strength and trained for speed and endurance. I’d outlast him unless he could take me down right away and he’d need more leverage than he had to pull that one off. I’d seen no sign that he was proficient in anything but basic brawling. It would take a pile on to take me down and I’d hurt as many as I could on the way there.
I put those thoughts away and focused on persuading Thor. “Look, just team me with Evans. If I’m wrong I’m wrong and I won’t say anything else. Tell him you want him to keep an eye on me. Everyone will believe that one and even Evans will think he is doing me a favor and have no idea about the other.” I thought about it for a few seconds and then added, “Please.”
That surprised him more than anything else had. “You’re really worried about him.”
“I don’t want to call it worry … yet. I want to be wrong. But … I can’t explain it, something feels off. And Evans wouldn’t let me see a weakness if he could possibly cover it up or bluff his way through it so either he isn’t aware of how bad it is or it is so bad he can’t cover it up.”
He sighed, “Then I guess it is a good thing you two are already teamed for the week. I wouldn’t want to have to come up with some reason to change the roster at this point. It would create too many questions and take too much time.”
Trying not to be irritated that he could have just told me that in the first place I said, “Thanks.”
As I turned to leave he called, “Rocky.”
“So that really is your name.”
I wanted to roll my eyes but didn’t know if it was a particularly manly move. Instead I said, “I told you it was.”
“Yeah. Yeah you did. Just seems kind of strange.”
I tried to walk away again and he asked, “Just how famous are you? Gotta remember, we’ve been out of the country more than in the last few years.”
“Huh?” When I realized he was talking about the thing with Dr. Gargoyle I groaned. “Don’t start. Some people just make a bigger deal of it than it deserves. It was our team that finally made it to state champs, it wasn’t just me. People just recognized me because of the fact I was a … er … GWB. They never let me live it down and it got some play in the rags that report on highschool sports. Having a team mascot that was an AV geek didn’t help either; every blasted play he put someone’s backside up on YouTube. Mostly I got attention because a lot of people thought that was the only reason that I was being allowed to play; I was supposed to be getting special attention because I was different not because I could actually play. When I proved them wrong, that I was just as capable as the others on the team were, most of those mouthy people weren’t too happy. So no biggie … please don’t … don’t bring it up around the men. Highschool already seems a lifetime ago and isn’t worth bragging about for the rest of my life … and I want to leave that stuff behind. It doesn’t buy me a doggone thing in this life but more trouble. I don’t want to have to explain things … especially the GWB part.”
I sighed, “Whatever dude. Tell ‘em if you think that’s what you should do. I’m getting to the point I don’t care anymore.” I was disappointed that Thor was turning out to be just like all the others and more disappointed in myself that I had expected anything else. “All I wanted was to make sure I could help Evans today if he needs it. Now that’s covered I’ll leave you alone.”
He called me back one more time but all I did was turn. “Kid?”
“What?” I asked my protective force field firmly in place.
“You can trust me.”
I was sore, tired, and worried and that left me with no patience for his digging. “I do trust you … or was trusting you as I don’t know exactly how I’m starting to feel anymore. If I hadn’t trusted you I wouldn’t be here, sure as heck wouldn’t have brought those two kids into it. I already told you that only you seem to suffer from convenient memory lapses. And what’s more I didn’t need to know your whole freaking life’s story to give you my trust; a thing I might add I’ve never given very easily and even you should be able to understand why.”
He tried to open his mouth around something but I wasn’t through. “You know it’s a doggone shame that I can accept you guys for who you claim to be but I can’t seem to get the same respect in return. I’ve spent my whole life being thought of and treated like some kind of freak that’s going to go postal at any moment and I’m getting tired of it. You’re turning out to be just like everyone else. You can’t just accept me at what I offer to share.” I was close to saying things I would regret so I turned to walk away while saying, “Whatever. Just tell ‘em. Maybe it would be better anyway that way I wouldn’t have to guess just how fast they’ll turn their backs on me. Chuckri isn’t the first to act like I’m not worth the trouble to have around only the most obvious … besides you I mean. I don’t know why I bother. It’ll all will wind up the same, just like always.”
With that I left. I knew then that the choice of whether to stay with the group or go would soon be a moot point. I was letting myself get too emotionally involved and when you do that you get hurt and when you get hurt it becomes too easy to make mistakes and let things slip that shouldn’t.
I headed back to find Evans and let him know we were teamed for the whole week. “Well don’t I just feel special. I get to babysit the Kid,” he said crankily.
“And I get to put up with your abuse all week so were even,” I reminded him. “At least you didn’t have to deal with Madame Gargoyle poking and prying yesterday so cut me some slack.”
I got a snort as an answer for my sass and we went off to start our patrolling. I kept an eye on Evans which was easy to do because he insisted on trying to impart his vast stores of experience and what he considered wisdom in a single day. In other words he expected me to be paying attention to him, just didn’t know the real reason I was doing so. I must have heard I don’t know how many tall tales … a few of them bawdy enough that I laughed guiltily at the pictures he was drawing with his words knowing my parents would have thrown a fit … but also managed to glean a few things about life that I’d never thought about. His stories also gave me an appreciation for how tough he must have really had it when he was my age and made me miss my own parents even more. He’d packed a lot of living into his forty years. There was no way to sum up Evans in only a few words though he tried to give the impression that a few words was all he was worth summing up with. His cranky and odiferous exterior covered a heart … well, it wasn’t gold exactly but it was far from being cheap pyrite.
He continued to do that same odd occasional stumble but otherwise seemed fine until later in the day when it was obvious that he was tired … more tired than I would have expected him to be after the way I’d seen him behave beforehand.
Neither one of us was in the mood for the crowd of strangers standing in line for soup and bread. I asked him if he minded eating on our own.
“Sure. Dad said if I was going to hunt I had to learn to eat what I shot; that was cleaning to cooking it myself. We didn’t hunt for sport but to put food on the table. Mom didn’t get her feelings hurt when we’d take over the kitchen every so often either. It gave her a night off.”
I decided to dazzle him with what little bit of talent I had. I made sweet potato fry bread by adding a jar of baby food to my normal fry bread dough. I’d found the jar in my travels and had thought to trade it for grown up food but like mom always said, “You work with what you’ve got Sugar.” Of course she said that when we were hunting for a dress that would actually cover all of my vital parts without making me look like a sack of sand but hey, it’s the sentiment that counts.
For our main course I made Black Eyed Peas and rice by using a can of black eyed peas, a can of diced tomatoes (used some of the juice off of that to cook some rice in), and a good portion of dried chopped onion. I could have wished for some meat but we’d had blackbird pie for lunch from a vendor that we’d heard good things about and only had to trade a couple of shotgun shells for two large slices. The pie had been good, and so was the dinner that I fixed us. At least Evans seemed to act like it was.
I’d made more than I should have thinking that Evans would eat more. When Thor came clumping in looking glum, as I peace offering I handed him what was left in the bottom of the pot.
“Too good to eat with everyone else?”
Evans who’d been dozing cracked an eye open and asked him, “What’s got your gizzard in a knot? The Kid did good, the least you could do is say nothing if you can’t admit it.”
Thor’s mouth tightened and his nostrils flared and then his shoulders just sort of slumped. “Don’t mind me. The sooner we get out of this place the better. Every day we hold over they take a percentage of the profit. But at the same time they won’t clear the delivery for payment. Worse jumble up I’ve ever seen and I’m not too sure there aren’t some kick backs getting paid for the delay.
I had taken my cooking gear to clean it up and when I got back a good sized snore told me that Evans was asleep. “Kid, do me a favor and come help me with some gear.”
I was tired but I figured Thor was the boss however it wasn’t really gear he wanted to talk about. As we got away from camp he said, “You need to be careful.”
“What I’d do now?” It wasn’t exactly a whine but I knew it was close enough that I was embarrassed.
“Nothing. Look … aw @#$%.” He distracted me by running his large hand through his already bushy mane. “I’m going to try and get us out of here tomorrow at some point. I threatened to take the wheat and sell it someplace else even if I had to do it a bucket at a time along the road.”
I shook my head. “What’s the rush? Are they taking that big of a chunk out?”
“Yeah but that isn’t the main problem. That Parnell guy that we had a run in with, well he ain’t really that bad just works for a man that is a real hard case. He came and paid me the damage his people did including the silver for your injury. We'll worth that out tomorrow. But what he brought was more valuable than that. Seems Parnell's boss has political leanings and is starting to make some rummblings around here. You wanna guess what those leanings are?”
“Not particularly but let me guess, he’s some kind of socialist or communist?”
“That would have been my first guess too but no. Apparently,” he stopped and looked around and then nudged me further into the shadows. “Apparently the guy has a couple of kids that were associated with the Greenies. They've just got home after months of being missing and and Parnell's boss has started acting like his kids are heroes, like the whole movement will save this country. Parnell was actually looking for a ride out of town which is the only reason I got the info out of him I did. Supposedly they're talking about “population correction” and a few other of the Greenies' politically correct words for their brand of death and destruction.”
I swallowed and tried not to panic. I’d dealt with those people before but not since San Francisco. “They’re … they’re Greenies … real ones … not just the ones that play at it.”
“Play at it?”
“You know, wannabees. They wanna be all that and then some but when it comes right down to actually doing something they’re nothing but a bunch of gas bags.”
He shook his head at my explanation. “Kid …” He stopped and shook his head again. “You gotta stop making me feel so old. As for what kind of people they are I don’t know for sure but I’m telling you it doesn’t make any sense to take chances. So long as you are riding with us you I’m responsible at least in part for your safety. Don’t make my job harder. Keep your head down and don’t start anything.”
Now it was my turn to shake my head. “What kind of idiot do you take me for?”
“Revenge Kid … for your parents.”
Well, I hadn’t thought of that. “Look, my parents weren’t … they wouldn’t want me to go around killing people. It won’t bring them back. I’m not saying that if a grade A golden opportunity presents itself that let’s me hurt the organization badly that I might not do more than be tempted but I’m not going to look somebody up I don’t even know to beat the snot out of them. That’d just be sinking to their level. But if they get in my face or find out who I am and trying to hurt me I’m not going to just run away either.”
“Kid …” he growled warningly.
“Thor don’t ask me to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do. Don’t ask me to be someone that you wouldn’t be willing to be. I’m no bully but I’m no coward either. If a fight happens it won’t be because I started it. And I’ll do my best to take it someplace that it doesn’t reflect on you or anyone else. This is my problem, not yours. But I appreciate the heads up.”
I turned to go when he grabbed me by my upper arm. I reacted badly. When you are trying to hide who you, what you are, touch is one of those things that activates your defenses. I jerked away and backed up only I backed into the side view mirror of a broken down truck and it hit in the worst place possible. I bent double trying to keep the scream from escaping. Where the bullet had burnt me had slowly gone down to a dull throb as the day had worn on but when I banged it it felt like a red hot poker all over again.
“I’m … I’m fine. Just fine. Hit it wrong but I’m fine. Going … going to go get some sleep. Think about what you said.”
“You really do suck as a liar. Stand still.”
There was no way I was going to let him touch me again. Dreams were bad enough, I didn’t need memories to fuel them. Not to mention I didn’t want him close enough that there might be questions I wasn’t ready to answer.
“Kid … stop … now. I’ve let you … look, do you think I’m a complete idiot?”