Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 20

Chapter 20

“Aw stop,” Thor muttered. “You look like freaking Bambi with those eyes. How you can be so flaming tough and so … so … soft blast you … at the same time …” As I started to back up he said more loudly that perhaps he intended, “@#$% I said stop!”

Those words followed by one of his trademark growls had me backing away even harder. I was completely taken over by my fight-or-flight response and since I wasn’t dumb enough to think I could take on Thor, especially not with the pain I was already distracting me, I was ready to make tracks. Had no idea where I was going, no plan, so it was mostly panic that had me swinging around to run.

I got about three steps before I was hit from the side sending me down and back onto my already abused shoulder. I was seeing nasty little spots but I’d done that before playing with a cracked collar bone one year during play offs. I was fighting back and then a real fist caught me in my unprotected ribs and knocked the wind out of me but still I wasn’t going to give up. Then there was too many hands for it to be just one person and I vaguely hear Thor roar … I mean really roar and not in the cowardly lion kind of way either.

I managed to finally get my feet back in under me and though I was down the full use of one arm I started giving back as good as I got.

“I … said … stop!!” and suddenly the two people that I’d been wrestling with were just gone, sent flying to land in a none too gentle way a couple of yards away.

I was swaying on my feet but I wasn’t going back down. Or at least that is what I was telling myself. Unfortunately my knees weren’t listening. One of them started to buckle and then Thor got under my arm and propped me up with an arm around my waist.

“Did I ask either of you morons to get involved?” The steel of Thor’s voice was like those ginsu knives on late night TV. It sliced and diced everything that got in its path.

“But … but he was running off … you were yelling at him to stop …” I recognized the voice and it hurt worse than the punches had.

“Chuckri I swear to … Take your personal problems someplace else and deal with them. You’re acting like a complete @#$. The state you are in you are useless to this team and to me. The Kid banged h … his shoulder and didn’t want me to look at it. Probably thought I was going to make …”

I tried to pull away but Thor was having none of it. I told him, “I … can … take care … of … myself. I don’t … don’t need …” I was gagging on the taste of my own blood were I’d gotten a split lip. I spit and was happy to see it wasn’t bright red like the time I’d bitten my tongue during practice when I forgot to put my mouth guard in between plays.

“Shut up Kid. I can see you’re tough. What do you want? A medal? Even injured you still managed to put Montgomery down and he ain’t caught his breath yet.” Then he turned to snarl at Chuckri. “Get gone. Go cool off. Don’t care where, just get out of my face. The day I can’t handle someone like the Kid is the day I retire. And next time I catch you spying on me is the last time you do it … you got that?” The last was said in a deadly calm voice that only an idiot would have misunderstood.

The two men left brushing themselves off realizing that maybe they’d put their foot into something that hadn’t been what they thought it was. Chuckri looked like he wanted to say something and then anger replaced whatever it was and he stomped away pushing Montgomery before him.

“Come on,” Thor ordered.

“I’m not …”

He stopped and then turned ice cold eyes on me. “Kid. Rocky. Whatever the heck you want to call yourself. I … have … had … enough. Right now I am in the mood for a fight. The knock down drag out kind. And since I can’t have it with you I will at least have the satisfaction of getting some answers. So shut up until we get to the office. You will do what I say when I say it or … or … or I’m not going to be answerable for the consequences. Now move.”

It was more like being dragged for a few feet but by the time we got to the warehouse that Thor had been using to store the grain temporarily until the group had been hired took possession I was walking under my own steam. I was hurting but not as bad as he probably thought I was. I debated for half a second whether I should play that up and then decided I’d had enough of lying. If it was all going to come to an end at least I was going to be able to hold up my head with some pride.

He nodded to the guards … Alfonso and someone I didn’t recognize … and then unlocked the door and pushed me ahead of him. I could tell by their smirks that they thought I was about to get called on the carpet in a big way and maybe even given my pay and told to get out. I thought maybe I was and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Sit. In that chair. Now,” he said in a voice that sounded like a couple of sandy bricks being rubbed against each other. I didn’t sit as fast as he wanted me to and looked at me in barely there light from the torches outside an added, “Don’t try my patience.”

I sat, but not in the chair he’d indicated. I chose the other chair that put me closer to the door. Thor picked up a wind up lantern, turned to see where I’d chosen to sit then carefully sat the lantern on the desk. Before I realized what he’d meant to do he picked up me and the chair – no small feat – and deposited us both in a place close to where he’d meant for me to sit to begin with.

He then picked up the lamp and took a good look at me. After a moment he set the lamp down and walked away a couple of steps like he needed a little space himself.

“Why? Why do this? Why?!” he said turning to look at me.

I was thinking of everything and nothing at the same time and then gave up. “You want the short answer or the long one?”

Almost like he hadn’t heard me he said. “I could kill them, feel like it even now. Two men I’ve known over a decade, walked through the best and worst of times with. Do you see what kind of mess you’ve created? If I tell them you are a girl they’ll …”

“Do you think I want you to tell them?” I asked him. “Because I don’t. I haven’t put all this work into this ridiculous charade to have someone play hero and rescue me like I’m some helpless kitten, only because of my gender. I’ve never been helpless since I could walk and swing whatever was handy. What gave me away anyway?” I don’t know if I asked him to distract him from his anger or if I was really curious, probably both.

“Is that all you care about? How this affects you?”

I slumped realizing that nothing I could say was going to fix this. I closed my eyes for a second and then said, “Just tell them you’d had enough. That I’d caused problems once too often. Give me time to say good bye to Evans. I’ll be a day or so ahead of you all because I promised Trish and Mickey that I’d make sure they got settled. You won’t see me I just want to keep my promise and …”

“You hearing a @#$% thing I’ve said?” he snapped.

“Yeah, I’ve heard you. And I’m taking you at your words. Nothing I can say is going to change reality. Nothing I can say is going to get you to understand. I doubt you can no matter how many words I use. I can tell you I never meant any harm. I doubt you’ll believe me. I can tell you that everything I’ve told you is the truth except for my gender. Again, I doubt you’ll believe me. I can say I’ve been so tired of it all myself that I had thought about telling Evans this morning until I thought he was sick but I doubt you’ll believe that either. Nothing I can say will get you to believe me. I never … never meant to get this close to anybody. Never wanted to. Never wanted to feel bad for what I was doing. Never thought what I was doing would turn into what it has. I just wanted to go home. That’s all.”

The room shrank to the sound of two people breathing. I decided that since there was no chance for me to fix this I could at least leave with some dignity and stood up but when I did it felt like something ripped on the back of my shoulder. There was no stopping the gasp that came out of my mouth.

“That’s what you get for moving when I told you to sit,” he mumbled at me. He turned, opened a filing cabinet drawer and pulled out this bag that turned out to be an oversized first aid kit. “You probably knocked the scab loose. I need to clean it and put a new bandage on it.”

“Stitches.”

“I don’t think it needs stitches Kid.”

“That’s what I told the gargoyle but she disagreed.”

He got a fairly irritated look on his face and growled, “You got stitches and you didn’t tell me? I put you on guard duty!”

“So? I wanted to be paired with Evans anyway. Look, when I leave I’m serious about someone needing to …”

He sighed, “Dang you are hard headed. You are not leaving. But … look, you are going to have to cooperate here. The bandage is going to need to be changed either way and I don’t want to have to tie you down to do it. You wouldn’t appreciate it and I wouldn’t enjoy it probably as much as you think I would.”

I kept looking at him wondering what language he was speaking.

He finally shook his head. “The shirt Kid. It’s … it’s going to have to go.”

I did jump up then. “Not likely,” I told him as I made a sudden dash for the door.

“He stepped in front of the office door before I got there. “I’m not … look I’ve never needed to fight to get what I wanted from a female. I’m not likely to start now. Turn away from me … and … and we’ll both try and keep our composure.”

“No … way.”

Finally starting to lose patience again he said, “Kid, it’s either this or a trip to Nona’s clinic and I don’t think either one of us is in the mood for that.”

I felt like dying of embarrassment. If I had thought him finding out I was female was bad this was like death warmed over.

He said quietly, “Come on Kid … Rocky … What is your name anyway? Your real name.”

“Rochelle. But not even Mom called me that very often. I’ve always just been Rocky. They started calling me that before I left the hospital when I was born. Nobody expected me to live. I came out not breathing right. I think one of the doctors started it and it … it just sort of stuck. So it is my real name in a way, it’s what everyone has always called me,” I answered him just as quietly.

“Rochelle.” The way he said my name made me feel things that I had no business feeling at that time or any other.

“Don’t.”

“Why? Don’t you like your name?”

“My name never bothered me so long as people weren’t saying it to tease me. It’s just … I’ve worked very hard to forget about being Rochelle, even about being a girl named Rocky. I’m supposed to be a young man on his way home. That’s all. It’s hard enough to do this, keep who I am straight, without blurring the lines.”

He sighed, “OK. I can understand the sentiment if not the reasons behind it. But I still need to take care of that wound. One way or the other it needs to be tended to. It’s bleeding. Your lip is split. You look like …” He stopped because he’d started getting angry again which had me wondering if I could beat him to the door a second time.

“It’s dark. I’m not going to see anything. You can tell me your story, distract us both.”

“If you aren’t going to be able to see anything why should I let you …”

“Rocky, I’m not going to take advantage of you. If I was that kind of man I could have done it before now but I haven’t. I haven’t even told anyone what my suspicions are … were.” When I still hadn’t moved he said, “You said you trusted me.”

“Trusting you not to get me killed is some different from what you are asking me to trust you about now.”

He sighed, “You can you know. Trust me. You’re just a kid. I wouldn’t do that to a kid.”

“Do you take me for a fool? You aren’t old, that old, or anything approaching either. You act like thirty years old makes you Noah’s grandpa. There was ten years between both sets of my grandparents. My parents had five. To my great grandfather who was twenty five years older than his third wife you wouldn’t be anything but a wet behind the ears pup. So leave off with that kind of stuff, I’m not stupid enough to believe it. My aunt told me men will say most anything if it nets them what they want.”

A short bark of laughter was followed by, “Aunt didn’t care for men too much I take it.”

“She had reason. A few too many made up to her for the wrong reasons … my grandfather had a pretty good piece of land that a lot of men wanted … but she was like me. You know … kinda big … at least until they found out what the problem was and took care of it. In the end either they outed themselves for being greedy for the land or they got caught cheating with some skinny and dainty little thang.”

“Well I don’t like skinny little thangs. They have a bad habit of breaking every time I play with them.”

That startled me so much I made the mistake of turning my head to try and look at where he’d stepped behind me and the hot poker raced across my shoulder again.

“C’mon Kid. Here … I’ll set my pistol here. I’d give it to you to hold but this is going to hurt and I don’t want to get shot for something I can’t help.” He cajoled once more, “C’mon, the longer you leave this the worse it is going to get. And your shirt is starting to dry and stick to it.”

I knew I needed help. I briefly thought of Trish but knew I couldn’t put her in the middle of this, she was just ten years old. Then I thought of Evans yet knew I didn’t want to hurt Thor any more than I wanted anyone else to know who and what I was. “I swear, you try anything and it won’t be that gun you need to worry about. I’ll staple your tenderbits to the nearest tree. You got that?”

A snort was followed by, “Yeah. Loud and clear.”

“Turn your head.”

“I can’t …”

“Turn … your … head.”

I heard him mumble some rather uncomplimentary words about the level of my intelligence but I didn’t care. I needed his help but I was going to keep some healthy boundaries. I wound up having to pull the shirt off myself where it had dried and brought myself close to tears doing it. I collapsed back into the chair but held the shirt to my front to preserve what modesty I could. “You can turn around.”

He was right, it hurt. Nearly as bad as when the gargoyle had dug at it the first time and the skin around it was even sorer than it had been then. I was breathing heavy through my nose trying to fight the urge to rock.

“Hey Kid,” he said as he cleaned my shoulder. “You ready to tell me the truth?”

“I told you, it’s all been the truth, except I’m a female.”

“Prove it.”

I was trying to concentrate. “What?”

“Prove it. Explain it to me. Why the get up? Why not just be honest in the first place?”

I barked a bit of my own laughter. “You’ve obviously never been a girl.”

“Obviously not,” he agreed.

“Like I told Jonathon when we first tried to escape what was going on. I’m big. I’m tough. I can be mean when necessary. I’m even trained. But if enough people pile on I’m going down. And if I go down there are enough people in this world that will enjoy putting me in my place … male type people …” I shuddered remembering my fear that day on the highway when he almost stopped. “I’m not stupid Thor. I know there are men out there that … that wouldn’t care that I was big and ugly … all they would care about was getting what they wanted. And some of them would do it just to make themselves feel more powerful than me because I threatened their manliness in some way.”

I could hear the thoughtfulness in his voice. “Your aunt isn’t the only one with a bad attitude about men.”

Not wanting him to think I was a man hater I told him, “My aunt isn’t the only one that has had to put up with certain kinds of cretins in this world. But unlike my aunt was I can say not all of you are the front part of a backwards walking donkey. I had lots of guy friends … just never any boyfriends … for the obvious reasons.”

“Obvious reasons?”

“Thor …”

“I’m asking, you’re explaining, remember?”

“Well, let’s see … oh yeah. I’m as dainty as a princess and a real lightweight. And who can forget my scientifically verifiable background. Every young man’s parents were just dying for him to bring someone home with my pedigree. Oh, I’m strong as an ox with a great talent for opening stuck doors and drawers and jars, bigger than most guys in my class, and was used to scare little kids that if they weren’t good the same thing was going to happen to them that had made me like I am. Want me to keep going? I haven’t even gotten to the fact that there was more than one group that believed the GWBs were an abomination that never should have been born and were threatening to rectify the situation.”

“Geez.”

“Beginning to see the light?”

He shook his head, “No, just feeling like there were more idiots in the world than even I suspected.”

That shut me up but Thor wasn’t through. “Keep talking Kid. You’ve torn three stitches and it won’t stop bleeding unless I put them back in.”

My stomach rolled at the idea but I could feel the drips that kept running down my back, leaving a sticky residue even after he wiped it away. “We escaped, just like I told you. Then first Jonathon and then Nana … they just died. And I was alone. I had to decide what to do.”

“Jonathon was … your friend?”

“Best friend though …” I sighed and didn’t quite understand why I told him the next part. “For several months he’d wanted it to be something more but I just … I didn’t know if I was ready for what he wanted but I didn’t want to lose my best friend over it. That point is moot. He’s gone,” I said in a voice that was as dead as Jonathon was.

It wasn’t the poke of the needle that nauseated me so much as feeling of the string or whatever it was he was using being pulled through my skin. I started talking again just to have something else to focus on. “I’d seen your group earlier. I thought it would be easier for a young man to find a place than it would be for a helpless female. You in particular worried me.”

“I did huh?”

“At first. But when I figured out that just because you could bite someone’s head off didn’t mean you necessarily would without good reason. I decided to just do what I could to stay out of your way. Then they stuck me with you and the other men. And … I started having fun.”

A strangled and surprised laugh and then he said, “You what?”

He was finally finished with the tugging and pulling and I could stop trying to hide my heaving. “Started having fun. It was … well it was like being on the team again. I’d had to leave the team because they used some bogus excuse about insurance to keep me off my last year in school. It wasn’t worth fighting about when I saw most of the other guys seemed too worried about their own futures to care about mine any at all. But being with you guys, even if we were just throwing those cars around, it was like having that back. We were a team … or so I thought.”

He moved the lantern and was looking a little more closely than I cared for. “That’s enough turn your back again,” I told him.

“You’ll pull those stitches again.”

“Well I’m not going topless for everyone to see.”

“No one is going to see. You’ve got yourself wrapped up so tight I can’t believe you can even breathe which answers one of my questions anyway. I’m not going to see anything. Just let me help.”

I suddenly started distrusting him on a different level and he must have seen it in my eyes. “I told you you can trust me.”

“I gave you my trust but that was never good enough to get yours in return. I’ll take care of … arrr.” I’d tried to put the shirt on that arm myself and it hadn’t felt too good.

“See?”

“I swear it Thor if …”

“I make the wrong move I get stapled to a tree. Got it. Now hold still.”

The shirt was on and I was embarrassed that he had to button a couple of the more important buttons.

“Fine, you looked at …”

“Sit.” When I didn’t he looked me straight in the eye and said again, “Sit. I’m not done getting my answers.”

“What else is it you want? You know everything from that point forward. I made the mistake of thinking I had become a contributing member to the team, that I was accepted. When I found out I was wrong I left. I was doing fine on my own until I ran into those kids.”

“During a tornado.”

“Yeah. Trish knows by the way. She’s smarter than all you grown men put together.”

I’d insulted him. “Hey, I knew from the beginning … mostly … sort of. I had my suspicions anyway.”

“How did you know? What gave me away? And why didn’t you out me then? Does everyone know?”

He was silent for nearly a minute. That first day. You were … er … soft where men normally weren’t. But then I thought it was just baby fat. Then things started adding up. No adams apple. Your hands. Your eyes. The way you’re your jeans … er … fit.”

Extremely embarrassed I muttered, “Oh.”

“But still I wasn’t sure. The way you threw those cars around and the way you talked kept me guessing. I was almost convinced and then that guy Joe messed it all up again. Calling you Rocky like it was your real name. Saying that you two had played football together. Treating you like you were a real guy. Then you ran off and I tried to forget it all but it wouldn’t stop bugging me. Evans grumbling and pestering the @#$% out of me didn’t help either. He acted like I’d stolen his favorite chew toy.”

“Joe didn’t like lying, he only did it because I asked him and because he thought it was a bit of a joke. He wanted me to stay with his family but I couldn’t. His mom … she was a nice lady but … in built prejudices you know? About me being a GWB. She hasn’t been the first and she won’t be the last. She tried for Joe’s sake but she was relieved when I told her I couldn’t stay.”

He was silent for a time then asked me, “You really played football and all those things that Joe said.”

“Yeah. But it was a lifetime ago. It doesn’t matter like I thought it would, not after everything that has happened. Every time I think I’ve found something that matters I find out that it isn’t what I thought it was. I’m over it all. I’m keeping my promise to Trish and Mickey then I’m going to go home … or try to.”

“What if you don’t have a home when you get there?”

“I’ve considered it. It’s possible, anything is possible. But our farm backed up to the national forest and even people that had been there before had a hard time finding it the second and third time around. It’s way off the beaten track. The town is less than a thousand people except when the TransAmerican Bike Trail has some event going on and during the summer when all the trails that converge in the area are busy.”

“And that’s off the Blue Ridge Parkway.”

“Sorta. It’s closer to the AT but that doesn’t matter. Our farm sits way off back in the middle of nowhere and has been in the family since way before the War Between the States. We’ve still got virgin forest on one corner.”

“You don’t say. Anything else?”

I looked at him and said, “Nothing you’re likely to find interesting.”

After a minute he asked, “Hoping anyone in particular is still there?”

“Don’t want anyone to be … be dead but after seeing what I’ve seen I don’t have high hopes that I’ll get my wish. My grandparents are all gone already. About the only one besides my parents that were left was my aunt and some of my cousins who are all a good deal older than me and who wouldn’t know how to run a farm if they tried. They all hated the place, called it old fashioned and backwards and none of them had been back to the farm since I was real little, not even to visit my grandmother while she was still alive. I think they hated her cabin most of all. My mom and dad ran the family co-op and kept everyone in fresh fruits and veggies, cheese and dairy too for those that wanted it but most of them were too scared because of all of the government warnings and idiot stuff like that. My dad grew some tobacco but mostly as a novelty and for trading with some of the other old timers that lived in the woods even deeper than we do.”

“Sounds like a good life.”

“It would have been a perfect life for my parents if I hadn’t been like I am. It meant they had to deal with the outside world a lot more than they wanted to.”

“So you really are a GWB?”

I looked at him like he’d been dropped on his head as a baby one too many times. “Your memory is just about as long as a frog’s whiskers.”

“Just trying to get my facts straight.”

“Well try harder. I don’t know why you should care to know in the first place. This doesn’t mean anything to you anyway.”

He looked at me and said, “I’m curious by nature.”

“Doesn’t sound like a healthy trait to have in your line of work.”

A slow grin made me butterflies where they had no business being. “What do you know about my line of work.”

“Evans explained it to me. You worked for one of those contractors that went all over the world doing things that other people didn’t necessarily want to. Sometimes you got paid well for it and sometimes you didn’t. Mostly you did it because somebody needed to.”

The smile was gone. “Evans talks too much.”

“No. Don’t blame him. I’m just good at putting two and two together … most of the time. He’s just lonely. You all treat him like … like the drunk he used to be. He’s not that person anymore but he understands that it was going to take time to prove he wasn’t. Only the world fell apart and it took all he had to not give into the temptation to fall apart with it. Talking to me makes it easier for him to not listen to the voices of the past in his head. I was hoping you all had seen that but the rest of you all seem to be wrapped up in your own problems and worries.”

“Evans talks too much and you see too much.”

I shrugged but remembered to do it with only one shoulder. “If you’re through with the grilling I think it is better if I get out of here.”

“I’m not through.”

I sighed and did roll my eyes that time. “What else? What else could you possibly want to know?”

“If you understand that this changes things.”

“No it doesn’t. I’m still the same person I was before.”

“But I was only suspicious before.”

“Just because you’ve had your … your suspicions or whatever … confirmed doesn’t mean anything. Your suspicions didn’t stop me from being able to do a job even if I wasn’t part of your team.”

“You’ve put me in a bad position.”

“And I offered to leave but you don’t want me doing that either. I won’t stay just to make you feel better.”

He snorted in sour humor. “No, you’ve already proven that haven’t you.” He shook his head, probably fighting the desire to get into another battle of words with me. “How do you think the men are going to take it if they find out you’re female?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. And tell me why I should even care after they made sure I felt just how not a team member I was?”

“Stung did it?” he said like he was glad.

“Hey, I would have understood if you all hadn’t been so welcoming in the beginning. I kept wondering what in the heck I had done. It’s not like I expected much, just a chance to keep doing a job, a chance not to be alone. But you guys turned out to be just like everyone else. I didn’t see that telling you all anything would make a difference.”

“We had our reasons.”

“And I don’t need to know what they are any more than you need to know what my reasons are.”

“Smart aleck.”

“You aren’t the first to call me that.”

He shook his head. “You sure are calm for someone that was near hysterics not that long ago.”

“I wasn’t hysterical. I just have my boundaries.”

“Is that what you call it?”

I was fighting to keep the smile from my face. “Now who’s the smart aleck?”

“Rochelle …”

“Rocky … just Rocky.”

Very deliberately he said, “Ro-chelle if I tell the men who you are they are going to be sick about it. They are going to doubt themselves. How do you think Chuckri is going to feel? They were hitting a woman. Despite what you might think of us that’s not our MO. We have boundaries and standards too.”

I looked at and said, “At this moment I don’t care how any of them feel, Chuckri included. I understand he had it rough. Welcome to my world. But I didn’t use my GWB as a free pass to beat up on people because I was born like I was. Chuckri is being a jerk. That’s the hard part, realizing he is a jerk about this one thing but knowing that he is probably the best option Trish and Mickey have for a real family that can take care of them. He really cares about them. I just want to make sure he keeps on caring about them if his biological kids come into the picture as well.”

Thor scratched his chin, perplexed. “There’s an old woman hiding in your head isn’t there.”

“No. I’m just me Thor. That’s all.”

He was quiet for long enough that I started to think of escape again. It must have shown on my face. “And don’t think I don’t see those thoughts running around in your head. Say I agree to keep your secret, in essence continue your lie, you think I want it all for nothing?”

Ah here it comes, I thought. The blackmail or the price.

Instead I got a surprise. “Those Green Freaks … what I’m about to tell you …” He stopped, like he wasn’t sure how to continue. “Rochelle …”

“I told you to call me Rocky.”

“Listen Brat, I’ll call you anything I please and at the moment I’m finding more than a little satisfaction in irritating you by calling you by your proper name.”

I rolled my eyes again but figured he’d earned his chance to dig a little … a little.

“Several persons … let’s just say high up the food chain … considered the groups working under the umbrella name of Green Warriors to be worth keeping tabs on. They had been connected with some home grown terrorist activities and hate crimes. Yeah, get the look off of your face, I knew more about the GWBs than I was letting on but nothing about any of you specifically; that wasn’t part of our job. We infiltrated a couple of the cells and dismantled plans that were never made public. About five years ago a pattern was noticed. Unfortunately we couldn’t determine whether the Greenies were being used or were the users. I still can’t say for sure if their activities were separate from the Twelvers or whether they were being manipulated or infiltrated by the Twelvers. It may have been a case …”

“Don’t.”

I got a look that said that it wasn’t polite to interrupt my elders. “Thor, just don’t. You’ve warned me off. I don’t need any more trouble than what I already have.” Then a horrible thought occurred to me. “Are you saying that Chuckri, if he knew, would …”

“No.” Then he sighed. “I’d like to say with one hundred percent certainty … but we both know I can’t. I trust Chuckri with my life and have several times. I know he has no love of the Greenies as his ex-wife was one of those weird post modern hippy types that the Greenies tended to cultivate. But in their anger and hurt the men could let something slip to someone that might carry the information to people you don’t want having the fact of what you are.”

“I’m not a what Thor, I’m a who.”

“What … Who … Whatever. I’ve got firsthand knowledge that those people are dangerous. You were born out of one of their failed attempts to bring about their version of the future and your parents were murdered from another attempt … and one that appears to be working. I’m not going to let you simply run off into the night … the day … or anything in between … with no protection. This is what I do Kid. If you leave me no choice I’ll hunt these green freaks up I’ve learned about and I will take them out whether they are the real deal or not. I’ll say if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, then it is a duck. I’ll perform as judge, jury, and executioner.”

To say I was shock at the sudden change in direction of the conversation came nowhere near reality. “Are … are you telling me that if I don’t stay … that if I go off on my own … for my protection you will simply go … go assassinate complete strangers?”

“That is part of what I did Kid. That is part of what we all did. And we were very good at our job. We are the shepherds to the sheep.”

The size of his ego was breathtaking. “And you acted like I had a superman complex.”

“Kid this is no joke. If I’m lying I’m dying. If you run off I will hunt those punks that are claiming to be green freaks and remove them permanently. I will not … cannot … simply stand by and let you go knowing the kind of threat you are under.”

I shook my head. “No one knows but you.”

“Anyone that has ever known you … the real you … knows. Until I’m sure that you are going to be safe you are officially my job.”

“Job?! I didn’t hire you. I don’t need a blasted bodyguard much less a nightmare sized babysitter!”

“Too bad. You’ve got the biggest, baddest babysitter I know … me. You will stay in disguise. You will mind all that I say. When we get Chuckri home and settled we will make plans from there.”

I must have looked like a big mouth bass gasping for air. “Are … you … out … of … your … mind?!! No way have I come this far, suffered this much, to suddenly be saddled with an oversized, smelly, obnoxiously bossy Viking for a caretaker! I’ll go where I want, when I want, and do as I please without your permission. Just because your ego is bruised that I managed to survive without you …”

He barked a contemptuous laugh. “Yeah, you looked real good when you pulled in with those two kids. You were so tired you couldn’t put one foot in front of the other.”

“Maybe so, but I still would have figured something out. I had thought finding you guys was providential but maybe it was the devil throwing you in my face again. Every time I turned around something would remind me of …” I shut my mouth and tried to think fast on how to turn what I was about to say into something else but the look on Thor’s face stopped me.

It was closed off yet just about as unguarded as I’d ever seen him. “I … I missed you too Kid. You do make life … interesting.”

“No. No, you weren’t even for sure I was a guy or not. You called me a liar often enough. You …”

“I,” he said emphasizing the pronouns. “found you to be a puzzle. As a general rule I don’t like the kind of puzzle I thought you represented. I knew something was off. Once I was convinced you were female I wasn’t sure … er … what … er …”

Losing patience with inability to finish his sentence I snapped, “What? Did you swallow a frog? Stop croaking and spit it out already.”

Suddenly he was seized by real laughter. “What?” I asked trying to figure the joke.

“Kid, I swear you would try the patience of the Saints. I could never quite figure out what you were. Were you a girl or a guy? Were you a girl who wanted to be a guy or a guy who had secret leanings toward being a girl? Which way did you swing no matter what your gender was? Then I found out about your GWB status so I wondered if maybe you were both or maybe neither. I’d get myself convinced of one thing only to have you do something that would completely throw off my whole hypothesis. You were an enigma and a dang frustrating one.”

I didn’t find his wonderings quite as humorous as he did. “Yeah, I’ve heard it all before. For your records I’m female … all female … brains to brassiere and beyond. I ‘swing’ the way God built me to except that no one seemed to swing in my direction due to the way God let me be tampered with along the way. Only Jonathon and … and I think that was mostly because … because he was lonely and I was safe and had never judged him. And because we were both GWBs and understood what that meant. Now if I’ve satisfied your curiosity, I’m tired. I assume if I’m supposed to continue as is that I’ll still be allowed to be useful and work with Evans?”

“Hey Kid, I didn’t mean …”

I sighed knowing I couldn’t stay angry at him simply because he was what he was and I was what I was. “Forget it. Most people never mean anything truly hateful by the things they say, they’re just thoughtless. Lucky for me only a few seem to be bent on my complete destruction. I had planned on keeping my promise to Trish and Mickey anyway so I’ll stay until then but forget about any guarantees to let you turn my life upside down after that. I’ve got plans. They may not be great plans but they are my plans. Got it?”

I got a look that told me I was beginning to push my luck again but I didn’t care. I knew Thor’s type. It was either stand up for myself now or he’d run all over me doing what he thought was best for me.

“Rochelle …”

“For the last time, call me Rocky. Everyone does.”

“Well I’m not everyone. Listen to me, I will not let you go off on your own. Not now that I have the facts … and if there is anything else to spill you better do it quick. In the end I may not even care about the men’s feelings enough to keep them in the dark if you run off. And if you run off I will kill those idiots down at the lake. I do not like leaving things up to chance. I will not allow them to make you a target. You stay with me and no one gets hurt. The choice is yours to make.”

Irritated and highly offended at the non-choice he was offering me I told him, “Let’s see, leave to take the danger away from everyone here thereby turning you into a cold blooded murderer or stay and bring the potential danger to the group and perhaps turn myself into a murderer. Gee whiz, that’s a win-win if ever I heard one.”

“Thought you’d like it,” the big oaf deadpanned.

“Why you should care …,” I snarled.

“Beats me why I do but there it is … I do. You managed to get under my skin.”

“Then go take some Benadryl,” I told him.

Suddenly he started laughing quietly again. “Oh Kid. This is what I’m talking about.” After a moment of watching me like a spider does a fly he said, “I’ll walk you back to camp and …”

“See, you’re doing it already. People are going to talk. And might I remind you everyone else apparently really does think I’m a guy. What do you think people are going to say?”

“Heck if I know. Heck if I care. If someone is rude enough to ask I’ll tell them I’ve made you my special project; that it is my goal to train you up right and do something about that mouth of yours and to make you pay for being a pain in my backside one too many times as a bit of vengeance.”

Shaking my head I asked, “And you think they’ll believe it.”

“No, but it’ll keep them guessing long enough that I’ll figure something else out. I told you Kid, our team is good … and I’m the best.”

Outraged I asked, “How do you even stand upright with that big fat head?”

A wicked smile was my only answer.

Suddenly I was tired. No, beyond plain tired. I was painfully exhausted. “Thor. I’m tired of hurting. Tired of other people getting hurt. Just let me go and everyone of you can go back to normal life … or whatever passes for normal these days.”

“No.”

“I don’t understand why not.”

“Rochelle …”

“I …”

“Don’t. I won’t forget to call you Rocky or Kid out there. But when it is just the two of us I’m going to remind you of who you are every chance I get. I want you to remember so you won’t take unnecessary chances. I don’t want you brawling or anything like that.”

“I’ve never started one in my life but I’m not a coward that runs away either.”

“For God’s Sake, you’re a girl.”

“Yeah, and your point is?”

“Girls don’t …”

I laughed at him. “Girls don’t what? Defend themselves? Protect others … even if that means putting themselves in danger to do it? Have the right to be self-sufficient?”

I was frustrating him again. I stood up and looked him in the eye though he was nearly a head taller than me. “Look at me Thor. I am what I am. Part of it I didn’t have any choice to start with … but now I do, and I chose not to be the victim if I can help it. Nor will I stand by and let someone else be the victim. I’m not fragile. I don’t have the first clue how to be fragile. I’m me in all of the big, ugly truth of it. You wanted to know, well now you do. But your knowing and expecting me to suddenly conform to your idea of what a female is are two different things. I accept the first because I have no choice but the second is completely out of line.”

He looked at me and then said, “Fragile is over rated.”

I stepped back because his words were so unexpected. “And there isn’t anything wrong with being tall. I promise you, it is distracting as heck to get a crick in your neck because you have to bend over so far to kiss someone.”

“Who … who’s talking about kissing,” I said as he took a step towards me.

“And I’m not fond of the skinny toothpick type. They’re crunchy and break too easy,” he added as he took yet another step towards me.

“I might ask you to give longer hair a try, I do like that, but there isn’t anything wrong with the rest of the package.”

“You’re … you’re insane,” I forced out through dry lips. “You threaten me with one word and then try and … and distract me with then next.”

“That’s seduce, not distract. Just doing my best to remind you Rochelle.”

“That’s Rocky and you can’t remind someone of something they’ve never dealt with before so back off buddy before I change my mind about the stapling.”

Surprisingly he did step back. “I thought you were exaggerating or kidding about that.”

I muttered thoroughly disgusted. “Guys. They only hear what they want to hear.”

Thor opened his mouth to retort when we heard the warehouse door getting banged on. “Thor! We got problems!”

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