Evans was the first one to spot me puking in the bushes. “Hey! Hey Kid, didja et something bad?”
All I could do was shake my head while I tried to catch my breath through my acid ravaged throat. I caught Delia letting the kids down out of the wagon and all I could do was point and try and make a shooing motion to put them back into the wagon.
Thor, unusually perceptive, asked, “Where?” I had half expected him to think I just didn’t want the kids to see me being sick.
I pointed towards the building I’d run out of. It took me a few minutes but I finally got everything back under control by the time Thor came out of the building too, breathing heavy and then hawking a glob up and spitting it out in the dried up flower bed beside the door. He walked over and told Chuckri, “Don’t let the kids out of your sight and don’t let ‘em go in any building. Matter of fact don’t let ‘em on this side of the road at all. Tell ‘em I said either they do what they’re told or they can sit in the wagon the entire time.”
Chuckri nodded with obvious understanding. “How bad?”
Rather than answer verbally he made a disgusted face and then looked at me and asked, “You OK?”
In return I asked him, “Did you see the two in the back or only the one in the front? It … they …” I had to stop and I was glad that apparently even young men can get shook up at the sight I’d seen because Chuckri patted my shoulder before going over to Delia and the kids.
Thor turned to Evans, “Take Rocky over to that bench. Make sure the Kid stays put for a few.”
Evans wouldn’t take no for an answer but as I wasn’t opposed to sitting there wasn’t an argument. I shuddered trying to get control of the pictures running through my head. I must have been sitting there longer than I thought because Thor’s voice startled me.
“You ready to talk?”
I looked up and saw he’d already explained to Evans what was in the building. “Now do either of you wonder why I chose to do what I did?” I asked feeling haunted and dirty at the same time.
Evans shook his head and said with more understanding that I’d expected, “Take it easy Kid. The first time is always the roughest. On the other hand, the day it gets easy to see things like whot you seen … that’s the day you run screaming into the oncoming headlights. You gonna be OK or you want some more time?”
“No … I’ll … I’ll get up and help. It was the little one that did me in. She wasn’t much bigger than Trish.” I shuddered again and then jumped when Alfonso ran out of the building to bend over heaving.
Before I could ask Thor said, “See? Doesn’t matter how many times you see it sometimes it will still hit you bad; especially if there is a kid involved. We’re building a pyre. There’s no way we can take the time to bury ‘em but … but I won’t just leave them like that. None of us will.”
I was shaking, reminding myself as much as telling them, “They’re not there, only their bodies are. Whoever did this may have left them to be prisoners of what happened to them but they’re freer than the monster will ever be.”
Thor looked concerned at what must have seemed like rambling to him but Evans knew what I meant. “That’s right Kid. You just keeping knowing that; this life or the next he’ll reap what’s coming to him and then some.”
“Already has,” said a slow and scratchy voice.
We all jumped and grabbed for our guns. A man that was more sundried than Evans stood there confidently at ease despite startling several armed men, holding his rifle and wearing a US Marshall badge on a leather vest.
“Names Cochran. I’m what passes for justice around here these days. You say there’s three women in that building over there?”
Thor looked closely at the badge before saying, “Two young ones, hard to tell if they were old enough to be called women yet or not, then a … young girl either small for her age or …”
The man asked, “Red hair, medium length? Had on a yeller t-shirt and jeans.”
I closed my eyes briefly, “Yeah.” And that’s all I was going to say; I wouldn’t desecrate that poor kid’s memory by repeating what I’d seen … and what I hadn’t.
A spasm of pain crossed the man’s face. “Susie Dell, She was the youngest of ‘em as far as we know.”
Turning back to Thor he said, “As you pass through you might run into some folks that want to hurry you along. Don’t be too hard on ‘em. After what this area has been through I’d be surprised if people weren’t like that. It started before the power went off. Two girls went missing from the lake. Then another went missing from the bus stop. When the power went out it got worse. One a month then a couple a month and then somebody’d go missing almost every week. Sometimes we’d find the bodies, sometimes not. I was sent here to investigate the first three disappearances and then stayed on when folks asked me to. Finally got the evidence against a man no one had suspected when somebody saw him taking Susie. When we got to his place it was full of … well enough evidence to have put him away in the before time for life and plenty enough to get him hanged these days. Guy was a real perv and the way this big boy here is jittering I’d say that the scene is probably as bad as the other ones we discovered.”
When Cochran saw Trish and Mickey he said, “’Bout a mile up the road you’re gonna want those two over there to shut their eyes. We strung him up day and a half ago and the birds have been at him. I’ll notify the families, better for them not to see the condition of the bodies anyway. Let me confirm their identities and then I’ll stand witness to the cremation and give you a paper to clear ya in case there are any questions.”
I kept telling myself that those girls were gone, in a better place. I’d leave the rest of it in God’s hands ‘cause mine were too shaky for the job. But I did insist on helping to complete the pyres and then dump dirt on the fires to make sure they were out and wouldn’t escape the building. Everyone’s thoughts were dark as we finally left that place and headed to where we planned to camp, a place called Clinton State Park.
The place was abandoned but I didn’t understand why. There were the remnants of tents and RVs all over the place. Most of them still had bits and pieces of things that were useful enough that we added them to our own gear or replaced something that was wearing out. I grabbed the tail end of several rolls of TP, a roll of plastic wrap, some salvaged aluminum foil, Ziploc bags, and even a few food items. While the others took care of the horses, fixed dinner, or whatever chore they had been assigned, Evans and I divvied up the more valuable goodies that were found and made sure everyone got something. There were towels and linens and things like that as well. And nearly every little bathroom had dribs and drabs of hygiene items and first aid supplies. I gathered all of the spices and such as we went and then handed them to Delia to add to the food supplies although I’m not ashamed to say that Evans and I made sure we had our own supply of everything we found.
One RV had obviously belong to a family and when I saw the pictures of the kids hung on the frig it hit me hard. I walked back to the little bathroom cubicle, slid the door shut, and then sat on the floor of the show and cried as silently as I could.
I was too old to still believe in fairy tales but I realized I wanted all of this to be a bad dream. A small part of me thought if I could just hold on long enough things would right themselves and the last several months would erase itself. I’d get home and Dad and Mom … but finding those three girls did nothing but make me right. It wasn’t a game. I wasn’t just playing dress up. There were bad men out there and my world would never be the same. I still wanted to go home but I finally admitted that it was mostly so I could mourn in peace and not have to worry about someone finding out who and what I was.
I walked out of that bathroom stripped of just a little more of my innocence. It had been a innocence based on fantasy but I still hurt like my skinned had been stripped raw. But I was also more determined than ever to stay the course. But I was also determined to start being more smart about it. I found a steno pad in the rangers’ office and started making notes of all that I would need and need to do when I got home and made a list of things that I’d need to start collecting along the way if I could figure out a way to haul them.
Towards sundown we found out why no one would really want to try and build a full time retreat there. Mosquitoes the size of a city bus, nasty little blood suckers too.
Dinner was a miserable affair and the kids were quickly whimpering. Chuckri commandeered one of the travel trailers and put his little family in there for safe keeping and comfort. The kids slowly settled down and then fell asleep with Delia to watch over them. I was barely conscious myself by then. In fact I nearly fell asleep in my bowl of rice and beans until I felt both my arms grabbed.
I come to to find Evans on one side of me and Thor on the other. “What’re y’all doin’?!”
“You’re about to go face first into your food Kid. We’ve moved a couple of the smaller trailers in a ring with the wagon, put the horses in the middle, and we’ll take turns on watch.”
Trying to figure out how much sleep I would be able to squeeze in while I tried to stop them from dragging me like a rag doll I asked, “Who’s on guard?”
“You’re not,” Thor said.
“Hey, just because I … this afternoon …”
Thor just ignored me. “Evans, get Rocky inside. You and Alfonso can take the first watch. I’ll be back in a minute.”
I was inside and slapping at the bugs that had come in with me. “Evans, I’m not helpless or …”
“Fragile … yeah Kid. I get that. But I … well … if you want my advice you might want to give Thor a chance to explain and let the rest of ‘em pay a little penance for what you went through by taking your turn at guard duty. Thor and Chuckri, they’re good uns, but everybody makes mistakes. And from what Montgomery told me … well, you just give him a chance. Just don’t make it too easy on him. He deserves to wallow a bit for this.”
I was in no mood to put up with his version of a riddle. I tossed my bed roll out on the musty flooring and then laid down before I fell down, my mosquito flavored food forgotten once again. Sometime later I was vaguely aware of the door opening and closing and all I could think was Evans better not bring anymore in with him.
I jumped at the whisper that sounded like it was as close to my ear as the last mosquito I had killed had been.
“Will you stop that! I’ve told you to call me Rocky. People are going to overhear you.” I told Thor angrily.
“They won’t if you keep your voice down.”
“My voice is down. What do you want?” I was tired and cranky and in no mood to be messed with.
“I want to explain.”
“Explain what?” I grumped wanting to go back to sleep.
“I didn’t mean for it to go the way it did. One, I didn’t know that you’d already taken a watch on the roof and had been up there for a while. You were supposed to come down and then … well, never mind. But I fell asleep and then Richards … and the guy that was supposed to relieve you went AWOL … then when I come to and finally do get somebody up there you didn’t come inside. I was going to hassle you a little and then we’d all laugh over a bowl of soupl. No one realized they’d run out of dinner.” I could feel him shaking his head in the dark. “Worst comedy of errors I’ve been a part of in a long time. It … I … I should have checked on things. Chuckri should have checked on you too. He and the other men thought I knew what was going on and wanted it that way. When you didn’t complain they assumed it was some kind of @#$%&@# contest we were in.”
Tiredly I said, “I thought I told you to forget it.”
“Yeah. That’s the thing. I can’t. It’s been a long time since I’ve made a mistake like that. I felt like an idiot and worse. Evans and Richards are both correct. I … I need to make this right. And no, not because they say so. And before you get bent out of shape it doesn’t have anything to do with you being female … at least not much. And … and I didn’t want you thinking that it had anything to do with the other either. That was a chuckleheaded thing to think … but I … I guess I can see why you would after what happened. Chuckri … belatedly like it was no big deal if you can believe that … told me about those two green freaks. It was one of the reasons I got worried when you couldn’t be found.”
At the light question in his voice I told him, “I was walking off my mad and looking for something to eat. Then the rain drove me to find shelter and I … I was just tired and went to sleep.”
“And I’m keeping you awake again.” He sighed. “Are we … are we square?”
“I told you I’d already let it go. Things are too crazy to let this kind of stuff fester. It’s not your fault I just don’t fit anywhere.”
I was nearly asleep when he asked, “So you still plan on going home? How far away is it still?”
“Too far for you to be worried about how I’m going to get there. You’re not responsible for me, I’m responsible for me. Cheer up, you won’t have to put up with me messing up the mix for much longer. As soon as …” I yawned. “As soon as I see the kids settled …”
“You’ll take off.”
“Just like that.”
“I won’t run out without saying goodbye if that’s what you’re saying; at least I don’t plan to. Home is where I belong Thor. Once I get near the Smokies I’ll be able to live off the land better ‘cause I know the plants and the habits of the animals there. I know the turning of the seasons and I know the weather signs.”
“And until then? Not to mention what if your home isn’t there when you get there.”
“Until then I’ll put one foot in front of the other and do the best I can. And if my house isn’t there for some reason I’ve been thinking of a few options. It would be hard to believe that anyone other than family would be able to find the place though. We’re a fair piece into the sticks. Not even the revenuers ever found the place. We always had to cart things in and out to get it fixed and that sort of thing, assuming we couldn’t do it ourselves. And …”
I can’t remember what I was going to say because the next thing I remember is waking up at the quiet knock on the door. I sat up and saw that Thor and Evans were both awake as well. It was the start of another day.