That night I slept on the floor beside the sofa that Evans was laid out on. He woke in the middle of the night, sort of himself, but was very flustered to find me on the floor. In the end though he had no choice but to let me all but carry him to take care of some necessary functions. I was suprised at how light he felt, as he his bones were hollow. He was nearly in tears of shame by the time I helped him back to his bed.
I asked him why he was so upset. “I’m a man Kid. I’ve got to be able to stand on my own two feet.”
“OK, I get that but … but we watch each other’s backs and we take care of each other. At least I thought that was how it worked. Right … that is how it works? I mean, if it was me that needed help you’d give it to me right? You wouldn’t just leave me there until I really started to suffer?”
“Aw, stop yer tears. You done turned into a real girl all right. But don’t be telling the other men, you hear. A man has his pride.”
“Well sure. This is just between us. I sure wouldn’t want you to blab all over the place about how big a crybaby I can be. But we can be real when it is just the two of us and not just the us that we want other people to see.”
“Humph, definitely turning female. Yer using that inside out logic. Now behave and let me get some sleep Annie, got a long day ahead of me tomorrow. Rent’s due and groceries are getting expensive.” He fell asleep with a light snore leaving me to really shed some tears. I truly didn’t mind him calling me Annie but I worried at what it meant.
The next morning when I rolled over my first thought was that I would have given a whole lot not to have regained consciousness for a while, or even that an amputation sounded pretty good at that moment. Checking I saw that Evans was still out so I crawled over to the door frame and used my good arm to pull myself up. The sky was barely showing the first sign of pre-dawn light. I tried to be as careful as I could as I left the house and headed toward the wagon in search of the headache pills stashed in the pocket of my backpack.
Most people think big people can’t move quickly or quietly; they think we must blunder around like the giants in the fairytales. “Most people” are mistaken about that the same way they usually are about everything else. Just like anything it depends on the effort put into it. I always tried to avoid drawing attention to myself when at all possible and that morning was no exception, despite feeling dull and clumsy from the pain. I was edging through some shadows when something caught my attention just at the extreme periphery of my vision. I ducked behind a tree and then was shocked to see that crazy woman from the greenies sneaking towards the house … with something in her hand that I at first thought was some kind of grenade.
My pain forgotten in the adrenaline rush of the moment, I went into hunt and attack mode. I pulled my bowie and rain straight at her but not fast enough to stop her from lighting the Molotov cocktail and throwing it into the house via the back door. I added a furious burst of speed since caution was no longer necessary. I flattened her and … and put a period to yet another rabid and dangerous animal. Then at the top of my voice I yelled, “Fire!! Fire in the house!!” as I ran inside to do what I could.
Vaguely I heard screaming and gunfire from several different directions. The Molotov cocktail had sprayed fuel over a lot of flammable items. I was most worried at the flames licking at the foot of the steep, narrow steps that led to the floor where most of the bedrooms were located. No sooner had I managed to stomp those out than the flames had spread behind me. Booted feet were on the front porch pulling people out by the main stair case in the foyer. Relieved that help had arrived I was just able to get through the flames and into Pedros’ study. The smoke was already thick and dark.
I picked up Evans who was struggling to rise and turned only to find my way blocked. I kicked the door of the study shut on the flames wrapping around the doorframe to try and buy some time. Then I ran over to one of the room’s two windows and simply started kicking it out of its frame.
I was coughing and gagging and my lungs felt like they were shredding. But then there were hands reaching through the window frame and taking Evans from me. As soon as his feet were clear there was some kind of explosion in the basement of the house that made the floor I stood on jump. I fell to the ground and then watched as a large, heavy bookcase toppled over closing off the window I had just put Evans out.
The smoke was thicker and heavier in minutes and I could barely see. It created this weird effect that had me totally turned around in the unfamiliar surroundings. I crawled around but knew I didn’t have long as the floor was hot beneath my hands. Suddenly there was a glint in the darkness and I crawled towards it. It was an old and ornate wooden box and it lay on the floor right beneath the other window.
I tried to break the window but it was made of Plexiglass and my strength was waning. Finally in desperation I picked the box up and used it to break the window. I could feel a woosh behind me as the inflow of fresh air acted like fuel on the fire behind me. I leaned out the window trying to get out without slicing myself open. I felt myself falling but large, powerful arms lifted me up and over the shards and then carried me as if I weighed nothing, or so it seemed, well away from the burning building. I don’t even remember Thor putting me down.
The next time I woke it was to the smell of smoke and the sound of quietly anxious voices.
“Who’s going to tell her when she wakes up?”
“Not me. I … I don’t want it to be a case of killing the messenger. Who knows what she can do? You heard what them people said.”
“Shut up the both of you and stop being idiots. Thor will tell her and if I catch you talking like that again you aren’t going to like what happens.”
I finally got some sound passed my lips but it was barely a croak. I tried again and just coughed. My eyes were watery too but I saw Richards point at Alfonso who took off in a run. I tried to sit up. It seemed if I didn’t sit up I was going to suffocate.
“Easy now,” Richards warned.
Then Thor’s voice was there asking Richards, “Is she OK?”
“She’s trying to clear her lungs. Keep an eye on her and let her sip some of that water. I’ve got to check on the kid.”
As Richards hurried to another clump of people I whispered, “I thought I was the Kid? Wait … the children …”
“The children are fine, just scared and in shock. Lean back,” he said while gently pulling me backwards … and I went, too tired to care whether it was appropriate or not. He chest felt solid and safe, like a bulwark.
I looked around and the destruction finally registered. The house and barn were both just gone, nothing but a foundation and a few blackened beams that stuck up at odd angles. Animals filled a small corral with a few older kids watching them. Piles of stuff saved from both buildings lay haphazardly around the yard. Further away was an oddly shaped mound that finally resolved itself into a pile of corpses. That made me jump.
“Thor, that woman,” I coughed. “She did this. I tried to stop her …” I started hacking uncontrollably and was rudely reminded of my arm all over again.
“Yeah. I’ve got your bowie. And stop wiggling, it’s distracting. They had to … unwrap you … so you could breathe.”
Finally it wasn’t only my arm that was registering. I let out an undignified squawk only then realizing I was barely dressed in someone else’s oversized shirt and little else. I grabbed for the sheet that covered me and when I pulled it up, my bare feet appeared at the other end. I groaned as a completely irrelevant thought entered my head; the men weren’t the only ones who had foregone shaving for the last several months.
“Easy. Just be still. Everything’s covered and it is going to be OK.”
In contrast I felt Thor shaking like a leaf.
“Shhh. You’re here. You’re alright.”
I told him, “I know that. But what’s wrong?! Something’s wrong, I can tell.”
He growled into my ear, “You almost weren’t here. I could have lost you.”
That really did take my breath away completely for a few moments. It awoke a strange awareness in me that helped me feel the emotions literally coming off of him in waves.
“Rochelle …," he moaned into my smokey hair.
“I’m OK. Maybe a little crispy around the edges but … wait … is anyone else injure?” I asked suddenly upset at myself for not asking sooner.
After hesitating briefly, as if he was debating on what to tell me he said, “Barkely and that kid Pilbos. Chuckri’s little girl is banged up.”
“What?!” I tried to say only to start hacking again.
“Am I going to have to tie you down to keep you from wiggling?”
I coughed and coughed again. Thor held a canteen to my lips so that I could sip some cool water. After I was able to breathe without sounding like I swallowed the beach, sand and all, I said, “Just tell me.”
Thor put his hand on my forehead and then pulled my head back against his shoulder and eased into a different position that was more comfortable for both of us. “Chuckri’s ex tricked their little girl into bringing the captives a knife and a pair of pliers which they used to escape. None of us expected them to use the children so blatantly and quickly. First they overpowered Barkley and then beat down Pilbos. Barkley has a goose egg and some bruised ribs. Pilbos’ mouth earned him some harsher treatment and his eyes are swollen shut, his nose is broken, and they’ve banged him up pretty good in a few other places. The worst is a stab wound in his … er … hip. Nothing major hit but you can imagine it smarts. At some point the leadership blamed Linda for their problems and according to the little girl she was ‘sacrificed as a blood offering’ to rebalance things. The kid is hysterical but it’d be pretty hard for a child her age to make up the words she was repeating. After that point things moved fast and chaotic. They hit the house first and that’s when you raised the alarm. Then they hit the barn. Then we hit them. If you hadn’t given us a warning when you did things could have turned out much differently.”
“Did everyone get out of the house?”
His arms tightened painfully around me. “Yes. Thank God yes.”
“Where’s Evans?” I asked looking around in the nearly too bright noonday sun.
If possible Thor’s arms tightened even more.
“Thor?” I asked beginning to become worried, both by his actions and because I couldn’t see where they’d laid him.
He laid his head next to mine and then started rocking us both in what was supposed to be a soothing rhythm. “Listen to me. I know this is going to be hard, but listen. He’s had some kind of stroke or something. Elsapet and Richards promise me he’s not in any kind of pain. When he is conscious he’s … not all there. They say it will be a day, two at most. There’s just nothing else that can be done.”
He continued to rock us both while the reality of his words finally reached my soul.
“I have to see him. I promised him we were buddies, that we’d watch … watch … watch each other’s backs. I should have gotten him out first. I should have …”
“Shhhhh. Rochelle there was nothing you could have done. Richards told me a couple of days ago that he was worried that something was nearing the tipping point with Evans. That some point of no return had been reached with his last injury. Evans knew it too and Richards will talk to you about that later, when you’re ready.”
“I still have to … to do something for him Thor. He’d do the same for me. I know he would.”
“All right. I’m going to carry you over …”
“I can walk,” I told him.
“Maybe you can but I need to carry you.”
“Thor I weigh a ton and you have to be exhausted. Just tell me where my clothes are …”
“The ones you were wearing were toast, even the boots. The soles had partially melted on them.” He shuddered and I was again the subject of a nearly painful hug, as if he had to make sure that I was really there. I realized that this man actually and truly had strong feelings for me and then remembered how I’d felt when they’d carried Thor into the warehouse.
I turned and looked at him. “This is crazy. You don’t even know me. Do I even know you? How is it possible to feel this way for so long and not even realize it? I don’t understand. I had these plans and now … the greenies … and all of this. I … I …”
“Shhhhh. Easy. There’s time. Don’t get scared and run off … promise me that Rochelle. You have to promise me that. We’ll get this figured out. I’m not going to jump all over you and force you into anything. Just give me a chance.”
I looked at him and didn’t know what to say. “I … I want some clothes. I can’t think like this. And then … and then I’m going to … going to sit with Evans.”
“And you won’t run off.”
I looked at him again and finally admitted, “I won’t run off. Just … don’t ask me for …”
“I’m not asking you anything except to not run off, not until we have some time to figure this out. It … Rochelle … I want you to stay with me. Don’t leave because of the greenies. I need you here.”
My head felt like it was a spinning top reaching maximum overload. I kept trying to say something but I didn’t know what and nothing would come out anyway.
“I don’t just need you because I want you Rochelle, I need you … we all need you … because we’re going to have to all pull together. Pedros has said that the family had already intended to evacuate to a more hospitable area because of the winters here along the river are very bad. The greenies were the roadblock to that but now that they’ve been … eliminated … the plan is back on and Chuckri plans on staying with his family. We’ve got some logistical issues to work out, some planning … it will take at least a day. Rochelle …”
I sighed, “What you’re trying to say is that we’ll be here until Evans … until he … until …” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
Thor ran a work roughened hand through what hair I’d left myself. “Yes. Until then.”
I was silent for a moment, “Just let me sit with him for a while Thor. I’ll … I’ll do my duty. And … and I’ll stay with you too … until we figure whatever this is out. But … but I can’t think much beyond right now. I know I should, I know I need to, but …”
He rocked me for another moment. “I’m right here. Evans was my friend too … for a lot of years. He trained me, kept me from getting killed countless times until I was hardened enough I didn’t need a wet nurse to babysit me. He was the old man of the crew after the others died and he took his job serious. He wouldn’t be able to stand being in this condition Rochelle. He had a lot of pride. Even when he took a bad drunk he preferred to call a cab than call one of us. He was tough as old shoe leather but you found the one hidden soft spot he had left. You sit with him all you need to, do it for all of us. That way we’ll know he has someone close at all times that cares. OK?”
I nodded, the tears beginning to run down my cheeks. I didn’t know how I was going to do this. The greenies had taken one more thing from me. Or maybe it was that my presence had put them all in danger that they would not have been if I hadn’t been around. I began to worry that maybe it was me … just living and breathing … that had pushed the crazy woman over the edge into being a sociopath. Would she have done it if she hadn’t thought I was in the house?
Thor helped me to stand. I was a lot more wobbly than I expected but I refused to be carried. I was going to walk under my own steam. As much as I wanted to lean on Thor I had a feeling that I needed, more than ever, to be able to face what was coming and to do it standing up on my own two feet. Something was coming. I didn’t know what exactly, but I was pretty sure that the fire we’d just gone through would not be the last one I had to face.