The road we followed that day led us through a town called Steelville where we did a little salvaging but not much, the town had already been picked over of anything that we could find immediately useful. That night we stayed on the western edge of Mark Twain National Forest. It took us four days to get out of the forest. It was really only about thirty miles by the road but there were trees down on the road in a couple of places and it was decided that while we were in an area that was going to be prime for hunting we’d better get some done while the doing was good. Mrs. Chuckri was pleasantly surprised to find out that I knew how to can and even more pleased to find that I knew how to cook on an open fire. It’s more dangerous than pressure canning on a steady flame but not impossible if you keep careful watch over your gauge.
In addition to the meat we canned I showed them how to maximize the amount of jerky you could get out of a venison roast. Two of the four nights we spent camped at Sunnen Lake and got in some more fishing. I took a few of the kids at a time and we picked forage that I recognized and if no one else would eat it I either dried it for later or turned it into a salad that we ate on the lunch time picnics that Thor and I took. We never went far because someone was always calling him for something but at least it was a little privacy to explore this new facet of the relationship we were working on building.
After leaving the lake we stopped in this town called Potosi and the next morning, after receiving a warning from a group escaping from the area around Park Hills, we chose a different route and turned due south until we came to Elephant Rocks State Park. The park was named for some large boulders that stand end to end and made someone imagine about elephants. I could see what they meant but I don’t think I would have imagined it without some prompting.
We were well and truly in the Ozarks by then. It made me homesick. The Ozarks weren’t quite like the Smokies at home but they were sure closer than the Rockies had been. Sitting around the fire towards the end of dinner that night Thor announced, “Two hundred and forty miles.”
When everyone looked at him he said, “Two hundred and forty miles. That’s how far you are now from your destination. Well, more or less depending on any backtracking or alternative routes we have to take. We’ve been averaging a respectable twenty miles per day if you take out those we just spent in the national forest. And I expect we’ll need to do that at least one more time. The animals will need a break, we’ll have repairs that have to be made, and we’ll have to either salvage or restock at some point to keep from depleting the supplies to a dangerous level. If nothing major occurs, and we can maintain this pace, we’ll be there before the end of August, anywhere from three to four weeks from now.”
A stunned silence met his words then Uncle Bedros stood and started praying and praising God and then the whole family joined him … even a rather hesitant and embarrassed Tavit Chuckri was pulled into it. I wasn’t one for a lot of show so I took my prayers off to a quiet corner. I knew that for Thor and I getting the Chuckri family to their new home would be both an ending and a beginning for us.
“Hey, you OK? Getting tired again?”
I sighed sadly. “No. Thor, I’m almost scared to ask but I have to know, have you thought … I mean really thought … about what getting the Chuckri family to their farm is going to mean?”
“Yes I have,” he said. “Look at me Rochelle and I want you to hear what I’m saying … and understand it. Over the years I served under some great men. The best thing that I learned from all of them is that there is a time to call it quits. I’d been restless for maybe the last year, dissatisfied with the direction my life seemed to be taking. I thought … well I thought I had found what I was looking for in Maggs. You saw how that turned out. Then I thought it was just an itch or something and tried not to think about it, but the voice in my head never shut up for long. When the collapse happened … God help me Rochelle, I was relieved. It was something that seemed to give me a new direction, a path, some incentive to do something besides just put one foot in front of the other.”
I didn’t know what to say. The Collapse had taken so much from me. No … that’s not true. The Greenies had taken so much from me, the Collapse was something that came on the coattails of that, at least partially set in motion by the Greenies and their allies the Twelvers. Could I completely disagree with Thor then? No. I was beginning to see I couldn’t.
Quietly he said, “You aren’t saying anything.”
I told him, “It’s … I was … thinking. My first thought was to deny that the Collapse could have anything good to it. But, I can’t be right … it brought us together. I was trying to figure out … how I felt about what you’d said and I realized that it wasn’t the Collapse that stole so much from me but the people that put the Collapse in motion. I’m just trying to understand Thor. It’s … it’s a pretty big thing to wrap my head around.”
“I hope you can understand Rochelle. I hope you can. It’s not like I’m relishing things being the way they are. It’s just that the Collapse has given me a chance to take a completely different path from the one I was on. But there’s things, people, responsibilities that tie me to the old road … mostly people. Getting to Fairview will give me … all this won’t sound nice … it’ll give me a time and place to cut those ties.”
“But won’t you miss them? Communication is in the toilet, it’s not like you’re going to be able to pick up the phone and touch someone, email them, anything.”
He took me in his arms and sighed. “Rochelle, it’s time. Sure I’ll miss them. Some of us have served together over a decade – Chuckri and I were in the same training group – I’ll likely always miss these guys in some ways. But they’re my past. You - you Rochelle - are my future.”
We walked around with the moon lighting our way for a few minutes and he asked more questions about the farm and what path I wanted to use to get there.
“It’s going to seem like the long way around but once we get to the AT we’ll be able to avoid all of these people that seem to be on the move. And the AT runs with a couple of miles of our front gate.”
“By the AT I assume you mean the Appalachian Trail. You’ve never told me where you live.”
“Oh. Well,” I admitted embarrassed. “For a while I guess I was afraid to tell you. It was … it was my ace in the hole in case I had to bolt for some reason. But there’s no reason for that anymore is there?”
Thor smiled gently and said, “I hope not but if you need …”
“No. Besides, if something happens to me someone should get use of the place and I’d just as soon as it was you as …”
And just like that everything came near to the precipice again. He had me by the arms and shook me, “Don’t ever … say … that … again !”
“Ow! Turn loose right now Thor!”
Thor did, realizing just how hard he had me. “God Rochelle. I’m sorry … I’m … don’t … I …”
His face was so pale and his eyes so wide I thought he was going to pass out. “Thor?”
Instead of calming down he backpedaled away from me even more. “Don’t … don’t ever … ever … let me do that again.”
Something awful was going down and I didn’t know what to do. I’d seen Thor in a lot of moods but I’d never seen him like this. He looked like he was about to puke. “Thor? Are you OK?”
He was breathing like he’d been running from the hounds of hell. “I will not be like him. I won’t. You put my ring on. I’m supposed to protect you. I …”
Every step I tried to take towards him he would back up. He was swallowing air like he had a hole in his chest. There was a dip in the concrete path we’d been walking on and his ankle turned and he wasn’t even trying to save himself. If I’d been any smaller or weaker he would have gotten badly hurt, as it was we both went down. But he barely registered it. He was staring off into the past.
“My dad, he was a good man. A little distant but a good man. I told you that didn’t I?” At my nod he said, “I think one of the reasons that she married him was because he was so different from what she’d had growing up. Gunnar … from my father’s side … Erik … named after my maternal grandfather. But the man was only a father in the biological sense. Just because I look like him doesn’t mean that I am like him!”
He was beginning to freak me out a little. “Of course not. You’re you, not him. You can be whoever you want to be. Just stay the you that wants to stay with me. Thor?”
He sat up and moved away from me again. “No.”
“Thor … stop it. Stop trying to get away. You’re stuck with me. Remember? I’m trying to understand and I think you mean that your … your mom’s dad … um … wasn’t so nice to your mom. Everybody has people like that … or worse … in their family tree. I had an uncle that was a James Dean wannabe … he ended the same way and it tore my dad to pieces. I’ve got a couple of cousins on my mom’s side … well, less said about them the better. That doesn’t mean that just because we share genetic material that we are bound by fate to make the same mistakes.”
“Rochelle, I saw what that old man did to my mom after we were forced to move back in with them. He changed her. They both changed her. I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t save her. That old man and I … she kept saying it was a shame I didn’t take after my dad and then she would say things like I was just like my grandfather. He and I fought a lot. After a while I just had to get away. I left home the night I got my highschool diploma and I never went back except for Mom’s funeral. They had everyone convinced that she’d grieved to death for me, that it was my fault she’d started …” He stopped and then shook his head. “Don’t ever let me do that to you. I’d rather be dead than be that man.”
Something was wrong. Badly wrong. Thor was acting way too out of character and he was starting to shake. I called his name a couple more times but he didn’t respond and his eyes didn’t look right either.
Then there was a scream, and then another. I was torn. I couldn’t leave Thor, there was no telling what he would do. But I couldn’t just ignore the screams either.
“Thor! Rocky!! Where are ya?!”
It was Alfonso. I shouted, “Here! Take the right fork!”
When he ran up and saw Thor on the ground he said, “Oh no.”
“What’s wrong?! What’s happening?!
“Don’t know. Pilbos, Sog, and a couple of others are freaking out! We’ve got ‘em contained but just barely.”
It took both of us to drag an unresponsive and jittering Thor back and then Montgomery was there to help. Richards ran up to me and grabbed my arm, “What was in the salad?!”
I jerked my arm away from him. “Dandelions, purslane, chickweed, and violets mainly. Why?”
“It’s the only thing that ties them … and now Thor … together.”
Markrid was crying and wringing her hands. “I can’t lose another one. What have you done to them?!” she screamed at me.
I blocked her out, trying to concentrate on what was happening.
“It can’t be the salad. I ate it … everybody ate it.”
“No … the second bowl.”
“Second bowl? I only fixed one bowl … one big bowl. Who fixed the second bowl?”
“No one fixed it. They just mixed the other stuff in.”
I was beginning to get seriously worried. “There was no other stuff Richards. I used everything that I picked in the first bowl.” I spun around. “Kids! I need to know. Did any of you add anything? Don’t be scared, I just need to know. It’s very, very important.”
Markrid screamed at me, “Now you’re trying to say it is our own children’s fault!”
Unable to ignore her I said, “Markdrid, listen to me. I need to know who put that second salad together. I know I didn’t. I need to know who did and what was in it.”
“Vika didn’t do anything wrong! You are indeed a monster!!”
I turned and looked at Richards. “I didn’t take Vika foraging. I haven’t had anything to do with Vika since the farm and you know why.”
Richards turned to Elsapet, “Please bring Vika here.”
Markrid screamed curses. Uncle Bedros stepped over and pulled her away. She just kept screaming.
Elsapet looked horrified when she brought Vika forward. The little girl was completely defiant. I bent down, “Vika, I have to know what you put in the salad.”
“You killed my mother!”
I looked at the crazy kid then over at Chuckri. He ran over leaving David’s side. “Vika, honey, your momma … she was killed by those people she hung with.”
“No! She killed her!”
“Vika … you saw what happened.”
“No! It was her fault. Momma would be here if it wasn’t for her.”
Chuckri turned and looked at me helplessly.
I patted his shoulder. His daughter’s trauma wasn’t his fault. “Vika, listen to me. Your mother is dead because of the people she chose to associate with. She was friends with them before the Collapse. She was the one that brought them to the farm. She did nothing while they hurt your brother, your grandmother, the rest of your family. She even helped them. Her choices are what got her killed. You have the chance to make different choices. If you don’t tell me what you put in that salad you could kill some of your family … including your own brother. Is that something you want to do? Is that something that you want to live with the rest of your life? This won’t be something you can blame on me, this will be all your own fault.”
“I hate you! This is your fault! Everything is your fault!”
I wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled but she was just a little kid that had been messed up bad by her mother and her mother's weird friends. I stood up and asked Richards, “Is there any of it left?”
He pointed at the picnic table while he helped Elsapet deal with the hysterical little girl. I looked at the bowl and didn’t see anything unusual at first. I moved it around with my fingers and then, at the very bottom of the bowl, I saw a small slice of something that didn’t belong.
“Oh my God. Elsapet! Richards! We need to make them throw up. We need them to purge their stomachs.” They just looked at me. “Now!! I think she put little brown mushrooms in there. I didn’t pick the mushrooms on purpose because I didn’t want the kids to get the idea that they could.” I ran up to Markrid. “How many? Did you see how many she put in there?!”
Markrid was in shock. She’d been played by her niece. I could see her trying to pull it all back together. It was Shoushan that turned her sister around and shook her.
“Markrid … how many?”
“Not … not so many. She … she sliced them. She … she said so everyone would get a bite since,” she was crying. “She said since she hadn't found enough to go around.”
The next couple of hours were not pleasant. We dosed them with ipecac. They all vomited but after twenty minutes we gave them another dose to make sure everything was out of their system. Anyone that still threw up food we dosed one more time after that.
All of those that had been poisoned were then put to bed and watched closely. Every couple of minutes we would take their pulses and all of them had a watcher assigned to make sure their breathing didn’t falter. Thor and Pilbos seemed to be the worst, more than likely because they had eaten the most.
By the next day it was apparent that everyone was going to recover. They all had sore stomachs, chests, and throats where they’d been forced to purge. I’d finally had to resort to a spoon to get Thor to throw up because Richards and Elsapet were afraid of killing him with the ipecac.
“My head. I must’ve gotten some bad hooch,” were the first intelligible words out of Thor’s mouth.
I told him, “Not bad ‘shine, bad ‘shrooms.”
He finally focused on me and then nearly jumped out of his skin. “My God … did I hit you?! I remember … I …”
I did my best to comfort him. “No, you didn’t hit me. You shook me but then freaked out like you’d committed some heinous crime and … and just …” He wound up having to comfort me when I started crying. “I thought I’d lost you. Don’t you ever scare me like that again.”
I finally dried my eyes and realized Richards must have been standing there a while. I didn’t know whether to be angry or embarrassed. “Rocky … do me a favor … talk to Chuckri. He’s a mess and he’s blaming himself.”
“Why? It’s not his fault. He’s kids just … she’s messed up right now.”
“I’m glad you see it that way. Now go tell Tavit that’s how you feel.”
I didn’t understand why he needed me to but I suspected he also wanted to check on Thor without me underfoot. I walked over to the man in question and he was all hang dog. “How’s Vika?” I asked.
“You don’t have to ask Rocky. I …”
“Chuckri, if you go off on me because you think I blame your daughter for what your messed up wife and her friends did to her then do it … if it’ll make you feel better. But I don’t blame her. I think she’s messed up, but I don’t blame her for it. And I don’t blame you either.”
Uncle Bedros walked up and said stiffly, “My daughter will apologize to you.”
“No. Don’t make her. She’s gone through her own trauma. No one would expect a little girl Vika’s age to do what she did. Under normal circumstances Vika wouldn’t have. If anyone knows just what the Greenies are capable of it would be me. I’ve watched them twist facts around into pretzel shapes my whole life. My parents would have friends and then some media outlet would give the Greenies air time in an interview and then suddenly certain friends would just stop talking to us or taking our calls. After a while it gets old but I certainly don’t blame Vika … or Markrid. Only no monster hunts … I’m just flesh and blood, human … not any of those things those people say I am. I’m not leaving Thor, but I’ll do my best to stay out of Vika and Markrid’s sight so I don’t set them off.”
Shoushan surprised me by coming up and saying, “No. You did nothing wrong. Uncle, please …”
Uncle Bedros nodded his head, “My niece is correct. I can do nothing about Vika; Elsapet and Dr. Richards will need to work with her. But Markrid, she will apologize … for her sake as much for yours. And you are as welcome around our fires as you ever were. If Vika is an innocent victim of the Greenies, then you are even more so … and so I will say to everyone.” Later a tearful Markrid did apologize but I was so embarrassed by her display of repentance that I nearly ran into the forest afterwards.
Richards didn’t want to move anyone for another day just to be on the safe side since some of them were so lethargic. Thor wasn’t himself that was for sure. Late that night I finally found out why.
I had my head on his chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart. I hadn’t realized he was awake until he put his hand on my hair. “Rochelle, I need to know the truth. Did I hit you?”
“No, of course not. I already told you that.”
“You swear it. On a Bible even.”
I rolled over and looked at him. “On however many Bibles it takes to convince you of the truth.”
He was silent for a minute. “I … I have to tell you something.”
“If it is about your grandfather being a less than stellar person … you already did, or at least I figured it out from what you’d been saying.”
He swallowed. “I’m … I’m not like him Rochelle. I refuse to be like him.”
“I never doubted it. We’ve gotten rough with each other, but we’ve stopped. It hasn’t been a problem lately.”
“You can’t ever let me get away with being like that. I watched my mom and grandmother make all sorts of excuses for the old @#$%%. Whether they did it out of fear or out of love doesn’t matter, they stayed with him, and he just did it to them again … and again.”
“Easy. You’re getting upset and I won’t have it. You’re not like that Thor. You can be cranky, foul, irritating, demanding, and a dozen other things. You can even be rough … but you’ve never hit me … and you never will. I think even if by some astronomical chance you did, it would hurt you a lot more than it would hurt me.”
No matter what I said he stayed withdrawn. He let me hold him and cuddle but, it was like a part of him wasn't there. I'd look in his eyes and I knew part of him wasn't there with me. I suspect he was reliving the past, and not the good times either.
I knew Vika was a little girl … and I knew it wasn’t her fault that she was messed up … but at that moment I could have sold her to the gypsies if it meant never having to see her again. I know that’s not nice but I wasn’t feeling particularly nice right then. In my mind it was like those Greenies were reaching from the grave to cause more trouble and pain and heart ache.