The next day Richards pronounced everyone fit though I think everyone was well aware of how quiet Thor was. Chuckri looked at me and I just shrugged. Later he asked me, “Is Thor really all right?”
“Physically? Yeah. But the memories the hallucinations brought back have him way down. He’s doing his job … and I’ll keep an eye on the rest of it.”
He gave me a concerned look, “’Shrooms are nothing to mess with. They’re as bad or worse than some of the regular illicit drugs. Some of them have leftover effects. I lost a friend in highschool because he was experimenting with some kind of natural high. If Thor starts to act strange again you call me or Richards immediately.”
“I’m sure that isn’t going to be a problem. Like I said, that night just opened up some old wounds … but I don’t think there is anything physically wrong. He’ll come around.”
I said it to make Chuckri believe it but I was also saying it to myself. People and their hidden pain affect other people more than most folks realize. I continued to be angry; not at Vika on a personal level but at what she had done and even at her mother and those green freaks even though they were dead and well beyond anything I could have done to them. Not every problem in my life could be traced back to those people but more than a fair share of them could. It just seemed like no sooner did I think I was done with them and their damage than I would turn around and there it would be all over again. And now it was affecting people I thought unaffectable … is that even a word?
The next day was a short one as several of the poisoned where having trouble keeping up. We first stopped at Fort Davidson state historic site but it was so early in the day that everyone tried again to get a little further. We made it as far as the little town called Arcadia which was nothing more than a bedroom community for this bigger place called Ironton.
It wasn’t even lunch time and since it was so early some of us went out salvaging. I debated whether to go but Richards told me that I should, to give Thor some space to work things out in his head. I felt like I was deserting him but Richards was the professional head doctor and I had learned to trust him. Besides Thor didn’t seem to want my company though I didn’t hold it against him.
I had begun to think of all the things that we would need once we made it home. I was pretty set though I needed to replace the clothes that I’d been forced to leave behind or had worn out since San Francisco but Thor was another matter. All he had was summer gear and though it was the beginning of August, even in the summer the nights could get chilly in mountains. He didn’t have anything remotely useful for winter wear except for his boots and there was no doubt those things had seen better days.
The first thing I did was stop at a motel and pick up a yellow pages and a map that had been kept behind the front desk. Then I started making lists of potential places to stop. When Montgomery and Alfonso asked what I was doing and I told them they acted like they had just discovered I had a brain. No one could go off on their own so a strangely silent Pilbos was assigned to be my partner since he was going to have the same clothing size problem as Thor.
“We’ll tackle this Big and Tall shop, then these thrift stores.” When he didn’t respond to what I had said I asked, “Pilbos are you listening? Are you up for this? I want to move quick so we can cover as much ground as possible.”
He sighed, “I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound fine. Maybe you should stay in camp. I’ll get someone …”
“No! I mean … don’t rag on me, I’m fine. I can keep up.”
“Fine, let’s get in the saddle because if we can get what we need quickly I want to hit some of those antique stores. You’re mom …”
He was grouchy and it showed. “I know, I know … she gave me a laundry list of do’s, don’ts, and the things she wants.
“Then let’s go. And while we’re at it, either get rid of the hound dog face or tell me what’s on your mind. At least bleed some of the poison off.”
We were riding for a full five minutes before he found his voice again. “I saw Tavit crying … to that woman he’s with now.”
“Oh,” I said realizing maybe he was doing more than just pouting. “Her name is Delia and she’s not bad once you get to know her.”
“I guess,” he shrugged. “But … Tavit … he never cries … never … not even when Dad died.”
“The way I understand it your dad was sick for a while and everyone actually … well that when he died it was a release from the pain he was in. Sometimes even when someone dies you can still be happy for them … one of those escaping the mortal coil things my grandmothers used to talk about.”
After a moment he said, “OK, fine, I can get that. But still …”
“But still nothing. I bet it was about Vika. Now I don’t have kids but from what I’ve seen, most parents can cry more easily for their kids than they can for themselves. Vika is hurting so your brother is hurting.”
He snorted, “Vika is a sick little snot. She tried to kill us all … or at least as many as she could.”
“Pilbos, Vika is … is sick, but blaming her for that is like trying to blame the wind from whistling through that tree over there. Your sister in law messed her up and she was too young to defend herself from it.”
That made him angry. “That woman was never any kind of sister to me. She tore Tavit up bad, kept us from being able to see David and Vika until the courts forced her and even then she made up all these excuses to keep them from us. And she was … was bad. She even tried …” He stopped, embarrassed.
“Tried what?” I asked curious as to what he would find so bad.
“She tried to … you know … sleep with me. She was messing with my head to get back at Tavit.”
“Ew. She’s the one that sounds messed up.”
He agreed. “Totally. And now Vika is just as messed up … uh … I don’t mean that way messed up … but messed up, you know? I don’t want that stuff in my family. Haven’t we got enough problems without that too?”
Oh boy. “Pilbos, I can’t tell you what to do but, from my way of thinking, if my parents had thought that when they found out I was going to be a GWB I might not have ever drawn my first breath. And that would have been a shame because I might have had more than my share of issues, but I outgrew them and the ones that I haven’t outgrown I’ve learned to manage. And I think I was a pretty good daughter overall and I loved my parents and they loved me.” I stopped to think carefully about what I said next. “Nothing is going to change what Vika has done. But you can forgive her and move on. Even with Richards counseling her – and he really is a shrink you know – she might never be the person she could have been if her mom hadn’t messed her head up. But she still has a chance and I think that you kinda need to give her than chance.”
He shrugged, trying to appear like he didn’t care as much as he obviously did. “How long do you think she’ll be like this?”
I shrugged, “She didn’t get broken overnight so it will take a while for her to heal.”
We’d finally arrived at the first stop I wanted to make but all they had were dress clothes for the most part. We did manage to find socks, under clothes, belts and in the back some real leather gloves, but nothing durable for working and riding in. I spotted something in a discount bin that gave me an idea and then shoved it in my tote sack before Pilbos could see and ask questions that I’d prefer not to answer. Luckily it wasn’t just a guy store so I also managed to find a couple of replacements for my sports bras that were starting to lose their elastic and some comfortable socks that didn’t look that they had come from a men’s department store.
We had even better luck at the thrift stores. Everything was very musty smelling … more than a few pieces looked like they hadn’t even been cleaned before they were hung on the racks … but it didn’t take me long to find everything I needed for Thor and Pilbos finally wised up and picked up some things for himself as well. He was hesitant at first but I told him, “Stop being such a snob. Better get it while you can or right about the first frost you’re going to be cold in some uncomfortable places and by next summer you’ll be running nekked with the babies.”
He looked at me and then started laughing, the first one I’d heard I in a while. “You are so strange,” he said. “One of these days I hope I meet another girl like you … maybe not quite as weird but close would be OK.”
“I’m simply awestruck by your chivalry,” I told him … right before I dumped him on his can like he deserved. Of course that only made the doof laugh even harder.
Pilbos and I also made some good finds at the antique stores. Their fronts had been smashed up but their back rooms and some of their display cases were still OK. I picked through the old jewelry and cutlery and split it between us. Pilbos complained, “What am I supposed to do with this old junk?”
“Trust me. Give it to Uncle Bedros and he’ll know what to do with it,” I told him. I guess he didn’t get that silver was pretty easy to melt down and that it might come in right handy depending on what the economy was over the next couple of years.
I also found jars of old buttons … the good kind that didn’t break in half if you looked at them too hard … and a bunch of old lace and sewing notions. It was going to be a mess trying to pack all of it down but if I could find another horse or a donkey or two I was thinking that I might be grateful that I had it in the long run.
I drove Pilbos crazy by making him help me fold up all of the denim, threads, notions, and some other stuff from a quilt shop. “Where do you plan on putting all of this?” he asked.
“Want some cheese with that whine?” I asked him in return. “I’m thinking on it all right?”
“Yeah well, you’re not the one carrying all of this junk.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s not junk. Especially not … oomph … not this,” I said finally pulling out a bolt of thick faux leather. “I can find a lot of ways to make this dead useful.”
“Dead? Yeah. Useful? Not so much.”
If I’d had a younger brother I have a feeling he would have wound up being a lot like Pilbos; irritating and fun to be with in turn. The guy may have been my age but he made me feel as old as the hills sometimes.
We finally had to walk our horses back to our camp because we’d loaded them both down with so many finds. But when Pilbos had sheepishly explained why we were late to his mother all the women started smothering him with hugs and kisses.
I gave him an I-told-you-so look and turned to find Thor up and around. I was so excited that I missed the look on his face and started dragging him away with me. When we got to our tent I practically threw him in head first.
“What in the Sam Hill is your problem woman?”
“Take your clothes off.”
Thor made a strange strangling sound before asking, “What did you say?”
I stopped dragging in the garbage bags I’d been carrying and said, “Take your clothes off. I want you to try some of this stuff on to make sure it fits.”
He got a weird look on his face and asked, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Thor I am not going to waste valuable space on stuff that you don’t like or is too small.”
“Oh,” he said sounding deflated.
I was pushing his buttons and I knew it but there was a point to my lunacy. I’d give him a couple of things and then turn my back long enough for him to change and then I’d turn, look, and ask him if he liked it, was it comfortable, etc. After about three outfits with me pushing him along I could hear his teeth grinding and I figured I had maximized the potential impact as far as I could.
I swung in his direction and gave him a kiss and a hug and said, “Thanks for being such a good sport. Only a couple more then I’ll leave you alone. Thank goodness you aren’t a picky whiner like Pilbos. I wound up dumping him on his can … should have made it his head.”
“You did?” he asked suspiciously pleased with the picture I painted.
“Uh huh. I wish it had been just us but I get that you needed to do some route recalculations and stuff like that.”
“Oh. Uh … yeah.” Guilt was written on his face for all the world to see. He hadn’t been doing any such thing, he just hadn’t wanted to go with me and I knew it.
I let go and turned back around after handing him the last pile with a certain something tucked in there. All of a sudden Thor made a wheezy kind of cough. “Little bit … her … thin to wear in the saddle don’t you think?”
I carefully turned around, making sure he wasn’t actually wearing the things first. Thor was holding by one finger a pair of black, silky boxers that had hot chilis printed all over them. I had a hard time not laughing at the look on his face as I said, “They had a pair that had little blue smurfs all over them but that wasn’t quite the message I was going for.”
Watching his jaw drop was the last straw. I wound up laughing so hard I had tears running down my face. The only reason I wasn’t rolling around on the ground was because I had draped myself on him so I’d have a prop.
His face was as red as I’d ever seen it. “You do know that paybacks are coming. And I can be very … creative.”
That set me off again and it took me another couple of minutes to catch my breath. He was just smiling and shaking his head so I kissed him. It was about to turn serious when he broke away … but he didn’t push me away.
“It’d serve you right if I went prancing around in those things.”
I warned him, “Don’t you dare. That’s for my eyes only.”
The fire that had been missing from his eyes started to rekindle. “Oh, is that right?”
“That’s right and you better not forget it.”
“Well then,” he said stretching like a cat. “Did you happen to find you anything you’d like to model?”
I blanched, realizing I hadn’t even thought about it. I guess it must have showed on my face, ‘cause the stretch turned into a hug. “Nah, that’d be more temptation than my poor constitution could handle. Top of my head would blow clean off.”
“Oh you,” I said, giving him a hug instead of a swat like he deserved.
After another moment I asked, “You sure that the clothes are OK? I can go back.”
“Not this late in the day you won’t. And not with Pilbo Doughboy either. I should’ve been the one with you.”
“You were busy.”
“Uh … yeah … er …”
I removed the stake he was about to throw himself on by saying, “Besides, how would I have been able to surprise you if you’d been peaking over my shoulder?”
He sighed, refusing to let things devolve into a fight. “Fine, but next time we go shopping together, that way I can make sure you get something for yourself.”
From that point forward for the next couple of days Thor continued to improve. That isn’t to say he wasn’t a little too careful with me or that he didn’t get a distant look in his eye when something would set him off, but every day he was a little less remote and before I knew it I was having to watch those roving hands of his again.
From Arcadia we overnighted outside a place called Fredericktown. It was like stepping back in time as I rode town a mainstreet of tall, red bricked buildings where the businesses were still open. We were stopped by local police but only to see if we could add any information to what they already had. It seemed an easy thing to do and it left the Chief of Police with a good enough opinion of us that he told us where we could camp and not be molested by the lawless element that afflicted the areas outside the city limits.
From there it took another two days to get to Jackson, Missouri. Jackson was as messed up as Frederick had been cleaned up. Underneath the decay and feeling of hopelessness that sat on everything like thick dust there was a miasma of wickedness. Everyone sensed it, even the animals who seemed to crowd the wagons as if they were seeking protection.
“Easy Rochelle. Don’t act intimidated but keep your eyes open,” he said quietly as he rode back and forth to make sure everyone understood.
“Eyes? That’s what I feel. Like there are a thousand eyes trained on us from these buildings.”
“There likely are. But if they don’t make an overt move we won’t either.”
I was as happy to escape that place as I had been Kansas City but being on the east side of things still didn’t feel much better. Thor doubled the guards again that night. “I doubt we’ll need them but better to be ready and nothing happen than expect nothing and have all hell break loose.”
I just could not settle down to sleep. I’d had the first evening watch and then been unable to relax while Thor took his turn. When Thor got back and saw me still awake he said, “You’ll regret that tomorrow.”
“I don’t care.” I was shivering.
“Hey, I’ve never seen you this nervy. Is it something in particular?”
“Can’t you smell them?”
“The dead? Sure. Not as bad as in KC.”
“No … not the dead. Them. I can smell them Thor.”
“You cannot … uh … can you?” he asked, suddenly perplexed.
“Sometimes … on the wind. I was … just so big and noisy when I was a kid but Dad needed help with the hunting and he wanted me to learn early … you know … in case. They used to say that if things got really bad that we’d fade back into the woods and wait out whatever else the Greenies planned. That’s what my people did during the Depression, the wars, epidemics, anything big back for generations … it protected the nucleus of the family. Anyway, I needed to learn how to hunt, how to help put food on the table since I consumed so much of it. Since I was so big Dad taught me to stay in one place and … and feel when the game was near enough that it was worth the risk of moving through the woods. I eventually learned to move as quietly as he did but I never forgot those early lessons. Certain animals have … smells … musky, ripe, that sort of thing. If you were still and paid attention you could learn to put what you heard, what you saw, and what you smelled together to make a picture of the animal in your head. Back there, in that town, I smelled human sweat sour with liquor and other things … and then, and don’t you dare laugh, I smelled … fear.”
He didn’t know whether to take me serious. “Rochelle …”
“Look, people do it all the time but they just don’t realize what they’re doing. Have you ever gone into a nursing home where the staff is overworked or doesn’t quite care enough? Places like that have a smell and everyone knows it when they smell it … illness, death, decay, depression all wrapped together. A lot of people can’t take that smell it affects them so bad emotionally. Well fear smells a little like someone has wet themselves and never quite gotten clean from it. That’s the best way I can describe it. That more than anything is what I smelled back there. But I can’t imagine what, after all this time, would generate that much wickedness to create that much fear. There were a lot of people hiding in that town Thor. We didn’t see a single one but you and I both know they were there.”
“Now you’re giving me the creeps.”
I jerked away. Thor pulled me back. “Give me a chance to pull my foot out of my mouth. I didn’t mean that the way it came out.”
I shuddered and tried to calm down. “I know. I shouldn’t have … oh bother. I’m sorry Thor, it’s like my skin is trying to crawl off my body.”
“Hey, you’re really upset.”
“Yes I am. And I can’t explain it. And I don’t know if it is even something real. I just need you to hold me. Please Thor, just hold me.”
He took me in his arms and said, “Rochelle I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
“Thor I’m … it’s …” I stopped and tried to pull my thoughts back together. “I’m not afraid for me. I’m afraid for us … for all of us. I just …”
I curled up in a ball and Thor didn’t have any problem holding me and I didn’t even mind when he tried a little distraction but I think he sensed that I was a little too desperate for distraction because he pulled us both back from going down that particular road. “Rochelle, are you sure you’re not … imagining things or …”
“Or hormonal?” I asked a bit hacked off that he’d backed off.
“Well … yeah.”
“No. I’m not being hormonal. I’d give a whole lot if that’s all it was. I’d take some Midol and call it a night.”
“Ooo-Kay. But I need something more to go on than your nose if I’m going to do something about this.”
I was really getting wound up. “Don’t you think I know that?” Then I leaned my head back and said, “Sorry … sorry I’m just … but there’s no call for taking it out … Geez, I’m sorry Thor.”
“Hey, look at me.”
He tilted my head back and I let him though reluctantly. “I don’t want you to hold something in just because I’m not getting it. I’m listening. I’m trying to understand. But you gotta help me a little here. I’ve never seen you quite like this.”
“I’ve never had this much to lose,” I mumbled to his chin.