Updated: Oct 24, 2020
His mind was blown.
No one but Nathan has ever looked out for him before.
Why had she? Why was she?
And since when did she wear a gun?
And where had she learned how to shoot like that?
He wiped the blood off his mouth trying to keep any more of it off his clothes.
Why had she said that, about being his mother? He didn’t have a space in his brain for that.
When they got back to the apartment, Nathan was sitting against the wall on his mats, fighting to stay awake, gun ready, a terrified Sharlie hiding behind him.
He shut and locked the door as Siah reach through the long slit up the side of her coat and put her gun away into a nearly hidden holster at her thigh. She scooped up and comforted Sharlie as they both leaned over Nathan.
“It’s not all my blood. I’m okay Bro, I’m alright. Go to sleep.”
Eric and Siah helped him lay down as he half collapsed onto the still upright mats, exhausted.
Siah put a hand on his shoulder.
“Take a seat yourself. I’ll be right back.”
She took Sharlie with her to her bedroom and he heard her rummaging around for something as she explained to Sharlie what had happened. She kept it pretty simple.
“Some mean people hurt Eric, but I told them to leave him alone and shot my gun to scare them away.”
He heard more rummaging before Sharlie spoke up. She sounded scared.
“Eric looks hurt real bad…” the kid sounded like she was going to cry.
There was silence before Siah spoke again. She sounded like she might cry.
“Yes, sweetie, they were very mean to him. But they’re gone now. I’m going to go try to make Eric better now. Can you help me?”
Sharlie must’ve nodded because he didn’t hear anything.
“Could you go hold his hand? So he doesn’t feel alone?”
Sharlie came out and took his big hand into her tiny ones and held and leaned on his arm. She looked up at him, her fearful eyes reminding him of another time he’d been beaten... and Nathan had been the one looking at him, like that...
Siah came back then with a small, weird looking bag in her hand.
“Take your shirt off so I can check your back and chest.”
“You heard me.”
He looked at her for a minute. She was serious.
He gestured with his head to Sharlie.
“She’s seen worse.”
Shoulders aching, he peeled off his hoodie and shirt, keeping the fabric bunched around his wrists. He knew this was no big deal to Siah, she was a doctor, but what was the kid thinking seeing- him- shirtless?
He looked at her, she kept ahold of his hand as Siah got her to “help” to clean up the various cuts and bruises on him. She wasn’t acting like any big deal. Had she really seen worse?
Siah checked his head and asked him some questions about how he was seeing her moving finger.
“You don’t appear to have a concussion or anything broken but tell me if anything changes.”
“Okay.” Then she pulled out some weird smelling ointment.
“What is that?”
“It’s for the bruises. Hold still.” She slathered the stuff on- everything- before she allowed him to put his clothes back on. Sharlie took his arm back right away.
He was surprised he didn’t have a concussion. That first guy had sucker punched him pretty hard. His head was killing him.
He was glad she wasn’t mentioning how he didn’t have any fresh meat. One of the thugs had taken the turkey he’d bagged before the others had started beating him. At least they hadn’t taken his bows and arrows. That would have been really horrible.
“For what it’s worth I saw the other guys, you gave as good as you got.” She smiled.
He tried to smile back but couldn’t. It hurt too much.
She banked the fire and added in the last of the meat they had saved.
“Sharlie sweetie, dinners going to take some time to cook up, why don’t you take a nap with Nathan while you wait? I’ll stay with Eric.”
Going to where he’d been putting up her mattress against the wall every day, she pulled out her own blanket, her fox and wolf dolls and curled up on Nathans cot, cuddling next to him. His brother was too unconscious to object. The kid was asleep in a minute.
Guess that scare was a lot for her.
Siah sat down to wait for the food to cook, and gestured for him to sit next to her. He scooted next to her and copied her movements warming his hands.
Siah looked to Sharlie, who now looked angelic as she slept.
It occurred to him again, how odd it was, this concern Siah had over this baby that wasn’t hers. Sure Sharlie was cute, but she was going beyond even how he saw moms treat blood children.
And then there was what had just happened.
“Why did you say that back there?”
“Why did I say what?” Her eyes never left the flames.
“That thing about being my mother, why did you say that?”
She was silent for a minute.
“A mother defending her child is never questioned. They did leave off only after I said what I did.”
“I think the gun had something to do with that.”
Now she smirked. “Even so…”
Only now did she turn and look at him. He met her eyes for only a moment before he dropped his gaze. The silence hung heavy between them.
When he finally spoke it was in a slow whisper.
“Our mother never would’ve done what you just did. She never protected us.
You wouldn’t want to be our mother. If you were I’d kill you.
I would kill you for leaving us with him, for letting him do that to Nathan…”
Siah watched as the boy in front of her seethed and went somewhere else. She didn’t ask who the HIM was. She could guess.
She felt the rage rolling off of him.
“What happened to her?”
“She left. I was seven. Nathan was four. My clearest memory of her is when she packed up and left.”
Somehow, right now, the moment seemed right for her to ask.
“Eric how did you and Nathan get your scars?”
He never looked at her as he spoke and she did nothing to stop her tears.
“My first memory is my father calling me a bastard while he slammed me against a wall. He thought it was funny. When I was about seven, mother left. She just packed some bags and never came back. After that our grandfather took us in.
He was old, things were rough, but it was better.
“When he died, we went back to live with, our dad,” The derision in his voice at having to say the word “dad” was palpable.
“He’d become worse. Getting beaten was the least of our problems.
He kept us chained to a wall. He fed us when he remembered too. It was a basement. He kept his Meth equipment in there. There was light coming in through small windows at the top. I remember hoping that someone would hear us scream.
No one ever did.
Or if they did they never cared.”
He seemed hesitant to go on but he did.
“One day our older brother came in, he was high, eating a burger, right in front of us, bragging about how dad gave him whatever he wanted. We hadn’t eaten in days.
He stayed just out of reach of us. He was only bragging to me though.
He didn’t realize how much slack Nathan had. He whipped the chain around and strangled him with it.
Then we ate.
When he came to, we just shoved the plate back at him expecting him to yell, but he went berserk. He picked up a chair and tried beating Nathan with it.
When it broke apart against the wall, he tried beating Nathan with the pieces of it.
I laid down and grappled him with my legs. When he was on the ground, Nathan picked up a piece of the chair he’d been getting beaten with, one with a sharp end, and stabbed him with it. He stabbed him again and again until he stopped moving.
Then he just sat there and cried.
I couldn’t believe what he’d done. Before that Nathan had always been a wimp.
I protected him.”
The man- boy paused as tears ran down his face. Siah wondered if he had ever spoken about this to anyone else. Did he and Nathan talk about it?
“I reached over and used my legs to drag his body closer to me.
I yelled for Nathan to throw me the stake. When I finally had him next to me, I realized he wasn’t dead. The wounds were shallow. He had a welt on his head from where he’d hit the floor. I had just knocked him out when I grappled him.
He came to quick, picked up a stick and tried to stab me with it.
I kicked him off. He came at me harder. We fought. I took the stake out of his hand and stabbed him in the gut. I stabbed him again and again, and I made sure he bled to death.
I’d been trying for days to work the chain loose. The day before I had felt it give a little and after the fight with Ryan I knew I’d felt it move.”
Ryan? That had been this brother’s name?
“Days went by when our father didn’t come down to the basement.
So I hoped he wouldn’t come down that day.
If I could just work it loose, I could get us both out.
But he did come. When he saw Ryan dead between me and Nathan he went into a rage and started beating me. Nathan stuck up for me, said it was him who’d stabbed him to death.
He knocked me out. When I woke up I smelled gas. He’d beaten Nathan half to death and was pouring gas all over him.
Then he lit the match. He laughed while Nathan screamed.
He went back upstairs laughing about how now we would be even.
Nathan was trying to put out the flames himself. I pulled those chains harder than I ever had before, and they burst loose. I grappled him and put out the flames.
Nathan had covered for me and burned for it.”
For the first time his voice cracked. He looked away from the flames and at his little brother so still and pale on the cot. “I remembered Dad kept a small first aid kit for himself under one of the tables. I used everything in it on Nathan. I couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead, I just held him there, his skin was smoking, some parts blackened.
I cried. That was when I knew I had to kill our dad.”
“I set Nathan off to the side of the room, picked up the chain that had held me and waited under the stairs. When he finally came down that night, he went straight to his stuff. I came up behind him, whipped the chain around his neck like I’d done to Ryan, and I strangled him. He fought back. Hard. My hands had been burned putting the fire out of Nathan and my grip started to slip from the blood. He reared his hands back and scratched my face.”
He absently lifted his hand to the gouges on either side of his face.
“My grip stared to slip. He started to get loose. Then another pair of hands was there, pulling along with me. Nathan had woken up, and was helping me.
It was him who put his foot on the back of his neck as we pulled together.
I could still smell his flesh burning, but there he was, helping me.
We squeezed together long after he’d stopped moving.
When we were sure he was dead was the biggest relief we had ever felt.
He had the key to our chains on him, when I dug it out I unlocked the both of us.
We went upstairs, ate everything we could find, packed everything else, then we set the place on fire.
With all the chemicals from his lab it wasn’t long before the house exploded.
Watching that explosion from the street was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Everything he had worked for, everything that had mattered to him, his precious drug mill was just gone. Just like that, just so much smoke.”
“That day we killed our father, was the best day of our lives.”
Siah took a moment to absorb what she had just heard; The crackle of the flames and their combined breathing, the only sounds in the room. It was the most he had ever spoken. Under different circumstances she might find his story hard to believe, children do lie, but his words had the ring of truth.
She wished they didn’t.
“And you’ve been alone ever since?”
“Yes.” Back to monotone answers. His and Nathan’s wounds look to have been at least somewhat treated.
“Did you ever get medical treatment at the time, for either of you?”
“I took him to an ER that night. They said Nathans burns, where severe but not life threatening. They let us stay there together in the hospital. When they said they were going to have to discharge us and that someone from social services would be called to pick us up, we ran.”
And they’d been running ever since.
“So you two have been alone for the last two years?”
There was silence as he stared coldly into the flames, why had he just told her all of that? Was it the head injury? He’d never spoken of their dad, not to anyone.
He and Nathan never even talked about it.
He couldn’t look at her, this on top of everything else they’d put her through, all the violence they had brought into her life- she would be scared, horrified, sickened at him. He got enough of that whenever he showed his face anywhere.
“Eric,” She leaned over to him. He was paralyzed as she took his hand in both of hers.
“You had no choice about what you did to your father and brother; that was self-defense. What you would do to your mother, that’s another story, but I have seen how you look out for your brother, I have seen how you take care of each other.”
She tenderly brushed a hand across one scarred cheek.
“For whatever its worth, I would be proud to call you my sons.”
She spoke the words softly, her eyes sincere. He had no idea what to do with that.
No words would come.
She rubbed his face again before stretching out her hands to the fire; the unspoken signal a welcome end to the conversation.
He had woken to the smell of his brothers burning flesh. That explained a lot.
She turned and looked at Nathan. He was only thirteen now, that meant the boy had been only 11 when he had been burned. She felt tears prick her eyes.
She rarely allowed herself to cry . There was so much horror in the world that you had to guard your heart, but for this- this horror of what these two children in front of her had endured- for this she would allow herself to shed tears.
Part of her pitied these children, and indeed they were still children; they were vicious and violent, but they were also hurting and afraid; they were two children alone in a world that took no pity on the weak.
Violence was all they knew- and the cold truth was- that was likely what had kept them alive this long. She thought back to how she had first met them, what she had seen them do.
Pity would not help them.
They needed compassion.
They needed healing.
They needed a parent.
She brushed her hands through Nathans greasy, stringy hair.
They needed haircuts.
She silently went to the kitchen, and put a pot of water on to boil. Then she went to go get her haircut kit. She had a good set of scissors and a razor all in a wraparound case that she guessed dated back to the 1970’s. She’d bought it off a trader several years ago and never been dissatisfied over her purchase. These antique metals were so durable.
The water was sufficiently warm, she took it, the empty cleaning bucket; the same one Eric had used to clean Nathans blood off the floor, and some baking soda into the living room where a very confused Eric was looking at her intently.
Nathan was lying down at a 45 degree angle as she had prescribed right after he’d first been shot. He might wake up while she was doing this, but he could deal.
Setting herself at Nathans head, she put the empty bucket underneath him and set the pot of warm water next to her. Then she set to work scrubbing the baking soda into his hair.
The boys had been staying relatively clean with baths, but with an open chest would, hair care had simply gone to the wayside for Nathan.
The gray daylight faded to night as she finished washing and rinsing the top of his head. She pulled out her scissors and began the process of cutting Nathans long hair.
It was then she heard Eric gasp. She glanced up at him. She had been so intent on her task; she hadn’t noticed his shocked horror when she had made the first cut.
The expression was so out of place on him she couldn’t help her chuckle. Turning Nathans head as needed, she finished the cut. She couldn’t believe the boy was still asleep. Finished, she stood and looked down at Nathan. He looked pretty darn good if she did say so herself. She couldn’t believe he’d slept through the whole process.
Then she turned to Eric.
“Whoa! No! You are not cutting my hair!”
By now Sharlie had woken and was looking at Nathan curiously.
“Sharlie, could you go get the broom and dustpan? We need to clean up before dinnertime.”
“Okay.” She shuffled off, taking her blanket with her.
She turned back to Eric.
“Now, it’s your turn.
He didn’t mean to yell but he meant it. He was not allowing her to cut his hair. She fluffed up the big towel she had had over Nathan and spread it on the floor.
He sat. She cut.
His look of sheer misery as she snipped his hair was downright comical. She did her best not to laugh.
When she was done, she left Eric with the same military style crew cut she’d given Nathan.
Kneeling in front of him, she actually took his chin and tilted it to angle his face one way and then the other. She wanted to make sure all sides were even.
“Not bad, boy. Not bad at all.” She said with pride as she handed him a small hand mirror and went to go get the scissor kit of the floor.
She was right.
He looked- cleaner- clearer- than he ever had before. He also felt exposed.
Without his hair he had nothing to drape over his face, nothing to hide behind.
He felt her hand on his shoulder.
“Eric, you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
He didn’t turn around as she spoke.
“You received those scars honestly. They are a testament to what you survived.”
She squatted in front of him and rubbed a hand through his shorn hair.
“You survived what would have killed others. You are a Survivor.”
She knew this would be scary for them. From the first time they had met, she could tell they were used to hiding behind their hair and their hoods, to hiding their faces as if they had something to be ashamed of.
Sharlie came in carrying the little broom and dustpan. She and Eric cleaned up the room as the scent of the stew began to permeate the room. Nathan woke up just then, and his sleepy eyes shot open when he saw Eric.
He tried to speak but it came out as nothing but sputters.
“What-? What-? What happened?”
“While you were asleep I gave you and your brother a desperately needed haircut.”
He lifted his hand to his head and the look of budding horror on his face sent her into a fit of giggles. Oh, how she had missed having boys around.
“Come on sweetie. Let’s go potty.”
“But I don’t have to go potty.” Sharlie clarified.
“Well I do. Come on.”
She took Sharlie with her to the bathroom and made sure to take her time.
She was sure the boys needed to talk without her around. Eric likely needed to tell Nathan that he had told her their story. She wanted to give them that time.
She figured she was right when she heard an audible gasp, followed by a not so subtle shushing by Eric. She took her time playing a loud game with Sharlie at the sink before she turned the door and came out.
The stew ready, and the floor clean, she had Eric pull the coffee table over and she served them all. It wasn’t that she was oblivious to the horrified tension in the room; the boys, especially Nathan were clearly in shock, she was simply trying to work around it. She was surprised Eric had actually sat for the haircut when she’d told him to.
Maybe a part of him knew he needed this. Even Sharlie seemed to sense the tension and was unusually quiet.
She had come home so early that it was still earlier than usual for them to be eating. She felt bad about how the boys were taking the haircut, but they had needed it.
The boys didn’t seem mad per se- just- in shock.
She caught both of their eyes before she spoke.
“I know that this is a big deal for you boys, but I want you to understand something; you have nothing to be ashamed of, not one thing. Scars show where you’ve been and what you’ve done. You have no reason to hang your head, or hide your faces. You have every right to walk with your heads high.”
They both looked down. She thought she saw Nathans eyes shimmer.
She took the boys’ hands.
”Your hair will grow back. You both just needed the haircut. You’ve both been under so much stress that was why your hair was so stringy. Now that you’re both eating and sleeping better, you’ll see your hair will grow back in much better condition than it was before.”
She looked down at her stew and took a few bites.
They finished the rest of their meal in peace.
She pushed her empty bowl away and looked at the table for a moment.
“I’ve never told you the story of how I first met Holsun have I?”
Their heads perked up.
Of course she hadn’t. She’d hardly told the boys anything about herself. Usually when she arrived home she was too exhausted to do more than the basics of eating and tending to Nathan and Sharlie before passing out.
It wasn’t a pleasant tale but for some reason, she felt it was something the boys needed to know.
“It was back when I was first traveling here from the south.”
She didn’t mean to shudder as she remembered that bitter time. But she did.
“I was with a caravan of people. We were all driving from one town to another, to get here, believe it or not, and suddenly several deer came out of nowhere and ran across the road in front of us.
Several of us shot. We all wanted the meat. Then we saw why the deer were running, a pack of wolves was going after them full on. Me and several others just stopped and watched them. It was fascinating. Then one of the men next to me started shooting and one of the wolves went down. Before he could fire off another shot I tackled him. He missed that shot and the rest of the wolves scattered away.
He was furious at me and we argued. Several others stepped in before it got physical. He finally stalked off.
I ran to where the wolf had fallen.
It was an old female. I’ll never forget her eyes, they were green and beautiful, and they were dying as surely as a fires last ember. There was nothing I could do for that animal. The bullet had ripped clean through her. I just knelt there with her as she drew her last breaths.
This was no pet, no feral dog; this was a wild thing- and she was beautiful. Something passed between us that day, it’s hard to explain, but, I just understood one mother to another, those other wolves some of them were her children, her cubs; one of them had been her mate. She was afraid for her family, of what would happen to them without her.
I put my hand on her shoulder; she didn’t flinch. She seemed to accept it.
I stayed with her until she died.
I felt her loss that day.
Several others who sympathized helped me bury her. I camped only a few feet away from where we’d buried her just to make sure that same jerk didn’t come and try to take the body for a trophy...”
Eric and Nathan looked at each other. Siah was somewhere else.
“That jerk who had shot her had been yelling at me about how dangerous wolves were and how they would’ve attacked us at night. The notion was ridiculous. We were a group of over a hundred. A small pack of wolves were not going attack us. He had just taken a cheap shot. He had wanted to kill just for the fun of it and everyone knew it.”
“I remember that night, as I stood vigil over that mama wolfs grave, I thought of a poem I’d read about a man who saw a wolf die. I remember it saying how he stood and watched “… a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” And how, “…there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”
She blew out a breath and looked them straight in the eye, hazel eyes flashing.
“That jerk was Holsun.”
The boys shouldn’t have been surprised. They knew Holsun did plenty of his own dirty work, but that story really showed what a coward he was. Even they wouldn’t kill an animal just for the fun of it.
Grandfather had taught them better.