Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Nathan was surprised when he woke to the sound of Siah doing her usual morning routine. Though the patch helped his sleep cycle to regulate, he was glad he was still a light sleeper. Sleeping too deep got you killed. For the last few days he’d actually been waking up when she started moving around.
After everything last night, she was still going to the clinic?
He looked at her as she came out of the bathroom and stoked the fresh log she’d just put on the fire. Even in the dim light gray light filtering through the boarded up windows her face was a mess. It killed him that half of that mess was his fault. Holsun had hit her on one side and he’d hit her on the other.
She was a beautiful woman whose face was a mess.
“How much longer til the clinic closes?”
She looked at him surprised. He’d never spoken to her first thing in the morning before.
“Another nine days.” She ruffled his nearly bald head a bit. He didn’t push her off like usual. She looked at his scalp for a moment before turning her eyes back to him.
“Then I’m done.” She smiled.
Her smile turned worried as she looked over at Eric. He usually woke up when she did. She moved over to him and put a hand to his head.
He was still hard asleep.
“He didn’t show any signs of a concussion after being attacked, but I never did check him after last night’s debacle. I’m going to try and come home early for lunch to check on him. Nathan,” she made sure she had his full attention. “If he has a concussion, he may need treatment. Keep an eye on him and tell me what his symptoms are.”
He nodded to her. She took Eric’s knife off the mantle, tucked it into the back of her belt and left through the back window.
Siah came back earlier than usual for lunch. When he heard the window open and Siah clambering in Nathan gave Eric a deadpan look.
“Just tell her.”
His brother groaned, in too much pain to roll his eyes.
Siah asked him a bunch of questions and Eric admitted that his head was still throbbing and he was getting dizzy at intervals.
Siah nodded. “If your symptoms get any worse by nightfall we’re going to have to take you to the clinic for an x- ray.”
“Siah, we can’t-”
She held her palm up to him.
“Eric, Holsun is gone. His gang is disbanded. If you’re symptoms get any worse, there will be no choice. We’ll have to take you to the clinic.”
It was so weird how she talked to Eric. Before they met Siah no one had ever cut him off.
“Now here.” She pulled something out of her pocket. He recognized it right away. “This is a slightly higher dose patch as the one I gave Nathan. It should work for your size and weight.”
Eric accepted it without a word. “I put this on tonight?”
Then, to both of their shock, she pulled Eric’s knife out of her belt and handed it to him. Eric looked as surprised as he was. He put his hand on the hilt, she did not let go of the blade.
“Do not ever go to sleep with a weapon on you, or use this on ME again, understand?” Her tone left no room for argument.
He nodded sheepishly. “Yes ma’am.”
She let go of the blade. Good to see the manners she’d taught Sharlie were rubbing off. After lunch, she gave each of them a quick hug goodbye before she left. It didn’t escape her notice how the boys seemed a little shocked at the hug. Did they really think that was going to stop just because of one debacle?
She arrived at the clinic in time to find her workload lightened considerably. Several able bodied patients had left town. Now that Holsun was out of the picture, those who could were leaving for safer locals with real law enforcement and working utilities. She didn’t blame them.
She was grateful to be able to leave even earlier than yesterday but found herself praying that tonight wouldn’t be as eventful as last.
It had all gone pretty well up until Eric’s night terror. She’d dealt with Eric and Nathan’s type of sleep issues before with several of her nephews and brothers, so she was familiar with how to handle them.
It was clear both boys were dealing with severer PTSD. Considering what had been done to them and how they’d been living she wasn’t surprised. The question was, what could she really do about it?
The feather soft dream that had brushed her mind the night Nathan had punched her in his sleep had never left. It was still there, waiting in the wings; a question waiting for an answer.
She arrived home early that night, relieved that Eric had actually followed orders, stayed in and relaxed. He must have been in more pain than he was letting on. Nathan testified he had even slept a little.
She did another cognitive exam. He was getting better, but was still dizzy upon rising and his head was still aching.
“Am I okay to go hunting?”
“No.” she said flatly.
“Eric, no. Your injuries aren’t life threatening but they are serious.”
But they did need meat. Hunting was not a chore they could put off until later. Even as she’d been coming home, the wind had been picking up, the damp air promising another stormy, cold, thoroughly miserable night.
She would have to go hunting herself.
She and the boys ate the last of the stew in the pot. It wasn’t much. She finished up her bowl quickly as she told the boys her plans. They both looked at her and blinked.
Eric was the first to speak. “Whoa. Wait, you’re going hunting?”
“Yes.” She said flatly as she went to the bedroom. Eric followed her
“Eric, I’m changing clothes. Stay out.”
She strapped on her holsters and checked her guns again; one thigh holster for Bowie knife, the other for handgun. She buttoned her blue denim overcoat back on and strapped the rifle scabbard to her back. Once, she would have just left the handgun at home when hunting, but no more. She would never leave home without knife and gun again.
She came out and Eric looked her up and down in shock. She crossed her arms at him.
“Where did you get- all that?”
“I did show you my gun collection yesterday.”
“No, I mean the holsters, and- you- seem- so-“
She looked around Eric’s bulk to see Nathan, equally as shocked as his brother.
Should she be insulted?
“Boys, I do not keep these guns for show. I know how to use firearms and I’m very comfortable with them.”
She stopped Eric with a hand on his shoulder.
“Eric, I am touched that you’re worried about me, but we only have enough food for one more meal and you both need the protein. I can’t risk you overexerting yourself and passing out from a concussion. I will do the hunting today.”
Her tone left no room for argument.
“Besides, it’s been too long anyway. It’ll be good to get back out in the forest.”
He rubbed his head where an ache was throbbing. He hated that she was right.
“Are you sure you can hunt alone?”
They really didn’t know her very well. She had him and Nathan sit down in the living space. Both boys looked worried. She really was touched by their concern. She bent down in front of them, a hand on each of their shoulders.
“Boys, your concern is touching, but I traveled on foot from central Texas to here with Sharlie in my arms. How do you think I ate during that time?”
She smiled at their looks of surprise.
“I’ve hunted before and I pray the Lord will give me a good kill today. If anything happens to me, my Ghost will let you know.”
She ignored their quizzical expressions as she moved her hands to the backs of each of their heads and gave them each a kiss on the forehead and a hug and kiss to Sharlie, who had scrunched up and cuddled with her.
“Keep each other safe. I’ll be back before darker sets in.”
She went to the kitchen, jumped through the window and was gone.
Eric and Nathan looked at each other. Neither knew what to make of the moment. Siah had just kissed them. They had experienced her hugs, but the kiss on the head… she was treating them like how she treated Sharlie.
For the rest of the day Sharlie acted like nothing unusual. Her mom had left her with the boys and would be back later. It was only them that were- what was it she had said- worried?
Not long after Siah left, the weather took its turn for the worst. The boys knew how dangerous hunting in this kind of weather could be. Siah had had good equipment, but did she really know what she was doing, out in weather like this? The wind began to howl and whistle through the windows. Dark set in and Siah still hadn’t returned.
They were both getting worried. It was a foreign feeling to them. They had never had anyone else to worry about.
Eric abruptly broke the silence. “I don’t care what she says. I’m going to go look for her.”
“If you’re going then I’m going too.”
“No way! You’re still recovering!”
“So are you!” Nathan shot back.
They both jumped, Eric reflexively drawing his gun at a loud bang on the back window.
“Hey you two, come and get it!”
Siah! Eric bolted to lift the hinge, Nathan and Sharlie right behind him. Siah was there, grinning, with a small buck in tow. He and Nathan breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief.
“Now come out here and help me dress this thing. Nathan, get two pots on for stew. We’ll have ourselves a feast tonight!”
“I can believe you bagged a deer!”
“I prayed for God to give me a good kill and he said yes!” she laughed.
The wind howled outside with Siah and the kids sprawled all over the floor relishing the sensation of being full and warm and safe. Even Sharlie was sitting still in all her fullness.
Siah could not remember the last time she had eaten this much. She’d left the boys to finish up the field dressing while she took a quick bath, then she and Nathan had worked together and made a pretty decent batch of mashed potatoes while Eric had grilled the heart for him and Nathan and the tenderloin for her, stewing the rest of the meat.
She sighed with joy. Red meat: God’s original superfood. She smiled; the boys had been shocked when she told them she hated organ meat.
It was Nathan who broke the silence. “Siah?” she turned her head. Neither boy was the talkative type but Nathan spoke up so rarely that when he did it commanded immediate attention. She wondered if that was a power trip for him.
“I have a question.”
He blinked at her before she sat up.
“Why were you more scared of going to work than going hunting just now?” Nathan asked.
“I don’t doubt my own capabilities Nathan. I’ve hunted before. It’s only in ‘Civilization’,” she put her hands up in air quotes at the last word.
“That I’m ever really worried about personal safety.”
“What do you mean?”
She turned and really looked at him then, the firelight reflecting an orange tone in the hazel of her eyes. Nathan wondered then, not for the first time since he had met Siah, if there wasn’t some truth to the stories of Spirit- People their grandfather had told them.
She turned back to the fire.
“Nathan, around other people, I’m a small woman, perceived as an easy target, either to be protected or taken advantage of. But in the wilderness, with a weapon in hand I’m just another predator, and every bit as dangerous as any monster that comes at me.”
She turned and cupped them both around the face. “Or mine.”
They both froze at the gesture. She shoved them both playfully and did the half smile thing again.
It wasn’t until they had all gone to bed that the ramifications of what she had said really sunk into Nathan.
He’d told Eric about his dream vision but they’d never talked about it again, but now…. no. He wasn’t going to go there. He wasn’t going to think about it. It was just a stupid dream.
He wrapped the blanket tight around himself. When he healed up, he and Eric would go back to living in the auto shop. Maybe they would come to visit or something.
It was just a stupid dream.
Eric was gathering wood with Sharlie like he always did. Every day the kid followed a pattern: she was always energetic early on before she burned herself out. He remembered what Siah had said about her not getting the chance to run around much before they had come around and wondered if the kid wasn’t trying to make up for lost time.
On their way back to the apartment Sharlie suddenly got all excited and started pulling on him.
“Eric, Eric, there’s a bird nest, there’s a bird nest! Can I see it! Please!”
He hated when she did that big eyed look at him, but he figured they could spare a few minutes. His head wasn’t throbbing anymore. He bent down and lifted her up onto his free shoulder. She looked down at him in awe from her new vantage point. He gestured with his chin for her to look at the bird nest she had wanted to see.
“Are there any eggs in it?”
Sharlie bent a bit and looked at the little nest intently.
“Yes.” She whispered reverently. They are verrry small.”
He waited at least a full minute.
“Well, we’d better go.” He said softly. “We don’t want the mama bird to find us to close to her nest and think we’re gonna hurt her eggs.”
He could tell Sharlie was enjoying being up on his shoulder. He didn’t bother putting her down as he stared walking again.
Eric held her on his shoulder while they walked back home. She had never been so high up before. This was what it was like to be big like Eric? Wow. She was higher up than she had ever been before in her whole life.
He took her around the waist and put her down only when they were just in front of the apartment complex.
“Weee!” she giggled happily as he dangled her before landing her on her feet. He couldn’t help but smile a little. It was nice to see the kid happy.
He looked up just then and saw a large branch just over their heads. It was extending into the clear space that led to the apartment complex. It was right in the line of sight of the window he used every day. He must’ve passed it dozens of times since they’d been living with doc, but only now, with Sharlie’s squeal still in his ear, a memory struck him.
There had been a branch like that out back of their grandfather’s trailer. It had been broad and smooth and big enough to hold a swing...
He and Nathan had taken turns and begged until their grandfather had finally put up a second swing.
He remembered they had spent hours out on those swings. Trying to go higer and higer, they would dream of flying far away…
He looked down at Sharlie. She looked back at him thoughtfully. Her childhood wasn’t as miserable as his, but it was just as dangerous, maybe more so. He made a decision as he pulled her hood a little tighter around her head and walked her back to the apartment.
He set her down to take her nap and told Nathan what he wanted to do. He nodded. “The right kind of wood shouldn’t be hard to find. We can use the rope off the grappling hooks. You’ll just have to find a good piece of wood.”
“Shouldn’t be hard.”
It wasn’t. When Sharlie woke up from her nap they all walked out of the side door, Eric carrying the finished swing. He slung the ropes over the branch and climbed the tree to tie them off. Their calculations had been correct. After only some minor tweaking it was done.
Eric climbed down as Nathan led Sharlie by the hand. She looked confused at the contraption in front of her.
“This is a swing.” Nathan explained. “It’s a toy. You play on it.”
The kid didn’t know how to swing.
It still hurt to lift anything but Sharlie didn’t weigh much as he one handedly lifted her onto the wooden plank. Once he had her in the seat, he showed her how to grip the ropes and slowly began to push on her back.
In a flash he was small again, his grandpa pushing him in a wooden swing just like this one.
He pushed her gently with his good arm. The kid didn’t seem to have much of a sense of balance at first but she got the hang of it quick enough, squealing with glee at her newfound freedom.
“Higher Nathan, higher!” she shouted. He pushed her for a bit before Eric took over.
He took a deep breath and sat under the overhang between the two buildings and watched as Eric pushed Sharlie in her swing.
For some reason he felt emotional. Doc said it was normal to have mood swings after a traumatic event, but for the life of him, he hated- feeling- like this, he hated feeling at all.
Sharlie squealed loudly and he found himself smiling in spite of himself. Seeing her so happy with something he had made, made him feel- happy.
Maybe feeling things wasn’t- completely- bad.
Siah loved and hated the Traveling Market.
She loved it because the band of travelling merchants brought specialty goods and services from all over.
Siah had barely entered the clinic when Mason had shouted to her that the Traveling Market had finally come back to Tinplate, and that the man she’d been praying for, a professional cobbler by trade was still with them. Mason had been keeping in contact with Mr. Alvarez over his radio and given him the rough measurements Siah had given him to relay.
Siah was relieved and worried all at once. The merchants never stayed anywhere more than three nights from the time of setup, it took the cobbler at least two days to put Sharlie’s shoes together, which meant she had to go, right now to get Sharlie outfitted for what she prayed would be her last pair of corrective boots.
She had to go get Sharlie, right now.
“Mason, I have to-”
“I know. Go.”
He smiled at her warmly. She was more grateful than ever for Mason watching out for her. He was the best boss she had ever had and the soft spot he’d always had for her and Sharlie was truly a Godsend.
She lept up, hugged the older man and bolted out the door. She couldn’t help feeling excited; this might be the last pair of corrective shoes her little one would ever need!
Eric would probably be out with Sharlie at this time of day, at least that’s what Sharlie babbled to her when she came home for lunch.
Despite the threats of the thugs who’d beaten him a week ago, they hadn’t had any trouble since. In fact with so many people leaving town, it was quieter than ever. Likely the thugs had left along with everyone else. Thieves don’t stay where there’s no one to steal from. She hadn’t even seen any of Holsun’s men since he’d left. It was as if his gang had disappeared with him. Good riddance.
Finally making it to her building, she paused to catch her breath- and drank in the sight before her: Nathan’s form was in shadow under the overhang that connected her building to the next. He was resting against the wall, one knee up, across from the apartment’s side door, whittling the same chunk of wood he’d been shaving down for the last week. Eric was further back in the trees pushing Sharlie in- was that- a swing?
It was like looking at a picture of peace, of safety.
She knew full well what Nathan could do with that knife, what Eric could do with that gun in the thigh holster she’d let him use, she also knew how protective the boys were of Sharlie now. No, the sight before her was more than mere protectiveness, for these two rough boys to have gone and made her little girl a swing- this was a picture of love.
Were these boys even aware that they had both fallen for a little girl who looked at them with awe?
She sobered as she remembered why she hated the Traveling Market. They always enclosed their space and had a strict no guns policy, which meant she would have to take Sharlie with her- through town- unarmed.
Minutes later, she was explaining to the boys what she had to do. When she explained that she couldn’t take any of her weapons with her, they both thought she’d lost it and said as much.
“Have you lost it?” Eric half shouted.
“Sharlie needs this. I don’t have a choice.” She said as she walked into the apartment.
“Other markets just check your weapons at the door and hold them til you leave. Why doesn’t this one?” Nathan demanded.
“They used to but last time they came to Tinplate one of Holsun’s goons tried to go in with his gun still on him, when the guards tried to stop him, he and his buddies shot them both and tried to steal the held guns from the guards. Long story short, four men wound up dead, three others injured and the private contractor the Market hires guards from laid down the law that in Tinplate they would not allow in anyone who even tried to come in with a weapon.
“How about I go with you?” Eric asked. “I’ll stay armed and just wait outside.”
Nathan nodded his agreement with this plan.
Oh, she scratched the back of her neck. She never had mentioned what she knew about them.
“Eric, I would love to follow through on your plan but I’m- aware- that you two have pulled some robberies in the past. Can you be sure none of the vendors there will recognize you?”
Both boys had such guilty looks she almost regretted saying anything.
“How, how did you know?” Nathan breathed.
“Before we met, several people in the clinic had talked about a burglar who hit wealthy homes, made off with expensive items and was never caught. No one knew who it was, they never left fingerprints, reports differed on their size,” she looked at both boys pointedly. “But they always said it was a man with long black hair and a very,” now she looked solely at Eric, “distinct voice.”
Eric looked like he was trying to remember something.
“In one of the break-ins you were heard talking into a radio. Police had figured it was the same perpetrator from the M.O.”
Eric looked a little shy now while Nathan admirably contained his shock. This was the first time Siah could remember them having different reactions to something.
She put a hand on each of their shoulders.
“Boys, I figered out it was you two when we first met. I didn’t tell anyone then and I’m not telling anyone now.”
“Thanks Siah.” Nathan said softly.
She didn’t think she had ever heard that soft a tone out of either of them before.
“Don’t worry about it.” She smiled.
“As for right now, I won’t be completely defenseless. I’ll take the Taser with me, and my knife. Something’s something.”
“Can you call us when you get there? Just so we know you made it alright?”
Siah was touched at the boys concern.
“Yes sweetie,” she rubbed his cheek. “I think that would be a great idea. Many of the vendors there know me so I’m sure one of them will Iet me borrow their phones.”
In the end they planned that Eric would walk them to the grounds the market had staked out, armed and that Siah would call Nathan when she arrived and call them again when she was on her way back. When she left Eric would meet her halfway home. His initial plan had been to simply wait somewhere for her but she had warned him it might take the rest of the day. There was no sense him waiting that long. Besides, if any of the vendors he had previously burgled saw him, they might recognize his massive build and put two and two together.
Eric insisted that he was okay to do the long walks necessary. Siah couldn’t help but worry. She prayed she was making the right call letting him go with her.
Siah went for her money stash last. It was right under her gun stash. She could see their looks of surprise on the boys face’s as she carefully counted out the bills and stuffed most of it in the inside pocket of her coat. She was surprised they hadn’t found it yet.
“I’ve been saving for this ever since Sharlie’s last set of shoes.”
She took her belt holster off and reluctantly put it back into its case. She hated being unarmed. She felt naked.
Determinedly, she shut the door, strapped Sharlie into her pack and hoisted her onto her shoulders. Hugging Nathan goodbye, she prayed she and Eric wouldn’t get attacked. He could not take another head injury.
Despite the early hour the usually cloudy sky was darker than usual, she looked up at a beautiful, turbulent sky. A storm was coming in. Great.
Lord, please protect us from bad elements and bad people.
It turned out she needn’t have worried about meeting anyone menacing. They didn’t see anyone at all. The last few months she’d rarely gone off her beaten path between the clinic and the apartment, so she hadn’t realized the full depth of the population depletion. Between so many people leaving town now that Holsun was gone and the rest of the citizens of Tinplate likely being at the market already, the place already had the feel of abandonment. Shop after shop was closed and shuttered. In the neighborhoods only every sixth or seventh house they passed looked remotely lived in. She had seen the sight many times since the Ruin began but still it depressed her.
If people kept leaving at the rate they were, Tinplate would end up like so many other small towns since the Ruin, a ghost town.
It was a sobering thought.
It turned out Eric was able to walk with her much closer to where the Market was set up than she'd thought.
It was set up in a good area. It was a vacant lot that had the empty space of several parking lots around it, making it impossible for anyone to sneak in past the guards stationed at every corner of the compass.
Eric asked, taking in the enclosed tent space.
She had Eric stay back behind a building as she approached the canvas fence that blocked any casual entrance to the market. She saw Eric still watching as the guard patted her down. Her gun and Taser were taken from her and she was given a ticket to reclaim them.
She was relieved to see Eric as calm as he was. She had explained the procedure to him but still worried what his reaction would be.
She nodded to him as she went inside and watched as he disappeared into the shadows. Boy was too good at hiding.
She went straight to Mr. Alvarez’s stall where he was kind enough to allow her to use his phone while he fitted Sharlie for her new shoes.
Nathan took note of the time even though she warned him that she could take hours.
As soon as she hung up the phone Mr. Alvarez tucked it back into its case and gave Siah some amazing news. The measurements Mason had given him over the radio were so close that he would actually have the shoes done that very day, within the hour perhaps.
He also confirmed what she had hoped. This would likely be the last pair of corrective shoes Sharlie would ever need. Siah couldn’t stop the tears in her eyes as she thanked God and prayed that his words were true.
“I’d like to pay you now. How much will it be?”
He told her the price and she couldn’t quite hide her shock as she took out the bills.
Sharlie’s corrective shoes were always expensive, and worth every penny, but the cost this time was less than what it had been last time and the cost last time had been considerably less than the time before that. Was the man giving her a discount because he had a soft spot for Sharlie? Considering their cost and the cost of what she was hoping to buy for the boys, she decided she wouldn’t question it.
She put a hand on the old man’s shoulder, her eyes watering as she handed him the bills. “Gracias Senor. Quiero decir que.” Thank you. I mean that, she told him in Spanish. It felt good to use her Spanish again. Since moving to Colorado, she rarely had the chance to practice anymore.
He took the bills and gave her a genuine smile. “De Nada.” He replied.
If she felt bereft of practicing her second language she could only imagine how Mr. Alvarez felt about using his first.
She and Sharlie killed time going from one stall to another, looking for what she was hoping to buy for the boys.
She was thrilled to find what she wanted, and at such reasonable rates. So reasonable in fact that she was wondering if Mr. Alvarez hadn’t organized some kind of conspiracy with the other vendors to sell her everything at wholesale prices.
When she checked back with Mr. Alvarez a little over an hour later she was thrilled that he had indeed finished with the shoes. He laced the little black boots onto Sharlie, who took several tentative steps before eagerly breaking into a full run.
Siah put her hands to her chest, tearing up to see her little girl looking so strong, so healthy. Many of the other vendors, like Mr. Alvarez knew her and her daughters’ story and stopped in their business to just watch a little girl run for the sheer joy of it.
She was startled to realize that before the boys had come into her life, Sharlie had never been so exuberant. She would not have dared to run around with so many people watching her, nor would she likely have been able to. Exercising with the boys, just being around them, had given her a sense of security and courage- of strength.
“Thank you father, for bringing the boys into our lives.” She whispered.
She borrowed Mr. Alvarez’s phone once more to call and tell the boys that she was done and on her way home. Eric said he was on his way, so they should be able to meet halfway.
Only when she gave it back to him did he give her a twinkling smile.
“So, who is waiting for you that you have to check in with?” he asked, still in Spanish.
She smiled. It was tempting to lead the kind man into believing she had a man in her life, but she didn’t really want to lie to him, but she felt a catch, a snag in her spirit that told her not to risk telling him about the boys, not yet.
“I was calling a patient who was worried about me.”
That wasn’t a lie.
“Aw.” He snapped his fingers. “Here I was hoping you had finally met a decent young man.”
She smiled at him ruefully.
“No, no decent, single man I’m sorry to say.” That much was true. None of the men she knew would be anyone she would even consider for the most basic of reasons- they were not Christians- she was.
Those that were and were in her age bracket were all married.
No, she had not met any decent men; she had only crossed paths with some decent boys. No men had taken her heart, but a couple of teenagers were worming their way in.
She called Sharlie who ran into her arms and together they said goodbye to Mr. Alvarez, Siah thanking him profusely for his work on Sharlie’s shoes. Considering the state of the town and the fact that the traveling market only came to places they were likely to glean a profit, she might never see him again.
Gathering her girl into her arms, she headed home to her boys.
She stopped mid step.
Her boys. How long had it been since she had thought that? She had once had so many boys in her life. Ever since she had met Eric and Nathan, they had always been “the Boys” in her mind. But right now, she had thought of them as “Her Boys”- and she had liked it.
Her heart swelled.
“Lord, if this is from you, give me the words…”
They weren’t babies, they had no paperwork, how would it even work- legally?