Updated: Sep 7, 2020
The sky began to lighten as Siah picked her head up off the mattress she shared with Sharlie. She was still fully dressed. When had she fallen asleep?
She rubbed her hands over her face. Her whole body felt stiff and sore.
She could feel a dent in her hair- and her cheek. The last thing she remembered was casting a demon out of the older boy- right, then she’d put a pillow under his head, taken his blood soaked jacket off him and put it over the pool of blood next to the door. Before all that she’d been praying over the little one-
She jerked. The little one! Bleary-eyed, she stumbled to the living area.
The big one was laying where she had left him, sound asleep, the blanket she’d tossed over him, looking as if he hadn’t moved all night. How long had it been since these boys had had a good night’s sleep?
Wiping her face awake, she checked the little one. He was breathing evenly, his pulse was steady, but as she had feared, he had a fever.
“Thank you Jesus.” She whispered. Considering he’d just been shot in the chest with minimal medical care, this was best case scenario. The blanket she’d tossed over him looked as undisturbed as his brothers. She laid hands and prayed over both boys, shivering in the cold as she raised her hands in praise. The fire had died down considerably. She threw another few sticks onto it before throwing in her last log.
The clock on the mantle indicated it had only been about two hours since she’d gone to check on Sharlie. That was how long she had slept. She groaned.
She was due to be at work in less than an hour. She looked at the huge boy asleep on her floor and the small one asleep on her mats. The little one needed tending to and was too weak to move. If she was correct as to who had shot the boy, going to the clinic would be a death sentence anyway. No, she could not leave, and after what had happened yesterday she was in no hurry to go back to work.
Her mind made up, she went into the kitchen and picked up the phone.
Listening for the dial tone she stuck her finger in the first number hole and then the second and then the third. Man, she missed the days of cellphones with touchscreens! Back then you didn’t even have to memorize numbers. The phone did it for you.
Good times those were.
Finally, she was done. She tried to swallow. Her throat felt raspy.
She should’ve poured herself some water first. Mason should be just coming to the front desk. The phone rang ten times before he finally answered.
“Mason,” her voice sounded even worse than it felt. Good, it should lend credibility to her story. “It’s Siah, I’m not feeling well. I’m not coming in today.”
“I’m not feeling well Mason. I’ve never called in sick before, so you know how serious this is.” He sighed. She could picture him rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“Are you going to come back at all?” he said the words with no venom.
He was sincerely asking. After what happened yesterday, he probably wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.
“Yes, I promised I’d see this through to the end and I meant it.”
“Alright. If anyone asks, I’ll say you stayed home because of a throat infection.”
“Thanks Mason. I appreciate it.”
“Stay safe Siah.”
“I will. Stay safe yourself. Bye.”
She put the phone back up on its cradle and breathed a sigh of relief.
She’d gotten herself a reprieve. Today she would only have one patient to treat, she would sleep, and she would keep Sharlie with her at all times. She didn’t realize until then how heavy the weight of stress she’d been carrying was- she was so used to it, she’d stopped noticing. She struggled to her feet on shaky legs. When had she last eaten? Drank? Her feet felt swollen in her shoes. Good grief. Thank God she had fed Sharlie that little dinner Mason had brought while they were still at the clinic last night. She took her hand off the phone and turned around to see the big one just standing over her. He didn’t seem particularly hostile at the moment- just puzzled.
First Real Conversation-
“How’s your brother?”
“Good.” She grunted.
She went to the ceramic tank she kept her fresh water in and gulping down a glass. Letting the moisture settle in her gut, she set the glass next to the jug and rummaged for the can opener. Taking it to three of the big cans of soup, she unceremoniously dumped their contents into a pot and set it on her little propane burner.
“Breakfast will be ready in a bit.” She set the heat on low and swished some water in the cans before pouring them in with the soup and stirring.
He looked like he was trying to figure her out. She smirked. That would take him awhile. She poured herself another glass of water and one for him before she sat down, head in her hands. It was a sad day when you were exhausted from putting canned soup on to heat up. She rested her head on one hand and craned her neck to look him in the face, too out of it to be intimidated by him.
“Take a seat boy, you’re hurting my neck.”
There was only one other chair in the tiny room, as he scooted it out and sat, she found it amusing how the thing looked like so much play furniture under his massive bulk. She’d gauge the boy to be about 6’ 2”, broad shouldered and deep chested.
From his size alone, some might think he was already a man, but she’d gauge his age to be around sixteen. Back in her day he would’ve had college scouts and coaches begging him to play on their teams.
Between his height, build, scars, ugly birthmarks, and obviously Native American descent, his fierce looks probably allowed him to get away with quite a bit on the street.
Then there were all the injuries from the beat down he’d taken from Holsun’s men…
“Why did you cover for us?” Again, his voice struck her as not matching him.
It was deep and masculine, surprisingly so considering his age, but with a smoothness to it that made her think of silk. Yes, fine dark silk; smooth and strong. He could probably be a good singer if he tried. She gave him a humorless laugh at the idea.
“Boy, I have bigger problems than you. Frankly, staying home and taking care of only you and your brother will be a welcome relief. Besides if I rat you out now, I’m guessing you’d be killed on sight by my boss’ henchman, and I’d rather not have all my hard work last night go to waste.” He looked at her in shock as she sat back down.
He still hadn’t touched the cup she’d set in front of him.
“Your work for Holsun?”
“In a manner of speaking, he owns the clinic I work at.”
She could see his guard go back up. He waited a pulse as he seemed to assess her.
“I thought the clinic was run by the state.”
“I don’t know any of the legalities, but he took over it awhile back. All I do know is whenever I do get paid it’s always directly by him, not the state. I also know all the patients pay him directly on pain of needing further medical treatment from injuries his henchmen inflict.”
“So, why are you working for him then?” For the first time she looked away from him.
In her eyes he saw more there than just exhaustion. He saw pain.
“I don’t have a choice.” She wrapped her head in her hands and rubbed her face and hair. She looked like she’d be pretty normally. Like if she slept.
“I don’t have a choice but to go back there, but I can’t go back there. Not again.
Not with Sharlie.” She started to cry. He froze. She doesn’t cry at a gun in her face, but she cries about going to work? He had no idea what to do. It took her a minute before she finally pulled herself together.
“Sorry.” She gasped. “Didn’t mean to fall apart on you like that.”
She looked to the back bedroom where the little girl was asleep.
He followed her gaze. Why was there no door there? She rubbed her hand over her face.
“I just want to be a good mom.” She whispered. “I just want my girl to be safe.
I hate having to leave her while I’m at work. I hate it!” She said the words with a venom that surprised him. The soup began to simmer. She turned down the heat, filled up two small bowls and gave him one.
“The rest is for your brother and Sharlie when they wake up.”
He looked at it, then her as she set the lid on the pot and began to eat.
Why was she so calm around him? His stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning but he forced himself to eat slowly.
She said nothing as they ate. Her eyes looked far away. Sure she had a lot on her mind, but even then, how was she so calm around him? And why did he feel so weird?
He felt- loose, like there was nothing weighing him down, which was weird considering how hurt Nathan was in the next room. And what had she meant that she had bigger problems than him? He’d broken into her house and held her at gunpoint, what was worse than that?
What was scarier than him?
Did it have anything to do with those slashes on her hands? They looked like she’d been slashed with a razor. When they were done, she picked up his bowl and hers, took them to the little sink and washed and dried them out before putting them next to the soup pot.
“If your brother wakes up, pour him a small bowl of broth only. Feed it to him slowly.
He won’t be able to hold down anything solid.” She put a hand on his shoulder. She looked exhausted.
“I’m gonna go back to sleep. Wake me if anything happens alright?” He nodded.
He turned in his seat and watched her shamble down the tiny hall, catching herself from falling once. It looked like she went to another room off to the side, then came out wearing pajamas before slowly curling onto the mattress where the little girl was.
She pulled some blankets over herself and fell asleep instantly.
He just looked at the woman and blinked. He had little niches in his brain where he categorized people and things, but her, she didn’t fit anywhere.
He could understand her sleeping when he was, but how could she feel so safe around him when he was awake? He sat there for a while, unsure what to do with himself; it was a foreign feeling to him. He and Nathan always had a plan. He went to the living room and checked on his little brother.
His fists clenched at the sight. All plans were on hold. Nathan wasn’t going anywhere for a long time. What he’d heard Doc telling the little girl last night rang through his head, “’…he’s not going to be able to go home for a long time… they’ll sleep in the living room.””
Just like that she expected them to stay with her? Just like that? He looked down the hall where the Doc was curled up around the little girl. She wasn’t faking it, she was hard asleep. Something stirred in him that he couldn’t identify; maybe it was because the kid was so obviously not her blood, maybe it was because she seemed to trust him, but something about the scene seemed kind of- beautiful.
He shook his head. Where had that come from?
He could look around the shabby apartment from where he was standing.
The place was tiny, just the living area where Nathan was, the small hallway that led to the one bedroom and the kitchen on either end with the bathroom in the middle.
They’d robbed nicer houses than this, some of them doctor’s houses.
Why was a doctor living like this? There were no decorations anywhere, no pictures, very few personal belongings.
Even he and Nathan had some personal stuff where they were bunking.
He felt a chill. The fire had died down and there was no more wood to put on it.
All he remembered after she’d yelled at him about Jesus, was collapsing and then her saying something about, “seeing clearly”. What did that meant? Had she cast some kind of spell on him? Was that why he’d felt so weird when she’d said it?
He shook himself. What was he thinking?
Going back over his memory of the night before, he knew there had been a pile of wood next to the fire- and when he’d collapsed, he’d had his shoes and leather jacket on.
He was surprised he’d actually slept, let alone for an entire night. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept that long. His shoes were next to where he’d been sleeping, Nathan’s were next to his feet too, but where was his jacket?
He rubbed his face. He might as well make himself useful. Doc had been pretty out of it when she’d heated up the cans of soup. Checking the kitchen cabinets, he saw that aside from a small sack of produce, a few cans of soup were actually all she had.
She hadn’t indicated going hungry, but even with only her and the kid, this much food would only last another four meals at most. There were some pots, pans, utensils, a junk drawer, a stash of mismatched towels and rags. The propane burner was the only appliance. That was it.
She could be spending her money on something else but he knew the signs of an addict; she wasn’t one.
The apartment was shabby but everything around here was too organized, too neat.
The place seemed hardly lived in.
Maybe this was temporary housing and she didn’t actually live here?
‘“… whenever I do get paid…”’ that look she’d had when she’d talked about going to the clinic with the kid…. “’I don’t have a choice... but I can’t go back there. Not again. Not with Sharlie.’”
Maybe he didn’t need to be asking what her deal was.
The kitchen had two exits so you could go into either the living area or the hallway.
He stepped back into the living room and jarred to a halt when he saw his jacket, spread out on the floor under the coffee table. It was covering a pool of blood; Nathan’s blood. The coffee table was at an angle over it so he hadn’t seen it before. Now he saw the coagulated pool in front of the side door he’d shoved Doc in through the night before.
It was so- shiny.
It struck him how MUCH blood there was. His jacket, spread out, barely covered it.
He swallowed at how close he had come to losing Nathan last night.
If he’d gotten here a minute later, if the doc hadn’t reacted as fast as she had…
He swallowed and took a breath. He wouldn’t dwell on what if’s. It never helped.
The evidence spoke for itself; while he’d been asleep; Doc had taken his bloody jacket off him, used it to cover up the blood pool and moved the coffee table over it.
Doc had watched them, keeping the fire going all night and used up her last logs to do it while he’d been asleep with a pillow and blanket like some little kid.
He narrowed his eyes as his fists clenched. He couldn’t believe he’d slept through all that- allowed them to be that vulnerable. He usually woke at the slightest sound and didn’t rest until he’d identified any possible threat.
He forced himself to relax. Everything he knew about Doc so far told him she was no threat. If anything she was trying to help. He scratched the back of his neck.
She must be a really good person. Nathan seemed to be breathing okay.
He took the poker and banked the fire as much as he could with what little wood was left, picking out the useless shell of his gun while he was at it. He looked at the still smoking remains. Doc had more than medical skills. Her movements had been fluid, well-practiced. Maybe she’d been a soldier? That would explain a lot.
He’d only been able to get a small fire going. He knew where he could get some decent firewood. This apartment complex bordered a forested area that bordered the mountains and had some good game trails. He and Nathan went there often to collect firewood and hunt. They’d thought about just moving there before Holsun had taken over the town last year, then they’d holed up where they currently were in the old auto shop. He looked around the shabby apartment walls.
Well maybe not, “currently”.
He put on his shoes and went to the front door only to find it was nailed shut from the inside. What? Going to the kitchen he saw the backdoor was nailed shut too.
What the-? So only the side door opened? Then he noticed the window next to him.
It was directly over the sink and sealed with a plywood cover that had eight handholds carved into it that allowed shafts of light to filter into the small room. Looking closely he saw it had hinges on top and was locked with a carabiner to a hook in the bottom ledge. She used this instead of a back door? Unlatching the carabiner, he pushed open the plywood and sure enough it opened out to the back of the apartment complex.
He understood why Doc had done this instead of just using the side door.
The window was completely blocked by huge, dense bushes all around and when he’d opened the plywood, the hinges had been completely silent.
She could go and come through this window entrance without ever being seen.
So she’d blocked off the front and back door completely, only used the side door and had remade a shuddered window into an escape hatch. Impressive.
He should build a hatch like this at the auto shop. Yeah, she had to be former military. She didn’t look like a soldier but it made sense. She didn’t look old enough to be a doctor either, but she was.
Using a stick under the window as a prop, he silently launched himself out the window. He took the prop stick off the plywood and carefully shut it. He hadn’t made a sound. Putting his hood up and taking care not to be seen, he went to where he and Nathan had recently found a dead tree. It was a nice area with a steam close by.
The sky was as cloudy gray and the air as damp as it always was, but at least it hadn’t rained today yet. Besides being cold, going out in only his hoodie left him feeling vulnerable, he was really going to miss that jacket. It wouldn’t be easy to replace, he always had a hard time finding clothes that fit.
He had had in mind to go and get back as quickly as possible, but he couldn’t help slowing his pace as he walked. He felt like he was seeing the woods for the first time.
It was like his vision was somehow clearer. Was the dew on the grass always so shiny? Were the shades of gray in the clouds always so distinct? It wasn’t a long walk.
He and Nathan had come to this area, this specific dead tree for wood several times in the last few weeks, but he’d never really stopped and looked at it before.
The massive tree held a strange gnarled beauty, it’s branches as thick around as him, its trunk so wide he wouldn’t be able to wrap his arms around it and touch his fingers.
It must have been impressive when it was alive. He broke off several branches with more care than he normally would. Casually ripping them off seemed, kind of, somehow- disrespectful.
Gathering some smaller twigs in with the big branches, he took a length of paracord out of his pocket and tied it together before heading back. It felt weird being here, doing this, without Nathan. They did everything together. Neither of them talked much but they always found something to say to say to each other; something to break the tense silence of their lives. Tense. That was how he would always describe them- their lives- tense. But since he woke up this morning, the hum of tension inside him was gone.
He felt light, like a weight was gone from inside him. Nothing had been wrong with his vision before, but he felt like he was seeing color more clearly somehow.
He caught himself looking in wonder at the nature around him. It was beautiful.
He had always known this, but now, it was like he was somehow more aware of it.
Had the docs praying over him last night done something to him?
He shook his head. That was ridiculous. But was it?
He was surprised no one had ever squatted in this area. He thought it was because there were so many vacant buildings in the town there was no need for anyone to squat outdoors. Nathan thought it was because of all the dead bodies Holsun threw here. Likely it was a combination of the two. He’d heard that before The Ruin, the trails here had been used for hiking and jogging. He heard people still did that in the big cities. Ridiculous. When he and Nathan ran, it was because they were chasing something or being chased. If they were hiking it was because they had to climb.
Doing those activities for fun wasn’t a concept he understood.
He’d left the carabiner loose so he hadn’t been worried about getting back inside the apartment, but shoving the large bundle of wood into the window without hitting the prop stick was going to be tricky. He decided to loosen a length of the paracord and drape it over the windowsill. The string in place, he grabbed the sides of the window and soundlessly hauled himself in. He’d just pulled the bundle over the windowsill when something next to him chirped.
“Hi.” He startled and lost his grip for a moment, barely catching the bound wood.
The little girl was just standing there next to him, looking at him with big gray eyes.
She had a little blanket draped over the shoulders of her pink pajamas and was holding it and two little stuffed animals under her chin.
“What you doing?” He felt himself blink. He was never at a loss for words, but for the life of him he couldn’t think what to say.
“Uh, I’m getting firewood.” He pulled the bundle of wood up to the window sill and held it over one shoulder as he silently shut the window hatch and locked it back up.
He could feel the little girl looking at him as he hauled the wood over his shoulder.
The kid followed him into the living room. He dared a glance at her. Was she limping? She wasn’t acting like she was in pain or anything. Besides the pink pajamas, she was also wearing what looked like two pairs of socks. For being so small she seemed to talk pretty well. He absently noticed the stuffed animals she was holding looked homemade.
He squatted down to pile the wood next to the fireplace and bank the fire.
Now eye level to him, the little girl looked at him with open curiosity. He looked at her sideways. Why wasn’t she scared of him? Didn’t she recognize him as the one who’d broken in last night? Out of nowhere, the little girl patted his scarred cheek.
He was so startled at the touch; he actually fell on his back.
“I sorry.” She looked pensive as she clutched tighter to her toys and blanket.
“Can you get me someping to eat?”
He blinked. Twice. “Where’s your mom?”
“She’s real asleep.” She nodded her head gravely. He got up off the floor and walked around her and into the hallway. Doc was still out. She’d said something about feeding the kid some of the soup she’d left on.
“Yeah, I can, I can get you something to eat.” She smiled. He raised a brow.
He’d never had a little kid smile at him before. She was weird.
Doc had left the two bowls next to the soup pot and he filled the smaller one up with the more solid contents like she’d said. Sticking a spoon into it, he set it in front of the chair he’d been in earlier. Despite the limp, she climbed up into the chair easily enough and began eating, happily kicking her dangling feet as she looked up at him with what he could only describe as happy curiosity. She asked no questions, she seemed to want to figure him out herself. He crossed his arms and just stood there looking at her.
He’d had kids cringe, gape, scream and burst into tears at the sight of him since he could remember; since Nathan had been burned the same and worse had happened to him. Between the two of them, they scared everyone they came across; their frightening looks something they’d learned to take full advantage of.
Now here was this little kid looking back at him as she ate her food with no fear in her eyes. The doc didn’t fit any space in his head and now neither did she.
An alarm bell went off in his head. Had the kid seen the blood pool yet?
If she had she wasn’t saying anything. He felt for his knife. He was surprised the doc hadn’t taken it. Flipping it open, he began to cut out the blood-soaked carpet.
He’d seen some plastic bags under the sink; he’d just cut it out in pieces and take it to the trash heap at the end of the street. The whole time he was going in and out of the kitchen, the little kid watched him while she took her time eating.
Finally finished with the cleanup, he washed out the pot, dried it and his freezing hands before putting it away. In the bathroom he was surprised the water worked there too. Even the toilet was functional. Maybe that was why Doc was living here; working plumbing, didn’t get that everywhere. He peered down the hallway, Doc was still out cold. Bizarre. He hadn’t actually expected her to stay asleep. She must be really exhausted.
He turned around to go back to the kitchen and nearly tripped over the kid, barely bracing himself on the wall before he would’ve bashed into her. She’d been standing directly behind him. Didn’t this kid have any sense of stranger danger? Or personal space? He was looming over her, his head directly above hers, but she just looked up at him with big wide eyes and an expression he couldn’t decipher. He took his arm off the wall and looked down at her.
“Kid, don’t I, scare you?”
“No.” she answered slowly. He took a step back. “I scare you?”
“No.” he lied. No question, the kid was as weird as her mom. She just kept looking at him. “Can you play with me?” she chirped. What? She shuffled her feet a little before turning her gaze back at him.
“I promise I won’t hurt you.” He blinked. What was this kid talking about? He could break her with one hand. Easy. “I don’t- play.”
“It’s okay.” She reached up and took his big hand into her tiny one. “I show you how.”
He froze, shocked to his core. Her tiny hand felt like feathers against his rough skin.
No child had ever touched him before. Not even when he was a child.
She led him to the living room and a basket against the wall.
For the next few hours she showed him how to play with the toys in her basket. There were cars and trucks; that took an hour. There was a way to play blocks, that took about another hour. Then there was a way to play with rings. These were plastic and you were supposed to throw them onto a plastic cylinder that went on the floor; that was another hour. Then there was some little contraption that was some kind of practice writing tablet, you wrote on the plastic sheet that had some kind of black goo under it, and the indention would stay there until you moved the plastic part and then you had a clean slate to start all over with. Between the two of them that actually took a little over an hour. He actually found himself enjoying this game a little. It seemed familiar somehow. Maybe he’d had one of these when he was little. He’d noticed pretty quick that the kid really was walking- crooked. She had a limp.
The more he had her run after each toy, the more pronounced the limp became. It looked like her right foot was turned in a little. She didn’t seem in any pain.
“Does your leg hurt?”
“No. Sometimes I hurt here.” She pointed at her hip.
“But if I walk in my shoes, they fix my foot.” So, Doc’s kid had a gimpy foot- interesting...
“What’s your name?” her sudden question jarred him. “My name?”
“Uh huh. I’m Sharlie. What’s your name?” He froze.
He was as startled by the question as he’d been startled by her touch.
She looked at him like she trusted him. How much should he tell this kid?
He shook himself. She was just a little kid, the worst she could do was tell her mom and he was going to have to do that anyway. It wasn’t like he’d been trying to keep their identities a secret. “I’m Eric.”
“Er-ick.” She nodded, as if taking the information very seriously before she continued her play. What other information was this kid going to drag out of him?
He would stop every few minutes while he kept the kid occupied to check on Nathan.
He needed the breather. Each time the little girl would come right up beside him and pat Nathan’s hand or leg while he made sure he was still breathing.