The Wanderer

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Just an idea I had from a dream. Comments and questions are welcomed.

Submitted: May 05, 2016

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Submitted: May 05, 2016

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June 17th, 2017

 

"Talk fast, my phone is about to die."

"You're not gonna believe who I saw yesterday at the conference."

"I don't have time for games, just tell me!"

"I saw your girl."

There was a silence while I tried to figure out what my friend was talking about. "Wait, who?"

He chuckled, "The girl you've been pining over for the last decade!"

I suddenly couldn't breathe. It took effort to choke out, "Are you serious?" It didn't sound like me, it was thick and much lower.

"Yeah, man. I mentioned you an-," there was static on the line, "she asked about you and ho-... and she wa-... with a big smil-... said she would cal-... something about a letter?"

I shook my phone and scowled at it, as if it would get the message of my frustration, before it shut off completely and left me stranded and confused on the patio of a sun lit cafe in Denver. After cursing my battery and giving myself a chance to breathe I began working through the limited information I had gained while the street around me became louder.

So my letter had met its intended destination? And she was smiling? I could only hope.

A crowd had begun to gather around the bar next door and the cacophony was becoming too much for me to gather my thoughts. It wasn't until the gasps and stifled screams had begun that I was pulled away from my thoughts to the message being broadcast on the televisions.

“...confirm that at approximately 6 o'clock eastern time, the White House has been destroyed. No one has yet taken claim for this attack. The Pentagon and NORAD have also sustained major attacks as well and have not been secured. Attacks are still on going. I repeat, we are under attack...”

The war started that night.

Of course I signed up, everyone did. We might not all have agreed with everything our country was about or fighting for, but it was our home. They say we won, but after three years of fighting I'm not so sure it was worth it. Everything collapsed. The economy couldn't bounce back and the government reform was shaky at best. No one believed anymore, but luckily that didn't last.

 

After two years everything seemed to have settled. The economy was basically nonexistent but everyone had gotten used to it. Money wasn't a big deal, fair trade was established and there was relative peace. We were just the newest and biggest third world country. Only those that could afford to live in the cities could afford such luxuries as electricity and gasoline. And everyone worked in order to survive. The road was my home now.

 

September 2022

 

“Thank you kindly, young man. I wish we could offer you more.” Mrs. Reiser said as she handed me a potato bag full of freshly harvested vegetables from her garden.

“This is more than enough. I truly appreciate it.” I put the bag in my newly repaired bicycle buggy with the rest of my gear, grateful for the weight of it. The elderly woman smiled warmly as her husband came to the door beside her with a familiar dusty bottle.

“I figure you'll enjoy this more than I will,” as he extended the bottle to me. “I've had it for years now and never opened it until you came along. Thanks for giving me an excuse to try it.” He smiled broadly, yellowing teeth showing happily as he put his arm around his wife's shoulder. We had shared a glass of the Irish whisky the night before in celebration of finishing the roof overhead.

“Thank you, Henry. I'll put it to good use.”

I winked at his wife and put the bottle in my coat pocket while she rolled her eyes and smiled. “If you're coming this way on your way back, give us a holler, you're more than welcome here.”

“I surely will,” and stepped onto the beckoning road, pulling my bike and buggy along my side. “Thank you for the hospitality. Be safe!” I called as I turned my back and started down the road.

Spending three weeks at the Reiser farm had been worthwhile. Ruby had fixed the many holes in my clothes while Henry supplied the scraps to fix my buggy after a wheel broke off a month or two before. I had helped them by repairing their roof after a hailstorm. With winter coming they would have been hard pressed to keep their house warm for very long. But the road was calling. West was calling. I knew I had to chance it to get as far as I could before the snow started. The supplies Ruby had given me wouldn't be enough but it was a start.

 

November

 

I hadn't eaten in 5 days. No sign of game in 10 days, though it wouldn't have mattered much. I hadn't had the energy to reload the rounds for my rifle. There had been only abandoned houses for over a week. Every one of them was picked clean. The snow had started earlier than I had anticipated and my ankle was killing me after a fall three days prior and it felt like I had a fever so I knew I had to chance this house being hospitable. Normally when I would find things like trip wires or make shift alarms I would move on but I felt like I had no choice.

It seemed quiet enough as I came toward the edge of the trees before the 30 foot yard of a two story farm house. The red with grey trim paint was chipping and faded. A sad old relic of a time when everything was convenient, and thus taken for granted. I stood there long enough for the snow to begin falling. If it weren't for the subtle smoke coming from the chimney I would have guessed this house to be abandoned too. My ankle halfway buckled as I shifted my weight and I fell to my knees past the tree line. A moment later I heard the cocking of a shotgun.

“Let me see your hands!” a woman shouted from the house.

I was too tired to do anything other than rock back onto my heels and feebly lift my hands in a surrendering gesture.

“Put the weapon on the ground, slowly!”

I had forgotten that my rifle was still on its strap around my shoulders. “It's not loaded,” I mumbled, and moved to detach the rifle from the strap.

“Hey, slow!” She yelled and kicked open the screen door to take a couple steps out onto the porch.

I paused. She came far enough for the snow to fall on her out stretched arms and the cold steel of a pump action shot gun aimed at my chest. She had short, dirty blonde hair that threatened to obscure her view. She was thin and lean, like a bow string pulled too tight. And she was shaking. I slowly moved my hand toward the strap of my rifle and she repositioned her grip on the stock. With a little effort I was able to undo the clip and the rifle fell to the ground in front of me. My knees were starting to ache from the cold seeping in through my wet clothes.

“What do you want?” She barked.

I shook my head. “I haven't eaten in days.” My throat was dry and it came out hoarse. “Some food would be nice. I'll work for my rations.” I had started to shiver.

“We don't give out offerings here. Either you trade, or you move along.”

“I can trade my services.”

She scoffed, “No good here. Only cash on the barrel head. How can I trust you?” She took a step back with the gun still pointed at me. “Get out of here.”

I bowed my head and tried to get up. Using my rifle as a support I was able to get my good foot underneath me. Floor boards creaking made me stop and look up. The woman had turned her head to look in the door and I heard a young man speak.

“He can hardly stand. And he said he'd work for-“

“Shut up and get back with your sister!”

“He can't even walk!” The young man burst through the door and out into the snow, his mother trying to grab his arm while he strode past.

Then the world spun and went black.

 

I woke up warm and dry and in clothes that were not mine. My ankle still hurt but it was subdued and hard to move. I opened my eyes to find a young girl staring at me with bright blue eyes and chewing on a fingernail at the foot of the bed. Long, wavy blonde hair that hadn't been washed in a while hung around her thin face. I blinked and tried to shake my head. The room I was in was dark except for where a small candle illuminated.

“Mama said we're supposed to keep an eye on you.” She sniffed. “’Case you try to take off like the last one.” She was still staring.

I swallowed and halfway sat up, muscles aching as I did so. “Not a lot of visitors?”

“Seems only ones that want to cheat us,” said a voice from outside the room. The woman with the shotgun came through the door and the young woman quickly looked away. “You've been asleep for a day and a half. Fever broke the first night.” She sat down in a chair next to the bed as I sat up, completely ignoring my aches and pains.

“Thank you, sincerely. I don't know how much farther I would have gotten.” I extended a hand toward her.

She just looked at me and crossed her arms. “Don't thank me, thank my boys. I’d have left you out there. But they're more trusting than I am I guess.” She looked back at her daughter who stood up and left the room without saying a word.

I put down my hand. “Nevertheless, ma'am. I thank you for your hospitality.” She was looking at me with hard, almost angry eyes.

“What can you trade? You said your services, but I don't know what that means.” She leaned forward in the chair toward me. “You gonna screw us like the last drifter we brought in?”

“No, ma'am.” I shook my head and shifted in the bed to face her more. “I'll do anything that you need done. I'm good with my hands. I was a construction foreman before the war. For however long you deem it until my debt is paid.”

She stared for a few slow breathes and I matched her stare. After a moment she leaned back in the chair again. “What do we call you?”

“Declan, ma'am.”

“Declan.” She nodded and stood up. “I'm Caroline. That was Audrey and you met Caleb yesterday. You can meet the rest tomorrow.” She walked toward the door. “Try to get some more rest. And stop calling me ma'am.” She tapped the door frame and walked out of the room.

She didn't trust me, I could tell by the way she looked at me and the way she held herself. Like she was ready to spring at me if I moved too quickly. I couldn't blame her either. Trust is earned and I hadn't done a single thing to earn that yet. The young girl, Audrey, came back in with a tray that had a steaming bowl on it. She smiled quickly before she set the tray down on the night stand and took a step toward the door.

She turned quickly back, her too large sweater flapping out with the speed. “I'm Audrey,” she absentmindedly brushed some hair out of her face and looked down. “I hope mamas wrong about you.” She was fiddling with her hands, looking down at them as she spoke. “She's just scared after when that Hank fella came around and said he'd help and took grandpas old guns and a few chickens with him.” She spoke quickly, still looking at her hands. “Said he'd fix the generator. Now we've only two birds that'll lay for us.” She looked up at me, “You're not gonna hurt us, right?”

The sudden question took me a second or two to register. I shook my head, “I don't hurt people. Especially those who help me.”

She smiled widely and nodded. “You should eat while it's still warm.” She pointed at the bowl. “Sorry if it's bland. We ran out of salt earlier in the year.” She chuckled and shifted her weight awkwardly. “Well, goodnight.” She turned and left the room before I could say thank you, but I said it all the same.

 

The soup didn't have much flavor but it was hot and filling, and gone all too soon. I knew I should have gone back to sleep, and I was more than tired enough, but I decided to get up and look around the room and found my boots near the bed. This family had taken me in but I knew almost nothing about them. The more I could find out about them would make helping them easier. The walls had pictures and shelves around them. The shelves were filled with books and boxes, generic paperbacks and old papers. I recognized Caroline and Audrey in the pictures with two boys and who I could only assume was their father. The pictures were full of smiles, though I had only seen a glimpse of a smile on Audrey so far.

Walking wasn't as hard as I thought it would be with my ankle wrapped. The old cargo pants I was wearing were loose and there wasn't a belt. The dark t-shirt was tight but not constricting. I wrapped one of the blankets from the bed around my shoulders as I went around the room studying the pictures. They didn't tell me much so I thought I would explore more of the house. I took the lone candle in the room with me and went out into the hall. The wood floors creaked softly here and there as I walked. More pictures on the walls, a few paintings and a diploma for Erik Keirney. The diploma was for a university, and the Caleb that I could vaguely remember like the one in the pictures would be too young to be a college graduate. Erik must be their father.

The stairs leading up had more pictures on the walls but a few obvious places where some had been removed. At the top of the stairs was a little boy, no older than five or six, smiling with his legs hanging between the railings of the banister.

“Hi there.” I whispered with a smile and a wave. He only smiled wider and waved in return. “I’m Declan. What's your name?”

He laughed and said, “Hi,” before getting up and running away down the hall upstairs. I considered going after him, but after putting weight on my ankle going up one step I thought better of it. A proper introduction would have to wait until the morning.

I turned to head back to the room to get some sleep and I noticed a door slightly ajar and a bright blue eye looking at me. The door quickly closed and there was a shuffling sound. I couldn't help but laugh as I made my way back to the bedroom.

 

They let me sleep. It felt like months since I had slept that long. The late morning sun shining in the room from the partially closed curtains cast a comforting light into the room. I laid there for a while, simply to make sure that I was actually in that room and not dreaming. Quickly, the dull ache in my wrapped ankle told me that it wasn't a dream. I stretched and got lazily to my feet. I could hear muted laughter from outside the room.

The family was in the dining room, adolescents whispering while the children laughed. Caroline saw me first and called the group to silence with a light cough.

“Morning, wanderer.” It was more of a bland statement than a greeting. Everyone turned to look at me while I slouched in the doorway.

“Morning,” was the best my tired brain could deliver to my mouth.

The oldest son, the Caleb I vaguely recognized from our first meeting turned and extended a well-muscled and calloused hand.

“Good morning, sir. I'm Caleb.” He smiled warmly as his mother stood from the table.

“Declan, nice to meet you.” I met his open hand with mine and squeezed, each of us silently sizing each other up.

His mother came over and put a hand on Caleb’s shoulder after we relinquished grasps. “This is my eldest. You know Audrey,” she motioned toward her daughter, then to the smiling little boy beside her who I saw the night before, “and this is Marshal,” then motioning toward a boy slightly younger than Audrey who had come over to Caroline and was hanging on her hip, “and this is Patrick, my youngest.” She smiled and ruffled his hair.

I looked at little Marshal and the confusion I felt must have registered on my face. Audrey pulled Marshal closer to her and said quietly, “He was from a neighboring farm. They left him when they left for the towns so we took him in.”

“That's very generous of you,” I said to Caroline. “Not many would have done that these days.”

“He was only 3 when they left. Wouldn't have been able to forgive myself for leaving him.” Caroline sat back down at the table and pulled Patrick onto her lap. “Unlike you.”

“Mama, please.” Audrey whispered.

“Don't worry about them, sir.” Caleb pulled another chair to the table and smiled. “Please sit. I'll get you some breakfast.”

“Thank you.” I nodded to Caleb and limped over to the chair that he provided. “Thank you all.” Marshal smiled with a mouth full of eggs, Audrey smiled meekly while avoiding eye contact and Patrick buried his face in his mother’s neck as I sat down.

“Audrey, take Pat and Marshal and go start on your chores.” Caroline kissed Patrick on the cheek while Audrey shepherded the boys along.

Caleb returned to the table with a plate of eggs and what looked and smelled like ham and placed it in front of me. “Here you go, sir.”

“No need to call me sir, Caleb. Declan will do just fine. And thank you.” The eggs smelled divine.

“Of course, sir.” He began to sit and paused. “Sorry, Declan.” He laughed and sat.

I began eating while the mother and son stared at me. The eggs were the first to be finished. “Thank you both, this is amazing. It's been a while since I had a warm meal.”

“How long have you been a wanderer?” Caleb asked eagerly.

“Since the ceasefire.” The question didn't stop me from devouring the ham.

Caroline cleared her throat and leaned back in her chair. “So you fought in the war?”

“I did,” I mumbled through a full mouth. After taking a drink of water I continued, “I was in Virginia when the surrender was announced.”

“Is that where you got your assault rifle?” Caleb was smiling widely.

I had forgotten about my AR-15 and other supplies. I hadn't seen a sign of them since I woke up. “Well,” I took a quick look out the window to the snowy back yard, “it's not actually an assault rifle. But no, it was given to me by a friend as a trade.”

“Oh, sorry I just figured it was a military issue AR.” Caleb’s smile had vanished.

“Most people thinks so too. Assault rifle is actually a term that was coined by the media to sound more malicious. AR actually stands for ArmaLite Rifle after the original manufacturer.”

Caroline smiled and laughed. “How many times have you had to rehearse that to get it just right?” The question brought the smile back to Caleb’s face.

I couldn't help but laugh myself, “A few times. I made the same assumption when I was younger.”

Marshal came running into the room with a plastic truck and set it on my lap. He smiled up at me but didn't say anything. “Hi, little buddy. Do you remember me from last night?” He just stood silently and put a hand on the truck in my lap.

After a moment Caroline said, “I think he wants you to fix it.” Marshal nodded and ran out of the room. All I could do was laugh.

“He hasn't said anything since we found him besides ‘hi’. But he's got his own way of letting us know what he wants.” Caleb smiled and got up from the table. “I've got my chores to get to, but hopefully we can talk some more later.” He extended his hand again and I accepted his gesture.

“I'd like that.” I smiled at him and also stood up. He nodded, kissed his mother on the cheek and left.

After her son had left Caroline said, “Just do me a favor,” she rose from the table and faced me, though she was easily a head shorter than I am, “be careful will my family. They've already been hurt enough and don't need another man ruining their trust.” I couldn't think of anything to say so all I did was nod as she met my eyes. After a second she turned to the window out to the back yard. “We found a bike and assumed it was yours. I had Caleb stick it in the barn.” She pointed out the window to the red barn on the edge of the trees. “That's also where the old generator is that I'd like you to take a look at.” She turned her head back to me but didn't meet my eyes this time. “As the beginning of your list.”

“Of course, ma'am.” I winced and quickly added. “Sorry, habit. I'll start on that today.”

She smiled tightly, “But first take a look at that,” pointing to the truck in my hand.

 

The generator was pretty beat up, but other than a good cleaning, oil and gas, it would only need a new alternator. A “new” new one would be hard to find, but I was sure I could find something that would work just as well.

It was time to look at my supplies. No food, my water was low, my reloading supplies had gotten wet, three of my four knives were dull, and a wheel on my bike was bent. The old canvas bag that held my clothes wasn't there, though the almost full bottle of Jameson still was. The few paperback books I carried were soaked. My survival pouch and small tool kit seemed to be the only things the snow hadn't been able to reach. My rifle was on an old workbench next to where they stashed my bike. The rifle needed to be cleaned, so I looked around the old barn for anything resembling a clean rag with no results.

“I can get you a towel if you'd like.”

I jumped and turned quickly to find Audrey looking past me to where my rifle lay.

I let out a breath and tried not to sound angry, “You're a quiet one, aren't you?” It must not have worked because she winced slightly and it came out with a grizzled tone.

“I'm sorry, I just thought you were looking to clean your gun.” She had dropped her gaze to her shoes. “I'll just go.”

“No wait!” I called as she turned to leave. “I'm the one that should apologize. You just caught me by surprise is all.” She turned back and wiped a tear from her cheek as she did. “I didn't mean to yell. I didn't hear the door or anything. I'm sorry.”

She met my eyes and quickly closed the distance between us before throwing her arms around my chest, squeezing quickly. I didn't have time to react before she let go and left without a word.

I found a work stool and sat, dazed by what had just happened. A full five minutes passed as my brain tried to think before Caleb came into the barn with a sack of chicken feed over one shoulder and a yellow towel draped down the other.

Caleb looked at me, shook his head with a smile and threw the bag down in the corner. “Yeah, she has that effect on people.” He came over and handed me the towel.

“She does that stuff a lot?” I took the cloth with a nod of thanks.

“What’d she do?” Caleb asked as he settled down on another stool.

“She scared me, started crying then hugged me.”

He barked out a quick laugh, “Yeah she does. She's sensitive, you know? Feels things more than most people do. But she's generally a happy camper.”

I blew out a slow breath, “I guess I'll just have to get used to it.” I turned to the bench with my rifle and laid the towel next to it. Caleb’s eyes grew excited and he perked up on his stool. “You want to help?” I asked with a smile.

“Absolutely, sir!” He energetically got to his feet and came up to the bench next to me. I didn't mind that he called me sir that time.

 

Caleb and I spent the afternoon in the barn together sharing our knowledge. He told me about the farm, his old school, and his plans from before the war started. I showed him how to clean my rifle, a quick explanation on how to reload ammunition, the basics of their generator and answered every question he had about my experience in the war.

By the time we came back in to the house it was night time and a fresh white dusting lay on the ground.

Caroline greeted us at the door to the mud room. “Dinner will be ready soon.” She swung the door open for her son, “Have fun?”

“I had a blast mom!” He kissed her on the cheek as he walked past, a huge grin on his face.

She held the door for me too, not quite meeting my eyes. “Thank you.” I said quietly with a nod as I held the door for her to go inside first. She half smiled and nodded in return as she led the way into the warm, candle lit house.

“Mama,” Caleb called from the next room, “He thinks we can fix the generator. We just need to scrounge some parts.”

“Oh?” She turned with a questioning look at me.

“It needs a replacement alternator. I passed a lot of farms coming here that might have some abandoned machinery that might have something that could work.”

“None of our neighbors had a generator like ours. That I know of.” She still hadn’t fully met my eyes.

“It doesn't really need to be an exact match. I think I could get it running with something close.”

“Well that's a discussion for another time.” She continued into the hall. “I had Audrey clean your clothes, they're in the room you were sleeping in.”

“Right,” I looked down at the ill-fitting clothes that weren't mine that had gotten dirty working on the generator, “I'll probably go change then and clean myself up first. You don't need to wait for me to eat.” Caroline nodded as I went past her and down the hall to the room.

As promised, my clothes where neatly folded and stacked on the bed sitting next to my old canvas bag. There were some new patches and repairs to old rips. There was a bowl set out with water in it and a towel next to it. I took off the grey t-shirt and dipped my hands in the cold water, splashing some on my face and rubbing some on the back of my neck before there was a knock on the door. I grabbed the towel and wrapped it around my neck as I went to the door.

I pulled the door open slightly to see Audrey's untamed hair and bright eyes.

“The boys didn't want to start without you even though mama said not to wait.” She was looking at my shoulder where a bullet had gone through it leaving an ugly scar.

“Oh, I'll make it quick then.” She didn't move or look away as I started to close the door. “That was from my first real firefight of the war.” I reached over to rub the scar. “I didn't even notice it happened until I was pulled to the ground, I was so scared. Clean through.” I half turned to show her the exit scar. “Missed the bone and artery by centimeters.”

She reached up and lightly touched the scar before shivering and walking away. I stuck my head out the door after her, laughed and closed the door to get cleaned up and change for dinner.

 

The next morning I took Caleb with me to look around the other farms nearby to look for anything that could help with the generator. Caroline took some convincing but Caleb was very vocal and adamant that he come with me. We took my bike and buggy and Caleb brought his mother’s shotgun. The closest farm was just over a mile off and didn't have much to sort through. The next two had even less. Scavengers had picked the places to the bare bones. The fourth was the farm where Marshals family had lived.

“I haven't been back since we took Marshal.” Caleb had stopped when we first saw the house. “It still looks the same, more or less.”

“That's a good sign then. Maybe that means we'll find something useful.”

The house was set back against a tree line and not close to any of the roads. Vines stretched along the old brick and over windows. A barn stood off from the house with the roof collapsed.

We checked the barn first. “Where they good people?” I asked as Caleb pulled the doors open.

He sighed. “They were. Mr. And Mrs. Brenin owned a book store in Whitehall.” He led the way into the barn. He was looking at his shoes while he spoke. “Their daughter was a grade above me.”

I walked passed him to check some cabinets. “Was she cute?”

He looked at me with a faint smile. “Yeah.” He shook his head. “Sorry, we gotta stay focused.” He busied himself by looking around in the vacant stalls.

I leaned against the wall and watched him. “You alright?” He didn't look at me but nodded in my direction. “You miss her?”

He stopped and shrugged his shoulders. “I just miss people, ya know? Mama has us cooped away ‘cause she's scared.” He turned to me and stepped out of the stall and leaned his head against a post. “I get it though, why she's scared. When everything changed and when dad took off she was left alone with us and wants us to be safe. I was supposed to go to college and do stuff, ya know.” He lightly punched the stall door. “Now I'm stuck here with all this.” He motioned toward the collapsed roof.

“Tell me about your father. Audrey said he died.”

Caleb flared, “He didn't die, he took off when everything when to hell. He left us here.” He was shaking.

“I'm sorry, Caleb. We don't have to talk about it.”

He took a deep breath and forced a smile. “It's fine. Only mama and me know what actually happened. He left right after the war started. I saw him leave in the night. Mama figured it would be better if she said he went to war and died a hero. A better example of a father than he was.” He started walking out the door, “He didn't even say goodbye.”

I followed him out and found him looking through the windows into the house after trying the door. I didn't say anything more as we went around the house to check the back door which was off of its hinges. I put a hand on his shoulder before he went inside. He handed me the shotgun and motioned for me to go first. The main floor was empty except for a dusty bedroll someone had left behind. The rooms had been cleared out, same with the kitchen. I made my way upstairs slowly with Caleb behind me. The rooms there looked untouched except for discarded clothes pulled out of the dressers. In one of the rooms was a pile of stuffed animals.

“You think Marshal or Patrick would like these?”

Caleb knelt down and picked up a small panda and laughed. “Yeah, I think so.”

We filled a back pack with the nicest ones and went back downstairs. As we headed for the back door, Caleb caught his foot on a rug and stumbled. Under the rug was a hatchway.

He smiled. “That was lucky.” He laughed as he pulled the door open, exposing a ladder down.

He looked up at me eagerly and I laughed, “You found it. Anything down there is your haul.”

 

We got back to the house after sundown.

The basement had canned food, bottled water, some nice winter jackets and hunting rifle with some ammo and empty shells. My reloading kit didn't have the dyes to reload those rounds but we took them all the same.

Dinner that night consisted of canned beef, carrots, potatoes and peaches. Everyone was laughing when Caleb revealed how it had been found.

“Laugh at me all you want, but if I hadn't tripped we never would have found it.”

“Well thank God for being clumsy then!” Caroline lifted her glass and everyone followed. “That's the easiest meal I've prepared since before the fall. I think that's what I miss most. Being able to order pizza.” That brought a new set of laughs from the table.

“What do you miss the most, Declan?” Caleb asked when the giggles stopped.

“Oh man, I don't know.” I let out a heavy breath and rubbed my hands together. “Hockey, probably. Or beer.” Audrey giggled. “It's hard to find a good unfiltered wheat beer nowadays.”

Caroline lifted her eyebrows and got up from the table with a laugh. “I'll be right back.” She returned a minute later with a dusty brown bottle. “Now I know it's not wheat, but it's better than nothing, right?”

She handed me the bottle and I rubbed off the dust from the label, revealing ‘New Belgium’. I couldn't help but smile broadly. “How old is this?” I blew a layer of dust off.

“From before.” She said as she handed me a bottle opener and sat down at the table again.

I opened the bottle and took a long drink, eyes closed as I savored the warm taste of home. After a second I opened my eyes to find everyone watching me with wide smiles. “Now that,” I set the bottle down, “that's worth living for.” More laughs erupted.

Caroline took the bottle and took a drink, dripping some down her chin. “Oh, it's warm.” She laughed as she wiped her chin and handed the bottle to Caleb.

“Seriously mom?” He looked quizzically at his mother. “I'm under age.”

“It doesn't really matter anymore, and its one beer. Go ahead, honey.”

Caleb shrugged and took a drink, choking a little, bringing more laughs from his siblings.

“It's not for everyone, I guess.” I said as I beckoned for the bottle again.

“No, it's good.” He smiled as he handed me the bottle.

“What do you miss, Caleb? From before?”

He leaned back in his chair. “Oh, school, I guess. And girls.” His cheeks flushed as his sister giggled. He cleared his throat, “What about you, Audrey?”

She closed her eyes and ran a hand through her hair, “Hot showers.”

Caroline laughter and said, “Oh I'm gonna change mine. I'm with her on that one!” She turned to Marshal and asked, “What about you, little guy? What do you miss?”

He smiled and said, “Hi.” More laughs filled the room and Audrey ruffled his hair.

“Patrick, your turn.” Caleb put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

Patrick thought about it and his smile faded. “I miss papa.”

Smiles faded from around the table except for little Marshal’s. I glanced at Caleb whose face was red and was looking at his mother before standing up and turning to the south window.

Caroline stood up and knelt down in front of Patrick. “We all do, honey.” He hugged her tightly and she looked back at me.

“I have something for you, Patrick.” I stood and went to the mud room where my canvas bag was and brought it back to the table. “And Marshal, too.” I took the stuffed panda and a stuffed dog out and offered them to the small boys. Marshal jumped from his chair and grabbed the dog, squeezing him tightly and leaned against my leg. Patrick, still hugging his mother, stretched out a hand toward the panda. He gave a small smile and put his arm around his mother again.

“What do you say, love?” Caroline's voice was tight and quiet.

Patrick's little voice was muffled by his mother’s shoulder, “Thank you.”

I put a hand on Marshal’s head, “You're welcome boys.”

Caroline stood and wiped a tear from her cheek before turning to me and throwing her arms around my chest. “Thank you.” She said it only loud enough for me.

I squeezed her in return and said, “It's no problem,” and rested my cheek on the top of her head.

She pulled away quickly and turned back to the table. “Audrey, could you clear the table please?” Audrey nodded and started to clean and Caleb began to help.

 

January

 

Audrey’s screams woke me up. Caleb was shouting as I jumped to my feet in the early morning sunlight. I ran to the kitchen to find Audrey looking out toward the back yard, Patrick clutching at her leg.

The barn was on fire.

I paused for a second before my brain kicked in again and grabbed Audrey’s shoulder. “What happened?” I shouted but she didn’t answer.

Patrick was crying and yelled over his sister’s screams, “Marshal is still in the barn!”

I looked up and saw Caroline running through the snow toward the barn, Caleb bounding behind her. I threw on the first shoes I could find and ran out into the snow.

Caleb had caught up to his mother and was holding her back from the barn. When he saw me he yelled, “Marshal’s in there!”

The fire was spreading to the roof as I made it to the door. “Hold her!” I bellowed at Caleb before wrenching the door open and ducking inside. Marshal was cowering in the corner by the work bench that had my supplies around it. The roof on the far end had already fallen and the stalls were engulfed. I quickly ran to Marshal and grabbed him in one arm, with the other trying to grab as many of my supplies as I could before the wall of the closest stall fell toward us and smashed into the work bench. The gun power and primers I used to reload rifle rounds spilled and the powder ignited. Marshal screamed and I jumped over the fallen wall toward the door.

Caroline screamed when we shot out of the door and fell into the snow. Caleb let her go and they both ran over to us. I rolled over and began checking Marshal for any injuries. There were burns and scrapes on his face, arms and legs, but nothing too serious. Most of the left side of his hair was singed and his face was black with ash except for where tears had washed it away.

Caroline fell at us and hugged Marshal tightly leaning against me. Caleb was looking at the barn fruitlessly.

Marshal looked at me. “Is God mad at us?”

Caleb spun around in shock and Caroline began to cry as she squeezed the little boy tighter.

“I don't know God, little man,” Caroline looked up at me while I spoke, “but there's no chance that He’s mad at you.”

Marshal began to cry and grabbed onto my chest, “I’m sorry, papa. I won’t play in the barn anymore, I promise.” All I could do was hold him as he wept.

 

“What all did we lose?” Caroline was looking out the kitchen window at the still smoking heap that was their barn.

Caleb was sitting at the table and cleared his throat, “Well, all of the chicken feed was in there. Most of the spare blankets, some boxes of canned food, I think some of our school things.” He turned around to me, “Not to mention your reloading kit.”

“Don’t worry about that. It’s replaceable. The generator was also in there and that’s harder to replace.”

“So we need to go to Helena.” Caroline turned away from the window to face us. “We have maybe a weeks’ worth of chicken feed from what’s left in the coup. Two days there and two days back. Five days total unit we’re back.”

“We don’t have much to trade anymore. Antique picture frames will only go so far.” Caleb looked at his feet.

“I have a few things.” They both looked at me. “Little trinkets I’ve picked up that might be of some value.”

Caleb smiled but Caroline shook her head. “I can’t ask you to do that. This is our mess. We’ll find a way.”

“I want to help. My debt isn’t fully paid yet.” Caroline started to speak but I held up my hand and said, “Don’t argue, please. This is my decision, ma’am.”

She scowled but didn’t protest as Audrey came into the kitchen.

“Marshal finally went to sleep. Patrick is sitting with him.” She walked over to the table and sat next to her brother. “We’re going to Helena?”

“Caleb and I are going to Helena, you’re staying here to look after your brothers.” Caroline spoke softly.

“You don’t have to.” I walked over to Caleb’s side. “Caleb and I can get everything we need and be back in four days. Unless the two of us could fit on my bike, then I’d say we can be back in three.”

Caleb stood up and spoke quickly. “I can ask the Bradshaw’s down the road if we can borrow a horse. Easier than us on a bike and faster than walking.”

Caroline considered it for a second, “They do owe us for the corn from last harvest. We could call it even.” She rubbed her forehead and closed her eyes.

“Perfect!” Caleb began to walk toward the back door. “I can be back in a couple of hours and we can leave in the morning.”

Caroline caught his arm before he could get to the door. “Honey, wait. I need to think about this.”

“Ma, what’s there to think about? They owe us and we need to get supplies quick. Declan will be with me and I can look out for myself just fine.”

Caroline let go. “I know you can. I just don’t want to rush into this decision.”

“I’ll take care of him.” I tried to sound as reassuring as possible. “I’ve been doing these kind of things for a while now.”

She sighed, “Ok. But try to be back before dark.”

“I will.” Caleb kissed his mother on the cheek and went to grab his coat.

“Hey,” I called after the boy. “Take my bike. Tell them they can hold it as collateral for the return of their horse.”

Audrey stood up, “I’ll collect some food for the trip.”

 

The ride took us about six hours. Caleb was able to get two horses and we rode hard. Helena had changed from the last time I had been through, but that was before the war. A tall wooden fence had been constructed around the city with several guarded gates in and out. Like most of the other cities I had been through since The Fall, we had to sign in and register our weapons. I had a knife and my rifle, and Caleb had his mother’s shot gun.

The first place we went was the post office. I had sent myself different letters to all of the cities I thought I might be going through, and had notified some people that I would be going through them as well.

“Hello there, young man.” The clerk was an older man with a warm smile.

“Hello, sir.” I set my bag on the counter and began digging through it.

“How can I help you today?”

“I might have some mail here and will be sending something out as well.”

“Last name?” He grabbed a pad and pencil, still smiling.

I turned to see how close Caleb was and saw that he was looking at a post card display. I leaned close and lowered my voice, “Its, uh, Ritchie.”

He wrote it down, “Very good. Give me a few minutes, it’s just me today.” He smiled widely before turning and going to the back.

I nodded and pulled a small leather purse out of my bag. Caleb was still at the card display, but was looking out of the window at a group of girls walking past. “Find anything you like?” I asked and he twitched before turning to me.

He held up a card while his cheeks blushed. “For Audrey.”

I laughed and waved him over. “It’s on me.” Caleb walked over and put the card on the counter near me. “Why don’t you head over to the store? Start looking for supplies?”

He nodded, “Sure.” He turned and opened the door as the clerk returned.

“Mr. Ritchie.” The clerk smiled widely with a bundle tucked under his arm. Caleb turned to look at me before leaving the office. “I have a fair few letters for you.” The clerk set the bundle on the counter.

“Thank you.” I pulled a letter out of my bag and handed it to him. “And can you send this for me?”

The clerk took the letter and read the address. “Colorado, huh? Not a problem.”

“How much for the stamp and card?” I slid the card over in front of him.

“$10, all square.”

I pulled out an old bill from the leather purse and handed it to him. “Thank you, kindly.”

He smiled, “You have a good day now. And be safe.” He offered his hand and we shook.

I went to one of the smaller banks to trade. The little trinkets I had been saving were for my trip west, but this seemed as good a reason as any to cash them in. My grandfather’s gold pocket watch I had had since I was a boy got the best price, and more than I had expected. I also traded a broken wind-up radio that they said was worth the parts, a handful of old Euro coins, a monographed Zippo lighter and a half empty bottle of hand sanitizer. The credits they gave me would be enough to get supplies and hopefully replenish some reloading supplies.

I found Caleb at Murdochs. The old country store seemed to be one of the few businesses that thrived after The Fall. Caleb had already found most of what was on our list. The chicken feed was the most costly, not including any reloading supplies I could find. They didn't have any dyes but I was able to find a decent press that could make due. I paid for the press with the last bit of cash I had before finding Caleb looking out to the street. I thought he might be ogling at more girls, but I found him with a scowl on his face and shaking his clenched fists.

I came up beside him to look out of the window. “You ok?”

He didn't answer at first, he just shook his head. “That's him.” His voice was low and angry.

“Him, who?”

“The dirt bag that robbed us. Hank.”

I instantly started scanning the faces on the street. “Which one? Point him out.”

Caleb pointed with a shaking hand, “The fat one in the coveralls with the grease stains on the knees. Balding, needs a shave?”

“I see him.” An easy spot with Caleb’s description. “How long ago was this?”

“A month or two before you came along.”

“So the chickens are long gone but he might still have your grandpa’s guns.”

“Does it matter? Nothin’ we can do about it.” We watched him walk down the street and into a hotel.

“What’s his last name?” I turned to look at him but he didn't turn.

“I have no idea.” He finally turned to me. “I didn't even know your last name until today.”

“Never mind that, we can talk about that later, but now I need you to think. Any chance you remember his last name?” I grabbed his shoulders and shook him slightly. “Come on, man. Think.”

He shook his head and stammered, “Uh, I don't know. Um Fann, maybe Finn.” He shook his head again and looked at me. “Yeah, I think it was Finn.”

I looked him in the eye for a few seconds, but he seemed to be convinced of himself. “Ok, stay here.” I handed him my leather bag, “Find the rest of what we need and pay for it and tell them we’ll pick it up tomorrow but stay here. I’ll find you later.”

The wind had picked up and the sun was setting as I went across the street and into the hotel. The lobby was empty except for two staff members and a customer at the counter. The one staff that wasn’t helping the customer was a pretty young woman with straight brown hair to her shoulders. She smiled at me as I walked up to the counter. I smiled in return and turned up the charm.

“How can I help you, sir? Looking for a room?”

I cleared my throat, “Looking for a guest actually. A friend of mine. He said he might be in town and I wanted to surprise him.”

She smiled again and pushed some stray hairs behind her ear, “What’s the name?” She pulled out a ledger book.

“Finn, Hank Finn.”

She flipped a page in the book, “He is in room 314, and would you like me to call him? His floor still has phones.”

“Oh, no thank you miss. Like I said, I want to surprise him. Haven’t seen him in a while.” I gave her my warmest smile and a wink.

She blushed and gave a half giggle. “Of course. The stairs to the left will take you to the third floor.”

I winked again, “Thank you kindly, miss.”

 

Caleb found me in the alley behind the hotel kneeling to clean the blood off of my knife in the snow.

“What…” He froze when he saw me.

“What the hell are you doing here? I told you to stay.” I got up and grabbed him by the shoulder. “You shouldn’t see this.” Caleb was looking behind me. I turned quick to find Hanks feet visible behind the dumpster. “You need to go.”

“No.” He was shaking but his voice was steady. “I want to see.”

“No you don’t.” I put the knife down on a trash can and turned him to look at me. “There are somethings you can’t un-see. This is one of them.” I motioned with my head behind. “You don’t need to see the things that I’ve seen. You are too good for this.”

He looked me in the eye and said, “I have to see.”

I took a deep breath and shook my head before releasing him. Caleb walked slowly over to the dumpster and stared. Blood was still streaming into the snow underneath the body. I came next to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

After a second he looked at me, “Thank you.” He looked back to the body, “You’re bleeding.”

I hadn’t noticed my head was hurting until he said it. I swiped at my forehead with the back of my hand and found dried blood. He must had hit me harder than I remember before going down.

Caleb was kneeling down when I looked back. I cleared my throat, “We, uh, need to dump him. Give me a hand?” I walked around to the other side of the body and started going through the pockets of his coat. Caleb followed suit and started going through the pants pockets. We took anything that could identify him before loading him into the dumpster and covering him with trash bags. No one would find his body before we were long gone.

Hank had almost $500 in his wallet, a set of keys from the hotel, a lighter and a half empty pack of cigarettes. We found the guns in his hotel room, along with numerous items that normally wouldn’t have belonged to a man his age. He must have been busy ruining more lives than the Keirney’s.

 

We found a different hotel and checked in for the night before going back out to find a bar. Caleb was quiet the whole time. We sat at a table near the bar and I ordered two glasses of Jameson. The waiter brought the glasses and I took a long drink. Caleb stared at the glass before finishing it in one pull.

He set down the glass and coughed once. “How many men have you killed?” He didn’t look at me when he spoke.

I took another drink, “During the war, or after?”

“After.”

“Three.” I spun the glass slowly on the table. “One was in self-defense, the other was because he was hurting the daughter of a friend back in Kansas City.” I finished what was left in my glass, “And you know about the third.”

Caleb was silent while I motioned to the waiter for another round. He looked up at me, “So, they all deserved it?”

“I don’t hurt people unless I have to. Not anymore.”

The door opened and the young woman from the hotel came in. She glanced at us and blushed before walking to the bar behind us.

“I’m glad he’s dead.” Caleb was nodding his head. “I’m glad you did it.”

“Not now.” I whispered as the girl came over to our table

She smiled, “Did you find your friend?” Her smile faded as she saw the cut on my forehead. “Oh my, what happened to your face?”

“Oh, it’s nothing.” I gave her a warm smile. “And no, I didn’t find him.” I glanced at Caleb. “Wasn’t in his room.”

She nodded still looking shocked and staring at my forehead, “Oh, are you sure you’re ok? That really looks awful.” She sat down at the table next to me.

“I’m fine. Just hit my head. I’ve had worse.” I extended my hand, “I’m Declan, by the way.”

She smiled again and took my hand, “Amelia.” She shook my hand vigorously.

I motioned to Caleb, “This is my friend, Caleb.”

She turned and shook his hand too, laughing nervously, “Sorry. Hello, I’m Amelia.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Caleb was still shaking her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Amelia.”

She blushed and pushed some hair away from her face while I stood up. “I’ll be back. Leave you two to get better acquainted.”

As I walked over to the bar I heard Caleb ask, “Are you from around here?”

She laughed and said, “No, I’m from Whitehall.”

Caleb didn’t make it back to the hotel room until well after midnight.

We left Helena early the next morning. We had to buy a trailer for the new generator and the bigger supplies, but thanks to Hank we had the money. We took the trip slow and Caleb seemed to have forgotten about all of the bad that happened there. His spirits were high and I didn’t want to dampen them by asking too many questions. All in all, the trip took us less than three full days. It was nightfall before we made it back to the farm.

 

February

 

"Why did you join the war?" Caroline and I were sitting in the kitchen sharing a bottle of wine after the kids went to bed. “What made you decide to serve?”

“Oh, probably the same reason half of us joined. To protect the American way of life and all that.”

“Sounds like bullshit to me.” She poured more wine from a dusty bottle into my glass and I scoffed. “Well, half bullshit anyway.”

That made me properly laugh, “I do believe, little lady, that that is the first time I’ve heard you curse.”

She made a pouty face and spoke in a baby voice, “Aw your poor little ears can’t handle a swear or two?”

“I’ve got no problem with swearing. When it’s warranted.” She raised her glass to me. “And not in the presence of a lady.”

“Caroline laughed into her glass, spilling some wine on her shirt. “Clearly, I ain’t a lady.” She got up and grabbed a towel, dabbing at the wine spots. I sat a watcher her, silently chuckling. She looked at me with soft eyes, “But really, why did you join up?”

I drained my glass. “I don’t know. I would never have joined before that. It’s just something about them coming here, to our home. I couldn’t just sit idly by and let that happen. My grandpa served in Korea and an uncle died in Nam, I just never really saw it as an option. But when they hit you where you live, its different.”

She tossed the towel in the sink and sat back down. “Were you scared?”

“All the way up until the cease-fire. Watching friends die will have that affect.”

Caroline put her hand on mine. “I’m sorry.”

I took her hand and squeezed, “We all knew the risks.” We sat like for a while, not looking at each other. “Did Erik serve?”

She gently squeezed my hand, gave a fake half smile and looked at me with sullen eyes. “He didn’t.” She let go of my hand. I didn’t want to push her into talking if she didn’t want to, so I let her sit while I poured more wine. After a while she took her glass, swirling the wine absentmindedly. “Erik was a complicated man. He was fierce, and passionate. We met in high school and we had Caleb a month after graduation, and were married shortly after. We moved up here after his father died to help his mom around the farm. She died before Audrey was born. He got his degree from MSU in Bozeman and started drinking after he couldn’t find a job. Farm life wasn’t his thing.” She stood up and went to look out the back door. Her voice was tight, “When the war started, when he left, he said that he couldn’t imagine this world turning out for the better. That nothing he could do would help us.”

She opened the door a stepped out. I followed and leaned against the door frame. She was pointing toward the trees behind the broken barn. “That’s the last place I saw him. Begging him to stay. He didn’t even say goodbye to his kids.” She started crying.

I let her cry for a bit before going to her side and putting an arm around her shoulder. She looked up at me. “I’m sorry.”

She turned and hugged me tightly. “Maybe he just wasn’t the man I thought I knew.”

“We all have our secrets. Very few are who they say they are.” We stood there for a few minutes in silence.

“Do you?” she asked in a muffled whisper.

“Do I?”

“Have secrets?”

My heart started beating faster, “Of course.”

She pulled away slightly to look up at me. “Tell me?” It wasn’t a demand, it was a vailed plea.

“Let’s go inside, it’s cold.”

Caroline nodded and took my hand to lead me inside again. We went into the living room to sit by the wood stove. She nestled into one of the big arm chairs while I put some wood on the fire. Once the stove was packed I took my glass of wine and sat in the chair next to her, staring at nothing.

“My name isn’t really Declan.” I could feel her eyes on me. “My name is Olan Ritchie. I always hated my name. I mean it’s unique and I’ve never met another one, but it didn’t stop people from making fun of me for it.” I chanced a quick glance at Caroline before turning back to nothing. She was looking down at her glass. I cleared my throat, “Anyway, after the cease-fire I didn’t feel like I could do anything more with my old life. Too much had changed.”

“You too, huh?” Caroline wiped a tear from her cheek as I looked up at her.

My heart was beating hard and my hands were shaking as I looked in her eyes. “According to the US government Olan Ritchie is MIA. I left my detail the night of the cease-fire. I’m a deserter.”

“Jesus,” she whispered.

I hung my head. “I know. I’m not proud of it. My sister is the only other person I’ve told. My parents think I’m dead.” I finished my glass of wine. “I changed my name and have tried to be a better person every day. And I don’t think I would change my decision if I had the chance. I’ve done some actual good since I turned. I chose the name Declan because it means-“

“Full of goodness.” Her voice was hard.

“Correct.”

“And you think because you picked that name that it changes who you are? What you’ve done?” she flared.

“No. I know I’m a piece of shit for what I’ve done. All I can do now is try to rebuild faith. Mostly in myself.”

Caroline stood up, “You’re just like Erik. You couldn’t handle your life and you just decided to cut and run rather than give it a try.” She turned. “At least we can both agree that you’re a piece of shit.” She walked away and left me alone by the dying fire.

 

Four days had passed, Caroline hadn’t spoken to me and had barely looked at me. Caleb had been acting as intermediary without knowing he was. No one seemed to notice the rift that had happened. I tried to keep to myself, focus on rebuilding the barn and finish paying my bill. But West was calling again. The weather hadn’t let up but it felt like I had to risk it. As attached and comfortable as I had become, I was starting to feel unwelcome.

Audrey came to my room late that night, surprising me like she always did while I was going through my supply pack.

She came in without knocking and quietly closed the door. “Why is mama mad at you?”

I took a deep breath. “She…she just…” I shook my head, trying to find what to say.

“She doesn’t like you anymore?”

“I’m not sure if she ever really liked me.”

“She smiled again after you showed up. She didn’t before.”

“I don’t know, Audrey. I really don’t.”

“Is it because you killed Hank?”

My breath caught in my throat, “How did you-“

“Caleb told me. That’s how you got grandpa’s guns back, right?”

“That doesn’t scare you? That I killed him?” She wasn’t looking at me, she was looking at my pack.

She shook her head quickly and looked at her feet. “You’re gonna leave, aren’t you?”

I stood up and walked in front of her, “It’s late. You should get some sleep.” I could see that she was crying.

“Ok,” she whispered. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“Don’t you worry about that. I won’t leave without saying goodbye.”

“Ok.” She turned and opened the door.

“And no, Hank is not why your mom is mad at me. She just doesn’t like what I am.”

Audrey turned and put her hand on my arm. “You’re a good man, Declan. She’ll get over it.” She hugged me quickly and left.

 

Over the next month Caleb and I had procured enough supplies to finish the barn. The foundation was still good which saved time. Friends of the Keirney’s in Whitehall had helped here and there, one of which helped me fix the old generator as a backup. Caroline still refused to speak to me, and I didn’t push her to do so.

Caleb and I here in the new barn, reloading rounds for my rifle after everyone else had gone to bed.

“So you’re really leaving?” Caleb ask while measuring gunpowder.

“I’ve hung around too long. Gotta head west again.”

“What’s waiting for you there?” I didn’t answer and I could tell he was watching me. “It’s a girl, isn’t it?” I could tell he was smiling. I nodded without looking his way. “I get it, you know. Not many of them around here. Does she know you’re coming?”

I cleared my throat, “No. I haven’t seen her in eight years. Found her sister when I was going through Kansas City last year and gave me her address. I’m not even sure she still lives there.” I went to my bag and got out my old cellphone.

“Eight years? Since before the fall, that’s a long time. Must be something special.”

I turned on the phone to show Caleb the picture that I had of her. “Only girl I’ve ever loved.”

“I can see why. She’s gorgeous!” Caleb took my phone. “A brunette, huh? So mom isn’t much of your type then?”

That made me blush and stammer, “It’s not…that’s…she…” I ran a hand over my face. “I don’t really have a type.”

“What’s her name?” Caleb was still staring at the picture.

“Samantha.” I took the phone from his hands and Caleb’s cheeks flushed. “I’ve known her since the 5th grade.”

Caleb crossed his arms and leaned against the work table. “What happened?”

“She was my best friend, and I just didn’t tell her how I felt until it was too late.” I sighed and shut the phone off. “Timing was never my strong suit.”

Caleb nodded, “I know what you mean.” We stood there in silence for a full minute. “So you’ve kept your phone on you all this time just to have her picture?” He laughed, “How did you keep it charged?”

“I didn’t. Until a month ago I hadn’t charged it in two years.”

“Gotta say man,” he stood and put a hand on my shoulder, “that’s kinda sad. In a good way.”

I scoffed, “I know.”

 

April

 

I found Caroline at the kitchen table, sitting in the warm morning sun drinking coffee. She stood up when she saw me and started to walk away. I dropped a folder on the table before she could get too far.

“What’s that?” That was the first time she had spoken to me in almost two months.

“Plans and blue prints.”

She crossed her arms, “For?”

I opened the folder and spun it around so that she could see. “Plans for the twelve solar panels Caleb and I found, to hook up to your water heater. No more cold showers.”

She almost smiled but quickly caught herself. “I see.” She still hadn’t fully looked at me.

“Caleb is already hooking them up. Just need to run the electrical.” I closed the folder and slid it closer to her. “Then I’m gone.”

She blinked and looked me in the eye. “I’m sorry?”

“My debt has been paid for long time. With the weather turning its time for me to take my leave.”

“I, uh…I don’t-“

“You don’t have to say anything. I’ve made my decision.”

She looked away and bit her lip. “I guess I can’t stop you.”

“No, ma’am.” I turned to walk away.

“Declan.” I stopped but didn’t face her. “Thank you. For everything.”

“You’re welcome. I best get back to work.”

 

Marshal sat on my lap during breakfast on the last morning at the farm. Audrey insisted that we have one last mean together, as a family. She was silently crying the whole morning. Caleb was his usual smiling self, Patrick held Audrey’s hand and Caroline sat next to me. I was surprised at how calm I felt.

“Will you come back?” Marshal asked while playing with his eggs.

I ruffled his hair. “I don’t know little man. Maybe someday.”

“I’ll ride with you to Whitehall.” Caleb said.

I started to refuse him but Caroline stopped me by putting her hand on my arm. “He needs to get some supplies there anyway.”

“Ok.” I wanted to say something meaningful or inspiring, but nothing came to mind. So I sat in silence while they all watched me.

It was a cold morning when they met me on the front porch. My bike and buggy were packed and waiting for me. Patrick was sitting on the seat, pretending to ride.

Caleb hugged me first. “Thanks for showing me all that stuff.”

“It was my pleasure. And you know you’re coming with me for a bit, right?”

“I’m all about the ceremony.” He gave me a wide, sincere smile.

“Your name means bold. Did you know that?” Caleb shrugged. “Be that. Be bold.”

“You don’t have to worry about that.”

Audrey was next, still crying. She halfheartedly wrapped her arms around me until I started to squeeze, then I think she tried to break my ribs. “You don’t have to go.”

I let her sob against me. “Have to? No. Need to? Yes. I have some unfinished business that I need to see through.”

Marshal snuck in between us to hug my leg. “Bye bye papa.” That made Audrey laugh and she let go.

I picked Marshal up to give him a proper hug. “Bye little man. Take care of them for me.” Patrick jumped off the bike and threw himself at me. “Take care of your mom and sister.”

“I will, sir.”

Caroline walked up to me slowly as I let go of her youngest son. I gave her a half smile and extended me hand. She hugged me instead and whispered, “Don’t come back unless you mean it.”

My mouth was dry, “Of course, ma’am.” I hugged her tightly.

When she pulled away she kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you for taking care of my family. We won’t forget it.”

I couldn’t speak. I nodded and turned to my bike, to the road unfolding in front of me.

 

Two weeks later I was on the coast. After almost two years of wandering and I was finally at my destination: Tillamook, OR. I had been to Portland a few times before the Fall, but had never ventured to this part of the coast. I rented a room, stored my kit and showered before walking around what used to be the old bustling farm town. The famous cheese company had closed a year after the cease-fire, causing most of the inhabitants to pack up and leave. A lot of the home on the outskirts of town looked to be abandoned, though the center remained active and vibrant.

The market across the street from my hotel is where she found me.

I was looking over the fresh fish that was caught that morning with the distinct feeling of someone watching me. It was a common feeling for me so I tried to ignore it for as long as I could. I saw through my peripherals a woman approaching my right, slowly but deliberately.

My heart skipped a beat when she spoke. “Olan?”

I didn’t turn right away. I couldn’t breathe or move, and my eyes welled up. It wasn’t until she touched my arm. When I turned, I found a bright and warm smile. The smile I hadn’t seen in over eight years.

I still couldn’t speak and my breath was shaky when I tried to say something, anything.

Her smile never wavered. “I can’t believe it. Olan Ritchie.” She leaned in to hug me, moving in slow motion, wavy hair flowing in the light morning wind.

I didn’t believe it was real. It felt like one of my many dreams, only brighter. When my muscles finally decided to move it was a little too quick and I was worried that she might pull away from the sudden jerking motion, but she didn’t. It was the embrace I had longed for. Like returning home. Everything in me was at peace. It was a moment I wished could last forever, her arms around me. Warm and real.

When she pulled away I found my voice again. “Hi, Sammie.”

“Hi, Lany.” Her smile and bright eyes made me want to cry, but I held it together. Just barely. She leaned into another hug. “What are you doing here?”

I’m sure she could hear my heart beating rapidly, her head against my chest. I wanted to be suave and say something that James Bond might have said, but all that came out was, “I’m here for you.”

She tipped her head to me, “What took you so long?” She let go and took a step back.

That’s when I realized that she was pregnant. “Got caught up, I guess.”

“Penny sent me a letter. Said you ran into her in KC and that you were headed this way.”

I shrugged, “Yep.” I didn’t want to make it seem like I was as crazy as I really was for making the trip out there just to see her. I don’t think it worked very well.

“Well, we should catch up! Are you gonna be here long?”

Again I shrugged, “Don’t really know yet. Just seeing what there is to be seen.”

“Come to the house then. You can meet my husband and daughter too.” She absentmindedly rubber her stomach.

My heart sank but I tried not to let it show on my face. “Yeah. Of course.” I gave a small smile. “That sounds great.”

“Great.” She gave me a big smile. “Let’s go. It’s not far.” She extended her hand and I took it.

 

Samantha’s husband was a very good man, much better than I ever was. Within five minutes of meeting him I knew that she had found happiness. All of the sinking feelings I had felt melted away and I couldn’t have been happier for her. I didn’t end up teller her everything I had planned on saying. I didn’t have to anymore. I stayed with them that night, Sammie insisted. Her daughter was just as beautiful as she was, same bright blue eyes and wavy hair. But I knew I wouldn’t stay for too long.

Realizing that someone you love has found that kind of contentment is a very sobering experience. I had been stuck with these feelings for most of my life, stuck with the unanswered question “what if”. And for the first time I could let go, knowing that she was happy. Knowing that her life had meaning and purpose. Sometimes it can make you feel more alone than ever to let go of something that you’ve held onto for so long. Not for me. Not at that moment. Seeing her with her family gave me the sense that maybe the world isn’t such a bad place after all.

The next day I headed east. I had found a place I felt like I could have been happy. With a family that accepted me. Who took me in when I needed it, not even knowing that it was what I needed. Caroline’s parting words had gone through my head more times than I could count. “Don’t come back unless you mean it.”

 

June

 

I came to the farm before dawn. The sun was creeping over the horizon as I walked up the front steps. I knew Caleb liked to wake up early so I knocked quietly, hoping not to disturb the little ones still sleeping.

No one answered.

I knocked again, a little louder this time, and waited.

No response.

I went around the porch to look in the back door. No indication of recent activity. All of the doors and windows were locked. The barn was empty as well.

I began to panic and scenario after scenario started playing in my head. None of them good. I didn’t find any signs of a struggle which helped slightly to calm my nerves. What happened though? I had only left a month ago.

I slept in the barn for a week, hoping that someone might come back. That they just took a trip into town and they’ll show up with open arms. But timing was never my strong suit.

Maybe I’ll head north. Maybe I’ll head home, see my folks and show them that I’m not dead. Maybe I’ll head back up to Helena and turn myself in for Hank. Or maybe I’ll just keep wandering.

The road is my home now.

 

The end


© Copyright 2017 Andrew Willey. All rights reserved.

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