Monday, June 14, 2010

Chapter Twenty

Chapter 20

Surreal. That’s the only way to describe this life I’m leading. It has taken me some time to … to grasp it all, to make sense of how I’ve gotten here. The fire is crackling in the grate, a welcome change from what … well, better to tell it from where I left off or I’m sure to leave something out and nothing will make sense and making sense is challenging enough for me even on my good days it seems.

I couldn’t get out of the cave. The rock slide had closed off the main entrance and the emergency exit was nothing more than a crevice. I chipped away the sharpest edges but eventually even that wasn’t enough to let me slide or wiggle through the narrow space. I guess I was some where around eight months along when I become sealed in. If not for the dogs I probably would have gone stark raving made. Even with them I was so close to the edge of true madness that hair’s width makes little difference. The only thing I get to do is say I know the difference and while I was slightly mad I wasn’t completely mad. Small comfort but I was left being grateful for small comforts.

It took a while to get used to the bunker after I first arrived but there was such a feeling of size to the place, not to mention all of the other people, that true claustrophobia was never a problem. It hadn’t really been a problem with the cave, at least not until that point. It was like a prison.

I knew that the world existed. Light told me when it was day and a lack of it told me when it was night … or that it was storming. But I could not see the outside; the bend in the crevice prevented me from seeing even the tiniest sliver of sky. I would get whiffs of what was out beyond my jail – the smell of fresh air, pine boughs and cedar that the dogs would sometimes drag in to play with, damp earth when it actually rained instead of snowing. And once, a frighteningly musky odor that frightened the dogs and raised all of our hackles.

Within a week I of being unable to get out I could already feel myself deteriorating and by two weeks I was well and truly experiencing moments of delusion. I don’t remember things too clearly. The firewood, even the scraps of barks buried under the dirt in the corners of the room, got used up. I tried to burn some of the broken furniture but the smoke was toxic and choked me. I did burn the table and chairs that Donovan had made from fresh wood but I despised every little spark of light and heat those fires gave off. I couldn’t bring myself to burn the bed itself nor could I burn the little curio cabinet he had built me to hold the few keepsakes that I still owned or had found here and there and claimed as my own but eventually even that source of wood ran out. That left me eating what little fresh food came out of the garden boxes but even that stopped when I couldn’t get the batteries to charge.

I figured out how to hood up the bicycle generator with surprisingly little trouble. The problem was that I expended more energy charging the batteries than I got benefit from whatever I used the batteries for. And when it started causing me cramps and … well … pain in private places … I was forced to stop whether I wanted to or not.

I did have water or I would have perished and the baby inside me too. I ate my meals raw. Before the wood ran out the dogs brought me the occasional meal but I couldn’t force myself to eat things raw. I couldn’t. Not that the animals looked too healthy, some taken from the dens where they must have been hibernating.

My meals were uncooked. The dried, smoked meat wasn’t bad but I had to ration myself to smaller and smaller portions. I eventually learned to survive on bean sprouts, jerky, and a little dried fruit ground up with a little cornmeal. Milk made from the little dried milk that was left was my one and only dairy product and was, unluckily for me, the only thing I seemed to truly crave towards the end. As for the rest of it, it was all I could do to choke down a meal.

I started to hallucinate. I talked to people who weren’t there. I saw things that never existed. Donovan and my parents played prominent roles in the wacked out stage productions my brain put on. It was easier for me to remember that it was impossible for my parents to be there than it was for me to bring myself back around when I was “talking to Donovan.” In fact, I even came around realizing I was talking to Donovan about my anxiety or hallucinating about my parents. That was a true Twilight Zone moment for me.

I was scared but eventually depression too over, eclipsing all but my most basic survival instincts. My due date – at least the one that I set as a goal after working the 40 week calendar out to the best of my ability – came and went. I had been looking forward to it, believing after the baby was born I’d be able to escape.

I wondered if the cave would be my mausoleum. I was sick; mentally and physically though I was not aware of exactly how ill I was. No light, no mirror, and no desire to see myself because that would only reinforce that I was the only human being around. I hated and loved my hallucinations for this very reason. I hated them because they showed me I was ill and I loved them because they helped me to escape that knowledge and the fear it engendered.

I think that day I finally had just had enough and gave up. The comfort of being able to read my Bible had long ago slipped from my mind. The thin light that came from the crevice wasn’t really enough to read by anyway. But on that day, something … something broke inside me.

Maybe it was something that had been worn away at for a long time and it finally just gave or maybe it was just the current situation that had caused the fragility. Maybe it was a forewarning of things that were coming or … or maybe it was my last shot at trying to protect myself. Did the wall collapse or did I put the last brick in place? I’m not sure which metaphor is more correct. Either way I sat beside the crevice watching the barely there light fade out of existence one more time.

I remember crying and then I must have fall asleep on the cave floor, exhausted beyond commonsense. I came to myself when an unignorable wave of nausea swept over me. I puked what little I had eaten all down my front. Disoriented and detached I stood to go change when I noticed my back hurt. What little I thought about it I put down to falling asleep against cold rock.

My consciousness was spotty for I don’t know how long. I would dress and undress, wrap myself in a blanket and sit down in front of what I knew was the dead fire grate though I could see it. I would get fully dressed as if I was going out until I remember I couldn’t. Sometimes my face was wet with tears and sometimes it was dry and feverish.

Through those times there were moments of near lucidity where I realized my back pain was growing worse, so bad in fact that the dogs were picking up on it and acting strange. They’d come to me and back and go outside and bark. Then a pain like no other I’d ever felt ripped into me leaving me gasping.

I could find no relief from the pain. I stood. I sat. I walked around bumping into things in the dark. I rocked on all fours, sometimes I could catch myself mumbling, begging for whatever it was to stop. Eventually I simply collapsed in the dark beside the bed, unable to even get off the rug that I knew was filthy because it smelled strongly of dirty boots and wet dogs.

The dogs in question kept whining and running around me and then out of the room. They were crashing around and I tried to tell them to stop but when I opened my mouth all that came out was a horrific shriek as a tearing burn tore through me.

That’s when I must have completely disconnected. Instinctively I knew something was wrong. Fury tore through me even more hotly than the pain. It wasn’t fair. I’d lost my parents. I’d lost my innocence and my future. I’d lost my belief in humanity. I’d lost Donovan. Was I to lose the baby now too? Was I to die here, alone, and in pain?

What had been the point of me ever drawing my first breath on this Earth? Why save me in the bunker, suffering that social degradation, only to leave me in the cave, in the dark, to shrivel like a mummy to be found by some future archaeologist? What purpose was there in that?! I demanded that God give me an answer but none came that I could decipher … at least not then, but I think I’m beginning to understand now.

Another pain ripped through me and another scream was ripped out of me. I thought I was dying. The dogs barked, ran out of the room only to run back in and then run back out yet again. The world was darkening beyond the dark that already pressed against my eyes.

And then there was a light. A harsh but beautiful glow that kept drawing closer, getting bigger. I heard voices, at first a welcomed distraction. I thought, “The pain is almost over. The loneliness is almost at an end. The dark is almost gone. I’ll be with my parents and Donovan for real and not in some dream world. They must be waiting for me on the other side. Is that them calling me?”

But then another pain overwhelmed me and so did confusion. The hum of voices turned into a cacophony that shattered my protective barriers against reality. I felt like I was being tugged between Heaven and Hell, a rag doll to be screamed at on one end and clawed at on the other. I was disoriented, but not so muddled that I knew it wasn’t supposed to be happening the way it was playing out. The Devil was out to do something that wasn’t supposed to be done. I wasn’t going to let him have my baby, but I thought the only way for me to win was to fight them all.

I screamed that no one was going to take my baby. I kicked, I bit, I slapped and swung my arms with strength I didn’t know I had left in me. But eventually there wasn’t strength enough for what I had to do. Cobwebs filled my ears. I couldn’t breathe. My heart felt like it was giving out.

“Emma! My God … Emma!”

Someone was calling my name … in the name of God no less. I looked up to see a thin, almost frail looking man with eyes that stayed just out of memory. I knew I should know those eyes but I couldn’t focus enough. Things kept sliding away.

“Get Bennington! Now!” A baritone voice ordered answered by a tenor “Sir, the walls are too thick the …”

“Then send a runner man! Move! Start using your head, we haven’t got time to wait around!”

I felt hands … strong and callused hands trying to be gentle … lifting me onto the bed, away from the smelly rug that I had only made worse with my sweat and who knows what else.

The pain continued and so did that first voice. “Emma! Emma! Stay with me. My God please! Where’s Bennington?! A baby?! She’s been … here … all this time … you bastards! If you had let me go like I …”

“Easy man. The storms were too bad. In the condition you were in you would have died less than a day out. I told you as soon as we could cobble one of the birds back to life we’d bring you back whether you were healthy enough for it or not. I kept my word.”

“Damn you all! Damn you all for this!!”

There was a scuffling and more barks.

“Dogs?! What the …” Then silence and the voice so flustered at first suddenly cracked with authority. “What are you all doing just standing there?! Get some light in here. Get a fire started. Move, let me … hold her or she’s going to flail off the bed.”

“Bennington! What’s …”

“Give me a chance to see old man. Is this your woman? The one you’ve been trying to sneak out after?”

“Rot in …”

“Shut up!!” the voice roared getting everyone’s attention immediately and calming the almost hysteric quality to all of the male voices surrounding me. “I can’t hear a blasted thing with everyone shouting in here! Try and get her to be still. I’ll have to examine … hey you idiots … move. It might have been a while since you saw a pregnant woman but you can manage to give her a little privacy right? Leave her some dignity? This isn’t a girly show you know. Hold her; this isn’t going to be pleasant. What I wouldn’t give for a nurse beside hairy old McDermott the Veternarian.”

More pain and I fought the best I could but I simply couldn’t escape. “Stop hurting her damnit!”

“If you think I want to I can assure you friend that I do not. First pregnant woman I’ve seen in years and …” the voice of authority suddenly had a voice that cracked. “I don’t have a choice. And it is going to get worse before it gets better. It looks like the baby is breach.”

I knew what that meant. It meant the end; at least for me. Breach births meant Caesarians and there was no way I would survive it. Not under the existing conditions.

“I can’t tell it if is a frank or complete breech, she’s fighting me too much during the exam.”

The words flowed over me. I couldn’t understand what they were saying any longer but I knew I had a choice to make. With what turned out to be my last lucid words for a long time I said, “Save … the … baby. I … I don’t … just … save the … baby. Do whatever … just … save …”

That was the clearest thing I remember for a long time. It isn’t that I wasn’t awake because they said I continued to make noises in my delirium, but what constitutes the real me took a much needed vacation. Oh, I think I sort of remember bits and pieces here and there but whether that is some trick my mind is playing on me after I heard the tale or if I truly am remembering I’ll probably never know for sure.

Hands doing painful things to my abdomen. “She only has a 50-50 chance … at best. I’ve never done an ECV at this late stage. You know I’ll do what I can … for both of them … but right now the baby stands a better chance than she does.”

A change in the pressure down there. It didn’t go away but it seemed to have more purpose to it. The eyes that never seemed to leave mine, begging both me and God to not to give up, to not let him have come this far, this close, only to lose everything that ever meant anything. He swore he’d take my place if God needed a sacrifice.

Encouraging words from the other voices and a few that, even in my state, almost made me laugh and cry at the same time. “You can do it girly. You … oh-oh, someone grab Darnall, he don’t look so good, you’d think he’s never seen a baby getting borned before. I thought his wife had four of ‘em.”

A quiet snicker said, “Them’s all step chilrun. He bain’t never had none of his own. Ooo, she’s gonna blow purt soon. Look it her face.”

“Her face? Look it her man’s. If she don’t blow soon he will.”

It did feel like I was about to blow. Pressure built and built and built and with a final shriek like a tea kettle or a steam engine the worst of it was over. But I was spent beyond all sensibility.

I remember a sensation of tugging and pulling and then after a while being moved again and wrapped in layer upon layer of blankets. I remember the sensation of lying on something impossibly stiff and the cold. I remember the cold seeping through to me despite all my layers. I couldn’t seem to stop shaking and then I did stop and that seemed to worry the voices even more.

But the first thing I can say that I really and truly remember was the blasted beeping. It was a constant annoyance that never seemed to end. I woke up just so I could tell someone to turn the awful noise off.

“If that thing beeps one more time,” I croaked. “If it beeps one more time I’m going to find it and stomp it into oblivion.”

There was a weird noise like someone had fallen out of a chair. I heard the dogs yelp as well. I found out I had startled him so bad he tipped the chair back too far and it had crashed backwards, taking him with it and nearly landing on the dogs who had been packed in a box and brought back along with me and the baby.

I was fighting to open my eyes and when I finally managed it I saw the eyes that I’d been struggling to remember since the first time I’d seen them.

I managed to say, my voice still a hoarse whisper, “Donovan? What are you doing in this part of hell? You shouldn’t be here.”

“Emma? Emma? Are you awake?”

“I hope not because I’m so totally not … not …” Then with almost audible clicks my memories were coming back. “My baby … my baby … my … !!!”

“Mr. Donovan!” a voice scolded from the doorway. “You were supposed to hit the call button as soon as she awoke!”

“Donovan?!” I whimpered. “Donovan?!! The baby!”

“Shhh! Shhh! Don’t move around so much, they think you can still …”

I was not listening. It was too much. Donovan. Here. Or me where ever Donovan was. Where ever here was. The baby. I was having a hard time stringing things together.

“Excuse me … Miss … you need to …” A woman in white that had been wash so many times it was a soft gray was trying to calm me down but I wasn’t the least in the mood.

Then I got a chance to put a face to another voice I remembered. “Emma! Listen to me. I’m Dr. Bennington. The baby … your baby … is in the next room in the incubation crib. She’s a little small, has a little jaundice, as soon as you calm down we’ll get the two of you together. Donovan, don’t just stand there looking helpless man. We need to calm her down before she starts bleeding again.”

Then, “Emma … Emma … listen to me. She’s perfect. Head full of impossibly black hair. Babies are supposed to be bald as cue balls but not our little girl. She has all her fingers and toes. And her mother’s moodiness. She’s particular about who handles her and isn’t afraid to say so. Emma … come on Sugar … you’re tearing my heart out … I promise … on my life … calm down and Bennington will roll the crib in here.”

I didn’t care if I was folding to blackmail, I would have done anything to see my baby breathing at that moment.

Dr. Bennington said, “Now I’m going to take a few vitals while Mrs. Hurley rolls the baby in here and …”

“Doctor!”

“Mrs. Hurley, I promised Emma that if she calmed down she could see the baby and that is exactly what is going to happen. Have I made myself clear?”

A disbelieving sniff from the old bat was the only response she gave before going out. I watched the door with a feverish focus, refusing to answer any questions. And then … then …

Even now I can’t help tearing up remembering the first time I saw her. I looked at Donovan. “You … you came back. I thought … thought …”

“Not soon enough Emma. I tried but … but …”

“You came when I needed you to. Is she really … really …”

“Yeah. Really noisy. Really fussy. Really smelly sometimes. And really the most beautiful …” he voice broke. “She’s really here. We’re really … I’m sorry Emma. I didn’t know … I didn’t know …” And he started to sob. Donovan. My Donovan. The man who was tough as stainless steel. The man who never got tired. The man who never gave up. That man laid his head down and sobbed like a baby, holding me.

I looked around and then startled as they started to roll the bassinet back out of the room. “Easy Emma. She’s full term but small. Her lungs are good but she still needs some extra special care. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, we’ll bring the two of you together for a little more quality time. The sooner the better, but for now you are both too fragile.”

Donovan was still insensible so I was left asking this stranger what happened. “I … I’m still pretty … where are we?”

“Well, at least you started with an easy question and one I can answer without hesitation. You are in a bunker.”

My doubt and confusion must have showed on my face. “I know. Donovan has told me that the one that you two occupied originally was run more like a military base. Most of the military staff we were expected to get never showed before we were forced to close the doors. We do have some military in our population but mostly just veterans that had been living in the surrounding area.”

“I …”

“We had a lot of empty space. A small town supplied a lot of the labor to build this place. We took in as many as could get here - lock, stock, and barrel – before the blast doors were closed. It was hard for a while, not everyone was happy that they made the decision to try and live once they saw the aftermath. We had a mutiny about six months after Impact Day; it changed things. The scientist bigwigs that originally made up the administrative personnel lost most of their clout. They’re still here but their wings are clipped and they stick to the work that got them here in the first place … atmospheric research, geomagnetic applications, and other next to useless rubbish like that.”

“Don’t sound like … sound like …” I stopped on a dry hack.

“Emma. Honey. Ben … can she have some ice chips?”

“Yeah, I don’t see what not. No fluids yet until we make sure we aren’t going to have to sedate her again.”

I stiffened at the perceived threat.

“Easy. It isn’t the goal but you must have been in labor a long time. You lost a lot of blood. And you came in anemic. We’ve had a hard time getting it under control. So far so good. I didn’t want to have to do a hysterectomy, especially in your condition. Give us a bit of cooperation from here on out and you should do all right … in time.”

Donovan fed me ice chips while both the men continued the story. They finally reconnected with the other bunkers but didn’t want to have much to do with them, fearing a takeover and return to the old administration which had been inefficient and tyrannical.

“We kept to ourselves as much as possible but no man is an island and neither is a bunker. Eventually the supplies ran low or started to go bad. Eventually the doors had to open. Eventually you find you need those other people as much as you needed them to stay away before.”

Donovan said, “Our group thought this bunker had been lost or infiltrated somehow so never factored them into the plan to disperse our people once our bunker started flooding.” He couldn’t seem to stop touching me and frankly I didn’t mind at all. His hands, his eyes, where ever they touched it made me feel more and more alive and in the here and now.

Bennington continued. “Things changed once we got the birds flying. We felt we had edge enough that we could afford to make contact with the outside world again. Only by then … by then there wasn’t much outside world left to contact. The environmental changes had been rough, not only on Earth but on her inhabitants. Most of the food that would have been salvageable in the beginning was no longer so … the cold and time had done its work, as had the roving bands of humans that were trying to live despite the cold and harsh realities. Game had been all hunted out or starved out by the changes in the natural order of things.”

“Emma, there are still some secure communities outside of the bunkers but … but not all of them are … there are some sick people that survived the end of the world. Resources are scarce and salvagers have to go further and further afield from their home bases to find anything worth the trouble and danger of travelling. And even in some of the communities that didn’t start out with problems … a lot of civilization has been lost. Life is harsh. In some places it has devolved into … into …”

Bennington finished his sentence, “a combination of the Dark Ages and the Inquisition on steroids.”

Donovan grunted, making me smile.

“What?” he asked me, worried that I was losing my grip on reality again.

“You still sound like a caveman when you do that.” A tear slipped down my face as emotions threatened to overwhelm me.

“Donovan, she needs to rest. You can answer her other questions later. Just try and keep her calm and she’ll likely slip off into sleep without any drugs. I’d prefer her to get more natural rest than what she’s had.”

And I did. I didn’t appreciate having the man talk like I was a small child or absent from the room but he was right. I was in and out of it for the next few days. They brought the baby whenever I asked but didn’t always leave her as long as I wanted. But we did get to spend quality time together, all three of us. Contrary to everyone’s concerns, I was able to breastfeed and the sometimes less than gentle contractions it caused didn’t start me hemorrhaging again. In fact it actually helped and eventually I stopped bleeding all together and they let me sit up at first and then finally get out of the bed all together. It was only into a wheelchair for a short spin up and down the empty halls of the medical wing but I took it since it was all I was going to get.

“Donovan?”

“Yeah?”

“Where is everyone?”

“Hmm? Oh … Dr. Bennington has the ward on lock down.”

“Lock down! Why? Are we prisoners?!” I asked, immediately reminded of my old life in the other bunker.

“Whoa! Don’t get over excited or he’ll have my head. No, we aren’t prisoners. Too many people were coming and going, trying to find out what was going on.”

“Why?”

“You’re the first woman to give birth since the bomb doors were closed.”

“I’m the … they don’t have other women here? Or a … you know … the different … levels?” I asked still trying to stem my disbelief of what I’d just learned.

“No, that’s one of the things that was abolished during the mutiny. No, Bennington still isn’t sure … he’s just a country doctor thrown into the middle of all of this … he thinks … I’m not sure if I can explain it the way he does. He says people were never meant to be hobbits living under ground. Our bodies require certain amounts of sunlight, require the changing from day to night, need the changing of the seasons whether they are noticeable to the human eye or not. Take it away and … the natural cycles go haywire or something. Add the stress of the Impact and the heavy amount of work that everyone had to do to stay alive around here. Women stopped … you know … menstruating and Bennington said that some of the men’s sperm counts went way down when he realized enough to start asking questions and running tests. Plus, a lot of the adults in the crowd they wound up with were either out of what he called ‘optimal breeding age’ or had had their tubes tied or the men had had vasectomies. But from what they’ve heard and what they witnessed in the few ‘outside communities’ they’ve made contact with the same thing holds true. The birth rate has been severely suppressed.”

“Still? It’s been so long … years … and still?”

“Yeah. Either we got lucky … Emma, I’m … I’m sorry … I …”

“Not again Donovan, we’ve been through this. It had to have been one of the last couple of times we … you know … and it was a while before I realized what was happening. You did try and come back. And I still don’t know all the details, you won’t tell me.”

“I … I’m not ready to talk about it Emma. I … I just …”

“All right. Don’t flip a switch. Just stop coming apart every time it comes up. You taught me enough that I survived until you could get back. That is all I’m choosing to remember about it.”

“Emma …”

“I mean it,” I said as I did something I never seemed to tire of doing. I ran my hand down his still too thin cheek, feeling the grooves of deep lines of suffering that spoke of his sincerity and depth of feeling on the subject.

Donovan was a changed man. He limped, sometimes badly. Sometimes he dragged his foot and pain would give his face a gray undertone. What little youth he had still claimed seemed to be completely gone. White liberally sprinkled his hair and his face when he left it grizzled.

I noted to myself even the hair on his chest was sprinkled with gray. I saw it when Bennington had made him take his shirt off for a checkup. I was shocked at how little meat was one his bones. His ribs showed and I could see his backbone nearly all the way down. Whatever had overtaken Donovan had left its mark … and apparently in more than just physical ways. For instance, as protective has he had been he’d never lied to me … if nothing, he’d always been brutally honest. No matter what it was he gave me credit for at least earning a chance to try and face it. I found out though he now feared I was too fragile and that he needed to bear the burden of it all … like it was some kind of ridiculous penance.

The day after my wheel chair excursion I was dozing after having fed the baby. We still hadn’t given her a name. She was just our baby and we hadn’t found a need to name her yet. “Baby” was still good enough.

I woke up thinking Donovan had come back and looked up, seeing a stranger … a stranger who wasn’t really a stranger … and I screamed. I don’t really know why. It was … I can’t describe it … part of me thought my hallucinations had returned … hallucinations that I hadn’t yet confessed to having.

I must have fainted. I came to in Donovan’s arms, “Emma! Emma, it’s all right. I’m right here.”

“Donovan … I saw … I … I mean I thought … I thought I saw …” I blubbered.

“It’s all right Sugar. Bennington threw him out. No one is going to let him hurt you.”

“Let him … ? Are … are you telling me … I wasn’t just … I wasn’t seeing things? Moshe was here? Here?!”

“Easy. Calm down.”

“Don’t you tell me to calm down you … you … you Neanderthal! You tell me what is going on and you tell me right now!!”

Bennington stuck his head around the door and grinned. “Whooey son … when my wife used to get like that I did exactly what she told me or I lit out for a while … a good long while … until she calmed down.”

Donovan replied something rude then walked over and shut the door in his face. I could hear the doctor laughing on the other side before walking away. I however wasn’t laughing.

“Donovan …” I didn’t know what I was going to say. I didn’t really know how I felt. Angry for sure but also hurt and something else too.

“I wanted you to be stronger before you had to deal with this.”

“Deal with what?”

“With … with that boy you used to like being here.”

“With what boy that I … you can’t be telling me after everything you’re actually acting … Donovan I swear I am going to clunk you over the head with this food tray!”

I was looking for a fight but I didn’t get one. Donovan just looked at me. And then what did that throwback do? He grinned and kissed me. Not the gentle and hesitant pecks on my head or cheek that he’d been giving me but a teeth rattling kiss the likes of which I hadn’t experienced with anyone else and not since he’d disappeared all those months ago.

I was left nearly breathless but I still managed to gasp, “Out with it. I feel like I’m living some ridiculous dream sequence in a story. And … and that terrifies me Donovan. If I’m hallucinating then you … and the baby …” I was scaring myself silly and couldn’t seem to stop it.

“Whoa. Hey now. Look at me Girl. I …” then he sighed and took another breath. “I don’t care how it sounds Emma but … your mine. He can’t have you. But … I’m not the man I was. I’m … I’m broken. My health. My body. Sometimes … Emma, for a while there even my mind was betraying me.”

I looked at him and saw how serious he was. Then I asked him quietly, “Do you think you’re alone?”

“Huh?”

“Do you think you’re alone in being broken?”

Donovan just shook his head. “Emma … Emma … you don’t understand.”

But I did and I was determined to prove it. “Oh yes I do. I … I have a confession. The shape you … the shape you found me in? It … it wasn’t just because of the labor. I’d been … I’d been losing it for a while. Right after you first disappeared it was bad. Then I got better … or I think I did. But then when I got stuck … I couldn’t get out of the cave Donovan. I was too big. It felt like … like … I was trapped and buried by some mad man. I was … I was a prisoner again Donavon, just like back in the Bunker. There were places I couldn’t go, things that were out of my reach and being kept from me. Then the wood ran out and I couldn’t … there was no light except the little bit that came from the crevice … and then the food and … I lost it Donovan. I was talking to people that weren’t there. Seeing things that weren’t there. Impossible things that … I was three-quarters crazy. I don’t know how else to describe what it was.”

“Ben … he says your condition was due to was nutritional imbalances and stress.”

“He can call it that if he wants to but I have to be honest … at least with myself and with you … I was … I was more crazy than not and if you hadn’t come I would have been … all the way crazy or dead. That is a fact that there is no denying.”

I was shaking, wondering if he would turn away from me in disgust. Instead he wrapped me in his arms and made his own confession. “I … Emma, I killed a man trying to get out of here. They guy had been egging me on for about a week, tearing me up inside with his accusations and threats since I was an outsider, saying it was my fault they lost someone when their helicopter crash landed after being damaged in the storm they were trying to outrun after they picked me up. The guy they lost was his brother. I didn’t know it at the time or I might have ignored him more. He ‘let’ me escape and then took a shot at me. They didn’t know what my background was. I didn’t even hesitate. He was the enemy. Someone clocked me from behind and I woke up locked up in what they called a jail cell but that was closer to a hotel room. It was a long time before … before they’d even listen to me again. That … that was Moshe’s doing.”

“He got them to listen to you?”

“No, the opposite. I know he’s special to you and …”

“Say that one more time and I will clunk you. Moshe is … he’s part of my past … a dream that died at his own hands … and the only thing he has served in my present so far is as a nightmare. Now tell me and spill whatever the poison is that has been eating you up.”

That got me a look and then a sigh that was almost a groan. “I … I deserved some of what I got. I fought every attempt people made to befriend me. I refused to trust anyone. I was a wild man, still sick from nearly dying …”

“Nearly dying?!!”

“Shhhh. Ben will be in here again and you won’t get your answers … and you’ll wake the baby.” I calmed down but only on the outside. Finally he continued, “I lost a lot of blood Emma. It isn’t like it used to be where you could just call a blood bank and get what you needed. You lose blood, there are no transfusions, your body has to replace it on its own. On top of it, all the fighting I did re-opened the wound repeatedly. Ben threatened to shackle me to the bed if I didn’t knock it off. Eventually I got some kind of infection and it … it nearly killed me … quicker than the original wound had. I got so sick it wasn’t a matter of me deciding whether I was going to accept anyone’s help or not, I was just too weak to fight them off.”

I remember how hard it had been for him to accept even my limited assistance when he’d been shot in the bunker. It must have come close to destroying him to be so sick he couldn’t even fend off the good intensions of the staff that had been trying to take care of him.

He continued, “I was completely broken. I had nothing left. I knew I couldn’t get to you but that didn’t stop me from wanting to. I practically howled at the moon when I had the energy. And then when everything was gone, nearly my life, I started praying. I’d beg God every waking moment that you’d hold on until I could get back to you. I’d beg him to protect you until I could. Ben says that I even prayed in my sleep sometimes. The nights I didn’t fall into an exhausted sleep after praying were racked by nightmares of what could be happening to you. I was a basket case and most everyone avoided me unless forced to take their turn being my watcher or caregiver. I’m better now but … but you see what I’ve been reduced to.”

“But where does Moshe fit into this? And … and … what about the rest of the family?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

“They’re parents … they … they died … right after the mutiny. Some kind of fever went through the entire bunker. Ben thinks it was released by those in the administrative wing … like biological warfare … only it got out of hand when it got into the ventilation system. Sarah used to visit me until Moshe found out how often she was doing it. We used to talk about you a lot.”

“Sarah … Sarah is here?” I couldn’t believe it. “Has … has she tried to see me? Why haven’t I seen her?”

“I don’t know Honey. Ben has kept everyone away. There is bad blood between the old administrators and the rest of the population. I think Ben would be OK with it … his son and Sarah … well, I think there is some kind of stupid Romeo and Juliet thing going on. If Moshe wasn’t such a … well, if Moshe would stay out of things, but he keeps the old feud alive every chance he gets.”

“Moshe? That just … doesn’t compute. He was so laid back. But … but it turns out I didn’t know him as well as I thought. He …”

I stopped talking, trying to reconcile yet again the boy that I had known with the man that had betrayed me. Then I heard, “Emma! Emma! Are you all right? Are they treating you all right? I’m trying to get help to you! Don’t give up!!” The voice bellowed down the hallway, echoing through the empty hospital offices and exam rooms.

“What on Earth?” I asked of no one and expecting no answer. “Donovan, help me out of this bed. This is just too … too ridiculous. It is like one of those impossibly long and convoluted Russian novels they used to make us read in European Lit. I hated those stupid melodramas.”

“Emma, be reasonable.” As soon as he said it Donovan knew he’d said the only thing guaranteed to make me be the exact opposite. “Oh for Pete’s Sake. Here, sit in the wheelchair. But if he looks at you too hard I refuse to promise not to do my best to deck him.”

This time I was the one to grunt. Donovan rolled me out to where Dr. Bennington was quickly running out of patience.

“Moshe! That … is … enough.” If I was going to face him I was going to be the one on the offensive and try and keep the upper hand.

“Emma! Oh Emma! I’ve been so worried. I …”

“Moshe,” I said in a deadly calm voice that startled the man he’d become into silence. “Please do not try your old tricks with me. I’m not your mother or any of the teachers in highschool. I’m not even your sister even though I used to pretend I was. I was just the little friend … little expendable friend … of your real sister. The little orphan your parents took in.”

“Emma, don’t … you don’t understand … I … I …”

“No Moshe, I don’t understand. I don’t understand how you could do that to me, condemn me to a life that was meant to leave me living little better than a harlot … a “comfort girl” like in World War 2. You know what I’m talking about so don’t deny it.”

“It was … it was … it didn’t wind up how I’d meant it to Emma. You … I paid someone to … you were supposed to come here. You … you were supposed to be mine.”

My eyebrows disappeared into my hairline. “I was supposed to be what?” I could feel my anger boiling over and I could feel Donovan’s anger rolling on my behalf as well. I put my hand over his where it rested on my shoulder, trying to calm us both.

“Look, things just … they just fell apart. And these local yokels still don’t understand the magnitude …”

At that I could see a pulse start up in Dr. Bennington’s temple. “Moshe, take responsibility for your own actions. You all but sold me into slavery. Your rationalization is immaterial. And for your information I would never have been yours. You were my friend Moshe and when you did what you did you destroyed any chance you had of ever making it more than that. You destroyed our friendship period. My trust in anything you say has been permanently compromised.”

Shocked that he was unable to manipulate me, Moshe got nasty. “Oh, and you picked this broken down has been.”

“Actually Moshe, the relationship I have with this man is none of your business and will never be any of your business. Suffice it to say he is the father of my child and I am more than content to spend whatever time we have left on this Earth with him and only with him.”

“And you think he feels the same way? Let me tell you something …”

“That’s enough,” Donovan growled.

“No, it’s not. She has the right to know. I’m ashamed that it brings my own sister’s behavior into question …”

Donovan repeated, “I said that’s enough!”

“Oh yeah? And what are you going to do about it? You’re no better than an old man. Look at you. You’re pathetic. How are you supposed to protect, much less provide, for Emma and her child? I’m forced to assume it is your child I suppose. And what do you think she is going to say when she finds out …”

Donovan tried to step around me and take a swing at Moshe as he had promised he would but Moshe was right in one respect, Donovan wasn’t the man he used to be. His leg gave out and he half fell before catching himself nearly turning the wheelchair over.

I saw the shame on Donovan’s face, in his eyes, nearly radiating from his soul and something clicked. “Moshe, I hope you are hearing me right now because I am about to tell you a deep truth you should have had the sense to realize long ago. Yes, Donovan isn’t as strong as he was … not physically. But he never stopped trying to come back to me. Never. No matter what fate threw at him he never stopped trying. It nearly killed him … and he did have to kill another man in the pursuit of his return to me. He promised me that I could always trust him and he has never … never let me down. He’s never lied to me. He’s never betrayed me. He protected me. And when he thought his protection was actually handicapping me he taught me to fend for myself. He may be rough. He may be crude at times. But he has always been honest. And he never gave up on me. Never. No matter what it cost him … and it nearly cost him his life.”

Moshe tried to open his mouth and I said, “Shut … up. I’m not finished. Here’s the part you need to understand … need to take inside yourself so that perhaps you can save yourself from yourself. Even broken Donovan is more of a man than you have ever been, more of a man than you are ever likely to be. And while he may be broken right now, one day he’ll be stronger and when that day comes if you so much as look at me cross ways it better be from a long distance away because I can guarantee he’ll rip your spine out of your back. And what’s more … I’ll stand there and let him.”

Moshe looked at me with disgust, like I was a slug that he’d stepped on. “You’re no longer the girl you used to be Emma. I can’t believe you would ever sink as far as you’ve sunk. You once had standards and common sense. But of course this … this broken loser … he manipulated Sarah as well. She saw through him in time though, thank God. She …”

“I can talk for myself Brother.”

I turned my head. Sarah was no longer a girl anymore than I was but time had been kinder to her. I could still see the innocence in her eyes that my own would be forever void of.

“Emma … please … I didn’t know … I’m … I’m so sorry.”

And it was just like when we were kids and one of us had wronged the other by some stupid act. We always made up. Sometimes it was harder than others but eventually we always made up. And this time it was my choice and I opened my arms and we fell together laughing and crying like we always had, relieved to have the past behind us.

“Emma … nothing happened. I swear it.”

“Oh. Is that what Moshe was trying to say? Well, of course nothing happened … at least not like Moshe is trying to say. You’d drive Donovan nuts and he’d positively horrify you.” When I said it and then got a look on their faces I couldn’t help but start laughing.

“Emma!” Moshe exclaimed, giving it one last try. “Don’t let them fool you.”

“Fool me? You are the fool Moshe. I don’t know what has happened to you. I don’t even know when it happened. But until you cut out whatever cancer is eating at your soul you are never going to find the peace to make something of this new life because you’ve got to realize the old one is never coming back. “ I turned in the wheelchair and looked up at Donovan who had regained his footing. “Take me back to my room Donovan. I’ve had enough of this. Please.”

I grabbed Sarah’s hand and all three of us went back down the corridor to my room. The baby was just beginning to get fussy and while I fed her the three of us talked. The dogs finding a soft touch in Sarah who’d never been able to resist puppy dog eyes or itchy bellies. Soon however both Donovan and I needed to rest so Sarah left, promising to come back another time. And she did, many more times.

As the days went by both Donovan and I came to feel claustrophobic. We felt the cold stares of most of the population in this bunker, of the people who feared we’d bring unwanted change into their lives. We just wanted to go home. The home we had made for ourselves. Dr. Bennington tried to talk us out of it. “People will warm up to you, just give it more time. Neither of you are up for surviving out there. You know more than most just how tough things can be outside of the bunkers. And what will you do for supplies?”

Donovan answered, “Ben, we appreciate all you’ve done for us but even our two mouths are a strain on the resources of your bunker. You’ve heard the grumbling. People want us on the work teams or gone. Charity is dead.”

“Donovan,” I said reprovingly after his harsh words. “Look Dr. Bennington, like he said, we appreciate all you’ve done but … but it is time. Our life isn’t here. We escaped this life once only because we had no choice. This time we want to leave of our own accord, before things get any more … difficult.”

“Well … well, maybe I can’t requisition some supplies, even a couple of days worth would …”

“No,” Donovan said adamant. “It will cause you too much trouble and things feel like a powder keg as it is.”

A sharp expletive left the good doctor’s lips. “I won’t deny it. Another season of change is coming. Some folks … well, they’ve had enough of bunker life and seeing that you made it … maybe it is for the best but it isn’t going to be an easy transition for our population. And some of the people that want to go are just not going to survive and …” He finally shook his head in resignation. “I know they plan another flight. I’ll see what I can do.”

The hardest part was saying good bye to Sarah. “Do you have to go? It seems that we’ve only just …” She was crying and couldn’t finish.

“Sarah, you have a life here. My life is out there. Remember how it was in college?”

“In college we could pick up a phone. Or text. Or email. Now, you’ll go back to being as dead to me as Mom and Dad are.”

“Not dead … just separated … for a time. Haven’t you said even Moshe admits that the atmosphere looks like it is finally beginning to clear up? Then we can all pull out the radios and communication will be easier. Or maybe something else will come up. Have faith.”

“Don’t try and pacify me Emma. I’m not … not stupid. I may not have had the hard life you’ve led but I’m certainly not stupid.”

“I never said you were and that isn’t what I’m thinking either. I’ve just learned we can’t always have what we want. And as much as I love you Sarah, my life is with Donovan. He is being stifled here. We both are. We need to go back to where we belong.”

Eventually she conceded the point if not the necessity or the timing of it. And eventually Doctor Bennington convinced the community that it was a good thing for them to return us where they took us from. “Think of it like returning a wild animal to its habitat.” I wasn’t real thrilled with the comparison but since that is what it took for us to get our way I never said anything.

Goodbyes were swift but not painless. Two months had healed me, allowed Donovan to heal more, and given the baby a fighting chance to survive. She now weighed ten pounds, more than twice what she came into the world weighing. On the day we were to leave he said as he examined her one last time, “I can admit something to you now. I didn’t think this little peanut was going to make it. She was a classic case of failure to thrive in the womb. There were days I didn’t expect you to survive Emma. But look at you both now. And Donovan looks healthier than I’ve seen him in months, almost from the first time I met him. The three of you together, you’re good for each other. But if you expect me to keep calling this baby “Girly” you are crazy. It is time that you gave this child a name.”

Donovan and I looked at each other. We’d been trying to think of a name for weeks. But every name we came up with had too many memories attached to it or was just too corny. “Well, then, since you two can’t seem to settle on anything would you perhaps listen to a suggestion?”

We nodded. “Jubilee. My wife’s name. She was a good woman, a fine woman. As finer woman than I deserved. It means a special time for remissions of sin and universal pardon. We never had children, were never blessed that way. I always imagined we’d name a daughter after her, continue on the name … and what it meant.”

Donovan quirked an eye at me and I looked at the baby. “How about it baby? What do you think of the name? Jubilee Donovan? I think it sounds nice.”

Donovan added, “Jubilee Emmaline Donovan. I like it.”

And so that is what we finally named her. It had taken two months and endless discussions and in the end it was someone else’s choice but … it fit. And that was the last thing we did before we walked out to the landing pad, climbed aboard the helicopter, and left.

It was cold, much colder than was comfortable, and Jubilee was fussy but somehow Donovan and I were still warm. The breeze smelled of freedom and promise. They sat down in a clearing not too far from the cave and the dogs were coming unglued to be let out of their cage. They smelled home and freedom as well.

The pilot said, “Don’t know when we’ll be this way again. Not enough salvage to be worth the trip. Only reason we are coming this way this time was to check out Ft. Campbell one last time.”

Donovan nodded, “We understand. Go with a clear conscience and tell everyone thank you one more time for us.” Then they were gone and we were walking back up the path, no longer well worn but still well remembered.

We’ve been home a month and it has been as hard as we knew it would be. Donovan tried for a time to move the debris from the entrance but all it did was cause another slide. Instead he now devotes his energy to widening the entrance that once held me captive. It is still narrow, and there is work left to do, but I never have to fear being a prisoner in my own home ever again … at least not for the reason I was before.

We’ve expanded the garden and in about two weeks we should have our first greens be ready to eat. Donovan also managed to get an elk our second week back home and we spent two days processing it and smoking the meat so that it would keep. We’ve spent a great deal of time gathering wood but in another sense we don’t need it nearly as bad.

It’s warmer. Bare patches of ground show through in places … they aren’t even muddy any more. It is still cold but there are days when it is above freezing even after the sun has gone down. I showed Donovan the ridge road and we found another house way back in there to salvage from. There wasn’t much left that nature hadn’t tried to reclaim but a gardening shed gave us some extra tools and some jars of seeds neatly labeled with what they contained. Some of the seeds have even germinated, no small miracle after all this time.

Donovan and I aren’t as reckless as we used to be. We have Jubilee to think of. Donovan resisted me coming on his treks away from home until I said either Jubilee and I came with him being willing or we followed him without his willingness … but either way we were coming. He gave me his typical caveman arguments but eventually he realized that he needed me and I needed him to need me.

There is another way that Donovan and I are more careful. Dr. Bennington told me that it could be dangerous if I got pregnant again too soon. So now we count the days and try our best to not let our desires outweigh our common sense. It isn’t always easy. There is still so much lost time to try and make up for. But we do our best.

And now the baby has finally calmed down. I don’t think she appreciated the onions that I added to the dried corn and beans to make them taste less like they’d been sitting in a can for who knows how many years. Poor little peanut had colic so bad she could have caused another rock slide with the volume of her cries. I’ll know better next time. Donovan said, “Trust me, if you forget, I’ll be sure and remind you. Our kid was born with an oversized set of lungs.”

The truth is he hates for her to cry and him not be able to help her. She’ll have him wrapped around her finger before she is even walking.

But now I’m tired. I have a lot to do tomorrow. This life isn’t easy but it is my life and I wouldn’t trade it for all the comforts any bunker could offer. I wouldn’t care if Donovan and I never left this place again.

The only problem though is that we may not have to leave to have problems with people. Donovan was down by the river, trying his hand at fishing now that the shore is free of ice, when he saw a sign … a footprint. It wasn’t mine and it wasn’t his. The shoe made a funny pattern … it looked like a tire tread. Someone from the bunker would have known to contact us. If not from the bunker then who could it be? And where could they have come from? I have no idea when or if we’ll even find answers to those questions.

One question I’ve almost found the answer to is why. Why did I go through all of this? What was the point? I guess I’ve learned things along the way but I’m fairly certain that God could have pointed me in the right direction without nearly killing me to enforce the lesson. No, I’m beginning to think it really may not have had anything to do with me. I was the instrument rather than the victim.

Donovan. Or rather Donovan’s salvation. I wrote he was a changed man in more ways than one. One of the first things he did when we got back to our cave was to find my Bible and wrote Jubilee’s name and date of birth in the front. And now he is the one that reads Jubilee a “bed time story” from some place in the Bible, the same way my dad used to read them to me. I see an awareness that wasn’t in him before, a depth that I had never uncovered.

He still isn’t overly spiritual, no ostentatious displays for him. And yet … there is a quiet stillness in him that is more powerful than his anger and arrogance ever was. I felt connected to him before our time apart but now I feel … feel … bound to him. Bound to him on a level that I never knew existed. Like we’ve consummated something even greater than what existed between us before. We pull together instead of at cross purposes. Is this what being “equally yoked” means? I don’t know but I appreciate it, whatever it is. And I am still learning … and so is Donovan. I don’t think we’ll ever have a completely calm relationship; one or the other of us will pop off, releasing pent up emotions.

And now it is time for me to lay down beside this man I’ve claimed as my own. If I look closely, it appears that the gray is disappearing. Certainly his ribs do not stand out the way they did and when I run my hand up his back, his spine doesn’t feel like a broken railroad track.

I told Moshe that I was content to spend the remainder of my time here on Earth with Donovan. It was … and is … the truth. And now I’m also beginning to ask God to make that time here on Earth measure in decades and not just the few years we’ve had. Will He answer me in the affirmative? I guess I won’t know that until after it has already happened or not.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter 19

When this battery runs out I’m not sure if enough sunlight will reach the panel to recharge it. It will be firelight for me … until the wood runs out. Or maybe something else if I can work it out. When the wood runs out I’ll have more problems than just the loss of some type of light. I probably shouldn’t be wasting this but sometimes the dark gets too dark and the fear presses in and it makes it hard for me to even breathe. I figure, one last hurrah and then I’ll have to live on the memories of being able to organize my thoughts on paper. Or maybe not. I have to keep my hopes up for Bumpkins' sake.

It has been a hard slog since I lost Donovan and I’m convinced now that he is lost. I wanted to hold onto some type of hope but I said, “Emma, it is really time you grew up and stopped living in fantasyland. If Donovan could have he would have come back by now. If he hasn’t come back by now he isn’t coming back and there isn’t a thing you can do about it.”

I finally wrapped my head around it. It wasn’t pleasant, still isn’t pleasant. Sometimes I would forget and I would talk to him like he is still here and I wouldn’t even realize how crazy that was for days. And then I’d catch myself and really get scared as the truth would slam down on me like prison walls with no chance at parole. Not by the situation I find myself in but by the fact that I’m losing it, going bonkers, crazy, with loneliness. My mind has played tricks on me one too many times and for a while there I couldn’t decide whether I was going to let myself go crazy and be happy or stay sane and be lonely and scared.

It was the baby that finally helped me to make up my mind which world I was going to live in. I remember the first time I realized what I was feeling. This little person wiggling around inside me telling me, “Hey! I’m here!!” It was like that old kids’ book Horton Hears a Who. There’s this living, breathing entity that no one else can see, hear, or feel counting on me.

I could go all philosophical and talk about what gives meaning to life but it doesn’t matter. I’m here and now relatively sane, doing my best to prepare myself and this cave for the birth of my child. That’s the sum total of my existence for now and I’m satisfied for it to be that way.

The puppies aren’t really puppies anymore. They only had a little puppy left in them when we found them at the Lodge, that little bit is all but gone. The only thing left is a residual playfulness that causes them to always be in the mood for a little mischief and mayhem. They started to hunt with me and have turned out to be pretty amazing. I wish Donovan had had a chance to see them in action. If it is a burrowing creature it stands no chance against them. They tag team and I’ve seen them bring a rabbit down in seconds and I didn’t think anything could catch a rabbit that didn’t want to get caught.

Just like the dogs have left their puppyhood and have learned to do things on their own, so have I. I came into my own after I lost Donovan. I’m not bragging, not at all; that‘s not how I mean it. I just started to realize that, despite everything that had happened to me, I had always had a protector of one sort or another. I’d started to realize that even before his disappearance but it became brutally clear as time wore on.

First it was my parents and that was as it should be. Then there was Mr. and Mrs. Epstein and even that was right. Despite being a teenager I still needed to be comforted and guided. Even Moshe, though a bit of me still hates to give him any sort of credit, acted like a big brother before inadvertently saving me when he manipulated me into the next phase of my life at the Bunker.

From that point onward though I seemed to stall out or slow down on my personal growth. I kept allowing some one or some thing to get in the way of it. The Colonel, the Committee, the men, the situation I found myself in, you name it I made it an excuse to feel or act a way that was less constructive than it could have been. I did mature, got strong in a real sense, but it doesn’t seem to me that I did as much growing as I should have done had I been able to live a more normal life than one restricted to a small area within a social group already dramatically different from what I was used to experiencing.

The frozen land echoed my frozen heart and I wallowed in that a bit. Looking back it wasn’t until the last bit of civilization had been stripped away and I was forced out into the frozen wasteland of what was left of our world that the ice my heart was encased in took a chance at cracking and falling away. Or maybe it was the circumstances that took a sledgehammer to it. Who knows? I'm not even sure I care what caused it any more. It's enough that it happened.

Even then I still had Donovan. It wasn’t the Prince Charming/Cinderella romance that a lot of women would dream of but it was … something. Love? I think so. Maybe not the love I expected. Maybe not the type of love either one of us needed, both of us being an emotional mess to some degree. But … but it was love. Yes, I can say that now. It was love. But part of me was still more concerned with self-preservation than I should have been. Would Donovan still be here if … ? No. I can’t … won’t ... go down that path. No self-pity. I’ve spent enough time at that.

A baby. It just seems to me that there is no way you cannot wake up to certain facts of life … philosophical and idealogical facts … when you are sharing your body, the blood coursing through your veins, your very genetic signature, with another person who is totally dependent on you. My little Bumpkins. I know the name is silly but I just can’t go around calling the baby “it” until I find out whether he’s a he or she’s a she.

And then, after that horrible day, there I was. The one that had to be the protector. The provider. The hunter. The gatherer. The thinker and planner. The steward of the supplies. The last line of defense. Against animals. Against the wilderness. Against the deadly cold. Yes, all of those people that had been my protectors before played a part in what I was becoming, especially Donovan, but they aren’t here now. No one is here for me to lean on, to count on, for anything. There's just me. Just me and the baby. I was about five months along when I was really forced to wake up and realize that there were some things that no one could have prepared me for and that at some point, the only one left was me and God against the world and what can happen in it.

After Donovan disappeared the brief “Indian Summer” we had experienced disappeared with him. The winter that followed was very bad. It was honestly worse than I had expected, certainly worse than I was prepared for. The blizzards lasted days at first, and then weeks. I only stepped outside twice when January finally rolled around. I brought in as much wood as I could haul whenever I could get outside but by the end of that month freezing to death was becoming a real possibility.

I hung rugs all over the walls of the living quarters trying to trap as much warmth as I could from the smallest fire. I fashioned a canopy and curtains for the bed to trap the body heat I and the dogs created when we finally settled down to sleep at night. I never let the embers in the fireplace go out completely. Getting enough calories was a problem too. I had to balance the need for work to do the chores and to stay warm with the need to rest so Bumpkins wouldn’t starve inside my body.

In November I had brought down an elk that had gotten separated from its herd but she was young, thin, and scrawny. Despite that, the elk was part of my diet until the middle of January, contributing badly needed protein and fat. I even boiled the bones of that poor beast and sucked out the marrow before admitting there was simply nothing of it left to eat. What was left of the bones I gave to the dogs and it kept them happy for a few days.

I wasn’t completely without resources at that point however. Donovan’s Garden – that’s what I call it – actually works. I’ve only grown “rabbit food” like salad greens, herbs, onions, radishes, and some puny carrots but I have to say its been a Godsend, like He and Donovan have been looking after me from afar.

For the rest of January and into February I pretty much ate stir-fry’s, pilafs, and oatmeal every day. The second week of February I was forced to take a long, hard look at the wood pile and my food supplies. Neither one was going to last to the end of the month.

I didn’t see that I had a choice. I had to go hunting again bad weather or no or I’d be eating the dogs next … or they’d be eating me. The night before I was to go I laid out everything and then did some serious praying that I’d have good weather. I was going back to the Lodge. As much as I was disgusted by the very idea, I knew that if I didn’t find something else I would likely be able to trap a rat or two.

I was terrified that that was what I was going to be reduced to. Eating rats. It wasn’t that long ago that I wouldn’t have been hungry enough … strong enough … to have gotten to the point that I could accept such a recourse but I had Bumpkins to think of. As nauseated as I was at the idea, nothing was standing between me and my baby’s survival.

The next morning was almost painfully bright even though I started earlier than I had planned to. It’s simply too dangerous to travel in the dark. You could fall off the trail, down a sink, get hung up in a deadfall. No, better to make sure you can see where you are going even if it cut an hour or so off of your hunting time.

The trail that Donovan and I had broken was completely obliterated. I struggled to find the old landmarks. Some of the boulders were buried under feets of snow. I got lucky and noticed the pylons for the bridge but the surface of the bridge hadn’t survived the weather very well. For safety’s sake I strung a line across it to guide me and to hang onto just in case.

By the time I reached the Lodge I was exhausted. I ate a couple of oatmeal and honey balls that I had packed for energy and then headed towards the river. The river’s boundaries had changed or it had swelled to twice its size. I still haven’t had time to figure out which. Either way it was a much shorter hike to the frozen shore than it should have been. I spent an hour looking for some kind of sign that anything living had been through there recently. Nothing.

I knew that the trek back to the cave was going to be harder as I was going to have to go uphill much of the way so I steeled myself for what I had to do. I won’t describe the “hunt” as it was ridiculously easy. With the dogs gone from the Lodge the rats had truly taken over. We weren’t in the place more than five minutes before all three of us were running out with our lives hanging in the balance … but the dogs had a rat each and immediately started to devour them and I had three.

Trying not to think much I cleaned the carcasses and that helped them to look less like the rodent I knew them to be. I strung them on a stick and they quickly froze. I turned around to find that the dogs had gone back for seconds and thirds. More power to them but I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to be quite as enthusiastic when it came my turn to dine.

We started back for the cave right away but when we got to the bridge the dogs started acting strange.

“Look, I know you liked the thrill of the hunt and the reward but when need to go home,” I told them in exasperation when they both grabbed the ends of my coat and proceeded with what I thought was a game of tug of war.

Then there was a THUNK! The sound brought my head around sharply and I looked at the bridge. There was another THUNK and then another and then before long most of the middle of the bridge had disintegrated. It was like watching a giant kids’ game of Break the Ice. Had the dogs and I been on the bridge when it started to go I doubt I could have moved fast enough to escape falling and being crushed.

Weak with relief it still only took me a moment to realize I was in serious trouble. The bridge was the only place that I had seen to cross the creek that bordered the Lodge’s land. I knew from exploring with Donovan that between the bridge and the river the creek only became wider so that left me with no other choice but to head inland and pray that I could find a tree that spanned from one side to the other or maybe another bridge, even if it was only an old sheet metal one.

I trudged along the creek bank’s rising grade for over an hour and I was getting scared. I needed to get home. Going back to the Lodge and trying to stay there overnight was out of the question as was trying to build a shelter that would protect me from the bitter cold that came as soon as the sun went down. I was nearing tears when I hit a little rise and noticed a bit of a clearing about 100 yards into the trees, along the same path that the creek took.

After I reached my target I took a good look around. The tumbled down house was almost unrecognizable for what it was. Only the peeling, bright red door kept it from disappearing into the landscape of snow and fallen trees that I hadn't seen from the creek. I needed to investigate even if it took more of my precious daylight. This was only the second structure after the rattle trap original cabin that we … I … had seen in the area.

The dogs sniffed the musty air that escaped after I managed to break a window pane and open the door. The wooden floors groaned significantly as I stepped into what looked like a parlor or receiving room. The house was dark but the dogs didn’t appear to sense anything hostile so I went in as far as the light from the door would let me. Remembering the wind up flashlight I took it out and used it to help cover the remainder of the house.

It didn’t take long. In addition to the front room there was a smallish formal dining area, a very casual den/family room, a bathroom that hadn’t been redecorated since Ike was President and two bedrooms that looked like it had been even longer since they had been updated. The only area that had been renovated was the kitchen and it still managed to look like something from the Partridge Family. Nothing looked disturbed or rifled through and for some reason I felt guilty pawing through the unknown owner's things.

The cans and jars in the kitchen cabinets were all destroyed by the freezing cold. You could tell where things had oozed out at some point in the beginning and a wicked smell came from one that I refused to even open. After the kitchen I turned to the bathroom to see if there was any toilet paper or paper products. Sure enough there was a cabinet full and I found a laundry basket and loaded it down and then switched it to a garbage bag when I found a box of those. Then I went to the family room and that where I found the note lying on the little desk in front of a shuttered window.

Junior, if you Wylene and the youngins get here before I get home don’t wurry none and make yourself to home. Tell Wylene to get sum cornbread and beans going to feed y’all up after that long drive. I’ve gone to town to get your Maw from that dat blamed nursing home. I cain’t raise em, not even with that corn foggled cell phone you gave me at Christmas. There might jest be something to what them army men were a telling us down at the school. Them folks from Lancaster showed up about ten minutes ago, lickety splitting it up the Ridge. They sure did look scairt and I’ll admit between me and you that I’m getting that way myself. Gonna try and bring some extry groceries home from Houchens just in case. Be home soonest. Dad

Junior and his family had never shown up and the old man had never returned. This would have been a pretty good place to hole up if they had managed to stay warm. The Hollow were the house was located seemed like it had been protected better than most as it had fewer downed trees than any I had seen up to then.

The man had mentioned cornbread and beans which meant that there had to be other groceries besides what I had seen in the kitchen cabinets so I went to take another look. Sure enough a small panel in the back of the broom closet was kilted just enough out of whack that I found the root cellar without too much more trouble.

The dogs scooted down there and then came up the stairs wagging their tails as if to say, “All clear!”

I felt a deep sense of success and relief when I got to the bottom of the stairs. Old gallon-sized mason jars lined a short four foot wall from floor to ceiling. It wasn’t Ali Babba’s cave but it was still treasure. If I was careful I could piece out the beans and cornmeal in those jars to last me at least another month or two I thought to myself.

On another wall there jars of what looked like tomato juice but the rings on the jars were black with corrosion and I wasn’t going to risk a case of botulism. In fact the only thing useable down in the root cellar was what had been in those first jars. Everything else including the fresh food that must have been stored there as witnessed by the dusty mold in the boxes and crates was not worth the risk.

I could only carry two of the jars up the stairs at a time so it took a half dozen trips. I set the jars in the clothes basket I had abandoned and then found a mate to hold the ones that the first basket didn’t hold and I set the garbage bag of paper products on the snow saucer that was my habit to bring when I was outside. Using some twine I found in a drawer in the kitchen I tied my “train” together and then did what Donovan and I had done on previous occasions. I knew there had to be a road and a bridge across the creek some place close by and sure enough the creek was little more than a gully where the wooden bridge sans any kind of guard rails crossed it.

I was very careful to watch for land marks so I could find my way back and investigate “the Lancaster people” more but first I had to find my way home.

It wasn’t as hard as I had thought it was going to be. In fact, barring getting turned around once because I was coming at a granite outcropping from a different angle than I had ever done before it was pretty easy, all downhill. The only rough part was getting around some trees that had fallen across and hidden the gravel roadway that I had been traveling on. The only other thing that happened to cause me problems was when the clothes baskets of jars tried to get ahead of me on a particular piece of steep grade.

I was beyond exhaustion by the time I got home and my belly had a strange, taught feeling to it that scared me a little bit. I gave the dogs the rat carcasses and climbed in bed, falling asleep before I remembered to light a fire. I woke up shivering in the night and in need of the bucket I kept behind a screen as a toilet.

I spent the next entire day in bed though I agonized over needing to get more wood. Every time I tried to get up for any length of time I would get that same funny feeling low in my gut, like something was pulling and clinching. It was another day beyond that before I could get up without getting that feeling and even then I thought it smarter to stick with very small wood and limbs rather than trying to chop anything too big.

I spent the next few days gathering wood and planning what I needed to do next. Over the next three weeks I hit the farmhouse again and I did find two other little houses – or what remained of them – in the woods higher along the ridge.

In the first house I found enough odds and ends to last me three or four weeks but in the last house … in the last house I found the future I was looking at if I didn’t get my rear in gear and come up with a long term sustainable plan of some type. The cupboards were completely bare. The remains of what I took to be the family pet hung in a shed outside. The family … a man, woman, and two small children … I found in a single bed made up in front of the fireplace in the living room. The sunken eyes and hollows beneath the cheeks of the corpses weren’t just a result of mummification. I got out of there as fast as I could.

It was during this time of going higher on the ridge that the dogs started hunting on their own. I guess going back to the Lodge had given them a taste for it. I didn’t know what they were doing the first time they brought something to me. I reached down and picked up what they had dropped at my feet without even thinking about it. It took me a second to realize it was a rabbit. I shrieked and dropped it when the head flopped over and seemed to look at me. The dogs thought it was hilarious and were jumping around and wagging their tails.

I split it with them since they’d been so good about bringing it to me before they tore into it. That set the rules. About once a week they’ll bring me something, even now that I’m stuck here.

It was in March that it happened. The dogs and I had gone to bed after a long day of gathering wood. The weather was milder but that was relative to what had been over the winter. There was still snow on the ground, just two feet instead of five or more. And it was still horribly cold, just not forty below zero cold. The wind still blew, it just didn’t scour blood from any exposed skin.

I was feeling pretty satisfied that I could hold out another three or four months at the rate I was going and between now and then I was certain that something else would present itself if I stayed vigilant to any possibility. Heck, maybe the river would thaw and I could add fish to my diet. The thought made my mouth water so much I drooled on my pillow as I faded into sleep.

I was awoken by a deep rumbling. The dogs were terrified and ran all over the bed whining and digging under the covers and under me too as far as they could. I didn’t know what was going on and stayed curled up on the bed until it stopped. It couldn’t have lasted but a few minutes but it has been a few minutes that has changed my life.

I took the lantern and first went into the big chamber. Some things had been knocked from the shelves in the storage rooms, an old bureau had crashed over and splintered into pieces, but by and large that was the only damage. I felt lucky and went back to bed.

The next morning the dogs were whining to be let out and I stepped into the room where I keep the wood and noticed a lot of rock had fallen to the floor. Thinking it was just another bit of luck that I didn’t keep anything breakable in there I opened the door to go out … and was faced with more rock.

It took me a while to investigate what had happened. I went tearing back into the big chamber and then carefully made my way to what we had called “the back door.” I wouldn’t call it a cave opening so much as a fissure that had been big enough for Donovan and I to squeeze out of. And boy was I really squeezing to get out of it now. It was easier for me to back out of the opening than to slide through sideways as I had in the past.

I made my way to the cave opening … or where the cave opening was supposed to be. There had been a very serious rock slide and there was going to be no way for me to move all of the dirt and rock that blocked the entrance.

The dogs had followed me out and were frisking around taking care of business in the morning light and then investigating the new and interesting smells the tumbled rocks had exposed. All I could do was sit and stare and the mutts seemed to wonder why I wasn’t excited by this new thing that had happened.

I wasn’t excited, I was all but devastated. I had been flying along, feeling so good about the latest round of salvaging from those three houses, about adding to my food supplies and about the things that I had brought back to prepare for the baby. Why did it have to happen? Why?

I went back inside, scraping my belly along the way and then cried myself back to sleep. The dogs’ cold noses in my ear woke me up and amazingly I no longer felt like it was the end of the world all over again. The slide was just something else to conquer. I had no choice. Bumpkins needed me to conquer it.

I went back to the “back door” and christened it the new front door. Then, thinking about what I could do to improve the new entrance I realized I was going to have to enlarge it or right quick I was going to be too big to get out. I took the hammer and chisel and spent the rest of the day and the next trying to knock off the worst of the edges that dug into me as I squeezed through.

Tried to knock off the edges. My success was limited. If anyone ever reads this journal I hope they can understand my frustration at the results that I could get with a regular hammer and small chisel as I banged away at that pink and gray Kentucky granite. The worst of the sharp outcroppings did come off but it only gained me an inch or two here and there. Overall the fissure was still going to get tighter before I got thinner again.

I did give serious consideration to moving to one of the other houses I had found but there is really no way that I could have rehabbed the buildings to make them safe enough and warm enough for me to live in while the weather stayed the way it was. All three houses had some pretty bad structural damage, especially in the roof. And the Lodge was completely out of the question unless I wanted to wake up with who knows how many rats at my throat … or maybe not even get the chance to wake up.

After food and wood my size was becoming my primary problem. My heavy coat isn’t fitting too well, I use a length of cord to keep it tied shut. I literally have to lay a thick fleece padding onto my front and then lace myself into the thing before I go out. I have a hard time keeping my pants up as well as I hike. I can’t button them and none of the belts left from Donovan’s belongings fit anymore either. I had to use strips of elastic to fashion suspenders and I look like a clown all the way down to the larger boots I’m forced to wear because my feet and ankles are constantly swollen. All I need is a flower that squirts water on my jacket front and a red nose that squeaks and the picture would be complete.

At first, while it was uncomfortable, I could still fairly easily squeeze in and out the opening. While out I gathered all the wood I could in the mornings and then spent the afternoons recovering or taking care of some other chore. But within a couple of weeks it was very uncomfortable squeezing through the opening. I knew what was coming.

No matter what I tried there simply was no making that fissure any wider. At the same time I was not going to find a safer home for Bumpkins. I knew I was going to get fatter before I was going to get thinner. I knew I didn’t have any other option. It was taking a huge chance but there really wasn’t a good alternative. My prepping went into over drive.

I drug in all of the branches that I could, even some big ones that made it feel like I was pulling something in my side I really had no busy doing, and left them in the floor of the big chamber to be dealt with later. Then I took one last trek to the three houses, gathering anything at all that could be considered useful, using the sled that Donovan had fashioned. On my way back I spotted what I thought was a tumbled down barn and just to mark it off my list I stopped. It wasn’t a barn, it was a silo. Actually it was two small silos. I’d found at least one of places that the elk were feeding from.

One silo was completely empty and there was plenty of dung under the snow. They hadn’t been this way in a while and I figured they’d found richer pickings or had moved into another valley completely when the weather turned really nasty.

The other silo looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The strange thing was that, rather than pulling away from its concrete foundation it had pulled the foundation up with it. I had to use a rock to bust off the door knob but I was rewarded with enough corn to keep me in cornmeal for several months assuming I could transport it to the cave.

I did my best to close the door back up and then headed home. The next day I came back with several feed bags and 3 mil construction site garbage bags as well as two Sterlite storage tubs with locking lids. I was shocked when I got to the silo. Something had been into the corn. A lot of it was scattered on the ground and there was fresh dung as well. I couldn’t tell if it was elk or what, never having studied wild animal poop before; but whatever it was it was bigger than the dogs but smaller than the buffalos. The tracks weren’t very clear in the melting snow either and I gave up trying to figure it out.

Using a shovel I scooped up the corn kernels that were left and found that there was barely enough to fill the two large tubs I had brought. I should have been really upset but I wasn’t. The hope of finding animals returning to the forest was too great.

That was the last trip I took. As I worried would happen I’ve grown too big to fit through the fissure. In fact, at seven, almost eight months, I can’t even get passed the first bend any more. The dogs supply me with a weekly dose of protein. They seem to think it is their duty and have come to appreciate me skinning whatever beastie they bring me to save them the trouble though they’ll take the skin outside and tussle with it like a toy … or like they are training.

And yes, I’ve finally been forced to eat rat. It was easier to do than I had expected. I could feel my body craving protein. I knew that there were things that can go wrong if the baby doesn’t get all the nutrients that it needs while developing. The needs of Bumpkins is the be all and end all of my existence now.

But my problem is that I can’t get the solar panels far enough into the fissure so that they’ll get sunlight to charge the garden batteries. Donovan never finished the bicycle generator. I guess that’s what will take up the hours that I’m stuck in here.

And the wood is running low again. It takes a lot of boiling the corn and beans to make them soft because they are getting old. I know I can break up and burn some of the old furniture down here but I’m worried that it could be treated with something poisonous. Maybe I can get the dogs to play “fetch the stick.” Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

It’s either laugh or cry. I suppose I’ll know in a few days whether it is futile to work on the bicycle generator or not. If I do get it going I’ll need to try and figure out how to put a wide seat on the bike. There is no way that skinny thing is going to do anything for my pregnant backside at this stage.

And look, the battery held out just long enough. It will be too dim to see before much longer. The question remaining is will the darkness be permanent or will there be a light at the end of the tunnel?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter 18

It’s been so long since I sat down and wrote about something besides inventories and recipes. I’ve just been trying to stay organized so I can maintain some sanity. My feelings I save for the privacy of my own thoughts or I talk to the dogs; but I feel really alone right now and I know I have to deal with things in a healthy way or I won’t be the only one suffering because of it.

Donovan and I had it good for about two months from the last point that I wrote. It was boring in a sense but I’ve learned that sometimes survival is boring and it is something you should be grateful for. You get up in the morning, put one foot in front of the other, do what you have to, have a little quality together time if you aren’t too tired or hungry; then you go to bed so you can get up and do it again the next day.

Boring isn’t bad. Actually boring can be good. I learned from being bored. I learned that life will only present so many opportunities and you have to create the rest of them for yourself. I learned that intellectual stimulation is something to be sought and not assumed. With Donovan’s help I started to develop a stronger inner quiet than I’ve ever had. I’d avoided dealing with stuff by pushing it off and saying it didn’t matter for so long that I really wasn’t as healthy and well-balanced as I wanted to believe. If the world had continued to turn as it had prior to Impact Day I might have gotten away with it for the rest of my life, but I can’t say for sure that I would have and I’ve come to believe using the term “life” for what I was living really wasn’t the best description.

The time I spent with Donovan during those two months and not talking was just as enlightening for me as when we did sit and talk. And I’m not being sarcastic when I say that. I think I’m a more balanced person than I was before, more secure, less … less … juvenile in how I view my life and world I guess you could say. It’s about time that I grew up; if not grow up, at least stretched beyond the person I had allowed myself to become out of self-preservation.

You’d think, having to basically grow up so fast when Mom and Dad died that I would have avoided some of the pitfalls of my peers. Instead I over compensated and built up barriers to not only keep pain out but keep people that might cause me pain out. I compartmentalized my life to such an extreme that one part had seemingly nothing to do with the other parts. I was like a jigsaw puzzle that fit together but didn’t make a comprehensible picture.

In Donovan I found someone I could trust; tough, like my dad, but with a different set of life experiences that made him that way so I didn’t have to be concerned about having a father-complex in my attraction to him. He did a lot for me and I learned to appreciate that rather than be resentful of it. His strength and experience is what literally kept us alive.

One day I sat down with him, he was very tired after another full day of cutting wood and I told him, “Donovan, if not for you I know I wouldn’t be alive right now. I know I act a little like a brat sometimes but I’m trying to get better … and I just wanted you to know that I really do appreciate all that you do.”

I didn’t realize it at the time but that expression of my appreciation broke Donovan’s calm acceptance of our situation. It took me a while to notice but suddenly I was getting all of these lessons in doing the things that Donovan had been doing. He taught me the easiest way to cut wood and then built gizmos to make it easier for me to do the chores that he had been doing alone.

He taught me to hunt. I was terrible at first but we practiced … a lot. We rarely brought anything in but it was still invaluable experience that has stood me well. I learned to orienteer on my own, how to build cold weather shelters, how to build traps and track animals, you name it. I thought at first it was just something for us to do. I wanted to please him, wanted to help more so he wasn’t so tired at the end of the day, so I tried my best and I did learn and get better. But the quiet and easiness of our previous relationship was gone and it wasn’t until we saw the helicopter that I realized that it had actually been gone for weeks.

We heard it before we saw it. It was flying straight across the valley and I was so excited that I ran out into the open to get a better look. Something hit me from behind, sending me into the snow and then we were rolling into the underbrush.

“Donovan! What on earth are … !” A snowy gloved hand cut me off and I could see he was furious.

It wasn’t until the helicopter had been gone thirty minutes that he let me up out of the snow and brush and gave me the tongue lashing he’d obviously been holding back.

“Have … you … learned … nothing?!”

“But … but … What are you talking about?! That was a helicopter!! A helicopter for Pete’s Sake! It’s the first sign of other people that we’ve seen in months! And it’s incredible! People somewhere have to be doing OK if they have helicopters!”

Exasperated at me Donovan shouted back, “What people? Where do they come from? Where were they heading? What’s their mission? Are they looking for survivors or are they looking for stuff?”

“How should I know?! But … there are people! Other people!!”

“Emma, think! Use that thing up there for something other than driving me crazy!!” Well that didn’t make me any calmer but when he grabbed me and crushed me to him I knew he wasn’t doing whatever he was doing to hurt me.

“OK … so explain to me how big an idiot that I’m being ‘cause I’m not seeing it. This isn’t some weird guy thing is it?”

Calmer, we walked back home but by a route that kept us in the densest areas of the trees. There wasn’t any breath left to talk, Donovan had us moving at a pretty good pace, but even had we been slower the cold kept speech to a minimum or nonexistent. In fact, to keep from wasting breath and frosting over our face protection any more than necessary, we’d developed hand signals. The signals were a combination of motions developed by Donovan and some ASL signs from a class I had taken as my foreign language component for my college degree.

The hand signals came in very handy. For instance, while we were walking home he signaled me “no talking” and “fast silent” which basically meant “shut up and travel fast but as quietly as possible.” He stopped me when we got to the clearing between us and the entrance to the cave. We knelt and he motioned me to stay and not move until he signaled for me. He got as close as he could before breaking cover and then ran to the entrance of the cave and … well, basically he was checking things out to see if someone had been there. He finally signaled me to come on.

He pulled me into the outer cave, assessed the wood pile to see if we needed more than secured the door and we walked into the living area and he secured that door as well before he uttered a sound. “Emma, don’t ever, ever do that again.”

“Like I said Donovan, clue me in. I understand I did something wrong but what …”

“Wrong?! Emma … argh!” He grabbed me by my shoulders and pushed me to the sofa with force but he wasn’t trying to hurt or scare me. “Emma, we had no idea who those people were. I didn’t even get a good enough look to see what country they were from.”

“Of course they were our people … oh … oh, this is like that … oh.”

“Yes, oh.”

One of the things that Donovan and I had talked about was the eventual need to hook up with other people. Neither one of us seemed to relish the idea of being Adam and Eve. We wanted to create a home for ourselves but we didn’t want to be solely responsible for repopulating the entire world and messing things up even more than the original man and woman had. In the process we had discussed different scenarios of what the world was going to be like in the coming years.

The scenarios ran the gamut from an unlikely utopia because human beings had finally taken all of their past mistakes to heart and reformed to the other extreme of something that would have made Mad Maxx cringe. One particular scenario involved the issue of foreign powers coming into the US in search of resources and assets. I thought it was a little farfetched but Donovan said that once upon the time UN Peacekeepers had been a farfetched idea.

“Emma, I’m not against … investigating … if the helicopter ever comes back. My guess is they were checking out Ft. Campbell – or were from Ft. Campbell. That was the general direction they were coming from this time. But where were they going? And who were they? You have got to think girl. What would have happened if they had seen you, come back, and simply taken you … or worse?”

“I wouldn’t let them take me … and what do you mean … oh … well, you’ve taught me … to … um, protect myself. That is what all those hand-to-hand combat exercises have been right? Even before we left the bunker, right?”

“Hypothetical situations. Yes, I’ve been trying to … @#$%&! Emma, what happens to you if something happens to me?! What if I’m not here? You’ve got to start thinking!”

“What do you mean if you aren’t here? Of course you’ll be here. We’ll be here. Together. We’ll …”

“Emma … Honey …,” then he stopped and sighed. “Accidents happen Emma; I shouldn’t have to tell you that. Look at what happened to your parents. There are no hospitals or doctors out here. What if one of us gets sick? The same problem girl … we can only do so much for each other. If something were to happen to me I have to know that you aren’t just going to curl up and give up. Do you hear me? I have to be able to trust you on this.”

He’d hit a nerve I’d forgotten I had. The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Of course I had known it was possible. Of course I had subliminally gotten the message he was sending. Contrary to the way I sometimes act, I am not stupid. But he’d also angered me and I grabbed a throw pillow and squeezed it tight in my hands.

“No … no I’m not just going to curl up and give up as you so aptly put it. But I swear Donovan, if you don’t do everything you can to stay with me I’ll make sure we’re the first case of the living haunting the dead. You got that you Neanderthal?!” And then I got in two good hits with the pillow before we started wrestling around and … well, never mind, let’s just say that dinner was late as we were both too wound up with emotions to focus on much besides the immediate need for physical contact.

The next two weeks were filled with lots and lots of training. I felt like a new recruit in Donovan’s army. I had a hard time understanding why Donovan was so hyper about it all of a sudden but since it was important to him it became important to me. I knew he only had my best interests at heart and the praise he gave me at nights went a long way towards healing any hurts or humiliations that I had felt during the days. Looking back I can only appreciate everything he did but at the same time … at the same time … I almost wish …

After about two weeks of training Donovan agreed that we both deserved a break. We had a weird sort of picnic in a little area that never got much wind because of the way the granite boulders and the large tree trunks encircled it. After a lunch that cooled too quickly as we took turns eating it out of a thermos I asked, “All of this training … will it do any good when the people come back?”

To my surprise Donovan snapped, “Is that all you ever think about? You can’t wait for those people to come back so you can get away. Well, I’ll just light a signal fire next time and good riddance.”

Now Donovan could have his moods but even for him that was extreme. “Excuse me?! Where did that come from? All I did was ask …”

“Yeah, yeah. You haven’t ever been satisfied with the cave or …”

“Donovan, did we switch bodies or something because you sound just like I imagine I did not that long ago. I didn’t say a single thing about escaping from here. I sure as heck didn’t … and where would we go anyway? There’s no saying that they are really any better off than we are here and …”

“Don’t make fun of …”

I couldn’t help it. It was just too weird. I couldn’t finish a sentence and he wouldn’t. I picked up a wad of snow and let go and hit him square in the face with it. “Listen you Neanderthal, don’t put words in my mouth and for Pete’s Sake speak in something besides man riddles. You know I don’t get …”

Suddenly we were rolling around in the snow and I’m still not sure if it was a for real fight or just both of us blowing off some stress in a wrestling contest like a couple of juvenile delinquents. Then he accidentally on purpose hit one of my worst ticklish spots and the battle was on because I knew where he was ticklish too. The “battle” wound up turning into something not really suited to the temperature nor the environment.

“Donovan, what just happened?” I said between chattering teeth while I tried to put things back where they belonged. All I got in return is a raised eyebrow and wicked look. “Not that you big goof, the rest of it; what was all of that about? I still don’t get it.”

After a deep sigh and a groan at my seeming obtuseness he said, “Emma, I know you want to get back to civilization but do you have to talk about it all the time?”

“Hey! I don’t talk about it all the time. I never even called it … whatever it is supposed to be … civilization. I just don’t see what is so bad about finding out what is going on with other people.”

“You want to hook up with them and … and …”

“And what? You said yourself we will eventually need to for trade and news. How is it going to hurt us to find out if the helicopter people might be our friends, maybe from another bunker or something.”

In a voice heavy with sarcasm he said, “And you had such a great time at the bunker.”

That gave me pause. “OK, so I wasn’t real thrilled with my social status or being tricked to get me there. I sure as heck didn’t approve of the brood mare mentality that some of the other Levels seemed to regard us with. But some of the people were OK. I mean, look at us.”

“Yeah, look at us. The only reason we are together is because we were forced into it.”

That was like a cold slap in the face, especially after what we had just shared. I’d gotten over my crybaby phase, or at least I thought I had but when he said that something inside me curled up on itself and felt like it was withering. I got up and started gathering kindling to take back to the cave.

“I’m sorry you feel like that Donovan,” I said in what I hoped was a mature and even tone of voice. The last thing I wanted him to know at that point was just how much power he had over me and my emotions.

“Emma …”

I needed to stay in control because I knew if I lost it he would see just how much I had come to depend on him in ways that went way beyond simple physical comfort.

“I’ve got to get back and get those chores done before the next storm or it may be who knows how long before we have clean clothes and bedding. Can you bring the thermos while I carry this wood?”

“Emma … I … That didn’t come out …”

“Forget it Donovan. We’re both just tired. Let’s get going. There were some things you said you wanted to get done too.”

I thought I did pretty good about not crying … ok, let’s be honest, not letting him see me cry. I didn’t pout. I didn’t get cranky or snappy or anything else. I was trying to do the mature thing of just accepting it. It still hurt but at least I had my self respect, cold comfort though that was. The dogs knew something was off; they would come and lean against my legs until I would bend down and scratch their heads.

I even managed to eat dinner though it tasted like ashes in my mouth. Afterwards I sewed up a rip in some t-shirts and then went to bed without complaint when he put out the solar lamp and banked the fire. I was so tired out from trying to be mature that I fell into a half sleep almost immediately.

I don’t know what time it was but I woke up to Donovan nudging me. “Emma … Emma … Are you awake?”

Exhausted I yawned, “I am now. Why are you whispering?”

“In case you were asleep.”

I thought, “That’s the Neanderthal that I know and love.” Then the memory of what he said came slamming back in place. “Is there something you need? Did dinner make you sick? What time is it any way?”

“We need to talk.”

I rolled over and looked at him. I didn’t really see him; the only light came from the coals on the fire, but I could make out his outline. “Talk? Donovan it’s some o’clock in the morning and we have to cut wood as soon as we get up and …”

“It didn’t come out the way I meant it Emma. I was just … I don’t know what I was just. But what I said wasn’t what I meant.”

I wasn’t in the mood to play coy or Miss Dippy Empty-Brain. I knew exactly what he was talking about. “Ok.

“Ok? That’s all you’re going to say?”

“How do you want me to respond? You said it came out wrong, so it came out wrong. End of story.”

He sighed with something that sounded like regret. “Don’t do this Emma. It isn’t exactly easy for me to apologize.”

As calmly as I could I said, “I didn’t ask you to apologize. Did I throw a fit? Did I act like a cry baby? Did I make any kind of fuss at all? You hate drama and you hate scenes. I was trying to be … forget it. It doesn’t matter. Let’s go to sleep. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow for both of us.”

Now he was irritated. “Don’t you care?!”

“Why are you still whispering? There isn’t anyone here but us. Well, the dogs but they don’t count. I told you, I’m fine. You’re fine. It’s over and … Hey … Ow!”

He’d tried to grab me by my shoulders but in the dark he’d pinched the meat of one of my arms and grabbed my hair with his other hand. “Don’t shut me out. I said I was sorry.”

“God Donovan, back off will you. That hurt and I hate when you grab me like that. You leave bruises. You said that you didn’t mean it the way it came out. I said fine. You are the one making the scene this time,” I said sitting up in bed and trying to rub away the ouch I knew was coming.

“Is that why?”

“Is what why? I mean why what? I mean … Geez, now I sound like an idiot on top of everything else. Donovan …,” I took a deep calming breath and said, “just spit it out already. I’m really tired and getting stupid confused.”

Even in the dark I could tell he was angry, and something else too but I wasn’t sure what. “Do you want to leave me because I’m … more physical than you are?”

I was more than a little irritated by that point. “Who said anything about me leaving you? You were the one that said the only reason we were together was because we were forced into it. And what do you mean more physical than I am anyway? Donovan, I’m going to say this one more time. I’m tired. You are driving me crazy. I’m confused. I don’t understand what you mean. And … you’re making me wonder if I ever had any of this right or figured out!” I yelled the last bit to put an exclamation point on my frustration.

“You want to leave me. You keep talking about finding other people.”

“I keep talking about us finding other people you loon. And I still fail to understand the problem with that if you want to know the truth. We might need to … I don’t know … something. Don’t you want to know what has happened in the world? By the way bucko, I don’t appreciate how shallow you think I am. What, you think just because I see some other guy I’m going to jump out of your bed and into his? Well, if you’ll think back, I waited a long time until I jumped into yours. So thanks ever so much for the character reference.”

I was getting pretty angry. It was all made even more ridiculous by the fact that when I tried to roll out of bed Donovan grabbed me again. I’d had enough. I used a couple of those moves he’d taught me, surprising him I guess because I’d actually been paying attention, and got loose faster than I had expected. I made it out of bed and was so mad I was stumbling around looking for my clothes, shoes, and I don’t remember what all. Where I planned on going I don’t rightly remember either.

I didn’t get far because Donovan had finally caught his breath and grabbed me in a bear hug. “No doing damage to the leg. I’m already going to have a good sized goose egg from your little attack. Now settle down and answer me this.” I was unceremoniously swung up in his arms and then plunked down on the sofa in front of the fire. “Don’t move. I’m going to get the fire going again.”

Since I was basically wandering around in an oversized shirt and knee-length socks I grabbed the blanket off the back of the sofa, drew my legs up, and wrapped up until the fire caught.

“So … am I sleeping with the dogs?” he asked, kneeling by the fire.

“You are so not giving me the I’m-too-cute-to-be-in-trouble routine. Because I’m so not feeling the vibe at the moment.”

He came over and sat on the floor at my feet, “I’m sleeping with the dogs.”

“You should be,” I said, nudging him with my sock-covered toes.

He tilted his head back to look at me. “But … you won’t make me?”

“On one condition,” I said, charmed despite the walls that were slowly coming down.

“And that is?” he asked, cautiously getting up onto the sofa beside me.

“Explain what is going on. This is too weird. I’m the one that gets hyper needy and makes a muck of things. Not you. You’ve already done all of this relationship stuff and know how it is supposed to work.” I wasn’t just drawing things out to make him suffer. I wanted to understand so that this could be fixed and we could move on. But part of me was hoping it wasn’t something that I had done to cause it as well.

“Hmmm,” he sighed as he got under the blanket with me. We were both chilled and sharing body warmth only made sense. “Yeah, I’ve already been through ‘all of this relationship stuff’ and gotten third degree burns from it. So … I’m carrying more baggage than I thought. Maybe if we had started this when we were around other people … but we didn’t and … and so maybe I’m a little worried that … when the time comes for us to be a couple around other people I won’t measure up. I’m not as educated as the guys you were around before and …”

“Oh Donovan. Maybe … I don’t know … I wish I could say that had things been ‘normal’ we would have still gotten together but it took the world coming to an end for me to get the chance to meet you. You were married, remember?”

“I spent a couple of years trying to forget.”

“Well, I can’t. You’re my first … for a lot of things. But you have lots of women to compare me against. I’ve had to learn to accept that … that I’m not your first, for anything. And that you probably compare me to … to, you know, all those others and that I might not measure up. Wait! No, I don’t want to know. What is in the past can stay in the past. I’ve got enough hang ups. I just mean that, I never thought that you being my first for all of that would be a problem.”

“It’s not. And this is stupid. I’m … look … those people in the helicopter make me nervous for some reason. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“Fine. But next time … I don’t know … Look, I’ve tried really hard to think before I open my mouth but if I’m still saying stuff that upsets you I need to know up front. I …”

“No, you’re doing fine. Let’s not go there.” But he was still looking at me with a troubled look in his eyes. “I don’t mean to put bruises on you Emma. I’m a rough guy, you know that, but … but that’s no excuse for … do I hurt you? Why haven’t you said anything before now?”

Not wanting to upset him anymore but feeling the need to be completely honest I told him, “Donovan, I really don’t mind that you like to get into it sometimes. The wrestling can be exciting, especially when … well, you know what I mean. Maybe I should mind, but I don’t, mostly because I trust you not to go too far and really hurt me. But the grabbing me by the arms … yeah, you sometimes bruise me and sometimes it gets scary when you are for real angry and not just growly.”

“I’ll try not to do that again. I … it’s more baggage Emma and I …”

“It’s all right Donovan, just … just tone it back a bit.”

Since then I’ve wondered just how far I would have let him go just to keep him with me. I know he really didn’t mean to hurt me. Baggage was a pretty good word for what we both brought into things. But, had Donovan been a different kind of guy, what could things have devolved into? And how many other females out there are putting up with situations that hurt just to have a protector for themselves or their children? How many people, both male and female, are letting their personal issues become physical issues? How bleak could the future get?

But Donovan and I at that moment seemed to have reached some kind of new level of understanding. The next two days were tentative for both of us but still good. It could have been my imagination but even the dogs seemed to notice. The calm we felt translated to them and they were calmer as well, even when we took them outside for longer than usual.

We saw the helicopter again shortly after that. It used the same flight path it had before. We had just started to come out of the tree line when it returned and circled the area twice before flying off.

“That … was …” Donovan trailed off.

“Was what?” I asked when he never finished his statement.

“Hm? Oh … the same flight path as before confirms two fixed points that they are flying between. But what was it that caught their attention enough that they broken and flew this area specifically? Heat signature? I doubt it was anything visual, they were flying too fast. We have fresh snow and we entered the woods at a point they weren’t … the cave wasn’t in their … @#$% … @#$% … @#$% !!!”

“What?!”

“The transport,” he ground out, the breath leaving his mouth and curling up like smoke from brimstone.

“It’s hidden, or at least what is left of it is. It’s nothing but scrap,” I reminded him.

“Right. And it’s probably nothing we dismantled and brought into the cave. The thickness of the rock walls would stop a signal.”

I shuddered having to suck in too much cold air to give my blood the oxygen it craved as I all but ran through the woods to keep up with Donovan’s ground eating strides. “Donovan slow down! What signal?”

Donovan eventually slowed down, but not much. I didn’t catch up until we reached the now snow covered pile of rocks and trees that hid what was left of the transport. I watched as Donovan scanned the sky and then looked at the mess before us with narrowed eyes.

“Yeah. This has to be it. This was pretty much dead center of where they were circling.”

I finally could talk without gasping. “Are you saying that something here gave this away?”

“Think Emma. It’s metal … cold metal … so even assuming they have the capability there wouldn’t be a heat signature. Visually there is nothing that differentiates this pile of debris from any of the other piles of debris in the forest. So …”

“Some kind of signal,” I responded trying to suspend my skepticism and see it his way.

“So it would appear. I disabled the locator beacon and its back up when we were dismantling the transport. There must be another redundancy I didn’t find.”

“How? We went over it with a fine tooth comb before we buried it. We took all of the upholstery and just about everything else that wasn’t welded to the frame.”

“Emma, are you sure you …”

“Donovan, both of us did. We went over it three or four times to make sure nothing potentially useful was wasted.”

“Then … inside a welded seam maybe. Only one way to find out.”

We spent the rest of the day digging into the pile and then going over the vehicle’s remains and found nothing. Undaunted, Donovan had us return again in the morning and it was at the point even Donovan was ready to give up that we found the small transponder behind a welded plate. But even after finding it we weren’t positive that truly was what had caught the helicopter people’s attention because the little gizmo had a crack in it and the wire running to the small battery was only attached by a few strands; the soldering had come loose.

Donovan handed me the transponder to look at and when it slipped from my gloved hand to fall to the ground we both looked down at it and then at each other. He bent to pick it up but I stepped forward and kissed him bold as brass, distracting his attention. When we finally broke apart I looked into his eyes, grinned a little guiltily and said, “Oops.”

“Oops?” Donovan asked suspiciously.

I pointed down and moved my boot to reveal that the remains of the transponder resembled little more than a pile of ground up bits and pieces.

Donovan’s eyes widened a little before shuttering, “Emma …”

“Eventually we’ll need to hook up with other people. But when we do, we’ll do it carefully and on our own terms.” I said using some of his words and adding a few of my own to make the point.

Still reserved Donovan asked, “You’re sure?”

“As sure as I’ve ever been. I trust you. We’re a team. If something about these helicopter people feels hinky, then so be it. We have each other and that’s enough.”

I don’t regret saying what I did but the words have haunted me, echoing in every corner of my head whether I am awake or asleep. But even with that, the look on Donovan’s face when I said it still can drive the cold and shadows away with its warmth. The heat in his smile … well, the romantic in me suspects that’s when it happened, not that I knew it then or even had been thinking along those lines.

The following week is almost idyllic in my memory though not idyllic in the traditional sense. Things were just near perfect to our needs; personally and physically.

The “warm” weather held and the snow melted in places it had never melted since we’d arrived. I actually did our laundry outside one day and the sun dried them before they froze stiff. Donovan and I went hunting and instead of the elk we had planned on he got a lucky shot and brought down a buffalo.

As we processed the beast Donovan commented, “This animal has been feeding well on something.”

“Maybe there is some grass growing through the snow someplace nearby?”

“More than likely a silo has overturned or they’ve found hay bales. There might even be dried crops under the snow. Buffalo get better nutritional value from their food than other cattle do. Be nice to know where it is coming from though and see if we could put it to any use.”

The buffalo yielded nearly 475 pounds of meat. We had steaks for dinner three days running. I even made gravy from the pan drippings and put it over some dried kibble for the dogs. The only thing I really missed was fresh greens. Donovan agreed and mentioned, “I miss the rabbit food now and again myself. I think I’ve got a plan to fix that for you.”

He took me into a side chamber to the big cave and showed me a surprise. “When I was spelunking around down here I found this room only needed a little cleaning to make it useful. I’m guessing that somebody in the family might have had a little side business growing an alternative botanical item,” he said with a wink. “These are the kind of grow lights you find in those closet operations. The ground is thawed enough in a few places that I managed to scrape a decent amount of topsoil and added some of that compost you’ve been working on and put it into these wooden boxes I built.”

Fiddling with the lamps he continued, “We’ll have two power options to light these up. First is solar but depending on the weather that isn’t going to be as reliable as we need. So I also built this bicycle generator. The mirrors I’ve mounted there and there should help to magnify the light. We can plant those seeds we found and hopefully at least a few of them will germinate. We may not be able to eat the first crop because they’ll need to go to seed but eventually …”

Eventually. There is always a lot of that to go around … eventually there will be enough seeds … eventually the projects will get completed … eventually it may warm up again … eventually there will be other people to talk to. There are days when I wonder if eventually will ever get here … and when it does will it all have been worth it. But that night we celebrated in our own fashion and in Donovan’s words had a good ol’ time doing it. It was the pinnacle of a wonderful week. And it made what happened the next day even more devastating if possible.

We’d gone down near the river to check things out and to do a little training. The river was a roaring mess in the middle where it was running mean and fast, the current eating away at the thick ice that went all the way to the clay-filled banks on both sides of the bend. An unusually strong gust of wind snatched Donovan’s hat from his head. It didn’t go far, only out onto the ice about four feet. He told me to stay on land and he grabbed a limb and stepped out to snag the hat.

It was like a slow motion reenactment. A large tree being tumbled down river disappeared under the water and then suddenly exploded through a previously solid sheet of ice. Shards and chunks of debris flew everywhere. Donovan, who had just gotten his hat in hand, stumbled when a large chunk of ice came down almost on top of him. The ice he was standing on cracked and he fell sideways hard. Even over the noise I could hear the pop and his groan of pain.

Ice was beginning to crack and sing all along the banks of the bend in the river. I saw the piece that Donovan lay on begin to tip the same time he felt it. He rolled backwards toward the bank but he still went in. I slid down the bank and grabbed him as he popped up with a gasp. I was able to drag him to shore but he was soaked through and I was wet from the knees down. I hugged him to me, grateful beyond words.

Donovan pushed me away and groaned, “My … my leg Emma. We need … need to …”

“Lean on me. Or should I build one of those travois thingies?”

That’s when we heard a rumble.

Looking over my shoulder I saw Donovan’s already pale face go completely white. “Holy … Go Emma! Go! Go! Go!!”

I can still see it like it was just this morning. Can still feel the rumble through my boots as I hauled Donovan up the bank. It was a stampede. I wasn’t thinking clearly, still strung out from the dunk in the river. Looking back I have no idea where I got the strength. Donovan’s size should have made it impossible but somehow I managed to get us to an outcropping of granite and we hunkered behind it.

Then the animals were on top of us and all we could do was cower. I was praying but I don’t remember what I was asking for. I was just calling out. Suddenly one of the animals skidded down beside us and I got to see what the inside of a buffalo’s skull looked like up close and personal as a big chunk seemed to be missing. Then we saw another go down some fifty feet in front of us right before the helicopter flew above our heads chasing the stampeding herd.

As the last animal ran passed Donovan gasped, “We’ve got to get to some cover. Back to the cave somehow. Into the tree line first.”

But when I tried to help him up he gave a silent scream and nearly fainted. I looked down and saw to my horror that the “pop” that I’d heard when he went down was a compound fracture of his shin. While he was still out of it I grabbed him under his arms and drug him into the trees. I stabilized the leg but knew there was no way that I was going to be able to drag him all the way home that way.

I said a prayer of thanks that we were still in one piece and had left the dogs at the cave but then cursed in frustration when I didn’t see any likely small pine or cedar saplings that were useable for a travois. There were a couple of dry hardwoods saplings but my machete wasn’t cutting them and Donovan had lost his ax off his belt in the river.

I took out the emergency blanket that I kept and the one in his pack too and used them to try and stave off shock and hypothermia, roused him just enough to tell him I’d be back as quickly as I could, kissed his forehead and then took off at a run.

I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that before or since. I made it to the cave, all but had to kick the dogs to keep them from getting in my way and then ran back outside … only to be slapped in the face by a hard, cold wind. The kind of wind that presaged a bad storm. Listening, I could hear the crackle of electricity high above me in the gray and rolling clouds. I panicked a bit when I realized the first flakes were already blowing on the wind. I had made the run in thirty minutes but I knew the storm would be on us before I could get back to Donovan.

I took off, throwing caution to the wind, praying that what I had in the pack would see us safe and back home before it reached white out conditions. The wind, blowing against me as it did, added fifteen minutes to my time getting back to Donovan and when I did … there was no Donovan.

I searched the area in vain. When I looked down I knew I was in the right location because of the pink I saw there … blood mixed with snow. There was no way that in his condition Donovan could have wandered off. One there was too much blood and two … well, he wouldn’t have willingly left me. I may not know much but I trust that is a rock solid fact.

Then I thought to look for the buffalo by the outcrop and it was gone as well. I cursed myself for a fool and realized I hadn’t covered the tracks we had made when I had “hidden” Donovan in the forest. I’ll rot for that to the end of my days.

He’s gone. Alive? I don’t know. He was badly hurt, in shock, and had lost a lot of blood. The helicopter people took him … I think. I’m not sure. All I know is that he is gone and it’s been four months and if he’d been able to come back he would have. I know he would have. Of that there is no doubt. He promised he’d never betray me and leaving me when I needed him most would have been a major betrayal.

I barely remember, much less understand, how I made it back to the cave. It’s like I could hear Donovan’s voice ringing in my ear to keep my inner drama queen under control and do what he’d been teaching me all these months. The dogs helped me to get my boots and socks off and we all curled together in the bed for warmth. It was their needs rather than my own that kept me going during the week long blizzard. And during the blizzards that continued to come after that. It seems it had been nothing more than an “Indian Summer” that had warmed the earth … just long enough to remind us what it used to feel like before Impact Day.

It was a month before I really awoke to myself and another one before I could pass a day without crying several times. I learned that talking to yourself is sometimes the only thing that keeps you sane. I learned to downsize my cooking to feed only one … and two growing dogs. In three I’d finally come to accept my situation and was strong enough to do most of what Donovan had done for me in the past without collapsing in exhaustion mid way through the evening meal.

And then I started getting sick. I thought it was the food, but the dogs weren’t sick. I thought it was just depression and loneliness, both of which I was all but wallowing in. When I realized I was only sick in the mornings I put it down to stress and not sleeping properly … for a while anyway. But then I looked at the calendar and the most amazing thing happened.

What should scare me spitless is just about the only thing that is giving me the will to live. I have purpose again. I know that, God willing, my loneliness will come to an end in about six months. I can stand it that long … I think. And sometimes, when I let myself, I imagine what Donovan would think and what he would say, and I treasure those imaginings up because it will be just about the only thing I’ll have to give his child.