Friday, March 19, 2010

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter 17

Lately it’s been storming more often than it hasn’t. I guess winter is truly here to stay. For how long we have no idea. It is so cold that it almost hurts to breathe when we are outside.

We have been exploring a little further from our cave. A storm had just ended and we felt safe going beyond our last exploration point and this took us over the next hill. It was tough going for both of us. Donovan could have made better time if he hadn’t had to wait for me but the snow in places came up to my waist and when I fell in it took Donovan’s help to get me out. The little hollow we discovered didn’t take near the beating that ours did though there was damage enough up on the ridge. We finally made it to the bottom of the steep, tree-covered area to find a short bridge that crossed what appeared to be a shallow gully. The bridge was damaged on one side but we didn’t pay too much attention to that because everything is damaged these days. About half way across a brutal slap of wind caught me in mid-step and I lost my footing, going over the damaged area of the bridge where the railings were missing.

I braced myself for impact with water but I had forgotten that there was nothing but ice. What I hit was neither water nor ice. It made that distinctive “thump” you hear when something lands on the hood of a vehicle.

Donovan started to scramble after me before I had even finished falling. I was trying to decide which I felt more; thankful that I wasn’t hurt or irritated that that sort of stuff always seems to happen to me. As I was grumping my way through being thankful – not the best compromise – Donovan and I were brushing the thick snow off of whatever I had fallen onto. I finally cleared the foot of snow away from a section when I was startled into a soundless scream. I back pedaled into Donovan, spilling us both into the true bottom of what must have been a runoff creek during certain times of year.

Donovan caught my shoulders and asked, “Hey, you OK?”

I drew a deep breath and wish I hadn’t. The air was way far on the other side of crisp. I coughed a little and then said, “Yeah. Donovan I … I think it’s like those other cars.” I was referring to the cars we salvaged from after we left the bunker all that time ago.

Donovan crawled back onto the hood of a large, nose-down vehicle and brushed away more snow to look inside. “Looks like three … no four … adult-sized males. All but one dressed in hunter’s gear. Vehicle is a … Ford Explorer I think, but it’s been modified. There’s a layer of ash sitting directly on the car’s finish and it has eaten the decal off. It’s a Ford of some type, likely an older explorer model. Stay back Emma.” He proceeded to try and open the driver’s side door.

He couldn’t so he busted out the window and avoiding the corpses as much as possible tried to determine what had happened. When he pulled his head out I saw him in true security chief mode, something I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

“The damage is primarily to the front driver’s side quarter panel and the front bumper area where the vehicle landed in mud. It’s frozen in place. There is also solid ice all in the front floor board encasing the corpses’ legs. There’s no water in the gully now but if I had to guess I would say that there was water when the vehicle went in. Driver’s front wheel is probably a spare; it’s different from the other three tires. It’s bald and showing tread. Both front tires are flat; could be from impact or it could be the cause of the accident. All four corpses show significant damage with associated blood loss. The corpses in the front driver’s and front passenger seats were not wearing seat belts. Corpse three was wearing a seat belt but it looks like he had significant head trauma. See where the passenger door’s window is spidered and blood on the inside? Corpse number four … that would be why they were on the road most likely. He had a significant pre-mortem injury. There was some attempt made to bandage his chest; it is completely blood encrusted. He was strapped in using two of the three rear seat belts and his head was in the lap of his rear seat mate.”

Donovan sighed and then said, “How does this sound? Four hunters back in the woods and one has an accident. Definitely something life threatening from the look of the blood loss. They call out, no one answers their plea for help or they can’t get a signal or something. They try to bring their friend out themselves, something happens on the bridge and they go off into the water filled gully. No one ever comes to check on them so here they remain.”

“Could they have been blown off the bridge post Impact?”

“I … don’t think so. No side panel damage on the other side of the vehicle.”

“Then I guess without any other proof your explanation is as good as we are going to get.”

Donovan grunted, “Here, come up here and help me hold this camper top open. Grab that rail down by your feet. We’ll use it as a prop.”

“Hmm. No luggage, no camping gear. Here are a couple of guns but that’s it. Let’s see if we can follow the road backwards and see where they came from. But not too far in case a storm comes up.”

“The last one ended last night. We’ve got a couple of days until the next one.”

“Never assume darling. Just as soon as you think you know what the weather is going to do, it’ll change track on you and leave you up the creek. As vicious as these storms are getting I don’t want to get caught out in one. As it is I need to make time to further reinforce the barricade door.”

The road was fairly easy to follow. The only gap in the trees turned into what looked like a narrow and winding, snow-covered lane. Around the second bend a fairly expensive hunting lodge rose out of the rocky ground. It had some exterior damage but significantly less than any other standing building we have seen. Two additional snow-covered vehicles were parked in a covered parking area that had been built of the same stone as the house. The roof was collapsed from where a large tree had fallen on one end destroying the snow mobiles that we saw there. Donovan had a few choice words to say about that tragedy. Then we broke into the house and started looking around.

I found him about ten minutes later after we went in separate directions, “Donovan?”

“Yeah, I know. If I could find a sled we’d take some of this stuff back with us.”

“Can you make some out of skis?”

“Skis? I suppose.” He was only half way listening to me and then he turned around real quick. “Hey, did you find skis?”

“Yeah, they look like skis … sorta,” and I handed him what I had found.

“Older but these are definitely cross-country skis.”

“There are five or six pairs down there. Poles too.”

“What are you making such a face for?”

Curling my lip in disgust, “It smells really funky down there.”

Donovan followed me down a flight of stairs to a finished basement that didn’t have any windows or door to the outside.

“Smells like summer in a kennel down here only … I don’t know something else too,” he muttered from behind the sleeve he put over his mouth a nose.

About that time we heard something in the wall. Without warning I felt something clamp onto my leg. Looking down I screamed at the top of my lungs and started kicking but it wouldn’t come off.

“Hold still!”

“Oh God, get it off. Get it off!!”

Then another one attacked Donovan as he bent to try and help me. He was wrestling, trying to get the thing off his shoulder. Three other shapes lunged out of the dark, both of them tearing into the horror that was attached to my leg and nearly shredding it. I helped Donovan to rip off the one that was on him and threw it away where it was pounced on and shaken like a rag doll. But there was more rustling and we quickly retreated up the steps. The three shapes followed us but not quickly enough, one of them was attacked right below the top step. Donovan reached down and pulled the animal up and then detached the two attackers and broke their necks, but it was too late.

At our feet lay a terrier. A main artery had been bitten and it didn’t take long for the poor thing to bleed to death. We tried to save it but it was no use. It licked our hands and whined submissively but she was just here one moment and gone the next.

I was in tears, “Oh Donovan.” I sat on my haunches covered in dog blood. The two other dogs stared with hackles raised at the now closed basement door alternately growling at the basement and growling at us. But they were shivering too. Donovan grabbed a cover off of the nearby sofa and wrapped them both together and as nasty as they were he still stuffed them inside his jacket. Neither dog seemed to know what to make of it but the warmth seemed to reassure them.

I looked up from where I was still on the floor and found myself looking at a portrait of a man standing beside a fence with two dogs almost identical to the ones we had found.

“Rat terriers.”

The non sequiter threw me off. “What?”

“They’re rat terriers. Looks like the guy in the picture bred show dogs of that breed.”

I finally noticed the trophies and ribbons that adorned the wall. He continued, “These two don’t look like much more than puppies. Look how small they are. The one that … that died was a female, probably their mother. You can tell she’s had puppies. The sire dog could have died down there looking for food for his pack. I don’t see any sign of another dog and the smell isn’t bad up here.”

“Why would he leave his dogs like that?!” I cried, still upset.

“Emma … Emma. Think darlin’. Dog vs. injured human … the man probably shut his dogs down there with plenty of food and water thinking he’d be back for them. He had to get the injured man to medical care or he was going to die.”

“Yeah, I guess. Sorry about … about not thinking. It just sounds awful to leave your animals like that. I’m surprised they didn’t starve to death.”

“Some pups may have, or may have fallen to the rats. I’m not going down there to look for bones to find out one way or the other. I’m sure that the terriers took their fair share to dine on after their dog food ran out. The rat terrier is the perfect foe to go up against an army of those devils. I read somewhere that a rat terrier cleared a barn of over five thousand rats in a single day. Just try and not think about it for a while. I’ll bury the dog. You look around but be careful, and if you start smelling or hearing anything you get out of there.”

“Donovan?”

“Yeah?”

“Where do the rats come from? We haven’t seen any up here? We haven’t seen any in the cave? Thank goodness for that by the way. In fact we have seen any animals until now.”

Donovan squinted his eyes and scratched his head. My questions sometimes drive him a little crazy. He says I give him a headache making him think too much. I think it is because he doesn’t like not being able to answer them. “We know the cold and lack of food have a lot to do with that. We might have some hibernating animals but they could have died in their sleep of starvation. But the true omnivores … primarily rodents … may have just moved underground and tunneled to find food. They would have started with roots and then moved deeper as the cold settled in … basements, sewers, etc. Enough furry bodies and you have a pretty good heat source that is self regulating. Obviously the rats here are getting desperate. They are also pretty blood thirsty which suggests to me that either they are cannibalizing their weak or that they’ve been surviving off of scavenging corpses. But they don’t appear to be desperate enough to risk the cold. And we’ve likely thinned their numbers too. The cold and lack of food, possible cannibalism, depravation by the dogs, seems like it would keep their numbers down.”

Donovan ran out of hypothetical answer and it was enough to satisfy my sometimes uncontrollable curiosity; we both turned to do what we said. It didn’t take long for Donovan to cover the small corpse with rocks and then come back inside. The puppies didn’t want to leave his coat so he just carried them around. Every once in a while they would wiggle around or stick their nose out of his collar but for the most part they stayed docile.

Once he caught up with me on the second floor he asked, “Anything?”

“Lots of stuff but no rats. Not rat poop, no rat sounds, nothing.”

“Looks like I was correct. Cold probably keeps them underground. That means that anything we find on the first and second floor should be OK. I hate to say it but I need to go back to the basement to get the other skis.”

“No you won’t.”

“Emma …,” he started.

I know he doesn’t like it when I get over protective but this time I was right. “Seriously, there is a room downstairs that has all sorts of sports equipment in it including more skis.”

“Was there a kitchen?”

“Yeah, I didn’t want to look by myself.”

“Let’s go look together then. That will be the first stuff we have to take if there is anything.”

There wasn’t much that was salvageable. The cans were all frozen and misshapen. Nothing in the frig or freezer was any good. The bottles of booze where all shattered where they had frozen. There was some staple items like salt, pepper, and sugar as well as some other seasonings. We kept looking as we explored the rest of the house but we didn’t hit pay dirt until Donovan noticed that the wall between the master bedroom and the connected master bath on the second floor didn’t match. He looked for a second and then jerked down the whole clothing rack and threw it onto the bed where I started pawing through the clothing looking for anything worth the trouble of hauling back.

“Whoever did the man’s security wasn’t real smart. I noticed it within three minutes of entering.” He then put a booted foot through the back panel of the closet to reveal a small storage area. “Well, lookie here.”

It looked a bit like a panic room only a very flimsy one. There was some closed circuit security cameras and some kind of communication devices but it was useless at this stage. There was a supply of Mountain House foods in #10 cans and some other emergency food. Also three different sized ammo cans filled with bullets. Another box revealed some of those flimsy, roll up solar chargers. Donovan stuffed the puppies back down his coat collar while he said, “Looks like the guy tried to be prepared but I don’t know, doesn’t look like much. There is a water filter but no water; I see cans but no can opener. No way to boil water to reconstitute this food either. Nothing to provide any kind of warmth or light except that lantern … which the idiot would have suffocated if he had lit it in this enclosed space even if there had been fuel for it … and that folded camp chair that looks about as comfortable as an iron maiden. The only thing good I can say of the man is that he thought of his dogs … look at that pallet of freeze dried dog kibble.”

“Easy dear … we can’t all be chief of security for a highly classified government survival bunker.”

All I got in return was a snort and a shoulder bump which was about all the comment was worth. We hauled the small stash to the top of the stairs and left it there and then tried to figure out how we were going to get the stuff home. There were things in the house that I practically lusted after but the food – human and canine – took priority.

Going through the sports gear we found a couple of large snow saucers and a good sized children’s sled. Had any other human beings seen us we would have made the cover of some Ripley’s Believe It Or Not type magazine. Donovan had the sled loaded with several cases of food from the panic room and I had some floppier bags piled onto the two saucers. The skis we tied onto the back of our packs. And I shoved a few odds and ends as well as the rolled up solar chargers into my pack. You talk about trying to get used to something … I tried to not trip as I walked – first uphill and then down – with long skis attached to my back, pulling two snow saucers tied tandem. I felt ridiculous and clumsy so I can just imagine what I looked like. But we did it.

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. The puppies were positively fascinated with our living quarters and then promptly found a corner and piddled in it. I looked at Donovan he sighed. “Fine. I’ll take puppy duty this time.” They’ve been a lot easier to house train than I expected but the first couple of days were not fun. When it is storming and they can’t go out, they have an area of the outside cavern that they can do their business on. It is covered in astro turf we ripped out of the little house near the cave so all we have to do is roll it up and take it out and shake it off. It’s still nasty but given how much fun the puppies are and how amazing it is that they survived we aren’t going to complain.

We considered trying to go back for another load that first day but it would have been dark before we got back and neither one of us wanted to stay a night in that house. Donovan bathed the dogs while I fixed us all dinner. We had our soup straight. For the puppies I put some of the freeze dried kibble into a bowl and then dribbled some of the broth over it to rehydrate it. They didn’t know what to make of it at first; they’d obviously been used to eating fresh kills. But in no time they were wolfing the food down and then sniffing around our chair. Donovan warned me not to be tempted to feed them from the table or it might be impossible to break them of the bad habit.

The puppies wouldn’t settle down. They kept smelling and looking around. I think they were looking for their mother. Finally they were just exhausted but were still too upset and started whining and were on the border of howling when Donovan said, “Emma, where’s that blanket that I had them in inside my coat?”

He took the blanket and made them a bed in a box near the fire. They scratched at it and then curled up together. I don’t know if they ever quite went all the way to sleep. I imagine being stuck down in that basement with those monsters they learned to always been on guard.

The next morning we got up and the puppies refused to be left behind so Donovan carried them in his coat again and we got three trips made to and from the house. The last one didn’t see us home until thirty minutes after night fall and it was so cold it felt like ice crystals were forming in my brain.

“Emma, I don’t want to risk that again. We either get an earlier start or we keep our trips down to two.”

We got three trips in the next day by starting earlier and simply accepting that we’d have to take the dogs with us if we wanted to go in a timely manner; but the day after that a storm slammed into us before we could even question whether we’d be able to make another trip or not.

The next four days were spent training the dogs and adding the new stuff to our inventory. The storm broke and we went back to the house. Two more days and we had everything out of it that was remotely useful that we could haul using our eccentric form of transportation. While Donovan was looking around to see if there was any way we could transport the wood stove from the older of the two kitchens the lodge had, I stood at the big windows that overlooked what probably was the river but is currently frozen and snowed over. I blinked thinking my eyes were playing tricks on me.

“Bu … bu … bu …” I stammered.

Donovan asked me what I was yammering about and I hit him with a small decorative pillow from the window seat.

“Hey! You’re the one that is stuttering and I’m the one that gets hit?”

I pointed to the window and he looked out, did a double take and then went, “Bu .. bu …”

“Yeah, that’s what I said! Now how do we kill one?”

That rather naive comment broke Donovan from the spell he was under. He looked at me incredulously and then started laughing. I’m glad he was so amused but the truth of the matter is I knew that if the Native people had been able to do it with arrow and spear, surely we could take one down with a gun.

“Girl, I swear, with you around I’m going get a hernia from busting a gut laughing. You want me to go out and kill you a buffalo.”

A little chagrined at how blood thirsty I had been … it’s been a long time since we’d had any fresh meat … I blushed and said, “I know it sounds crazy but …”

He gave me a one armed hug indicating he was just fooling and then said, “Girl, give me a chance to think. Maybe I can get you that buffalo blanket you are wanting.”

“Forget the blanket, I want the steak.”

He laughed and then stared out the window with a serious look on his face. While he did his contemplative thing, I was wondering where they could have come from. Donovan must have heard my wheels turning because he said, “Buffalo are indigenous to the US – they’re actually bison by the way – but they don’t roam like they did in the early 1800s when over fifty million of them roamed freely all over. As a boy I used to love to watch movies about the west and how the pioneers and Native Americans lived. I was out to Yellowstone a few years back and was amazed at how many there were in the park alone. People had smaller herds all over the US, and they were used to cross-breed in some specialty cattle markets to make an animal called a ‘beefalo.’ I know for a fact, growing up, they had some buffalos at the museum over near Land Between the Lakes. These could have bred from that population or they could have been pushed east back into their former habitat by the results of Impact Day. There may be no telling for sure. How many you count?”

“I see …. Mmmm … at least four dozen.”

“Yeah. That’s what I get more or less. I suppose taking one won’t impact their breeding cycle and … what the …?”

About the time he was agreeing to hunt the big animals a herd of reindeer … I swear, it really was reindeer … walked into our line of sight. He turned around suddenly and headed into the office where all of the trophies and ribbons were and looked more closely at the pictures and pulled open a couple of the filing cabinets.

“Well I’ll be John Brown. This guy might have been an idiot when it came to survival but he had a good head for business. Check this out Emma. This wasn’t just some rich guy’s house but was a commercial hunting lodge with all the specially permitting required. Somebody had a heck of an operation here. You have the lake down below,” he said pointing to where the lake would have been if everything wasn’t frozen and snowed over. “And up here you’ve got prime hunting land. Explains more than it doesn’t. These papers show he stocked a few exotics so there had to have been a tall fence encompassing the property. Must be blown over and buried under the snow. The animals that have survived are the exotics that can make it in the bitterly cold weather … I see invoices for big horn sheep, antelope … yeah, and here’s one for buffalo … and another for mule deer and reindeer … and elk. There might be more than one reason why we haven’t seen any local game if he imported any exotic predators. We’re going to need to be more careful when we are out and about. A hungry animal is going to be a dangerous animal. The rats were proof of that.”

Hunting had to wait another day because we weren’t prepared. Only in the movies do you just go pick off a big animal like you are going to go get your hair done. We still haven’t gotten a buffalo though it is on Donovan’s list of things to do. We had enough just to do just to finish clearing the lodge of what we could. Instead of reindeer or buffalo, Donovan brought down a medium-sized elk. We smoked and dried a lot of it and froze a good bit of it too. I never realized how big those things were until I had to process one.

I vaguely understood the whole science project but without any books to follow the procedures I had to completely rely on Donovan’s experience he gained by helping his aunt and uncle. He built a smoker and dried a lot of the meat into jerky. Using an old sausage grinder I made a bunch of pounds of ground elk burger and made patties with it and then froze it outside. This was stored in the “ice room” that Donovan and I built by bringing in blocks of ice – made using clean water from the underground spring and frozen in same shape/size containers at night – and placing them in one of the smallest caverns that led off of the big storage cavern. We also cooked some of the chunks in soup bases and stews and then froze it in plastic freezer containers and these were also stored in the ice room.

The puppies went nuts for the offal and we froze what they didn’t eat immediately. This saved us having to feed them our own food supplies. Donovan and I even boiled the bones down for broth and froze that for future use as well.

The night after spending all day processing the elk Donovan and I shared an incredible elk steak. First we marinated it with olive oil, soy sauce, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, minced garlic, onion powder, ground ginger, and pepper. Then we grilled it over a drip pan to catch the juices and keep them from falling into our fire place and making a mess. The drippings I poured over the dogs’ kibble. As I’m sitting here writing this my mouth is watering just remembering how good it was. For once even the dogs were satisfied and didn’t come begging for scraps.

To go with the steak I made mashed potatoes, fried corn, corn meal biscuits, and I fixed a rice pudding for dessert. The dogs weren’t the only ones that went to bed with full bellies. Donovan acted like an old bear that was ready for hibernation. So much so that his belt wasn’t the only thing that loosened up after dinner. We were sitting on the sofa staring at the fire, almost too tired to go to bed, when he made that noise in his throat that is a cross between a growl and a grunt that usually comes right before he says something incredible chauvinistic and then mumbled, “A woman that can put a meal on the table like that is worth going buffalo hunting for.” He closed the statement with a snore. I came very close to driving my elbow into his full belly but then I caught myself and realized that we really have returned to a chauvinistic world.

I thought about it and I’m more and more convinced that some men used to almost fantasize with glee that the world would one day devolve into complete chaos just so that they would get their shot at living some male fantasy of what they thought their existence could be if the modern world would just stop emasculating them. I don’t think that Donovan ever had that problem. He’s always been a chauvinist pig to a certain extent – which is kind of adorable in reasonable doses now that I’ve gotten to know him better – but I wonder about some of the other men I’ve known in my life. My dad? Heck, he was always a real man in my eyes and what I measured all other men against. Mr. Epstein? Well … not exactly my cup of tea but again, he never seemed to have a problem with who he was and was always full of self confidence. On the other hand I’ve seen some of the boyfriends my former roommates had and they always struck me as either over the top and trying too hard to prove what a he-man they were or they came off really … uh, whipped to put it politely. Now whether that was their own fault or the fault of the women they choose to hang with isn’t my concern but it still drove home the fact that I owed Donovan quite a bit for my continued survival.

The next day that topic was still on my mind; enough that I would have walked into a low hanging ledge in the spring room if Donovan hadn’t grabbed my hoodie and jerked me backwards real quick.

“Girl, where is your mind? You do realize you just about knocked yourself out on that rock?” Donovan set the wind up flashlight on a handy ledge and had turned me around, tilted my chin up and was looking in my eyes like he was checking to see if I was sober or stoned.

I brushed his hand away and said, “I have a lot on my mind is all. Thanks for saving me … again … another bruise I don’t need.”

Something in my tone or comment must have caught his attention. Donovan plays at being a Neanderthal but I’m slowly learning that some of that is camouflage that hides a really sharp mind. “Hmmm. You got a problem with me saving you?”

“No. I just wish you didn’t have to do it so often. I’m beginning to wonder exactly what I bring to the table … between us I mean. I know the … the sex and all … but I mean more than that. What makes you want to stay around? Put up with the things I do that I know drive you crazy.” I shrugged lifted the buckets I had filled and put them on the yoke I used to carry the heavy buckets with.

“What’s got you worrying at that again?” I expected him to be impatient about it but he honestly seemed interested if not exactly concerned about the topic.

“Just thinking.”

“Girl, when you think you can drive the oxygen out of a room. You worry more stuff to death than anyone I’ve ever met. Come on. Help me bring in some wood.”

I tried to let it go, I really did. Bringing in wood while keeping track of the pups takes a lot of energy and concentration. They naturally wanted to be outside quite a bit now that they’d discovered it but they couldn’t because of their paws. I’d asked Donovan about making coats and boots for them and that is one of those times he nearly “busted a gut.”

For a hearty lunch/dinner I made a big pot of wheat berry chili that used a couple of different kinds of beans, some of the ground elk, canned diced tomatoes, some dried corn, seasonings, and a cup of whole wheat berries to piece all of the other ingredients out even further. I made fried cornmeal cakes to go with it. I finished cleaning up the last meal of the day and poured the drippings from frying the elk over the pups’ kibble and then sat down to work on the inventories. I was determined to stop feeling sorry for myself.

I guess I had been working for about thirty minutes – work is still a balm for my troubles even if I’m doing better about keeping it under control – when Donovan came up behind me, leaned over and slowly closed my notebooks.

“What?” I asked.

“Come on. We’ve both been working all day and the fire is warm and sofa is soft.”

I didn’t want to upset him by turning down his request to snuggle so I willingly put things away and went to sit with him.

“Now isn’t this better than going blind looking at those endless lists you make?”

I smiled a small smile and said, “Of course it is but what I want isn’t always what I need. I’ll have to work on those inventories tomorrow instead of finishing them tonight.”

“You’ll have time enough. There’s another storm brewing from the feel of the wind when I brought in that last load of wood. But what I want tonight is to know what you meant this morning. And don’t give me that look, you know exactly what I’m asking about.”

“Donovan, it isn’t …”

“Don’t even start. You’ve got a permanent line between your eyebrows. It gets deeper every time you start worrying at something. Now out with it. I can’t fix it if I don’t know what it is.”

That hit a nerve. “That’s just it Donovan, I’m tired of you constantly having to fix things. I fall down in the snow and can’t get up without your help. I fall off a bridge and you have to run and save me. Stupid rats nearly chew my leg off and you get attacked trying to save me. I can’t carry my share of the wood. I didn’t even know what to do with that elk even though I’m the one that instigated the hunt to begin with. And all of that is just in the last couple of days.”

“Are you keeping track or something? And what do you mean instigated …”

“I know I sound like a whiney brat. I’m just tired of feeling useless … being useless. I wasn’t like this before. I worked my rear off to pay my own way. Even in the bunker I did my best to pay my own way without compromising who I was any more than I could help. Now look at me. I’d be dead so many times over if it wasn’t for you.”

“And you resent that?”

“Yes … no … argh! That’s not what I mean.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“I mean I want to save you right back!”

My energy level was kicking way up and I had a bad case of the fidgets. I tried to get off the sofa and walk it off only to have Donovan grab me from behind and drag me onto his lap. “Girl, you save me a little bit every day, every morning when we wake up together, with every idea I come up with to try and make things better for us, every time I come close to getting too serious and you say something outrageous whether you mean to or not. You save me every time you look at me with those big beautiful eyes like I mean something besides a warm body that will put up with your cold feet at night.”

“I do not have cold feet … or I wouldn’t if you wouldn’t hog the covers. And what does that have to do with anything anyway?” I tried to wiggle off and he only held me closer.

“You are worse at wiggling than those puppies are. Your energy amazes me Emma. You throw yourself into everything with a confidence that drives me crazy. You are willing to try just about everything even when you know you failed at it the other times. When you fell off that bridge my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. Look at me, I don’t do the romantic thing Emma, you know that … but if I did, I’d want to do it for you. You make me feel needed, wanted, like I matter … not just my muscles but me. I can’t say for other men Emma, but that’s what I’ve been missing. It’s why my marriage failed. She didn’t need me, no matter what she said in the beginning.”

“Oh Donovan … you are important to me. I just worry …”

“There’s that word again,” Donovan interrupted.

“Yeah, I know, it’s just … what happens when I no longer make you feel like you matter but like I’m a burden? The Major or Capt. Chandler would never have …”

“Nope, they wouldn’t have. In fact, they nearly left me to the best end they could imagine for me. You didn’t. You wouldn’t even in the face of everyone else’s objections. I can’t pretend that I understood it then – have a hard enough time just accepting it even now – but … but I’m glad you did Girl. Life, even under our current circumstances, is definitely worth living in a way I’m still learning to appreciate. Just stay with me Emma. Don’t turn away. Don’t create a problem that doesn’t exist. I can’t pretend to know what the future holds, but whatever it is, I know with you in it it will continue to be worth living.”

And he claims he isn’t romantic. Honestly … men.

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter 16

Been a while since I’ve sat down to write; been too tired most nights, or busy. I’ve been confused and feeling like I only understood about half of what has been going on. And guilty. Guilty pleasures. Pleasures, guilty or otherwise, wasn’t exactly in my vocabulary before this point in my life.

The morning after I last wrote Donovan (I helped) fitted another door for the entrance from our living quarters into the big cavern. Even as tight as Donovan made the fit there was still a cold draft that would come from under the doors so I made draft stoppers, filled them full of dried corn, and laid them along the bottom of the doors. Doing that allowed us to keep the living quarters in the 60s on most days. At night it gets colder but it is still warmer than it has been.

The storm let up about two days after I tripped and banged my head. Donovan stabilized the barricade to the outside with several overlapping pieces of sheet metal. He isn’t happy with it at all but finally let it go because we have so many other things that need doing.

“Donovan, it may not be as pretty as the other doors but it is secure and keeps the wind and snow out.”

“Just because something is utilitarian or plain doesn’t mean that it can’t be nice looking.” When he saw my mouth hanging open he said defensively, “Uncle Shem taught me.”

“I’m … Donovan my dad made stuff too so I know what you mean. I just didn’t … I’m sorry. That was rude. You just surprised me.”

“What? I’m too big a redneck to use the word utilitarian or expect stuff to look nice?” he said as he curled his lip in disgust.

“Hey! That’s not what I meant! Not at all,” I said defending myself. “I meant it just sounded like something my dad would have said and it just … caught me off guard. I just don’t want you to think I’m projecting on you, or have a Daddy-complex, or anything else like that.”

“Oh.” It sounded at least like he accepted that he might have been a tad on the defensive side. “So, your dad made stuff too? Carpenter? Metalworker? You never said.”

I smiled remembering, “More like a Jack-of-all-trades. If Momma wanted it Daddy would most times be able to figure out how to fix it for her. I … sometimes … sometimes I miss them so much that it hurts. And in some ways you remind me of my dad more than anyone else ever has. I just don’t want you to think that is the only reason why I like you and …”

“So … you like me do you? How much?” Donovan asked with that wicked look he’ll get.

See, that is part of what was driving me nuts. I knew what I was doing wasn’t something I necessarily should be doing or would have done under any other circumstances. Nothing had been said about forever. Nothing had been made permanent. We never talked about much beyond the next few days in our lives. Yet on the other hand … I liked it; and I liked him. I knew there was a good chance what I was doing was wrong but I wanted it – reality or illusion – so much I did it anyway.

That’s not all we did by any stretch. We worked. We worked hard and we worked long and a lot of nights all we did was fall asleep, too tired to do much but snuggle together for warmth.

As soon as we could get outside I helped to find several straight cedar and pine trees. We only took the ones that had already blown down because we didn’t want to thin the forest out any more. The cedars and pines Donovan sat aside in the big cavern for later and then we got serious about gathering more wood.

Dragging those suckers was no easy task. Up and down the snow drifts. Sometimes one or the other of us would fall in because the snow wasn’t as packed as it appeared. The worst time was when Donovan went down to his armpits and got tangled up in a tree that had been leaned over in the storm but hidden by the snow; the “hill” turned out to be a covered up tree. Every time I tried to dig him out he just sank a little further. We finally managed to get him out but he was terribly chilled and we were both exhausted. We stayed out of that area afterwards and stuck to the fallen trees closer to the cave entrance.

After we had a large pile of trees, Donovan handled chopping the bigger pieces of hardwood in the mornings while I pulled the branches that I could over to the cave entrance. He chopped the branches for a little while after lunch then we would stack for the rest of the day. We stuffed the outer room as full of wood as we could; just in time too because another storm came out of nowhere. We were snug in the cave with the doors to close out the cold … mostly close out the cold; it still appears I won’t be running around in shorts and a tank top any time in the near future.

And without the hard work of finding and chopping wood there was time for other stuff. Most of it was constructive but not all of it. First thing I did was figure out a way to have a bath and wash my hair.

Donovan had found an old-fashioned hip tub under a pile of what he thought was scrap metal in the big cavern. There were also a couple of those really large igloo coolers, one of which was one of those old metal ones. The plastic one we are using for drinking water that has been processed all the way through our filtration system. The metal one is what we keep our wash water in. The wash water one is on a small metal table next to the fireplace. There was also an old cast iron kettle in there and that is what I use to get really hot water with. I mix the hot water from the kettle with dippers of water from the metal cooler.

Donovan for his part took three old wooden screen doors and then used some smaller hinges to connect the doors together to make a self-standing screen. In the holes where the screen would have normally gone he nailed sections of old tin roofing that he had snipped to size. Then he took an awl and poked holes so that they made this really cool design. It looked like those old metal lanterns that you would find at the craft bazaars around the holidays. Those lanterns went for an arm and a leg – I ought to know, I bought one for Mrs. Epstein’s birthday – so I can’t imagine what a screen like this would have gone for.

The first bath I took the water turned disgusting. I was so embarrassed that I wouldn’t even let Donovan help empty the bucket. My hair took three washes and soaks with shampoo (from the bunker supplies) and then a rinse with vinegar (from the stuff we found in the cave) before I was satisfied with it.

I hadn’t realized how heavy with oil and dirt my hair had become. I felt like I’d gotten rid of a huge load. I couldn’t run around with a wet head so I pulled a chair near the fire, combed my hair out, and then started to doze while it dried. I woke up to find Donovan playing with the curls that the fire had caused across my forehead.

He was right in my face and startled me, “Oh! Oh no, how long have I been asleep?”

“Not long.”

“Long enough; my hair is mostly dry. I hope the water is still warm. Let me move and I’ll let you bathe and …”

“You don’t have to move.”

“Um. Uh.” I must have turned six shades of red. Even I could feel my face getting hot.

“Emma …,” he started, but then he just shook his head.

“What?”

“Girl, are you ever going to get over acting like this?”

“Like … like what exactly?” I thought he was referring to the fact that I’d fallen asleep rather than getting something constructive done.

“Like I’m a stranger.”

That completely flummoxed me. “I don’t treat you as a stranger. I mean we … you and I … well honestly, you don’t really think I’d do what we do with a stranger do you?” I scooted a few inches off, I was getting upset.

“Now see, that’s what I mean. You’ve got to have your space to make you feel safe, like you expect me to take something I don’t have any right to.”

“Donovan, either I don’t understand what you mean or I’m in way over my head. I’m learning as I go here. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” When he gave me a look, “OK, I haven’t been living in a pumpkin my whole life, I just mean how I’m supposed to act. How … I mean … Donovan, I just wonder sometimes if you are only making up to me and stuff because I’m … you know … the only game in town. And I like you … like I’ve never felt this way before and I just don’t want to mess it up making you think that I’m a … a floozy … a loose woman. Please be … be patient. I just don’t know how you want me to act.”

“How I want you to act? I’m not asking you to act at all.”

“At least give me some clue how … Just forget it. I’m messing things up.” I really felt like I was putting my foot in it. I was afraid to ask how he felt because I was afraid of getting an answer I didn’t want to hear.

I got up and took the kernels that I had been soaking and made fried corn using the lard as the grease and some powdered butter from our bunker supplies for the flavor. Wasn’t bad at all if I do say so. I also made unleavened bread … Mrs. Epstein taught me that one … and we used a jar labeled blackberry preserves from the cave supplies to sweeten it up. For “dessert” we had some of the so not delicious faux shortbread survival bar.

Donovan was mad at me and was pushing me pretty hard by taking his own bath without any embarrassment while I was trying to cook. I could tell he was just trying to make me react by the look on his face how he was being. He was in a better mood after eating which I was thankful for, but it didn’t last. I’ve dealt with angry guys before but never when it was personal. Daddy … well he was pretty even tempered. It’s not that he didn’t get angry and upset, it’s just that he handled it different; he was sure never angry like that with me. Occasionally disappointed in how I acted or forced to deliver some justifiable parental correction but he was never angry at or with me. Mr. Epstein, I don’t even know if he knew how to get angry; he was always so good natured even with the worst juvenile defendant; it used to drive Laura up a wall. Moshe could get wound up but he was a lot like his dad; or at least the Moshe I knew was like that. I dealt with anger at school and that sort of thing, everyone in public school has; but, just never anything directed am me personally. What Donovan was directing at me was very personal and he was about to make it more so.

I was feeling pretty nervous by the time dinner was over with. I couldn’t sit still. All the dishes were done. I folded what clothes needed folding. I couldn’t really start anything else and Donovan was just sitting there on his pallet by the fire reading some technical manual. I was ready to climb the walls and hang from my feet like a bat.

“Don’t you ever sit still?”

“Sorry.”

A brief growl and Donovan demanded, “Will you stop saying that? Did I ask you to apologize?”

“Sor … uh,” and I closed my mouth on yet another apology.

“You know, you were never like this in the bunker.”

“Donovan you only saw me a few minutes a couple of times a week. How do you know how I acted?”

“The other women talked … gossiped … whatever.”

“You listened to women yakking about other women?” I laughed in disbelief.

“Yeah, well security detail isn’t all 007 and adventure. Sometimes it is just knowing what is going on and trying to prevent it from turning into something it shouldn’t. Besides the Major asked me to keep at an eye on you so there wasn’t a repeat of that incident that put you in the clinic in the beginning.”

That gave me a brief pause and I wondered if I’d ever get to say thank you to the Major. “Well in the bunker I had a lot of work to do, even if it was just busy work. It kept my mind off of things.”

“So what are you trying to not think about?”

“Not making mistakes.”

“Not …?” I could tell he was getting as wound up as I was. “Emma, just sit down and stop turning everything into a drama.”

“I’m not … never mind.” And I did my best to find a spot where I could sit still and not bother him.

I thought I was doing pretty good. I wasn’t squirming or doing anything. Then he had to go and spoil it by saying, “Girl, if you try any harder to not move you are going to freeze that way. Get something to do. You never read your book anymore.”

So I pulled out my Bible and it was like the deck was stacked against me. Every page I opened was like a brand on my skin; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:22-23, Exodus 22:16-17, Matthew 5:28 … I just couldn’t get away from it. I slammed it shut a lot harder and louder than I had meant to and tried to cover it by getting up and putting it back into the box that I kept my few personal possessions from before in.

“What is your problem now?” Donovan growled finally getting fed up.

“Nothing. I’m sor…”

“Don’t … say … it. If you can’t sit still at least be quiet.”

I was exhausted but unable to find any rest. I got out of the firelight so he couldn’t see me and leaned up against a cabinet we were using to put our dishes and cooking utensils in. Finally I must have hypnotized myself enough that I just fell asleep sitting up. I don’t know how much later it was when Donovan woke me. “Are you crazy on top of everything else?! You’re sitting over here in the coldest corner of the cave and let yourself fall asleep. What am I supposed to do if you get sick?!”

“I’m sor…” POP!

No one had ever hit me. I’d certainly never been slapped before. It wasn’t a little tap either, I tasted copper from where the inside of my cheek got cut on my teeth. I scooted back real fast but only came up against more rock.

“@#$% it!! Now look what you’ve done! I’ve never hit a woman in my life! Why couldn’t you have just … Get away from me!!”

Away from him? Where was I supposed to go? I’d never dealt with anything like that. I felt like I was caving in on myself. I stood up and looked around and couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do. You’d figure given my personality that I would have gotten angry right back at him but … I just stood there scared and feeling even more alone and uncertain.

“Oh for @#$% sake! Go over there. Lay down near the fire. Just leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.”

How on Earth I got to sleep that night I don’t know. I woke up the next morning to Donovan in the same place I was last night and he was shivering in his sleep. I didn’t know if it was time to get up or not but I knew I had to get out … outside and breathe no matter what. But I couldn’t just leave him like that so I took my covers and laid them over him. He didn’t wake up so I felt safe trying to escape for a little while. I was still in all my clothes so I grabbed my outdoor gear and snuck out the door to the outer cavern, dressed in the cold which woke me up the rest of the way, and then slid the barricade open so I could step outside.

The sun was just coming up and I stood there and watched it and prayed. It wasn’t a specific prayer. I just needed help and I needed it badly. I didn’t know what to do. Felt so lost. I knew I had to have done something but I wasn’t sure what. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again and I didn’t know how to fix what had already happened.

I brushed some snow off my face and felt the lingering tenderness there. I figured the cold would help with that but it only made it hurt worse. I was about to go back inside when a wild eyed Donovan tumbled about the barricade with his boots unlaced and his jacket only half way on. He saw me and stopped dead in his tracks. He was breathing so heavy that his breath billowed out reminding me a huge steam engine. He looked at me and then blanched.

“You … you …”

“I just needed some air. I’ll start breakfast now.”

He followed me back inside and I was trying not to be afraid, trying not to look and see how angry he was, trying not to feel anything. We brushed off the snow and stomped our boots clean and then he followed me into the living quarters. I felt surrounded.

The room was cold again, the door to the big cavern hanging open. “Uh, I … I thought you were in there. I couldn’t find you. I was calling your name.”

“I was outside; didn’t hear you.”

“Yeah. I … uh … see that now.” He added some wood to the fire and closed both doors. I felt the tension building and did everything I could not to get in his way but he was just there every time I turned around.

“Look, I don’t … have any … excuse. I don’t know what happened last night,” he stumbled along saying. “I don’t expect you to believe me but I’ve … I’ve never hit a woman Emma. It was … it was wrong. Your … your face … I … God Emma, I’ve never hit a woman before.”

I looked at him from the corner of my eye and he really did look traumatized. His face was pale and his eyes big and dark. There were dark circles under his eyes too. He looked, in a really strange way, like he’d hurt himself way more than he’d hurt me.

“Forget about it Donovan. I don’t know what happened last night either. I don’t know what I did wrong. I mean I kind of do but not completely. Next time just tell me what I’m doing wrong. Don’t … don’t hit me again, OK?”

“Emma … I ….” Then he just sunk into a chair we had sat against the wall and sat there staring at his hands.

I made breakfast – instant oatmeal again – and then tried to decide what I was supposed to do. “It … it’s stopped storming. Do you want me to help with the wood or …”

“No. No you stay inside where … I’ll … I just need some space Emma.”

“Oh. OK.” My answered bounced off his back. He was already three quarters through the door to the outside. So much for that; I decided that obviously it was over and neither one of us knew what to do about it or how to continue on. I turned to my beloved stand-by … work. I worked my rear off that day, and the next, trying not to be scared and wondering where it was all leading. I wanted things to go back to where they were, back to the oblivion of living in limbo but still having my guilty pleasures. We barely spoke and the only reason we ate is because our bodies craved the calories and wouldn’t let us sleep otherwise. We weren’t even sleeping next to each other.

The third day it was storming again and we were stuck inside together. I remember feeling so … odd that morning. Like all the light bulbs inside me were going dim. Like the effort to breathe just wasn’t worth it anymore. I went into the big cavern to start digging around, move one pile just to make another one in a different place but not necessarily getting anything better organized. There was this dark corner that was darker than all the rest and I just sat down and let the blackness swallow me up.

I put my head on my knees and sat there for I don’t know how long. I knew the floor was cold but I couldn’t seem to care enough to move even though my rear was betting numb. I could feel the tears on my face but I don’t know if I was there enough mentally to really be experiencing them. I didn’t hear Donovan call my name, or find me, or sit down beside me and put his arms around me.

“I … Emma … I … messed up. I swear I never have hit a woman before. Not even my ex-wife . I don’t know what came over me. Uncle Shem and Aunt Rachel would have disowned me for this. I … I don’t know how to fix this. I … I don’t even know if you want to fix it. Emma?”

“Will you … will you tell me what I’m doing wrong before it gets to that point anymore?”

“Emma you weren’t really doing anything wrong.”

“Then … then why Donovan? Why did you get so angry?”

“I’m not angry at you, I’m angry period … Try and understand this from my side of things. The only reason you are with me is because you don’t think you have any choice. You’re … you’re pacifying me but you aren’t really all that into the relationship. That is what makes me angry.”

“Wait. You think that I … that I’m only doing stuff with you because you think I’m feeling pressured into it?”

“The cave, everything else … it reminds you of Level 5. I guess I didn’t really get it back at the bunker; how much it really affected you. You dream about that place every couple of nights. This cave reminds you of it. I’ve seen you bolt out of here like the hounds of hell are after you, just to get outside. I’ve tried to make it better; I put the doors there, brought in the furniture to make it better … but nothing does. It just seems that you’d rather be anywhere else but here with me.”

Wow. That isn’t what I was thinking at all. I didn’t have a clue that was what he thought. He never showed it. “Donovan … I wasn’t … I wouldn’t …” I stopped trying to pull my head together enough that I didn’t make a hash of this. Even if things were over I at least wanted to try and keep Donovan as a friend.

“I don’t even know where to start but I can tell you that you may be a hunk and this may be a real end of the world situation, but I wouldn’t be doing any of that stuff we used to do if I didn’t want to. I don’t sell myself just to have a place to stay or a protector.” He got a strange look on his face but I continued. “The cave is … it’s nice. I think the stuff you are building is really, really nice.”

“But …”

“But, I’m not sure how invested I’m supposed to be in all of this. I like being with you but at the same time being with you makes me feel guilty. For a while the pleasure of being with you made me forget that I don’t know exactly what kind of relationship this is supposed to be. I don’t know how to play these kinds of games; they are way over my head. What I want doesn’t always line up with what I know I’m supposed to be about.”

“What you are supposed to be about?”

“Donovan, I don’t know if I can even explain it without making this worse.”

“Try.”

“OK, just remember, I warned you.” I took a breath and then took a leap of faith. “Donovan, we aren’t … aren’t … aren’t married. We haven’t got any long term plans. We haven’t made any promises. Heck, I don’t know if I even qualify as your friend anymore. And if I did I don’t know if I can live with just being a friend-with-benefits, it makes me feel … cheap.”

“That’s what all of this hesitancy has been about? The walls?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean. I don’t really know what I’m doing or how you want me to act and …”

“Emma, I don’t want you to act. I want you to want to be with me and then everything else will fall in line from there.”

“I do want to be with you. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have cooperated. That’s the problem. I want to be with you so much, I like being with you so much, that I forget that I’m supposed to have some core values that supersede my wants, that I’m supposed to have rules to live by that are supposed to keep me out of trouble.”

“You’re saying that … that you feel … immoral … just because you and I are sleeping together?”

“It’s … how do I explain this? It’s not the act; it’s what we don’t do.”

“Emma, now I’m the one that doesn’t understand.”

“Commitment Donovan. A common goal that is specific to … to us … to this.”

He sat there for a minute then said, “You want me to tell you I love you?”

“That’s not … not exactly what I mean.”

“You don’t want me to tell you I love you?!”

“Donovan!”

“Well, then speak so I can understand you!”

“How am I supposed to figure it out when I don’t even know what you want with me?! For two years we were adversaries as often as we were close acquaintances. In the end we were mostly friends. I still want to be your friend but I don’t want to just be your friend.”

“Emma I’m not a romantic guy if that’s what this is about.”

“What the heck has romance got to do with it?!”

That set him back on his heels. “Donovan I … I don’t know how to explain it but I feel like I’m just drifting along, enjoying something that I have no confidence is going to be here the next day. Suddenly whenever I think about that part I can’t … can’t enjoy it the same way. I keep wondering just how bad I’m going to hurt when it ends. Part of me wants to bury my head in the sand and pretend and part of me knows that is just the coward’s way out. I’m supposed to have absolutes.”

“You mean morals.”

“Morals … absolutes … whatever you want to call them. They are there to guide me and help me to make healthy choices. I feel like I’ve tossed those all overboard in favor of just being with you for as long as you’ll have me. And it is driving me crazy. Don’t you think I know how stupid this probably sounds to you?!”

“I think that we need to get something cleared up. And this is something you are going to have to accept Emma because if you can’t I don’t know how we are going to go forward from here.” He scrubbed his hand across his face. I couldn’t see it, the wind up lamp had slowly gone from dim to dark, but I could feel what he was doing and the frustration that marked every action. “I’ve been burnt twice … badly. Both times I … I thought I was in love or convinced myself that I was because I thought it was the way it was supposed to be. It completed that imaginary picture in my head. I was able to check off something on my to do list of life. And both those times were nothing but illusion. Losing Bobby, that was just about the worst but I was young and … as callous as it sounds I eventually got up and started living again, but I was different and approached things differently. My ex killed the rest of it … she made sure that there was nothing left of that idealistic man I used to be. I … I can’t say ‘I love you’ and I can’t give you romance.”

I was trying really hard to listen and hear what he meant and not just what he was saying. I wanted to interrupt and tell him that I didn’t expect romance but that would have sounded like I did expect love and … and that was a different can of worms that I didn’t want to open.

“Emma, I’m sorry. I know you’re young and you haven’t … haven’t had a chance to have any of that. But … but what I can offer is … constancy. I can promise you I won’t betray you with another woman. I’ve felt that pain and won’t inflict it on someone else. Of course that isn’t saying much right now because there aren’t any other women around. I can promise to use all my talents to keep us safe and see us prosper as much as we can. And … and I can promise that, assuming you want to, that I’m … I’m committed to this long term … forever even if that’s what you want. It won’t matter if we meet up with other people now or later, I’ll continue to be a lot more than a friend-with-benefits. If that’s what you want.”

I know I needed to say something. “Donovan? Do you even know what you are saying? Are you only saying this because … because you feel like you have to to keep the peace, maybe because you think it is what I need?”

“I’m saying it because … To be honest Emma I wasn’t thinking about this … in the beginning. I was fine keeping things casual, even wanted it that way … in the beginning. But when it started feeling like you were the one that wasn’t committed, that you were the one keeping me at arms length rather than the other way around, it made me angry. And the harder I tried the less you seemed to notice. And the angrier I got. That’s no excuse for what I did. But it was hard to swallow that I was in the same exact situation I’d found myself in before, working my butt off for a woman that didn’t want what I had to offer.”

“But … but that’s not what I meant. I told you, you remind me of my Dad. You know how to do all of this … this stuff … and …”

“Emma, how would you feel I told you that you reminded me of my mom?”

“What’s your mom got to do with it? I mean, you said she … Oh,” I said finally remember his mom wasn’t so good to him. “Well, I … I wouldn’t like it. But my parents … they were great. I … oh, maybe … maybe you didn’t know that.”

“Apparently there’s a lot of things I don’t know.”

A little defensively I said, “You never ask. I don’t know what you’d be interested in knowing and what you wouldn’t. Usually when I come up with something to say I’m afraid of boring you or saying something stupid.”

“I never meant for you to feel that way.”

“I know that. I just never wanted you to have to point out my short comings. I’m aware I’ve got a bunch of them.”

“Why did you say that?”

“Why did I say what?”

“That you have a lot of short comings?”

“Well, duh. Look at everything that has happened. Look how things went in the Committee Meetings. I’ve always stayed out of trouble better when I’m busy and working otherwise my foot seems to take up full-time residence in my mouth.”

“Why don’t we test that theory out. A little less running around trying to work yourself into a coma and a little more sitting around with me … talking.”

The very idea of that scared the bejeebers out of me but I’ve been giving it my best shot. The problem is sometimes my tongue seems to get hinged in the middle and it starts running at both ends. I’ve put him to sleep twice doing that.

That night all we did was sleep. I think we were both just too tired but the quiet at the dinner table wasn’t so intimidating. In the next few days we moved things around a bit more and built a sort of kind of fold up bed inside of a rough hewn cabinet. Donovan called it a Murphy Bed. When it is time for bed we open the cabinet and pull the bed down. It took a little getting used to after sleeping on the ground for so long but it was nice except the one time I rolled out and hit the floor, knocking the wind out of myself. Donovan laughed until the big spring he’d used sprung and he started going upside down as the bed slowly tried to close. Then it was my turn to laugh even though it hurt. We sleep with our heads on the other end now and our feet towards the wall. Donovan also pounded a ring into the floor and attached a rope from the big that we tie to the ring to make double sure we don’t get closed up unexpectedly.

We also brought a little two-seater sofa into the living quarters. We had to take it outside and beat it a long time to get the dust out of the cushions. Even then it was pretty thread bare in places. It was comfortable so I took care of that with a large sheet draped over it like a sofa cover; think shabby chic.

On the clear days we tried to spend several hours out of doors. Donovan has some weird theory that we’re not getting enough Vitamin D because we aren’t getting enough sunlight. I asked, “Then why didn’t we have that trouble at the bunker?”

“Because they put supplements in our food.”

Well you could have knocked me over with a feather. I never even thought to be suspicious of the food we were eating. Donovan then told me, “Loosen your tinfoil helmet a little bit and let the circulation back in. The supplements were just that, supplements to replace not getting the fresh food we needed.”

But we aren’t taking supplements now so we need to be careful to prevent and alleviate medical problems the natural way. I think he is still looking for some reason for why he slapped me.

One result of “the slap” is that I’ve noticed Donovan isn’t near as rough when we wrestle or play. We were tossing a softball around outside and I wasn’t paying attention and caught a bad bounce off of a rock and bent my thumb nail back even through the mittens. He almost refused to play with me anymore. He also avoids touching my face. But neither of those things even comes remotely close to the overreaction he had when we were pulling this one tree closer to the cave entrance for cutting.

I was a little too close trying to get a better grip on some branches for dragging and his hand slips on the branch he is pulling and he clips me in the ear with his elbow. If such things had been the way they used to be I could have expected to see an ambulance and a fire and rescue truck at the very least. I decided to implement a little shock therapy. I pulled him down into the snow where he had plopped me and kissed him.

“What did you do that for?” he asked, shocked.

“Because it was the only thing I could think of to stop you from treating me like I’m made of glass. It was an accident Donovan. No harm, no foul. You didn’t mean to. I’m not hurt.”

“You could have been. And …” he stopped and sighed. “I … I just can’t stop thinking about …”

“I forgive you.”

“You … you what?”

“I forgive you. In fact, I forgave you right after it happened. Stop beating yourself up. You’ve said it won’t happen again and I believe you. Let’s just get passed it. OK?”

He looked at me like I was some creature from a different dimension and I thought maybe I had made a mistake until he said, “You’re just willing to let it go and forget it. Just like that?”

“Yeah.”

“You have got to be the strangest girl. You sound like Uncle Shem.”

“OK … is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

He snorted, “Depends on your point of view. But … mostly good I guess. Let’s get out of this snow and get back to the cave. If I’m not mistaken that’s another storm coming over the ridge.”

The way I look at it is that if I expect to be forgiven for things I have to offer forgiveness to other people. It’s not a *** for tat or karma thing. It’s … well, that’s what we are supposed to do. It isn’t always easy to do but that is the way it is supposed to work.

As a surprise I’d been inventorying all of the food we had and trying to make a menu so everything gets used up the best way possible. We’ve still got over a year of food if we are careful but it won’t always be interesting food. But last night I wanted something fun. I think we both really needed it. I’m not really much of a chocoholic but I do like the taste and texture of fudges, not necessarily only chocolate fudges which was good thing as I couldn’t figure out how to make fudge with the type of chocolate we have in the supplies. However I was able to make butterscotch fudge and it wasn’t hard at all.

I saved a quarter cup of milk from my breakfast, mixed in a six-serving size of butterscotch Jell-O pudding mix, added a little bit of powdered butter and then cooked it just until it boiled a little around the edges. Then I took it off of the fire and mixed in two and a quarter cups of powdered sugar. I think someone must have gotten a ton of that stuff in an after holiday sale or something. There was easily thirty pounds of the stuff in boxes and bags. After the powdered sugar was all blended in I poured it into a small aluminum pan I lined with wax paper then hid it in the dish cupboard and just in time because Donovan came in from chopping wood in the front cavern.

I wish I had a picture of his face when I brought it out after a dinner of rice and beans. The look was even funnier, though maybe not quite complimentary, when he found out I made it from scratch.

After cleaning everything up I was just about ready for bed. Some days I feel like a bear that wants to hibernate, especially when we snuggle in front of the fire. I had my eyes closed and wasn’t all that awake when I felt Donovan playing with my left hand and then something cold sliding onto my finger.

I opened my eyes and it was a ring, but not one like I’d ever seen in a store. The main body was a wide beaten ring of silver. The stone was an oddly shaped piece of opaque quartz that was attached to the silver ring because it was wrapped with fine silver wire.

“I’ll … uh … find a real ring one of these days. I … I just … I thought you would like something to remember that I promised that I wouldn’t leave you. If you don’t like it or …”

“Donovan, no one has ever given me a ring before. Not … not even my parents. They were going to … to … for my graduation. They were going to buy my class ring. They never got the chance. This … this is so pretty. You made this didn’t you?”

“I know it isn’t much but …”

“Donovan, thank you. No matter what, this means … so much … to me.”

I don’t know exactly what is going to happen. Will the sun come out in our life time? How do we find food when what we have runs out? Will we ever see other people? But now, now I know that I won’t have to find the answers to those questions by myself. I won’t have to live the answer to those questions by myself.

I don’t know if you call this being married. I do know that whatever it is isn’t the modern concept of marriage. I don’t know if Donovan even wants to think of it like that, or if there will ever be “love” between us. But whatever it is there is forever and there is more-than-friendship. That’s going to have to be good enough.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter 15

I have taken a look in the mirror … and gone eeewwwww. I don’t mean a literal mirror because that would definitely depress me, especially after what has happened. No, I mean that mirror that makes you take a good long look at yourself. Unfortunately I’m not near as satisfied with myself as I used to be … because I just realized I am the exact same person that I used to be.

OK, that makes very little sense. What I mean is that I think when Moshe … no, be honest with yourself Emma, it started before that. When my parents died I think that I slapped about ten coats of lacquer on who I was and called it good. That was OK because I was a kid and I wasn’t a bad kid back then. The problem is I’m still the same person I was, only I’m not a kid anymore and it’s no longer OK or good that I’m the same person.

Oh Lord, that still doesn’t make any sense. I just … it feels … this is ridiculous. It’s like I buried a part of myself when I buried my parents. And then a good friendship died of betrayal and I buried it too and along the way buried another piece of me with it. And then the world died and I … sometimes it doesn’t feel like there is very much of me left and the part that is left is all iced up and afraid of something else dying and that there won’t be anything of me left. Ugh, that sounds so dramatic. I despise the idea of being a drama queen but it looks like maybe I’ve been a closet drama queen; I felt so smug and self-righteous that despite it all I was standing on my own two feet and didn’t need anyone’s help. Oh how wrong I’ve been and too scared to admit it.

I’m not quite sure what to make of recent developments. I’m not used to feeling this kind of stuff. Maybe it is more honest to say that I’m not used to letting myself feel this kind of stuff.

The snow did bury us just like I was afraid of. It took two hours for us to break through the plug that had built up around the entrance only to find that it was still snowing hard. Even with gloves and mittens on Donovan’s hands were badly frost nipped. I looked it up in an old encyclopedia set that I found in the big cavern and I’m pretty sure they weren’t frost bitten because within the hour they were back to normal with no apparent tissue damage but it was a close thing. They stayed sore but even that went away during the night. We decided since we had plenty of wood – and other stuff to burn if the firewood ran out – that we’ d allow the snow tunnel that we dug to close back over.

Donovan did take some thin tree trunks he’d drug into our shelter for cutting later and lashed them together – looked like a river raft when it was laying on the ground – and then put that against the cave opening to keep the cold wind out and the cave’s warmer air in. The cave rose to a balmy 48 to 52 degrees F when we kept the outside cold from creeping in. The deeper into the big cavern you go the more stable the temperature is, averaging 50 degrees F. Compared to what some of the weather has been that feels tropical. There are a couple of little alcoves off the big cavern that are still freezing cold but that is a good thing because that is what I’m using them as – a freezer of sorts. I’ll explain why in a bit.

The first day we were essentially trapped I was OK. I worked and tried to act like everything was normal. Donovan sat in front of the fire whittling wooden pegs for the bedsteads he was planning. That’s one thing about Donovan that I have always admired. He’s like a cat; he can pace like a caged lion one minute and then turn about and be like the panther that has found a good spot in the tree and can stay up there quiet and full of patience for as long as it takes. Me, if I don’t have something to do I’m going to go nuts. I just can’t seem to make myself sit still. When I’m forced to sit still I have to be doing something like studying or something that occupies my hands like sewing; my mind has to be engaged.

That first day I managed to work myself good and tired doing nothing more constructive that moving piles around in the big cavern. I’d do a little work and then run back to the fireplace to check on the bread I was baking. Donovan asked if I wanted him to keep an eye on it and I said, “No! You just relax and do what you need to. This is my chore so I’m going to do it.” He shrugged his shoulders. I kept to myself that I didn’t want a repeat of the soup incident.

I finally managed to separate and organize the food from the other flotsam in the cavern and that included what we had brought in from the half-track. Most of the food that was in there must have come from the kid bringing stuff from his house. When I showed some of it to Donovan to ask what would still be good and what would be bad he said it looked like everything but a couple of the cans were still OK. Even the lard was still good because it had basically been frozen all this time. That has been a lucky deal because we don’t have any oil or anything like that to cook with.

There was one cracked canning jar that made an absolutely disgusting mess in a box of odds and ends; and a couple of other jars that Donovan told me to not touch because their seal was broken and looked like a major science project. He took those outside carefully and dumped them down in a small gully we are using as a dump (but we don’t plan on throwing much away). Looking at all the food – looks like a lot but probably isn’t as much as I think – I decided to try my hand at baking a loaf of bread; I was tired of crackers. The recipe was in a little recipe book I found.

I made oatmeal for breakfast and made enough extra to make the Baked Oatmeal Bread. You take three cups of thick cooked oatmeal and add to it two tablespoons of fat (that’s where the lard came in), one and a half teaspoons of salt, two tablespoons of molasses and stir it up good. Then you mix a packet of yeast with three-quarters cup of warm water and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Then you mix that in with the oatmeal gunk. Then you need to start adding flour to the oatmeal gunk until you get a dough that won’t stick to the mixing bowl but isn’t too dry either. It took nearly five cups of flour. I covered the bowl and stuck in near the fire so it would stay warm and rise, then I followed the directions of kneading it again and then forming it into loaves, putting it into greased loaf pans and letting it rise again and then baking it for about 45 to 50 minutes or until browned. I had to use this old reflector thing I found. My dad had helped Laura and I build something similar during Girl Scouts and it brought back memories that I usually tried to stuff down.

While I was working on the bread I caught Donovan watching me. I was running back and forth between what I was doing in the big cavern and every once in a while I’d catch the tail end of a grin. I put it down to chauvinism at first but then I got it into my head that he was laughing at me for some reason. He was, I just didn’t understand why at the time. It made me more anxious than I already was. I was absolutely going to prove … something; I still don’t know what but I was determined.

The bread was a lot better than a first attempt had any business being. I know why now but I didn’t then. I’m glad I didn’t crow the way I felt like doing or I would have felt like an even bigger fool.

The garbanzo soup I made to go with the bread was all me though. I made it from a dry mix but I know how to make it from scratch because Momma taught me (that was another thing I did with Laura). I wish I could have made it with more chorizo but all there was in the food supplies was some stick pepperoni and while you can use that it’s not quite the same. I made more broth by tossing in a couple of ham bouillon cubes and some more water. It wasn’t like Momma made it but it wasn’t bad either.

After lunch I cleaned the dishes and then went back to working in the big cavern. I had a lot of nervous energy and needed to work it off. I made pretty good headway and then when it was close to dinner time I went back to the living area to find Donovan toasting some of the bread to make something he called “rarebit.” For dinner we finished the soup and the bread with rarebit on it.

“You need to eat more fat and this cheese should help,” he said pointing to a can of cheese we had in our supplies.

“How do you know how to … um … make this stuff? The rarebit?”

“We made it out in the field with canned cheese that the company would send out to us.”

“Oh.”

“Eat up.”

After the first few bites I was able to eat it without worrying that my stomach was going to do something it shouldn’t. It was actually very good. Again, I got the feeling that Donovan was laughing at me and I just couldn’t figure it out.

I cleaned up after dinner and went back to the cavern and back to work. A little while later Donovan came into the cavern where I was and said, “You got some big project going?”

“Trying to get this stuff organized.”

“Why?”

“Uh … why?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Because … it is a mess in here and there might be useful stuff to find. If I hadn’t started to clean I wouldn’t have found that other ax handle when you needed and …”

“OK. But it’s getting late. Don’t you think you should sit some too?”

“Why?”

He looked at me with what I’ve come to realize is his thoughtful look. “You don’t sit still very much do you?”

“I … I can’t.”

“Are you ADD or something?”

“Huh? No. No … it’s just too hard.”

“It’s too hard to sit?” he laughed.

“Donovan, please don’t laugh.” I hated sounded like a little girl afraid of getting her feelings hurt but that’s pretty much how I felt.

He realized suddenly that I was serious. “Something bothering you?”

All I could do was roll my eyes and say, “Something must have been bothering me for a long time then. I just … just can’t be still. When I’m forced to I don’t feel very good. My head gets in a whirl. My mouth runs away and says things it shouldn’t. Just … it’s not good when I don’t stay busy. OK … you might as well laugh. I know it sounds ridiculous,” I added defensively turning away, waiting for the verbal blow that always came when I tried to explain it to people.

“I’m not laughing Emma. My Aunt Rachel was the same way. Uncle Shem said when she got a scrub brush in her hand it was time to go out to the barn and get out of her way. You want me to get out of your way?”

“Why should you be the one that has to get out of the way? You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I was beginning to wonder.”

I never got a chance to ask him what he meant by that because there was a woosh that went straight through us both.

“Grab the coats! Let’s get them on!” I could barely understand what he was shouting over the roaring of the wind. “The wind knocked down the barricade!”

I hadn’t felt wind like that since that storm we were in when we found those cars and somehow this felt even worse; it snatched the breath right out of your lungs and shoved ice crystals under your skin. We were both shaking so bad by the time we got our coats on it was hard to think. Without warning Donovan backed me into a corner and was using his own body to protect me from the wind. He was shouting but had a hard time making himself understood. “We … need … to … get … that … barricade … back up! You … with … me?!”

I nodded and we fought our way into the outer cavern and everything was already covered with ice crystals. My nose hairs felt like they were trying to crawl up into my brain to escape the cold. Moving that barricade was like trying to row uphill or push a kite against the wind. It took almost an hour to get it up, prop it with some additional tree trunks, and then pile the remaining woodpile against it to hold it in place.

Just getting the barricade up was exhausting and then doing the rest of it bled both Donovan and I dry of energy, but eventually it was accomplished. I felt like a limp noodle but at the same time I was flying because it felt like we had won a major battle. I turned to give Donovan a high five just in time to see him stumble and grab the leg that he had only recently stopped limping with. I got under his arm and let him use me like a crutch and got him back into the living quarters and then over to the pallet he had been sitting on while he whittled. It was near the fire and I threw another log in trying to drive out the painful cold that had come in.

I looked around the room and it was a mess. Snow had blown in and stuff had been knocked all over the place. A grunt from Donovan brought my attention back to him. “Are you all right?” I asked.

I got a look that embarrassed me. I hate sounding stupid. “OK, so that was a less than smart question. Is there anything I can do to make it better?”

Donovan looked at me a second and then barked out a laugh and shook his head. “Emma, you take the cake. If you tried to leave yourself any more open you couldn’t. Just tell me I haven’t used all of the ibuprofen in the first aid kit.”

I rummaged through the pack trying to figure out what he was talking about. After I checked I said, “No, there’s nearly half a bottle left. Even if you had, there are a couple of more bottles of other stuff in here that Laine told me I could give you if it got bad.”

“Well, it’s not bad, just nagging at me. I don’t want anything that is going to affect me that strongly in case that barricade goes again.”

“How about … um … how about cold and hot compresses? Is anything swollen? Here let me …”

“Girl you would try the patience of a saint! Keep your hands to yourself and just get us something warm to drink and then we need to get some sleep. Tomorrow you’re going to need to help me go through some of that stuff in the big cavern and see if we can fabricate a barricade or gate of some type that is more durable. And we need one on this room as a second barrier.” So we did; go to sleep I mean. Him on his pallet and me on mine. We were both so tired I don’t think it took either one of us long. Unfortunately I acted like a nutcase in the middle of the night.

I’ve always had vivid dreams that I remember but I learned as a very little kid that dreams were all they were. Once I realized that the pictures my head made at night weren’t real even the scariest ones didn’t bother me too much once I woke up. But every once in a while I’ll have a doozey and my brain decided to pick that night as the date for a good old fashioned nightmare based a little too much in reality, both present and past, for me to be able to just throw it off as easily as normal.

Pieces of lots of old nightmares made an appearance in the new one but it wasn’t until the big cavern got mixed up in my recent past that things got out of hand. Donovan said I woke him up mumbling in my sleep and tossing and turning but it wasn’t until I stood up and started heading towards the cave entrance that he really woke up all the way.

I remember fighting with him and saying, “No! You can’t make me go back in there. I won’t live like that again.” Then I woke up and didn’t know what was going on for a few seconds then I remembered what I had been dreaming and I could have just crawled into the nearby hole.

“You awake now?”

“Oh God Donovan, I’m .. I’m sorry.”

“You’ve mumbled in your sleep before but this is the first time I’ve ever seen you sleep walk. Do you make a habit of this?”

“No. If I’m under a lot of stress about something it kind of bleeds into my dream cycle. I’m really sorry. I …”

“Hey, long as you don’t snore no harm no foul so stop apologizing. But look at you, you’re cold again. Come on, come over here closer to the fire.”

“Donovan, I’ve disturbed your sleep enough. I don’t want to be more of a problem.”

“You’re talking to the wrong guy Emma. I’m selfish enough that if it was a problem I would have just told you to sleep it off so I could get back to sleep. It isn’t a problem but now I’m cold too so come on, let’s warm up together.”

We rearranged everything and even pulled an extra cover over the top of both of us. I thought Donovan had gone back to sleep and was laying there trying to let the fire hypnotize me so I could do the same when he asked, “You ready to talk about it?”

“You can’t want to hear …”

“I wouldn’t have asked otherwise Emma. Satisfy my curiosity if nothing else.”

I gathered up my courage and the confessed, “It’s that stupid big cavern. For some reason it reminds me of Level 5. Sometimes I just have to get out of there.”

He didn’t say anything for a while and I wasn’t sure what to think of the silence. Then I felt him drape an arm over me. “It’s OK Emma. We left the bunker behind a long ways back. And even if someone tried that again they’d have to come through me first.”

God forgive me but I snuggled into his arm; I wanted the comfort and closeness he was offering and hang the consequences of whether he decided I was an “easy” girl despite what I had said before. And I slept better than I had in days.

The thing is there were no consequences. The next morning he was up and massaging his leg and heating water when I woke up. I was almost embarrassed but part of me didn’t care either. I got up and fixed an omelet using powdered eggs … they are like death on toast if you try and scramble them and eat them plain but the omelets I make are pretty good. Nothing was said about the previous night by either one of us. After breakfast we started working on the new doors.

That was not so easy. First off it still sounded like there was a freight train outside. We could see through the gaps in the barricade that the wind had scoured the snow away and it was simply flying around rather than being packed down against the entrance as it did when there wasn’t any wind. And it was so cold that we couldn’t stay in the outer cavern very long, even fully dressed as we were. Temporarily we’ve decided to leave the outside door alone, at least until the wind dies down some or we need more wood. For the entrance to the living quarters area Donovan framed in the opening and squared it off then we cut down and planed one of the old solid wood doors that were in the cavern.

I found out that Donovan is persnickety when it comes to his carpentry. Rather than just cut everything off from two of the sides he cut bits from all four sides so that the door still looked symmetrical when it was hung. He definitely has more patience than I do. I had to paw through a chest of old door hardware to find three matching hinges that would work and then watch as he figured out a way to latch and secure the door so it would stay closed.

We stuffed all of the gaps between the wood and the door frame with the remains of some dry rotted drapes for insulation and then he used more wood and somehow or other sawed and then sanded it so that it fit over those gaps. It was actually very nice looking when he got finished. I mean like real nice. Even better, the living quarters was warming up since we weren’t heating the colder outside room. Donovan said he would start on a door over the entrance to the big cavern after lunch and that would help even more.

That never happened. I went into the big cavern to grab a quart of canned soup and … I really don’t know what happened. I had to have tripped on something but I just can’t remember. Donovan said he’d given me plenty of time to come back but when I didn’t he called my name. When I didn’t answer him he came looking for me. He actually stepped on me and I have a pretty awful bruise on the back of my leg.

I had a really bad headache when I came to but Donovan said I had been in and out of it for over an hour, mostly just talking out of my head. “You scared me girl. Don’t … don’t do it again. Understand me?”

Donovan said that I’d hit my head a glancing blow on an old coffee table as I was falling. I had meant to bring the table into the fireplace room but hadn’t gotten around to it. I thought we could use it to put our dishes on something more solid than our laps and had leaned it against the wall to get it out of the way. I can’t even remember tripping.

The first sensation I remember feeling was hair sticking to my ear. My hair was disgusting because on top of all the other nastiness in it, now it was all stuck together with dried blood. There was blood in my ear and down my neck and I could feel my clothes sticking to my shoulder.

After answering his questions about how many fingers was he holding up and what my name was and a few others that I thought strange I groaned, “Oh no.”

“What? Are you hurting? I’ll …”

“No. Sorry. I just meant … look at this mess I’ve made. I already felt gross, now I feel completely disgusting. I don’t know how you can even be around me.”

Donovan laughed and said, “You’re such a girl.”

I don’t know, something snapped, and I started crying.

My reaction surprised him. He talked to me like I was a little girl and that only made me feel worse and cry harder. “Hey! Hey. There’s nothing to cry about. Come on … stop it. Here, let me see.”

“I don’t want you to see me like this. I’m nasty. I … I smell and my hair is oily … oh just everything.”

“Well, in case you havn’t noticed, I’m not exactly fresh as a daisy either. Hold still, now that I know I’m not going to hurt you I’ll get the rest of this off.”

He moved my big pony tail out of the way and washed off the gunk on my neck. There wasn’t much that could be done about the rest of it but at least I felt a little better.

“Donovan I’m … I’m sorry. I don’t know what is wrong with me. I never cry. This is so stupid! Oh …” I groaned that last bit because my head started to pound really bad when I tried to sit up and act like something besides a whiny brat.

“Dizzy? Does it hurt? You gonna puke?”

“All of the above so move.” I crawled over to the waste bucket just in time but all that came up was spit. I felt like I was going to pass out and little black dots grew big in my sight.

“Here we go. Let me …”

“Donovan, what is wrong? I … I …”

“You have a concussion.”

“What? Wait. Stop that. What does a concussion have to do with my clothes?”

“Relax. You don’t have anything I haven’t seen before and you need to get out of these bloody clothes. I also want to see if you’re banged up any place else.”

“Donovan …” I said warningly.

“Emma. Look at me. You aren’t two years old and neither am I. I’m not playing doctor here. I’m trying to help. I’m not going to … do … whatever it is you’re afraid of.”

“I’m not afraid of you, you Neanderthal! I’m afraid of me!”

Donovan’s face went from blank, to surprised, to total male satisfaction and then outright laughter … and I realized I had said that last bit out loud without meaning to.

“Ooohhhhh nnooooo. Just bury me now and put me out of my misery.”

He just laughed harder which did nothing but make me grab my head because of the pounding. “Oh Emma, girl you are something else. I think we need to sit and have a talk. But first we need to get you into some clean clothes so you don’t look so pathetic.”

“Just forget it. Forget I said anything at all. I can take care of this myself. I’m sorry I’m an embarrassment and …” I scrambled off to throw up again. “Just … (heave) … leave … (heave) … me alone (heave) …”

I thought he was finally going to let me die in peace but right when I nearly nodded off in the bucket there he was again. He sighed, “Emma, just … oh the @#$% with it.”

That’s when I found out that I had absolutely no clue at all what guys are really capable of when they decide to ignore anything you have to say. I was way out of my league. I so thought I knew more than I did. I was a female chauvinist … and I was getting paid back big time. I was out of my dirty clothes and into semi-clean ones before I knew it; almost before I was able to get embarrassed.

“Now, you are going to stay put. I catch you getting up, moving, wiggling … anything … and you are going to find out just how much of a cave man I can be. Hey … hey, hey, hey … I said stay put, not go to sleep. I want you bright eyed and bushy tailed. Tell me about what your plans were for the cavern.”

“You want me to … Donovan, I don’t know that I had plans for the cavern. I was just sort of cleaning things up.”

“So, this place doesn’t mean anything to you?” he asked while he started heating water.

“Donovan …”

“Yeah?”

“Why do I have the feeling that I’ve been the butt-end of a joke you’ve been playing?”

“Huh? Why would you say that?”

“You … you’re … that’s food … and you’re cooking it.”

“Yeah, about that. I was just ribbing you. I … uh … was just getting a little of my own back. I expected you to make a big deal out of it and then I was going to … I don’t know. But then you tried to be nice about it and once I’d started it I wasn’t quite sure how to stop. Frankly you’re a good cook. My ex … you don’t want to know. We spent more on fast food than we did on our car payments.”

“So … so it was just a joke. You … you didn’t really need me. To … to cook I mean.”

“Back up there. You meant what you said, not …”

“Donovan I’m tired and just …”

“Whoa … no sleeping. Period. Let me see your eyes … come on … how many fin … are you crying again?”

“Just leave me alone. I don’t know why I’m crying. Stupid, stupid, stu …”

A piercing whistle sent a shaft of pain through my head. “I said no sleeping sweetheart. The broth is almost warm. Keep wiping your face with this wet rag.”

I shifted my focus and tried to remember that I couldn’t sleep no matter how much easier it felt to just doze off. I was slowly losing the battle when Donovan sat down beside me holding a mug. I tried really hard to drink it but I was only able to get half of it down before my stomach started rebelling.

“You’ll finish it later.” It felt like a threat. “Now, back to what we were talking about.” That was most definitely a threat.

“Donovan please. I’m sorry I caused you problems. I’ll try really hard not to let it happen again. Just don’t hold this against me. I don’t know what the problem is. I’m always more in control than this.”

“Yeah. I get that. I don’t like to lose control of things either. But that isn’t what I want to talk about. You said ‘then you don’t really need me’ like you meant more than just the cooking.”

“I don’t know what I meant.”

“Ha. You aren’t getting out of this as easy as that. I’m done running this around in circles. First I get the feeling that maybe you like me especially well but then you brush it off as friendship. Then I think maybe it’s worth another try and you act like you haven’t got a clue so I decide the friendship thing is all there is to it. Now you say it isn’t me your afraid of but yourself. I need some straight talk girl, not all that female secret code stuff. Am I just your friend or are you saying that you want more than friendship with me?”

I was prepared to die right then and right there. But there was a part of me that was saying, “What did you expect? He’s a grown man, you’re a grown woman even if he doesn’t always talk to you like you are. This was bound to come up at some point.”

“Donovan …”

“I’m waiting for an answer Emma.”

“Well … I don’t know how to answer you. Sue me, I’ve never done this before.”

“You’ve never done … are you kidding me? I know options were limited in the bunker and things were a little … unusual. But before that surely … I mean … What about that Moshe dued?”

“You know good and well that I didn’t do what some of the other women did in the bunker and that things were a whole lot more than ‘unusual.’ As for Moshe, I told you, he was just a friend.”

“A friend … or … a friend with benefits.”

“A friend with … if I wasn’t afraid of puking I would so hit you right now. What kind of girl do you think I am? Oh wait, that’s right, I was a 5 and where there is smoke there has to be fire.” Suddenly I ran out of steam and said, “Although the way I was acting like a floozy and climbing up in your lap every time you turned around … what else were you supposed to think of me?”

I was almost too tired to cry but that didn’t keep me from feeling like it. It made my head hurt and my stomach role. I put my head between my bent knees and tried to breathe through my mouth slowly to keep ahold of what dignity I had left.

“Emma, I’m gonna ask you something and I want an absolutely truthful answer. Are you telling me you … that you … I don’t even know how to ask this without sounding like an idiot. Emma exactly how much experience do you have?”

I groaned out loud. I wasn’t really embarrassed of my particular condition but still, it isn’t something that I’m used to discussing with anyone of the male persuasion either. Not even Moshe ever asked me that kind of question.

“Emma I’m waiting for an answer.”

“I know you are. Look, I’m … I don’t … I’ve gone out a few times but no one ever … I’ve never …”

“Am I to take from all of that hemming and hawing that you don’t have any experience or just a little or what?”

“I’m trying to tell you. Have a little patience already.”

Donovan just laughed again. “Emma I’ve been a heck of a lot more patient than I even knew I could be. Look at me. I won’t force anything on you but I won’t live in limbo land either. It is either one way or another. I had to deal with enough games during my marriage. I won't do that again.”

“I’m not playing a game!” I shouted and then had to grab my head.

“See what you get?”

“You aren’t making this easy Donovan. I’m sitting here talking about sex with a guy whose first name I don’t even know. I’m not used to talking about this stuff with anyone. Not even Laura.”

“Laura is that dude Moshe’s sister, the one that was your best friend.”

“Yes. And why do you keep saying ‘that dude Moshe’ like that?”

“Because I don’t like him and that is the most polite thing I’m ever going to call him. Aldwyn.”

I thought I hadn’t heard him right. “What?”

“Aldwyn. It’s a family name from way back on my dad’s side of the family. He wished it on me thinking his family would take some notice of me. He was wrong. I ran into another boy with the same name when I was in middle school and that was the first time I’d even met anywone from that side of my family. His parents, my paternal aunit and uncle, came to the school and made a big stink about me being in the same classes as him.”

“Aldwyn … Aldwyn Donovan …”

“Don’t strain yourself. I haven’t gone by Aldwyn since I left school. I’ve gone by A.E. Donovan so long that no one has called me anything but Donovan for years now. Even my ex called me Donovan.”

“A.E.? What does the E stand for?”

He sighed and said, “Ebenezer.”

I thought for a second and then shook my head. It sounded impossible. “They didn’t really do that to a kid, especially not their own. You’re … you’re yanking my chain again.”

“Aldwyn Ebenezer Donovan. Named after both of my grandfathers and neither one of them would even acknowledge my existence. How’s that for irony?”

“Uh … do you want me to … I mean …”

“You call me anything but Donovan and not only will I not answer you I’ll make it hard for you to use your sitter for a week,” he said giving me the eye. “You want me to start running around calling you Emmaline Josephine?”

“Well … you can if you want to; you call me Emma already. You’ll probably get tired of the mouth full though. I was named after my grandmothers, but that doesn’t bother me at all. Just don’t call me Josie, then we might have to fight.”

I was getting comfortable again but I relaxed too soon.

“So now that you know my first name and my middle name, something very few people knew even before the world turned to ice, that should remove your objection to continuing our previous discussion.”

“You aren’t going to drop this are you?”

“What do you think?”

I rolled my eyes and tried really hard not to get defensive. “I don’t have any of the ‘experience’ I think you are talking about. I got asked out a few of times in highschool and once or twice in college but mostly because Laura arranged it when she wanted to double date or when that was the only way to keep her parents off her back.”

“So that means that …”

“Just assume that whatever you’re thinking that I haven’t. It'll probably be true 99.9% of the time. In fact, just assume I’m a complete idiot and don’t have a clue what I’m doing which is true 100% of the time apparently since I’m making such a hash of this.”

“Whao. No need to go that far.” He gave me a thoughtful look, “Though I’ll admit that it isn’t exactly what I expected of a modern co-ed nor is it what I’m used to. But … this Neanderthal finds it a little fascinating and …” He started laughing. “I swear, all this blushing is something I never expected out of the Ice Maiden.”

“The who?”

Now it was Donovan’s turn to look embarrassed. “Don’t worry about it. What I meant …”

“You mean … you mean me. I’m the Ice Maiden.” I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know but I asked anyway. “Did you make up the name or … never mind, I can see it on your face. That’s what all of you called me isn’t it?”

“Emma …”

“Forget it. It is what it is. Look, I’m really tired. Can I lay down and sleep yet?”

“No. Not until this is finished.”

“It’s finished. I told you what you wanted to know.”

Now it was Donovan's turned to get defensive. “You have to admit you do freeze people out.”

“Whatever.”

“Don’t play that game. You knew exactly what you were doing.”

“If you say so. But tell me why I should have even suspected that anyone cared one way or the other. I saw what, maybe a handful of people outside of the Level 5 personnel? I wasn’t even allowed out of that area unless it was for a committee meeting or a command performance at one of those stupid socials. I was angry Donovan. It still makes me angry thinking about it. Maybe people got a little of the spillover from that but I didn’t exactly see them standing in line to help me out either.”

I shrugged out from under his shoulder and tried to stand up but the room kept tipping. “Sit down Emma.”

“Stop telling me what to do.”

“I’m …”

Finding the energy to get angry hadn't been easy but I managed it. “Why do you even care anyway? Admit it, you have absolutely no respect for me do you? You never have. You’re the same as the rest of them. I …” Every time I tried to take a step or two the room would tilt and I’d have to close my eyes and stop moving or risk falling, barfing, or both.

I jumped when I felt him gently turn me around and say, “This isn’t going quite how I planned it. Stop moving or you’re going to fall. Where do you think you’re going to go? Back to work?”

“I don’t know. Anything beats sitting here feeling sorry for myself and worrying this lame conversation to death. Nothing changes. Ever. I should have figured that out by now.”

“That’s enough,” he said less than gently. “Come here and sit down. I’m not going to ask again. Now.”

“Stop telling me …”

“No. Get used to it. Drove my ex crazy too but I’m not about to change, not right now. Look at you. You’re weak as a kitten. You’ve lost more weight than I thought and you’ve got a nasty bruise that is spreading from your ear to your cheek. You look like some guy slugged you. I’m sorry I pushed you as hard as I have but I’m tired of living in limbo. I need an answer.”

“An answer to what?!” I had to grab my head again because it felt like I’d just shoved an ice pick into my skull.

“I’m not asking you to play Eve to my Adam … but I think it’s possible that we can build something out of this situation. Is that so hard to understand?”

“No, it’s not hard to understand. What’s hard to understand is why you would want it with me? I know I’m the only game in town but I still just don’t get it.”

“Come here and let me show you.” Well, his type of convincing was pretty powerful. It made my head ache but not enough for me to make him stop. He’s not pushing me but I know his patience is finite. I know one of these days I’m going to have to … well, it’s wrong just to string him along; I have to decide what I want. And … and we’ve left the pallets together.

What a mess. Part of me is jumping up and down in excitement that I’m finally the one that got the guy. And another part of me cringes every time I realize I got the guy because I’m the only girl around to get him. And because I just have to act like I have multiple personalities part of me is wondering if I’m still a “good girl” or not. What happens to us when the snow stops falling and he wants to go off and find other people? I don’t even know if there is an “us.”

The next day I still had a head ache but the cave didn’t move when I was up and walking around. I heated enough water to wash out all of our underclothes and to kind of wash my hair out. I tried to wash the rest of me a bit but it was so cold even with the fire going that I got badly chilled and had to lay down under the covers. Donovan came back from squirreling around in the junk in the big cavern and found me there shivering. He made me stay there and he made something he called Hoppin’ John and Rice, after which he made me eat one of those Millennium Bars. Not a good combination. It had the same effect on him and we made an early night of it. I think he fell asleep faster than he had intended. I had to get up and write some of this stuff out of my system.

One last thought before I crawl back into the bed that I’ve made for myself … figuratively as well as literally. I’m a little jealous of Noah’s daughter in laws. At least they married before the flood and knew that their husband’s picked them out of a crowd. I don’t know if Donovan picked me because there wasn’t anyone else to pick from or not, I don’t know if I’ll ever know for certain. I don’t even know if this is the real and lasting type of relationship. I’m not sure I want to know badly enough to deal with getting an answer I don’t want.