Authors: C. L. Scholey
Tansy looked at her child with a wrenching heart. She had borne so much in the last two months of her life. Her father was gone; did she even know what that meant? Their home was likely obliterated by now, the surrounding area covered over in water. Their lifestyle had been shattered overnight. Safe was a word to dream about. Starvation, though, was something Mike unfortunately understood.
With resolve, Tansy handed the rifle to Chris and began to rise on shaky feet. Emmy grasped her arm. Tansy smiled and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. With determination she approached the men. She stood a short distance from them; she saw they were indeed roasting meat. It smelled like venison. In that moment, her tummy rumbling, Tansy thought she’d sell her soul for a taste, but she remembered Michaela. She cleared her throat; the men ignored her and kept shoving pieces of the heavenly smelling meat into their mouths. She knew they were ignoring her on purpose. Tansy cleared her throat. No response, she tried again, still no response.
“Maybe we could trade,” she finally voiced desperately.
Randy turned his face away, no doubt to hide a smile of satisfaction. Cord made no attempt to hide he was feeling victorious.
“Well now, sweetheart,” Cord drawled, his eyes took in her form from head to toe and then back up again suggestively, it was more than apparent he liked what he saw. “What you got to offer?”
“What do you want?” Tansy asked as she held her head high, locking gazes with the powerful man. He had undone the top of his jacket, exposing tattoos low on his neck.
“You can guess being with two other men a man might get a bit frustrated,” Randy said with a knowing leer and a shady wink, also running his eyes over her body then casting his glance over toward her daughters.
Tansy was scared to death, determinedly catching his eye and narrowing her own with a fierce glaring protectiveness, wanting all to understand her daughters were out of the bargaining. She looked at Clint, who seemed to be the only one of the three who didn’t appear to want to feast upon her or her girls.
“What about you, can we trade for something? My baby is starving.” He looked the least dangerous of the three, which wasn’t much, and the wistful expression he offered her made her know she’d struck a chord when she emphasized the word ‘baby.’
* * * *
Clint hesitated, he looked at the woman standing courageous but afraid; he knew she’d offer him anything he wanted. He looked to his friends, who smiled. Cord looked back at him and winked. Clint ran a hand over his shoulder length greasy black hair.
“I want to hold the baby in my lap while she eats,” he said.
Clint’s daughter had died choking to death while he was out hunting for food with his friends. A bone had lodged in his daughter’s throat sideways. By the time the men returned both mother and daughter were dead. His gentle little Annie had slit her wrists, not being able to stand the pain of her loss. Clint blamed himself, even if he couldn’t have saved his baby, he could have stopped his wife. Clint had known Annie was lonely for female companionship, Cord and Randy and he had been buddies forever, but Annie felt so alone, and he knew she’d been afraid of Randy. Annie knew Randy had a mean streak and had beaten his wife until she fled in the night with their unborn child well over a year ago.
At first, when they came across women or men they’d fight the men for sport. They hadn’t killed any; none were in possession of their powerful size and proved to be no threat. Then they’d take their supplies and their women, if they interested them, only to turn them loose later. Afterward Cord voiced maybe they should’ve kept the women, instead of terrorizing, muscling and frightening them into submission they should’ve traded with them, been gentler and accommodating. Winter could be lonely and women did offer warmth.
Even Randy, unbelievably, mentioned in an offhand way it might be nice to have a willing woman, someone who might even care if they came home empty handed, as long as they came home. They’d been traveling a fair distance. Town after town destroyed. The people dead or long gone, nothing seemed to exist except ceaseless despair and the stench of death. The implication of the world’s destruction was less amusing town after town of emptiness. This emergency wasn’t passing—it was the new way of life.
Clint began to worry perhaps there were no more women out there. What if nature selected them for extinction? Men would soon follow. The thought had been shocking, and when the bodies thinned out and life appeared nonexistent all of them worried.
Clint knew Cord and Randy were rough, but looking at the women and children before him, he felt they shouldn’t want to fool with an obvious gift handed to them on a silver platter.
His reverie was interrupted by an irate Randy who turned on him. It appeared he wasn’t in agreement with Clint’s intuitive insight.
“You wanna feed the kid. It ain’t gonna bring yours back, nothing will.” Clint flinched.
“Relax Randy, if he wants to share his with the kid who’s to say no. Hell, he worked just as hard to get it,” Cord replied.
The woman made a small sound. All eyes went to her.
“Alright,” she finally said. “Alright, but you have to bring the food over to our fire—alone.”
“Yeah, go ahead Clint, go make sure the little poop maker doesn’t choke to death like your own brat.” Randy spit the words out callously.
Clint lunged for Randy’s shirt collar. Randy toppled over backwards at the unexpected attack. Clint was in his face howling out his rage and hurt, spittle flew from his mouth. A solid punch to Randy’s face drew a fine line of blood. Clint’s fist rose in anger once more. In moments, Cord had them separated, locking his powerful arms around Clint’s, stopping the assault and wrestling him to the side. Randy lay gasping and choking in surprise. Clint yanked himself from Cord’s grip and ran a hand through his matted locks of hair, still shaking from his fury, calming his mask of intense rage.
“Easy buddy, easy. You don’t want to frighten the little lady now do you?” Cord warned.
Stricken, Clint looked to the woman, she was frightened. Her face whiter than when she’d approached. It made Clint wonder if someone had ever hit her. His protective streak fired. He rose splaying his empty hands.
“I ain’t never hit no woman or child in my whole life, ma’am.”
“Tansy,” she answered shakily. “My name is Tansy. We don’t want any trouble, Clint.”
Clint could tell he’d scared her. Looking to the other fire, he could tell he’d frightened the others. He shifted around feeling ashamed of himself.
“Well Tansy, I swear to you I won’t never hurt you or your girls, and I’m sorry if’n I scared you. I don’t usually make it a habit to lose my temper.”
“Then get your share and come over.” Tansy marched back to the others.
Clint approached in a personable way. He settled between the lot of them. Once seated, he opened a piece of newspaper holding numerous strips of raw venison. Clint looked over at Michaela and smiled. Offhand introductions were made.
“Are you a fairy princess?” he asked the child. He then cast a sad look at the battered rag doll she held in her tiny dirty hands, feeling a moment’s nostalgia as she gazed up at him with big brown eyes. His little Bess had had big brown eyes, just like her mother and the small woman before him.
Michaela nestled next to her mother; she ducked her head into the crook of Tansy’s neck, but peeked back up at him with obvious interest. Unconcerned about her shy response, Clint skewered a chunk of meat and roasted it over the flames, turning it often. He glanced unobtrusively toward the child and glowed as her curiosity got the better of her.
Michaela crept down from Tansy who watched, and sat a little closer. Clint noticed as the child moved closer to him so did the mother. He expected as much but never ceased in his activity. Soon the child’s hand rested on his knee watching the food cooking, her small rag doll forgotten on her mother’s lap in anticipation. Clint brought the sizzling meat away from the flame and began to blow on it.
“Ohh, hot,” Michaela said.
“Why don’t you help me blow on it,” Clint said and encouraged the child to sit with him. Needing no more persuasion except the aroma of the meat, Michaela climbed into his lap and blew at the aromatic food.
When it cooled Clint produced a large hunting knife and was surprised to feel a hand grasp him by the arm. He looked to Tansy who seemed transfixed by the steel blade. Her worried look then shot to Clint’s face.
“The pieces need to be small,” Clint stated, his tone brooked no argument and he cut a tiny piece which he tested against his tongue before placing it into Michaela’s mouth. She chewed once, twice, swallowed and opened her mouth like a little bird waiting for more. Clint cut another piece, blew on it, but kept it away from the child.
“This time chew it ten times.”
He popped the food into her mouth and watched. Michaela chewed, stopped, chewed then looked to her mother with some distress.
“Three,” Tansy counted, smiling with encouragement. “Four, five.”
“Six,” Clint took up, “Seven, eight.”
“Nine, ten,” Emmy finished for her, clapping. Michaela smiled, swallowed, and then looked at her mother.
Tansy gave her a small smile; her eyes alight with compassion, tinged with sorrow.
“No, it’s still Michaela’s turn.”
“No, my mommy’s turn,” Michaela insisted. She scowled and crossed her arms over her chest. Michaela’s fists tightened and she clenched her teeth and pursed her rosebud mouth defiantly.
“Well a course it’s mommy’s turn,” Clint said and gave Michaela a ‘how stupid of me,’ look, with a lopsided cheeky grin. She tittered with a hand held over her mouth, and watched as Clint cut a larger piece.
“Open up,” he instructed.
Tansy hesitated, his fingers were large and grimy, his fingernails somewhat long and dirty, but that’s not what kept her from accepting the proffered morsel. It was the four other hopeful faces that all leaned in with eagerness. She sat feeling helpless and undecided, wanting, needing...
“Go on,” Clint encouraged.
He seemed expectant, as though waiting on much more than her acceptance. Tansy opened her mouth and closed her eyes as she chewed on and sucked at the succulent venison. It tasted better than she remembered, it invoked childhood memories of reunions and regattas long past. It tasted like security and home and every other pleasant memory to bombard her senses. Her eyes were moist when she opened them and they stared into clear blue, depth-filled eyes, the intensity they returned made her wary.
“Well, this jist don’t seem fair does it?” Clint said breaking their trance and releasing her gaze. He handed a strip of raw meat to Emmy, then Shanie and Marge. His gift was refused, however, when he handed some to Chris. The boy scowled and backed away ignoring the offered treat; he turned on his side facing the other men and lay scowling at them, the rifle clutched within his grasp.
“But we have nothing to give you,” Marge said, while skewering her meat and thrusting it into the fire.
“Shanie has presents,” Michaela tittered. She looked at her new benefactor with hopeful big brown eyes, wanting to elicit his help in acquiring one of the little packages she was certain must hold some kind of wonderful treasure.
Shanie turned crimson; her gaze darted from Clint to her mother to the floor. Clint’s interest piqued, he looked at the teenager questioningly. Shanie, avoiding a direct stare, glowered at her little sister.
“They are not presents.”
At Tansy’s short laugh Clint’s eyes widened and watched as Tansy cut another piece of meat for Michaela. After popping it into her mouth Tansy gave Clint a conspiratorial gaze, leaned close and whispered at the contents of the ‘presents’. Clint laughed then smothered it into a cough at Shanie’s outraged embarrassed look.
“How ’bout we let Shanie...it’s Shanie, right?” he asked then continued after she gave a curt nod. “How ’bout we let Shanie keep her presents. I’ll give you one a mine.”
Michaela squealed in delight as Clint produced cherry Life Savers. He gave her one then offered them around. Everyone else refused; worried about his generosity in one way and in another hoping he would again offer one to Michaela. Her delight had been so sweet and innocent; her sisters had lumps in their throats. They’d been given so much so often throughout their lives when all Mike had was a chance to be eaten by filthy rats. At Shanie’s shudder, Clint gave her a direct stare.
“Rats,” Shanie offered.
At Clint’s quizzical gaze Tansy glanced off into the darker parts of the basement and offered him a gruesome explanation.
“It seems rats hunt children.”
Clint’s horror had him clutching Michaela to his chest. He couldn’t fathom the idea. His daughter had never been exposed to such loathsome creatures. He would’ve murdered them by hand if need be, crunched them under his heavy black boots.
“They hunt in packs and we have to go through every basement looking for them. They attack without warning; they always go for her first.” As Tansy continued, Clint’s horror turned to outrage.
“Not ’round me they don’t,” he growled with fierce protectiveness. It struck him just how vulnerable the small tired woman was before him. He saw it; no doubt the rodents sensed it and took predatory advantage.
Michaela had fallen asleep in the security and warmth Clint’s arms had offered.
“You need me,” Clint stated.
“Look, we appreciate the food, Clint,” Tansy began and tried to reach for her daughter, but Clint held her off.
“She needs my protection,” Clint claimed.
“Hey what’re you doing?” Shanie cried, as Clint jumped up with Michaela clutched in his arms.
“No,” Tansy cried out as Chris jumped to his feet and held the riffle, taking aim. “Please,” she wept at Clint, clutching his jacket.
Clint towered over her, holding Michaela in one arm and running a dirty hand through his hair. Taking a breath, Clint cleared his throat. He noted Tansy’s terrified tear-streaked face and the others’ pensive expressions. He had agonized over the loss of his precious child so recently and holding another so vulnerable in his arms he was loath to release her.