Monday, September 7, 2015

Chapter 24


Emi was desperate and desperately embarrassed but didn’t have a choice.  “Gringo.  Uh … Nate.” 

Nate woke up instantly.  “You hurting?” 

“Sorta.  Uh … where’s the … the bano?  The bathroom?”  She heard him getting up and snapped, “I don’t need …” 

“Even if you can get down the stairs without falling you’ll probably have problems getting back up.” 

He did let her try but her legs were so shaky that she gave in before he had to force the issue.  Embarrassed Emi snarled, “This is ridiculoso.  What’s wrong with me?!” 

“At a guess?  You’re brain knows you are at a safe stopping point even if your consciousness doesn’t.  You’re body has taken a lot of abuse.  It is a wonder you haven’t been bad sick before this.” 

Denying his explanation she snapped, “I’m not sick.” 

“No, but you will be if you don’t let yourself heal up.  It … look Emi, take it however you want to but as a man it makes me … makes me … look, I like that you know you are safe here, even if it is just subconsciously right now.  Don’t let it bother you ‘cause it doesn’t bother me.” 

Real life having been taken care of Emi came out of what used to be the downstairs half bath obviously impressed.  “You know how long it’s been since I’ve used real indoor plumbing?  Since the airport.” 

“Airport?” 

“When they shipped me out of the country like a piece of rancid meat.  My mother’s cousins didn’t have it.  The ships I worked on don’t count.  And … well … there hasn’t been anything since then.  I think you are kidding.  You gotta be a Don or something important like that.” 

“What I’ve got is an artesian well out in the grove.  That’s why it smells like the bowels of hell in there,” he said referring to the heavily sulfured odor of the water.  “We try and aerate the water some before it goes into the cistern but it doesn’t help much.  You ready to go back up?” 

“Sure.  Look … about … about before.   I’m … I’m no so good … not so good I mean … about … about apologizing … but …”  She shook her head.  “I … I guess I made you mad about something.  What I’m trying to say is I didn’t mean to and I’m … I’m sorry that I did.” 

“Don’t Emi.  I got mad for a stupid reason.  Just next time if I say I can afford to get something for you don’t make out like I can’t.” 

Shaking her head Emi told him, “I wasn’t thinking that.  I just … look … I remember my parents talking about how expensive kids were and I also remember what it was like when my dad was first starting his courier business.  Momma told me it was our job – hers and mine – to make things easier on dad and my brothers because that was part of a woman’s suerta en la vida.   I ain’t ever gonna be the mujer my momma was but … but since I made a deal to be your mujer it is my job to …” 

Nate laid Emi gently back on the bed and pulled a sheet up to cover her with.  He saw she was struggling to keep her eyes open and they were suspiciously damp.  “Shhhh.  You and I have some things to work on but this time the working needs to be on my side.  I’m not angry and you need to rest.” 

While Emi went immediately to sleep, it took Nate a while longer.  He wasn’t sure if this was an issue of age or innocence – though how she still hung onto any innocence after all she’d been through he had no idea – but he was sure that Emi wasn’t pushing his buttons on purpose, at least not on this.   That said, he’d need to carefully guide her into understanding that the money issue was a sensitive one for him.  Growing up he watched his father willingly nearly work himself to death to provide for his large family.  He’d watched most of his older brothers do much the same thing but for some of them with less return as it were.  He’d set out to do the same thing for Gina but she’d never been satisfied no matter how hard he’d worked or how much he’d brought in.  She always made him feel if he could give her just a little more … but that was his hang up, not Emi’s, and he was man enough to own it.  The fact that her grandparents had been wealthy people wasn’t her fault either and it appeared she wasn’t raised spoiled, or at least not financially spoiled.  For some reason it made him even more determined to give her things but he was just as determined that she not know the reason for it.   So thinking he finally relaxed and went to sleep for what remained of the night. 

***** 

Emi woke to the sound of squirrels fighting on the window sill.  Or that’s what she thought it was until she woke up enough to remember that squirrels didn’t use English … or Spanish either for that matter.   

“All that means is that you married a whore and I’m not having my children raised by a whore.” 

“Don’t even go there Gina.  And as for you Patricia I suggest you tell your men to back off or you might not like the consequences.” 

That brought Emi the rest of the way awake.  Faster than it would take to explain it she spied her clothes folded on top of the dresser and tugged them on and then grabbed her rifle where it stood in the corner with the rest of what little she called her own in this world.  She checked to see it was properly loaded as she made her way down the stairs as quickly and quietly as she could manage.  She made it to the kitchen just in time to see a man shuck a round into his shotgun and raise it to aim.   

Emi was faster and better and the shotgun shattered in his hands.  The man fell to the ground screaming and cradling the hand that she’d shot through. 

Into the shocked silence she called, “Gringo?  Is there trouble?” 

“Yes there is.” 

“Do you want me to shoot anyone else?” 

With a shark’s bite to the words he answered, “The next one that moves without my express permission and I don’t care who it is.” 

Emi looked around carefully and saw Kiko, furious as he stood in front of Dora who held a shrieking Darla with several other children all around her.  Then she spied Bastian being held onto by a large hombre who looked like he would just as soon tear his arm off.  Emi called, “Bastian?  You like where you’re at?” 

“No!” 

“Then you move over by your Uncle Kiko.  Si?” 

The hombre didn’t want to let Bastian go until Emi put the laser from her scope right into his eye almost blinding him.  He got the message and let the boy go but he gave her a feral grin that promised bad things.  Emi had been promised bad things before and filed it away for future reference. 

Gina and her mother started making the same noise the chickens make when they get their feathers ruffled but shut up when Emi took turns letting them know that she wasn’t above using the laser scope on them either and then when the big guy with the bad ideas tried to charge he got lead poisoning from several angles … hers took him in the throat, Nate’s got him in the chest, Kiko’s took him in the back, and a man running up from the river got him in the gut.  The guy was dead before he hit the ground. 

Gina started screaming louder than Darla.  “Nauldo!  Nauldo!!” 

Emi saw movement out of the corner of her eye and took out two more men while a third was taken out by a man on the roof.  That finished off those that had any ideas of being the bigger bad. 

It took a while to sort things out to Nate’s satisfaction and while he did so Emi hustled Bastian and Dora and the little girl and other children into the house and would growl at anyone that came too close to the door where she leaned that she didn’t recognize.  Once Bastian tried to come to stand beside her but she told him, “No hijo.  Stay over there with your Aunt Dora and the others.  If a shot comes in, I don’t want you to be a target.” 

As things calmed Emi said, “I musta missed something big.  Your crew and Nate’s ex showing up.  Was it at the same time?  Together?” 

“It wasn’t together.  Benji came by our place and asked if Angelique – that’s Kiko’s cousin by the way – would come give you a look over.  And don’t growl like that, she’s the older woman out there dosing Gina so she’ll … er …” 

“It’s ok Aunt Dora,” Bastian said sounding like a sad little old man when he realized his aunt stopped talking because of him.  “I know she has problems.  Aunt Arden explained it to me when Dad was still too sad about it.  She’s got herself all worked up and now can’t stop even if she wanted to.  Tia Angelique is helping her to stop before she makes herself sick and pukes like she normally does.” 

Emi spared a glance at Dora to see her nod her head with a grim expression.  Needing some answers that might not come if the children were in the room Emi said, “Bastian, why don’t you get your Aunt Dora and the kids something to drink?” 

“Actually, let him take them to his room.  It is just up the stairs and down the hall so they won’t be far.” 

“Bastian the shutters closed?” 

He answered her, “No, but we’ll close them when we get up there.  I guess Aunt Dora wants to talk to you about … about her.” 

After the little boys traipsed eagerly after Bastian and were out of earshot Dora sighed.  “He can’t even call her momma anymore.” 

As she kept an eye on what was going on in the yard Emi responded, “I’d noticed but wasn’t sure what to make of it.” 

“This is only going to make it worse.” 

“This as in what happened just now or this as in me?” 

“Both if you turn out to be what’s best for Nate and the kids.  You gonna turn out to be that?” 

“No clue.  For now Nate wants me.  Not sure how he’ll feel when he actually gets to know me.” 

“Hmmm.” 

Emi brushed a small wasp away from her face and told Dora, “I’m not looking to make trouble, don’t want it either.  Nate and I have a deal and I’ll do my best to hold up my end … including stuff like just happened.  But he’ll have to decide whether that is what he really wants long term.  And Bastian … he’s a good kid and I don’t want to make it harder on him.  But my job is to keep him and anyone else Nate tells me safe.  Which brings us to that oversized hombre … that Nauldo … I take it he was the guy Gina was shacked up with?” 

“Yeah.  The others were men he’d picked out for Mrs. Rivera’s crew.  She has a good sized fishing operation that her husband started up after things fell apart and most started figuring out that we’d have to find food close to home or not at all.  Her son runs most of it now but she still has majority control since her husband’s death last year.  She was getting crowded by her competition and a few even tried to take out their headquarters.  Nate can tell you the rest.” 

“If the hombre was a smuggler and was getting too friendly with the family, it probably made their competitors nervous.   Anyway, I still don’t get what Gina was doing here?  She still upset about the kids?” 

“My honest opinion?”  At Emi’s guarded nod she said, “It was a cover, or Nauldo was using her as a cover and Mrs. Rivera as a distraction.  Nauldo and his men were too interested in what Nate had brought in.” 

“Loose lips … Nate expected it, or at least seemed to be expecting something.” 

“Hmmm.  You know you hold up that door any harder and you’re going to take the house out of square.” 

“Huh?” 

“Don’t play dumb.  You’re hands are pretty steady but I’ve seen your legs shaking when you unlock them to keep the circulation going.  And don’t try and fool me, I’ve seen the same thing in Kiko and his men when they were on the ragged edge of nothing left to give.” 

Emi didn’t have to respond because it was that moment that Nate stepped onto the veranda and guided her into the kitchen.  “Where are the kids?” 

“Darla is sleeping in some little bed thing Bastian pulled in here and he and all the little Kikos are upstairs in his room.” 

After a moment of silence Nate asked, “Not gonna say anything about my pretty face?”   

Seeing the bruising around his eye and his busted lip up close for the first time Emi said, “Not in front of your sister.  Just tell me the cabron that did it is one of the ones I shot.” 

Nate gave a twisted smile.  “Nauldo.” 

“Too bad we didn’t have no gators to feed him to a piece at a time … before he got lead poisoning.  Is there law around here?” 

“None that will make noise about Nauldo going to his Judgment Day.  You step outside Ft. Myers city limits and the rule of law is very, very basic and Castle Law officially extends to your property boundary.  On the water Maritime Law applies.” 

“Good to know.  Now what kinda mess can Mrs. Rivera make?  As I remember she was really good at giving other people heart burn.” 

Nate had gone over and poured all three of them cups of water, handing the first one to Dora and then looking at Emi until she consented to put the rifle down and drink hers.  After that he answered her.  “Patricia is in a bit of shock as the men in her crew that weren’t Nauldo’s men told her some uncomfortable facts including that a lot of people think the raid that wound up causing her husband’s fatal heart attack was set up by Nauldo, or his boss.” 

“Do you think this boss is going to be sad that I made Nauldo muerto?” 

“No.  The boss was assassinated not too long after that raid and suddenly Nauldo is a bigger man than he should have been.” 

Emi muttered her general opinion of men, stupid men, greedy men, and stupid, greedy men in particular in a long, low torrent of feisty Spanish.  Both Dora and Nate whistled in appreciation with Nate teasing, “You’ll need to take that to Confession.” 

Finally sliding into a chair that Nate practically shoved under her Emi said, “If I confess all my sins the priest will lose all his hair before I finish.  It’s why I send them direct air mail to God … saves another sin of traumatizing a priest.” 

A surprised giggle escaped from Dora which in turn made Nate smile like the cat that got the cream.   

Emi heard the floor near the stairwell squeak and looked at Nate.  He nodded and said a little more loudly than necessary, “Gina and her mother will be leaving shortly.  If Bastian wants to say good bye to his grandmother he can come down but I’d prefer he wave from the window.” 

Emi looked slightly uncomfortable before suggesting, “Why don’t you … you let me speak to Mrs. Rivera.” 

“Wait … why?” 

“Gotta find some peace in this mess some place Gringo or neither one of us will have any quiet.  I don’t like the woman for my own reasons but that don’t make her malo … bad.  And she is your kids’ grandmother.  My own grandmother – my mother’s mother – could be incredibly strict and I hated it but it wasn’t because she didn’t care for me, more like she cared so much she forgot to ask me what I wanted since she believed she knew best all the time.  I don’t want to be the cause of Bastian having no heartache.  I make peace with the old … er … with Mrs. Rivera or at least start it, it’ll make things easier for your kids in the long run.”

In some consternation Nate told her, “This type of thing wasn’t part of the deal Emi.” 

Emi shrugged.  “Eh, I look at it one way, you look at it another.  Like I said, if I can keep my mouth shut around La Gran Bufalo that was my mother’s cousin’s wife then this should be a piece of pastel … cake I mean … piece of cake.  Mrs. Rivera is a tough ol’ gator but she’s nothing compared to what I had to deal with in Honduras.  At least let me try … for Bastian and Darla.” 

Emi felt that Nate was going to say no but he was called away before he could voice it.  Emi then looked at Dora who was no help.  She decided that she was going to at least try her way and got up and walked out onto the porch.   

Gina was being loaded into an older model car that looked – and smelled – like it had been converted to some kind of alternative fuel, possibly methane.  Mrs. Rivera stood off to the side observing.  She was pale and nervous but trying not to show it.  Emi walked over to her but stopped several feet back giving both of them plenty of personal space to have the conversation. 

Mrs. Rivera’s nose flared and her chin came up.  “You aimed a gun at me.” 

“Yes I did … ma’am.  You were a threat.  However, it has come out that Gina’s … uh … Gina’s … er …  anyway he was the real threat.  Nate explained how that Nauldo took advantage of you.” 

“I beg your pardon?” 

“You are grieving for Dr. Rivera.  You expected that Nauldo to … er … support the family, not abuse your trust.  So …” 

Emi wasn’t sure how to say what she had intended to say and Mrs. Rivera only stood there imperious as she ever had been.  Finally Emi just said it baldly even if it came out rudely.  “So look, I figure everyone is out to make sure that Bastian and Darla get taken care of right.  Nate has expectations.  You have expectations.  Gina … well, she’s not … hmmm … she’s not in a good place right now to be able to shoulder the responsibility of being a momma.  And you have a boatload of responsibilities as well.  Nate trusted Arden … well I’ve sorta come to fill Arden’s place … kinda like a housekeeper and nanny … a package deal that he got a priest to witness.  The … the priest was my Uncle Roger so you know there is no mal negosio … I mean no bad business.  Uncle Roger … he wouldn’t …” 

Having finally placed the young woman with the girl she had in school Mrs. Rivera asked, “Father Jensen was really the priest that married you?” 

“Si … er … yes ma’am.  He didn’t recognize me at first so there were no special favors involved.  And you know he would never tolerate any attempt by me to … to …”  Emi shut up.  Trying to make peace was one thing.  Humiliating herself was another. 

“And the purpose of you telling me this?” 

“Like I said, we all want what is best for the kids.  It was the only reason Nate got me.  Arden had waited long enough and had her calling to answer to.   Gina isn’t … she isn’t well.”  That’s not precisely what Emi was thinking after seeing how she acted but she figured it would go over better with Mrs. Rivera than calling her daughter a pedazo de besura blanco. 

“Gina is … fragile.  At the moment.” 

“Sure.  Anyone can see it.  Makes it hard for her to make good decisions.  She needs to focus on … on … her … uh … on pulling herself together after what all she’s been through.  So what I’m saying is … we let her focus on herself for a while.  She should take as long as she needs.  But I don’t think anyone wants to really see her – or you and Arden – cut off from the kids.  But maybe after seeing his mother act … er … fragile it isn’t such a good time for Bastian to … to come down.  He might ask questions he ain’t old enough to understand the answers to.  Maybe the porch to say good bye to you?  But not where Gina would see and get upset all over again.  What do you think?” 

Mrs. Rivera was a cranky old bat but she was no fool.  She knew she was being played.  Unwillingly however she also sensed that Emi was doing it so they could all walk away with some dignity and to avoid further drama.  She decided for the time being she would allow herself to appear to go along with it and see where things went.  She wouldn’t be kept from her grandchildren but for now she needed to focus on getting Gina cleaned up and behaving with more decorum. 

“Very well.” 

“Would you care to have Bastian come to the porch?” 

“No.  I must see to his mother’s care.  He’s old enough to understand that if it is explained properly which I expect that it will be.”  That left Emi in no doubt what her place was going to be.  “You will see that Bastian writes to her and me, and that the letters are sent over weekly.” 

The glare meant nothing to Emi who rarely cared what anyone thought one way or the other; however, rather than agreeing to the terms outright she said, “I’ll speak with Nate and see what can be arranged.” 

“See that you do.  And I also wish to be kept apprised of their progress in school and any other matters of importance.” 

With that she turned away dismissing Emi who struggled to not give her a gesture to take with her.

Chapter 23


There was a mosquito dive bombing her ear.   Emi knew she needed to wake up and kill it or she’d wind up with whelps all over her face.  But it was a struggle she didn’t win, at least not then. 

After some time had passed, Emi wasn’t sure how long as she never quite made it to full consciousness, she heard a quiet curse and she shuddered when a cool cloth was laid across her forehead. 

“Dad?  Is …is she sick?” 

“She needs fluids.  Go tell Benji …” 

Emi finally managed to croak out, “I ain’t seeing no doc and that’s final.” 

There was a moment of silence in the room then Nate told Bastian, “Help Benji pour those buckets of water into that tub in Arden’s old rooms then you two scram and finish your chores.” 

Emi heard feet thunder down the stairs and then almost choked as something was spooned into her mouth.  “Easy Emi.  It is just some water with a little lemon in it.” 

“Scurvy?” 

“I don’t think so, your teeth are surprisingly good – smart girl – but you’ve either got anemia or the closest thing to it so we’ll play this on the careful side.    Will you eat greens? 

Emi was finally able to crack one eye open which she glared at him with.  “Do I look stupido?  You get what you get and don’t make noise about it unless you want somebody bigger and faster to take it away.  ‘Sides, I survived mostly on greens before they showed that cooking killed the DV in most animals.” 

“Whoa there,” Nate told her as she tried to get up.  “Let me do the work for now.  The way you look you’ll wind up on your head instead of your feet.” 

Surprisingly Emi found that she was too weak to fight and couldn’t find a bone to care with that Nate was seeing her naked … again.  She’d picked her fate, now she’d just have to see where it led … to life or death. 

After wrapping her in a sheet Nate carried her down a once ornate staircase, through a living space empty of all furniture, and then toward the back of the house.  As he did so she noticed that the light was completely wrong and her sense of time was thrown further out of whack than it already was.  “How long was I out?” 

“Little over a day.  You were starting to worry me.  Don’t like worrying Chica.” 

Emi sighed.  “Dad used to say the same thing.  He didn’t like worrying either.  Always setting some watcher over me.  Now look, I’m the only one left and that’s probably my fault as well.” 

Nate knew that Emi wasn’t intentionally pulling at his heart strings, that it was a symptom of just how weak she was, and that worried him further as he knew from short acquaintance that she wasn’t the type to reveal too much.  “There are a lot of us that are the only one left.  Lost all of my bio family in second and third waves except for my sister and would have lost her if not for Kiko.  Lost my marriage and nearly lost my kids in the aftermath.” 

“Still have your in-laws.” 

“Ex in-laws.  And I don’t have them so much as I can’t get rid of the damn leeches.” 

“Because of the kids.”

“That and they’ve gotten used to what they could get from me.  But I ain’t salvaging for a while.  Got more than I can take care of by myself now.  If people knew what I had in the outbuildings around here there’d be trouble.” 

She shuddered as he lowered her into the lukewarm water but tried to cover it by observing, “Looks like you’ve already had trouble from what I remember of the stucco.” 

“Before my time.  The place had been taken over by smugglers for a while, or so the story goes.  Most of the bad ones have been cleaned out.” 

“Except around Denaud.” 

“Caught that did you?” 

“Er … you …you don’t have to do that,” she said uncomfortable as he began unbraiding her hair.” 

“Nope but I wanna see how long it is.” 

“Why?” 

“Just ‘cause.” 

Emi sighed.  “That’s the same answer my father gave every time I asked to cut my hair and he said no and I then asked why.” 

“More I hear about your father the more he sounds like a man of good sense.” 

“Well he was full of machismo that’s for sure.  I didn’t know what it was back then but he and Momma …”  Emi’s smile faded and she looked away. 

“My parents had a good marriage too.  Guess we were both lucky that way.  Sets a goal.” 

Emi turned back to look at him both confused and cautious but didn’t say anything negative.  Nate considered that a good enough start.  He’d tell her some other time that he was the youngest of twelve, his oldest sibling had been just over twenty-five years his senior. 

Nate went from unbraiding her hair to washing it.  Emi knew she should say something to stop him but instead almost dozed again.  When he started washing her other places she finally found some dignity.  “I can do that.” 

“Maybe.” 

“Then let me … or let me try … however you want to look at it.” 

“Aw, you’re no fun.” 

Emi gave him the look the comment deserved.  “If you wanted fun you should have picked one of the other girls.” 

“Didn’t want one of the other girls.  Buncha feather headed idiots.  The lot of them must have had protectors before or none of them would have lived, at least not around here.” 

Emi shrugged as she took the natural sponge from Nate, grateful he was backing off a bit.  “Didn’t get to know them much but Barb said a couple of them were salvageable whatever that means.” 

“Not our problem anymore.” 

Emi shrugged again and tried to turn so that Nate didn’t get quite the eye full that he was obviously hoping for.  This time he said and repeated, “Aw … you’re no fun.” 

They were both quiet after that, both of them intent on their own thoughts.  Finally Emi said, “I need some clothes.” 

“No you don’t.  You’re going back upstairs, I’m going to redress your arm, then you’re going back to bed.  I don’t even have to change the sheets, you didn’t sweat them out.” 

“Bossy,” Emi muttered but there was no heat in it which told Nate she at least had enough sense to know when a fight would garner her something and when it wouldn’t.  For her part, after having lived in a male dominated society her whole life, she simply recognized there were times it was just smarter to let them have their way regardless of the subject. 

Soon all was accomplished and Emi was ensconced in the large bed once again.  She had expected Nate to take off but instead he pulled up a chair.  “What?” she asked.  “I don’t need watching.  Do you think I’m going to get up and wander around in your business?” 

“No.  And don’t start fighting at this late date.  Even if you were able to get up and ‘wander around in my business’ that’s a right I gave you when I gave you my name.” 

Unsure what to make of that Emi just looked at Nate wondering what his game was.  Nate could see the distrust beginning to build and he sighed.  “Emi I know this is going to take some time but don’t do the one step forward, three steps back routine.  I had to deal with that with Gina and it got old real fast.” 

“Look Gringo ...”  Then Emi stopped and shook her head and tried to pull back on what for her felt like out of control emotions.  “I don’t even know what to say to you.  If you ain’t watching me to keep me out of your business then what is going on?” 

Seeing she was trying Nate relaxed a little and said, “I’m not watching you Emi, I’m watching over you.  There’s a difference.”  He could see that Emi was trying to figure out what he meant but he decided to show her so she’d see he was serious about their deal.  “Now, don’t take this the wrong way ‘cause your current state of undress makes me pretty happy, but you need some clothes.” 

“I have clothes if you’ll …” 

“You’ve got a few things true.  Kiko knows his salvage.” 

“Kiko is a pain in the butt and didn’t salvage nothing for me if that’s what you’re thinking.  He … well he might have but the gang lost everything.”  She explained the incident during the fire in more detail than he’d heard it to that point. 

“Then where did your stuff come from?” 

“Picked it up different places.  Most came from the militia camp.  Guy who dug the shrapnel out of my back …” 

“What?!” 

“Ow Gringo, not so loud.  My head feels like it is going to fall off and all your noise …” 

“Here, drink some more of this.  You’re still dehydrated.  And then tell me why some guy was digging shrapnel out of your back.” 

She did, ignoring that it was an order rather than a request, and explained how she’d been captured by a border patrol group when some of the people she was traveling with fell for a baited trap.  “The pack I was carrying at the time took most of the blow but during the explosion a strap gave way and … you know how things go.  The group’s medic triaged most of the injured but me he figured would live with only a little attention.  Makes me think they weren’t the ones that baited the trap.” 

“Hmmm.” 

“My clothes were pretty much trashed and he let me get a few things out of storage to keep the other men from …getting ideas.  Went into the holding pens for a while and got what else I needed there.” 

“Black market?” 

“Nope.  To the victor goes the spoils.  And get that look off your face.  Women can be worse than men when they get all bunched together in too small a space for too long.”  Emi smiled grimly when that sunk in and Nate gave a theatrical shudder.  “Exactly though you are trying to joke about it.  Some of the stuff in my pack I salvaged when Kiko would give me more than two inches of leash.  Boots I took off of a dead guy.  Those I wouldn’t mind getting shed of and if you have some old leather or something like that around I can …” 

“I can get you boots,” Nate said in a growl. 

“Why waste the money?  Trade these and …” 

“I said I can get you boots.” 

Emi saw that something was bothering Nate and she tried to puzzle it out.  “Gringo?  You mad ‘cause you think I’m gonna cost you money?  ‘Cause I don’t have to.  I know how to make do.” 

“No, I’m not …” He cursed which only confused her more. 

“I ain’t gonna take nothing you need for your kids.” 

“That’s … that’s …dammit, do you take me for a poor man?!  I can get you boots without breaking the bank.” 

“Huh?  My head must be hurting worse than even I know.  ‘Cause you know, I ain’t getting this.  Why you so mad?” 

“And stop talking like you haven’t got any education.  If you went to the school that Patricia taught at you …”  Nate winced. 

Emi snorted.  “That school was so not special.  My grandparents sent me there ‘cause I got into too much trouble in the public school where my brothers went when my oldest brother moved over to the high school.  The teachers kept trying to say I had ADD and needed medication even though none of the tests they gave me said it.  So Momma thought there’d be less temptation to misbehave at a different school.”  Emi couldn’t stop the laugh that gurgled up from her past, surprising both herself and Nate.  “My dad knew it wouldn’t work but decided to let my mom and both sets of grandparents give it a try when they presented the plan to him.  I heard him and mom talking about it.  I can still hear him say, ‘All girls’ school?  All of ‘em running around with hormones in the on position?  No outlet for it ‘cause they aren’t even allowed to play sports?  Yeah, that’s gonna work for our Noemi.  You better find her something to keep her busy when she gets home or she’s gonna drive us all crazy just like Twila did my parents when they tried it with her.’ ” 

“Who’s Twila?” 

“My dad’s older sister.  The one that rode me worse than anyone else in the family.  She said it is because she’d been there and barely lived to tell the tale … or something like that.”  Emi’s smile faded once again.  “Why am I telling you this?  Any of it?  It don’t matter no more if it even mattered then.  Stop making me talk to you.  You ain’t my Confessor.” 

Having lost his anger as fast as it had come over him Nate told her, “I’m not making you.  It might just be time.  You bleed off some of whatever you’ve been carrying around and it leaves more space for you to walk this new path.  And yes, that’s partly from my Seminary days so get rid of the face you’re giving me; but since I’ve experienced it myself in my own life I know it can be true.” 

Emi shrugged and there was no more talking and Nate backed off so she could go to sleep and escape the discomfort of her memories.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Chapter 22


Alva wasn’t a big town, in fact before DV it only had about 2000 people living there.  But the outlying areas were spread out which meant a ride in a loaded wagon would take an hour on a maintained road and a little longer where the road turned to limerock.   

Nate was seething the whole way; no one broke the silence to draw his attention.   There had been several irritants involving his ex-wife and her family but the kicker had been that Arden had left in the water taxi with her mother and sister.  Some of it was legitimate; she had expected Nate back a few days earlier and had scheduled to begin her novitiate, but some of it was also a show of disapproval, both with Nate bringing home a “girl” and that he point blank refused to let Bastian and Darla go home with Gina “for a short visit.”  That meant that there was no chance to transition slowly and smoothly the way Nate had thought it would occur.  Dora had agreed to keep Darla another night or two which really helped but it didn’t do much to sooth Nate. 

Dora looked at Emi and said, “Kiko thinks you’ll clean up good.  He thought enough of you that he was going to hook you up with his little brother Tony.  Well Nate isn’t Tony and I’m reserving judgment … just remember …” 

“Yeah, yeah.  You’re Nate’s big sister.  Trust me, I don’t want to bring down more trouble.  I promised that to Nate as part of our deal even without him asking me to.  I got the feeling off him that family and loyalty is a priority.” 

“It is.  For all of us.  You remember that then we won’t have problems.” 

As a big sister lecture it could have been much worse so Emi refused to be offended by what was said.  Compared to some things she’d had said to her the last few years, Dora was being an angel no matter the daggers that Nate looked at his sister. 

Finally the heavily loaded wagon pulled out.  The wagon was actually an old school bus that had had the engine area and the top cut off and most of the rows of seats taken out.  There was a six-mule-team pulling the wagon and they were so strong there was very little jerking on the front axles.  That meant despite Emi still being in pain she wasn’t being further hurt by the wagon rattling all over. 

Nate and Emi sat in the first bench seat and Bastian sat directly behind them.  They followed Pearl Street almost until it ended and then turned towards the river.  Emi was sitting up but was struggling to not lean on Nate because she kept sliding that direction.  He finally realized that she was having a hard time of it and put his arm around her.  “Easy.  Or we’ll both wind up falling out.” 

“I’m fine.” 

“Yes you are.” 

Emi gave him a look such a comment deserved and said, “Even I know that is a very bad pick up line.” 

He sighed and said, “Give me some credit.  I was stating the obvious.  Now settle down.” 

Emi didn’t struggle but she was still stiff.  This was the part of the bargain she’d done her best not to think about very much.  Her experience of the male species over the last few years made her think more in terms of survival than companionship and intimacy. 

As they pulled off Pearl and down the old lime rock lane heading towards the river Emi saw rows upon rows of citrus trees.  It reminded her some of her grandparents’ property except these were not nearly as well cared for.   Many of the trees were dead and covered in vines.  The further down the lane however the better cared for the plants and trees became. 

Nat explained, “The trees up here technically don’t belong to me, they belong to the town when they were taken back by tax deed.  Ever since I took possession of the house and land they’ve been trying to get me to take care of that front bit for free but they still want the full value of the fruit to let me “use” the land.  I don’t know who they think they’re fooling.  Not going to happen their way in this lifetime.  Now that I’m here full time I can make even more improvements and that should push them closer to just taking a lump sum to take the property off their hands.  It costs more for them to harvest the fruit than they get benefit from it.” 

“Seems a shame.  They were nice, big trees.” 

“They are old and used up trees.  Before DV they were trying to sell the land to a developer but nothing ever came of it, or so I’ve heard.  All they need is a little push and the land could be mine.  I’d take out the dead trees and put in a large garden and then …”  He stopped.  “But for now I have enough to take care of.”  

Emi nodded.  “I recognize some of these.  There’s oranges, tangerines, and those look like they are either pommelos or grapefruit; I can’t tell for sure from here.  Are there tags or … or something so that I can see what each tree is?” 

“There are some old garden plaques on some trees and Benji’s father – Rob and his brother Don are the caretakers I told you about – knows what some of them are even without the ID plaques.  One of the things I want to do is go through the nursery’s old records and try and get a feel for what is where and when it is supposed to be ripe.” 

Trying to understand why he hadn’t done that already Emi asked, “How long have you had your place?” 

“Just about a year.  I had been in negotiations for another property on the other side of the river but … Gina … the seller was a friend of her family.  Then this one came up.  Dora called it providential and she was happy to have me and the kids closer.  Arden … well that’s another story and not one I want to get into right now.  When we turn this corner you see …” 

Santa Madre de Dios! Lo que he me he metido?   

“It isn’t that bad,” said Bastian defensively.  “We’ve done lots of work to it.” 

“Nino, I … your … your father must be …”  Emi turned around and frogged Nate’s arm. 

“Ow!  What was that for?!” 

“Are you some kind of Don or something?!” 

“Some kind of what?” 

“Don’t play stupid Gringo.” 

Acknowledging that he did know what she meant he shook his head and explained, “Look, I wanted the land and thought the house would just have to be torn down and another rebuilt in its place.  The thing was in pretty rough shape.  There’d been a fire in the kitchen, most of the inside was trashed, windows busted.  Just after we spent a couple of weeks cleaning it out, it wound up not being as bad as we thought … except for the kitchen.  But that room needed to be gutted anyway.  Some parts of Ft. Myers are getting electricity back but it will be a long time until we get it back out here; they’re talking years because of all the infrastructure damage.   I needed to make it user friendly.  If the business pans out I might be able to eventually afford a generator but for now, things are the way they are.” 

“How did Arden cook?” 

“Not well,” Nate said trying to be honest and polite at the same time. 

Bastian didn’t have such reservations and said, “Maybe you don’t burn water but Aunt Arden does.” 

Emi saw the shoulders of the boy named Benji shaking in silent laughter where he sat on the driver’s seat so assumed it must be true or close to it. 

Bastian continued, “Mr. Don would cook sometimes, and when Dad is here he cooks, but mostly we had to eat whatever Aunt Arden fixed.  It was great when Aunt Dora would come for a couple of days but she hasn’t done that for a while.  She’s making another baby and she said this one better be a girl or Uncle Kiko can go live in the barn.” 

Nate yelped, “Bastian!” 

“But that’s what she said Dad.” 

“You shouldn’t listen to adult conversations so much.” 

Emi said, “Maybe adults should watch what falls out of their mouths.”   

Emi winked at Bastian but he shook his head.  “Don’t tell them that or they’ll stop talking and I’ll never know what is going on.” 

Emi grinned remembering she’d felt much the same way when she’d been younger.  Then a sadness hit her and her smile faded and she looked away and over to the house.  The closer they got the more Emi could see some of the work that Nate had ahead of him. 

The house was a three story monstrosity, made of bricks and thick stucco.   It looked like someone with more money than sense back in the 1940s had built something that was a mish mash of Cuban, Italian, and Victorian architectural styles. But instead of the traditional muted brown color schemes you normally saw along the river it was a combination of clashing and faded greens.  It wasn’t too bad as it did help the house blend into the surrounding landscape and greenery but that was about the only thing appealing to it.  There was dirt and algae almost all the way up the wall on the first and second floors, especially near the windows, and the walls were gouged and pock-marked from what was obviously damage from being shot at.  Weedy vines climbed as high as the small third floor in a couple of places. 

The roof was terracotta tiles that had been painted bright white at some point but where now black with mold and other filth.  Parts of the roof were flat with some crenellations around the outer edge so that it looked like it was usable patio space.   New, thick, wooden shutters had recently been added to all of the windows and Emi was to learn that the only thing beneath them were frames fitted with netting to keep the bugs out. 

The yard wasn’t bad at all though it was likely nothing compared to what it must have been before DV struck.  The hedges and shrubs were neatly trimmed and the palms were manicured so that no dead fronds hung down.  The grass was being controlled by a small herd of goats, much the same way that her cousins had controlled the little bit of grass that had grown around their small home.  Chickens also roamed freely, though it being the middle of the day and warm most of them were resting in the shade. 

As soon as the jangle of the wagon could be heard from the house a small pack of beagles started calling out.   Then a chocolate lab bounded around the corner and in its haste created a puppy pile up.  That made Bastian laugh and Nate say, “Oh good Lord, I didn’t think it was going to get that big that fast.” 

That almost made Emi smile again as she remembered her mother saying almost the exact same thing only in regard to a baby turtle her brothers had brought home they had found nearly getting squished on the road.  Before her parents finally convinced her brothers to release it, it had gone from barely nickel-sized to the size of a formal dinner platter and had developed the bad habit of popping out from places unexpectedly and snapping at people’s ankles. 

“Nate!” a couple of men called.  Emi hadn’t seen where they came from and realized she was starting to zone in and out. 

In fact she started having time lapses because suddenly she wasn’t sitting in the wagon but was standing beside it and hearing someone ask, “She on drugs?” 

Then she was being bounced as she was carried in Nate’s arms.  Next thing she remembers is waking up in the dark feeling like she had crossed the Sonoran without a water bottle.  She also realized that she was nude again. 

“This has got to stop,” she croaked in a whisper. 

An exhausted voice in the dark said, “I agree.  No more messing around until that arm heals up more and definitely no more passing out.  How are we going to do this deal if you keep keeling over?” 

Emi called him something rude but the words had no heat to them.  Nate held a cup to her lips and she drank it dry without him even having to encourage her a little. 

“More?” 

“Yeah … in a minute.  Better let this settle first.”  She was silent for a moment then said, “Sorry.  Did … did I scare your kid?” 

“At first.  The arm scared him worse when he watched me change the bandage and clean it out.  I just told him it was better that you were out for that part.” 

“Is it … bad?” 

“Infected?  Surprisingly no.  I think Dora is right and you just need some rest and to be fed.” 

“Water.  Water is all I need.” 

“Yeah right.  We’ll argue about that later.  In the morning … look, I know this is … awkward.  Maybe I didn’t think it through.” 

“You want me gone.  I get it.  The way things have turned out I’d want me gone too.  Just …” 

“Listen hard head.  I think we’ve already been through this so let me use your own words … it isn’t the deal, that’s fine, it’s everything else that is crazy.  Got it?  Arden … I was hoping she’d be around long enough that … that you’d see I wasn’t such a bad guy.  To take some of the heat off with the kids too.” 

“Wait.  You mean … you mean the deal is still on?  You still want it?” 

“You really are a hard head,” he said, but it was almost a caress which was confusing to Emi and started a headache.  “Yeah, I still want it.  And with Arden gone I … I need the help.  Bastian is a good kid, a little too serious but a good kid.  But no way is he old enough to run around on his own.  Like you said, not too many younger kids have survived both DV and the chaos it has left in its wake.  We don’t need to discuss the obvious, we just need to find a way to deal with the results.  And then there’s … sleeping arrangements.” 

“Is that what you’re calling it?” 

“Dammit Emi, you’re eighteen and I’m not some cradle robbing …” 

Emi put her hand on the on that Nate was using to hold the drinking cup.  “Gringo, I’m not stupido.  Just say it.” 

Nate looked at her hand and she tried to pull it back but instead Nate placed his other hand over hers.  “I want a real marriage Emi.  I had thought … look I knew almost immediately that going to Seminary had been the wrong thing for me.  I struggled to … er … find myself during and right after college.  Nothing felt right so I thought it was because I was avoiding what my parents had always wanted.  But when I did give in and attend … Seminary didn’t feel right ether.  It just took me a while to … to get up the courage to tell everyone else that.  I floundered a little after Seminary and then met Gina … which did feel right but in the end wound up feeling the opposite.   But I’m not going to sit around blaming myself and suffering because my first marriage failed when I know it wasn’t for lack of my own attempts to make it work.” 

“No one is asking you to.” 

“Sure they are.  Or let me rephrase that, Gina and her family expect it.  Dora thought I would be a basket case for longer than I was.” 

“Eh … family.  Their primary purpose in life seems to make you constantly wonder if it’s you or them that’s crazy.” 

Nate snorted a surprised laugh.  “Yep.  Pretty much,” he agreed.  “Look.  I’m not going to jump you but … but I need some idea … 

“You mean sex?” 

“Yeah.  I mean sex,” he said irritably. 

“Well …”  Emi stopped.  Then she shook her head and just said it.  “I didn’t go looking for it but … but it found me.  Once.  I learned to fight after that and I learned that you couldn’t trust anyone.  I ain’t blaming every guy on the planet for what happened but … but …”  She shook her head and sighed, sick to her stomach at the memories.  “Not nice things happen.  It leaves … heridas … behind.  You … you don’t hit or nothing like that then … then I’ll …” 

“Aw hell, this is …”  Nate bit off a curse. 

Emi stiffened her spine and found her pride.  “It ain’t your problem Gringo.  I was just telling you so you’d know I can’t wear no white dress if that’s what you wanted or maybe what you’re worried about.  Forget it, I have.” 

Nate watched Emi try to build her walls thicker but she was losing strength.  Her eyes lashes fluttered down lower and lower and he knew he needed to say something before she was completely asleep again.  “Emi, I’ll … I’ll move slow.  We’ll get to know each other.” 

Emi turned her head and looked at Nate and he once again wanted to hide from eyes that seemed to be able to see right through him.  She told him, “Stop feeling bad about something that you can’t change and isn’t your fault.  Life just sucks that way.  But … but if you …”  She shuddered and her gaze fell.  “This part of the bargain about giving each other time?” 

“Yeah,” Nate said softly taking her hand where it lay above the covers.  “For now you just focus on getting some rest.  I got a hammock over here I’m gonna sleep in.  You just rest.”