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.”

6 comments:

  1. I'm dancing Kathy! Thanks for the new chapter.

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  2. Great Chapter Pac thanks for your time.
    Wayne

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  3. Thank you!

    And just so you know, I think I've given up on picking a favorite of your stories cause all of them are .... sigh, I'll just have to suffer. LOL! ;)

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  4. I got to finish reading this today, thank you.

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  5. This is looking really good ~ Thank you for the story, and of course can't wait for more! :)

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