Thursday, May 28, 2015

Part 138

Had a lot of time to think today.  Too much time.

There was an old lady at our church that Dad would grumble about all the time.  When he got particularly bad Mom would pinch him for being rude about the elders.  Funny I should remember that.  Dad and Mom didn't fight but they could get irritated with each other.  Maybe I would have noticed more as I got older but I honestly don't remember them ever fighting or even raising their voices at each other.  Dad did like to irritate Mom and then laugh and Mom could give as good as she got when in the mood.  They were both good sports most of the time but about this old lady, for some reason Mom really didn't like Dad's attitude.  I think the old lady used to babysit Toddie or something like that or maybe she was some distant relation to Mom, I don't know.  Anyway I sat with Dad too many times and listened to his side of things when he would come in beat up from a bad day at work.  Mom took care of him but I guess sometimes he just needed me and our ritual late night secret snack the same way Mom needed Toddie and their ritual of getting the decorations down the day after Thanksgiving ... it was tradition, something to count on, and basically just one of those strange parent things you aren't supposed to understand until you're a parent.

This particular old lady was a lot of trouble for Dad and the other deputies.  She called the cops all the time ... if she couldn't find one of her cats after checking for like five minutes out the front door only when the cop got there they'd find it sitting on the back porch.  If someone was in her parking space at church on Wednesday nights you better pray you had a handicap tag on your car otherwise you were in for it even if it was just an accident.  If she thought someone was "stepping out" on their spouses because "there might be a murder when the spouse found out about it" and you knew that she'd be the one telling.  If she heard noises in the middle of the night it meant something must be going on; and, if she didn't hear noise in the middle of the night, it was too quiet so something must be going on.  Children playing in the road in front of her house, children playing too loud in the park that was behind her house.  It was always the kind of stuff that took Dad and the other deputies away from the serious stuff like burglaries, domestic calls, drunks, and stuff like that but if they hadn't answered her calls and it was something real it would have been bad.

I don't know why I'm thinking about all of that stuff except this woman was just ... geez ... she was just I don't know what.  All I know is that I don't want to turn into her if I manage to live as long as she had.  For all I know she is still alive; I can't imagine a puss brain really wanting to get close enough to chomp on her ... she was liable to chomp first.  She wasn't what you would call a happy person - completely pessimistic to be honest - and I remember she kept predicting to anyone who would listen that I'd never see my next birthday because I was such a runt, sick all the time, that my brain was miswired, you name it.  I think that more than anything really bothered Dad.  And all those useless memories bubbling to the surface only because I remembered what she used to say when people asked how she was doing:  "I guess you can get used to anything."

That's how I've felt all day today.  I guess you can get used to anything ... whether you like it or not.  Unfortunately it seems that I've gotten used to being around people again.  I warned myself and warned myself all along that this could happen if I wasn't careful.  And now I realize that I've started letting my guard down and worse ... caring about them.  I should know better.  How many times does something have to happen before the lesson sticks permanently?  You let people in you are going to get hurt.  I feel ten kinds of stupid but I don't know how to turn it off now that it has started up again.

I miss Sgt. Shelly's quiet confidence and always knowing what to tell people to do.  I miss Gayle being around because even though she was way too easily irritated it turns out that she is just as fast to get irritated for you as at you.  I miss Lucy's acceptance.  She was the first, and she believes in me in a way the others don't.  Believe it or not I even miss Josie.  She makes me uncomfortable, not because we are so different but because I'm finding too many ways we are similar.  But in a way because of that she understands me better than the others do.  It doesn't stop her from picking at me but I'm learning to live with that too.  It is like having four un-asked for older sisters or aunties.  I'm not sure I want that kind of pressure.

They left out early this morning after an oversized lecture where the four of them told me what to do, what not to do, what to watch out for, etc.  I know they meant well but it said a lot about how little confidence they have in me ... or at least in my survival skills.  Now granted I'm not Daniel Boone or Mountain Man or even a mountain woman but I can do for myself just fine.  Unless of course I run into a horde.  The way my luck is ...

Today has been fairly quiet.  I did have a run in with a puss brain but it was sad rather than scary.  It ... he ... was probably one of those that escaped from the places they were being moved to from urban areas east of the Mississippi.  Someone had done a number on him.  I'm not sure if it was done by the scientists as they tried to find a way to minimize the risks of the infecteds' violence, if some cruel people had caught him and tortured him for sport, or if there had been some kind of accident and the infected has healed it enough to hide it from being obvious.

He had no teeth.  And no fingernails either.  He looked worse than those pictures in the history books of places like prisoner of war internment camps.  The clothes he had on hung like rags; his skin wasn't much better.

I was down at the creek gathering some wild food for a couple of experiments.  When I realized what was hung up in some elderberry shrubs - he didn't even have enough energy to push his way through - I don't think I've ever felt so sorry for a puss brain and I've seen some pretty sorry things happen to them.  It was like a wreck that was so bad you just couldn't look away.  There's no way he posed any direct danger to me but I knew I couldn't let him contaminate the water source.  Where puss brains are concerned there are very few I feel badly about releasing from their misery but this one is probably going to stick with me for a long time.  This one was as bad as having to deal with a kid puss brain and that's pretty bad.

I burnt the body on the ashes of the previous pyre after making note of any identifying marks, hair color, and all that on the form we have to fill out.  It's been bothering me ever since even though I try not to wonder where it ... he ... came from and who could have done that to him.  I can't start pitying them.  I've got a job to do.  There's no making them better.  Whoever they used to be is long gone and they pose a threat to society that is so big it nearly destroyed our country ... and has destroyed others.  As a group their deeds are too horrific to excuse, even out of pity.  But there are individual puss brains that just get to you; especially when you know that they've suffered too.

Depressing.  But I guess you can get used to anything.  Because it didn't stop me from doing what I had to do which is put the puss brain out of its misery - and mine - and find some way to extend our patrol's food supply.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Part 137


"Ahhhhh, peace and quiet at last and room to stretch.  Place even smells better."

Josie was being a smart aleck in a way that only she could get away with but I have to say I completely agreed with her.  However, my only comment was a shrug.

Josie poked me with a stick before she snickered and threw it on the fire.  "Seems poor Pvt. Harris couldn't get no lovin' no matter how hard he tried to chat you up."

I was definitely not going there.

Josie scooted so she was out of the smoke and gave me a long look.  "You really don't do you?"

"Don't what?" I asked pretty sure I didn't want to be part of the conversation.

"Men, boys, males.  You ain't a hater but you don't seem to want one ... or even borrow one for a little while ... for some private usage."

"No."

She got a serious look on her face after she figured out she'd run into one of my personal taboos.  "You know I'm just messing ... most of the time ... right?"

Frankly I was surprised she cared.  I looked at her and said, "Yeah, I get it.  And yeah I know you don't mean anything bad by it.  I also know everybody expects a girl my age to be boy crazy or something stupid like that.  And no I'm not emotionally stunted ... I've heard that too but I'm not.  I just don't ... don't ... Look, I just don't go there and let's leave it at that."

"'Cause you're not sure you like that flavor?"

I sighed having had that question posed as well.  "I know what flavor I'd like if I did like a flavor.  I'm just not into it."

"Honey your daddy isn't around to introduce you to Prince Charming ... even if such an a$$hole did exist.  You're gonna have to put yourself out if you plan on having any fun in this life."

Irritated I slammed the storage box on the dog cart shut.  "I don't have to do anything.  As a matter of fact I don't know why I should even want to.  Look around ... anybody that wants that kind of complicated trouble ... never mind."

Gayle decided to do her own digging and teased me with, "You nursing a broken heart for some farm boy?"

"No!"

Lucy smiled and muttered, "That no sure sounds like a yes."

I was just about to explode but I am no fool.  We are in the middle of nowhere, deep in puss brain territory.  These women, regardless of what they say, could up and leave me with nothing except some hurt.  I reined my temper in and sat down.  "Look, I haven't got the time for that kind of kid stuff.  In the city I saw ... things ... happen to girls when they made the choice to go down that road.  Most of them were older than me but not all of them.  I saw what it did to them ... got most of them dead or worse.  I don't want to wind up like that.  Call it how my parents raised me or some kind of trauma disorder or whatever else you want to make up, I don't care."  I sighed.  "Now I'm asking you nicely, please just drop it.  Maybe I am broke inside or something ... how many girls my age do you know that have lost count of the number of people they've had to put out of their misery?  If I was a different kind of girl from what I am I sure as heck wouldn't be out in these woods cooking for four deadly amazons who are doing whatever it is they are supposed to be doing.  And for the record, I don't hate guys ... or people in general ... I'm just choosy about who I hang around with."

Josie said, "Hey!  You're hanging with us.  I feel special.  Gayle don't you feel special?"

Before things could get worse Sgt. Shelly said, "Oh you're 'special' all right.  Now knock it off.  She holds the coffee ... I like my coffee ... I like it even better when it tastes like coffee and not like bear $#@%.  So let's keep the cook happy ... m'k?"

Then Josie, Gayle, and Lucy started acting silly ... well, sillier than I've ever seen them anyway ... and then abruptly lost interest in whatever game they were playing and started talking logistics and grid patterns and junk like that while I provided the coffee that Sgt. Shelly liked so much that she'd tell them to knock off the teasing.

After thinking about it I guess they are trying to get to know me.  I'm just not sure I want them to know me because if they do they'll probably have even more things to laugh at me over.  If they really knew me stupid stuff like Pvt. Harris not getting that I wasn't interested would be the least of my problems.

And speaking of problems the helicopter that picked up the men soldiers brought new orders for our patrol.  We aren't going to be here a week ... we are going to be out here a month.  There is only going to be one re-supply ... and that's assuming we can make it to the drop off point and that weather or other stuff doesn't interfere.  The women are putting a good face on it, or they don't seem worried anyway.  Sgt. Shelly is a little stiff but she's like that normally.  Gayle looks irritated but that's her normal state of being too.  It is really Josie and Lucy that let me know that stuff is bubbling beneath the surface ... Lucy is quiet which means she is stressed and trying to control her stutter, and Josie is making too many jokes and irritating people more than she normally does.  I'll put up with it so long as she doesn't get too vicious and too nosey.

I guess, if I'm being honest, I'm a little worried ... scared ... about tomorrow.  It isn't anything that I haven't faced before but I'm in completely new-to-me territory and I won't have anyone around in case there is a problem.  Tomorrow the women head out to rendezvous with another patrol to pick up some maps and information.  Due to the distance they are going to have to travel they will likely be gone overnight.  They will be a full day out and a full day back and if something detains them they may be gone two nights/three days.  They are taking MREs with them which leaves me wondering exactly what I'm supposed to be doing if they are gone so much that all they are going to need are MREs.

I thought I knew what this job was when I signed up, now I'm kinda wondering.  Actually the alone time doesn't sound all that awful; it is being alone in unfamiliar territory that is bothering me.  That and Sgt. Shelly pretty much started off saying I was not to leave camp.  I finally got her to admit that to do my job I would have to be able to go at least as far as the creek but she wasn't happy about it.  I am to be armed at all times.  And careful.  And just about everything my parents ever told me to be.  I so don't need a second mother or a big sister at this point in my life.  I think if she could think of a way to drag me along to this rendezvous she would but since the terrain isn't made for hotdog carts I have to stay here.  Which is my job to begin with, whether either one of us likes it or not.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Part 136


"Stay the F#$% away from me."  Well if that was the way he wanted it that was exactly what he was gonna get.  Geez, what a sore head.  It was not too long after our shift started that that turned out to be just as true literally as it had been figuratively.

I had taken the long way around to my position and climbed the tree outside of the strips of moonlight that laced the forest.  Up in the tree I had a pretty impressive view of the surrounding area.  The deciduous trees hadn't fully leafed out yet and there were enough of them that the evergreens didn't really block my line of sight.  Sound also got carried to me better than had I been stuck in the bushes on the ground.  And when I heard a soft grunt I turned to look in the direction I knew Winton was just in time to see him slump to the ground.  From that point things moved pretty fast.

Two guys came out of the bushes but they were looking in and making hand motions so I knew there were more where they'd come from.  Lucky for me they were over confident and had stepped into a strip of moonlight or I might have thought I was smelling a skunk or something similar.  Man, they really did stink ... but not puss brain stink; this was plain ol' I-haven't-bathed-since-summer stink with a side order of my-clothes-are-so-dirty-they-can-walk-all-by-themselves.  I knew I wouldn't get another chance so when they walked beneath my tree I dropped the whole sack of big rocks on them and then gave a loud, powerful whistle with my fingers.

I almost wasn't fast enough at moving positions.  I'd stirred a hornet’s nest and made someone mad.  They went from super stealth tactics to shock and awe so fast I knew they'd practiced this before.  But then again, so I had I.  It took a little warming up but soon enough the trees were just skinny buildings and the path a crumbling concrete road, the same as it had been in the city.  I hit the ground while they were still shooting into the trees and swiped the rifles and ammo bags from the two fallen smellies as fast as Moe had taught me, running down the path like it was an alleyway leading to safety.

Josie was up and covering my escape and then we both got set behind our perimeter.

Sgt. Shelly whispered calmly, "How many?"

"Two less than they started with," I said laying the rifles out so whoever needed one could grab them.  "The rest stayed in the bushes."

There was a strangely quiet "poof" and then a shout from the down the trail.  "Make that three down," Josie said.

I tried to figure where the shot had come from and from whom when there was another "poof" and another yell, this one a little closer to our camp.  Sgt. Shelly grinned and said, "Guess Pvt. Harris wasn't bragging after all."  She turned to Josie and said, "You know the drill."  To me she said, "Keep an eye on Bedford, and no it isn't babysitting.  Gayle said he needs watching."

I stayed low and crawled over to the gurney.  Bedford was unconscious which I suppose under the circumstances was good for him, but bad for us if we had to change positions.  I heard a couple of more shots from our side and from theirs but no more screams or shouts.  I worried that they would try and come up behind us if they weren't already doing it but Sgt. Shelly was ahead of me and had Corporal Lewiston guarding that side.

Two hours passed.  Every time we thought they had given up and left Sgt. Shelly would force us to give it a few more minutes and sure enough they'd lose patience and show themselves again by shooting a volley at us.

One thing began to bother me.  If this area was so full of puss brains there had to be some close enough to have heard the noise.  The smell of sweat and gunfire got in my nose but I was still sniffing the air every few minutes.

Gayle caught me at it and asked, "Anything?"

"Not yet.  Geez those men stink.  It's hard to catch anything but ..." and then a stiffer breeze than any before it brought with it a scent I knew all too well.  "Oh carp."

Gayle looked at me closely as she reloaded.  "How sure are you?"

"They're close, maybe down by the creek.  You'll hear the screaming soon enough."

Two minutes later there was a barber shop quartet of yells and more gunfire ... but not directed at us.  Josie took that moment to snicker, "A cook and a bloodhound.  We got us a two-for-one this time Shelly."

Without any emotion Sgt. Shelly said, "Shut up and take up your position."  She turned to me and asked, "Can you tell how many?"

Trying not to be irritated or embarrassed I told her, "Geez, I've got a good nose, not infrared vision.  More than a couple, less than a bunch ... I don't know ... enough of them to cause us problems if anybody panics or they run at us en mass.  If you listen you can hear them shuffling through the leaves, making a beeline for the smellies.  The one thing I do know is they're moving like their still fresh and healthy."

Lucky for us the puss brains that attacked didn't seem to have formed any kind of hierarchy.  They were together by accident, not because they'd been organized by a horde leader.  All they wanted was something to eat and they weren't too particular what was on the menu.

==========

Dawn was cracking its back and stretching its muscles to start the day when the last body was tossed onto the pyre.

"God all mighty that stinks," one of the men said putting his coat jacket in front of his nose.

I would have snapped no kidding except I completely agreed with him.  The puss brains were worse than the smellies but not by much at all.  A couple of them men looked at the pyre and I could tell they weren't having happy thoughts.  I wonder if they had gotten to this part yet ... what you do after you've stopped a puss brain from being an immediate threat.

I turned to look at Pvt. Harris and he saw me looking and I could tell he didn't know what to say.  I made the mistake of trying to be kind and told him, "You do what you have to and you find a way to live with it."

He shook his head.  "You ... you killed ... two of them.  With just a bat."

"In a firefight I'm not too good with a gun.  My glasses tend to get all fogged up.  Besides ..."

"Besides what?" he asked.

"Besides, you have your way of dealing with what you have to do and I have my way."

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked almost snapping.

"Don't get offended.  Geez, sensitive much?  I just mean you're really good with a gun.  Even Sgt. Shelly said something about it.  You should train as a sniper or something.  If you can do what you did in the dark I imagine you're even better during daylight."

He shook his head.  "Actually I'm better at night because that's how I learned to shoot ... when Dad and I would go hunting.  The sun wrecks my vision."  He took a breath and I could actually see him making the choice not to be mad.  "So if you weren't kicking at my shooting what do you mean?"

"I mean that ... that you use the weapon you are comfortable with and I use the weapon that I'm comfortable with.  You learned to shoot in the dark, well I learned to put puss brains out of their misery with this," I told him holding my bat up.  "I know what I'm doing and I can do it without hurting anyone else.  And you don't need to tell me I'm strange, I've heard it enough."

He sat looking at me for a moment before saying, "Yeah you're strange ... but if seems to work for you."  I swear guys need to come with an instruction manual.  Like maybe where the off button  or volume is because he started talking again when I was in the middle of making sure all of our supplies were intact.  "Tell me again.  Were you really stuck in the city after Z Day?  The news said they didn't blow the bridges until they were sure that no uninfecteds remained."

I snorted.  "And you believed them?  There were thousands of us still in the city and uninfected."

We continued to "discuss" things and how they happened though Gayle snapped that if we were going to "bicker like a couple of two-year-olds" she'd find us something constructive to do with our time.  We ignored her but did tone it down a little and then stopped all together when we heard the others going through the packs of the smelly men.

One of the men said, "Crazies.  They had to be."

I looked at Pvt. Harris and asked, "Crazies?"

It was Corporal Lewiston that answered for him.  "People that have chosen to get rid of their civilized nature, if they had one to begin with.  In some places they cause more problems than the Infected do."

I grumbled, "More fun and games.  Infecteds, smellies, crazies ... the list just goes on and on.  And I thought being cooped up in the city was bad."  I looked around and then sighed.  "How bad is Winton?  Gayle looks hacked and she usually doesn't have the energy to get this bad until after the first cup of coffee."

Corporal Lewiston growled, "They koshed him so hard they broke his skull.  They half scalped him at the same time.  Damn savages.  He's laid out beside Bedford but I doubt he'll make it back to base.  There's  ... stuff ... leaking out of one of his ears."  He was as foul as Gayle and I don't blame him for it but there was no need to take the conversation the direction he decided to take it.  "How I'm going to explain this to his mother I don't know.  Why didn't you cover his back?"

The question caught me off guard which made me too honest.  "'Cause he told me to F off and leave him alone and because he's the soldier, not me.  I did what I was supposed to and took up my position ... he didn't even go to the position Sgt. Shelly had assigned to him but into the bushes on the other side of the trail."

Lewiston tried to deny it.  "He wouldn't disobey an order like that."

I stood there and crossed my arms and just looked at him.  I wasn't nasty.  I wasn't rude.  I didn't buck his authority.  I just looked.  But he sure did start to squirm.  Finally he turned and walked away; a gloating person might have said he stomped away in a royal snit.  Prissy pants.  They need to plant that guy behind a desk because he sure doesn't belong out here leading a patrol.  I shook my head and went to clean up so I could make something that passed for an omelet even if the eggs were more fake than the spray tan the head cheerleader used to get in the middle of winter.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Part 135


Do I look like a messenger boy?  Well do I?  Don't answer that.  If it wasn't for this stupid out of control mop that I call hair people would probably be just as likely to think I was a boy as a girl.  Lucy laughed once and said I looked like Little Orphan Annie when it was out of my braids.  I nearly shaved my head that night after I figured out who that Annie character was.  Better to be bald and nobbly headed than to be thought cute.  Yuck!  I've never wanted to be cute in my entire life.  I definitely don't want to be cute now!

If I could wish for one thing and have it come true - besides having my family back - I'd wish to have my boobs come back.  I mean I've got them ... sort of ... but I guess the weight loss and all the lifting and tugging have given me more muscle than fat in my girly places.  I swear Toddie used to tease me crazy about being flat chested ... until I wasn't and then he got all stupid and would growl at all my friends and his too if I wasn't right where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there.

Dad said once that it was about time that Toddie started acting like a proper big brother.  It took Mom explaining to me that Toddie had finally had his protective gene activated when he grew up enough to realize I was growing up.  Why on earth the male of the species has to go and make life so ever loving complicated is beyond me.  Take these soldier boys for instance.  No, I mean really take them ... as in away ... as in far, far away.

"Hi."

I really don't like being interrupted when I'm cooking but as a general rule I try and not bite people's head off about it so I said, "Hi.  Watcha need?"

"Uh ... my name is Derek ... Derek Harris ... uh ... Pvt. Derek Harris."

I nodded and kept fixing the soup.

"Er ... whatcha fixing?"

I glanced his direction.  "You hungry?"

He gave me a pathetic look.  "Starving to death."

I snorted.  "Boys are always starving to death."

I guess I got lucky and he didn't get upset by being called a boy when by rights I suppose he was a man albeit one not too much older than me.  Curiously he asked, "Know a lot of boys?"

I shrugged.  "Yes and no.  Had a big brother who had a ton of friends that were over at our house all the time.  Had a couple of good friends that were guys too."  I shrugged again.

He sighed.  "I don't have nothing but sisters.  I'm stuck in the middle with three on each side.  All of them still living at home last time I was there."  After a bit he asked, "What about them others?  Are they ... you know ... man haters?"

I nearly laughed but kept it to myself.  "They're impartial; they growl at everyone."

"Oh."

I thought he'd move on but instead he asked again, "So watcha fixin'?"

"Soup."

"I can see that.  I mean what kind.  It smells good."

About that time his stomach growled almost as loud as Gayle had when one of the guys had reopened a cut she'd just finished cleaning out.  This time I did snicker out loud.  "I swear, it has gotta be attached to the soldier gene or something.  All I have to do is throw a pot of something together and all I hear are stomach grumbles."

"You aren't a soldier?"

"Not strictly speaking," I answered honestly.  "I'm a civilian contractor."

"Then you ain't 18 yet."

That surprised me.  "Did you think I was?"

He scratched his head and said, "I've got six sisters, remember?  I've learned the hard way to tread carefully when it comes to things like age, weight, and clothing size."

Feeling a little sorry for him I explained that I was making corn chowder.  Although I was polite about it to him all I was thinking about was how thankful I was that I had something constructive to use one of these honking, nasty big cans of creamed corn that I am stuck with.  I opened it up and dumped it in a big pot, threw in some of those fake potato flakes, and then thinned it out with some water.  I added a little more seasoning to give it the taste I was looking for and then stirred it until it was heated through so it wouldn't get lumpy.

I got another surprise when Harris pulled a bag of cornmeal out of his pack and made up some corn cakes (they look like cornmeal pancakes) and also brought out a squeeze bottle of something he called birch syrup.

"Where did you get that stuff?" I asked, noticing it wasn't in standard military packaging.

"Traded for it at a little outpost on our first day.  Nice little place though a couple of characters there were a little on the sketchy side.  And the women were really something ... er ..."

Rolling my eyes and shaking my head at the thoughts that suddenly jumped up I asked totally out of patience, "Outpost or whorehouse?"

When he got that deer in the headlight look I knew.  "Oh for pete sake.  You stop at a whorehouse, cat around and do some trading, and then the next day you get hit.  Didn't none of you put two and two together?"

Lucy, who had just come from the "ladies side of the trail" asked, "What's the ruckus Pip?  Junior here giving you a problem?"

"No," I snapped.  "But I'm beginning to wonder about a few things."

"Such as?" she asked with polite interest.

"Did you know there were whorehouses out here that also act like trading posts?"

"I'd heard it.  As you can guess our patrol generally steers clear of those types of places when we can help it."

"Well Pvt. Harris and his band of jolly fellows didn't.  First day in the outback they run across one and have a good time and then the next day they get hit.  Out here.  In an area we've been told really doesn't have all that many places where people get together in.  In a place that is supposedly ultra full of puss brains so most people would tend to stay out.  People with sense anyway.  I can't believe their Sergeant would just be ok with them catting around like that."

Pvt. Harris sighed.  "Well strictly speaking ... he wasn't.  He tore a strip off of the Corporal for it.  He'd left him in charge while he went to talk to some old guy about getting a local map of the area that might have stuff marked on it that our intel hadn't been able to provide.  Sarge said it was behavior unbecoming a soldier or something like that.  He was pretty much yelling too loud to really understand what he was saying exactly."

And that's where things started going downhill.  Lucy carried the story to Sgt. Shelly who then went to Corporal Lewiston and grilled him good to get the full story out of him.  Then she gave them all a lecture like they probably never got from their fathers about the danger of consorting with the wrong kind of women and exactly what can result from sexually transmitted diseases right own down the line to getting taken for a bunch of chumps with expensive gear just waiting to be plucked like a bunch of babes in the woods.

Dinner was so not fun.  And it hasn't been much fun since.  The women have lost all confidence in the men and the men are pretty much dying of shame at getting called on the carpet by a woman ... women.  So that leaves me stuck in the middle carrying questions and orders back and forth.  A helicopter is coming some time tomorrow to extract the men and I don't think anyone thinks it will be soon enough.

But lost confidence or not they are pulling their weight when it comes to guard duty.  One woman from our patrol will team up with a man.  Josie got Pvt. Harris and I saw her give him an evil grin.  He just looked sort of resigned.  Guess he wasn't lying about having a bunch of sisters.  Sgt. Shelly took the Corporal and I have a feeling she is going to give him a long talk.

For my part I'm wondering how I wound up seeming so much more experienced than men that have been soldiering for a while.  None of them are very old, not even the Corporal, but I would have thought being a soldier would have gotten them some training or something that would make them ... I don't know ... better than they are.

Gayle, the only one of the women not able to completely keep her distance because she was tending the wounded, pulled me to the side and asked me if I had learned anything else.

Shaking my head I said, "No.  After the grilling Sgt. Shelly gave them they've pretty much shut up.  Plus they are all beat and sick at heart.  Bedford is taking a turn for the worse isn't he?"

Gayle nodded.  "He needs antibiotics and an IV drip, neither of which I have to give him.  I'm more convinced than ever that he isn't infected but whatever he has got is driving him into pneumonia.  He was refusing care until you convinced him to stop being such a pain in the a$$ but I don't know how much good that I'm doing wasting time and supplies on him."

That was callous but since it was also the truth I didn't saying anything.  "If I hear anything I'll tell you."

She was silent for a moment then said, "I've seen you looking at them.  What's bothering you?"

I didn't like having my thoughts that obvious but still I wanted answers so I told her.  "How come Gayle?  Why do I know more than they do?  It doesn't make sense?"

"You've done nothing but live in the thick of this for two years, same as we have.  In some ways your early training in the city gave you a leg up people like those men will never have."

"Never?"

"Never.  They've had time to get used to the idea that the problem of the Infecteds can be managed.  They've been spoon fed nothing but that the whole time.  Some of them haven't even lost family, or so it appears.  They haven't been touched the way you have ... the way our whole patrol has.  We all - even you - have a kind of battlefield experience those men lack.  Pip, soldiers are rarely born, mostly they are made but not by boot camp and training experiences ... they are made on real battlefields.  Not one of us are born soldiers, we've been made into what we are by what we've experienced and lived through.  MSgt. Shadwell might be a born soldier but she's the exception, not the rule.  There are some others in our unit that are like that, but only a few.  Most of us only get this way because we are determine to survive long enough to see the other side of this god-awful mess.  It is what comes after that is going to scare the hell out of the great majority."

"What do you mean what comes after?"

She gave me a look then sighed.  "You're exactly what worries me most Pip.  You and all those younger than you ... the ones that it is getting too hard for you to remember what it was like before, the ones that have had to live so hard and on their own they may never be able to live any other way.  That's what gets me up in the morning and what I go to sleep with each night.  Dealing with this ... this fiasco ... so that kids like you have a chance.  Josie, Shelly, and Lucy feel the same way.  We could have been furloughed several times but we stay.  None of us have family except each other - at least not that we know of - and ..."  She stopped, looked around, and then finished, "And we need some reason to keep going.  When the future eventually gets here we want it to be one that is free of the Infected and the crazies that caused them."

She wandered back to the women's side of camp and I've been sitting here ever since trying to decide what made me more uncomfortable ... finding out the women weren't just cardboard characters with guns, that there was more to them than I had thought, or this whole idea about there being something that is supposed to come after this.

But now it is my turn on a shift.  I've already got my spot picked out and with Sgt. Shelly's help I've already got it stocked with some big rocks.  She only questioned me about it once and was satisfied with my answer.  "Just so that you can get down without breaking your neck."

"Would you like to hear how often I had to hit the trees in the North Woods to get away from things that might eat me?"

She snorted and said, "Not tonight I don't.  And I don't want your thoughts wandering either so stay sharp.  You get too tired, you start to nod off, you come get Josie who is on after you.  And keep an eye on Pvt. Winton.  He's pi$$ed at the world now that he has the energy for it.  He don't want to be here and blames the others for what happened because apparently he's the only one beside their sergeant that didn't ... er ... partake of the goodies offered."

I already knew exactly what she meant.  But I don't think it was the whorehouse or what came after it that set him against the world ... as a matter of fact I don't think it is the world he is hacked off at.  He strikes me as the type that had a problem with women in general before, and women in authority in particular.  I didn't tell Gayle, and maybe I should have, but he was calling our patrol all sorts of nasty names that all had to do with being female.  I figure though after everything I have a higher tolerance for that sort of nonsense than the others would.  If he starts something I know I can ignore it.  I just hope he is smart enough that he doesn't try anything but words with me.  I'd really hate to have to hurt his pride and cause an incident.  We don't need any more trouble than what we already have.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Part 134


When Gayle raised her hand to stop my talking I put my nose in the air and sniffed.

"Why do you do that?  I've seen you ... you just ... it ..."

I shrugged because I could tell she was upset at being curious and having said something and trying not to laugh all at the same time.  "I suppose I do look a little funny.  Sher used to say the same thing."  I shrugged again.  "Look, you've never had to deal with being short in a tall person's world. That's my day-to-day.  You can see over things.  I have had to learn to 'see' things differently so I don't get caught by surprise.  My nose just happens to be really, really good.  And right now it is telling me that whoever that is, it isn't puss brains ... but ... I'm not sure it's the patrol either.  Too many feet."

Gayle was immediately alert.  She gave me a dirty look but more for pointing out what she had missed I think.  Then there was a whistle and Lucy came out but she wasn't alone; there was another soldier with her, a male soldier.

"We got wounded.  One critical ... a slow train ... and then three banged to hell and back.  Possible targets heading our way."

Lucy took up a protective stance, as did the male soldier, and covered the two women and three men coming our way.  There was a fourth - presumably the slow train - on a makeshift gurney being hauled by the two least wounded men.

"What's a slow train?" I asked.

"Code for someone that is infected but still functioning."

I reached for my bat and asked, "How long ago was he bitten?"  No one answered until the man was set down in front of Gayle who took one look at him and triaged him.  One of the men said, "We were attacked about a week and a half ago."

I looked at the guy and something didn't add up.  The guy had been bitten on his neck but it hadn't been torn out like most puss brain bites in that location would have done to most people.  He should have bled out immediately.  I went to touch the bloody bandage and the guy knocked my hand away.  I looked at him and he had resignation in his eyes but purpose too.  Something was definitely amiss.

"Gayle?"

"I'm busy here."

"Gayle."

"Dammit ..."  she turned to snarl but I didn't let her get any further.

"He's still lucid.  After more than a week.  From a bite near an artery."

She opened her mouth again and then slowly closed it.  Looked at the other three men to make sure they weren't gonna die in the next few minutes and then came over by me.  When she went to touch the bandage with her latex covered hands the guy tried to stop her.  "You knock my hand one more time and I'll knock you upside your head."

A gutteral whisper was all the guy could make.  "Refuse to infect anyone else.  Tell them to give me my gun.  I'll ... I'll ..."

"You'll shut up and let me think and that is all you will do."  She looked at the other four men and asked, "You sure it was over a week ago?"

The only uninjured guy was shaking with fatigue but answered for them all.  "Yes ma'am.  We were two days into a week-long patrol.  We tried to get to the first recovery point but missed it.  We've been trying to get to a secondary recovery point ever since but it has been slow going."

"And you're sure it was an infected that bit him?"

The guy looked at her like she was crazy and I could tell everyone was getting tense so being me I decided to put my foot in it too.  "How bad did they smell?"

"Whu ... huh?"

"The smell."

"They had the worst BO I've ever smelled."

I asked, "BO?  That's all you smelled?"

"Yeah.  They obviously hadn't bathed in forever."  I looked at the women but didn't feel like I could ask the question.

Sgt. Shelly had picked up on it though and asked casually, "How many tours you men seen?  Been in deep have you?"

The man shook his head.  "This is our first rotation out in the boonies.  We were patrolling Salt Lake City up until a month ago and then they called us up for a remote tour to allow some other patrols to come in for urban duty for a while and heal up."

"Where's your sergeant?" she asked.

"He got taken out by the pack that did this ... the ones that've been following us."

I looked at the other women and I saw I wasn't the only one thinking something wasn't adding up.  Sgt. Shelly looked at Lucy and Josie and they got up and took up position a little down the path from our camp.

Gayle looked at Sgt. Shelly then at me and said, "I need to hear what you're thinking.  What is bothering you?"

I shrugged.  "I've seen a lot of people get infected.  I've seen some people that have fought the infection hard for as long as they could but usually after a couple of days they start showing signs.  In all that time and all those people, I've never seen anyone last more than a week."

Gayle looked thoughtful.  "No one?"

I shook my head.  "No.  Have you?"

She shook her head.  "I usually don't have to deal with that kind of situation.  Real medicos take it because out in the field ..."  she shrugged.  "It's usually a case of triage and do your best to forget."

I looked at the guy and sat down beside him.  "Hey.  What's your name?"

"Bedford," he whispered painfully.

I looked at the other men.  "Is that his name?"

"Of course it is.  Isn't that what he just said?"

I bit my lip then figured in for a penny, in for a pound.  I looked back down at the guy and asked, "How bad you wanna live?"

"Not bad enough that it gets someone else killed."

"Well I can understand the sentiment but," and Gayle gave me a look and turned to the other men.  "But I'm pretty sure that you're not infected."

He didn't want to believe me.  Some people are like that.  There was a lady that used to live down the street from us that had convinced herself that she had cancer.  When three doctors told her she didn't she couldn't bring herself to believe them.

"Look, all I'm saying is just keep fighting, keep holding on ... just in case mind you."  When he got a stubborn look on his face I added, "If you are infected I promise that I'll do for you fast and as painless as possible.  I've put more than a few people out of their misery.  I think it is just plain sick to let a buddy turn into a puss brain without easing their way to their Maker."

I could see in his eyes he was still fighting the notion of not being infected.  "Look, like I said, I've seen a lot of people get infected ... too many.  I've been around puss brains since Z Day with very little break in it.  I know what the symptoms are.  For one you'd be a whole lot closer to recovery at this point as the infection took over and knitted things back together.  You'd also be eating everything in sight too but from the green gills you have as your buddy there munches on an energy bar I don't think hunger is exactly a problem for you right now."  He started giving me a cautious hopeful look.  "I'm not promising anything but I am saying with all my experience you are way outside of the symptoms you should be having and the time you should have started to have them.  Now mind your manners and rest or Gayle will turn really unpleasant.  I haven't seen her at her worst and don't want to so don't cause problems.  She's scary enough without added incentive."

A voice from behind me growled, "I heard that."

"I hope so.  Just wanted to let you know how much I respect your ... er ... competence."

She growled again but I knew it was just for affect ... it certainly had one on the man she was patching up.  He stopped wiggling and sat real still.

I pulled an emergency blanket over the critically injured man and then moved over to Sgt. Shelly.  I knew what triage was.  I hadn't known what to call it in the early days but I learned fast how necessary it was.  Frankly the guy could still die even if he didn't turn into a puss brain.  There could be a different kind of infection in his blood after going so long without real medical attention.

As quietly as I could I asked Sgt. Shelly, "Do I feed these guys?"

She nodded without drawing attention to our conversation.  "You got the supplies?"

"I can stretch things if I can lay some snares and catch something.  I can still feed the extra for two or three days without too much trouble.  Might be best to start them on some soup though since I don't know what they've been eating."

One of the injured guys came over.  "Sergeant ma'am?  My name is Corporal Lewiston.  I can answer that question."

"Go ahead Soldier.  Report."

"Yes ma'am.  Private Harris - he's the red head over there - has been knocking together a meal or two a day for us.  He claims he was going to college at BYU before things fell apart but he's originally from some little backside of nowhere spot on the map.  He grew up hunting and fishing in an area like this - so he's said - and ..."

He turned and suddenly made a pretty bad face while he grabbed his side.  I looked closer and asked, "Ribs?"

He gasped and nodded.  "Fell down a river bank trying to get down and get us some water.  Caught up against a cedar stump.  It's just bruising at this point."

"Don't tell Gayle you've diagnosed yourself," I told him with a grin after peeking at Sgt. Shelly to see if she was irritated at the interruption.  "Just let her poke and prod you.  It seems to keep her in a good mood."

He relaxed and seemed to be able to communicate with Sgt. Shelly a little better so I moved off and then down to where Lucy and Josie were.  I asked, "Need your canteens refilled?"

"No, we're good.  So you don't think the guy is infected?"

"Not unless it's something I've never seen before.  He just doesn't have any symptoms."

"But they said he was bit by an infected."

"Well, since I haven't seen it I don't know if it is a bite.  And two, we don't know for sure that if it is a bite that the person was infected."

Lucy shrugged and kept her eyes on our surroundings but Josie looked at me and asked, "You willing to stake your life on it?"

I shrugged.  "I'll keep one eye open but it just doesn't fit.  One thing though, have you seen any sign that they were being followed?"

Josie nodded but this time Lucy did speak.  "I went back down their trail.  I could see a column of smoke about two, maybe three, miles back ... hard to tell 'cause of the angle."

Thoughtfully I replied, "Well, I've never known infecteds to light fires."  They both nodded and soon completely ignored me, concentrating instead on keeping watch.  I didn't begrudge them.  My nose may not have been tingling from the nasty odor of puss brains, but it smelled trouble nevertheless.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Part 133


Finding a base camp for the patrol to operate out of was ... er ... interesting.  Like I said, the area had not been patrolled before but there were reports of "significant potential for infestation."  That's a nice way of saying that there may or may not be a puss brain behind every tree, and if they weren't there they might be behind the rocks and bushes of which there were plenty where we wound up.

I feel like a complete idiot pedaling the hot dog cart.  I stand out like a sore thumb and at the top of my list when I get someplace that hasn't been salvaged nearly to death is to find some metal paint in colors that don't scream come-and-chomp-on-me-cause-I'm-flavored-with-gourmet-stupid.

I'm glad I took Moe's advice and made sure that, even if my set up looked like carp, that it didn't sound like carp.  From graphite to grease I fixed everything that could squeak.  What I couldn't fix was the sound of wheels on the road we were on but I did my best to keep it to a minimum.  I also didn't talk which seemed to be just fine with the rest of the patrol as they were on my four corners - I was surrounded - and were on high alert.

We went deep into our assigned area - finally leaving pavement and hitting dirt and gravel - and not finding any building abandoned or otherwise, we made camp near a bend of a slow moving creek.  We got as far back from the damp as we could and then set up temporary camp in some large trees that were growing close together.  Without a word the four women hung a tarp at an angle, hung mosquito netting from the edges of that, weighted the ends down so it couldn't blow in the wind, and then created a reasonably secure perimeter.  Every time I tried to help I seemed to get in the way and interrupt their flow.

After I was nearly stepped on a couple of times Lucy said, "Just stand back.  We've done this so many times that it is just easier for us to move at our pace.  Eventually you'll catch on."

I supposed I was a little miffed but then again they were right, besides I had my own stuff to tend to.  I got my tools and dug a small pit and took some dry kindling and got a fire going.  Tomorrow I'm going to use some stones I took from the creek and line the bottom of the pit to keep the wood up off the ground.  The water table is high in this area and the wood wants to soak up the damp and make the fire smokier than it needs to be; good for mosquito prevention, bad for the lungs.

After I had a nice cook fire I set a kettle of water to heat and went down to the creek to get more water to fill the gravity water filter bag up with.  That's when I collected the stones but I also grinned at the other things I saw to collect.  There is a good supply of both cattail and arrowhead along the banks.  Since I had a moment I collected a pound of arrowhead tubers that I scrubbed quickly and then headed back to camp.  I also scared up a couple of mid-sized fish.  I caught them in the mesh bag I always keep on my belt; a left over habit from gathering in the North Woods.  I don't want anyone to think I’m bragging and telling a fish story.  To be honest I think the only reason I caught them is because they were more surprised than I was and were swimming so close together.  I'm not sure what kind they were, I think a trout or something like that.

"Just coming to look for you," Lucy told me when I got back.

"Sorry.  I was getting dinner.  How does fish and chowder sound?"  Four heads turned my way and I held up the mesh bag with the fish and tubers visible.  "I don't lie," I told them with a scowl.

Lucy said, "Didn't say you did.  Just surprised.  Normally first day out is something easy like an MRE."

"Yuck.  I've tasted those things."  I shuddered.  "They are better than starving to death but not by much."

That brought a chuckle and they went back to doing whatever it is they were doing and I started doing what I needed to do.  First came the fish; cleaned, laid in a small pan with a few drops of precious "lemon juice" made from powdered flavoring and a quick sprinkle of paprika, then covered with a lid and set to bake.  Quickly I finished everything else starting with peeling the already well-scrubbed arrowhead, quartering the tubers, and dumping them in a stock pot.  To that I added one chopped onion, and some dried sweet red pepper ... something I traded for with the sutlers.  I added a couple of squeeze packets of "butter" that was actually margarine and cooked all that until it was soft.

Mom used to say that margarine was as indestructible as roaches and plastic.  She steered clear of it but like I said before, beggars can't be choosers and it was either margarine or open the bottle of olive oil I had and I wanted to wait until it was absolutely necessarily to crack into that.  After the tubers, onions, and peppers were soft I added salt and pepper to season and then a quart of milk I made up from the powdered stuff.  I also tossed in some basil from my stash of seasonings.  While that was heating I stirred a tablespoon of my precious supply of flour (actually something called buckwheat flour) into a quarter cup of water and then slowly stirred that into the soupy mix to thicken it up.  By the time the chowder was finished so was the fish and I turned to call the patrol to eat.

Only I didn't have to call them.  I shook my head and told them as I ladled food into their mess kits, "If you drool anymore I'm going to have to add bibs to my supply requisition form next time."

Josie said, "Don't care.  I'll wear whatever you want me to if you'll keep feeding us like queens."  The others didn't say anything; they were too busy eating.

I put a scoop of chowder in my bowl to clean out the last of it and then took that pot away from the fire and put on the pot I had designated to boil water in.

Sgt. Shelly surprised me with a tap from her boot.  When I turned to look she asked, "Where's your fish?"

I shrugged.  "I only caught the two fish.  Next time I'll look before I start gathering and I won't scare the rest off before I can get more."  She gave me a "look" and I reminded her, "I'm about half the size of you and I never have eaten a lot.  Plus I can graze when you all are off patrolling or whatever.  There's dandelions, morels, and a few other things all within sight of camp here and I'm sure I can find more tomorrow while you all are off doing your patrolling thing.  I'll get fat like that bear we saw earlier."

"That bear wasn't fat, she was actually scrawny ... looks like the two cubs are about to drink her dry.  And don't get off subject.  You may not patrol but you still need to eat."

"I'll eat ... am eating right now."  I picked up my bowl and spoon to prove it.  "You just can't expect me to need to eat as much as someone with as much muscle as you four.  I swear you use up more calories in nervous energy just sitting still than I do in a whole day of hard labor."

Gayle said, "Bull.  Now stop being an idiot and eat.  Shelly has more important things to do than worry about you having an eating disorder."

"A what?  Are you making fun of me being small?"

Lucy shook her head, "No.  She means anorexia or bulletmia ... no that isn't right ... bull ... bull ..."

I relaxed.  "Oh, you mean bulimia.  That kind of eating thing.  No, I just don't need as many calories because of my size.  Plus, unless you want me gacking up everything all over the place you won't try and force me to eat too much in one sitting.  My stomach isn't set up for huge meals."

Gayle asked, "Always been a problem or something just lately?"

"Always.  I was a micropreemie," I reminded her then shrugged.  "My stomach is just small like the rest of me and I just do better with grazing than I do with three squares a day.  I'll cook three squares, I just may eat off cycle from the rest of you.  So please just leave off.  It isn't a problem and I've got it covered."

She looked at Sgt. Shelly and nodded and the rest of them backed off as well.  However when the other three went for another small "recee" up and down the creek bank Gayle started on it again and I got irritated.

"Don't blow your cool Pip.  I'm what passes for the medico in our patrol and I need to make sure I understand each person's situation.  I've known the other three long enough that I can tell when they aren't feeling top notch without them having to say a word or show an obvious symptom.  I need to be able to assess you as well and I'd like to be able to do it without having to constantly ask questions.  So if you have any special needs I need to know about them."

I conceded the point.  "You mean because I was a preemie?"

"Partly that and partly because it doesn't seem to have phased you much so I need to know how you cope."

I shrugged.  "I just always have.  I don't like puking so I eat smaller meals.  I don't like passing out so I've learned to make the smaller meals count ... nutrition and stuff like that.  My metabolism is about average so that isn't a problem."  I pointed to my glasses.  "These are about the only real bane of my existence - that and everyone always thinking I'm a little kid first just because of my size - that is leftover from the preemie stuff.  I used to get really sick a lot and people kept trying to tell my parents that I just had to be autistic because of the way I started out but I learned to keep my feet dry and my head covered which keeps the colds to a minimum and you don't want to really hear about all the trouble I caused until they stopped telling me I couldn't ever be smart enough to do what I wanted to."

Gayle snorted.  "I think I can imagine."  Quietly she added, "Lucy is the same but ... but she does have limitations.  Limitations are nothing to be ashamed of so long as you know what they are and address them.  Her ability to read is almost completely gone.  She's picked simple words back up here and there but she sees them more as pictures than as combinations of letters with individual sounds so if you need to leave her a message make it a pictograph."  I nodded to let her know I understood what that is.  "When she is really angry or frustrated she will stutter ... to the point that no one understands what she is trying to say.  Her long silences usually indicate one or the other and you need to recognize it and not get bent out of shape if she doesn't talk to you.  And she used to get migraines though those get fewer and fewer and she hasn't had one since you showed up.  The headaches ..."

"She gets the trimbles in her left hand."

Gayle squinted at me suspiciously.  "She told you?"

I nodded.  "The other day before we left out on patrol.  I noticed and she caught me noticing and then winced when some guy whistled.  She looked like she was going to be sick and I offered to go get you but she said no and explained.  I fixed her some feverfew tea and put a little ginger in it.  It seemed to help or at least her hand stopped trembling and she started smiling like her old self after a little bit so I poured the rest of it into her canteen."  I shrugged.  "My mom got migraines about once a month too and that was her go-to remedy."

Gayle looked at me and then leaned back and reached into her pack and pulled out a small notebook and said, "Give me the recipe and tell me what you know."

So I did.  No biggie.  I also explained that Mom used to have hard and fast rules in our house about food and medicine and stuff.  "Partly because of me being so bad sick when I was little and partly because she was that way to start with.  I guess I don't think anything of it because that is the way I was raised but I learned I couldn't talk about that stuff to some of my friends' parents or teachers because they would start acting like Mom was from mars or some weird woman that might be abusing me.  Even my best friend's mother - the wife of the Sheriff no less - used to get crossed eyed if the subject came up; and she and Mom were like really good friends."  I smiled a little sadly thinking of Lee's mom.  "She was like this nurse supervisor kind of thing at the hospital and while she agreed that some of the 'all natural' remedy type stuff might work that a lot of it was bunk and she didn't tolerate bunk of any kind.  In her own way she was way stricter than my mom was and that's saying something."

"I'm middle of the road myself," Gayle admitted.  "If you can explain to me why something works I'll take it under advisement but none of this by the light of the full moon $@#% or licking toads or anything like that."

The look on her face when she was talking about licking toads was so funny I decided not to tell her about some of the druggies I ran across in the city right after Z-Day and how they were so desperate for a fix that they'd do some really, really strange things.  We were still talking about herbs and things like that when Gayle put up her hand to stop me.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Part 132


Lucy wasn't kidding that the next day was to get worse.  The complaining wasn't as loud but somehow it was more noticeable because of this.  And rough doesn't do justice to the condition of the roads we were on.  The only happy thought I had was when they off-loaded Limmer, and his patrol, right smack dab in the middle of a crap ton of pot holes.  You should have heard his ... er ... colorful description of the landscape.  I pulled my cap down to try and hide my laughter.

Before I forget I need to add one more thing to the hot dog cart descriptions.  I had an old granny seat on mine that had more duct tape than vinyl on it.  The other three had these fancy new seats ... only even as a person my age and size could have told them, those little things were going to get buried in their backside if they had to ride on them very far.  Like a lot of stuff lately, it reminded me of a memory from before.

Toddie gave up the idea of begging our parents for a racing bike after one of his friends got one and they discovered that most of those bicycles must have only had seats for show because there is no way a sane person could use one of those things for long ... especially guys and I absolutely refuse to explain why because when I was finally old enough to figure it out I couda died of embarrassment and I'm not too far off from that right now just thinking about it in passing.  Anyway ... I'm glad I didn't do anything to try and get revenge on the other three cooks because I have a feeling God is going to use those little seats and do it for me.

Second guy that off-loaded did it while the truck was in motion.  That is actually what we were supposed to do but only if the roads were in good condition which was why Limmer got off as a stop.  The number two show-off got his just desserts for his arrogance when he flipped the cart and all of the patrol supplies when spilling all over the place.  The hot dog cart lost a lot of its shiney-new right off the truck and the convoy didn't stop ... it took over a minute to get far enough away so that I stopped hearing that patrols cussing and fussing.

Third guy was really weighted down but almost disembarked without a problem ... except he was a little too careful and went a little too slow.  The transport operator started raising the rear gate before the guy was completely off of it and a couple of boxes from his wagon fell back into the truck.  I saw him trying to run back and pick up things that had fallen off and I whistled - thank you Mr. Svenson for teaching me how - and football threw one of the boxes to him and he caught it but looked at me like I had lost my mind.  I started to toss out the other one when both Sgt. Shelly and Josie stopped me.

"Hey!" I yelped, complaining at the handling.

"Hey nothing," Sgt. Shelly barked.  "You think they would have done the same for us?"

I shrugged and replied, "Does it matter?  I was just trying to do what was right."

Gayle shook her head while Sgt. Shelly rolled her eyes.  Even Lucy looked at me like I was a couple of fries short of a happy meal.  Josie said, "You know, that's sweet Pip."  Only her tone said the opposite.  Then she tapped me harder than was strictly necessary on the back of my head.  "Now listen up.  Sometimes the angels do a little a$$ kicking on our behalf and we get a bonus like this.  You don't look a gift horse - or angel - in the mouth.  Now get this box stowed quickly before it is our turn to disembark.  The convoy is take a sharp turn to the east and we are going to continue head northwest and they ain't gonna cut you no slack just 'cause you're a newbie."

I almost saluted and said "yes ma'am" but figured that would be more smart aleck comeback than my fellow patrol members could handle so I just let it go.  Besides, she was right and I did need to get set to go because it was coming up fast.

Oh ... my ... gosh.  Worse than riding the Himalayan at the fair.  I puked on Toddie's shoes the time he forced me to ride it because Dad said if he didn't take me he couldn't go.  I think they thought he would stick to rides like the Scrambler or the funhouses.  Nope.  And worse he fed me a birthday cake flavored shake right before just to see me turn green.  He underestimated the effect and his new Converse trainers had to go to the dry cleaners.  It was a year before I could look at a birthday cake again.  Getting off the truck at that particular location was just about like that had been.

I was on the bike part and ready to go as the the tailgate began to drop and that's when I realized we had been going uphill.  Oh geez man.  A 10% grade might not be a big deal to a truck but on a hot dog cart?  Youch.  Add the little wagon I was pulling and holy mackerel.  Talk about a wild ride to get that contraption under control and not go into the deep gully that ran beside the road.  But I did it.

"Well that's a surprise," Gayle said sardonically.  "I shouldn't have bothered unpacking my med kit.  I figured you'd need stitches at the very least."

"Ha.  Ha.  Very funny."

But it was't funny at all because Gayle had been serious.  And no one gave me a high five either for a successful disembarkation which told me more than anything else could that play time was over.  I am now officially a grown up and they don't give out brownie points for things like that when you're a grown up.  You're just expected to do your job with no complaints and get it right the first time around.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Part 131


I followed Mr. Marty over to a farm truck and he said, "Hop up there and hand me down a crate."

He hadn't said which crate to hand him so I handed him the first one I came to.  It had in it what looked like duck pond weeds.  "Is this one ok?"

He nodded.  "Good one to start with.  This here is arrowhead.  Look at the green parts and you can see why.  It ain't the green tops you want though, but the root, what is called a tuber by those of us in the know."

I bit my lip to not grin at how silly he sounded but when I glanced at him I saw he was smiling broadly and I realized that this man would be easy to like despite being a little scary at the same time.  I looked at the "tuber" and said, "It looks like a potato sort of."

"Exactly and you treat it like a potato too.  You can roast it, fry it, dice it, hash it, mash it, boil it, put it in soups ... anything you can do to a potato you can do to this little baby here.  And it is pretty easy to harvest.  You can either use a rake or a hoe and just loosen them from the mud and muck at the end of a pond or slow moving creek or river.  If the weather is warm enough I'll send the kids into the water and let 'em wiggle their feet in the mud and the roots just float to the surface.  They get a kick out of it and it keeps them out of everyone's hair.  The plants grow in clumps so it shouldn't be too hard to get what you need from one location for just a patrol size.  Now hand all them crates of arrowhead down while I get some of these useless boys to cart 'em over to the trailer so they can be secured."

After handing down all of the arrowheads I nearly tripped over a couple of crates of cattails.  I handed them down next and Mr. Marty and I talked a bit about what I knew and traded recipes.

He said, "Cattails is a staple where there is standing water.  People in the cities still ain't caught on to its use but trust me when I say folks out here get more than a little possessive of their plots so you gotta make sure no one is claiming ownership.  Other problem near the cities is water contamination from run off and sech.  Now you ain't dumb so you'll know you'll need to check the water things are growing in out here now too.  And be real careful if you go onto one of the reservations, different tribes hold different beliefs on ownership of stuff ... particularly ownership of the land and what it produces."

"I didn't think we were supposed to go onto the reservations, at least that is what my sergeant told me."

"Not supposed to is right, but that don't mean it doesn't happen ... on accident and on purpose.  Sometimes the military gets invited in if a tribe is having a bad problem with something but for the most part reservations are a no-go, even for a lot of trader convoys.  People get set ideas in their head and there just isn't any communicating with them after a certain point.  Now what's next?"

I pulled up a crate so I could see inside and said, "Hey!  I know this stuff too.  It's burdock.  Mom grew it in her edible landscaping!"

"Well ain't you excited," the big man laughed.  "Yep that is burdock only your ma probably grew domesticated burdock, this here is wild burdock.  You can usually find it in rocky areas; it takes a strong root like this to make its way through that kind of soil.  What's good about the burdock is that it will grow on land that hardly anything else will and that all parts of the plant are edible ... root, young greens, and even the flower stalk if you can get it before the varmints do.  What other plants do you know?"

"Chickweed, Lamb's Quarter, dandelions, milkweed, ramps, ..."

He chuckled, "Ok, ok, Girly.  Sounds like you've got some down.  Now let me tell you about some you might not know about."

We talked about things called yampa, Oregon grape, pinon pine, salsify, miner's lettuce, and several others.  He had me take a leaf from each plant he had in stock and told me to press them flat and then label them somehow so I'd have a "field guide" to the plants that were I could use without killing anyone.  I thought that was such a good idea that after saying good bye I did exactly that using this notebook as the squasher part to get them flat and keep them safe.

Lucy saw me and asked what I was doing.  I explained it to her and she said, "Sounds about like what I did right after I got my head banged up."

I looked at her but didn't say anything.  She'd never spoken of her injury and I didn't want to upset her.  She smiled, "Relax.  I guess I understand how you feel about the others always looking over your shoulder because they did it to me for a long time.  I know I'm not like I used to be but I can't ... can't quite explain what the difference is.  I just know it's there."

Carefully I asked her since none of the others were around to hear, "Does it hurt your feelings?  Being different?"

"Did at first," she admitted.  "But to be honest there's been some good things come from it.  For one I'm not so angry as I used to be.  I remember that I was angry all the time ... and I worried about stuff.  I'm not sad about not being that person anymore.  What bothers me most is sometimes not being able to remember what things are called.  I got me a notebook about like the one you are always scratching in.  Shelly drew pictures in it and then labeled them and it's how I re-learned a lot of the stuff I forgot.  It took me a while but I'm a good soldier again ... but I think I might just be a better person than I was before my brain got put in a blender.  You know?  It isn't like that for everyone but for me I think it is."

I shrugged.  "I didn't know you before so I can't say but I think the you that you are now is a real good person to know."

I'm glad I said it because it seemed to make her happy and she flipped me in the head with her cap and then got all mommish and said, "You should hit the sack while you have the chance.  Today was easy compared to tomorrow.  Terrain is going to turn rough mid-morning and the units are going to split and start off-loading.  We are one of the last and it is in an area no one has covered before so we are going to have to really be on our toes."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Part 130


Limmer finally got tired of me not paying any attention to his cursing and turned around and started fussing as someone else who had dared to ask him why he was cussing at "the new girl."  You'd think that Limmer - or his type - would bother or disgust me.  Truth is I think I've simply come to accept them.  I learned to deal with men like him in the city.  I mean I don't think he is a perv - he doesn't give off those kind of vibes - but the kind of guy that really and truly believes that females are a step or two lower than men on the evolutionary scale.  At least I think that is what his problem is.  I could be wrong but if I am he'll have to prove it.  But I had better things to do with my time than worry about ol' Limmer.

I took a long look at the four hot dog cart set ups riding in the transport.  Right off I noticed mine was all beat to carp in comparison to the other three.  Limmer's was in the best shape and looked practically brand new.  The other two had some patching and dings here and there but overall looked pretty decent.  Mine looked like a pawn shop reject.  The bike frame was bent, there were dents in the stainless steel box that held the supplies, there was no sun shade even though there was a frame for one, and there was enough rust that you couldn't tell what the bike's original color had been.  The attached wagon was smaller and the wheels of it looked like they might be thinking about falling off if I asked them to roll on anything but blacktop.

Construction wasn't the only difference however.  The three men had painted things on theirs.  It reminded me of the old WW2 pictures of military planes and some of the artwork was just as "risky" as those old pictures too.  Limmer caught me looking and snorted in humor.  One of the other cooks patted his cart, paying particular attention to the pornographic picture of a chesty woman that had been airbrushed onto the largest flat surface and gave me a wicked grim and asked, "What do you think about the beauty here?"

"I think you had that painted there because that's as close as you'll ever get to touching that particular piece of a woman's anatomy."  Gayle had been in the middle of a sip from her canteen and wound up having to get a good back pounding because she started choking and wheezing in surprise.  Josie left off her complaining long enough to really make a spectacle and embarrass the guy, and even some of the other men in the transport got in on the laugh.  Sgt. Shelly poked me with her boot and gave me "the look."  She couldn't do it as well as Mom or Sarge but she was well on her way to cultivating that eyebrow thing so I left off and decided to think silently instead of out loud.

Out of necessity my memory has gotten pretty good.  I went over the inventory of what was in my cart and compared it to some of the things I saw peeking out from under the tarps of the other three wagons and sure enough I realized something else; I hadn't just been given the short end when it comes to equipment, I'd been shorted in the area of supplies too.  It was either that or I got the barrel scrapings after everyone else got to pick over the best stuff.  I saw cans of dried soup mixes and the like and if I saw that I'm pretty sure they got really good canned stuff too.  The one area I think I've got the others beat though is in the spices, seasonings, and extract department.  And I'm not positive, but pretty sure, that I might have them beat in another area.

Sher warned me how slim the pickings could be.  "DeeDee, it can be just as bad as it was in the city.  What you need to do is cultivate some connections."

"Connections for what?"

"The way it works is that you can trade with locals so long as they are willing and don't feel pressured.  The men all go in for tobacco and meat and things like that but I was telling Moe last fall that they are missing an opportunity to learn from the locals."

I'd heard her go on about this before.  Sher is a little bit of a strange contradiction.  If she hadn't gotten so far along the path she'd been down I could see her setting up her own organic and all-natural this and that kind of business.  She taught me that a lot of weeds are edible and it got us through some lean times in the city.  I took what I learned from her and built on that by listening to Jace and Mr. Svenson and his family.  And now Sher is telling me I can use the same skills and make my job as cook somewhat easier by one, trading with locals and two, foraging on my own.  I've already seen she is right and for some reason I kinda feel like Mom is giving me the ok as well.  She was pretty good at talking people up and finding good deals.  I hope she passed some of that along to me ... just wish I had her people skills.  I always seem to rub people the wrong way ... or at least I rub the wrong people the wrong way.

That night we stopped on one side of a river crossing and it just so happened that a civilian trader convoy decided to set up beside us as the scabs were pretty fierce.  Everyone got fed by a "box lunch" kind of set up and I was actually grateful not to have to cook with everyone all jumbled together like we were.  I finished my sandwich and then tucked the rest of the odds and ends that I'd been given into my inside pockets and then asked Lucy if it was all right if I went to look at what the traders had for sell, if anything.

"Sure.  Just be back before it is bed down time so no one has to come find you."

I wandered over in the direction of the traders' convoy and just sort of hung around looking.  It was almost dark when one of their guards finally asked, "What da ya want Shrimp?"

I shrugged.  "I learn by watching.  I'm a patrol cook," I told him throwing a thumb in the general direction of our camp.  "And a friend of mine that is a sutler told me if I wanted to know what's what to pay attention to the locals.  Well, I'm trying to pay attention but I'm not exactly sure what I'm supposed to be paying attention to."

The man snorted.  "Cook huh?  I swear they must be getting desperate if they'd take on someone like you."  Then after he chuckled at his own wit he said, "If it's a cook you be then you'll want to see Marty."

He directed me towards a bunch of noise that when I got over there I realized it came from people scrubbing pots and pans.  I asked one of the women there, "The guard with the big handlebar mustache said I could come over here and watch Marty."

"Watcha want to watch Marty for?"

"I'm a new cook and ..."  I finished my explanation and she smiled and winked at something behind me.  I turned slowly to find a man looking at me like I was a bug under his microscope.

I swallowed and asked, "Are you Marty?"

"That's what they call me.  What's the name of this friend of yours?"

"Sher.  She and her man Moe work in shoes and such."

He made an interested face and said, "Yep, know them myself.  Not bad people.  So Sher told you to watch the locals did she?"

"Yes sir," I told him figuring it never hurt to be polite to strangers.  "I have to cook and feed my patrol.  I'm not worried about the cooking part so much as I am about the food part.  I'm expected to make everything go as far as it can but that stuff is all dry or canned ... they didn't really give me anything fresh."  I decided to leave out the part about the tin of cookies and crackers since it didn't seem worth mentioning.  "I can forage if I know what is edible and what isn't but I'm not from around here.  I overwintered in the North Woods of Wisconsin so I can identify a few things like cattails and the like but I was wondering what else was around here that people use that I don't have to cultivate."

"Well you're a lucky one, just so happens I was about to take an inventory before we crossed the ribber.  Come on along and if you'll tote and move some things for me I'll see if I cain't enlighten ya some."

Friday, May 1, 2015

Part 129


Oh my aching back.  Oh my aching ears.  Oh my busted backside ... gee whiz, so not kidding about that last one for sure.

I like people.  At least I think I do.  I know I used to like people anyway.  Lately I've had some second thoughts about it but I guess they aren't really so bad.  But geez, I think I'm beginning to understand why people would tell me to shut up all the time.

"Don't you ever stop talking DeeDee?"
"DeeDee, I swear if I hear you ask why one more time ..."
"Will you just shut up DeeDee?  You're making my head ache."

Mom and Dad never said it like that but even they got fed up with it sometimes and would give me the eye as if to tell me I was getting on their last nerve.  If I talked half as much as what I had to listen to yesterday and the day before ... holy smokes, it is a wonder someone just didn't shove something in my mouth to find a little peace and quiet.  I know Toddie threatened to duct tape me to the wall a few times so I couldn't follow him around and talk his ears off ... he did it once too when I was little but Dad just about grounded him for life for that one.

Maybe I've changed more than I thought.  Maybe it hasn't just been the usual growing up stuff that I've done.  Maybe it hasn't just been my body.  Maybe I've changed a lot more than that ... the deep down "me" part has changed.  Maybe it isn't just my body that Dad and Mom wouldn't recognize.  Then again, maybe I haven't changed so much as everything around me has changed.  Oh forget it.  Carpy guacamole, thinking philosophical isn't going to do anything but make my head feel worse and that I definitely don't need.  Have enough on my mind without adding to it.

Leaving base was like being in a much practiced Chinese fire drill.  On the one hand everything looked and felt chaotic.  The good bye's, love you's, stay safe's, the sour faces, the resigned faces, the fresh faces both fearful and excited at the same time, the bodies and equipment packed together just begging for a little space to move and breathe.  On the other hand it somehow worked like a well-oiled machine with everyone knowing their place and sticking to it.  I followed Sgt. Shelly and the other women, doing my best to not knock into anyone while I pedaled the monstrosity I'm now responsible for, and we got to a transport where the supply bike was loaded so that it faced the rear of the truck.  Four patrols went on one transport; four hot dog stands and twenty personnel.  I was the first one loaded and I later understood that it was so all of the others were out of the way when I came off the ramp and so that I could watch how the disembarkation process went ... or at least how it was supposed to work.

Our unit and two others left base.  Three units with five patrols in each unit, five people in each patrol.  Since four patrols fit on one transport that meant there were five trucks per unit, times three units, equals fifteen transport trucks in the convoy.  We actually had twenty trucks though; an extra for interim resupply, a communication trailer, a water truck, a fuel truck, and another a weird looking disaster relief tractor trailer that was going to act as headquarters for some kind of administrative slash hospital thingie that was supposed to create good will.

Normally only two units cycle out of base every week but things were being changed up and no one seemed particularly happy about it and that is what caused most of the noise I had to listen to.  Josie in particular seemed to find fault with the entire thing.

"We've been working just fine for months.  Had it down to clockwork.  Now, right in the face of a mess of infecteds, they gotta change it up and make things more complicated.  Do we need complicated?  I don't think so."

Blah, blah, blah.  Even Lucy looked like she was losing her happy-go-lucky disposition after a whole day of listening to it.

It might be late April but there is still a chill to the air that I don't care for; it is a different kind of cold than I'm used to, dryer so that it bites before you realize it.  The air makes your skin feel like freeze dried corn in no time.  I wasn't the only one turning up my collar and turning down the ear guards on my semi-regulation cap.  It seems cooks are allowed to change their hats a little bit for food safety reasons.  The one thing cooks aren't allowed to alter are these bogusly stupid hair nets we have to wear.  I was ready to scream because mine kept getting tangled when Josie finally took pity on me and taught me how to take a long piece of cloth and wind my hair up the way Caribbean women do.  It still feels really strange but my hair is out of my eyes, safe from getting into the food, and I hope maybe it stays cleaner this way too since a shower isn't likely something to be had until RNR time.  Peeee-uuuuuu.  I don't know which is going to be worse, me or my laundry.

I got stuck being the only female cook. Naturally.  My three male companions were just lovely and ducky.  Their personalities were just rosy and glowing.  And if you believe that there used to be a bridge in Brooklyn that I know I could sell to you.

I mean seriously, can Limmer get any crankier?  All I did was ask him how he packed the supplies.  I figured he'd been doing this like forever and was senior to the other two male cooks and that he'd be someone good to learn from.  Yeah right.

"I'm gonna tell you right now before God and everybody ... you don't belong.  You shouldn't be here.  I don't want you near me.  You're gonna get someone kilt."

Irritated I let fly with the first thing I could think of.  "A kilt is something a Scottish guy wears."

Well, it made Josie and Lucy laugh.  Gayle bit her lips and Sgt. Shelly just rolled her eyes but none of them got involved.  I guess at some point I've got to be able to prove that I can hack it and that moment was the beginning of it.

"You a smart ass on top of everything else," Limmer snapped.

I shrugged.  "Of course I am.  I thought with you being a senior cook and all that I could learn something useful from you but if you're going to be stingy with your smarts then I guess not.  On the other hand I heard you gotta earn respect in this outfit and calling me names isn't going to exactly earn you any from me.  I'll just figure it out on my own.  Thanks anyway."

He started cussing me but that kind of stupid is easy to ignore, especially when I set my mind to observing what I could about the other hot dog carts.