Nat slipped into a deep sleep, only emerging when his body demanded other base needs. He slept on and off in the cave for the better part of three days. By the second day of his sleep, Hana’s wings had completed sloughing off. The group had taken the decaying matter far down the river before submerging them under several rocks, hoping that they’d disappear before Michael’s cronies could find them and trace them. With any luck, the birds wouldn’t have vultures in their genetics. The wolves didn’t hold their breath.
While the men roamed the woods and the outskirts of the city for food, the women tended to Nat. Hana had been tasked with caring for his punctures. The group hoped that by having her work with the fluids, she’d absorb Sylvi faster. It seemed to be working. Frequently after caring for Nat, she would end up with short-term pain that didn’t last as long as it had in the past. It was at the point that Deck was only ever rarely disturbed by the pain.
Zola and Sun Hee learned a new trick in their boredom that amused them greatly. They used it to make Nat chuckle when he was barely conscious. He had a lot less restraint on his embarrassment and tended to laugh more for it. With some practice, they figured out how to pinpoint certain aspects of the wolf to come out. They were able to grow their ears into their furry pointed counterparts. They even achieved a wagging tail.
Nat gained a semblance of conscious thought by the third day outside of general feelings of amusement or uncertainty. His ribs and face were still killing him. His body didn’t feel like he was going to die immediately if he tried to move at least.
He woke up freezing. The group had left off lighting a fire, huddling together for warmth. A drizzle sprinkled the rock out front of the cave.
Nat blinked, confused. Drizzle. Not sleet or snow. It was actual light rain. He crawled toward the entrance, the women watching his every move. The exhausted man reached to cup the modest flecking on his hand. Water. It hadn’t legitimately rained in months. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw real rain. “Warm rain,” he whispered. Swivelling his head around, he fixed Sun Hee with a questioning look. “How long have we been out here?”
Sun Hee shrugged. She had lost count a long time ago. Anastasia responded to his question, “The bomb that released us was dropped in the beginning of January. You’ve been on the road since then for probably…eight weeks? I think… It’s near the end of February now.”
“Spring? It’s almost spring?” Nat rolled over, enjoying the few sprinkles of rain that found their way to his face at the lip of the cave.
“You seem rather happy about this,” Anastasia observed the grey wet.
“How long have you guys been out of circulation?” Nat blinked up at the wolf.
She sat down next to him and contemplated it for a while. “We were taken near the end of your great war. They were burning the fields and forests, desolating the villages. Massive machines rolled through our little cottage town. The people called them tanks. Many of the things we have seen with you humans have been new to us,” she supplied.
“Great War? Tanks…that could be World War I or World War II,” Nat contemplated.
“There was a second war?” Anastasia asked in surprise.
“You guys haven’t been in our world in almost three hundred years,” Nat struggled to sit up. Zola shifted him until he rested in the hollow of a rock overlooking the woods outside the cave entrance.
“If you say so. Time for us wolves draws on differently than it does for you humans.” Anastasia shrugged.
“This is our fourth war, though politicians like to not call the third a true war. The last broke out shortly after a war between India and China during a pandemic that wiped three per cent of the population off the map. The states fell apart and re-conglomerated. Our basic system of government was turned on its head from an economic crash and drought and wildfires. The pandemic led to a shortage in the meat industry, impacting corn and the other grain industry. Things never got better after that,” he told her.
“You humans and war,” she sneered. Nat snorted in agreement. “Can you not rip into each other for a day?” She stared up at the trembling, writhing clouds.
“Humans have a few base needs – sleeping, eating, bathroom breaks, sex, and being right. When we can’t have one of those things, we get all kinds of mean. That’s what I’ve found,” Nat grumbled.
“You’re more talkative than usual.” Sibor padded up to them.
“Must have been a hit to the head. I got a couple of those recently,” Nat quipped, suddenly self-conscious.
“So, what is so special about the rain?” Sibor asked, curious at the man’s fixation.
“I haven’t seen rain in a year, literally. Like, real, legit, it’s not going to turn into sleet or snow later, rain. Tajikistan or Kazakhstan or one of those stan places sent up an atmosphere bomb. It disturbed our climate so severely; we’ve been in drought for a year. Like, the whole world in drought, and that’s not including the environmental problems we already have because of imbecilic corporate greed.
“Jenton lucked out, like some of the other rural areas along the coasts. At least we had irrigation from the rivers for the orchards and the fields. So, as a local community, we weren’t going to die. Portland though? It only got bombed out last summer I think, but it doesn’t have a lot of fresh water resources. It was beginning to fold like Detroit back in the 2000s.
“There were areas in the Americas, mainly the centre land, that really suffered. People, the ones who hadn’t died from RWE diseases, left in droves, and there was a rise in crime along the coast from the emigrants. It didn’t take long for disease to wipe out the shanty towns without working vaccines, and even to infiltrate the bigger areas. LA and Chicago collapsed, full out.
“Our school and college kept on operating because our community hadn’t shrunk. We hadn’t seen an influx in people, really, so it seemed safe. I think the community leaders who helped keep the doors open hoped that by the time we finished, the war would have resolved itself. Now? I don’t even know if there’s anything left to be fighting for. We’ve barely seen anyone, other than Michael’s birds and the kids back there. If we drop from here, we’d be going through The Rockie states. We could cut across Flat Land and drop into Texoma. From there, we could follow the coastline till we got to Florgia.
“Our real problem, with spring coming and no food in early spring is going to really be in the centre of the states. There are rumours that people still occupy large tracts of land out that way, and as wolves, we run a serious risk of getting shot at. We’ll need to be careful if we do that,” he wheezed. His chest cried at him. He had talked too much.
Hana eased over to sit near the group in the shadow of the cave mouth. “So, you still want to go to Florgia?” she asked tentatively.
Nat flicked a glance to the hollow woman. She was thin and ashen. Losing her wings had taken a lot out of her. “You need to go there as much as the rest of us. If there’s a lab still operating there, we will make an attempt at becoming regular humans again. Maybe someone there will have help for your brother.” He turned back to the little rivulets streaming through the rocks at the cave edge. All three women perked up, staring at him with a wash of startled confusion.
“You are not your brother, and you haven’t given me a reason to hate you. Don’t be so fearful.” Nat dropped a shoulder in a half-hearted attempt at a shrug. His chest burned with that small movement. He raised an inviting hand to Hana. She eased over cautiously and let him pull her down into his lap. “You’re freezing, woman.” He wrapped his oversized coat around them both. “Maybe he’ll become a rational person when we can get rid of his wings, the thing tying him to his cult.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. Sibor and Anastasia eased away from the two to give them privacy.
“Why would you…?” Hana couldn’t understand the man lying on the ground at the cave mouth, unable to sit up unsupported due to cracked ribs, marred with black and yellow and sickly green bruises from head to toe, his eyes like a mask from a cracked nose. Her brother had left four men to commit despicable acts on him. A massive hand print showed up around his throat the day before, a latent bruise.
He tucked her head under his chin and rubbed a thumb along the fabric of the peacoat rhythmically in thought. “Forgive him?” Nat put a finger to a dribble of water to admire the pull of the liquid against his skin. Hana nodded mutely. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t rip apart every one of those men when I see them again. I’d rather, if I face your brother, put us on even footing next time. He has too much reach with those wings. If he proves to be Gandhi without them, then he can spend the rest of his life repenting his crimes, but if he doesn’t change, I think I’ll have a bit easier time turning him to mush,” he stated candidly.
“Oh,” Hana fiddled with her fingers in her lap.
“Gandhi was pretty messed up anyways. For now, if we can get out of here, we should try to put distance between him and us as much as possible. Won’t do you any good getting trapped there again. You were trying to escape them by living out in Portland, right?”
They left Shoshone Falls seven days after Michael’s attack. The pack hadn’t seen any evidence of the birdmen since the attack. It concerned them that they would disappear so quickly, without any more attacks.
Many of Nat’s bruises had dimmed in that time, though some were still evidently dark and painful. His ribs were still inflamed, and to get him more than a couple of miles down the road required bandaging. Every couple of hours they stopped to sit down and take the bandages off to encourage Nat’s breathing.
The group trudged along 84 East heading for the 84 south clover that would drop them down into The Rockie States. The chill grip of winter fought hard to keep its hold on the group, even as they changed lateral lines. The asphalt highway froze and melted throughout the days and nights as the sleet and rain proclaimed the coming of spring and breakage of the drought.
Ten days from leaving Shoshone Falls, the group found a micro-town called Snowville in Sevier Desert as a blizzard picked up. A ghost town with less than thirty standing houses and mobile homes, a post office, and a closed-down Flying J they ransacked for canned goods and nonperishables. The pack crawled into a deserted mobile home for a couple of days to wait out the white deluge.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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