Tree Line - Chapter Twenty

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Chapter Twenty

The wind ebbed and flowed like waves rolling across the top of a cold, indigo ocean, then suddenly, without warning, it slammed hard into the exposed dome of Stacey’s tent. The gust shook the entire structure, despite it being dug partially into the rocky soil of a mountain, despite it being half buried in the snow, the heavy wind pulling on the tent spikes that held each of its hexagon corners down. The force was enough to send the LED lamp hanging from its ceiling swaying, the dim shadows of Stacey and Joelle cast against the walls coming to life, racing across the nylon spans, ducking and leaping, catching even Gus’ eye from his spot on the floor where he had been sleeping.

“Geez,” Stacey grunted, her eyes moving to the thin, fishbone-like rods that held the tent together, her eyes quickly searching for a tear or a bent pole that looked ready to collapse. In the dim, inconsistent light of their lone, swinging lamp, she couldn’t see much, only trust that her tent had weathered the assault and would continue to hold up. It was too dark to really see anything, much too dark to do anything about a potential tear, beyond waiting until morning and hoping for the best.

Joelle matched Stacey’s grunt with a pained look, an insincere smile that her lips wore, but avoided her eyes. It was the same look she wore when someone used a word that was beyond her otherwise excellent English skills.

“Are you okay?” Stacey asked.

“Yes,” Joelle answered. She eventually nodded, then added, “It’s just the wind.”

The end of her short sentence tilted upward in its tone, almost a question, but her explanation stopped there. It was enough.

Stacey nodded back at the other woman, Joelle’s dark veil of hair shiny as the lamp swayed between them, highlights traveling up and down her long, black hair without her knowledge, without a care. There was a lull for a moment, not just in the conversation, but also in the wind, a stretch of silence and peace, then another gust came. It slammed against the top of the tent, making it vibrate around them, threatening, but unspecific, vague.

Stacey looked at her piles of socks, first the pile on her left and then the smaller stack of mended socks that she had placed to her right, each one crisscrossed with erratic stretches of miscolored thread, obvious scars worn over old, now closed wounds. She had made progress, mending nearly a third of the pile that she had collected over the past few months, but her fingers were getting tired.

Maybe tired wasn’t really the word for it. She had spent so much time under Joelle’s watchful and practiced eye, literally hours squeezing the needle between the tips of her fingers, she had pushed tiny trenches into her flesh from the metal barrel as she nudged it through the fabric, gripped it, pulled it through, and then pushed it again. In brighter light she might have been able to see them, the indented lines that ran across the fingertips of her index finger and thumb, making her fingerprint something else, something foreign and mechanical.

It didn’t help that it was also getting colder. Even with two people inside of the tent, and with Gus providing his own, additional heat, the tent was feeling more and more frigid. The extra pot of coffee that Joelle had made for them after they had put out the cleaning supplies on the plateau had helped, but with the sun down the heat wouldn’t stick, it just drifted into the sky and disappeared.

Stacey could see her breath. She could always see her breath, but it had become a thicker cloud, a solid white thing that she didn’t like to watch spill out from her lips. Carefully putting her needle away, she removed the fingerless gloves she had borrowed from one of Pat’s piles, and pulled on the mittens that she usually used to cover her hands, a thin pair of wool mittens that she only used while inside of her tent.

“I think you should stay here tonight,” Stacey offered, suddenly, a change of subject in a conversation that was already riddled with starts and stops, with topics that came and went with the same inconsistency of the wind. The look that Joelle provided her in response was indecipherable, especially with so much of her face hidden behind her hair. Stacey, looking for reassurance, softly added, “Is that okay?”

Joelle smiled, then a moment later, nodded.

“Good,” Stacey said. She looked at the door to her tent, dark now with the sun long gone, and added, “I don’t think either of us should be alone tonight.”

Joelle nodded again, her eyes following the path that Stacey’s eyes had found in the cramped space, also looking at the door, neither of them saying what was on their mind, their thoughts as thick as the clouds they exhaled into the cold.

Nathan had left them alone all day, but he always seemed to be there. They could hear him walking around the camp, his boots collapsing the snow, compressing fresh powder in some places and then packing down already heavily walked patches in other spots as he paced.

It was hard to know what he was doing out there. Hidden inside of her tent, Stacey could only guess. Maybe Nathan was cleaning out his burnt and melted tent space in anticipation for whatever the rest of the camp would be bringing up from Fraser, carving out a larger space in the snow in hopes that their new home would be more comfortable, maybe having a larger circumference, or if they were lucky, a higher ceiling.

Or, maybe Nate was just feeling claustrophobic in Owen’s low, cramped tent. Owen didn’t seem to mind it. He had been the one who first suggested they call themselves “Camp Gopher,” a reference to how they had taken to digging themselves into the mountain for protection from the weather, but Owen’s tent was so low, so tiny, it was practically buried even before the snow started. Owen’s tent was a true gopher hole, a space that he apparently found cozy, but seemed suffocating to everyone else.

Nate could be planning something. It was never Stacey’s first thought, or even her second, but laws had disappeared along with the rest of humanity. Any of them could do anything they wanted, could prey on each other like the animals they tried to pretend they weren’t, taking whatever they wanted from each other, and there was nothing that anyone could really do about it. There were no barrel-chested police that would arrive to deescalate a situation that was getting out of hand. Their camp had, whether they talked about it or not, kept to what had been the law before Henry demolished the rules of the world. They had kept to a level of fairness, like a group of kindergartners that simply believed in their shared expectations of decency, and had no need to establish much else. That expectation had been tested with Benni, had its borders pushed and stretched, but they survived those tests, continuing to treat each other the same way, everyone holding to the same expectations. But, despite all of that, despite their shared, peaceful history, Joelle said that Nate had been watching her earlier in the day, just staring at her. Nate’s many comments about Stacey left little to the imagination on most days and those were the comments he uttered to her face. What if, now that the women were alone, he’d try something?

It seemed like a stretch, but Stacey knew that it wasn’t impossible. People did horrible things to each other all the time, even back when there were repercussions. Now, with what was left of the world plunged into anarchy, only decency stood in the way of selfishness and malice and Stacey was beginning to suspect its walls were thin and malleable. Decency was no protection at all.

Stacey shut her eyes and shook her head, as if her fears had been spoken out loud, as if her thoughts were hanging in the air around them and were too much to look at.

“Do you think everyone is okay?” Joelle asked, pulling Stacey away from her internal questions, her hypothetical dark places. Like Joelle’s expression a few moments before, her tone was mysterious, inhabiting the overlapping spaces between simple conversation and concern in whatever Venn diagram their afternoon had managed to fill. “Down in the town, I mean. Do you think they’re okay?”

“I’m sure everything is fine,” Stacey answered, hoping her tone sounded as assured as she intended. “They probably decided to spend the night, because of the snow. That’s what happened last time and it wasn’t even snowing then. It just got late.”

Joelle nodded, chewing on her bottom lip.

“You’re probably right.”

Silence stretched out again, interrupted by a low, long groan from Gus as Stacey started trying to match her mended socks together, finding twins for each one. It was a task that wasn’t working well, wasn’t even necessary any longer, their struggle to survive stripping so much away, but was a habit that was too engrained to resist.

“You had two little girls, right?” Stacey asked and when she looked up she saw the muscles in Joelle’s face go slack, her single, visible eye loosing the focus that she had given to Stacey.

Joelle shut her eyes and nodded slowly, bringing her hand up to push a knuckle against the underside of her nose. Stacey could see a band of pink, gnarled flesh that ran up from beneath her sleeve to the knuckles behind Joelle’s ring finger and pinky, still more evidence of the burns that Stacey had only imagined before. A thin, plain, gold band encircled that same ring finger, the contrast making her pink, gnarled flesh look even darker, more severe.

Quickly, Stacey said, “I’m sorry, Joelle. I wasn’t thinking. I was just trying to make conversation and...”

Stacey stopped herself, not sure of what else to say, what kind of explanation she should offer. What could she say?

They all tiptoed around Joelle, tried to pad every possible corner of memory for her, but even with such care, even with their continual attempts to stay one step ahead of whatever the woman might accidentally bump into, they frequently stumbled. It was easy to blurt out the wrong thing, to bring up the wrong topic. It was an ever-present minefield, especially since Joelle said so little, provided no helpful information, every step on the verge of cataclysm, every path a potential trip into what each of them suspected might become an emotional disaster.

They still didn’t know what had happened in her camp. All they knew was that there had been a fire, a horrible blaze that destroyed everything and nearly killed Joelle, but it took weeks to get even that much out of her.

It was understandable. She had been badly injured, forced to hike through miles of snow to their camp, half-blind and covered in painful, blistering burns. She was lucky she found her way to Corona at all. She knew the camp was there. Their camp had been talking to Owen for a few months on the CBs that a couple of the camps had stumbled into using, but it seemed incredible that she could have made the trip alone, walking miles through the thick, wet, Spring snow, especially after everything else she had suffered.

Stacey wondered, just for a moment, what Joelle must have been like before she came to Corona, before she had been burned and lost everything. Was she friendly and generous with her time? Was she funny, always ready with a quick joke and sly grin that lit up her eyes? Or, was she a quiet young woman, just like she was now, the gears in her mind always turning, but never really giving hints as to what those gears were working out, what the factory of her mind was producing? Like so much about Joelle it seemed like it was impossible to really know anything about her, the woman far away, miles away, even as she was sitting in front of Stacey.

Stacey swallowed, her eyes falling to the space between them, the spot where she had been working on her socks, but was now empty.

“I’m sorry, Joelle,” she said. “I just thought that maybe you’d want to talk about them. I know how hard it is when you lose someone close to you. My family...”

Stacey trailed off, trying to find the right words, fumbling for them, but finding just open, frustratingly empty air.

She took a breath, in and then out, and searched her mind again for words she could use.

“I guess I don’t really know what happened to them. My family, I mean,” Stacey finally admitted. “It feels sometimes like if I say anything about my parents then I’ll jinx things for them somehow, like I’m opening up some kind of curse or something, but it’s also hard not to talk about them. It’s hard to pretend like they never existed when they were always there for me.”

Stacey looked up and watched a tear escape from Joelle’s single, visible eye, then was astonished to feel that her own eyes were unable to hold the liquid that had gathered there without her noticing. She jerked back from it, surprised by it as it raced down her own cheek, bringing her hand up to absorb the tiny drop within the dry fibers of her wool mitten.

Stacey let out a tiny laugh, embarrassed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, breaking her astonished giggle into two parts with her apology. “I didn’t mean to... This is weird, isn’t it?”

She laughed again, turning her mitten over to wipe away still more tears on the back of her hand, letting out a small groan as she did so, a low moan that stole away her nervous laughter and left only a shame that reddened her cheeks. This wasn’t her. This had never been her. Gus lifted his head from where he laid near the door, his dark eyes on Stacey for a moment, compounding her self-consciousness.

“It’s okay,” Joelle said, softly. She reached out and touched Stacey’s knee, getting her attention, pulling her from her self-imposed ridicule. Something moved between the two women, an understanding of that single moment, a dissimilar but known grief as their eyes met in the dim illumination of the tent lantern. “I cry so much for them.”

Joelle smiled, despite the liquid in her eye, the stream of tears that rolled down her cheek. When she saw Stacey’s eyes on her, the bewildered look on her face, Joelle swallowed and steadied her voice, continuing by saying, “I don’t cry because I am weak. It’s how I honor them. I cry because I am strong enough to remember everything about them and because I am determined never to forget.”

Stacey let out another sound, something like a laugh and a snort combined, a sound that broke the dam inside of her letting her tears come again. Running hot and quick down her cheeks, Stacey shook her head, trying to fight it, trying to hold them in, but learning she was unable to win. She was powerless to the surge that grew within her and then spilled out.

“Their names were Marisa and Natalia,” Joelle said, softly, withdrawing her hand from where she had touched Stacey’s knee. She spoke slowly, like she were telling a story to a child, tucking it into bed. It made Stacey’s lip quiver as she listened, still fighting the tears that seemed more powerful than she was, maybe trying to give Joelle time for her own. “Marisa’s smile was just like my mother’s and it seemed like she was always smiling. Natalia, the youngest one, looked like her father. They had the same eyes: sharp and attentive. She looked at people like she instantly understood them, just like he did.”

Joelle forced a smile, lifting her hand to her eye, first the one that Stacey could see and then the one that Joelle constantly hid behind her hair, wiping away the tears that were silently flowing from her.

“I miss them every day,” she said. “My Marisa and my little Natalia. I miss my Julio. I miss them every single day and I cry because they deserve my tears. They are worth my sadness, but I will see them again. Maybe soon, if the time is right. I will be with them again.”

Copyright ©2021 by Robb Neumann. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share links, but no part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written consent of the author, except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations in critical reviews or articles.

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