Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter 18

It’s been so long since I sat down and wrote about something besides inventories and recipes. I’ve just been trying to stay organized so I can maintain some sanity. My feelings I save for the privacy of my own thoughts or I talk to the dogs; but I feel really alone right now and I know I have to deal with things in a healthy way or I won’t be the only one suffering because of it.

Donovan and I had it good for about two months from the last point that I wrote. It was boring in a sense but I’ve learned that sometimes survival is boring and it is something you should be grateful for. You get up in the morning, put one foot in front of the other, do what you have to, have a little quality together time if you aren’t too tired or hungry; then you go to bed so you can get up and do it again the next day.

Boring isn’t bad. Actually boring can be good. I learned from being bored. I learned that life will only present so many opportunities and you have to create the rest of them for yourself. I learned that intellectual stimulation is something to be sought and not assumed. With Donovan’s help I started to develop a stronger inner quiet than I’ve ever had. I’d avoided dealing with stuff by pushing it off and saying it didn’t matter for so long that I really wasn’t as healthy and well-balanced as I wanted to believe. If the world had continued to turn as it had prior to Impact Day I might have gotten away with it for the rest of my life, but I can’t say for sure that I would have and I’ve come to believe using the term “life” for what I was living really wasn’t the best description.

The time I spent with Donovan during those two months and not talking was just as enlightening for me as when we did sit and talk. And I’m not being sarcastic when I say that. I think I’m a more balanced person than I was before, more secure, less … less … juvenile in how I view my life and world I guess you could say. It’s about time that I grew up; if not grow up, at least stretched beyond the person I had allowed myself to become out of self-preservation.

You’d think, having to basically grow up so fast when Mom and Dad died that I would have avoided some of the pitfalls of my peers. Instead I over compensated and built up barriers to not only keep pain out but keep people that might cause me pain out. I compartmentalized my life to such an extreme that one part had seemingly nothing to do with the other parts. I was like a jigsaw puzzle that fit together but didn’t make a comprehensible picture.

In Donovan I found someone I could trust; tough, like my dad, but with a different set of life experiences that made him that way so I didn’t have to be concerned about having a father-complex in my attraction to him. He did a lot for me and I learned to appreciate that rather than be resentful of it. His strength and experience is what literally kept us alive.

One day I sat down with him, he was very tired after another full day of cutting wood and I told him, “Donovan, if not for you I know I wouldn’t be alive right now. I know I act a little like a brat sometimes but I’m trying to get better … and I just wanted you to know that I really do appreciate all that you do.”

I didn’t realize it at the time but that expression of my appreciation broke Donovan’s calm acceptance of our situation. It took me a while to notice but suddenly I was getting all of these lessons in doing the things that Donovan had been doing. He taught me the easiest way to cut wood and then built gizmos to make it easier for me to do the chores that he had been doing alone.

He taught me to hunt. I was terrible at first but we practiced … a lot. We rarely brought anything in but it was still invaluable experience that has stood me well. I learned to orienteer on my own, how to build cold weather shelters, how to build traps and track animals, you name it. I thought at first it was just something for us to do. I wanted to please him, wanted to help more so he wasn’t so tired at the end of the day, so I tried my best and I did learn and get better. But the quiet and easiness of our previous relationship was gone and it wasn’t until we saw the helicopter that I realized that it had actually been gone for weeks.

We heard it before we saw it. It was flying straight across the valley and I was so excited that I ran out into the open to get a better look. Something hit me from behind, sending me into the snow and then we were rolling into the underbrush.

“Donovan! What on earth are … !” A snowy gloved hand cut me off and I could see he was furious.

It wasn’t until the helicopter had been gone thirty minutes that he let me up out of the snow and brush and gave me the tongue lashing he’d obviously been holding back.

“Have … you … learned … nothing?!”

“But … but … What are you talking about?! That was a helicopter!! A helicopter for Pete’s Sake! It’s the first sign of other people that we’ve seen in months! And it’s incredible! People somewhere have to be doing OK if they have helicopters!”

Exasperated at me Donovan shouted back, “What people? Where do they come from? Where were they heading? What’s their mission? Are they looking for survivors or are they looking for stuff?”

“How should I know?! But … there are people! Other people!!”

“Emma, think! Use that thing up there for something other than driving me crazy!!” Well that didn’t make me any calmer but when he grabbed me and crushed me to him I knew he wasn’t doing whatever he was doing to hurt me.

“OK … so explain to me how big an idiot that I’m being ‘cause I’m not seeing it. This isn’t some weird guy thing is it?”

Calmer, we walked back home but by a route that kept us in the densest areas of the trees. There wasn’t any breath left to talk, Donovan had us moving at a pretty good pace, but even had we been slower the cold kept speech to a minimum or nonexistent. In fact, to keep from wasting breath and frosting over our face protection any more than necessary, we’d developed hand signals. The signals were a combination of motions developed by Donovan and some ASL signs from a class I had taken as my foreign language component for my college degree.

The hand signals came in very handy. For instance, while we were walking home he signaled me “no talking” and “fast silent” which basically meant “shut up and travel fast but as quietly as possible.” He stopped me when we got to the clearing between us and the entrance to the cave. We knelt and he motioned me to stay and not move until he signaled for me. He got as close as he could before breaking cover and then ran to the entrance of the cave and … well, basically he was checking things out to see if someone had been there. He finally signaled me to come on.

He pulled me into the outer cave, assessed the wood pile to see if we needed more than secured the door and we walked into the living area and he secured that door as well before he uttered a sound. “Emma, don’t ever, ever do that again.”

“Like I said Donovan, clue me in. I understand I did something wrong but what …”

“Wrong?! Emma … argh!” He grabbed me by my shoulders and pushed me to the sofa with force but he wasn’t trying to hurt or scare me. “Emma, we had no idea who those people were. I didn’t even get a good enough look to see what country they were from.”

“Of course they were our people … oh … oh, this is like that … oh.”

“Yes, oh.”

One of the things that Donovan and I had talked about was the eventual need to hook up with other people. Neither one of us seemed to relish the idea of being Adam and Eve. We wanted to create a home for ourselves but we didn’t want to be solely responsible for repopulating the entire world and messing things up even more than the original man and woman had. In the process we had discussed different scenarios of what the world was going to be like in the coming years.

The scenarios ran the gamut from an unlikely utopia because human beings had finally taken all of their past mistakes to heart and reformed to the other extreme of something that would have made Mad Maxx cringe. One particular scenario involved the issue of foreign powers coming into the US in search of resources and assets. I thought it was a little farfetched but Donovan said that once upon the time UN Peacekeepers had been a farfetched idea.

“Emma, I’m not against … investigating … if the helicopter ever comes back. My guess is they were checking out Ft. Campbell – or were from Ft. Campbell. That was the general direction they were coming from this time. But where were they going? And who were they? You have got to think girl. What would have happened if they had seen you, come back, and simply taken you … or worse?”

“I wouldn’t let them take me … and what do you mean … oh … well, you’ve taught me … to … um, protect myself. That is what all those hand-to-hand combat exercises have been right? Even before we left the bunker, right?”

“Hypothetical situations. Yes, I’ve been trying to … @#$%&! Emma, what happens to you if something happens to me?! What if I’m not here? You’ve got to start thinking!”

“What do you mean if you aren’t here? Of course you’ll be here. We’ll be here. Together. We’ll …”

“Emma … Honey …,” then he stopped and sighed. “Accidents happen Emma; I shouldn’t have to tell you that. Look at what happened to your parents. There are no hospitals or doctors out here. What if one of us gets sick? The same problem girl … we can only do so much for each other. If something were to happen to me I have to know that you aren’t just going to curl up and give up. Do you hear me? I have to be able to trust you on this.”

He’d hit a nerve I’d forgotten I had. The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Of course I had known it was possible. Of course I had subliminally gotten the message he was sending. Contrary to the way I sometimes act, I am not stupid. But he’d also angered me and I grabbed a throw pillow and squeezed it tight in my hands.

“No … no I’m not just going to curl up and give up as you so aptly put it. But I swear Donovan, if you don’t do everything you can to stay with me I’ll make sure we’re the first case of the living haunting the dead. You got that you Neanderthal?!” And then I got in two good hits with the pillow before we started wrestling around and … well, never mind, let’s just say that dinner was late as we were both too wound up with emotions to focus on much besides the immediate need for physical contact.

The next two weeks were filled with lots and lots of training. I felt like a new recruit in Donovan’s army. I had a hard time understanding why Donovan was so hyper about it all of a sudden but since it was important to him it became important to me. I knew he only had my best interests at heart and the praise he gave me at nights went a long way towards healing any hurts or humiliations that I had felt during the days. Looking back I can only appreciate everything he did but at the same time … at the same time … I almost wish …

After about two weeks of training Donovan agreed that we both deserved a break. We had a weird sort of picnic in a little area that never got much wind because of the way the granite boulders and the large tree trunks encircled it. After a lunch that cooled too quickly as we took turns eating it out of a thermos I asked, “All of this training … will it do any good when the people come back?”

To my surprise Donovan snapped, “Is that all you ever think about? You can’t wait for those people to come back so you can get away. Well, I’ll just light a signal fire next time and good riddance.”

Now Donovan could have his moods but even for him that was extreme. “Excuse me?! Where did that come from? All I did was ask …”

“Yeah, yeah. You haven’t ever been satisfied with the cave or …”

“Donovan, did we switch bodies or something because you sound just like I imagine I did not that long ago. I didn’t say a single thing about escaping from here. I sure as heck didn’t … and where would we go anyway? There’s no saying that they are really any better off than we are here and …”

“Don’t make fun of …”

I couldn’t help it. It was just too weird. I couldn’t finish a sentence and he wouldn’t. I picked up a wad of snow and let go and hit him square in the face with it. “Listen you Neanderthal, don’t put words in my mouth and for Pete’s Sake speak in something besides man riddles. You know I don’t get …”

Suddenly we were rolling around in the snow and I’m still not sure if it was a for real fight or just both of us blowing off some stress in a wrestling contest like a couple of juvenile delinquents. Then he accidentally on purpose hit one of my worst ticklish spots and the battle was on because I knew where he was ticklish too. The “battle” wound up turning into something not really suited to the temperature nor the environment.

“Donovan, what just happened?” I said between chattering teeth while I tried to put things back where they belonged. All I got in return is a raised eyebrow and wicked look. “Not that you big goof, the rest of it; what was all of that about? I still don’t get it.”

After a deep sigh and a groan at my seeming obtuseness he said, “Emma, I know you want to get back to civilization but do you have to talk about it all the time?”

“Hey! I don’t talk about it all the time. I never even called it … whatever it is supposed to be … civilization. I just don’t see what is so bad about finding out what is going on with other people.”

“You want to hook up with them and … and …”

“And what? You said yourself we will eventually need to for trade and news. How is it going to hurt us to find out if the helicopter people might be our friends, maybe from another bunker or something.”

In a voice heavy with sarcasm he said, “And you had such a great time at the bunker.”

That gave me pause. “OK, so I wasn’t real thrilled with my social status or being tricked to get me there. I sure as heck didn’t approve of the brood mare mentality that some of the other Levels seemed to regard us with. But some of the people were OK. I mean, look at us.”

“Yeah, look at us. The only reason we are together is because we were forced into it.”

That was like a cold slap in the face, especially after what we had just shared. I’d gotten over my crybaby phase, or at least I thought I had but when he said that something inside me curled up on itself and felt like it was withering. I got up and started gathering kindling to take back to the cave.

“I’m sorry you feel like that Donovan,” I said in what I hoped was a mature and even tone of voice. The last thing I wanted him to know at that point was just how much power he had over me and my emotions.

“Emma …”

I needed to stay in control because I knew if I lost it he would see just how much I had come to depend on him in ways that went way beyond simple physical comfort.

“I’ve got to get back and get those chores done before the next storm or it may be who knows how long before we have clean clothes and bedding. Can you bring the thermos while I carry this wood?”

“Emma … I … That didn’t come out …”

“Forget it Donovan. We’re both just tired. Let’s get going. There were some things you said you wanted to get done too.”

I thought I did pretty good about not crying … ok, let’s be honest, not letting him see me cry. I didn’t pout. I didn’t get cranky or snappy or anything else. I was trying to do the mature thing of just accepting it. It still hurt but at least I had my self respect, cold comfort though that was. The dogs knew something was off; they would come and lean against my legs until I would bend down and scratch their heads.

I even managed to eat dinner though it tasted like ashes in my mouth. Afterwards I sewed up a rip in some t-shirts and then went to bed without complaint when he put out the solar lamp and banked the fire. I was so tired out from trying to be mature that I fell into a half sleep almost immediately.

I don’t know what time it was but I woke up to Donovan nudging me. “Emma … Emma … Are you awake?”

Exhausted I yawned, “I am now. Why are you whispering?”

“In case you were asleep.”

I thought, “That’s the Neanderthal that I know and love.” Then the memory of what he said came slamming back in place. “Is there something you need? Did dinner make you sick? What time is it any way?”

“We need to talk.”

I rolled over and looked at him. I didn’t really see him; the only light came from the coals on the fire, but I could make out his outline. “Talk? Donovan it’s some o’clock in the morning and we have to cut wood as soon as we get up and …”

“It didn’t come out the way I meant it Emma. I was just … I don’t know what I was just. But what I said wasn’t what I meant.”

I wasn’t in the mood to play coy or Miss Dippy Empty-Brain. I knew exactly what he was talking about. “Ok.

“Ok? That’s all you’re going to say?”

“How do you want me to respond? You said it came out wrong, so it came out wrong. End of story.”

He sighed with something that sounded like regret. “Don’t do this Emma. It isn’t exactly easy for me to apologize.”

As calmly as I could I said, “I didn’t ask you to apologize. Did I throw a fit? Did I act like a cry baby? Did I make any kind of fuss at all? You hate drama and you hate scenes. I was trying to be … forget it. It doesn’t matter. Let’s go to sleep. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow for both of us.”

Now he was irritated. “Don’t you care?!”

“Why are you still whispering? There isn’t anyone here but us. Well, the dogs but they don’t count. I told you, I’m fine. You’re fine. It’s over and … Hey … Ow!”

He’d tried to grab me by my shoulders but in the dark he’d pinched the meat of one of my arms and grabbed my hair with his other hand. “Don’t shut me out. I said I was sorry.”

“God Donovan, back off will you. That hurt and I hate when you grab me like that. You leave bruises. You said that you didn’t mean it the way it came out. I said fine. You are the one making the scene this time,” I said sitting up in bed and trying to rub away the ouch I knew was coming.

“Is that why?”

“Is what why? I mean why what? I mean … Geez, now I sound like an idiot on top of everything else. Donovan …,” I took a deep calming breath and said, “just spit it out already. I’m really tired and getting stupid confused.”

Even in the dark I could tell he was angry, and something else too but I wasn’t sure what. “Do you want to leave me because I’m … more physical than you are?”

I was more than a little irritated by that point. “Who said anything about me leaving you? You were the one that said the only reason we were together was because we were forced into it. And what do you mean more physical than I am anyway? Donovan, I’m going to say this one more time. I’m tired. You are driving me crazy. I’m confused. I don’t understand what you mean. And … you’re making me wonder if I ever had any of this right or figured out!” I yelled the last bit to put an exclamation point on my frustration.

“You want to leave me. You keep talking about finding other people.”

“I keep talking about us finding other people you loon. And I still fail to understand the problem with that if you want to know the truth. We might need to … I don’t know … something. Don’t you want to know what has happened in the world? By the way bucko, I don’t appreciate how shallow you think I am. What, you think just because I see some other guy I’m going to jump out of your bed and into his? Well, if you’ll think back, I waited a long time until I jumped into yours. So thanks ever so much for the character reference.”

I was getting pretty angry. It was all made even more ridiculous by the fact that when I tried to roll out of bed Donovan grabbed me again. I’d had enough. I used a couple of those moves he’d taught me, surprising him I guess because I’d actually been paying attention, and got loose faster than I had expected. I made it out of bed and was so mad I was stumbling around looking for my clothes, shoes, and I don’t remember what all. Where I planned on going I don’t rightly remember either.

I didn’t get far because Donovan had finally caught his breath and grabbed me in a bear hug. “No doing damage to the leg. I’m already going to have a good sized goose egg from your little attack. Now settle down and answer me this.” I was unceremoniously swung up in his arms and then plunked down on the sofa in front of the fire. “Don’t move. I’m going to get the fire going again.”

Since I was basically wandering around in an oversized shirt and knee-length socks I grabbed the blanket off the back of the sofa, drew my legs up, and wrapped up until the fire caught.

“So … am I sleeping with the dogs?” he asked, kneeling by the fire.

“You are so not giving me the I’m-too-cute-to-be-in-trouble routine. Because I’m so not feeling the vibe at the moment.”

He came over and sat on the floor at my feet, “I’m sleeping with the dogs.”

“You should be,” I said, nudging him with my sock-covered toes.

He tilted his head back to look at me. “But … you won’t make me?”

“On one condition,” I said, charmed despite the walls that were slowly coming down.

“And that is?” he asked, cautiously getting up onto the sofa beside me.

“Explain what is going on. This is too weird. I’m the one that gets hyper needy and makes a muck of things. Not you. You’ve already done all of this relationship stuff and know how it is supposed to work.” I wasn’t just drawing things out to make him suffer. I wanted to understand so that this could be fixed and we could move on. But part of me was hoping it wasn’t something that I had done to cause it as well.

“Hmmm,” he sighed as he got under the blanket with me. We were both chilled and sharing body warmth only made sense. “Yeah, I’ve already been through ‘all of this relationship stuff’ and gotten third degree burns from it. So … I’m carrying more baggage than I thought. Maybe if we had started this when we were around other people … but we didn’t and … and so maybe I’m a little worried that … when the time comes for us to be a couple around other people I won’t measure up. I’m not as educated as the guys you were around before and …”

“Oh Donovan. Maybe … I don’t know … I wish I could say that had things been ‘normal’ we would have still gotten together but it took the world coming to an end for me to get the chance to meet you. You were married, remember?”

“I spent a couple of years trying to forget.”

“Well, I can’t. You’re my first … for a lot of things. But you have lots of women to compare me against. I’ve had to learn to accept that … that I’m not your first, for anything. And that you probably compare me to … to, you know, all those others and that I might not measure up. Wait! No, I don’t want to know. What is in the past can stay in the past. I’ve got enough hang ups. I just mean that, I never thought that you being my first for all of that would be a problem.”

“It’s not. And this is stupid. I’m … look … those people in the helicopter make me nervous for some reason. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“Fine. But next time … I don’t know … Look, I’ve tried really hard to think before I open my mouth but if I’m still saying stuff that upsets you I need to know up front. I …”

“No, you’re doing fine. Let’s not go there.” But he was still looking at me with a troubled look in his eyes. “I don’t mean to put bruises on you Emma. I’m a rough guy, you know that, but … but that’s no excuse for … do I hurt you? Why haven’t you said anything before now?”

Not wanting to upset him anymore but feeling the need to be completely honest I told him, “Donovan, I really don’t mind that you like to get into it sometimes. The wrestling can be exciting, especially when … well, you know what I mean. Maybe I should mind, but I don’t, mostly because I trust you not to go too far and really hurt me. But the grabbing me by the arms … yeah, you sometimes bruise me and sometimes it gets scary when you are for real angry and not just growly.”

“I’ll try not to do that again. I … it’s more baggage Emma and I …”

“It’s all right Donovan, just … just tone it back a bit.”

Since then I’ve wondered just how far I would have let him go just to keep him with me. I know he really didn’t mean to hurt me. Baggage was a pretty good word for what we both brought into things. But, had Donovan been a different kind of guy, what could things have devolved into? And how many other females out there are putting up with situations that hurt just to have a protector for themselves or their children? How many people, both male and female, are letting their personal issues become physical issues? How bleak could the future get?

But Donovan and I at that moment seemed to have reached some kind of new level of understanding. The next two days were tentative for both of us but still good. It could have been my imagination but even the dogs seemed to notice. The calm we felt translated to them and they were calmer as well, even when we took them outside for longer than usual.

We saw the helicopter again shortly after that. It used the same flight path it had before. We had just started to come out of the tree line when it returned and circled the area twice before flying off.

“That … was …” Donovan trailed off.

“Was what?” I asked when he never finished his statement.

“Hm? Oh … the same flight path as before confirms two fixed points that they are flying between. But what was it that caught their attention enough that they broken and flew this area specifically? Heat signature? I doubt it was anything visual, they were flying too fast. We have fresh snow and we entered the woods at a point they weren’t … the cave wasn’t in their … @#$% … @#$% … @#$% !!!”

“What?!”

“The transport,” he ground out, the breath leaving his mouth and curling up like smoke from brimstone.

“It’s hidden, or at least what is left of it is. It’s nothing but scrap,” I reminded him.

“Right. And it’s probably nothing we dismantled and brought into the cave. The thickness of the rock walls would stop a signal.”

I shuddered having to suck in too much cold air to give my blood the oxygen it craved as I all but ran through the woods to keep up with Donovan’s ground eating strides. “Donovan slow down! What signal?”

Donovan eventually slowed down, but not much. I didn’t catch up until we reached the now snow covered pile of rocks and trees that hid what was left of the transport. I watched as Donovan scanned the sky and then looked at the mess before us with narrowed eyes.

“Yeah. This has to be it. This was pretty much dead center of where they were circling.”

I finally could talk without gasping. “Are you saying that something here gave this away?”

“Think Emma. It’s metal … cold metal … so even assuming they have the capability there wouldn’t be a heat signature. Visually there is nothing that differentiates this pile of debris from any of the other piles of debris in the forest. So …”

“Some kind of signal,” I responded trying to suspend my skepticism and see it his way.

“So it would appear. I disabled the locator beacon and its back up when we were dismantling the transport. There must be another redundancy I didn’t find.”

“How? We went over it with a fine tooth comb before we buried it. We took all of the upholstery and just about everything else that wasn’t welded to the frame.”

“Emma, are you sure you …”

“Donovan, both of us did. We went over it three or four times to make sure nothing potentially useful was wasted.”

“Then … inside a welded seam maybe. Only one way to find out.”

We spent the rest of the day digging into the pile and then going over the vehicle’s remains and found nothing. Undaunted, Donovan had us return again in the morning and it was at the point even Donovan was ready to give up that we found the small transponder behind a welded plate. But even after finding it we weren’t positive that truly was what had caught the helicopter people’s attention because the little gizmo had a crack in it and the wire running to the small battery was only attached by a few strands; the soldering had come loose.

Donovan handed me the transponder to look at and when it slipped from my gloved hand to fall to the ground we both looked down at it and then at each other. He bent to pick it up but I stepped forward and kissed him bold as brass, distracting his attention. When we finally broke apart I looked into his eyes, grinned a little guiltily and said, “Oops.”

“Oops?” Donovan asked suspiciously.

I pointed down and moved my boot to reveal that the remains of the transponder resembled little more than a pile of ground up bits and pieces.

Donovan’s eyes widened a little before shuttering, “Emma …”

“Eventually we’ll need to hook up with other people. But when we do, we’ll do it carefully and on our own terms.” I said using some of his words and adding a few of my own to make the point.

Still reserved Donovan asked, “You’re sure?”

“As sure as I’ve ever been. I trust you. We’re a team. If something about these helicopter people feels hinky, then so be it. We have each other and that’s enough.”

I don’t regret saying what I did but the words have haunted me, echoing in every corner of my head whether I am awake or asleep. But even with that, the look on Donovan’s face when I said it still can drive the cold and shadows away with its warmth. The heat in his smile … well, the romantic in me suspects that’s when it happened, not that I knew it then or even had been thinking along those lines.

The following week is almost idyllic in my memory though not idyllic in the traditional sense. Things were just near perfect to our needs; personally and physically.

The “warm” weather held and the snow melted in places it had never melted since we’d arrived. I actually did our laundry outside one day and the sun dried them before they froze stiff. Donovan and I went hunting and instead of the elk we had planned on he got a lucky shot and brought down a buffalo.

As we processed the beast Donovan commented, “This animal has been feeding well on something.”

“Maybe there is some grass growing through the snow someplace nearby?”

“More than likely a silo has overturned or they’ve found hay bales. There might even be dried crops under the snow. Buffalo get better nutritional value from their food than other cattle do. Be nice to know where it is coming from though and see if we could put it to any use.”

The buffalo yielded nearly 475 pounds of meat. We had steaks for dinner three days running. I even made gravy from the pan drippings and put it over some dried kibble for the dogs. The only thing I really missed was fresh greens. Donovan agreed and mentioned, “I miss the rabbit food now and again myself. I think I’ve got a plan to fix that for you.”

He took me into a side chamber to the big cave and showed me a surprise. “When I was spelunking around down here I found this room only needed a little cleaning to make it useful. I’m guessing that somebody in the family might have had a little side business growing an alternative botanical item,” he said with a wink. “These are the kind of grow lights you find in those closet operations. The ground is thawed enough in a few places that I managed to scrape a decent amount of topsoil and added some of that compost you’ve been working on and put it into these wooden boxes I built.”

Fiddling with the lamps he continued, “We’ll have two power options to light these up. First is solar but depending on the weather that isn’t going to be as reliable as we need. So I also built this bicycle generator. The mirrors I’ve mounted there and there should help to magnify the light. We can plant those seeds we found and hopefully at least a few of them will germinate. We may not be able to eat the first crop because they’ll need to go to seed but eventually …”

Eventually. There is always a lot of that to go around … eventually there will be enough seeds … eventually the projects will get completed … eventually it may warm up again … eventually there will be other people to talk to. There are days when I wonder if eventually will ever get here … and when it does will it all have been worth it. But that night we celebrated in our own fashion and in Donovan’s words had a good ol’ time doing it. It was the pinnacle of a wonderful week. And it made what happened the next day even more devastating if possible.

We’d gone down near the river to check things out and to do a little training. The river was a roaring mess in the middle where it was running mean and fast, the current eating away at the thick ice that went all the way to the clay-filled banks on both sides of the bend. An unusually strong gust of wind snatched Donovan’s hat from his head. It didn’t go far, only out onto the ice about four feet. He told me to stay on land and he grabbed a limb and stepped out to snag the hat.

It was like a slow motion reenactment. A large tree being tumbled down river disappeared under the water and then suddenly exploded through a previously solid sheet of ice. Shards and chunks of debris flew everywhere. Donovan, who had just gotten his hat in hand, stumbled when a large chunk of ice came down almost on top of him. The ice he was standing on cracked and he fell sideways hard. Even over the noise I could hear the pop and his groan of pain.

Ice was beginning to crack and sing all along the banks of the bend in the river. I saw the piece that Donovan lay on begin to tip the same time he felt it. He rolled backwards toward the bank but he still went in. I slid down the bank and grabbed him as he popped up with a gasp. I was able to drag him to shore but he was soaked through and I was wet from the knees down. I hugged him to me, grateful beyond words.

Donovan pushed me away and groaned, “My … my leg Emma. We need … need to …”

“Lean on me. Or should I build one of those travois thingies?”

That’s when we heard a rumble.

Looking over my shoulder I saw Donovan’s already pale face go completely white. “Holy … Go Emma! Go! Go! Go!!”

I can still see it like it was just this morning. Can still feel the rumble through my boots as I hauled Donovan up the bank. It was a stampede. I wasn’t thinking clearly, still strung out from the dunk in the river. Looking back I have no idea where I got the strength. Donovan’s size should have made it impossible but somehow I managed to get us to an outcropping of granite and we hunkered behind it.

Then the animals were on top of us and all we could do was cower. I was praying but I don’t remember what I was asking for. I was just calling out. Suddenly one of the animals skidded down beside us and I got to see what the inside of a buffalo’s skull looked like up close and personal as a big chunk seemed to be missing. Then we saw another go down some fifty feet in front of us right before the helicopter flew above our heads chasing the stampeding herd.

As the last animal ran passed Donovan gasped, “We’ve got to get to some cover. Back to the cave somehow. Into the tree line first.”

But when I tried to help him up he gave a silent scream and nearly fainted. I looked down and saw to my horror that the “pop” that I’d heard when he went down was a compound fracture of his shin. While he was still out of it I grabbed him under his arms and drug him into the trees. I stabilized the leg but knew there was no way that I was going to be able to drag him all the way home that way.

I said a prayer of thanks that we were still in one piece and had left the dogs at the cave but then cursed in frustration when I didn’t see any likely small pine or cedar saplings that were useable for a travois. There were a couple of dry hardwoods saplings but my machete wasn’t cutting them and Donovan had lost his ax off his belt in the river.

I took out the emergency blanket that I kept and the one in his pack too and used them to try and stave off shock and hypothermia, roused him just enough to tell him I’d be back as quickly as I could, kissed his forehead and then took off at a run.

I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that before or since. I made it to the cave, all but had to kick the dogs to keep them from getting in my way and then ran back outside … only to be slapped in the face by a hard, cold wind. The kind of wind that presaged a bad storm. Listening, I could hear the crackle of electricity high above me in the gray and rolling clouds. I panicked a bit when I realized the first flakes were already blowing on the wind. I had made the run in thirty minutes but I knew the storm would be on us before I could get back to Donovan.

I took off, throwing caution to the wind, praying that what I had in the pack would see us safe and back home before it reached white out conditions. The wind, blowing against me as it did, added fifteen minutes to my time getting back to Donovan and when I did … there was no Donovan.

I searched the area in vain. When I looked down I knew I was in the right location because of the pink I saw there … blood mixed with snow. There was no way that in his condition Donovan could have wandered off. One there was too much blood and two … well, he wouldn’t have willingly left me. I may not know much but I trust that is a rock solid fact.

Then I thought to look for the buffalo by the outcrop and it was gone as well. I cursed myself for a fool and realized I hadn’t covered the tracks we had made when I had “hidden” Donovan in the forest. I’ll rot for that to the end of my days.

He’s gone. Alive? I don’t know. He was badly hurt, in shock, and had lost a lot of blood. The helicopter people took him … I think. I’m not sure. All I know is that he is gone and it’s been four months and if he’d been able to come back he would have. I know he would have. Of that there is no doubt. He promised he’d never betray me and leaving me when I needed him most would have been a major betrayal.

I barely remember, much less understand, how I made it back to the cave. It’s like I could hear Donovan’s voice ringing in my ear to keep my inner drama queen under control and do what he’d been teaching me all these months. The dogs helped me to get my boots and socks off and we all curled together in the bed for warmth. It was their needs rather than my own that kept me going during the week long blizzard. And during the blizzards that continued to come after that. It seems it had been nothing more than an “Indian Summer” that had warmed the earth … just long enough to remind us what it used to feel like before Impact Day.

It was a month before I really awoke to myself and another one before I could pass a day without crying several times. I learned that talking to yourself is sometimes the only thing that keeps you sane. I learned to downsize my cooking to feed only one … and two growing dogs. In three I’d finally come to accept my situation and was strong enough to do most of what Donovan had done for me in the past without collapsing in exhaustion mid way through the evening meal.

And then I started getting sick. I thought it was the food, but the dogs weren’t sick. I thought it was just depression and loneliness, both of which I was all but wallowing in. When I realized I was only sick in the mornings I put it down to stress and not sleeping properly … for a while anyway. But then I looked at the calendar and the most amazing thing happened.

What should scare me spitless is just about the only thing that is giving me the will to live. I have purpose again. I know that, God willing, my loneliness will come to an end in about six months. I can stand it that long … I think. And sometimes, when I let myself, I imagine what Donovan would think and what he would say, and I treasure those imaginings up because it will be just about the only thing I’ll have to give his child.