Aleea Davidson’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: Wither Part 12
Glen stood at the kitchen sink watching a thin trickle of water sluice away the dirt from his hands. A little blood from a nick at the base of his thumb added a rust coloured hue to the swirl of liquid being sucked down into the drain’s slurping maw. His shoulders and arms ached, muscles unused to swinging an axe already protesting the abuse. He flexed them gently, testing for sensitivity, wondering just how sore he’d be tomorrow. He decided he’d do; no real harm done.
A good thing, too, considering the other worries taking precedent in his thoughts. He added a touch of soap to his ministrations, ignoring the burn it ignited in his cut, and focused on the concern most present in his mind. Water. Right now the toilets still flushed. Turn the taps on and a healthy gush of the stuff readily flowed. It was clear and clean, but he knew, like the electricity that grew more sporadic and unreliable by the day, that couldn’t last.
He glanced around the tidy kitchen with its homely collection of mismatched oven mitts and a tea-pot comically shaped like a rooster, and mentally ran through everything he knew about the town’s water treatment plant. It didn’t take long. His knowledge was sadly basic; not that it mattered. It wasn’t as if he could drive out and run the filtration systems all by himself…
“Are you okay?”
Glen looked up, startled from his thoughts. Mara had a tendency to move silently, and it wasn’t the first time she’d caught him unaware. She stood in the doorway, a vivid red apron covering her gray sweater and faded jeans. Her hair was twisted up into a messy ponytail, flyaway tendrils skimming her high cheekbones and gracing the arch of her elegant neck. An animalistic, all-too-male urge to dig his fingers under the elastic, yank it free and inhale the scent of her shampoo while he laid her down on the linoleum, hit him like a sucker punch.
He cleared his throat unnecessarily and averted his gaze to the kettle, taking note of the absurd way a small puff of steam escaped the beak.
“We should start boiling all the water we use for cooking and drinking,” he said, tipping his chin in the direction of the rooster. “I think it’s free from contaminants right now, but who knows if anyone is still working at the treatment plant? Or how long the system will hold up...”
“Glen, you’re bleeding.” Mara came to him, reaching for the hand he was drying with the dish towel she’d left out. He looked down, surprised to see splotches nearly the same colour as her apron soaking the striped cotton.
“Shit,” he muttered, pulling the towel away and inspecting the slice in the meaty pad of his thumb. The process of washing had evidently opened the wound. “I wrecked your towel, Mara, sorry.”
She made a fizzing, snorting kind of noise, oddly delicate and endearing considering the emotion of impatience and disdain it clearly meant to convey. “It’s only an old cloth, Glen. Here.” She picked the towel back up and took his hand in hers. Her fingers were too cool and smooth to account for the warmth he felt where her skin touched his. Pressing the fabric tightly to the wound, she looked up at him, pretty eyes tired in appearance.
“I’ve been boiling the water for a while now,” she admitted, jerking her chin toward the large plastic jug with the side spigot she filled daily and kept on the counter within easy reach for the boys. She shrugged. “I figured better safe than sorry, you know?”
Glen nodded, not surprised by her admission, only surprised by the lack of attention on his part that caused him to miss the fact. In the six weeks he’d been here, he’d learned Mara was resilient and smart. And when it came to her brothers, she was protective and determined. It made sense she’d err on the side of caution.
The electricity flickered, went out, then came back on. They both stared at the overhead light fixture, as if they could keep it on by sheer force of will. Daylight was only an hour away, but with the windows covered in thick sheets of plywood, the interior of the house became oppressive and claustrophobic. Sparse candlelight and the weak glow of oil lamps turned low did little to push back darkness that thick.
When it appeared they were going to be granted a temporary respite, Glen gently pulled his hand away. He thought he caught a flicker of longing in Mara’s expression as she watched him tend to the cut on his own, as if she liked touching him as much as he liked it.
“I have some Band-Aids and a first aid kit upstairs,” she said.
“It’s fine. It’s stopped bleeding.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be a hero. I might even have a few superman ones left.” Her lips quirked in a smile that made his chest hurt. The humour was forced, but the way it lit her somber expression crept right under his diaphragm and made it difficult to breathe. When she turned, he caught her arm.
“Stay. We need to talk.”
She went still, yet didn’t turn around to face him. Her sweater was soft, her arm and back stiff.
“Are you leaving?” she asked.
She spun, whirling on him, apron flaring, eyes seeming to spark. Paler than before, he realized she seemed angry.
“Leaving,” she reiterated sharply. “Are you leaving?”
He frowned. “Who said anything about leaving?”
“It’s been six weeks. No one has come looking for you. Neither of us have seen anything suspicious during our trips out. If the government men were looking for you, they’ve probably given up by now. Nothing is holding you here.” She waved a hand around, agitated. He noticed a smattering of dried black and orange paint on her wrist, cracking and flaking off with every jerk.
“Do you want me to leave?” he asked. Between her sudden mood change and disconcerting question, he was having a hard time grasping the thread of her meaning. It didn’t help that he was suddenly wondering what the hell she could’ve been painting with orange and black paint.
“Of course not!” she snapped. “I’m not going to stop you though. If you want to go, go.” She crossed her arms beneath her breasts. Breasts he tried valiantly not to notice and failed.
“You don’t owe us anything. We’ll be just fine without you. I can take care of myself and the boys just fine, in case you haven’t noticed. I was doing it before you came into the picture. I’ll keep doing it after you leave, too.”
Frowning, Glen felt a sudden jolt of irrational irritation because everything she said was true. Since he’d been here, he’d witnessed how strong she was. The shelves crammed with non-perishable food and necessities she’d scavenged for and stockpiled were proof if he needed. Not to mention the blankets, and firewood, and even a small supply of medicines—antibiotics, pain-killers, first aid supplies.
In truth, he felt nearly useless in the face of her self sufficiency, resorting to acting out the position of handyman in order to feel like he was earning his keep.
“I don’t get where this is coming from,” he said, and it was the truth. “I’m not here because I think I owe you anything, Mara. I’m here as your friend, and because you asked me to stay. I don’t think the government men are still looking for me, at least not actively, there aren’t enough of them left to hang around for long, but I’m not exactly eager to go back to where I was staying before and possibly put myself back on their radar, either.”
Mara dropped her arms and rubbed at her face.
Aware of Jeremy and Teddy in the other room arguing amicably over a board game, Glen lowered his voice and took a step closer to her. “Hey,” he said gently. “If you want me to go, I will. But I don’t think that’s what this is about. Talk to me.” He dared to reach out and pry her hands away from her face. He half expected tears, instead, she stared at him crossly.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said with a sigh. “I’m scared. The fires. I’ve been trying to think all day about what I can do, where I can take the boys if those fires burn this way. How I cant take them. It’s made me realize that I’ve invested all this time believing we could...I don’t know...hunker down here. Wait this out. Like a cure is around the corner. Only, I’m beginning to realize how naive and stupid that is.”
“There’s nothing stupid about you, Mara.”
She shook her head. “The Grant’s are all dead.” At his blank expression, she explained. “Remember? I told you about them when you first came here with me. They live one block over. I grew up with their daughters.”
“The white house with the big porch.”
She nodded, relaxing a bit, like the fact he remembered mattered to her on some fundamental level he hadn’t yet grasped.
“You said the daughter’s were gone, but they still had a son,” he prompted.
He noticed her hands felt colder. He let go of them and turned to grab the rooster kettle, grateful the water inside remained hot, though he felt kind of silly holding it. She had a mug on the counter with a tea bag inside. He doubted there was much tea left in the soggy little satchel of leaves, but he poured water over it anyway, then lead her to the table, urging her to sit. She wrapped her fingers around the cup, thanking him.
The way her shoulders hunched in made him feel helpless. If Mara was his wife, he would have filled her head with platitudes and outright lies that everything would be fine. She wasn’t though. She didn’t want or need him to sugar coat the situation they found themselves in. It didn’t hurt him to admit Mara was stronger than Jen, a whole different breed of woman.
He watched Mara suck in a deep breath, girding herself perhaps. “I went there yesterday. When you were sleeping.” She took a sip of her tea, no hint of apology in her tone or demeanour. She was independent to a fault. He scowled, prepared to point out the error of her actions. She didn’t let him. “Let me finish, then you can tell me I shouldn’t have.”
He didn’t want to find her cute, so he bit his tongue to stave off a smile and nodded.
“They have several apple trees in their yard. I thought maybe they wouldn’t mind if I took some, if there were any left. They don’t know I’m UV Tolerant so I was being careful.” She closed her eyes momentarily and swallowed. He thought she appeared paler.
“I walked around the house, and when I got to the back I found them in the garden, under one of the trees. All three of them.” She picked up her mug, and her hands shook, sloshing weak tea over the rim. “They’d set out a blanket and a picnic basket. A bottle of wine and a bottle of Pepsi. There were G.I. Joe action figures and a package of Hostess cupcakes.” She set the mug down and covered her mouth. She didn’t cry, but he could see the horror and sadness she was trying to repress.
“They did it on purpose,” he said for her, knowing the truth of it before she nodded weakly. “They went outside, set up a picnic, and let the sun poison them.”
Mara stood up, shoving back her chair, and carried her mug to the sink to dump the tea she couldn’t stomach. Glen watched her lean against the counter, like her knees were weak. His didn’t feel any better, and he was grateful for the chair under his ass.
“I’m sorry you saw that,” he said, hating that was the best he could think to say. He’d seen it himself more times than he wanted to think about. A lot of people were giving up.
“I’ve thought about it,” she said, her voice pitched so low he barely heard her. He rose from the table and moved behind her, reaching out for to take her shoulders, torn between shaking her and holding her.
“Don’t do that.”
“I can’t help it. I’ve thought about it, even before I saw them. How easy it would be to give up. To take the boys outside and let them play and how it might be better, easier than this. I thought about it again today. I was painting pictures of jack-o-lanterns with the boys because they probably won’t have pumpkins to carve this Halloween, and I thought about it!” She turned around and stared at him. “I’m terrified, Glen. I don’t know what to do.”
“We’ll figure it out,” he said.
She shook her head.
Something in Glen gave in at that moment. He allowed himself to cup her face. “Look at me,” he told her. “You’re not alone in this, Mara. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”
She blinked, and he could see the weariness she fought, the loneliness.
“Why?” she asked.
He grinned and dropped his forehead to hers. “Haven’t you figured it out yet?” he asked. She shook her head. “I have a thing for brave, strong women with ridiculous rooster kettles.”
Then he kissed her. For real this time.
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Aleea lives in her imagination most of the time. It's an interesting place to be... Occasionally she can be coaxed out to chat on Twitter, though she finds it akin to torture to stick to that absurd 140 character limit. (@Aleeab4u)