Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Chapter Six

In spite of the pain, Donovan managed to doze off. Amalia woke him for lunch and gave him a plate of tortillas, beans, and squash. She also brought him a glass of water and a cup containing an herbal concoction. She helped him sit, but narrowed her eyes in suspicion when he gasped in raw pain as the bed tray grazed his thigh.

"It's worse." It was a statement, not a question. "I'll do what I can, but I have no experience with infections. I'll just be guessing."

"It'll be okay," Donovan said, as much to reassure himself as her.

"I suppose I could go to the Petersons and see if they could spare someone to find Carina. They have a granddaughter who's a sensible sort and could ride out to the reservation. Or maybe one of them could come here while I go."

"It's probably just one of those things that gets worse before it gets better."

"Well, you won't get better without food, so eat and be sure to drink everything in both those glasses." Her tone was short, almost angry. "I have to go irrigate one of the fields. It's pretty far from the house, so if there's anything you need, ask for it now."

Donovan shook his head.

"I'll be back in about an hour to dose you again with whatever I can find that makes sense. We'll do that every hour. Maybe by tonight I'll have a better idea what to do if we don't like what we see."

* * *

By dinner time Donovan was feverish and had no appetite. "Eat it anyway," Amalia insisted as he stirred his soup with a complete lack of interest. "I killed a chicken to make that for you, so you're going to eat it, even if I have to force it down your throat."

Even in his fevered state Donovan could make out a hint of real worry underneath her tough attitude, but he had lost all craving for food and it was only the vague understanding that Amalia had done a remarkable thing in killing one of their precious chickens that made him finish the bowl.

"You better keep it down," Amalia said, as she took the empty dishes away. She handed him a glass. "I added something to help you sleep this time."

"What about the bandages? Shouldn't we. . ."

"No. Carina always says it's not good to go changing them all the time." She ran a hand over Donovan's bandaged shoulder, then his leg. She tried to keep her expression neutral, but the nervous working of her jaw gave her away. "You still feel warm. If this doesn't look okay in the morning. . ."

"What will we do?" Donovan handed back the glass and lay back against the pillows, feeling dizzy.

Amalia's long silence spoke volumes. "Something." She left and returned a few minutes later with a heavy blanket. "Mother used to believe that heat would help break a fever." She tucked the thick folds around him. "If it becomes unbearable, push it off, but try to put up with it."

Donovan mumbled something noncommittal. Amalia had dosed his tea well. She left the room and he soon fell into fevered dreams.

* * *

He dreamed he was in the city again, back in the big brick house, once a mansion, once a high-priced architect's office, now the squalid home of the Malthusian Exiles. They were a gang that had its start as a band of impoverished university students who were unwanted by the military draft and too poor to continue their studies or buy tickets home. The gang's character had changed over the years and by the time Donovan joined, it was just a ragged collection of moonshine distillers and drug dealers. Everyone in the city knew the Malthusians dealt in illegal substances, but the Guard and what few city cops still worked a beat had bigger things to worry about and generally left them alone.

In his dream, the large rambling house was much as he remembered it: dark, dirty, with odd bits of old finery, such as a stained glass window and a mahogany dining table. Strangely, he dreamed there was a painting of flowers hanging in a common room. Somehow Donovan knew that the painting had once been considered valuable. As he wandered from room to room, stepping over the bodies of people sleeping off the effects of home-brewed liquor and smuggled heroin, he realized the entire house was decorated in such paintings— pictures of fruit, pictures of women in long dresses, and pictures of horses jumping over hedges. Suddenly his sister was at his side, gesturing in annoyance at the paintings and complaining that they didn't help anyone. Then they were standing in a room with charred and blackened walls, the ceiling gone and open to the sky. Somehow he knew that the fire had been his fault. His sister slapped him. "You burn the house down and steal nothing but pretty pictures. What good are you?" Now Donovan remembered that it was he who had stolen the paintings and hung them in the hallways. He told his sister he would steal something good, something they could eat, but she slapped him again. "It's too late. You'll only join the Guard and burn the house down again, after robbing us blind." When he looked around again, he was wearing his Guard uniform and standing on the mahogany table, surrounded by flames.

He opened his eyes, drenched in sweat, and shoved the blanket to the floor.

The next morning, Amalia came in with her medical tray to find Donovan nearly incoherent with fever. She could barely keep him still while she cut away the bandage on his swollen leg. What she saw when she removed the putrid bandage made her gasp. She hurried away and when she returned she was carrying a bottle and a piece of cotton cloth. "I'm sorry," she said, as she wet the cloth and pressed it over his nose and mouth. "Breathe. I'm sorry, but you have to breathe." Donovan gasped against the damp cloth and shuddered, then lay still.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Chapter Five

Donovan was awakened the next morning by Amalia bringing him his breakfast. She helped him sit up and set a tray of scrambled eggs with goat cheese and a side of baked beans in front of him. Then she handed him a cup of herbal tea and a glass of orange liquid with an attitude that was not exactly surly, but was not particularly friendly, either. "Carina can't be here this morning. She had to go look at a horse on the reservation."

Donovan tried to conceal his disappointment. "That's good, isn't it? It means she'll make a trade, right?"

"Maybe." Amalia opened the curtains. Meanwhile the tabby cat slunk into the room and leaped onto the bed. Donovan gave her a bit of egg.

"I wouldn't bother feeding that little beggar. Trust me, she gets enough to eat catching mice and lizards."

"It's worth sacrificing a bit of food to make a friend."

Amalia turned to leave. "No wonder you and Carina have so much to talk about. You're cut out of the same cloth."

Donovan scratched the cat's ears and pretended not to notice that Amalia had left the room. "Is it true you're just scamming me to get an easy meal?" The cat purred and butted his hand in answer. Donovan gave her another bit of egg, then finished his breakfast and set the plate aside for her to lick clean. Next he tasted the contents of the glass. The liquid was both sweet and sour, and he wasn't sure if he liked it, but a deeper part of his body seemed to crave it and before he realized, he had drained the glass. By now his tea had cooled enough to drink and he was sipping it when Amalia returned. She raised her eyebrows at the sight of the cat licking the plate and removed the dirty dishes in silence. When she returned a few minutes later, she was carrying the tray of medical supplies. "Time to have a look under those bandages," she said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Donovan didn't dare question her qualifications, and he found Amalia's hands surprisingly gentle as she removed the bandage on his shoulder. She examined the wound and seemed satisfied. "It looks a little better. I'm going to flush it with iodine again, but I won't be able to hold your hand this time.” Donovan braced himself for the pain, which mercifully didn't endure long. When she was through, Amalia daubed some ointment and tied on a fresh bandage.

When she unwrapped his leg, however, her eyes narrowed in genuine concern. "This isn't good. It's red, and it's too warm." She frowned at the swollen gash. "I think we need to open this up, wash it out and let it drain, but Carina is the one who has experience with that sort of thing and without her here. . ."

"When will she be back?"

"Tomorrow or the day after if it's a straightforward case."

"Can we get a message to her?"

"Phones out here quit working years ago. I would have to send someone, and there's no one to send." She selected a pair of small scissors from the tray of medical instruments. "I'll cut a couple of those stitches and maybe that will be enough." Before Donovan could question her judgment, she snipped two stitches open. A thick greenish pus oozed out and Amalia dabbed it with a rag soaked in iodine. "This isn't good at all."

"Should we open it the rest of the way up? I’m not afraid of it bleeding."

"Let's see how it does like this. In the meantime I'll see what I can do to boost your immune system."

Donovan watched her rub ointment onto his leg and re-bandage it. "What can I do to help today?"

Amalia stopped rolling a length of clean bandage. "I don't want you on your feet if that leg is getting worse."

"Isn't there something I could do around the house? Something that wouldn't involve a lot of standing, like fixing something?"

Amalia considered. "Think you could fix a sewing machine?"

* * *

Donovan bent over the antique treadle sewing machine, trying to understand why the needle wouldn't move. It didn't help that he had only the vaguest idea how the machine was supposed to work in the first place. But Amalia had explained what was supposed to happen when the machine worked correctly— the foot treadle turned the belt, which somehow caused the needle to move up and down. As Donovan peered at the primitive mechanics he knew it had to be a very simple problem.

Luckily Amalia had a box of spare parts. Was there anything this family hadn't hoarded? Antibiotics, apparently. Donovan resisted the urge to rub his throbbing leg. Amalia had given him an extra dose of echinacea, but from the way the leg was feeling, it didn't seem to be doing much good. As a veterinarian, maybe Carina could get some antibiotics. He hoped she would be back soon.

There it was— a tiny gear with a missing tooth. Having a strong flashlight really helped. Donovan began removing parts so he could get to the broken gear. He laid the pieces out in the order they had to be replaced, just as he had learned in the Guard. Fixing things was something he had done a lot of during his service and while it wasn't one of Donovan's natural talents, it was something he had become competent at with training.

He put the machine back together, then worked the treadle slowly with his good foot. Obligingly, the needle dipped and rose. The next step would be to try sewing a test piece, but Donovan didn't know how to sew. Using the table for support, he pulled himself to his feet and stood listening for Amalia. Hearing nothing, he picked up the walking stick she had given him, hobbled to the kitchen, and peered out the screen door toward the fields and animal pens. There was no sign of her, but that didn't mean much. She could be inside the barn or on the other side of the house. She could be at the creek, or anywhere. He couldn't wander around looking for her. Not with this bad leg. Getting out of bed had been a bad idea.

He was making his way toward his bedroom when a photograph in the hallway caught his eye. It was a family portrait of a kind Donovan had often seen amid the destruction of the homes he raided with the Guard. The man in the picture was round-faced and genial, the woman blonde and smiling in a pink dress that was too clean and fancy for any recent times. Standing between the two grownups was a tall boy in his early teens with a determined set to his jaw, and in front of their parents were two blue-eyed girls, golden hair flowing over their shoulders like melted butter. The younger girl looked a lot like the woman who had gone out on the veterinary call this morning, but it was the older girl, perhaps seven, who Donovan found more interesting. How did this chubby-cheeked girl with the radiant smile grow into the hard-eyed woman who would have just as soon shot him the other night? Donovan stared at the photo, trying to understand who his rescuers were, but the throbbing in his leg reminded him of more important matters. He needed to get off his feet.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Chapter Four

After a lunch of posole and a cup of Carina’s herbal tea, Carina set her workbasket of laundered fleece by the side of the bed and gave Donovan a demonstration of how to tease the wool for carding by pulling each lock apart and picking out stray debris. Donovan cleaned wool for half an hour before the tea, tedium and general weakness of his body caught up with him and he fell asleep. When he awoke, the sun was low in the sky and he could smell food in the kitchen. He guessed they were having posole again, but there was another smell too, that he couldn’t place. It was pleasant, and he got back to work on the wool, hoping he might finish before dinner and charm an extra portion.

He had teased all but the last three locks when Carina came to check on him. Her eyes lit up with pleasure at the sight of the fluffy cloud of wool ready for carding. "This is great. I looked in on you earlier and you were asleep, so I didn’t think you’d finish before dark."

"I'm not lazy, and I’ll be better soon. Then I can pay you back for everything you’ve done for me."

Carina gathered the cleaned wool into the workbasket. "You should be thinking about getting healthy again. Then if you think you owe us anything, we can work something out." She started toward the door.

"Aren’t you going to show me what to do with that next?"

Carina hesitated, resting the basket on her hip. "Let’s see how you’re feeling after dinner. I don’t want you doing too much, and carding might make you use that shoulder. You should rest."

"This kind of work is restful."

"I guess it is. It sure beats working out in the fields." She set the basket on the chair and started toward the kitchen. "I’ll show you how to card it after dinner. It’s something you can do without a lot of light, so it’s a good evening chore."

Dinner was posole again, but it was good, and Donovan didn’t mind. The broth was thicker than the soups he had been given at the mess hall and had plenty of hominy, vegetables and bits of chicken. He wondered where the women got such good food. Surely they didn’t grow or raise everything on their little farm, just the two of them. They must be hoarders. That was why Amalia was so suspicious of him. They probably had a stash somewhere of food, medicine, batteries and who knew what else. Maybe they even had gold. No wonder they feared the Guard. Guardsmen would take everything.

Donovan's thoughts were interrupted by Carina entering the room, accompanied by the pleasant smell he had noticed earlier. He examined the bowl she set in front of him.

"What's this?"


"These aren't like any apples I've ever seen. What did you put in them?"


"What's that?"

"A spice. It used to be very common."

So they hoarded spices. If they had a lot, they were rich. "I see," Donovan said, digging into his apples with enthusiasm.

"We trade for spices sometimes," Carina said quickly. "Being a veterinarian is a big advantage in the country."

"So there are other farms out here?"

"A few farms, a church, a small mill, a couple towns and a reservation are all within a days' travel, but we don't leave often, now that Mother is gone. I haven't been to town to trade or collect my ration books in months."

"And you can make a go of things, without your ration books?"

Carina darted a nervous glance toward the door, as if she would flee. "This time of year, when things are growing, it's not so hard. Especially if we can trade or get some work."

"What do you usually trade? When you can, of course."

"Fruits and vegetables, in season. Preserves. Goat cheese. Eggs. Alfalfa. We don't raise sheep but we trade for wool with some of our neighbors here in the valley. Then we make yarn and knit socks and sweaters to sell. If we need something that will bring in a little more money, we might trade a picture, a piece of old jewelry, some of Mom's herbal remedies or a pair of Dad's old shoes." She shrugged. "We trade what we have, like everyone else."

"I see," Donovan said again. He could tell by the way Carina was acting that they had more than she was telling. This was a good place to make friends and lie low. He flashed his most disarming smile. "This is the best dessert I've ever had. If there's any you don't know what to do with, I'll try to help you with it."

Carina took the empty bowl. "You really shouldn't have any more. I'm trying not to overtax your system, since you were without food for several days." At Donovan's pleading look, she relented. "I'll give you a little more, but that's it. And I'll bring your tea, too."

After Donovan had his second bowl of apples and a cup of tea, he felt warm and almost too full to do anything but sleep. But he had promised Carina he would work, so he let her teach him the simple task of brushing the cleaned wool between spiked wooden paddles and rolling the straightened fibers for spinning. As the sun went down and the room darkened, he heard scuffling in the other room. Carina, who had been mending a sock, jumped up. "Amalia," she called. "Let's do that in here tonight." She laid down her work and left the room.

A few minutes later, Carina was back, her sister following with a brass lamp in her hands and a book and some knitting under her arm. Amalia set these items on the nightstand while Carina pulled up a second chair. "When Amalia and I left the city and came to live out here with our parents, the family agreed that each of us could have one luxury. Amalia's choice was books."

"It's something I can share," Amalia added, switching on the electric lamp. She cast a wary eye on Donovan while Carina pulled the curtains closed.

"What did you choose, Carina?" Donovan asked, pretending that the bright electric lamp was not in any way remarkable.

Amalia answered for her. "She chose her vanity."

"No need to give me grief about it."

"But you admit it's true."

"I suppose so." She turned to Donovan. "I use my allowance for lotions, perfume and things like that, rather than always make my own. I've kept a few nice dresses instead of cutting them up for quilts or trading them in town, and I still have a bit of costume jewelry, although I only wear it for special occasions."

"Which is every holiday she can remember," Amalia said, "Plus a few she makes up."

Carina settled herself into a chair and picked up her darning. "So what? When Miles returns..."

"Yes, I know," Amalia said. "Everything is going to be wonderful when Miles comes home." Her tone was softened by the affectionate glance she cast her sister's way. She flipped open her book. "At least my indulgence can be shared."

"We're reading Robinson Crusoe," Carina said. "We hope you enjoy it."

"Tough luck if you don't." Amalia set a heavy marker on the book to hold the pages open, picked up her knitting, and began reading where she had left off the previous night. "Being glad I was alive, without the least reflection upon the distinguished goodness of the hand which had preserved me. . ."

Donovan leaned back against the pillows, carding wool mindlessly while he listened to the words.

"As soon as I saw but a prospect of living and that I should not starve and perish for hunger, all the sense of my affliction wore off; and I began to be very easy, applied myself to the works proper for my preservation and supply. . ."

The sound of her voice was soothing, the scene peaceful and luxurious beyond anything he had ever known. The comfortable bed, the bright pure light, the simple steady rhythm of easy tasks and the indulgence of being read to seemed like a dream.

"And if nothing happens without His knowledge, He knows that I am here, and am in this dreadful condition; and if nothing happens without His appointment, He has appointed all this to befall me," Amalia read.

As Donovan basked in the pleasant sweetness of his situation, he tried to keep his eyes open, but in spite of his wish to continue, the paddles slipped out of his hands. Before he could will himself awake, he was asleep.



Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chapter Three

"You gave him some of the bouillon?"

Donovan tensed under the covers. The women were in the next room and probably couldn't see him, but he kept his eyes closed and remained still, just in case.

"Well, yes," said Carina in reasonable tones. "What would you have had me do? He shouldn't have solid food yet, so I couldn't use the dried meat. Should I have killed a chicken and made soup from it instead?"

"You cure chickens, you don’t kill them," said Amalia. "It's just that it's so hard to get bouillon. There's never any in town, so we have to be careful with it."

"I think I know that as well as you do. Don't worry, he'll be on solid food soon."

"I just wish it was someone else's food he was eating."

"He'll be a big help to us when he's well. You know we can't run this place alone. It was hard enough after Dad died. And now without Mom. . .” Her voice trailed off. "And there's no telling when Miles will be discharged, so we can use the help."

"Right now he's no help at all. He's just a drain on our food resources and a lot of extra work for you."

"I don't mind."

"Of course you don't," Amalia said. "But while you're in here giving this guy alcohol rubdowns for his fever, I'm out in the fields alone."

"It won't be forever. His fever was down today and I think he can help us soon with indoor things like cleaning and carding that wool I got from the Petersons. He can sort beans for cooking, he can make corn ristras, bundle herbs for drying. . ."

Amalia mumbled something that Donovan couldn't make out.

"Let's not argue," Carina said. "You agreed to help me with his bandages."

Donovan tried to mimic the deep regular breathing of sleep as the women entered the room, then he opened his eyes and smiled sleepily. "What time is it?"

"Time to change your bandages and move you around a bit," Carina said. She pulled off the sheet and helped him sit up. She ran her hands along his ribcage with a light, firm touch and seemed satisfied. "Any change to how you feel?"

Donovan shook his head.

"Let’s have you sit all the way up and put your feet on the floor. I can get a better look at this shoulder that way, and there's no reason for you not to move around if you're careful."

Sitting all the way up and turning around took more effort than just sitting up enough to eat. Donovan cringed and leaned heavily on Carina, but finally he was upright, feet planted on the floor. He would’ve sighed with relief if it hadn’t hurt so much.

Carina picked at the bandage on his shoulder, frowning at the amount of blood and fluid that had seeped through. With a few quick snips of her scissors, the bandage fell in ribbons to the floor and she squinted at the oozing hole in his shoulder. "How long ago were you shot?"

"About two weeks before I deserted."

"Amalia, hand me the little flashlight."

Donovan raised his eyebrows in surprise when he saw the flashlight. He had seen people beaten and robbed over working batteries.

"Do you know if they got the bullet out?"

"I think so. I bled a lot and passed out. When I woke up, I was bandaged up and lying in the ward. I assume they took it out."

"It isn’t healing well, if they did."

"Maybe it's just that he hasn't given the wound a chance to heal," Amalia suggested. "Deserting his base, running around the desert, stealing chickens, and getting dehydrated isn't exactly a recipe for quick recovery."

"I hope that's all it is," Carina agreed. She met Donovan’s eyes. "You've had your autoimmune vaccination, right? No exposure to any weird new diseases-- LVV, Toronto Flu, any of that?"

Donovan frowned and licked his lips as he tried to remember. "I’ve had the Emerging Virus series and the doctors say there’s been no new strains since 2039."

"The Guard hasn’t updated its vaccine regimen since the pandemic?"

"They give us our boosters. We don’t need anything else for domestic service."

Carina murmured skeptically and returned her attention to the open wound. "I hate to stitch this up when it's still draining, but. . .well, let's just clean it and cover it again and see what happens. If it doesn't look better tomorrow we may want to do a bit of exploratory."

Amalia handed her a bottle of fluid with a long thin straw at the top. "You better hold onto something," she told Donovan.

"It's just saline," Carina said. "Weak salt solution. It'll feel uncomfortable, but it won't hurt as bad as anything you've already been through."

Carina was right that the sensation was not so much painful as odd and uncomfortable. He tried not to squirm, although he found the sight of blood and pus running down his arm more disturbing than the actual procedure. Amalia wiped the dripping mess with a towel. "I don't like the look of this."

"Me either." Carina took the bloody towel and sniffed it, then wrinkled her nose in distaste. "This is going to require some aggressive action if it's not better by tomorrow."

Amalia handed her another wound-flushing bottle, this one filled with a brownish substance. Carina fixed Donovan with a steady look. "This one will hurt. I'm not kidding. But there's no way around it, so just do your best to be still and it'll be over in a few seconds."

"Hold my hand," Amalia told him.

Donovan did as he was told and gripped her hand so hard he wondered that her bones didn't crack. He closed his eyes, sucking in deep ragged breaths, too distracted by the pain in his shoulder to notice the duller pain in his ribs. But as Carina had promised, it was over quickly and then she was pressing a cloth against his shoulder. "We're done," she said. "I'm going to put some ointment on it now, and I promise it won't hurt. It's got some herbs in it that will numb the pain."

She took a little jar from Amalia as she talked and scooped out a bit of odd-smelling jelly, then rubbed it around and partly inside the bullet hole. As she had promised, it took the knife edge off the pain, leaving only a dull ache. Then Carina and Amalia bandaged him, one woman holding a thick pad over his shoulder while the other tied it in place with strips of cloth. Finally Carina stepped back and examined her work. "I wish I could be more optimistic about that shoulder. There were no red streaks, though, so maybe it's not as bad as it looks."

She turned to Amalia. "Let's wash up and do his leg now, then we can think about lunch."

The gash on the leg was long and deep, criss-crossed neatly with black stitches. Donovan was startled. "How did those get there?"

"You spent your first two days alternating between delirium and unconsciousness. Trust me, you didn't feel a thing."

Donovan pondered this as Carina examined the gash, cleaned the outside of it and slathered it with ointment. "It's pretty warm," she remarked as she reached for the roll of cotton bandaging. "I guess I need to keep a close watch on this one, too." Soon Carina had him bandaged again and she seemed relieved to be finished.

"Thank you," Donovan said. "I had no idea I would be so much trouble."

"Oh, it's no trouble," Carina said, but Amalia raised her eyebrows and began putting the medicines and instruments back onto a tray.

"I guess I'm lucky I ended up at a doctor's house."

Carina started. "I’m not a doctor. My husband is, though." When a flicker of worry crossed his face, she added, "I'm a veterinarian. Not quite the same, but I know what I'm doing." She pointed to the jars and bottles Amalia was gathering onto the tray. "Our mother was a very accomplished herbalist. She could cure almost anything."

"Except herself," Amalia said. She picked up the tray and headed out of the room. "Let's wash up and eat. I’m hungry and I’m sure you are, too."

Carina stared after her. "Mom caught a strange fever last winter," she explained. "Nothing we did seemed helped. It's been hard for my sister."

"It can't have been easy for you, either."

"No, but she has no one left but me, and at least I still have a husband. He was drafted a long time ago, but he'll come home some day and we have big plans." Carina shook herself a little. "But that's enough about me. We need to be thinking about lunch."

Donovan nodded and made motions as if he would lie down. Carina helped ease him onto the pillows. "We'll bring you something to eat in a few minutes."

She picked up the soiled bandages from the floor and made her way toward the door. Donovan's voice stopped her. "Carina?"


"I'd like to help out a little." He tried to think how to say it without sounding like he had been listening to their earlier conversation. "If you've got any kind of work that a guy could do lying in bed, I'd be really privileged if you'd let me do it."