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|Wyvern's Project 5, chapter two. Rob, Sarah, and Paula.||
They walked quickly, side by side but carefully not touching. Rob was afraid that if he brushed against this strange woman, even by accident, she might think he was leading her into a trap. He could easily be, and judging from Mother Kat’s body language, she was as aware of the fact as he was. Not that she acted nervous or distrustful, even as he lead her deeper and deeper into Mall Rat territory. She matched his long strides with no sign of effort, and her face and hands were relaxed. It was the tension in her shoulders that gave her away, and the way her eyes darted from side to side when she thought he wasn’t looking at her. He thought she probably was afraid, but she was doing her best not to let him know it.
Rob glanced around at their surroundings, so familiar to him after nearly a year on the streets, and tried to see them through her eyes. Old, condemned buildings, paint and plaster either peeling or long disintegrated, lined dirty, unrepaired streets. It was unnaturally quiet, except for the roar of the freeway, which stretched over their heads in a web of interconnecting bridges, cutting off almost all view of the sky. Sunlight came through in weak patches that did little to cut through the persistent gloom. The head was as oppressive as the silence, and the whistle and moan of the wind was almost as loud as the freeway.
They walked along ancient, uneven sidewalks with a few persistent weeds growing up through the cracks. Few other people ventured into the streets—they were dangerous even for those who lived here—but there were sounds and shadows of life emanating from alleys that disgorged their rank smell into the streets. Rob was used to it, but when a particularly foul-smelling gust of wind nearly blew them off their feet, Mother Kat gagged and stumbled, then glanced at him and managed a wry smile. “Blech.”
He gave her a grin he hoped was reassuring, or at least sympathetic. “We’re almost there.”
“I’ve never been this far into this part of the city.”
“Yeah. I guess it’s pretty gruesome from your point of view.” The normality of conversation seemed to relax her, so Rob tried to hold up his end. “It really isn’t much further now.”
The wry smile turned down at the corners in an oddly self-deprecating expression. “Am I really that obvious?”
“No!” Rob was surprised into an honest answer as well as a laugh. “I don’t think anyone could call you obvious, Mother Kat. At least, I can’t make heads or tails out of you!”
“What do you mean?”
Rob looked up quickly, afraid that he had offended her, but she didn’t look mad, only mildly curious. “Well—” he stuttered, feeling awkward and self-conscious suddenly. “I mean, you’re a priest, but you act like just any other person. But then when I yelled at you, you promised to help us instead of throwing me out of your office like I probably deserved. And now you’re following me into this—this—den of iniquity when I could be anybody—a druggie planning to rob you blind or a gang-banger who needs a hostage or a—a woman for—” he stopped.
“Den of iniquity?” Her smile was amused.
He laughed again. “That’s Sarahspeak. My girlfriend. She reads anything she can get her hands on. She talks like that all the time. Here. Through here,” he added, gesturing her into the alley to their right. He hoped the smell wouldn’t gross her out too bad. Some of the Rats thought it was a good joke to piss and—worse—into their culvert. Rob couldn’t get them to stop, because he didn’t really want any of them to know for sure that anyone was living inside. It wasn’t a good idea to make one’s hideout that much of a target. But Sarah was often sick from the smell. He glanced at Mother Kat. Her expression was unreadable.
At the entrance to the culvert, he stopped and gestured to her to be quiet. He glanced hurriedly up and down the alley, but there was no sign of another Rat, only an old drunk asleep beside an overflowing dumpster. He gestured with his head and climbed in, hoping she would follow. She’d had the sense to know she couldn’t drive that sweet little car of hers into Rat territory, so hopefully she’d have the sense to realize she’d be safer trusting him than standing out there in the open by herself.
Apparently she did, as a soft splat followed by a quickly suppressed moan of disgust assured him that she was following close behind him. God, what she must think of them! This was no way for anyone to live. Rob shivered with an overwhelming mixture of shame and self-loathing. How had he let this happen?
The drainage tunnel opened out into a cramped but wider space that they had rigged into a sort of bedroom. There was a jug of water and a cooler that held what food they had against the wall to the left. A cardboard box, turned on its side to make a sort of shelf and filled with old beat-up paperback books sat against the far wall next to a nest of blankets in which a small, pale, freckle-faced girl lay snuggled, shivering despite the oppressive heat. Sarah knelt in front of her, facing them, flashlight in hand, as if she would protect his little sister with her own frail body.
The flashlight blinded him and he put his hand to his eyes. “It’s okay,” he said quickly. “It’s me. I’ve brought help.”
Katherine sighed and looked down at the little girl she held in her arms. Paula was a pretty, pixie-like child, not much more than six, with light eye-lashes and eyebrows and red hair. The eyes that stared fearfully up at the young priest were green and unnaturally large. Her face was pinched with the look of one used to constant pain who knows better than to cry about it. Katherine recognized the expression from the faces of some of her elderly parishioners and from the dying patients in this hospital, whom she visited as resident chaplain. To see it in the face of such a little girl touched her with a sense of tragedy none of the others did.
Sarah, standing with Rob in the lobby just within sight of the doorway, didn’t look much better. She was thin to the point of malnutrition, and her skin seemed almost transparent. Her hair was black and dull, and hung so heavily around her white, sunken face that the contrast was almost frightening. Robert had his arm around her waist, more to hold her up than anything else, Katherine thought.
She looked back to the pink, healthy face of a harassed-looking Doctor Jamison, who was waiting less than patiently for her to answer the question he had just posed.
“You absolutely can’t keep her here?”
Jamison shook his head, resignation and exasperation chasing themselves around his open, honest face. “You know how this place is, Reverend Kat. We couldn’t accept the President’s mother right now if he offered us a million dollars. There just isn’t any more room. Now, does she have a place to go, or am I throwing her back onto the streets?”
Katherine sighed again. “Yes, she has somewhere to go.”
The doctor looked desperately relieved, though all he said was, “Good.”
He handed her prescription chips and a list of hastily scribbled instructions and placed an electronic release pad before her. She signed, thanked him, and joined Robert and Sarah in the lobby as he hurried to his next patient. The kids stared at her as she approached. Their faces were pale and stiff with tension, but neither said anything.
“She has TB,” Katherine said quietly, but bluntly, her own weariness rendering her incapable of finding a way to soften the news. “It’s one of the new, resistant versions and Dr. Jamison says it’s advanced to the point where saving her life is mostly a matter of prayer. There are medications that might work, but…”
Sarah swayed on her feet, while a low, anguished moan escaped from Robert’s white lips.
“They can’t keep her here,” Katherine went on, “but they’ve given me prescriptions and instructions on how to care for her.”
Robert let out an explosive sigh. “Well, that’s something. That is—” he stopped suddenly.
“I will, of course, fill the prescriptions for you,” Katherine answered the unspoken question, eliciting a wan smile of gratitude from the boy, and a start of surprise from the girl. “I think that we should do that right now, and that you all should stay at my house, at least for tonight. That is,” she added hastily, “if you want to.”
“Really?” The word burst from Sarah.
“What makes you think we wouldn’t want to?” Rob nearly choked.
“My home has been open to Gary for a year now, and he’s never taken me up on it.”
Robert gave her an incredulous stare, then muttered, “Yeah, well, Gary doesn’t have to care about anyone but himself. He’s got his mates and his stupid little racket, and he just thinks life is some kind of big party. He doesn’t have a little sister who’s—” he stopped suddenly. Sarah’s skinny arm slipped around his shoulders and squeezed. “We should get out of here,” he mumbled to the tops of his scuffed and torn sneakers.
“Yes, we should.” The two older children followed Katherine to the door. Paula was asleep in her arms, her face still pinched and weary.
The scorching blast of wind that hit her when she opened the hospital door nearly caused her to collapse. Robert let go of Sarah and ran forward to grab her arm. Paula whimpered and opened her eyes, but didn’t speak.
“Okay, Mother Kat?” Robert inquired, dropping her arm quickly.
He moved back to Sarah’s side. The thermometer in the parking lot informed them that it was 97 degrees Fahrenheit, at 8:42pm. Katherine found herself gasping for breath as she walked against the wind to her car. I understand global warming, she thought irritably, but this is ridiculous! Her mother had told her she could remember when they used to get snow in the winter. Katherine had never experienced that, but usually by mid November it was at least vaguely chilly. And what’s with the wind?
They installed Paula carefully in the back seat with Sarah, and Robert and Katherine climbed into the front. Soon they were edging their way through the traffic towards the pharmaceutical machine. The three children were almost eerily silent as Katherine inserted the prescription chips one by one into the correct slot.
“Your total is six hundred and fifty-seven dollars,” the computer informed her emotionlessly.
Katherine ignored the shocked exclamations that forced themselves from two pairs of white lips, and inserted her bank chip.
“Payment approved. Thank you for shopping with Race Pharmaceuticals. Have a nice day.”
The computer dispensed the three small bottles of medicine. Katherine passed them to Rob without comment and turned the key in the ignition. Soon they were on the road again, headed toward the freeway entrance.
“Thank you, Mother Kat.” Rob sounded shaken.
She glanced at him and smiled as reassuringly as she could. “You’re welcome.”
The boy was silent for a few seconds, as Katherine tried to edge her small car between a semi and an SUV, then burst out suddenly, “I can’t believe Gary didn’t want to stay in your house. What kind of idiot would rather live out there?”
“Hm.” Katherine smiled. “He might not have wanted to conform to my ground rules.”
Rob raised an eyebrow. “And those are?”
The semi cut them off. Katherine let it. “I believe what I told him was, no intoxicating or illegal substances, no loud noise, no friends over without checking with me, and no sex in the house, period. If you break something, fix it, or at least admit that you did it, and if it’s in the house when you arrive, it should still be there when you leave.”
Robert laughed, and for the moment the mask of intolerable tension left his face and Katherine could see the teenaged boy behind it. “I think we can handle that—yeah, Sarah?” he added over his shoulder.
“No problem.” The girl’s voice was so quiet Katherine could barely hear her. “I can see where Gary wouldn’t, though,” she added. “He’d die without his beer and music, and his mates.”
Katherine tried again to maneuver into the correct lane to get to the onramp to I5, but the SUV stubbornly blocked her way.
“Right.” Robert snickered, grinning at Sarah in the rearview mirror. “And of course you forgot the—ahem—the chicks. The fourth part of the rule.”
“Oh, yeah.” Sarah’s voice was suddenly lifeless. In the mirror, her eyes drifted away from his and looked studiously out the window.
The conversation ended, and the mask of anxiety reappeared on Robert’s face. He cursed under his breath, then glanced sideways at Katherine. “Sorry.”
“I’m not offended,” Katherine smiled, trying to ease the sudden tension, and wondering what had caused it. “You’re absolutely right about Gary. He has so many good qualities: loyalty, energy, a great sense of humor. It’s impossible not to like him. But until he really learns to care about other people, his life isn’t going to be of much value.”
“What, so your life is only worth as much as you do for other people?” Sarah asked. The edge of bitterness in her voice set off an alarm in the back of Katherine’s brain.
“No, that’s not quite what I meant. I think I meant that your life is only worth as much as much as you value it.”
“But the mother f— uh, sorry again. But Gary does care about his own life,” Robert protested.
Katherine frowned as she made another futile attempt to change lanes. That SUV wasn’t budging. “I wonder, since we are all human and connected, how much anyone can value his or her own life, if they don’t place any value on anyone else’s,” she said thoughtfully.
“Would that work the other way ‘round, too?” Rob asked.
“That you can’t value others’ lives if you don’t value your own?” Katherine hit the break suddenly to avoid a stray dog. “I think so, certainly.” A snazzy sports car took the opportunity she had given it to maneuver between them and the SUV and zoom onto the onramp. Katherine attempted to follow, but the SUV cut her off again. Darn it, we are never going to get home!
“I’ve got you, then, Mother Kat,” Robert said, with a little more glee than Katherine really appreciated at that moment.
“How so?” She pulled into a parking lot and pulled out going the other direction. Hopefully they could get onto the freeway from this side of the street.
“Doesn’t your Bible say that he who would save his life’ll lose it, and he who loses his life will save it? You’re not s’posed to value your own life.”
Lord, I’m having a lot of trouble driving and discussing theology simultaneously. Katherine tossed the thought out warningly as she followed yet another SUV onto the freeway. “Um… But, Robert, God valued our lives so much that he died to save them. Since he valued our lives above his own, isn’t it only just that we value him above our lives?”
“So who cares whether Gary loves other people or not as long as he loves God?” Sarah asked.
“I—because you can’t love God if you don’t love others, Sarah.” They exited the freeway and stopped at a stoplight. “When—when Jesus said that whatever we do for others we do also for Him, that also meant that whenever we hurt, neglect or beat down another person, we’re doing that to God as well.” She waved a pedestrian across the street, ignoring the vigorous honking of the car behind her.
“So we’re supposed to value other peoples’ lives over our own because we value God over our own lives because he valued our lives over his?” Sarah’s voice had a dangerously brittle edge to it.
“Yes,” Katherine replied simply.
Silence fell over the occupants of the little car then, but it wasn’t the tense silence of a few minutes ago. Katherine negotiated her way through the jammed streets of Loraine and pulled into the small garage by her house.
Oh God, I hope I’m doing the right thing…Katherine placed a loaf of bread on the breadboard and got out the bread knife. I know nothing about these kids, I have no way of knowing for sure that Robert’s story is true…All I know for certain is that Paula will die without medical care and a place to stay, and I am utterly incapable of standing by and watching that happen. She popped a piece of cheese into her mouth as she sliced it onto the bread and chewed slowly, surprised at how hungry she was.
Did I eat lunch? No. No, I only had enough credit chips on me to pay for Robert and Sarah’s lunch, so I told them I wasn’t hungry. No wonder. She added lettuce and tomato to the sandwiches and got out three glasses and a gallon of milk. And if I’m hungry, think how they must feel…
When she reentered the living room she found Sarah curled up in the smallest corner of the couch possible and Robert fiddling with her computer. He looked up rather guiltily. “You did say you wanted to check the weather report.”
“Absolutely. You’re fine, don’t worry.” Katherine set the plates on the coffee table and joined Sarah on the couch. “Help yourselves. How is Paula?”
Sarah smiled shyly. “She’s asleep in the guest room, Mother Kat. I gave her the milk, and she swallowed all the pills.” The two kids grabbed sandwiches with an endearing mixture of speed and hesitation and began to wolf them down. They looked as if they were afraid she would come to her senses and slap the food out of their hands, despite her words.
“Eat slowly, or you’ll be sick,” Katherine admonished as gently as she could. “The food isn’t going to disappear, and there’s more where that came from.”
Sarah flushed. Robert’s eyes returned to the toes of his shoes. Katherine turned her eyes to the computer screen to avoid upsetting them further. They resumed eating with slow, careful bites.
“…wind that seems to be an effect of the new hurricane in the Pacific Ocean,” the weather forecast informed them in a bored, computerized voice that contrasted oddly with the worrying news. “Tsunamis along the western coast, particularly in California and Oregon, can also be expected. Earthquake tremors were recorded throughout California, Oregon and Washington between 14:00 and 17:00 hours this afternoon. A general alert has been issued to all in the west coast area, as this could mean a larger earthquake within the next few days—”
Oh, no…Not again…Katherine felt her throat constrict, and glanced at the two kids. Obviously consumed with their food, they were paying no attention to the viewscreen. Earthquakes had become simply a factor of life on the west coast at the end of the 21st Century, but lately the both the frequency and force of the shocks hitting the state of Oregon had become alarming. More so since they caused horrifying flashbacks for those who had been in the city during the big earthquake three years ago.
Not quite two months after Katherine had come to St. Mary’s, she and her parishioners had spent days pulling injured and dead Mall Rats out of a condemned building on the edge of their territory. The firefighters had had more important things to attend to—like rescuing the citizens who were actually taxpayers and contributors to society. Katherine shuddered. I don’t think I can deal with that a second time. Realizing that her hands were trembling slightly, she clasped them together, and turned her attention back to the viewscreen.
“On the Richter scale, the quake in Eugene, Oregon this afternoon measured at—”
The screen grew fuzzy, then went blank. The lights went out, and the click of door locks switching from automatic to manual was audible in the sudden silence. Katherine felt fear clutch at her throat. The darkness was total. All the lights in the neighborhood had gone out.
She jumped. Sarah. It’s only Sarah. Pull yourself together!
Katherine heard herself chuckle softly. “It appears we are without electricity for a while. I suppose the wind brought down a power unit. Wait a moment.” She forced her fear-frozen muscles to move, levered herself off the couch, and fumbled her way toward the kitchen door. She opened a drawer and retrieved two flashlights. The fierce wind howled around the little house.
I’m sorry, God. I’m so scared. Outside on the porch something fell with a clatter. She repressed another shudder, resolutely switched on a flashlight and made her way back to the living room.
“I keep candles for times like these,” she told the two pale, ghostly faces in the light of the flashlight. “But since it’s so dry, I’d rather not light them and risk a fire. Why don’t we all just go to bed?”
“Okay,” they said, almost in unison.
“Sarah, you’ll sleep in the guest room with Paula. If you’ll follow me, I’ll get you some sheets and show you where the bathroom is. Rob, I thought you could sleep here on the couch. Wait a minute and I’ll bring you some sheets, too.” He nodded, and she handed him a flashlight and led Sarah from the room.
Rob finished the rest of his sandwich and glanced around him by the light of his flashlight. The beam fell first on a little antique spinet piano—obviously in perfect condition—then on the copious bookshelves, their tops laden with cam-shots of smiling faces. The outdated computer in the corner was hooked up to top-of-the-line sound speakers. There wasn’t much else in the small room. The furniture was obviously second-hand, and the carpet had seen better days. Mother Kat wasn’t exactly poor, but it didn’t look like she was rich by any stretch of the imagination. He remembered the money she had spent on Paula’s medicine that afternoon and winced.
Mother Kat came back in with sheets and a pillow in one hand and her flashlight in the other. The white light made her face look pale and angelic; quite unlike the rosy, cheerful woman he had first seen. He watched as she tucked one sheet around the cushions of the couch and the other in at the foot. She put the pillow at the head, and turned to him, smiling.
“Good night, Robert.”
He was suddenly overwhelmed by the memory of Paula’s weary face, contented and pain-free in the little bed; and the light in Sarah’s eyes when she had realized that this woman was truly going to let them stay with her. What reason did she have to trust them or care about them? Impulsively he stood and took her free hand, stretched out toward the couch in a gesture of invitation, gripping it tightly in both of his.
“Thank you, Mother Kat,” he said.
|Appendix C: The Arcanian War||The Fall of the Elder|
|Mother Kat: Prologue|