The Workings of a Patient Man
“They want us dead and that is unfortunate. Whether for us or them, I cannot say.” – Montgomery “Pastor” Caldwell
This was the drop of nitrogen, ready to blow their little world to pieces.
They hadn’t pursued them, hadn’t even cared to pass the first bend on the main road. Whether they knew the Caldwells had their own defenses or not was irrelevant. They hadn’t tried or bothered to. He knew where they lived, they knew where they stayed. At any time, they could mount an offense on them. They had all the time in the world given their resources. Appetite recognized the workings of a patient man. They would wait and that alone would leave a bad taste in his mouth. He didn’t like that. Not one bit. Don’t look back, gotta focus on what’s going on ahead. The only real regret he had was getting Shepherd’s kid’s body back. If that was Kindle, I would’ve wanted the same. The very thought of her death sent an indescribable anger shooting up his chest. She’s right beside you, he had to remind himself. She’s right beside you. He went to grab at her much smaller fingers, but she had grabbed his two middle and index fingers instead. Appetite swallowed his tears.
They sat in silence in the bed of Vermin’s massive truck, staring up into the sky. Small threads of morning rose from over the horizon, the soft pink glow of the sun peeking over the belly of the world. Cool air breathed against Appetite’s bare shoulders and against his face as they drove down the back roads leading up the mountain. They took the scenic way around through the Copperhead Plain and the edge of the Dusk Mountain Valley. The raw smell of vegetation hit them the moment they punched through the grassy lands. Appetite tried to think of the positives, see the beauty in all this. He couldn’t find the effort in himself. Right now, he was too angry to even think about the positives. Not when his daughter struggled to even sleep.
Kindle thrashed in her sleep, kicking and shouting every so often. He watched her, frowning. He was there when she had colds, touches of the flu, and a rare virus known by the Breaux in the swamp as Wild Bloom. He remembered the last one clearly. That night was like this one, quiet and beautiful. Appetite hated every second of it. That night had been the longest night of his life, watching her thrash out in pain and her thin broken breaths. He had brought her maternal grandfather up the mountain, it was one of the few times that tested his resolve to take things slow. There was nothing like watching your child in pain, even with a thing as underestimated as a nightmare. He nudged her away.
“I keep…” Kindle centered herself. Sometimes she didn’t allow herself to be a fifteen-year-old girl. “I keep seeing him. Every time I close my eyes.”
“Yeah…” Appetite frowned. His thoughts drifted to the people that he had lost, to the cousins and friends he had lost. Of course, his mind unwillingly went to her. She was living. She was only gone. To put her in the company of the dead…was both wrong and sickening. He turned to his daughter, pressed his head on her head. “Don’t think that ain’t normal, buddy. You did good out there. Bulldog told me that without you, they might’ve died. And from what I saw, I agree. You kept your head there when no one else did. Ain’t no better leader than that.”
“I shouldn’t have gone in the first place.”
“Without you though, they were dead.”
“How do you think Shepherd gonna take the news?”
“He’s not gonna take it well. He’s been wanting a war like this for years. He’s never been okay with the pot shots, the heists, and the smuggling. Nothing satisfies him. This might put him and his pa over the edge. We can’t fight them like they can fight us. It ain’t easy. They’re more of them than us. Now with these bigwigs on planet, we’re only in more trouble. We gotta play it smart.” Appetite tried to ignore his creeping headache and heavy eyelids. “Right now, I just wanna go home. That’s all I’m asking for.” He leaned his heavy body against the back window of the truck to only get a rather irritated knock from the inside of the truck. “Hey! You don’t get to be annoyed, Beau. I’m a big boy and your truck ain’t the biggest thing in the world. Now shutya trap and keep your eyes on the road before we get in a dang wreck, ya dang fool.” He reclined in the truck bed further, wrapping his arm around his daughter. “Go ahead, take a nap, champ. Enjoy the ride, as best you can with this man’s terrible driving.”
Kindle laughed a weak laugh. She rested her head on her father’s chest and promptly fell asleep. He was weak too. His mutation left him beyond imagining. For her safety, for her right mind, he would stay up all night if he had to. You would do the same for me, he thought with a smile. Appetite held her head and let his hero rest with the knowledge that her father will protect her. The cold air pressed his long, auburn hair against his neck and over his shoulders. The trees rolled by, the wind continued to blow, the moon shone as bright as it always did. He still felt wrong. The world felt wrong.
They stood over the cold remains of Matthew Caldwell the next cold morning.
Appetite awoken in his recliner at his cabin, still clothed in the armor of yesterday’s debacle. He hadn’t bothered to clean himself up and looked as grungy as he felt. He was throwing on his overalls and heading to his room for a few more “z”s when he saw the crowd outside on the Homestead. He wandered out underdressed, bare feet slapping against the wood of his porch and his bare arm rising with goosebumps. Everyone was here in a rare display of the entire family. Appetite wandered over wiping the sleep from his eyes and drool from his mouth. That was when he saw the body of the young man lying on the flattened grass, arms crossed, and pale as the snow of the caps of their mountains. At the forefront of the chaos was Buck Caldwell and Spencer Caldwell, his grandfather and father respectively. Anger boiled off the two men in thick waves, their eyes unwavering as they stared at the corpse as though hoping he would wake. An odd silence drifted between the core families, each in huddled around a bonfire. Appetite approached his pa in the crowd of kin, standing beside her sister Jo.
Jo looked over her shoulder first and invited her brother into a hug. Appetite accepted it with grace. They couldn’t have been more different. Though she almost matched his height, she was thin with a veil of golden hair and much better looking. She released her hug, turning back to the dead body of a boy forever lost in the prime of his life. “We’ve really messed up this time, haven’t we?” Jo said, her voice soft against the whistling wind. “I’ve never seen Pit and Shepherd like this. I’m worried that they might lose their cool.” She tapped her boot against the dusty dirt road. “Pa and I were talking that if they do decide to go to war on the Bluecoats, we’ll most definitely lose.”
Drifter nodded in a solemn quietness, tugging his mesh green cap over his head.
“But,” Jo began again, “we can’t sit by and do nothing either. We’re strong, but we ain’t that strong to handle an army. If we are gonna do something, we’re gonna have to play it smart and do what we do best.”
“What’s that, Jo?”
“Be scoundrels,” she smiled. “Think about it, what’s got us to this point. We need to turn it up a bit. Reckon that we can pull that off it.”
“That we can.”
Drifter tapped his fingers against his lip, nodding. There was something chilly about how quiet he had been. Without a word, he walked in the direction of his brother. Appetite and Jo tried his best to follow their father’s stride. There was a certain purpose to his walk as they followed him. The thin old man came upon his younger brother, dwarfed by his brother’s size and mass. Pit’s hair hadn’t gone white with age, only his beard threatened the transition with flecks of grey. Buck towered over Drifter, beard to his navel and eyes the crimson color he passed down to all his children. Beside him was his son Spencer “Shepherd” Caldwell–the father of the Hounds–tall, made of wiry muscle, whose appearance looked to be forged from an underworld of some kind. There was a certain hate in both of their eyes when the branch of the senior Caldwell approached. They blame us. Of course, they were nothing that any of them could’ve done to change what happened, but dang well needed something to blame. Appetite knew that about his uncle and his cousin.
“He’s dead,” Pit began, staring blankly at his grandson’s body. “He’s dead, Luke. He’s dead with a hole punched his chest. Why aren’t we burnin’ those Coats to the ground? I want their bones, Luke.”
“Why are you calm ’bout this? He was your family too. Or do you just don’t care ’cause it’s wasn’t K–”
“Buck,” Drifter repeated the name, this time with a sharpened tone. “Don’t you dare say that? He was like a grandkid of mine.”
“But Matt was my kid,” Shepherd said. Some voices grumbled. Other rumbled. His was the sound of a machine without oil, guttering sentences in a deep tone. “He deserved his family, his own piece of the world. Not some plot in the ground before his old man. No one deserves that. I–” The hard lines on the man’s face grew dark on his hard features. He dipped, cradling the body in his arms. “We’re burying him here on the Homestead. He deserves to be with rest of his folk.”
Drifter nodded and led the way.
Tucked in the far edge of the Homestead and below an over cropping cliff was a graveyard for the family. Among the gravestones were lovers and kinfolk lost to sickness, age, or bullets. Some were marked, itched the names of people he did and didn’t recognize. Others remained blank slabs pressed into the old dirt with curling ivy and white flowers being their only decoration. Wordlessly, Shepherd began digging the fresh gave. Appetite couldn’t help but notice he was digging the grave beside his wife, Audrey. He had dug her grave himself too in the cold of winter and pelting rain. He wasn’t the same after that nor did anyone expect him to. This felt different. Where before he raged, this time he was quietly and softly broken as he shoveled the plot. That’s worse than if he was angry and throwing a fit. Appetite and Jo watched with the rest of the gathered family over to the Caldwell Cemetery.
Uncle Pastor wandered in his hempen robe over to speak some words over the grave. His black robes and long grey dreads decorated with flowering weeds and bronze chains fluttered in the around him. Where the other brothers were more territorial, he spoke of peace and honest work. That didn’t mean he was a foolish man. Appetite knew underneath the gentle smile, soft voice, and warm eyes was a man who knew where to shoot to kill a man. First and foremost, however, he was a religious man with a simple but large family in the Valley. Pastor straightened his back, pulling leather bound from the back pocket of his robe and saying a few words over the body.
It was the briefest of ceremonies.
When it came to funerals, the Caldwells didn’t dwell on it long. They didn’t dress up, they didn’t linger. As quickly as they dug the hole, put the young man in, and covered him with dirt, they were saying goodbye. One at a time, they placed a flower on his grave from the nearby wildflowers growing in gardens around the cemetery. They each took one of the five colors, one for each branch of the Caldwells. Before long, the plot was covered from stone head to dirt toe with them. Uncle Pastor bowed away, leaving a cyan flower signifying his family. Perhaps if he had died peacefully, they would’ve stayed longer and talked about his life and achievement. Again, this wasn’t the Caldwell’s way. They didn’t dwell on things that they couldn’t fix, not when there were things that they could. They left Pit, Shepherd, and the rest of the Hound branch of the Caldwells to their sorrow in the cemetery. Drifter pulled Jo and Appetite away from mingling with the rest of the family. Staring with those hard eyes over his shoulder to the group of men and women huddled around the grave.
“It’s a dang insult.”
“They sent us the body this mornin’,” Drifter repeated. “Like they’re better people after the killed Pit’s boy. Like it was some sorta mistake. Like it was some sorta joke. This ain’t a joke.”
“Pa, calm down,” Jo said in a low, careful voice.
“I’m tryin’ to keep face, Jo. I’m really am. But I’m close to losing it in front of everybody.” The thick accent of their clan continued to grow harsher and harsher in his tone, his face turning redder than a fresh radish. “What were they doing out there anyway? They know not to mess with things they can’t handle. Everyone knows the rules. Everyone.”
“They’re young, you can’t expect them to follow rules. I didn’t at their age.” Appetite felt small all over again. For a second, he wasn’t the massive man over three hundred pounds and close to seven feet tall. He wilted to the small chubby boy with a mop of red-brown hair faltering under the gaze of a father on the porch after doing something he wasn’t supposed to. Done messed up now, he thought as he saw his father’s face remained unchanged in his wrath. Appetite coughed, trying his hardest to stand up straight. “I was just sayin’ that young people aren’t known for playing by the rules, pa. No need to give me the death stare.”
“I–” Drifter frowned, shaking his head. “Sorry ’bout that.”
“Perhaps you need to sit, come on. We’ll make something.”
The throng of the rest of the family hadn’t subsided. Though the Hounds remained in the cold over cropping, everyone else was scattered again among Appetite’s and Drifter’s yards. Doc and Big Thunder sat at a plastic table with their children and grandchildren, a miniature clan within a clan. Their discussion of theories and politics served as a stable ground in these reunions. Today, they spoke in hushed tones instead of their normal heated voices. Appetite almost wished they bickered instead. This odd brooding didn’t fit the family. It’s what they want, Appetite thought. We aren’t ourselves. Appetite pondered that thought all the way to the porch. The Caldwells didn’t brood, stew for revenge and fight things they didn’t have a chance of winning. They wrangled a good time out of nothing, even at the worst of times. He stroked his chin again. This ain’t like us.
Appetite lumbered on the porch, rearranging a plastic chair on the porch for them to set. Drifter heaved a radio onto the table, before sitting down and turning the big black dial. He turned the radio signal for a moment, lingering over one channel to the next. He settled on where he always did, Loner’s radio channel. He worked from his outpost with his radio tower, serving as a news and music outlet. An old song filled the air, one of Drifter’s and Pit’s favorites. Not a sad song, some might even call it upbeat. Though he was a quiet, hermit man, Loner knew his family and what they needed from him. Thanks for that, Evan. It was he needed to push through what needed to happen next. Perhaps they weren’t as good at putting stuff behind them as they thought. Drifter reclined in his chair, color returning his face with each second.
Jo appeared again with a pitcher of lemonade for the three of them. She smiled and sat down. “There’s our pa,” she said, putting a hand on their father’s shoulder. “Calm down.”
“I didn’t mean to blow up on ya. It’s been a while since we lost one of our own folks. Kinda a sour spot.” Drifter poured himself a lemonade. He drank the whole cup. “There’re things that I haven’t told you. People you don’t remember. I ain’t ready to talk ’bout it yet. Some people don’t like us very much for what we can do. We’re different. Something they don’t want to talk about.” Drifter eyed the crashed, rusted spaceship on the edge of the Homestead. He poured another cup. “That life ain’t for y’all. It’s something we left behind.”
“We’re still caught up in it though,” Appetite shrugged. “This is gonna hurt. It always does.” Appetite looked over the throng of the people back to the cave on the other side. The crippling fear of his own child in that graveyard filled his chest once again, deep enough to claw a hole in his ribs. What would you be doing right now if that was the case? You won’t be just sad. You would want to boil their bones too. “I’ve never asked about the Bluecoats, pa. I know who they work for.”
Drifter’s body grew rigid for a second, followed by a savage toothy smile. He said nothing.
Up until now, the Civilization hadn’t messed with the people of C’dar and more importantly their people. The Bluecoats were their military, their strong arm. Their presence on this planet was scarce enough to be considered a police force. They brought things to the planet, so they suffered through them. This was different. They wanted them gone this time. Appetite remembered the fear on Kindle’s face when she saw the Major. Appetite felt it too. He remembered the dark words of his mother in all this. They had clung to him that night as tight as they did now. “You think they want us dead. For what? For being their–”
Kindle stood on the foot of the porch with tired eyes. She hadn’t slept well, he saw it in her eyes. She wandered over to her grandfather, wrapping a single arm around him. He did the same to his aunt and finally came around to him. She plopped in the chair. Appetite rubbed his fingers through her hair, grinning. “Hey, champ. You missed the funeral.”
“I know. I’m here, ain’t I?” She shook her head. “What are we to them?”
“A mistake,” Drifter shrugged. “They meddled with my parents and theirs and then theirs and created us after a time. Hadn’t thought much ’bout it. Didn’t care. We’re kinda the smudge on the Civilization’s spanky record. Didn’t think that it was important enough to get their attention like we have. But eh. It is what it is.” His face turned serious for a moment. “I appreciate what you did, Cassie. You kept them save as best you could. You got a lot of this old man in ya, that’s for sure.”
“Yuuup,” Appetite said with a sigh. Too much of her grandpa some might say.
“But be careful for now on, y’hear. Don’t go running off like that without your pa or myself I would’ve been happy to check out the Lake with ya if you only asked. We gotta stay together. It’s our only strength.”
“What are we gonna do now?” Kindle asked.
“That’s a fair question,” Jo said, sipping more of her lemonade and leaning forward. “What are we going to do now, pa? It won’t be long before the family turns to you.”
“I’ve been thinking ’bout it. Wood mentioned something interestin’ before this all happened. They brought stuff with ’em, right? We can give them hell for messing with us and maybe get a lil out of it too. Make it worth our while, I say. ”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with that,” Jo said with a grin.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with that at all.” Appetite heaved his daughter upwards with the easy of a man handling a child. “You need to pay your respects. I’ll go with you if you want.”
“I want to stay for a bit longer. I–I can’t go right now. I can’t see him.”
“You couldn’t have done anything better, sweetie.” Jo grabbed Kindle’s hand, smiling. “You did the best you could. Better even from the tells of it. You can’t save everyone. That’s a good way to drive yourself crazy like that. I know from experience.” Appetite saw the brief longing in his sister’s eyes of a lost past and a simpler life. The love of her life rested in that place too. We’re a mess, aren’t we, Jo? It made Appetite think of his love, not dead but as lost to him as if she was. “You can’t change what happened. You have to live on for the sake of them. That’s the best you can do.”
The rigidness locked into Kindle’s shoulder softened with the thought. She had seen death before. This wasn’t something completely unknown out here. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt any less. This was someone she had grown up with. It was much different than seeing an old relative you hadn’t known. She watched her cousin die. Moments like that stuck with you, made you who you are. She softened a little more, resting and breathing. She wasn’t ready to go to the grave still. That hadn’t changed. Appetite respected that.
“Hey champ, want to walk your old man back to our place? Starting to feel like I’m lookin’ right now.” He gave her a small elbow, groaning and leaning forward. A sharp crack of twisted plastic rippled underneath them. “Alright get up, don’t think this chair can take much more, buddy.” Appetite heaved himself out of the chair, leaving its twisted remains crumpling to the porch. He stared at it for a moment and shook his head. We need better chairs, he thought with a mild embarrassment rising in his face. Only a few of the family members had the audacity to laugh, the rest new better. Today, Appetite let it slide. Kindle almost didn’t though. He shook his head. Not worth it today, too tired for that crap. Let ’em laugh, give them something to talk about.
Appetite waved his goodbyes and headed back to his home, Kindle in tow. The family was slowly gaining their livelihood back. The crates of beer and moonshine brought out by Big Thunder broke the monotony of today’s drag. Laughter rose among his people, contagious to the rest of the branches of the family like a happy sickness. They would recover. Right now, Appetite needed to get away from it all. There was too much going on in his head. He loved his family, but having too many people around made his head spin. Loner was onto something with the staying to himself thing. Alas, he made his appearance and now he needed to unwind.
Weary and tired, he returned to his cabin. The thick walls gave him some degree of quietness, only hearing the highest of shouts from his ever increasingly drunk family members. Kindle said nothing for a while, walking to their lone table. She swiped something off the table and handed it to him. Her face was stone serious, hard enough to cut glass with her eyes. Appetite held the letter in his hands, feeling the odd sense of paper in his hand. The letter was unmarked, but clearly showed signs of familiarity. There was a faint smell of old wood, fungus, and swamp water on the page. Familiar smells. Where they were the mountain, these were words from the swamp. “Is from my other grandpa, isn’t it?” She had read the note, knew the name at the end. She asked all the same. Appetite gave a soft nod, opening the letter with careful fingers. She said nothing else.
Appetite read the note, scanning it with his eyes.
“He wants to meet at the Bayou.”
She hadn’t been. In her fifteen years on this planet, she hadn’t gone down the mountain to see the Breauxs. She had her stories of them, met with other families within the swamp. She avoided her kin, despite his best efforts to change that. Appetite swallowed, feeling a tightness in his throat. An odd feeling altogether. He could digest and swallow anything but this. This sent nerves down his spine. He put the note down on the end table, the pristine cursive handwriting of Remy Breaux itched into his mind. There was a transcendental way the man spoke in a letter. When you asked you to come, you came, much like anyone on the planet would for the Augur of Owls. Crocodile’s Walk and its Crocodile was available to everyone on the planet on one condition. No weapons and no violence. That alone made visiting a scary thing for the Caldwells. That and they didn’t quite like things they didn’t quite understand. Appetite never minded.
“Do you want to go?” Appetite asked after a time with careful words.
He had expected a no. Maybe any other day, she would’ve. Today, she thought about it. Her eyes flicked to the people outside. “They’re my family too,” Kindle said in soft words. “I might never get another chance to meet them.”
Sad but true. “It’s better late than never. It’s about time for you meet the Crocodile.”