Talks over Catfish and Biscuits
“A bigger man’s naturally hungrier than a smaller man. It ain’t gluttony if need it.” –Appetite
Any good meal started with one thing, patience. This mentality was what he lived by shaped him throughout his childhood and into he was. Never settle for anything you don’t want and wait for it. That meant playing the long game, learning how to satisfy your hunger for more and more. Some might call him greedy and they would’ve been right. He would do anything for his family, take anything and hoard a mountain of things to make sure his baby girl had a good life. She deserves the best, better than the best. Appetite rubbed Kindle’s head, earning an annoyed pout from his teenage daughter at his side. “You aren’t gonna get too old for that, I hope you know that.”
Kindle sighed. “I know.” She tried to wrap her arm around her father’s back, not even getting even halfway. “Shame we had to stop fishing early today.”
“It’s better that we don’t start fights.”
“I can handle myself, pa.”
“Did I say that you couldn’t?” Appetite gave a deep and slow laugh, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Don’t wanna risk it as all. Ain’t a problem being safe, is it?
“Guess not,” she said with another exaggerated sigh. “I wanted a fight.”
“There’s a time and place for that.”
Appetite wasn’t like the rest of the family. Everyone joked and underestimated him. He was so massive that he couldn’t fit into most cars or shuttles and he spoke with a carefulness crafted out of thought. This came with a reputation of being the slow giant or a coward. Even his cousins, nephews and nieces thought him to be a gluttonous idiot. Anyone with half a brain knew that Appetite was none of those things. He knew to never jump into things without knowing what he was getting into. Whether that makes him the brunt of jokes or the underestimate family member, it didn’t matter. He would choose to protect his girl and his family over fighting the Bluecoats at the lake. There’s no rush. There’s never a rush.
After tossing the racks of beheaded fishes on the nearby table, Appetite slumped in a massive plush seat. He rubbed his jaw, feeling the smoothness of his beard. Kindle wasn’t wrong though. They were getting close. This new Captain Xan knew his stuff. It had been awhile since they had a legitimate threat. It was easy to get comfortable, he would know. Don’t underestimate them. They were getting bold to even close to the Four Water Lake or cross the line to the Rippling Creek. Appetite groaned. “Kindle. Do you blame me for not killing those guys on our land?”
“Be honest with me, Cassie.”
Cassie. He never used her name like that. “The cousins say we’re getting weak.”
Appetite laughed, brushing the fish scales off his belly. “What? ‘cause we aren’t slaughtering them in the streets like we used to. Or that we have a home on the mountains?”
“That’s exactly why. I’ve been there, Kindle. My generation thought the same.”
“Salvaging, the ship fuel, the pillaging. Isn’t not…”
Kindle went quiet as she tossed the catfish into a bed of flour and then tossing them into the fryer. The sounds of the bubbling oil popped. She paced back and forth, watching the fish rise to the surface one by one. On the other side of the room, she walked to the oven and pulled a fresh pan of biscuits from the oven. Appetite’s stomach roared something mighty fierce. That was was half of the reason he got his nickname among the family: he was always hungry. After she plopped down six fish on a plate and six biscuits on a plate, she spoke again in a soft voice. “I want stories of my own. Like yours and grandpas. Is that silly?” She put the plate down. Appetite smiled at her, the food was great, but she was better.
“Nope. I get that,” he said grabbing the nearest fish, eating it bones, fins, and meat all the same. He only felt a mild discomfort as the spikey bits through the sleekness of his throat. He licked the hot grease from his lips. “Don’t ever be satisfied. It takes time. You’ll find your story soon. Perhaps sooner than you think. Don’t be impatient.” Appetite took a biscuit from his plate, tearing the flaky crust with ease. “Your cousins giving you trouble ‘bout me, have they? Which ones?’”
Kindle froze and said nothing. Appetite leaned in his chair, chewing with a slow carefulness. “Which ones,” he repeated this time softer. “I ain’t gonna hurt them, I’m curious.” To be fair, he was more amused than anything. He had a good idea of which ones it was already. But, if they were going to give his little girl some problems, he wanted their names. Whether Kindle wanted to give them up or not was on her. “Nevermind,” he said after a long silence, filled with the scraping of her knife deboning fish. “I gotcha. Forget I asked.”
“I punched them.”
“You did what?”
“I punched Zeke and Jeremiah. In the nose.”
Appetite choked and swallowed, thankful for his mutated throat and stomach. Without it, he might’ve found an early and stupid grave.“What?”
“I punched dem in the nose. Broke Zeke’s. Only bloodied Jeremiah’s.”
“They’re twice your size.”
“And I’m twice the better puncher than they are.”
“Guess you don’t need your pa fixin’ all your problems.”
“Thanks for offerin’ though.”
“I’m glad I have you ‘round.”
She finished making her food and sat down across from him in their chair. No matter how old she got, this wonder never truly left. Appetite remembered bringing her home, a small little girl that fitted in the palm of his hand, a tuft of thick black hair on her head. To see her now often brought memories he thought lost in his head. She did remind him of her. He couldn’t bring himself to even think of her name. It brought the soft kind of pain that brushed against the heart and lingered all day. Sometimes, it would’ve been easier if you were dead instead of gone. Then I’ll have a reason why you’re not here with your daughter. He knew he shouldn’t have thought that. It was an awful thing to think. Absolutely terrible. But he felt it all the same while also wishing she was here, playing with his long auburn hair with her long fingers and kissing him on the cheek. He shook off the thought. Kindle was here, her axe was here. She wasn’t. That was how it was.
They sat and ate together, Appetite slowed his already sluggish eating pace to match his daughters. They talked for a while about simple more, pleasant things. They talked of Doc’s new project, of the red cloud and acid rains to the north, and of news of the Fleets. In the solitude of a mountain, it was easy to forget there was a whole galaxy around them. This was a game for them, a past time between the two of them. They talked about things, trying the catch the other off guard with information that didn’t know. Tells told them whether the other knew about the news given. This afternoon ended in a pleasing draw for the two of them. Thought I got her with the news of Vice Admiral Blitz. She was getting better. Kinda made him feel old.
“Got some chores to do and you need to get outta the house for them,” Kindle said after she finished her food.
“Oh? I thought this was my house, missie.”
“Then you’ll be mistaken, pa. “
“What am I gonna do?”
“Do something manly like fix a truck or shoot a gun or drink a beer with the boys. I don’t know, figure it out.”
“Ain’t that a little sexist?”
“Not if it’s true.”
“‘Ight. ‘ight. I’ll figure out something to do. Heaven’s name, kid.” Appetite opened his mouth and stuff a whole fried fish and a biscuit in his mouth and swallowed effortlessly. Kindle winced. “What, you wanted me out now, didn’t you?”
“You can take the plate with you…”
Appetite laughed, pulling up the sagging straps of his white tank top. He grabbed the halfway done plate. “Guess I’ll take my company somewhere else.”
“Can you at least sound a bit hurt for your lonely old man?”
“Um. Dang. You will be missed for a whole couple of hours. Better? Now git.”
When it came to the house being clean, she was the leading expert. He would only get in her way. Grabbing a few beers from the counter and a coat if the weather got cool, Appetite lumbered and shouldered through the front door to the yard of the Homestead. The sweet smell of grass and trees filled his lungs as he stepped onto the porch with bare feet. His yard was small plot wild grass, dirt and mud fenced off by barbed wire. Over the wire and a walk away was Drifter’s cabin, wood glowing a soft red in the setting sun. It wasn’t much different than his, small with a garage on the side for their vehicle. The garage door was up, and the truck was on the dirt sidewalk. The familiar sound of the water hose sputtering listlessly against the sound of bluegrass ran through his ears. Appetite wandered over, the sounds of his flip flops following his every step.
For long seconds, Appetite stood with his father as he washed his truck. The memories of doing this with his father filled his head. Jo and Evan were always there, playing in the wildgrass behind the house. Mom was there, sitting on the porch in her massive wooden rocking chair and knitting. He gave a rueful smile. Loner and the Rancher Queen had their own lives now. Mom preferred the warmth of their cabin, the company of her husband, and the lure of her dreams. That left them unchanged remarkably unchanged through these decades, only a little older and a little different. “Pa,” Appetite said, sitting down on the dirt road, plate and six pack in hand.
“Eh, oh, ‘ey Wood, what’s going on?”
“Nothin’ much. Need a drink.”
“Won’t say no to one.”
Everyone knew that it was almost impossible for either of them to get drunk or even buzzed. Not outta lack of trying. They had brewed everything from their own to stolen from the everyone that stepped foot on this planet. Not a one thing did it for them. Still, it made a good trade for them to smuggle off-planet. Appetite opened a can with a satisfying hiss and spray of white foam. He handed it to his pops. “Working kinda hard, need some help.”
“Nah, I’m getting it. Vermin’s gunk’s hard to get off.”
“urgh.” Appetite opened another can. “You might need that one for later.”
Drifter laughed. There was a tinge of sadness in his voice, soft on his words. “You’re still young, Appetite but you’re right”
“What am I right about?”
“We’ve been underestimating the Bluecoats. When will they come over to get rid of us? The refugees and mutants from the Wastes. Worse, when will Buck and his Hounds lose their patience with them. It’s only gonna take one spark and we’re gonna be in flames.”
Appetite had no response to that. Pit and his branch of the Caldwells known collectively as the Hounds had tempers. They weren’t the nicest fellas or even the smartest. They were bold, brash, dangerous, and violent. Given the chance, they would start a war with the Bluecoats over their distillery alone. “Uncle Pastor is the only one that can stop that from happening.”
“Monty doesn’t like to fight but he ain’t nice either. You haven’t seen him pushed over the brink.”
“Reckon that’s true.”
Drifter wiped the door of his truck clean again before grabbing his beer. He downed the entire can within a second. “We’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing but I got a bad feeling, sonny. Mary Lu has been getting more and more restless. I feel it in my gut too. “
“Yeah yeah, I getcha. What’s the plan for tomorrow?”
“We got a few things to take off planet. Ain’t nothing big, just for a bit more ammo and batteries. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You’re taking Buck?”
“Should I come?”
“I can handle your uncle if that’s what you’re askin’. Getting him and his kin out and about might cool their blood.” Drifter paused, motioning for the other opened beer with his fingers. Appetite handed it to him. “I will honestly prefer you here with your mom in case things got outta hand.”
Appetite nodded. “I getcha.” He chewed on the rest of his food, downing everything on the plate in minutes. “This might be what we’ve been lookin’ for. If they’re right, Captain Xan’s a big shot. A real player. With real player comes the good stuff. Real good stuff. Actual stuff we can use and survive on. Purifiers, ammo, guns, and crap that we can’t create on our own. If they wanna fight, we can give it to ‘em. We gonna have to play it smart though. Ain’t no playing around with people like this, pa.”
“You ain’t wrong, son. You ain’t wrong. We have to play it smart. For now, we gotta see what they got. Have you gotten anything on this fella.”
“I can if I tried.” Appetite shrugged his big shoulders. He knew people that can get some info on the Bluecoats. Might need to leave the mountain for it, but they were nice people, so the trip was well worth it. Besides, he hadn’t seen them in a bit. Would be nice to catch up on some old times. Maybe take Kindle if she was ready for it. She had said no for the past few times though. Appetite was wondering when if she would ever be ready to see the other side of her family. “They’ll know what’s cookin’ down there.”
Drifter smiled. “I’ll like that. Gotta know what’s happening. Can’t do much if we go in blind.”
“Gotta agree with that.” Appetite wiped the crumbs from his lap. He stood up, feeling the amplified energy of the food coursing through his body. “You missed a spot.” Appetite wandered over, grabbing underneath the truck and lifting it up with ease of one arm. He pointed to the green spot dripping underneath the truck. Drifter cursed underneath his breath, grabbing his bucket and muttering about ripping all four of Vermin’s off their shoulders. He began cleaning with an old rag and a sweet-smelling soap used often for ships.
“I’m proud of you. I don’t feel like I tell you, Jo and Evan that enough.”
“We’ve always known, Pa. Always.”
“Y’know, I never expected to have kids.
“I didn’t. Not ‘cause I didn’t want kids. I did. I thought I wouldn’t be a good pa, y’know. There’s a reason why we don’t talk about your grandpa. He wasn’t…good. I mean I ain’t either. You can put it down. You don’t need to strain your back or anything.”
“A strain? On a full stomach?”
“Relative term, pa.”
“Thought so. Thanks for the help though.”
Appetite eased the truck down, muscles bulging for a second and deflating back their normal flabby state. He rolled his shoulders, taking in a deep breath. Something like that wouldn’t put a scratch on the abnormal amount of energy he got from food. Habit made him wish that he had something else to snack on to replenish himself. Appetite rolled his shoulders and relaxed for a moment. “Heavens you’re strong. I forget how strong sometimes. I don’t know how. I’ve seen you rip a man in half and then–’”
“I wasn’t in the best head space right then.”
Drifter took a long draft from his second beer, turning off the hose with his free hand. This time he took it slowly like his son, savoring the moment of the drink. He exhaled again, his long white hair a veil over his eyes. Again, he looked a little bit sad but this time there was something else. There was something that he hadn’t seen often, an excitement. The thoughts of a big pull brought something out of his old father. He hadn’t even considered the thought of this working towards their advantage. That ain’t the whole story. “Did ma say something?”
“She had another dream.”
“It’s better that you hear it from her. Come in.”
After drying off the truck and gathering their things, father and son wandered in the main Homestead’s cabin shoulder to shoulder. Appetite walked to the big brown door, feeling a wave of nostalgia the moment his feet hit the porch. He came often and every time he wondered if he could ever stand in this house without thinking about the chubby little boy raised here. Every stone underfoot, every board and nail underfoot felt unmarred by the decades. Blindfolded, he could make it to this door from the road. He remembered sitting outside, looking at the crashed remains of his father’s escape spaceship and thinking of traveling. Funny, when he got old enough and did, he only thought of here. You never know what you got until you’re away. Sometimes where you are is where you belong. Drifter opened the door to the cabin.
They stepped into the warmth of the fireplace, wood crackling on the side. The living room always made the big man feel smaller. He took off his shoes out of habit, feeling the familiar slick wood and thick fur from an early conquest. The cabin was barely furnished. A small table was immaculately set in the corner, covered with that ol’ red and black tablecloth, a few mugs, plates, and silverware. The soft unsteady hum of the fridge inside and the hobbled generator was a sound he remembered. The smells of light cigar smoke, scented candles of cedar, and a cheap beer too brought the memories on. His mother was sitting by the fire, knitting, and rocking yet another rocking chair.
Mary Lu Caldwell was a small woman, petite in her massive chair. Her white hair was tied tight into a bun atop her head. Her skin was paler than his father without any of the redness that came from the sun. She looked over her shoulder and smiled, the light in her bright aqua eyes shining. She put down whatever she was making and rose from her chair, grabbing for her cane. Drifter rushed over to offer his skinny arm as leverage. “Dear, you should know by now that I’m stubborn.”
She was the Augur of Owls. No one spoke of it, not even the family. Drifter, Appetite, Kindle, Vermin, the Hounds. Those were names they chose for the abilities and their personalities. The Augur was a legend, a title. Something brought over from a time long ago. Appetite felt his heart pound in his chest as his mother approached. She grabbed his hand, rubbing his hairy white knuckles with her old cold hand. “Sit down, I made some tea for the both us.” Drifter offered his arm again. This time she caved and rolled her eyes. “Fine, if you’re gonna treat me like an old woman at least act like an old man, Luke. You’re not a young stag anymore.”
Drifter kissed her on the brow. “Everyone’s gotta have a hobby.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Mary Lu sat down at the table, a small kettle whistling a high-pitched note. She poured the scalding water into cups lined with white and yellow flowers and a single stick of cinnamon. This was a rare occasion, so rare that Appetite had a hard time remembering when the last they had that otherworldly tea. She stirred the drink with the cinnamon. “I’ve had dreams of black fur and fire.”
“Black fur and…fire?” A sharp wooden crack struck Appetite on the side of the head, sending stars in his eyes. “oww, ma!”
“I wasn’t done. Don’t ask questions until the end.”
Drifter laughed. He was on the receiving end of that cane much too many times.
“Fire and black fur. Rot and mud.” She took a sip of the tea, relaxing her shoulders. “There’s howls of pain, of rage, of death. There’s a small fire among them, keeping them warm. There’s a laughing man wrapped in shadow and a white mare riding on the distance. There’s a boy and a fire in the woods. There’s a man swathed in sunlight, a sweet smell on his lips and coppery smell in the air. An old city with…. It’s…” His mother voice stopped cold as though she slammed on the brakes of her own mind. “There’s a lot. Too much even to speak. What you need to get out of this is simple, your daughter is going to be involved in this. She’s important in all this.”
Appetite shook, feeling cold and helplessness for a second. He drained a cup of tea and a can of beer in hopes to gain feeling back in his fingers. This was the first dream she had ever had involving Kindle and it involved fire, rot, snow, and Heavens know what else. Bad signs. Bad signs everywhere. The Augur of Owls. The seer of bad omens. The Caldwells were always superstitious, believed in hunches and luck–both good and bad. But her visions weren’t words to be taken lightly. They were truths, though vague and took some good ol’ fashioned thinking. What does any of that mean?
“Whatcha mother’s trying to say is that there’ some hard times ahead. Tougher than anything we’ve faced in your lifetime.”
“Ain’t nothing we can do about it.”
“Is that much any of us can do when hard times creep on us?” Mary Lu gave a soft laugh, her voice low as though tiring from the very prospect of the dream. “You’re smart, Wood, much like your father.”
“Much smarter,” Drifter corrected.
“Ain’t true but thanks, pa.” Appetite tried to gather his thoughts. “I’ll think on it.”
“Don’t. That’s my job. It was a head’s up. Your job like my husband’s, your father’s, is to do what you do best. Protect our family and provide for them. That always comes first. That’s all I needed to say. Do you have anything to add, sweetie?”
His father held his mother’s hand and gave her another kiss on the brow. A million expressions flashed against Drifter’s face from the loving expression, to thoughtfulness, into something Appetite knew all too well. People often wondered where he got that look from, that hungry from everything. Though Appetite’s hunger was considered more literal than anything, Drifter had been who he inherited it from. If dark times were going to come, they were going to bring whatever brought it down with them. That was how they worked. The Caldwells didn’t back down from anything.
Appetite returned home at night to a clean but empty house. He frowned, walking through his empty house with heavy footsteps. Kindle was gone, not even a trace or a letter of where she had gone. In any other situation, he wouldn’t have worried. She was a smart girl, resourceful, a good shot to boot. Tonight though, as the night grew cold and the dark turned black, he felt a sense of dread roll through his body. He wandered their three-room house, heart thumping tight in his chest. Footsteps, only his footsteps echoing through their cold wooden halls. His throat tightened further. Kindle would’ve been back by now, she would never let him come home to a cold house. She never liked the cold. She must’ve left hours before. But where had she gone?
Despite his mother’s effort, his mother’s word had clung to him. She meant well, of course. Perhaps it was that was why she told him. His father’s family trusted the Augur’s words wearily. They knew it was true nine times outta ten. They didn’t want to hear something that they didn’t need to hear. They acted like Mary Lu had no control over what came out of her mouth. She knew what to tell them and she told him. The fear for his daughter rolled in his stomach. She hadn’t spoken of Kindle’s death. Or did she? Dangit, ma. Only she could do this to them.
He walked through the empty house to the back room. His bedroom was clean as the rest of the house, his massive bed perfectly made, folded back, with four pillows stacked up. Appetite walked through the room, hearing the small crickets outside of his window. He walked to his closet, thinking for a shockingly moment of his night clothes and the fixed bed. The very thought of his girl hurt rammed the tiredness out of his bones and onto the floor. A new energy rolled through his body, thick like curdled milk in a glass. He frowned and rushed to his closet, the closet. He opened the door to his armory.
It was nice to keep the arms unlocked now that his girl was old enough to have her own. Shotguns were his favorite weapon. Something about them, the sound and the mess they made satisfied that thrill. He owned other things: pistols, knives, rifles, swords, hatchets, composite bows. He found devices, energy weapons, and bombs in his travels as well. Reaction alone brought his hand on Ham Bone, a sawed-off shotgun from a gunsmith off-planet. He remembered having it made in the deserts with–
Nevermind that. He grabbed all the shell he could carry, a knife, and a pistol.
He laced up his nice pair of boots and threw on some body armor for his protection. Though his body had some resilience of its own, he needed to be careful. The energy of passion rose through him again. Where would I go at her age? He would want to go somewhere to prove themselves. She wasn’t like him in that. Someone must’ve pushed her. His mind rolled through the thoughts in his head. Black fur and a small fire to keep them warm. He wouldn’t have thought about it. She was with the Hounds. He didn’t know which ones; Pit’s side of the family was numerous to say the least. That meant figuring out where they were going to go.
The only place he could think of was back to the Four Water Lake. There was a Blue Coat encampment near there, Kindle had seen it with their own eyes. She would know how to get back, the Hounds would need that. They weren’t known for their ravenous impatience inherited from their father or grandfather. Kindle got a little of that from her Uncle Pit too. They would want to try something. Appetite growled, fastening the weapons to his waist. He hated this. He hated things without a plan. But it was what it was.
Armored to the teeth and stuffing some protein bars into his pockets, Appetite journeyed out into the night for a late-night hunt.