October 24, 2012 by Vee Villarreal
The flight to the estate had been a short, but enlightening one. The town was small, minuscule really; consisting of a hall, a small market, a pub and a few houses crowded around an open square. On the outskirts of town there were more small houses spread about. The first thing she had noticed about the estate as they flew near was the fence. Surrounding the grounds was a tall fence, topped with barbed wire. At each corner there was a guard tower and at the gate that connected the large, dirt roadway to the property there was another guard station. The site looked more like a military base than a school. The grounds were swarming with men in uniform and as they dropped down to land, she noticed they were armed. She had expected Globalnetics to have a military presence in this remote zone, but what did they need a whole armed platoon for?
She stepped carefully down from the helicopter to the dusty field, wisps of dirt whirled up from the slowing propellers wrapped around her. A path cut across the field to a large house. The house was surrounded by small outbuildings, painted the same color as the siding of the big house. The house was old and in need of some repair, but far prettier and larger than she’d been expecting. It was two-storied with a shingled roof that angled to the front and back. The wooden siding was painted a whimsical pale green and along the doors and windows there was white trimming. The paint was chipped and peeling in some areas, but in remarkably good condition when compared to the exterior state of many of the small homes they had passed on their way there. The front door of the estate house was white too, with a ratty screen-door in front of it, good for ventilation, but not so good for keeping out mosquitoes. There were three wooden stairs that led into the house and the path to the house crossed between two tall palm trees. Two notable luxuries had been afforded them by the age of the house, one was glass-paned windows, complete with white shutters, and the other was utilities. Most of the homes in the more rural zones, and the Pacific Sector as a whole, were built Post-Wakening and did not have electrical wiring or indoor plumbing, since in these areas infrastructure was abandoned or destroyed during the subsequent conflicts. This home had been built sometime around the early 1900’s and had been renovated since. Globalnetics had sent ahead supplies years ago to allow the troops stationed here to establish power and clean, running water. There were also several large generators for use during emergencies and outages. The work crews had managed to build the facilities and set up barracks for the military, but had apparently been disinterested in maintaining the grounds closest to the house. The sides of the house were lost in a sea of tropical foliage. Wild vines trailed up the siding and gutters. Between the house and the garage she could see a small swing strung from a large, thick trunked tree in the corner of the backyard. She was amazed; somehow, both the house and this tree had survived the earthquakes that ravaged this sector thirty years prior.
The pilot gave them an overview of the grounds, pointing out the stables, main school buildings, the medical facility and the barracks. By the time they reached the garage on foot the local work crew had piled out of the truck and she noticed the driver was on crutches, left pant leg rolled up and pinned in place below his knee. Her mother was watching him as well. The green-eyed man from the wharf, Patch and Hunter began unloading the truck. The latter two were trying to maneuver a large palette off the back of the truck, while ‘Mr. Gresham’ moved to pick up an overstuffed duffle bag. Summer and her mother both involuntarily motioned for him to stop. Her mother had purchased a sizeable stock of fabric in Chicago before the trip to use for linens, smocks, scrubs and the like. There was enough to fill four huge bags, each weighing at least eighty pounds; Summer could barely lift one high enough to get the strap around her shoulders.
“Oh, be careful, those are very heav-,” her mother’s protest was cut short as the man pulled the bag effortlessly up and over his back with one arm. Once he had the strap secured across his body he lifted two more bags, one on each shoulder. He offered them an apathetic glance before moving towards the open doors of the garage.
Summer noticed her sister watching her, an amused smirk on her face. She’d been lost in her own thoughts as she watched him work and she blushed with embarrassment at her sister’s discovery.
“Well he’s certainly very handy to have around.” Her mother commented. “That must be close to three hundred pounds he’s carrying.”
“I think Summer would agree with you, Mom.” Miranda chimed in.
“Shut up, I was impressed, that’s all.” She tried to explain, but it was futile, her sister now had fodder to torture her endlessly with. Summer sighed loudly to herself; it was going to be a very long day.
On the other side of the garage a small group of soldiers were gathered around a tree stump boisterously playing cards. They must have been part of Sean’s unit, several of them looked up from their hands when the truck pulled up, but none of them so much as moved a muscle to introduce themselves or to offer their assistance while Patch and Hunter moved some of the furniture into the house and the green-eyed muscle man lifted boxes of equipment and carried them into the garage. She found the man on crutches inspecting the well around the back of the house. From the way he was standing she couldn’t pick out anything unusual about his injury. Just as she reached the well her mother made an appearance at the back door of the house and called to them. The man turn around rapidly at her greeting and seeing Summer suddenly right behind him he overcorrected, landing on the edge of the well. He came down hard on his left leg, which had him gritting his teeth and a whistle of suppressed agony passed through them. Her mother rushed to his aid as he settled himself on the rock ledge.
“Are you alright?” Jean asked as she knelt beside him. Her deft hands immediately went to his left pant leg to begin undoing it so she could examine the affected area. The man reached down to stop her.
“I’m fine.” He managed through clenched jaws.
“Please, allow me to look at it. I’m a doctor; I might be able to help you with the pain.” Her mother was still primed to begin an examination.
“No.” He spoke firmly, then he pulled himself upright again with the help of the crutches. “Really I’m fine; it’s just an old injury flaring up.” Her mother stood too, looking dismayed, but determined. Summer knew it was only a matter of time before her mother would convince him to submit to an exam.
“I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced.” Jean brushed off her hand on her clothing and held it out to the man, who looked stunned. “I am Dr. Jean Harding, and this is my daughter, Summer Harding.” She motioned to Summer as she made introductions. The man looked from her mother to her and back again before tentatively reaching to take the offered hand.
“I’m Kai Gresham, ma’am.” He shook her hand, the apprehensive look still gracing his face.
“Gresham? I believe Mr. Pate, referred to that rather stern fellow on the dock as a Mr. Gresham as well.” Jean glanced at Summer for confirmation. Before Summer could respond Kai interrupted them.
“Kopi? He’s my brother, he works at the Pate Ranch.”
“Is he always so…austere?”
“I would usually describe him as angry or difficult, but yes, he is.” The man readied himself to leave, but before he dismissed himself to hobble back to the truck, he informed them that the well appeared mostly free of debris and that the water should be ready for washing and drinking.
Once he was out of earshot her mother turned to her. “Well that was interesting,” she mumbled. She looked up at Summer and smiled joyfully. “You should come inside, it turns out the house is already partially furnished. A pleasant surprise! And the furniture appears to be hand carved; the pieces are really quite lovely.” Her mother excitedly waved for her to follow as she walked back up the stairs and through the back door of the house.
The backdoor lead directly into the kitchen, which was rudimentary compared to the one they’d had in their old house back in Chicago. The color scheme was a muted yellow and green, which as she looked through the archway into the dining room seemed to extend to the rest of the house. The house had beautiful polished wooden floors that were obviously as old as the house. The boards were red brown in color with pits and scuffs here and there from wear. The stove was an antique ceramic-coated oven with four eyes, at least it was gas, through that did pose the problem of figuring out if there was a working gas line. The dining room was very roomy and, as her mother had stated, furnished. There was a large window on one wall overlooking the backyard and a long, crafted wooden table with ten matching chairs. The dining set was incredibly sturdy and the backs and legs of the chairs were ornately decorated with carved plumeria and elephant leaves. The walls throughout most of the house were plastered in pale beige wallpaper with minute yellow and green blossoms. The living room was accessible through a doorway that passed under the stairs. It was airy and both outside facing walls were covered with large windows. There were two antique couches and a small end table, as well as, a carved china cabinet that matched the dining set. Dust laden sheets, which her mother had removed and piled in a corner, had covered most of the furniture. To the left of the dining room there was a cozy library that contained a small number of very old books, but plenty of floor to ceiling built-in shelving to hold her father’s collection and a gargantuan cherry wood Oxford desk.
To the right of the living room, and in front of the kitchen there was a pair of white French doors that lead into a bedroom suite with a private bath. The plumbing included a claw foot porcelain tub and pedestal sink with a small medicine cabinet and an outdated commode.
Up the stairs there was an open loft and four more bedrooms. Two with a private baths and two more that shared a hall bath. One of the bedrooms had been a child’s at one point and came complete with a crib, a tiny bed and a beautiful, vintage dollhouse.
Summer chose the bedroom at the end of the hall which was a good size and being in the corner had two large windows. It was already furnished with a large canopy bed, matching dresser and night stands. It was comforting to know she wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor tonight, though she would have to share a bathroom with any future guests, but she decided to leave the suites for her parents and sister, who took far more time in the bathroom anyways.
The house was equipped for electric lights, but all the plugs were too outdated for modern appliances, so updating those would be added to the list of things to do. She loosened the knob on the water hose near the base of the sink and turned on the tap. Much to her surprise a liquid brown sludge oozed out, but within a minute turned to clear water. At least the plumbing worked, or as far as she could tell it did.
The men worked all day in the heat moving furniture, boxes and laboratory equipment into the house and garage, and making trips back and forth to the ship. Sean arrived after the third trip in a dust covered jeep. He stormed into the house, where Summer, Miranda and their mother were scrubbing walls and dusting cobwebs out of corners. He’d been too frustrated to say much of anything, but hearing there was running water he quickly went upstairs to wash up in the bathroom.
When the men were all done unloading the last bit of cargo the sun was setting slowly beyond the horizon. Kai’s brother, the one he’d called Kopi, walked through the door to announce that dinner was ready. She was relieved and starving, though she couldn’t imagine how they’d found time to cook, let alone what they found to cook. Perhaps Sean’s soldiers had offered to cook, she thought, but once outside she could see that wasn’t the case. Five uniformed men along with her brother were all relaxing around a campfire on a side lawn that bordered the barracks. Summer was disgusted by their laziness, not even offering to help the workers as they struggled with all that equipment.
Patch and Hunter were setting up an old wooden table and some chairs on the lawn in front of the house. They apparently had also found some lanterns somewhere and had them lit and hanging from a few of the adjacent trees. Several yards from the house they had constructed a barbeque pit and had the butchered remains of two calves set over some metal racks, roasted to a crisp perfection. The smell was intoxicating and she hadn’t eaten all day. She wasn’t sure when they had had time to slaughter and dress the animals or how they’d managed to tend the coals all day; animals that size must have taken most of the day to cook. Kopi was squatting near the pit, removing bits of meat and organs and placing them on platters, Kai sat on the ground next to him. She walked over to greet them.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” She smiled as she approached. They both looked up at the sound of her voice. Kopi mumbled a greeting of sorts and Kai returned her smile.
“It smells delicious. Thank you for cooking us dinner and for all your hard work.”
Kopi grunted a response as he added a few more slices of beef to the platter. Kai tapped him roughly on the shoulder then turned back to Summer. “He means, you’re welcome.”
Summer chuckled uneasily, something about Kopi bothered her, she couldn’t place it yet, but it left her feeling wary and intrigued.
“You can take a seat at the table; we’ll bring over the food shortly.” Kai waved her in the direction of the table.
She joined her parents and Miranda at the table. There was a pot of stewed greens with tomato that smelled bitter and spicy, as well as, some hard loaves of brown bread. She hadn’t noticed it before, but there were several women sitting on a blanket to the left of the cooking pit. They were soaking up grease from the meat with bits of bread and chatting amiably amongst each other.
“Do you think they’re the ones who made the stew and bread.” Miranda postulated as she emptied a ladleful of greens onto her plate.
“Probably, I wonder if they’re wives or sisters to our helpers,” her mother responded.
Patch approached them and set down a platter covered with an assortment of cuts of meat and a few miscellaneous bits for them to share.
“Patch, who are those young women sitting on the lawn?” Her father asked.
“Oh, that’s my wife and Hunter’s wife, the other three are their little sisters. They brought you some bread and fixin’s to go with the meat.” Patch replied with a smile.
“That’s lovely of them, please, won’t you join us.” Her mother motioned to the empty seats at the table.
“Uh, I’m not sure we should ma’am, but thank you.” Patch began to shy away from the table.
“Nonsense, I insist!” She urged him to take a seat. “Invite the others to join us as well.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He replied sheepishly as he waved the rest of the group over. They seemed hesitant, but moved slowly toward the table, even Kai pulled himself up from the lawn and back onto his crutches. All of them took a seat at the table, all except Kai’s brother, Kopi, who stayed by the cook fire, cross-legged with a plate of food on his lap.
“He can join us too.” Her mother added.
“He won’t, ma’am, no offense to you. He’s just…” Kai paused, his brows furrowing, “shy around new people.”
“He didn’t seem too shy to me.” Miranda commented under her breath.
“Miranda, I’m sure Kai knows his brother better than you do.” Her mother reproached Miranda.
They ate in relative silence, the sound of the hot coals crackling and the bawdy chatter of the soldiers filling the emptiness. Summer watched as one of the women, a girl really, seventeen at the oldest, got up and walked across the lawn to the soldiers’ campfire, several loaves of bread in hand. Kopi watched her too as she conversed with the men. One of the men pulled the girl lustily onto his lap, she struggled against him and voiced protest, but he held her down. Before Summer could react to the scene Kopi was on him. The girl slipped free and ran right into Kopi’s chest, she shrieked in surprise, but Kopi just motioned for her to return to the women. Summer couldn’t hear what they were saying, but words were exchanged between he and the offender, quite aggressively, ending when Kopi turned to return to the cooking fire. The girl appeared shaken, but unharmed and Summer hoped that would be the worst of the rowdiness for the evening.
Once the tension ebbed, conversation at the table began to flow along with some wine that her parents had brought out. Hunter and Kai didn’t partake in any, but Patch drank enough for the three of them and was soon rosy-cheeked and loose-lipped. She got the sense that Kai was kicking him often under the table.
“So, where is your family tonight, Kai?” Jean drew the focus across the table to the quiet man picking at the food on his plate. Kai lifted his head, eyes wide.
“Uh, it’s just me and my brother, ma’am.”
“Really? Neither of you are married?” Her mother sounded surprised.
“Well, that’s a shame.” Summer glared at her mother for being nosy.
“Sure is, those two ought to be beating ladies off with a stick.” Patch chuckled and jabbed Kai playfully in his ribs with an elbow. “Too bad you’re both hermits.”
Kai rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t concern you, Patch. Besides I’m not exactly the most eligible bachelor.” Kai nodded to the crutches leaning against the table.
“Well, what about little brother over there, you can’t tell me he doesn’t get any attention from the single girls.”
“Stop pushing it, Patch. Kopi isn’t interested, when he is, I’ll make sure you’re the first to know.” Kai narrowed his eyes at the man.
“Little brother?” Miranda interjected. “I never would have guessed he was younger than you.”
“Well, it’s not a reference to his size, the man’s practically a giant.” Jean added.
That made both men laugh. “In truth, I’m only a year and a half older.” Summer watched as a smile bloomed on his face. Kai was calmer than his brother, with a softer more expressive face. Curly ebony hair framed his face like a briar patch, strands fell sporadically over his forehead and neck. Where his brother was intense and striking, Kai was endearing.
“How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Summer inquired.
“That would make your brother Summer’s age.” Miranda stated, a playful lilt in her voice as she looked to her sister.
“Indeed it would.” Her mother replied, completely missing the intent of Miranda’s jest. “I must say that scowl of his does make your brother look considerably older. I hope he’s not always this serious.”
“Yeah, usually.” Patch answered just before Kai jabbed an elbow in his ribs.
“I have to say, I am a bit concerned for him. I haven’t seen him drink any fluids all day and in this abominable heat he didn’t seem to sweat at all. I’m worried he might be dangerously dehydrated.” Her mother, the clinician, took matters of hydration very seriously. She was also spookily observant.
Kai and Patch exchanged looks before Hunter, who had been quiet this whole time chimed in. “Kopi doesn’t sweat.”
“That’s ridiculous; everyone sweats, unless he doesn’t have sweat glands.”
“He’s fine, ma’am, I’ll tell him to have some water in a bit.” Kai calmly stated, cutting off the train of inquiry; Summer caught him glance warily at Patch as he said it.
“They gonna figure it out eventually, Kai.” Patch whispered, a little too loudly across the table. “If they wanna know, all’s they gotta do is ask one o’ them soldiers. We’re all registered.” Kai shushed him in response.
Summer looked to her mother, who raised an eyebrow in suspicion at the young mens’ mumblings, Summer imagined she heard it too.
Kopi kept to himself looking stoic and lonely. In the midst of heated conversation and boisterous laughing Summer noticed another of the young women snuck over to Kopi’s side, whispering in his ear and pointing into the darkness along the side of the house. Kopi rose to follow her into the shadows, looking over his shoulder before slipping into the black. Summer felt a wave of disgust imagining the brute defiling the young girl, though she did appear willing and she had propositioned him, still he had to be years older than her. She tried to return her focus to the conversation at the table, but her eyes kept wondering back to where the two had disappeared.
Fifteen minutes passed before she looked up to find Kopi sitting by the coals again, he didn’t seem too disheveled. Kai had noticed his absence as well and now got up to join his brother. They were speaking in hushed tones to each other, not that it mattered; they were out of earshot of the table anyways. Their gaze was on the group of women. The one who had lead him off had returned and the other girl, the one Kopi had rescued from the groping soldier was with her; her eyes were red and puffy and she clung to the other women. Alarmed, Summer shot a glance back to Kopi who caught her glare, his sharp green eyes stealing her breath, and broke away quickly. She wondered what he’d done to the girl and hoped it wasn’t what kept playing through her mind. A chill ran up her spine as she watched him and her dinner curdled in her stomach. The thought of confronting him about the incident crossed her mind or perhaps telling Sean, he would know how to handle it, but he already had a vendetta against the man and it hardly seemed fair to release her brother on Kopi without knowing the whole story first.
A loud shriek jolted her out of her thoughts. It took a moment for her to take in the chaos unfolding around her. The soldiers were moving quickly toward them. Miranda, her father and the men were gone from the table and her mother was standing near the end, her eyes were distant and her face sickly white; red and orange light danced across it like a canvas, flashing in the whites of her eyes. Then there was the choking smell of thick smoke filling her nose, searing as it trickled down her throat.