Here is another chapter that I dabbled with over the weekend. I have to leave early today, and forgot to post it at lunch, so here you go!
Where I’ve Been – Chapter 4
“Don’t wake the boy yet. He’s likely needing that sleep more than anything.”
Barley opened one eyelid as he heard the whisper from the kitchen. From his vantage, he saw a wall of red and black plaid perched on a rough-hewn stool, steam from a awkward clay mug beside him. On the other side, the worn face of his father, glasses perched on his own hawk-ish nose, a off-white cylinder glass steaming beside him.
He lay there for a moment, relishing the soft carpet underneath him, feeling the luxury of accomodation around him, thinking about coffee. It had been a long time since he’d tasted any. He rolled over, groaned, and decided he might as well get up.
As he stood and stretched, he remembered. It had been New York, at the ports, and he’d stolen several handfuls of beans from a big, burlap sack as quickly as his hands could scoop, inhaling the scent quickly before depositing them into his pocket. He had run like heck to the edge of the pier, dodging the security dogs and shouts from the crew that had dropped their guard around their cargo. He’d just made the leap onto a barge by the tip of his toes, but had been able to pay his way to wherever they went with coffee for the next three mornings.
He doubted they had coffee here. He didn’t smell any coffee. It must be tea then.
“G’mornin'” He mumbled as he passed by the two men in the kitchen. Morning was calling, and out of habit, he spied the nearest tree out the window, and without thought, headed for the door. His brain still hadn’t really registered that he was home.
“Barley.” he father said, and Barley turned. “We have a bathroom, you know.”
Maury was pointing to the room opposite the kitchen, where a shiny, white porcelain manual flush toilet was sitting. The pink rose-patterned wallpaper with gold striping shon out to him.
Barley stopped. “Right. Sorry. Mornin’ Chris.”
He was back in civilization now. He really didn’t need to rough it. With a sheepish nod of his head, he walked back past Maury, and Chris, both chuckling, and closed the door.
“It will take some time.” He heard Maury say, and a noise of agreement from Chris.
“What do you think he’s going to want to do now that he’s here?”
Barley grimaced. He hadn’t even thought of that himself. He’d been back just under twenty-four hours, and already the Elders were circling. It wouldn’t be long before he was in front of them, explaining his long absence. Part of him just wanted to get it over with, and deal with the paranoid questioning, long-hardened beliefs, and protectionist insularism he’d have to fight his way through. Then hope they let him stay, once he had told them who he had become.
But if he was to have to stand today and tell his story, part of him wanted to spend the day with Nessa, nestled into a crook of a tree, or up on a roof, just talking about nothing in particular, like the number of elbows on a bee, or whether Australia still existed.
Which it did, of course, and he hoped to be able to tell her all about it, and answer their burning childhood questions about the world, now that he had seen it.
Barley wiped his hands on a pink-dyed linen towel, and stood looking into the old, slightly warped mirror. He closed his eyes to the skin and bones in front of him, and instead turned his thoughts back to Nessa, and how she had filled in all the crevices he felt in his own body with a single touch last night.
When he had pulled her to him, the shock of human connection had almost overwhelmed him, like it had when his father had pulled him into a hug. But this had been different. Her scent, her softness, the warmth of her body pressed into his had almost made him buckle. But he’d kept his composure, more for her sake than his pride, and simply stored the absolute wonder that was her closeness into his brain to relish until he could experience it again, as he was now.
He’d said the truth to her when he told her she’d been with him always. And when he’d first seen her, the dust from the street around him, the people crowding him to welcome him home, all he’d wanted to do was beat a path to her.
But it had been ten years, and a lot of things had happened, she’d made that clear last night. He’d learned to deal with disappointment, and it was too soon to be able to say what he and Nessa meant to each other now.
Upon opening the bathroom door, Barley was greeted by two more men, both in equally rough plaid coats, and equally coarse beards. He recognized one man from the gate, riding the grey. The other man, he could not quite place.
“Son, you might remember Hammond Geralad” Maury said, gesturing at the first man. “and this here’s London Price, Quisita and Yannick’s father. They’re both elders now, come to see you.”
Barley nodded, and scraped a stool out from under the counter. He sat, warily eyeing the men, who were all looking back at him. He scratched at the days-growth stubble on his jaw, not used to shaving anymore, waiting for the awkward silence to be broken. He was overtly aware he was being measured in some way. Finally, after the clock has ticked a few more times, he rapped his knuckles to the counter and gave them each his best military “no bullshit” stare.
“I suppose you will want to gather and hear what I have to say.” He stated. “I know the rules.”
“You understand that we must.” London said slowly, looking more at Maury than at Barley. “Council has to rule on any new people wanting to stay.”
The men all nodded, and Barley leaned forward onto his hands. He looked to each of the men, including his father, lastly, and made his decision.
“Then let’s do this today and get it over with.”
Nessa took her place with her mother and sister in the pew a few rows back. The church was filling with people, ready to hear Barley’s story, and find out whether he would be allowed to stay.
She was fairly certain he would be, after all, he was one of them, even if he had left. But, as the rules stated, if anyone were to come through the gates that did not live there, they had to pass muster with the Council of Elders. Normally this involved a few days of getting to know the new person (or people) and a chance to see them working, but, in this case, it was different.
Nessa saw her father sitting off to the right with the other Elders. Beside him was London, and then Hammond. Turner was on his other side. Normally Maury would sit beside Turner, but today he sat with his family, arm around Jessica, her pale face and clutching hands making Nessa feel for the girl. She was so quiet and shy, this must be difficult for her to feel comfortable.
“I wonder who they’ll call for the fifth to break a tie vote.” Her sister whispered in her ear, and Nessa turned. She scanned the room.
“well, Mikaela would be a good choice… or maybe Peter, the blacksmith.” She whispered back, nodding at Quisita, who had sat with her mother and had turned in her seat to wave at them.
Her sister nodded silently and then got up to visit with Quisita before the whole thing got going. Nessa felt the cold from where her sister had been leaning on her, and pulled her jacket back up from behind her back. it would be warm soon enough withall the bodies packed into here, but for now, she had a chill that wouldn’t go away. Perhaps it was just the nature of this hearing that was making her feel this way. After last night’s reunion with Barley, she had tumbled thoughts and emotions through her head instead of sleeping, and now, with a chance to get some answers to her questions, it was very draining.
So she sat, looking at the book shelf in the pew in front of her, letting her eyes concentrate on the frayed edge of the psalm book binding, the tiny circles with felt in the bottom to put the communion cups on. She closed her eyes, head bent, and thought a prayer to God for Barley’s safekeeping. Funnily enough, as she opened her eyes again, she realized it was the same prayer she had uttered that first night he was gone, ten years before. It felt ironic, but comforting for her all in the same moment.
She was still anxious about what was to happen between her and Barley now that he was back. She had relieved some of the pressure speaking with him the night before, but she knew it was just the beginning.
Barley was sitting on the other side of his father, arm draped around his back, and she could see none of the Benson’s were talking. Nessa decided that she wanted to get up, and at least go and say hello, to support him. She half-rose out of her seat, her eyes towards Barley and his family, but she caught her father’s eye at the same time. He shook his head, and she sat down again.
Her father was always doing that, thinking just one step ahead of her. She tilted her head at him, and he did the same as he rose from his own seat.
“Folks, lets get this going, shall we? I don’t think anyone wants to miss lunch.” He stated loud enough for everyone to swivel and rustle back into place. He waited a moment, to let people take their seats, and Harriet slid in beside Nessa and grabbed her hand, squeezing.
Nessa squeezed back, thankful for the human contact.
“The first order is to bring someone up to sit for Maury Benson, as this hearing must exclude him on the grounds of relationship to the candidate.”
The gathered people all looked around and some murmured to their neighbours. Chris cleared his throat.
“It is our concensus that Mikaela Abernathy should come forward.”
Nessa watched as Mikaela rose from her seat and walked quietly to the Elder’s table, her long patchwork skirt swishing to reveal her brown leather boots, laced high above her ankles, the bells from her wristlets tinkling in time with her steps. Nessa was reminded of the time the tall woman had scolded both her and Barley when they were caught swinging from a branch of her Willow tree. She had said that they shouldn’t abuse trees, for they were our Earth’s lungs. The entire time, those tiny bells had chimed away, and later, Nessa had told her sister that Mikaela was really a fairy, like from the children’s books they were reading. Since fairies protected trees, it was no wonder she had been mad.
Mikaela took her seat, smiling at the other men, and then folded her long seamstress fingers.
“Shall we?” She said, her green eyes belying the calmness in her voice.
Nessa listened with half an ear as the formal Elder Council ritual was done, hung her head but left her eyes open when the prayer was said. She’d already said hers, and it was all she could do. When Barley was called to stand, she watched his thin frame, now in more appropriate clothes, move awkwardly towards the centre of the stage at the front of the church. She knew he was to stand for the duration of the hearing, and she wondered if he would be able to. A random thought to simply get up and bring him a chair hit her, but she resisted.
This was the way it was supposed to be.
Now that she could see Barley, with the light of day, she took in his appearance more fully. His overly-long hair had been tied back, combed carefully, still wet from a morning bath. The rough linen shirt he was wearing stood stiffly out from his neck, the collar poking up, giving him a waif-like quality, highlighting the thinness of his face. Her eyes travelled down his frame, noticing the too short sleeves, the long fingers, the ropy muscle of his forearm.
“He’s so thin.” Her mother whispered, barely audible. Harriet squeezed Nessa’s hands again and the sister’s caught each others eyes.
“Are you ok?” Harriet murmured right into her ear. Nessa simply nodded. She was, for now.
“Barley Benson, you are brought before Elder Council to state the reason for your petition to remain here with us. Please state the nature of your claim.” Turner said, reading from the worn black book in front of him.
“I am here as a member of this community. I have come home from being outside for the past ten years.” He responded quietly, lacing his fingers together and looking towards Turner. Turner’s eyes flashed something; Nessa barely caught it before Turner went on.
“Do you wish to remain here?” Turner said, sharply.
“Of course, this is my home.” Barley nipped back, a raised eyebrow.
“Why now, after all this time?” London said, holding a hand out to Turner, who opened and closed his mouth like a fish.
Nessa looked at Barley. This was the question she had wanted to ask him. This was it. Why had he come home?
Barley cleared his throat, and looked to the floor for a moment. She could sense he was working himself up to tell a bit of a story, and her heart reached for him. Suddenly she just wanted this to be over, so he could get back to being Barley, and not some scrutinized set of muscles for them to use. She wanted to jump up, and shout “It doesn’t matter!” but then, she knew that would be hypocritical. She wanted to know too.
As he looked up, he looked right at Nessa, and their gaze locked. She put a hand to her chest, feeling her heart beat. She had counted to two when he started speaking.
“I was an officer in the United Continental Army for the past six years. I was conscripted when I recovered from The Sickness and left Mad Island. ”
A murmur went through the gathering. Nessa heard a couple of whispered “sickness?” and her pulse quickened. He had been sick?
“The sickness? Turner blurted out. “You said at the gate you were healthy.”
Barley held up his hands and waved them. “I am, I am. I was able to leave the island because I recovered.”
“People don’t recover from The Sickness.” Hammond stated.
“They do. Many people have.” Barley said, then his shoulders dropped. “Some don’t.”
Nessa wondered at that statement, and could see in Barley’s face a deep sadness. Most likely he had lost friends while on his adventures. She felt herself tense, knowing that he must have been so lonely and needing family, when none was to be had.
“Can you prove this?” Chris asked. “Do you have proof you’ve recovered and were able to leave this… this island?”
Barley nodded and undid the shirt he was wearing. he slid off one sleeve hesitantly, stopped, and looked around. Nessa again felt embarrasment for him, his ribbed frame coming into view. How humiliating for him, to have to show his suffering to the entire community. She had a swift feeling of shame for being there, being part of the voyeurism. Why were they all here? They did not have a vote, they would abide by the Elder Council’s ruling.
They were here for the spectacle and the story, of course.
“It’s OK Son, show them.” Maury said, from his seat. Barley looked at his father, then slid the shirt the rest of the way off, standing up straight and adopting an inpenetrable look to his face. he slowly turned around, and two large, black tattooes stood out on either shoulder. The crowd again murmured, and Nessa watched her father hold a hand up again.
“Explain them.” He said quietly, once the crowd was silenced.
“My left shoulder is the tattoo that is given to anyone who recovers from the Sickness and can leave Mad Island. It is the year in binary, and above that a bar code that was placed and scanned by the International Health Office when I was admitted. When I left, the binary code was added to signify I was recovered. The bar code explains what I recovered from.”
Mikaela got up out of her chair, the scraping on the wood floor loud in the silenced room. She walked over to Barley, fingers resting lightly on his shoulder, the tiny chimes around her as she moved. He looked at her, and nodded at her unspoken question, and she lightly touched the tattoo, cocking her head.
“Do they still have electricity to the North then?” She asked offhand, looking at the other tattoo that he had not explained.
“yes Ma’am. They do.”
“Interesting. Looks real enough to me.” She stated, and stood off to one side of him. “What about the other one?”
Barley flexed his shoulder out, his ribs and shoulder blade moving under his skin to show a fierce eagle holding a lightning bolt, some writing in a circle around it, a number and three stars underneath that. Nessa felt her stomach twist, wishing she could smooth away the roughness, the hurt, the obvious memories that came with the tattoo.
“That is my regiment tattoo.”He said. “It signified I was a Captain of the heavy infantry division.”
Mikaela held her hand out again, lightly touching him, gesturing to his shirt, and he shrugged it back on, turning back around to face the crowd. Nessa could see the tiredness then, and veiled sadness. She watched his eyes, the warmth draining from them like a sink full of water. He’d turned himself off from the situation.
“Why are you not still with the army?” London asked.
“I deserted seven months ago, before a skirmish somewhere North of Minneapolis.”
The murmur became a hum, and Nessa’s father had to raise his hand and whistle. Nessa blinked. The army. War. Battles. She again clutched her chest and counted in her head.
“So you’ve come to hide here, in hopes the army will not find you?”
Nessa tore her gaze from Barley to her father, who had ground out the question. She could see just how angry he was. She knew he was thinking about the people who might come to look for a deserted Captain, and shatter the peace the entire community had worked so hard to keep.
“No sir. I am here because I wanted to come home. I’ve seen enough death and destruction, and I didn’t want to… kill anymore.”
“But in doing so have broken your contract with the military.” Chris added, standing. “Why, as a Captain, would you do that? Surely you were paid, had accomodation? Why now?”
Barley shook his head. Nessa discovered she was straining in her seat, and her sister was patting her arm, holding her down. She counted in her head, and wrapped her hand over her sister’s. ‘Calmness, Nessa’ she said to herself, and let a breath out.
“No Sir. You see, the United Continental Army was not a voluntary job. The country is at war above us. Chaos is everywhere, and good men are hard to find. Most ofthe ranks were filled with wanderers, survivors, those who had no home, and this provided food and stability.”
“What was your job then?” Mikaela asked softly, the sympathy easily read from her face.
Barley hesitated, then cleared his throat again. “It was my job to keep the men alive and moving while we retreated East from the bioweapons, and to recruit as our ranks were whittled down. The war was… was not going well for us.”
There was a pause as the room was silent. No one had heard about the war, with no news, no radio, no TV. They had been truly sheltered here, Nessa realized. She looked at her father, who had sat back down, worry lines in his face telling her everything she needed to know. She knew what his next question would be, before he had even spoken.
“How long before the army reaches us?” He asked, and Nessa held her breath.
“A few months at best, Sir, if they come this way.”
“Do they know where you would go when you left?” London asked. He too looked worried, glancing at his family.
“No Sir. I do not believe so.”
“Will they look for you?” This time it was Hammond, steepling his fingers. “What happens to us if you are found?”
Barley shook his head. “If I am found, I am executed, of course. No blame will come to you. However, no one will look for me, of that I am sure.”
“What makes you so sure?” Hammond added.
I know there will be hundreds more deserters as the army marches this way, too many to keep track of.” Barley replied, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Why is that?” Turner asked, his anger now visible, his stance on Barley plain for the entire gathering to see.
Nessa watched Barley take a deep, deep breath, and turn to look at the Elder Council.
“Because they intend to go South, and recruit the Forgotten.”