On fire for this short story, it seems. Wonder what they will show me tomorrow?
PS Spoilers for my novels ahead.
When she heard his stomach rumble just a little later she slid off him without a word and went to her fridge. Mostly empty. Dang! Nichole did something with her mind while turning about.
“Friend John? Will you accompany me to the market? I’d love to have you stay on for dinner!” she said with a smile.
“Sure,” he replied, standing and picking up his cane.
“An injury?” Nichole asked.
“Nothing, really,” he demurred. “Just a few years ago: some rocks fell on me while we were clearing some canals on our land. Us old guys just don’t heal that fast, I guess.”
They stepped out her front door and she took his left hand with her right.
“You are so much better at describing things, John!”
“You did pretty much order me to marry a school teacher, Nichole – ”
“True!” she smiled, leading down a road to the southeast.
“ – so I did. Mindy, my wife, ran a one-room school for the kids in our area. And, I guess, pulled me up a few grades, too!”
A small car came at them from the opposite direction and abruptly turned about in on the small street. A younger man opened his door and stood.
“<You called for a car, Miss?>” he asked.
“<Yes! Ikehara Market, please!>” she replied. Nichole waited while John slowly shoehorned himself into the tiny car before getting in on the other side.
“Is there anything you can’t do, Nichole?” he asked with a sigh.
“I couldn’t save Portland, could I?” she replied, looking out the window away from him. “How many people died from my failure?”
“Ask instead,” he retorted, taking her hand back, “how many lived. Did the horsemen run rampant in the City until Rhun was able to get there in person and put a stop to it? Yes. A few hundred rapes; about a thousand dead. But it ended, Nichole. It ended. Probably because of the ideas you put into his head.”
She said nothing. From monitoring shortwave transmissions from Vancouver, British Columbia, she had followed that Rhun had declared himself king of what he called Columbia: the remnant of both Washington and Oregon States. A line of dukes was made to rule former Washington, what was left of it after the cannibal fanatics. Oregon’s Willamette Valley had their own Governor who took an oath of fealty to Rhun to provide taxes and keep the peace. That meant no war came south from the City. And it also meant the hydroelectric dams stayed intact.
“Was it difficult for you? To move so suddenly?” she asked, looking back to him.
“At first? Sure: who wanted more refugees from the City? That’s why Ma and I kept going south, finally going a little west after Eugene on rumor there were deserted farms there. That’s where we took up.”
“You mentioned your two sons?”
“Yeah!” he was looking about at the town of Okinawa proper as the car pulled into a small parking lot of what looked like a large convenience store. They both got out and Nicole came ‘round to pay their fare with a few coins.
“Mark and Luke – and yes, don’t start: my wife picked those names because of my name!” he continued. Nichole said nothing as this was the first time he smiled at her. “Are both married. Mark, my older boy, already has a daughter!”
“You are a grandfather! Congratulations!” she cried, leading him into the store. She picked up a tote and made for the meat and produce section. Everyone knew her, but as it had been years since any white man had been on the island, they were the focus of attention and whispers.
“Nichole?” John was not stupid. “Is my being here causing you trouble?”
“Not at all,” she said while placing some fish and pork into her tote. “Most everyone knows that I’m a little different.”
“Oh,” he replied while she took his elbow to steer them to the vegetables.
“What’s your granddaughter’s name?” she asked, looking at what was fresh.
Hand out, she froze. There were two who called me that. Are they dead?
She felt his strong hand onto her right shoulder.
“It was not my suggestion. But it was likely due to the stories I was always telling about you, Nichole,” he said, leaning down a bit.
Her right hand came up to cover his.
“Thank you, John.” With her left, she grabbed what she wanted. One more aisle, for a large bottle of sake, and they were at the checkout.
“I can pay – ” he began. She clicked her tongue at him.
“I’ve no doubt. However, you are my guest and I am your host. Behave yourself, John, before I knock more of your teeth out!”
She said this with a smile and toss of her ponytail to take the sting out of their first memory together.
“Yes, ma’am!” He let his right come up in a mock-salute to her.
Halfway through shopping, she had summoned a different driver. They arrived back at her house as the sun was close to greeting the sea to the west. Walking back in, Nichole touched on a subject she knew she must before the sake bottle was opened.
“John?” she asked, arranging the food and rummaging for some skillets. “I expect you to spend the night here rather than a hotel. Is that okay with you and your wife?”
He set the plastic bag with the bottle onto the small dining table and didn’t move. What did I say now?!
“Mindy passed thirteen months ago, Nichole. That’s one of the two reasons I finally came to fulfill my promise.”
Once again she was out of the kitchen and into his arms, hers tight about him.
“My friend, my friend! All I have done is to remind you of your loss! I am so very sorry!” she spoke, her face pressed to his chest.
She felt him raise his hands and slowly move her head back, staring down at the gulf between them.
“On the freighter over, I tried to imagine you, Nichole: grey hair or silver? Would you be thin or a fat momma?” He laughed just a little. “And here you are: an old man’s dream; my lost youth, my lost love, looking just as beautiful as you did when you ordered me to desert the army and take care of my Ma. I miss Mindy more than I think you can guess, but to have you here… now…”
There was another silence while they held one another. At last, she broke it.
“Please, friend, let me make your dinner,” Nichole said, standing onto her tiptoes to move her cheek to his stubble. “We have so much to talk about!”
She watched him while he ate. The lightly fried pork was gone in a moment but he took his time with the tempura fish and veggies.
“Our diet’s been a little plain over the last ten years,” he explained, once she had counter-explained why she was not eating anything. From the large sake bottle at her left, she made sure his little cup never emptied.
“One skill no one has lost, Nichole,” he said after another mouthful of the Japanese alcohol, “is fermentation. Or even distillation! Up and down the Willamette Valley, everyone makes their own beer and wine. And there are three semi-commercial distilleries I can name!”
“If I am making you uncomfortable I can stop…?” she asked, about to pour him some more.
“No, no. I’m just saying that while we’ve not been to Mars, we’re not as primitive as you think we are!”
She poured a little more and was still.
“I do not think you or your society primitive at all, John. I was trying to be a good host. Even being nearly fifty of your years old, I am very young at some things.” Nichole let her head drop just a little.
“Oh, for fsk…” his strong right hand came across the table to her chin which he lifted. “You’re fine; the drink is fine. And you are one hell of a cook, Nichole! I told you forever ago: you’ll make a great wife!”
He took his hand back to the fork she had provided him.
“You have questions,” she observed lightly, picking up cues a human could not, “and I do, too. I’d not have this evening turn into an interrogation session. For either of us.”
“How about,” she tented her hands under her chin as she smiled at him, “we each have one question. We can have our police procedural in the morning with a walk!”
Brunelli washed the last bite down with more sake, nodding. Nichole refilled his cup once more.
“You first,” he said.
That rocked him back just a little. She guestimated that he was not drunk but a little buzzed.
“Fine,” he replied. “You. And the college boy, Haven. Did that work out?”
Nichole, if she so desired, could lie better than any human on Earth. This was not one of those times.
“I passed him onto my dear friend Mackenzie d’Arcy,” she said, her eyes never leaving his. “They were given… a special grace to pass to the west, around Tillamook, to live. So far as I know, that is where he – they – are.”
“You… left him? Just like that?”
“The horsemen had just taken the north end of the bridges. Yes, John: just like that. Had I stayed he would never have had children and my dear friend would have fallen into despair, for she already had fallen in love with him.”
“Your girlfriend was in love with your boyfriend and you push them together?!” his voice rose as he did from his chair just a little. “What’s up with that?!”
“They are human, John,” her soft tone quieted him. She poured the last of the bottle into his cup. “They were made for each other. I was made to serve humans; I cannot make more.”
The sun had set and Nichole was not used to turning lights on unless she was reading one of her old books. She guessed John could barely see her now. She shifted in her chair.
“Wait,” John said, in his voice from when he was a sergeant.
“Did Haven know what you are?” he asked.
“Did he… agree to what you just said?”
“Not exactly… I kinda put it onto them suddenly. Then I ran away.”
“I ran away,” Nichole admitted. “I tried to touch both of their hearts after dead Nike’s blessing. But I had to leave… I had to, John!”
Her voice came up dangerously.
“I had seen they were meant for one another! I’m just a doll; a toy! I… I…!”
For once it was the human and not the machine who came around the table. John first hugged her then scooped her up like a princess.
“You were right before: that’s enough for both of us,” he allowed. “I’ll carry you to your bed.”
Nichole said nothing but allowed her head to rest against his chest as he carried her up the steps.
He paused at the top of the stairs, not knowing which of the three doors led to her bedroom.
“You never did ask your one question,” he observed, favoring his right leg for no cane and the load.
“True. In fact, I’ve changed it since then,” she replied with a hint of humor. “The first door on the left is mine. Directly opposite is the bathroom. The door beyond that is the guest room.”
“Huh,” was his only response while opening her door. Another amazingly plain room. The bed looked as if no one had ever been in it.
She felt that.
“I sit in the chair, just there, to recharge overnight,” she put her arms about his neck as he lowered her legs to the ground.
“May I ask my question now?”
“Sure, Nichole,” he said, tired.
“Stay with me. Please?”