Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
Disclaimers: In chapter one.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
Dakota abruptly awakens to the sound of a low, but purposeful, growl, and the feel of a tense body all but vibrating along her left side. Her eyes quickly open to see Shannon plastered against the far wall next to the door, eyes wide as saucers, face white as cream.
“Relax,” Koda orders in a calm, even tone. “She’s not strong enough to come after you, and if you stay that way much longer, you’re gonna pass out.”
The Vet Tech’s dark, staring gaze darts, unseeing, around the room as if seeking an escape that is literally one step away.
“I mean it, Shannon. Calm down. Now.”
Instinctively responding to Dakota’s tone, Shannon relaxes, slumping against the wall and breathing deeply, as if she’s just come out of a trance.
“Good,” Dakota replied, rolling up to a seated position in time to cushion the fall of the she-wolf, whose energy has been completely drained by her protective display. Stroking the wolf’s head, she cradles the slowly awakening pup in her free hand, smiling slightly as tiny teeth and a curled pink tongue are displayed in a puppy-sized yawn. “Do me a favor and mix up some formula for this one. I made up some mash for the others, it’s in the refrigerator. Just take it out to warm and I’ll feed them when I’m done here.”
Nodding, Shannon keeps to the walls as she circles the room toward the counter where the formula ingredients are kept. Moments later, she approaches the tall woman, bottle in hand. Her posture is deliberately relaxed, but Dakota can smell the fear radiating from her in waves. The she-wolf scents it as well, and growls low in her throat, causing Shannon to drop the bottle into Dakota’s lap and back away, hands raised. “I—I’m sorry,” she mumbles. “My brother was attacked by a wolf when we were kids. It’d been shot and just left there to die. He just wanted to help, but…. I—I don’t think I’ve ever gotten past that.”
Nodding in understanding, Koda curls the pup next to his mother while supporting his head. He latches on as soon as the nipple enters his mouth, sucking vigorously and making little squeaking noises that cause Shannon to smile past her fear.
“G’wan out and see to the rest of our patients,” Koda says without looking up from her task “I’ll take care of things here.”
“Alright,” Shannon answers softly, somewhat embarrassed at her fearful display. “I’ll…um…be just down the hall if you need me.”
Without waiting for an answer, she darts outside and into the hall, leaning back against the cool wall with a definite sense of relief. Even so, the embarrassment still suffuses her face with a rosy glow. She’s old and honest enough to admit to the healthy crush she has on the tall, beautiful vet. The thought of doing something to upset her is….
“Alright,” she says, pushing herself away from the wall. “There are still a lot of animals that need care, Shannon, so start doing what they’re not paying you for and forget about this mess.”
Two hours later, all of the animals in the isolation ward have been examined, fed, watered, and placed back within their cleaned kennels. The she-wolf is sleeping soundly, her pup curled tight against her. Rising up from the kennel, Koda goes to the sink and washes her hands, then pulls off the gown she’s used to care for the animals in her charge. With one last look around, assuring herself that all is fine, she steps from the room, allowing the door to hiss softly closed behind her. She comes upon Shannon in the hallway as the young tech is attempting to convince a large, furry dog of indeterminate parentage that he really does want to go into the exam room and get his ears looked at.
The dog takes one look at Koda coming up behind Shannon and obediently walks into the room, leaving the young tech stumbling and almost falling into Dakota’s arms.
“Oh!” She jumps forward, spinning to look at the woman behind her, and immediately colors. “I’m sorry. You startled me.”
Koda steadies her with a touch to her arm, then passes, taking a brief look into the exam room, where the dog stands wagging his tail at her. “The Iso ward is buttoned up. Check in on them every fifteen minutes or so, and if there’s anything amiss, get ahold of Tacoma or Manny. I won’t be gone long.”
“Ok,” Shannon replies. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Good.” With a final smile, Koda continues her trek down the well-lit hallway and slips through the door.
The air is warm and smells of a spring that has finally come as she opens the final door and steps outside. She takes in a deep breath to cleanse her sinuses of the smell of bleach and alcohol and sickness, then lets it out a bit at a time, feeling some of the tension wash away from her body. With an added energy to her step, she crosses the short walk, and rounds the battered “company truck”, pulling open the back doors and peering inside. A cased hunting rifle, a .22 and perfect for her needs, sits near the front, the black leather of its case gleaming mellowly in the sunlight streaming through the truck’s bed. She lays a hand on it, then draws it away as a thought enters her mind. With a short nod, she leaves the rifle where it lies and backs out, slamming the doors securely shut.
Breaking into a light jog that warms and soothes her muscles, she heads back to the house. The house is, as expected, empty, and she enters quickly and quietly, as is her custom. In deference to the beauty of the day, most of the windows are open. The slight breeze flutters the curtains and brings with it the freshness of the outside air, tingeing the faint lingering smell of woodsmoke with the scent of newly budding life. A fist lightly clenches her heart, then releases as she thinks of her own beloved home, shuttered and abandoned these long, bleak months.
On the heels of that thought, quiet unbidden, comes a mental picture of Kirsten stepping into that space for the first time. An unconscious smile bows her lips as she plays the image through in her mind. And on the heels of that image comes another; the memory—so very vivid—of the kiss she shared with Kirsten in the very spot where she now stands. She can feel her pulse quicken as little sparks skitter down her limbs and belly, coiling together to form a gentle warmth that she is coming more and more to associate with the young scientist.
A moment later, she shakes her head, dispelling her thoughts, though not the feelings accompanying them, and walks into a spare room where most of her gear is stored. There, sitting behind her largest knapsack is a finely detailed leather case. Lifting it, she unhooks the rawhide loops from the bone buttons and slips out her bow. It is a beautiful piece, made for her by her uncle, Manny’s father, and a master craftsman. Made from the wood of the Osage Orange tree, it is strong, limber, and Traditional. Her quiver and arrows, these steel-tipped, lay next to the bowcase, and she picks up the quiver and slips it over her shoulder so that it rests easily, familiarly, against her back.
Bow in hand, she exits the house as quickly and as quietly as she had entered, leaving nothing to mark her passing behind.
The guards open the gate for her without complaint, and she slips into the freedom of open spaces, taking in the beauty of the day and letting the sun work its customary magic on her as she breaks into a trot, headed for the high crest ahead, where she’d found the she-wolf nights before.
She spies several sets of rabbit tracks straight away and smiles. The meat will be perfect to mix with the mash she’s already prepared, enabling the injured animals to regain their strength more quickly on food they’re accustomed to eating.
She notices that the tracks lead in the direction of the lone tree directly ahead; the tree whose bark litters the ground and whose trunk provides a living monument to the friend she’s lost. With a soft sigh, she continues in the direction of the tree, stepping around the huge trunk as the tracks veer off, and stopping, bow hanging slackly from a suddenly limp hand.
Wa Uspewicakiyapi is gone. Only the blood swirling in the rapidly melting snow remains. There are no bits of fur, no drag marks that would indicate a large predator coming upon his corpse. She blinks, and then stares. There, in the fresh muck and gore, lie a fresh set of bootprints of a size and a pattern she knows all too well.
Her lips peel back from her teeth, exposing a snarl more feral than any wolf ever born.
The man who slowly rises to his feet is her brother. That thought is clear in the part of her mind that remains in the human world. Tacoma, her twin in all but the day of his birth, close as if they had shared the floating darkness of their mother’s womb.
It is all that stops Dakota from launching herself across the room at him. Her vision holds him in the bright center of encroaching darkness, the hunter-sight that narrows until it focuses on the prey and the prey alone. Vaguely she is aware of another presence in the room, shifting form as the light pulses with every slam of her heart against her breastbone, now human, now not. Her blood howls in her veins, adrenaline sending shock after shock through nerves that she wills not to respond. Dry as old cotton, her mouth struggles to shape human speech. She says again, laying the words down like stones, “What have you done with him?”
In all their lives, Tacoma has never spoken less than truth to her. At some level, she knows that the shadow in his eyes is not a lie but uncertainty not over what to tell her but how. She waits in frozen silence, her anger gone all to ice within her. After a moment he says, “I brought him back to the clinic, Dakota.”
The cold within her goes more frigid still. There is only one place in the clinic he can be. Just to make certain, she asks. “In the freezer? Is that why the keys weren’t on the hook this morning?”
“Yes,” he answers quietly, “to both questions.”
“I scolded Shannon for losing them..” She makes a small, futile gesture with one hand. It seems to move on its own volition, apart from her will. “I should have believed her when she said she hadn’t been careless.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for her to be blamed. I was looking for you just now to tell you.”
Slowly color fades back into the edges of her vision, expanding the space around Tacoma to include the rust-red bricks of hearth behind him; the puzzled face of Asimov, head canted to one side; Kirsten, her eyes wide with something that is part fear, part pain. Some of her anger goes out of her then, leaving emptiness behind. And yet, she knows that the fear is for her, not of her; the pain endured for her. She lets some of the anger flow out of her on a sigh. “Why, Tacoma? For gods’ sake, why?”
Tacoma pauses, and Koda realizes that he is choosing his words carefully. Then he says, “To be a witness, tanksi. Partly to show that Manny shot a man who was violent and dangerous and had earned his death. And more importantly, to show what we—we humans, all of us—can fall back to all too easily.”
“We’ve already begun to slip, Dakota.” That is Kirsten, speaking softly. “Think about
that mob at the gate. The bastards who shot the mother wolf for sheer cruelty. We—all of us, the scraps of our society--can go back to living as we did a hundred years ago. Or we can make something different.”
Stepping softly, Tacoma crosses the space between them, holding out his hand to her. “The buffalo can come back, Koda. Igmu Tanka Kte’s son and his grandsons can run free on the plains again. Puma can come down from the mountain and out of the desert where she has been driven by too many guns, too little care for life.”
Tacoma is not a shaman. But Koda can see the vision clear in his eyes and does not doubt its truth. A shiver ghosts over her skin. The prophecy is an ancient one, brought to the Lakota people along with the sacred pipe and the seven ceremonies. In an age long past, Ptecincala Ska Wakan Winan, White Buffalo Calf Woman, had foretold the restoration of the Earth and all her children, the return of nations long since passed over to walk the Blue Road of spirit. Their father’s great grandfather had danced the Ghost Dance to bring that restoration nearer. His father and mother had danced, too, and had died in a hail of U. S. Cavalry bullets for it. Wanblee Wakpa. himself wore the hummingbird shirt and stamped the measure of the dance into the dry earth of Pine Ridge during the uprising of ’73. “The time of the white buffalo is coming,” Dakota says. “You see it.”
“I see it. I see it as clearly as I see you, tanski.”
“And was it necessary to desecrate Igmu Tanka Kte’s body for your vision, thiblo?’ The edge is back in Koda’s voice. “Do you think Ina Maka can’t do it without you? That is pride speaking.”
“And that is pain speaking, Dakota.” The soft voice is Kirsten’s. The young woman’s face is pale as moon shadow on snow, but her eyes are resolute. “He was your teacher, wasn’t he? Let him teach others, too.”
“Don’t let his death go for nothing, tanksi.” Tacoma reaches for her hand, and this time Dakota allows him to enfold it in his own. “Neither you nor I nor Kirsten can say anything that will speak as clearly as his suffering.”
“You know there will be attempts to excuse Dietrich, Dakota,” Kirsten says. “People will tell themselves and each other that he was only trying to make a little extra money for his family, if he had one. They will say that we need fur now to keep us warm. That he was doing a service and that the uprising has made all our environmental protections obsolete. If we are to keep those laws, as we must, abstract arguments won’t work. What happened to your wolf will.”
Koda is pinned like a display specimen between their love and their logic, nowhere to go. Salt stings her eyes, tears she will not permit herself. She lowers her face so that they cannot see and says quietly around the cold that still burns raw in along her nerves. “He taught and protected me, and there was nothing I could do when he needed me.” Suddenly her rage tears through the wall she has built around it, ripping through her like a terrible birth. “I didn’t even know, goddamit. I should have known. I should have.”
Should have known he was in trouble. Should have known he was dying.
Should have known better than to leave him lying in the melting snow, no matter how burying him would have gone against tradition and her own deeply held conviction of the interdependence of all life.
He never failed me, and I have failed him when it counted most.
Gently she removes her hand from Tacoma’s. “Wicate,” she says.
Stepping away, she lets herself out into the spring morning, her feet carrying her blindly where they will.
The door closes behind Dakota with a snap like a spine breaking. Without volition, Kirsten takes a step forward to follow her, then checks herself abruptly. The jolt of it goes through her body as sharply as if she had walked into plate glass; the barrier transparent, invisible, strong. Over her shoulder, she looks up at Tacoma, whose eyes are as wide and dark with pain as his sister’s. He turns back to the fireplace, supporting himself against the mantel with both hands, his head bowed. “Christ,” he says, between his teeth. “Jesus. Fucking. Christ. Is there any way I could possibly have done it any worse than that?”
Kirsten steps up behind him and silently lays a hand on his shoulder. “Is there any way you could have done it that would have been less painful? No matter what you did or said, it was going to hurt her.” After a moment, she says, “You’re right, you know.”
“Oh, I know that.” He shakes his head, the dark hair spreading across his shoulders like a lion’s mane. “She knows it; you know it, everybody and his bastard brother knows it. And it doesn’t really matter a damn.”
“What we make of our world from now on matters. She knows that, too.”
“She knows that better than most of us.” Tacoma pushes himself away from the fireplace, turns again to face her. “Give her a while, then go after her. She’s going to need you.”
Kirsten feels the heat spread up her throat and into her face. Is it as obvious as that? Aloud she says, “Shouldn’t you--?”
“No. Not now.” From his pocket, he produces a pair of silver keys on a ring. “Give her these. I’ve got to get a team together to try to move a couple of generators from the wind farm. I’ll see her before I go.”
For long moments after the door shuts for a second time, Kirsten stands starting at the two small pieces of metal in her palm. From somewhere deep in her memory comes the image of a blue butterfly, fluttering its wings; the flutter starting a breeze; the breeze becoming a wind; the wind feeding a hurricane. Not even in Minot, with her fingers on the keys of the one computer whose codes could set the world to rights, did she feel the future so light in her hand.
She can hide the keys. She can take them back to the clinic and hang them in their accustomed place on the board.
Or she can take them to Dakota and trust her to make the right choice through her anger and her pain.
For a moment she turns the keys over in her fingers. They take the light from the window, glinting in the strengthening sun. Truth or dare. Truth or risk the loss of something she has never dared hope for, in all her life, for whatever life there may be left.
No choice at all, really. She slips the keys into her pocket and goes in search of her windbreaker.
Half an hour later she stands beneath the sycamore tree where the land falls away toward the woods. The snow has melted from the pavement; elsewhere it lies in meager patches, cupped in tangles of root and the blue shadow of the hollow slope. There is nothing to hold the print of a foot, only the smooth surface of the cement and the remains of last summer’s grass, the faintest hint of green just visible through the matted stalks. A gust of air ghosts over the dry meadow, further obliterating any sign of passage. Dakota might be able to track her quarry down a sidewalk or over dead grass, but Kirsten has no such skill, and she has left Asi at home.
The veterinary clinic is a possibility. The memory of Dakota sleeping beside the widowed she-wolf and her pup comes to Kirsten as intensely as if she still stood at the door of the isolation ward. Koda might go there again in search of comfort, but the clinic also houses the body of her beloved companion. A shiver passes over Kirsten’s skin at the thought: the clinic seems haunted now, not so much by the wolf’s spirit as by the human memory of his death. Or Dakota may have left the base altogether, gone out into the solitude of the surrounding hills.
Kirsten does not know her way through the countryside here. If she is to leave the Base, she will have to return for Asi, possibly requisition a vehicle. The idea of tracking Dakota cross country with a dog, even Asi who clearly regards Koda as his second human, revolts her. Shading her eyes with her hand, she squints into the sun, standing down now halfway from noon. A ray catches the handful of snow still lingering in the fork of a limb directly above her, and it shatters into rainbows, light spiraling outward in all the shades of the spectrum. Perched on the branch, just visible within the spinning brilliance, sits a dark shape with a masked face and golden eyes. “Lost, are you?”
Kirsten cannot tell whether the voice speaks in the lifting breeze or only in her head. “You again,” she snaps. “Go away. I don’t have time for hallucinations right now.”
“Don’t you want to know what I can tell you?”
“I want to know where Dakota Rivers is. Can you tell me that?”
A grin splits Wika Tegalega’s face. “Of course I can. Ask me nicely, and I might even answer.”
Kirsten’s patience, what there is of it, snaps. “Then tell me, goddammit! You’re nothing
but a figment of my unconscious mind, anyway!”
“Tch,” says Tega mournfully, shaking his head. “Was that nice?” His image seems to recede behind the shifting light, itself fading back into the deep blue of the sky.
“Wait!” she cries, reaching out toward the branch above her head. “Please! Tell me.”
“Go fish,” he says, and is gone. When Kirsten lowers her hand, blinking against the sun, there is only the empty sky and the branch, the last handful of snow trickling down the channels of its pale bark.
Kirsten shakes her head in disgust. She needs desperately to find Dakota; she has no idea where to look; and the most constructive thing she can do is stand bemused, conversing with an imaginary raccoon with a warped sense of humor. It occurs to her that she may well have lost her mind, or at least a significant portion of it.
And not a shrink within a thousand miles, maybe more.
Fish. A small silver fish wriggling in a furry, long-fingered hand. A stream and a tree arching over it.
As certainly as she had known of Dakota’s return from her solo raid on the birthing center, Kirsten knows where she can find the other woman. It is an unaccustomed sort of knowledge, rooted somewhere beyond the borders of rationality, direct and unmediated. It does not even occur to her to question it. Deliberately at first, then almost running across the uneven ground, Kirsten sets off toward the woods.
Once in the trees, she slows her pace. She does not have the habit of silent movement that she has seen in Dakota, but she can avoid crunching dead bark underfoot or tangling herself in the tough, dry stems of trailing vines. The afternoon light filters through the woven branches overhead, laying a sheen of gold and copper over the brown stalks of last summer’s undergrowth, striking the sycamores’ skin to silver. A red squirrel, its coat glinting like russet velvet in the sun, scampers among the slender twigs of the canopy. From deep in the trees comes the trip-hammer drumming of a early woodpecker, his rhythm making point counterpoint to the beating of her own heart. Here and there the branches bear the first swellings of burgeoning leaves. The ground beneath her carries the musty odor of mold, mixed with the green life to come.
Though she has been here twice, Kirsten does not know the woods, and she lets her feet and her instinct carry her unerringly to the streamside where she first encountered Wika Tegalega. A deep quiet descends upon her as she moves deeper into the trees, slowing her pulse, stilling the rustling of the dead leaves and the small life that inhabits them. The birds and the squirrels’ feet grow silent. The feeling is not unfamiliar; she has known its among the standing stones at Amesbury, in the angled light and lingering incense of Notre Dame. The sacredness of the place prickles along her skin.
Kirsten hears the stream before she can see it. The water, swollen with snow melt, makes a soft rushing sound as it pours over the low cataracts of its limestone bed and swirls around the roots of the centuries-old sycamores that march along its banks. When she emerges, still soundlessly, from the screen of the trees, Kirsten can see that its speed casts a fine spume into the air, misting the surface of the water and the slopes leading down to it. One tree, larger than the others, looms over the breadth of the stream, its roots, thick as a man’s body, woven into the living rock at its base. Dakota sits among them, her feet braced against a humped root. Her elbows rest on her bent knees, her chin on her folded hands. For a moment it seems to Kirsten that the other woman has been weeping; but fine droplets spangle her dark hair as well as her cheeks. And then Kirsten catches sight of Dakota’s eyes, dry and grey and empty as a winter sky.
The sight stops Kirsten in her tracks, her breath catching in her throat. Christ. Now what? I don’t know what to say to a face like that.
A month ago, a week ago, she would have turned away, retreating behind the barricades of her mind, into the silence a mere touch behind her ear could bring. Even now, her first impulse is flight, the long muscles in her legs spasming in her urgency to be gone.
Her fear has no place in this clearing. The power of earth and air and water here is an almost palpable thing, holding her fast. For a long moment she stands and watches the motionless form beside the swirling water. There is no acknowledgement, nothing that signals acceptance or even consciousness of her presence.
What can I say to her?
But that is the wrong question.
Silently as a shadow, she crosses the small open space beneath the sycamores. Half a dozen steps bring her close enough to see the minute rise and fall of the dark blue and green plaid flannel across Dakota’s shoulders, and the relief that washes through her tells her just how much she has feared. A few more steps carry her to the tangle of roots that spread out almost as widely as the crown of the tree. Koda still gives no sign that she is aware of Kirsten’s presence.
She has heard that it is dangerous to touch a person who is in a trance state. An out-of-body soul might lose its lifeline and never come home, wandering forever in the grey interstices between worlds.
And that, she thinks with the certainty of recognition, is what I am. Have been. A homeless soul.
And here, here at last, is my home.
Very carefully, so as to make no sudden noise, Kirsten steps among the roots, placing her feet among the gnarled spirals, steadying herself against the trunk with an outstretched hand. Near the base of the tree, beneath a hollow large enough to hold a grown woman, a knot juts out at waist level, its blunt wedge shape suggestive of the head of a great serpent rising above the coiled roots. A jolt of recognition goes through Kirsten.
Snake Mother, Earth Mother. Keeper of the Tree of Knowledge. Grant me wisdom.
She closes the space between herself and Koda, dropping silently to her knees. Very gently, she slips her arms around Dakota’s waist, leaning her head against the other woman’s strong shoulder. For an instant, Koda’s back stiffens against her, then relaxes, settling to her own shape as if their bodies had been molded one for the other. After a moment, Dakota’s hand covers both of hers where they rest against her waist. It is chill as death.
Time passes. The sun slips lower in the sky, angling through the trunks of the trees, turning them to columns of gold and silver. Finally, her hand warm now, Dakota stirs.
“You found me,” she says.
Rubbing her cheek lightly against Dakota’s shoulder, she answers. “I followed. Where you go, I will go.”
Dakota’s hand enfolds Kirsten’s own, raises it to her lips. The kiss is light as a breath of air. “My people will be your people. My home is your home.”
From somewhere deep in her memory, archaic words rise to Kirsten’s tongue. “Faith and truth will I bear to you, to live or die.”
In this life, in the next. For all time.
When the shadows begin to thicken about them, Koda lets her breath go on a long sigh. “We should go back..”
Reluctantly, Kirsten lets her arms fall from Dakota’s waist. “I suppose we should.”
Koda stands, extending a hand to help Kirsten up. It is not until they are once again at the door of the house and she must find her keys that she lets go.
The house is cool and quiet as they enter. The trees outside the windows cast moving shadows across the opposite wall like the outspread arms of dancers swaying to a beat only they can hear. The sound of nails clicking across the polished floor heralds the entrance of Asi, who comes over to greet them, taking healthy sniffs of their clothing before presenting his head and body to be scratched.
Koda notices a folded sheet of paper ruffling in the breeze and walks over to the kitchen table, sliding it out from under the salt-shaker-cum-paperweight and bringing it closer to her face in deference to the swiftly fading light. The page is covered with Maggie’s bold, flowing script.
I’m gathering up some of my men and setting up a census-taking crew for the base. I think it’s about time we figure out who and what we have here, and what skills we might be able to use both in the short and long term.
I’d like to do the same thing with the outlying cities, just to see where we stand. Kirsten, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have you accompany me to Rapid City tomorrow so we can get a first-hand look at what we’ve got left—resource and humanity wise. Finding a judge is one of our first priorities. If we can’t find one, any half-way competent lawyer will have to do. I’m not optimistic about either of those chances, but it’s a pressing need we have to fill.
Don’t expect me home tonight. I’ll bunk in the barracks and see you at 0800.
“Looks like you’ve got a full day tomorrow,” Koda remarks, handing the note over. Kirsten’s quick eyes scan the writing and she frowns.
“Well, it wasn’t something I was planning on, but I suppose….” Her voice trails off as she scans the note again. She knows the value and desperate need of the census; it was she, in fact, who had suggested it to Maggie in the first place. But she had hoped, truly and dearly, that she would be allowed to play ‘grunt’ and sit behind a table with pencil and pad in hand, taking names.
The subtext of the note she holds dashes those hopes like bone china beneath a bull’s hoof. “Crap,” she half-whispers as she crumples the note into a ball and tosses it into the trash. “Just…crap. I hate being used as a figurehead.”
“You could always say no,” is Koda’s practical advice, delivered with a faint smirk and a lift of her eyebrow.
Kirsten thinks about it for a moment, then shakes her head. “No,” she sighs, “Maggie’s right. If we want to get this done the right way, and that takes me marching at the head of this little parade, than I’ll just have to suck it up and get it done. Hopefully, it won’t take very long.”
“So,” Kirsten says in a deliberately bright tone, needing the subject turned away for now, “are you hungry?”
“Not really.” In truth, since Wa Uspewicakiyapi’s death, grief has placed a leaden ball in her belly; a ball that does not share its space with food well at all.
Kirsten catches the dimming of those brilliant eyes and holds back a sigh. “There’s some soup left over from last night,” she continues as if Koda had answered in the affirmative. “If you’ll do me the favor of taking Asi out, I’ll heat it up.”
A quick glance from Koda lets Kirsten know her plan has been discovered, but, with a shrug of her broad shoulders, the vet signals Asi and crosses the kitchen, opening the door as the large dog bolts outside, bellowing like a calf over his sudden, and welcome, freedom.
As she puts the pot on to simmer, Kirsten’s eyes are drawn to the scene outside the small kitchen window. Asi, sides heaving with exertion, trots back to Dakota, bringing back a ‘stick’ the size of a tree branch and dropping it at her feet. He then sits, his body shaking in canine ecstasy, eyes rolling, jaws quivering, and tail wagging so rapidly that the tall grass around him all but leaps out of the way.
Kirsten can’t help but smile, hearing the delightful sound of Koda’s laughter as she picks up the slimy stick and flings it far across the lawn, farther than Kirsten could ever throw, even on her best day. Asi bolts after it as if his tail’s aflame, barking joyfully all the while. The setting sun glints sparks of red from Koda’s glossy black hair in a way that Kirsten finds extremely appealing.
As if sensing the attention, Koda turns, and their eyes lock for a timeless moment. Which is, unfortunately, broken much too soon by an insistent German Shepard and his stick. Shaking her head ruefully, Kirsten turns back to her task, taking a wooden spoon from the drawer and stirring the soup as Asi’s yaps and barks soothe the air around her.
Koda looks up from her book as Kirsten rounds the couch and sets down a tray holding two steaming bowls and a loaf of French bread down on the coffee table. The fire is blazing cheerfully, chasing off the evening chill, and Asi jumps up from his place beside it, sniffing with great interest. His ears and tail soon droop, however, as he is banished to Kirsten’s bedroom with a pointed look from his Mistress.
Dakota lays aside the book she’s been reading just in time to receive the warm bowl that is thrust into her hands.
Ignoring the look she’s receiving, Kirsten digs into her soup with gusto, enjoying both the warmth and the hearty flavor. A moment later, and with a sigh, Koda does the same, grudgingly admitting, if only to herself, that this simple meal does indeed hit the spot.
They are both quickly done, sopping the last of the soup with the thick, crusty bread and laying their bowls down on the table. Asi has wormed his way back into the room and lies once again next to the fire, head on his massive paws, snoring away.
Kirsten and Koda sit in companionable silence, looking into the cheery flames as if messages can be divined there. After a moment, Kirsten speaks, “It’s so quiet, you know? I mean, yeah, we’re in the middle of God’s Country and all that, but even so, I keep expecting to hear car horns and televisions and telephones and things that we all took for granted. And now….” She slumps back into the couch’s warm comfort, still staring into the flames.
“Do you miss those things?” Koda asks softly.
“Sometimes,” Kirsten answers honestly. “Technology was a big part of who I was…who I am. Sometimes I wonder how I’ll cope without it. How we’ll all cope.”
“We’ll be fine.” Dakota’s voice is filled with a certainty that Kirsten envies. “Technology, or at least bits and pieces of it, will be around for a long time to come. I just think we’ll come to rely on it a good deal less than we once did.”
“Considering the fact that technology did all this, I suppose that won’t really be a bad thing.”
The two exchange smiles.
Kirsten yawns, then blushes. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s been a long day. And an even longer one tomorrow.”
“Don’t remind me,” Kirsten groans.
Laughing softly, Koda rises from the couch and holds out a hand. Kirsten grasps it willingly and allows herself to be pulled gently to her feet. She looks toward the dirty dishes.
“Leave ‘em. I’ll take care of washing tonight. I need to go back to the clinic and check on Mama Wolf and her pup anyway.”
“Go to sleep.”
With a small sigh, Kirsten gives in, nodding. “Goodnight, then.”
Koda smiles. “Goodnight.”
Their eyes meet again, and this time, there is no hesitation. Both step forward. Kirsten’s chin raises and Koda’s lowers and their lips meet softly, gently. The kiss lingers, then deepens, and Kirsten can’t help the soft moan that sounds as Koda’s tongue brushes tenderly against her lips before withdrawing.
Both are breathing heavily as they part. They stand there with shining eyes and goofy grins on their faces. Reaching up, Koda trails the back of her knuckles against Kirsten’s soft cheek, then steps back, her expression one of quiet joy. “Goodnight, Kirsten.”
With that, Koda gathers up the bowls, sets them on the tray, turns, and heads for the kitchen, leaving Kirsten to, once again, stare after her, fingers to her lips and a look of absolute wonder on her face.
And with that, we come to the end of another episode of The Growing. We hope you’re continuing to enjoy the ride! If you feel so inclined, drop us a line and tell us what you think! firstname.lastname@example.org. See ya next week!
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