Disclaimer: Real people slash - I don't know any of the people in this story, everything is made up (admittedly with some heavy inspiration from the outpourings from the entertainment industry (especially those with Chris Kirkpatrick in them)).

Warnings: explicit language, not much sex between men (or between anybody, really), zombies.

Navigation: There is a resume of the previous chapters at my homepage.

Lots of thanks to Marthe for her help, suggestions and patience. And for punking me - Maria is much more alive now.

Response: Please, yes.

Morgenfryd


 

The Tail of the Tiger, Chapter 17

At the End of the Powerline

My shoulder was stuck in some kind of shaker. The first explanation that came to mind had Chris in it. But that didn't quite fit - the breathing lump under me had the warm smell of Chris, a bit like freshly cut oak, and lay very still.

The next shake was accompanied by Tom's voice. "Wake up, man."

I grunted and the shaking stopped. "Wht?"

"Wake up."

I took a lick of Chris. It didn't clear my head but the taste was nicely intoxicating. I took another lick. My body was buzzing, both from the taste of Sleep-Chris and the sex the night before. Do I still have my own toes?

"Mikkel?"

"Yes." I rolled over and pulled myself up to sit, elbow joints weak with remnants of pleasure. Whoa! Partner did that! Want Partner, wake up Partner! Nice, thick Partner-bat, pump, pump, hng! I didn't think I could take any more pump, pump, hng for a couple of days.

"Want coffee?" Tom held up a mug. He was much too awake for this time of the day.

He kept his eyes averted until I had covered myself up and plucked the mug out of his hand. "So what is it?" I took a small sip of the scalding, heavenly liquid. He was sitting on the edge of my bed - when Chris was in it. There had to be a reason.

"Maria called; she's at granddad's place." He picked up the Alligator and frowned at it before putting it back on the bedside drawer.

It was still dark out. There was another half-hour until my clock would beep. I flicked the alarm off. "He kicked her out of bed this early?" The coffee was good. "It's good coffee." There was a second mug with muddy contents on the bedside table, likely sugared for Chris.

"She couldn't sleep. Can you fix it so that you can go with me? Rita can take Granny to the vet."

"Sure. There are some arrangements I'd like to work out first though. Is that okay?"

Tom nodded; I guessed it was the adrenaline more than the need for hurry that had made him wake me up.

"How is she?"

"Fucking scared of granddad. She's trying to find something with an address on it, she couldn't tell me where the place is." He rubbed his head. "It took them about four hours getting there." His eyes flicked to Chris who was stirring. A cobra slid across my thigh and cupped my balls with its warm flat head. Tom quickly got to his feet and teleported to the door. "Look, why don't you wake up some more and then we can talk."

"Sure." The cobra began exploring the shape of my body.

"I'll start breakfast." He opened the door and let Busta run ahead before he slipped out.

The surfacing Chris slithered about. Actually it was more of a stumble, but since he was doing it laying down I figured it should be called a slither. Somewhat like the slither of a stranded, pregnant and very beautiful blind seal.

Chris stopped slithering once he was nested sideways between my legs. He rubbed his nose against my collarbone. Chris! Chris! The itch in his nose could be felt all the way to my heart. It was a good itch. Good Chris! Sex. Now! Make Partner play Partner-bat game! Really, it was good just to sit there and feel him slipping under my skin, warm and pliant and fitting easily into all the little spaces. I wanted to soak as much Chris as I could. I would see him tomorrow night, but we wouldn't really have much time together until next weekend.

"Mpf," he said. I took it to be a general observation of the situation.

I pulled the blanket up so that it covered his shoulder, wrapped my arm around him to get at his belly, and drank some more coffee, listening to his contented grunts and sighs while he made it the last bit of way to the surface. He really liked to be belly-rubbed awake.

Love him. Yes.

Chris pushed himself up higher and emitted a different and more demanding grunt.

I handed him the other mug. He hadn't drunk much before he took the mug down and mumbled into it. His face contracted in an attempt at facial expression - a pout or a frown, it was hard to tell.

I squinted into his mug. "Didn't Tom put sugar enough in it?" The color seemed okay, just about the right kind of pale muddy for Chris.

"Nobody's drunk from it." He held the mug out for me.

"No way."

Blink.

Blink is a very short word for perfect eyelids gliding elegantly down to cover liquid, brown eyes. When the lids are all the way down and black eyelashes flutter like butterflies, almost touching translucent, pale skin, there's still the best part left: eyelids gliding up and revealing the glorious eyes, intelligent and present. And expectant. The Earth really ought to pause in its spin.

"Chris. No." He blinked again, and my heart made another summersault. He tilted his head. Help! If he knew of the power... If he had known, he would have used it mercilessly on several occasions that I could think of. Pray that he never finds out. Jesus, he just might make me drink that. Hit by sudden inspiration, I poured some of my coffee into his mug. "Okay?"

He sampled, considered, and shook his head.

And blinked.

With a sigh I took his mug and took a few sips, fighting not to gag on it. He refused to take the coffee back before I had drunk some more.

Still, that seemed to do the trick. He took the mug, sampled the liquid, nodded with satisfaction, and wiggled, making himself more comfortable and spilling coffee on me; his tongue flickered, wet and pink, a soft, warm slide on my skin. More! I gave him a little push to make him spill more - he licked that up too, his stubble scraping against a sensitive nipple. Go, go, go!

"Did I hear Tom?"

"Yes. He's panicking; we're on a mission to see Maria today." I ran a hand up his arm to cup his shoulder - and I felt rich.

He raised an eyebrow.

I had hoped to have a day snorkeling with Tom at the beach this week, though not right here on Monday, and Chris had told me about good places to go. "Maybe you want to come snorkeling this week-end?"

He smiled yes, and drank the spoiled coffee with a relish that amazingly was no sham, eyes half-closed and dark butterfly wings fluttering.

There were voices from other parts of the house. Tom apparently had woken up Mormor too. A snippet of their argument wafted through the closed door, "I want pancakes!", and we shared a grin.

"Rose is cranky."

"Of course. Tom probably used unwise words like "unhealthy" and "fat"."

"Maybe he reminded her that she lost the dart game."

"If he didn't then I will. She owes me twenty-five cents."

There was a knock on the door. "Are you up yet?" It was Tom

"Yes."

Chris frowned at the clock. "Are we late?"

"Very. If you ask Tom."

"Man, we better get a move on, then." He put his mug on the bedside table and put his arm around my neck. Fumbling, I got rid of my mug so that I could wrap my arms around him properly, and we kissed without hurry.

"How's your ass?" he whispered.

"Awesome and sore. Off limits, if that's what you were thinking of."

"I wasn't, well, I was, but I wanna get up."

I picked up his glasses and slipped them unto his face.

He was watching my face and didn't move so I leaned in and plucked another kiss. Love...

"We really should hurry," he muttered, and grinned before he nibbled a last kiss from me. "Mmm." He took a deep breath, held it, speaking nasally due to overfilled lungs. "All personnel make ready for hyperspace, lie down, strap in and tranq up. We are in countdown." He pushed my legs out of the way, spreading them and causing a shift in a very sore place. I yelped at the pain.

"Sorry." Chris was off before I had a chance to cover my ears. It was amazing how loud something that was a mere transparent streak in the air could sound. "Help! I'm late, I'm late, help, help! Where's my frigging pants? Help! My boxers! My life! Mikkel what did you do to my boxers? What are you doing in bed, get up, get up! You're late!"

My "Iiiih! Boxers in the freezer - with the roast beef!" didn't cool him down at all, even though my yell was a bit muffled by the boxers I had pulled over my head in a sorry attempt to protect my hearing.

Chris tore the boxers off me, pulled them on hastily and headed for the door. The door was stuck. "Hey!" He pulled at the door, hard. "Tom! Let me out!"

"Not gonna let you out unless you're decent. Are you decent?"

I settled back to watch the show.

"Decent?" Chris pulled the boxers off again and threw them in the general direction of me. "Of course I'm decent. You've got house rules, man; I don't mess with house rules. I'm at my decentest, I'm downright perfect - now, let me out."

My smart cousin opened the door a fraction, no doubt intent on checking the level of decentest decency before he let Chris out.

Chris yanked the door open. "Ta-daah!"

"You fuck!"

The Wriggle! The Naked-wriggle-buttock-quiver! The Perfect Chris Bum!

And from somewhere else in the house, "Language!" and of course there were dogs barking, too, and I was insanely happy watching my very stupid cousin jump back to evade a naked-Chris super-duper-kiss.

"Tom, what is going on?"

"Chris is streaking."

He's perfect!

"Do you want to borrow my sunglasses?" Mormor's grin was quite evident in her voice.

For a moment Chris forgot about his kiss-attack. "Hey! I heard that!"

"Granny - it's not funny!"

"Well, stop provoking him, and look the other way, you fool."

"What! But he's-" Tom broke off in order to make another evasion. Chris got him with a smacking kiss on the jaw. "Damn!"

"Language!"

Chris waltzed off to the bathroom with his arms in the air, singing, "If you think I'm sexy, and you like my body-".

Sexy Chris!

"It's not funny."

The epicenter of Mormor's hearty laughter was situated in the kitchen area.

"Mikkel, get some fucking clothes on!"

"Language!"

Wham! Tom closed my door.

I picked the boxers up from the floor and pulled them on.

The bathroom door opened, "Mikkel, your toothbrush is the black one, right?"

Tom yelled from his room before I could answer, "No! That's my new one, you leave it alone!"

"Oops. Sorry, man."

"Chris! You little fuck-"

"Language!"

"Mikkel, you got any boxers I can borrow?" Chris was in a merry morning mood.

I stuck my head out the door. "Do they need to be clean?" I asked loudly.

"Mikkel!" I'm not Christopher - Mormor was with Tom on that one.

"Do they smell of farts, like, a lot?", asked the grinning head poking out the door to my left.

Tom's head poked out of the door to my right. "Chris!" And of course Mormor just laughed on that one; the little Christopher could say or do no wrong, no, no, not the little Christopher to whom she would sell her grandson for a can of gasoline.

I found a pair of clean boxers in the pile of clean laundry. When I joined him in the bathroom, he was humming, and decorating Tom's new, black toothbrush with lots of toothpaste.

He had finished the sticky decor by the time I finished taking a leak; I joined him in the shower and got smeared with residue toothpaste. In between our small talk Chris was humming and singing. Listening to him singing about being sexy while he scrubbed my back, scrubbing extra at the right places, I knew life didn't come any better than this.

Between them, Mormor and Tom had set a nice breakfast table. There even was a bowl with leftover sweets. The jellybeans went onto Chris' pancakes and Mormor took most of the chocolate on hers. Tom eyed Chris speculatively, but didn't mention the pregnancy. I thought I could guess why.

Want nice, warm Chris belly! Nice belly with sproing!

Which was likely not something Tom wanted on display at the breakfast table; my cousin evidently having no proper sense of the better things in life.

The talk was mostly about Tom's grandfather. Tom had been around ten when he last saw him; all in all they had only met two times that Tom could remember. "He's an angry kind of guy, like, he scared the shit out of me. It's a really shabby place," was Tom's somewhat hazy recollection. Indeed, Maria had told him that there only was power at night.

I couldn't imagine a place without regular power, not as a place where one lived one's life.

Chris read my expression and twinkled. "My mum once had a pedal-driven multi purpose food processor; that one took a lot of sweat, I tell you. Especially when we did the dishes in it."

I kicked him to tell him that I knew that it could have been worse - there could have been no power. Then I got firmly corrected for kicking the little Christopher and upsetting the table even though the table hadn't moved at all. Still. No stable power supply. Terrifying.

Tom and I were heading out without precise knowledge of where we were going. Maria called while we had breakfast - she had found an address on a bill that she found on a shelf, but Tom wasn't able to find the place on the map.

It must have been a very entertaining drive when Tom took Chris and Busta home. "That little fucker is insane, I mean, clinically and seriously fucked-up-in-his-head insane."

I'd been busy tying loose ends up so that I could leave for the day. It took me a moment to tune in on Tom's channel. Chris. He's talking about Chris. Love... "I think he makes a lot of sense."

Tom snorted and looked over my shoulder. "How's it going?"

"I think I'll get it fixed so that I can stay away until tomorrow at noon."

"Great. Is there anything I can help you with?"

"Keep the coffee flowing and pack our stuff. I'll be ready in an hour or so. I'll do the sandwiches. Do you mind if we stop at a clinic on the way?"

"Are you sick?"

"No, no. I don't think so. It's for a test."

"A test. Look, if you're gonna have your head tested perhaps you should wait until we get back. They're gonna fucking keep you."

"It's a blood test. I'm going to be tested for venereal diseases," I attacked the keyboard again. "Coffee, please! I'm in withdrawal, man." Chris-withdrawal.

"Sure, sure."

"Could you check the web for maps?"

He nodded and left with my empty mug.

"We should pack food in the other cooler, too. Batteries for the lamp. Perhaps a tent," I called after Tom. "I have a compass. Oh, and water - that large container in the basement-"

"Go to work, Mikkel. I'll pack. Don't worry, I won't forget the snake bite kit."

"You- what?" My voice broke on the question mark.

"We always bring snake bite kits on picnics." Tom was grinning, I heard with relief. So, his remark had been a joke. That guy spends entirely too much time with Chris... Hey, maybe it wasn't a joke. There are roaming alligators in this state. And poisonous ivy, of all things. Probably poisonous snakes, too. Probably all kinds of deadly poisonous things are left on the loose. And bears, there are bears running around, too. Which was downright irresponsible, but nobody asked me. "Forget the tent." We could sleep in the car. Maybe a bear could smash the windows. A motel, it's got to be a motel. Not below the fifth floor. This could be worse than a fishing trip in Sweden!

It wasn't until I got out from the clinic that I figured that I should have asked the nice people in that nice, clean and very civilized place about snakes and snake bite kits.

"Okay?" Tom asked when I got into the passenger seat.

"Yes." I dumped pamphlets and purchases in the glove compartment. "I can call on Friday and get the results."

"I'm probably gonna regret this," Tom started the car. "What did you buy?"

"Reality."

"It comes in packages now?"

I showed him the package. Kurt had recently told me about his experiences with Femidoms (Reality in the US). According to Kurt, they belonged in category with inventions like hot water and the wheel. Tom turned the car off again and took the package, puzzled looking it over.

"It's okay - open it, take one out; I want to see too."

He passed the package back to me and I unpacked a condom. He was interested enough to stare at it but apparently touching was asking too much of him.

"Kurt said that I'd probably want to remove the inner ring when it has to go up a back entrance. It's made for a vagina, it's a condom that women can wear." I turned the thing over. The material was less elastic than that of ordinary condoms.

"... Isn't it kinda... extra, extra large?"

"It is. That makes sense - it has to stay behind when the dick pulls out. That's why there's lube inside it." I held the condom out for Tom to touch.

He pushed himself against the door, and hid his hands. "Ah. Okay... Ah. What's the point?"

"It's not supposed to break even if there are a lot of position changes. Kurt says it feels better on the dick, too." I got my Swiss army knife out and tried to figure out how to remove the ring without destroying the condom. "Sometimes Chris likes to change positions a lot; last night we went through condoms like-"

He got his hand out form from under himself fast and covered my mouth. "Okay, okay. TMI. Fuck, the two of you are so... You know, Granny would lop your fucking head off if she knew you told anybody about what Christopher likes in bed."

Beautiful Chris in bed! Chris all spread out, wriggling, smiling, open, and warm, and-

"How did you get the ring out?"

I showed him what I had done. The tube could take a lot of fingers. Nice, thick Chris fingers! "I wonder how easy it is to-"

Tom had had enough of sex-ed and started the car in the middle of my sentence. I wrapped the condom up, figuring that I could try it out later when we stopped at a place with a bathroom. If they had bathrooms where we were going. The associations ran on, unbidden. "Did you remember toilet paper and some kind of shovel?"

Tom just grinned.

That fishing trip to Sweden was horrible. Or even worse: using that bucket on the boat with all the lights turned off, going full speed over the waves and all at jumpy angles. In the spy novels they never mention having to crap in the dark under conditions like that. Perhaps spies don't crap.

"Hey - you were serious!"

"Sure. I really hate to crap in the wild."

Now he was laughing, so I told him about the bucket in great detail just to make him stop.

He would knock my hand away when ever I tried to switch from CD-player to radio. "The man's dead, okay?" he said at one point.

"I'm not going to puke."

He let me listen to the news then.

"That one's crooked," he said much later, breaking a long silence. I had set up shop, cuts and magazines covering all the little spaces around me. I was gluing inspiration prompters into a couple of scrap-books. Kurt's complaints were different from Tom's, those usually came on the melody of, "What are you doing? We've got scanners!"

"It's supposed to be crooked and messy. If it's too neat then my mind runs in straight lines and that is exactly the opposite effect of what I want."

"But that other scrapbook has all straight cuts in it. It's kind of neat."

"Different purpose - this is for getting theme ideas, the other is more a vault of typographic tricks and extra neat layouts; the shapes of the spaces are really important." There were do-nots, too. I really wasn't sure what function they served but they worked.

He grunted, throwing the theme-book another squint, obviously bothered by the crookedness and the mess I was making with ragged cuts of horrors from the catalogue of garden monsters. I liked to think of it as random decoupage.

In between my thoughts hopped this way and that. At some point they hopped to Mormor's mysteriously missing boy friend: the one who had had toiletries in her bathroom and perhaps was the same person who Jenny, according to Tom, had called a gold-digger. "You think Richard is the "gold-digger"?" I asked, cutting out a fat pixie.

"I was wondering about that, man. But - no, I don't. He's too... shirt aside, fucking straight. I mean, it takes a lot to upset Aunt Annie; she's an old hippie. And she was upset - she came all the way from Tampa to talk with mum. Besides, Richard's got money, don't you think?"

"Yes. The term "gold-digger" applies more to financial status than to intent?"

"Yes and no. Per definition a rich guy isn't a gold-digger. Poor guys are - until they've proved themselves innocent, usually they have to die to do that. Younger guys, they can be rich and be gold-diggers too... Man, it could be an age thing." Tom grimaced; the thought was clearly a challenge to his sensibilities.

"So it's got to be somebody else, somebody poorer and/or younger than Richard."

"Think so." He grabbed my wrist. "Hey watch out, you're almost covering the frog. I like the frog."

"Keep your eyes on the road."

"Actually, the legs on that frog are a lot like Chris'."

One could only see the front legs. "Are not."

"They're bowed and short."

"Obscenely bowed. Now, Chris' legs are perfectly bowed." Nice sexy Chris-legs. In stockings like fish-net. "Paul's legs are really boring."

Tom grinned and flicked the turn-light on. "Pit stop." He checked the mirrors and swung off the highway heading for a gas-station and diner.

I packed my things into the knapsack while Tom found a parking spot. "We're going to eat here?"

"Yeah. Fuck, you're not gonna - not here, man. Not before lunch."

I put the wrapped condom into a pocket. "Why not? There's got to be a bathroom somewhere."

"Well, don't forget to lock the door when you're in there."

"Actually, I don't intend using one of the booths, there probably isn't much room f-"

"Get the fuck out of my car."

I did.

He had found his feet again by the time I met up with him outside. He had brought the cooler to a table in the shade of a dusty tree. "Was the booth big enough?"

"Yes. But I was too sore-" After Tom had held me in a head-lock and knocked me on the head, I unpacked the sandwiches while he found drinks.

He had brought the map, too. "As far as I can see, then we have to get off the highway at the next exit. I was thinking that we can ask people when we get to the town. Somebody might know him - he's been living there for always."

"We could try the shops."

Tom chewed and nodded.

"What does he do for a living?"

"I don't know. Maybe nothing. Dad never talked about granddad much, I think he's ashamed that granddad is trash or something. Dad doesn't like trash." Tom frowned at the sandwich and opened it. "Did you put sour cream in all of them?"

"Not the cheese ones. The ones there have horseradish in the sour cream." I didn't mention that the horseradish had soaked in cream. "If your granddad is so poor we really should bring extra food in case we are staying. And beer." Beer had worked wonders on Daddy-Paul. "Beer is good for negotiations, puts everybody on the same level."

Tom grunted. He had made his peace with the sour cream. It may have been the horseradish that did the trick. "We already packed tons of food - lets just get beer."

We had luck with the first person we asked. The woman behind the counter at the supermarket knew who Walt was but not where he lived. She told us to ask at the gas station at the end of the street. The young guy manning the station was helpful once he found out that Tom was Old Walt's grandson, and explained the road in detail. "Me and my dad were out there picking up his generator a couple of months ago, for repairs. We brought it out to him too. His place is right at the end of the road, you can't miss it."

It was at the end of everything, apparently. It was a side-road to a dirt road, which is pretty far out in my book. There were no streetlights either. The fickle power line hung lazily suspended between crooked masts.

Tom stopped the car, letting the motor run. The track that followed the power line wound between bushes and trees and disappeared out of sight. We couldn't see the house. There were a couple of mailboxes, old and rusty, by the dirt-road. If one knew what numbers to look for, then the scratched paint on the mailboxes made sense to a creative eye.

"That's the road." Tom knew very well that we both knew that that was the road.

"Yes." Not a road - a wilderness track. "Are you just freaking or were you thinking of something?"

"Both." He picked up the bottle of water he kept in the compartment in the door. He shivered when he screwed the cap back on the now empty bottle, handing it to me so that I could put it in the bag we kept for trash. "Maybe we should, you know, try to sneak in. I mean, he might fucking kick me out before I got to see her..."

"You mean, you want to sneak in like a thief or a spineless sissy who's ashamed of himself?" Not a good start position for negotiations in case one ran into those later. Snakes! There'll be snakes and other poisonous things in those bushes. I'd rather lose a brawl than sneak around in that! Besides, "Frank and Jennifer can carry their own shame, it's only proper."

"Fuck, no! I mean... shit, it's gonna look like that. Like you and your fucking birthday..."

I did not hear that. "What about your granddad?"

"What about him... I don't know him, okay? He's my dad's dad and my parents trust him to keep track of Maria - he has that fucking against him."

"Huh." Something was ticking to the surface of my brain, something about the single, thick black power line. Help!

"What?"

I pointed to the nothingness. "No phone." Of course the cable could be in the ground. Which the ones running along the "big" road were not. We should have brought flares.

"What the fuck do you mean - no phone? What has that to do with anything?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

He growled. "You're distracting me, jerk."

"We can always try the sneaky approach if head on doesn't work. I mean, what can he do? He may yell at us and we may leave if we can't talk our way past him. Then we can figure something sneaky out. Look, he may let you in and you get to spend the day with Maria instead of sneaking around and hiding in bushes." And you don't get to drag me through nests of snakes and other poisonous creep.

"He could call hell down on Maria by telling our parents." Tom started the car. "He'll probably beat me up for being a fucking fag."

And that fear probably took a lot of room in Tom's reasons for wishing me along. "That you are not. Yet."

He let go of the wheel with one hand and punched my thigh.

"Ow! What a way to treat your back up army! Now it can't walk." It hurt.

Tom smiled tightly, satisfied with the result.

The "road" had needed repair and filling years ago; in some places Tom had to drive very carefully, keeping the wheels out of the tracks so that the bottom of the car didn't get damaged or stuck against the high ground between.

In a way, it was well enough that things were like that. It kept Tom occupied and he didn't have attention to spare to work himself into hysterics. That left me to do it. There's no way we can get out of here fast.

We passed a shabby camper with a tin-roofed shed added to it; likely the place had the same owner as one of the mailboxes by the big road. There was nobody around. That's a herb-garden; somebody lives here... I tried to make out what was being grown but it was hard to tell for the weeds. I thought there had been rows of maize, surely there had been things that were a juicier green than the dry grass and dusty shrubbery that had grown in the clearing surrounding the house-like structure.

They'd need water... Wonder if there is water in proper pipes. People surely couldn't be drinking it from the muddy waterholes. Private wells? We had had our own well on the Farm though not for drinking water - the water in the well had been so full of nitrates that we could have sold it as fertilizer. Which would be an unlikely problem in this place since there wasn't any intensive farming near by.

"There it is. Man... I remember it now."

And there it was - a crooked, sun-bleached gray house attached to the end of the power line. The wood-tiled roof had lots of patches. It was a small house, and there were only two windows in the long side. There was a barn behind the house; the roof of that looked like it might fly off in pieces on any windy day.

There were hens walking around on the road, and a brown rooster peered at the car. Tom stopped under the shade of a gnarled tree, perhaps not trusting the animals to move out of the way if he continued. Not much room for a turn here... We shared a look, silently deciding not to sit and fidget - and got out.

"Gluck, gluck," said the hens and one of them moved towards me.

"Gluck," I said, just in case the hens in this place were sentient; Tom sent me a glare. His eyes shifted and widened in shock.

Click.

It was a sound I had heard before. It was one of those little sounds that will go through bone and marrow, making the cells electric with fear. It was a sound much like that of the safety of a gun being flicked.

The glucks are much nicer. There was an old man; he'd come out from nowhere or perhaps he had just been very quiet when he walked around the corner of the house. He was staring at us with pale zombie eyes - and doing the staring along a rifle. I realized that it was unlikely that the sound had been that of a safety being flicked on.

There was a yellow dog next to him. I didn't check if it was a zombie too. It growled like an ordinary dog.

There had been a white South African guy working at my mother's restaurant one summer. He had had two jokes that he liked to tell, one more than the other. What do you say to a black guy with an AK-47?

"Good day, Sir." Not that this guy was black, he was a white man fried wrinkled and brown by years of sun. His thin hair and the stubble on his cheeks were the same gray color as the house. I hoped that there was some truth in that old joke and that it applied to the situation rather than to the skin color. It wasn't an AK-47 either. There - it could have been worse.

Only - this being might not be a human. It didn't move a muscle, didn't say anything in answer to my greeting, the only thing moving were the eyes that were looking us over, eyes so devoid of expression that he could only be a zombie.

"Get off my property." It could talk. Probably a running program.

"Okay, okay, we're leaving." I held my arms free of my body and moved slowly, reaching out to reopen the door. Tom was rooted to the spot. "Tom, you meathead - wake up. We're getting out of here. Look at him! Your granddad is a fucking zombie -"

Tom came awake with a shudder. "You got us into this, so shut the fuck up."

The bitch growled too.

Tom sounded like he meant it. So did the bitch - she was of a nervous kind and likely to attack out of sheer panic if she thought her man was loosing the control of the situation.

The zombie stared at Tom with its zombie eyes and, oh wonders, it blinked. In slow motion. "Tom?" The blasted gun dipped a little.

Are zombies supposed to talk outside their programming? Fuck, this one could be senile too. A zombie with malfunctioning programming. And a gun.

"Yeah. Hello, granddad. This is my cousin Mikkel. From Europe."

Is he excusing me? He sounded like he was. It made me angry. "If somebody needs excusing it's that irresponsible, crazy zombie with the fucking gun-"

Tom cut me off with a glance, an effective beam of irritation and fear.

The zombie moved its gray jaws, chewing on nothing. "Europe, huh." Suddenly they were communicating on a level out of my reach. Which was upsetting and reassuring at the same time. At least there is communication.

"Yeah."

Definitely communication happening, it's two-way, too.

"Tommy?" There was the crack of a screen door falling shut and a girl came round the corner. "Oh, God, you came. Tommy!"

"Maria-"

The dog jumped, sneering threats, attention going everywhere in panic and confusion. The dark-haired girl saw neither the dog nor the gun; she was running straight for Tom.

"Down," I snapped at the dog, it was out of pure reflex; the danger was very real, the girl was scaring the dog with her choked sounds and her quick movements when she ran past the zombie.

Tom, mercifully, did not make any quick movements.

The dog sat, nervously twitching, her lips quivering, growls rumbling in her chest - she wasn't settled, not at all, she needed some sign from her man before she would.

Maria flew into Tom's embrace and stuck there; both of them were crying and making blubbery sounds.

The zombie touched the dog's head absentmindedly, his attention was on Tom and Maria, but the light touch of a gnarled hand was enough; the bitch settled down, still nervous but now sure of her Place in the Situation.

I kept my eyes off Tom, it was difficult enough not to bawl as it was, and things did get a little blurry at the edges. Besides, the zombie still held that unsettling gun and, with all that was going on, the safety was still off, and it was still pointing our way even if it was at a downward angle; and I wanted to take a rolling pin to his head. But I didn't have a rolling pin and that was perhaps well enough. After all, he was the one with the gun.

"Mister Collins?"

That pale zombie-gaze swung my way. Except perhaps now there was something there. He might be alive, if only partially. His eyes hadn't been that red-rimmed two minutes before.

"The safety. Please. These two are your grandchildren." Two emotional kids and a nervous dog - and he keeps the blasted safety off and the gun almost level. The fellow has got to be senile.

He looked me down, and he looked me up, and he didn't look impressed at all by what he saw. Which was okay - I wasn't that impressed with him either. But he did what I asked and flicked the safety to a much less unnerving position and slowly swung the rifle onto his back, holding it by the wear-polished leather strap.

Phew! "Thank you." See, I can be polite even without being pointed at. Now what? The initiative was his. We were, after all, the intruders. On his damned property.

Mister Collins watched the siblings for a moment - then he turned and left, walking with a slight limp as if there was a stiffness in his left leg. The dog followed, keeping an eye on us over her shoulder.

Weak-kneed, I leaned against the car and dried my face on my sleeve before fluffing my shirt. The sudden attack of shivers was subsiding only slowly. Before they had receded enough for my knees to be trustworthy, the dog had come back to stand at the corner, watching us. Great, we can't go anywhere without risking upsetting her. Just great.

I needed a drink badly and got a beer from the car and sat sideways in the passenger seat, giving my cousins what privacy I could. It was canoe beer; they hadn't had imports at the supermarket. I lit a cigarette. It tasted of nothing. Suddenly I was very fed up with Florida and anything North American. I glared at the dusty ground, but likely Florida wasn't feeling a thing and didn't care at all.

"Mikkel?" It was Tom. I got him the paper tissues from the glove compartment.

"Thanks. You want?" Gallantly he offered his sister a handful.

"Yeah," she smiled weakly and turned so that she could fix her face without us seeing it. "You're Miguel." She looked over curiously when she had finished. "My surprise cousin."

"Yes." I got up to shake hands properly but ended up in a hug instead.

"Thank you for taking care of Tommy."

I hugged her back, gently; women have this frail middle when one hugs them, unless they are well padded, of course, and this one was thin. I wonder if she's eating properly. "I didn't do much. He's pretty good at taking care of himself."

"That's not what he said," she smiled and let go. "I'm so glad to meet you; I've wondered what you were like." Her curious stare clung to my face.

"The same here." Her skin-tone was a lot paler than Tom's and there was a faint bruise next to her eye. Did anybody hit her? "How are you?"

"Okay. Better." She looked at Tom who was her very apparent reason for being better. "I'm so... I don't know what to say, you know?"

"Yes. It's okay. I don't know what to say either. Look at Tom, I think he's gone mute."

Tom smiled and shook his head. "How do you get along with granddad?"

"I don't know. He's kinda silent. Like he's angry all the time so I try to be really quiet. I was doing homework when you came."

Homework was probably one of her best defenses against invasive, negative vibrations from grown-ups.

"On the first day of springbreak? Do you have enough homework for the entire week?"

"No. I may have to make up assignments." She sighed. "I was afraid they would send me to some really strict bible school. This is worse." Tom hugged her and she sniffled into his shirt. "I'm so glad you came."

"Do you know why you are here?" I asked her when she had calmed down and used another handful of tissues.

She shrugged. "There's no phone. Mum said that was why they wouldn't have me go to bible school, there are phones and the some of the kids have their own phones. And you know what - he doesn't even have a bathroom. It's..." she grimaced. "There's no shower. And there's a shed... It smells awful."

The old gun-freak-zombie probably wasn't too happy about having a teenager bestowed on him like this. "Do you know why he said yes to take you in?"

"Dad told him to. At first granddad didn't want to but dad made him do it. Like he said..." She bit her lip.

"It's okay, Maria. Just say it."

"Dad said you were sick in your mind, a pervert and a fag. Like, you're dangerous or something. He said that I had to hide from you, like you were going to take me away. I told him it's not true, I wish it was, but you aren't going to because the police would come after us and they could shoot you."

They said - Tom a kidnapper? Considering the way this guy appears to solve his problems - there might be a gun pointing at us right this minute. I bit my lip to keep the panic inside. It was impossible to see much through the grimy, dark windows. On the other hand: if he was going to shoot he probably already would have.

"Do you believe him?"

She shrugged.

"I'm gay, Maria."

She nodded, solemn and unflinching. "That's what Ian said; if it wasn't the heathen cult and the rats then it was probably that. I don't care if you are crazy. I'm not afraid of you."

Ah, the logic of that. Rats?

Seeing that Tom had some notions to address, I got a couple of beers and walked towards the house. The bitch was staring stiffly at me. I thought I managed a pretty good balance between keeping an eye on her and not appearing to stare aggressively - a balance she did not seek.

When she growled, I stopped. "Good day to you too, miss. You mind telling the Texas Ranger that I'd like a talk with him? Talk as in a civilized exchange of observations and points of view, all expressed in words and entirely without physical contact."

"Grrr."

"Hey, relax girl, calm down, you know, if I wasn't damn sure it would drive you crazy then I'd be waving a white flag right now. I don't want to fight you, girl. I'm just a European coward. I hate fights."

She cocked an ear and took a step to the side, making room for the Texas Ranger Zombie.

Phew! Sans gun. So there might be negotiations. Perhaps he couldn't remember we had met before - he did the whole staring me up and down thing again. Maybe he has an elevator installed in the neck, it could be a zombie-thing.

"Beer?"

He nodded and turned and I followed. So did the dog, eyeing me nervously.

Close up, the raw, gray wood work was as dried out as it had looked to be from a distance. It was some kind of cedar, so it was pretty much self-preserving, still a few buckets of oil or paint would have done it a lot of good. Considering where we were then it was unlikely he had to worry about snow blowing through the cracks or about water soaking the wood and tearing it apart once the frost set in. But there probably were drafts coming through the cracks and rain coming through the roof.

He motioned with a hand and I sat down on one of the old kitchen chairs on the porch, carefully, as the legs of the chairs were bent. I handed him a beer and we popped the cans open. The overhang was slanted but it kept the sun out nicely anyway.

I pushed my anger away. Better make Sonja proud. "We're really butting in here," I said when we had nodded small nods at each other and drunk.

"Damn right you are."

"I hope you'll let us stay for a little while, so that Tom and Maria can talk."

"Now you ask me." He snorted. "I pointed my gun at you and you wouldn't leave."

"That was rude, both you pointing the gun and us not leaving. Maybe we could let the rudenesses cancel each other out and start from a new beginning." And forget about the gun being fucking loaded. Right, Mikkel?

"Pushy fellow, aren't you?"

I shrugged.

He lifted the can at me. "What do you want?" He was wondering why the beer?

"I'd like to know what is going on."

He sent me a look full of suspicion.

"The way this situation came about, as far as I understood it from Maria, Frank and Jenny came by on a surprise visit yesterday and left their girl with you. The reason they gave you was that they feared that Tom would kidnap her." And they practically set strangers, including Tom, up for getting murdered by the paranoid freak. Frank must have known about the rifle. "And you said yes to take her in, perhaps you believed what they said. I mean, you took your bloody time getting that safety back on even after you knew who it was."

He drank, taking his time. "Yeah. That's about it. Why?"

"Tom's important to me, we're pretty close. That makes Maria important too, since she's important to Tom. I'm not sure where you figure in all this. And no: Tom isn't going to kidnap her or molest her in any way. He's just here to see her and to talk with her. They haven't seen each other since the third of March." There was still a week left of March. Time does funny things - it seemed much longer ago since a dripping wet Tom had stood outside the kitchen door. I hope April will stretch like that, or more, like for a year...

The Texas Ranger looked at me and I thought that there was interest in his eyes.

"That's when Tom's parents threw him out."

"And why should I believe you?"

I shrugged; it was a pretty stupid question. Maybe it was cover for a "shut up and let me find my feet". Maybe this guy isn't too bright. "You'll have to figure out your own reasons why or why not. Since you had to ask, then I doubt you'll believe mine."

He grunted and we sat in quiet for a couple of gulps of beer. "When are you leaving?"

Just like Mormor. "Tom would probably like to stay until he and Maria have had their long talk. He'll try to talk you out of it if you tell him to get out of here before - but he'll leave. Me - I can leave right now, though I would like you to promise not to shoot him or beat him up while I'm waiting down by the road. You could also put me to work while they talk, I'm pretty good with my hands both inside and outside the house." Maybe I could do something to make Maria's stay less traumatic.

That one took some chewing on his part; the jaws worked slowly, as far as I could tell, on nothing. The dog lay down at his feet, still, she did not look away from me.

"The dog - does she have a name?"

"Bitch."

The dog looked at him from where she lay and wagged her tail, thumping against the planking. And I felt a fraction less alien. "You use her for hunting?" The leather-strap on that rifle had seen a lot of use.

"Yeah. There's a good nose on her."

That could have been a warning. I wonder if he imagines we'll take off with Maria on foot. Her head had come up, expectantly.

"I used a Word."

"You sure did. No, girl." The dog lay its head down, he raised his can and I raised mine and we drank. "You hunt?" he asked once he had dried his mouth on the back of his hand.

I shook my head. "I went with my granddad a couple of times, but it didn't take. I'm a city-boy." I had cried when they shot a deer, and Morfar had been utterly ashamed of his grown-up grandson. Well, that took care of that. He hasn't ordered me on a hunt since that time.

"Yeah." He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. "So your granddad isn't."

I shook my head; not sure what to say. My macho Morfar defied a short description.

Bitch got up in a hurry when she heard steps, and growled when she saw Tom and Maria rounding the corner. The Texas Ranger touched her lightly and she quieted.

Tom suffered the Ranger's elevator gaze. "Granddad, I'm sorry about putting you in this situation."

Isn't he angry about the gun at all? I still was.

"Yeah. Did you and Maria finish your talk?"

"Not really."

"I see. So you want to talk some more."

"Yeah."

"There are more chairs inside."

Maria held the door for Tom who got another couple of kitchen chairs from inside. Those were the better ones, the legs on them were straight.

The Texas Ranger waited for them to sit. Then, "You really a fag?"

Tom stiffened.

Come on - chin up, Coz! Ask the guy if he likes doing it with goats.

"Yes," came softly - and firmly. Tom waited tensely while the gray jaws chewed. Maria put a protective hand on his shoulder; her valiant attempt at a fierce stare was blunted by fear.

"You don't look like one."

Tom blinked and relaxed a fraction. "I guess we come in all kinds of shapes same as everybody else."

The Ranger nodded. "I guess." The man must be in chewing-gum withdrawal. "Frank and Jenny - what would they do if they knew you were here?"

"Call the cops? I don't know; they don't like fags much."

"That's about what I figured too."

Maria's face was all eyes. "Please, don't tell them Tom was here, Grandpa."

"I'll have to make my mind up on that, won't I? " All that chewing - he's definitely in withdrawal. "You can stay for dinner. Your cousin too."

Tom sighed in relief. "Thanks. We brought food."

The answer to that was clipped. "I've got food. I've got chickens."

Usually the prospect of freshly slaughtered poultry will have me salivating in sprays. The inclination was dampened somewhat by the situation. Also, if the kitchen facilities matched the rest of the dismissal place, then it wasn't a place I would want my foods to have passed through. "Thank you. If you have a fridge - some of the stuff in the car might spoil." I can wrap it in more plastic bags if needs be. "The cooler will not keep it cool for much longer."

"I have a fridge."

A gas driven, old one with only a few things it, as I found out after I had changed into work clothes at the car and picked up the groceries. It wasn't exactly clean, neither was it as bad as I had feared. There were a couple of ready-made meals that really should have been stored in the nonexistent freezer and cooked in the nonexistent microwave oven. Tom had told me that Jennifer mostly cooked "out of boxes"; this was probably some purchase that she and Frank had brought. There were jelly and peanut butter too, both of the jars almost full.

The house had one big room, a little smaller than Mormor's kitchen, and two small ones hardly larger than a bed - if one didn't try to fit in a double. There were no doors, the separations were hangings and they had been pulled aside by oily hands on several occasions. They were closed now, light shone through one of them so at least one of the small rooms had a window. The place was worn, it smelled of old man, and hadn't experienced a thorough cleaning in a long time.

Maria is certainly getting a crash course on - something. So am I. How can the old man still be alive?

I was relieved to see that there was a gas stove that emitted gas in the right places, I checked it, and a sink with a tap that worked. I checked that too.

I was less relieved to find that the gas tanks were kept inside the house.

The Texas Ranger turned to look at me when I came back out. He must have heard the tap run. "Tom says you can cook."

"I can. Do you want me to?"

"The axe is in the barn." That information spoke of some level of trust.

So I beheaded a couple of chickens and set Tom and Maria to work plucking them while I scrubbed the cooking area thoroughly and swept the floor.

The Texas Ranger was busy on a project behind the barn, setting up a contraption involving, among other things, a large bucket, several pieces of string and a piece of garden hose. "Women needs this kind of thing," he said when I checked to see if he wanted a hand. "Are they still talking?"

"Yes. And plucking the chickens."

"I wouldn't have guessed they knew how."

"They didn't, so I showed them, and now they do."

"Ah." He spat, and dried his mouth on the back of his hand. "Can you hold this board?"

I could.

 

---------------

How do I get myself into these things? There was a stripe of moon and lots of stars, but it was still dark. Tom had insisted on no light; too many insects otherwise, he had said, implying that I had the choice between having light and being attacked by masses of undefined winged menaces.

Tom grunted and turned, bumping into me. The lumpy mattress that we were sharing was thin; one could feel the boards through it. I was already flowing halfway off it, so I didn't give an inch when Tom pushed at me.

He's bossy even when sleeping. We had had a short and intensive discussion earlier in the evening. "We can't go to a motel and leave Maria here." Right, Tom. We could bring her with us, I'm sure she would appreciate it. "And what would Granddad think? He made her a fucking shower." Well, we could bring the Texas Ranger, Bitch and the chickens, too. And the shower, if Maria has become that attached to it. "You can go. I'm gonna stay."

So, here I was, "sleeping" in the middle of the wild, on a rickety porch under a tilting roof that might fall down any time. This was not an above-fifth floor in a motel with real beds, proper plumbing, reliable electricity and air conditioning. And no crickets in motels either - the sound is driving me crazy. I better not focus on that, since there was no getting away from it.

The only thing that kept my mind from running down really scary tracks was the dog on the other side of the screen door. She'd been somewhat upset by having us camping out on the porch but now she was calm. As calm as she was likely to get, anyway. She'll wake up if anything untoward comes near. I was sure. She had moved, alert when Tom turned. Good girl.

Tom turned again; I was too slow to stem against his push and rolled off the mattress. Bitch growled.

"It's okay, girl," I said, keeping my voice low, and she whined. We had figured each other out; the chicken scraps I had fed her, with the blessing of the Texas Ranger, had really helped in softening her disposition.

Tom spread himself out even further. If it had been Chris I'd just have moved on top of him or pulled him on top of me.

Chris! Want on top of Chris, nice Chris.

Bitch whined again. I got up, stiff from laying on the hard surface, picked up the lamp as I went and quietly let her out.

"Ssh, you've got to be quiet," I told her when she wagged her tail and pushed her head against my leg.

Quiet could be another Word; she kept her sounds low. I hadn't really heard her bark. Perhaps she didn't. I sat down on the steps. Bitch ran off in the dark. She was only gone for a short time, then she came back asking for another scratch, which she got since I really appreciated her company.

It wasn't that late. Had we been at Mormor's place I would have been up still. It was okay sitting there, I could do work like that. The computer was stowed away just inside the door, if I were quiet I probably wouldn't wake anybody up.

"You'd let me go in without raising the alarm, girl?"

No answer. I'd have to take my chance. However, as I got up, I changed my mind and went over to Tom and pulled his phone out of the sneaker next to him. It was even less late where Chris was so I sat down on the steps again and tried his number.

"Skating Bears, in-liner department, Director Busta's office."

Chris! Teddy Chris! "Head department, section for lost noses." I spoke quietly in order not to wake people up. "Can I talk to Director Busta, please?"

He laughed and I could feel the phantom of his warm breath tickle my ear. "Man. You're still alive."

"Well, yes. I joined the alien invasion. They have all kinds of tricks for keeping you alive. How are you - can you talk?"

"Yeah. Man, they all deserted me, Lance and JC went to bed, to sleep of all things. Boring kids. Justin and Joey went hunting for a vending-machine. I think Joey's finger is stuck in it again, or they got lost; the hallway's got a turn in it. Anyway - did you find her? Have you all turned into cyborgs?"

"Yes and yes. We're still at Walter's place. Tom found Maria and there were violins, I swear. No street-lights but we're all right."

"Cyborgs don't need street lights, man. Didn't they tell you how to turn your heat sensors on?" He was high as a kite.

"Just the X-ray vision, and it's really unsettling when people have skulls for heads, so I don't use it. Ah, Chris - are you putting skates on Busta?"

He laughed and I shivered. Chris! Chris, Chris, Chris. Tell him about me! Hello, Chris! "I couldn't find any. I asked downstairs and they didn't have any, then I checked every on-line store that had skates in it. I gotta have them special made; there's this store in Barbados that can do it. Hey, I can't believe it! You get X-ray vision and you won't even use it! Man, that's really kinky."

"Well, how would you like it if I looked at you?"

"I'd ask for a drawing."

Make Chris pose, spread him out, paint him all over. "Ngh."

"What did it say?"

"Spread him out and paint him all over. What color would you like?"

"Green. Like, fluorescent green. Or silver. Man, no, I want purple, like, metallic purple. With dots. Can I have lots and lots of dots?" Chris' dopey smile reached me through air and empty space. It was a really good kind of magic ray, soothing me in aching places.

"Sure. Dots look good on you. Busta can help and you can have Busta-paw dots all over, different colors on all four paws."

Partner and I can help, too! Nice spunk dots!

"Man. And rollerblade stripes."

"And accident splotches."

Big, big globs of spunk.

"Yeah. Gotta get him some protective gear for those. A helmet at least. The guys in Barbados probably make those, too. What? Was that your dick again? You had it cyborged?"

I want vocal cords!

"No." I realized what he must have heard. "That's Bitch. She's growling." And almost barking. Alarm! "She's serious. I better check for bears - Tom and I am sleeping outside on the porch. This place is in the wild, it's at the end of the power line. See you tomorrow and say hi when you get Joey out of the vending-machine."

"Will do. See you."

I cut the connection. Bitch stopped growling when I put a hand on her, and she listened with me. A way off, a dog started barking. It could come from that camper down the road. I didn't think that dog had barked before; if it had not, then something else must have alarmed Bitch. She growled again and stepped towards the corner of the house, waiting for me to follow.

I did, stopping when we were free of the house. No street lights, blast it. But - that flicker could be car-lights. Who would come here at midnight? Maybe the Texas Ranger has enemies.

The screen-door slammed and Bitch gave an informative high powered growl.

"That's a car." Walter's voice was rusty from sleep.

"You didn't bring that cursed rifle, did you?"

He answered with a snort. "You better wake Tom up and move your things out of sight. It could be Frank."

"You're going to shoot Frank?" I hadn't heard any metallic cracks from the inside. If he had loaded the rifle then I would have heard it. "You keep that thing lying around - loaded?"

With his free hand he waved move at me, irritatedly.

Full of misgivings, I found the lamp and went to shake the lycanthrope awake.

"Is anybody coming?" Maria, wrapped in a blanket, came out and let the screen door fall shut behind her.

"You better get back in, girl, and be quiet. It's probably just Frank."

"Is that a gun? Are you gonna shoot my dad? Grandpa?"

"No! Christ, just get of sight, girl, and stay there until we know who it is. Inside the house, go, go. And don't turn any lights on."

Tom came on-line quickly - he probably heard their exchange. He got up, clumsy from sleep, and I picked up our blankets, piling our things into them. Tom took the mattress.

"Hey, Walter, we're staying by the end of the house - and don't you dare shoot us. I'll come back and fucking haunt you until you scream."

"Sure, you do that, Miguel. You got a lamp?"

"Yes. Maria? Our packs are just inside the door, can you take them to your room? There are two."

"Yeah. Sure." Her voice tensed as if she picked up something heavy.

The coolers - new-looking, brightly blue coolers standing one on top of the other next to the fridge will look odd. But it was too late for more loud talk; the car had rolled free of the trees, now it moved past the house and into the yard. Tom and I stayed out of its lights, our backs glued to the wall.

The motor and the bright headlights were turned off. We crept forwards to see. It was Jennifer getting out of the car, the door light lit up the interior; she was alone.

"Jennifer." Walter lit the lamp on the porch; the yellow light spilled out in a circle around him, it didn't quite reach to the corners of the house. He had put the gun down. "What now?"

"I... I've come to pick Maria up. I'm taking her home again."

"Ma?" The screen door banged shut behind Maria, she was still wrapped in her blanket.

The Texas Ranger had casually left the rifle leaning against the wall. I certainly hoped the safety was on; it wouldn't take much of a push to get the blasted thing to fall over.

"Get your things, Maria. We're going home."

Tom's hand on my shoulder tensed.

"But... Why, ma?"

"I found a better place. You can stay with Mrs. Schmidt when I'm at work. Come on, get your things."

"Please. I like it here. I'd like to stay."

"You'd like to stay? Here? In this place?"

"Yeah. I'm fine, really. Grandpa made me a shower behind the barn."

She should not have played that card this early. I knew it. We should have gone to that motel. With the shower; we could have mounted it on the roof of the car, if that was what it took. Hopefully Jennifer wouldn't happen on the bright idea of bringing the shower along.

"I thought you liked Mrs. Schmidt."

Tom hissed and I elbowed him. Bitch bared her teeth and looked towards us; Walter halted her with a touch. Jennifer didn't appear to notice that the dog was talking.

"I do. But I like grandpa a lot better. He's really sweet."

For a long moment the only sounds were the rasp of crickets and the cracks of a cooling car engine.

Sweet?

"Sweet?"

Sweet Walter turned his head very slowly and zombie-like to look at Maria.

Tom shivered, he could be laughing or going into hysterics, or both.

"Yeah. Sweet! I'm happy here. Please, ma. Can't I get to do something I want for once? You're always putting me away! Grandpa wants to take me fishing!"

Fishing? The Texas Ranger did not look surprised at her outburst, so it probably was true. Good, cousin, go, go. But - fishing?

"... Maria, granddad doesn't want you-"

"I can speak for myself, madam."

"But you said..."

"I know what I said, and I meant it when I said it, but now I've changed my mind. I'd like her to stay if that is what she wants. I like having her around. We're getting along - she's a good girl." Bitch wagged her tail, probably thinking he was talking about Bitch.

Tom's fingers were boring through my skin.

"Please, ma. I get to be outside as much as I want. I can't do that with Mrs. Schmidt or with you and dad; you won't let me. I can't take it anymore. Don't you understand?" Maria's voice broke. "You watch me all the time and you won't see Tom - I wish you would spread it out! It's not fair!"

Suddenly it was very evident what kind of hurt and frustration the smiles, that Maria had been so full of all day, had covered. Tom was shaking. Perhaps he like I was hard pressed not to run forward and hug Maria. And bash Jennifer's head flat with a rolling pin at the same go.

It was hard to discern if Jennifer noticed Walter's anger at Maria's words. Bitch did; the hairs on her neck rose.

Jennifer blinked and swallowed. "Maria..."

At least she notices Maria. Wonder what she sees?

"Please, ma."

Was this really what Maria preferred: a miserable house, an unreliable dog and an old, grumpy man living in an unhealthy relationship with his gun? Or will she do almost anything, as long as she gets to see Tom?

"Are you sure? I can't come back before Saturday, Maria. Are you sure, really sure, you want to stay?"

"Yeah." Her voice brightened. "Can I?"

"... Alright, honey. You can stay if it's okay with Walter?"

He nodded gruffly. "I said it was, didn't I?"

Sweet?

Tom had relaxed his grip; apparently I got to keep my arm.

Maria briefly hugged her mother goodbye, and Jennifer got into her car. I pulled Tom with me around the next corner, out the way of the headlights. Jennifer had to make the turn in the yard or do most of the trip to the dirt-road in reverse; as I had guessed, she chose to make the turn.

Tom kept his hand in mine while we waited for the car to disappear between the trees, he let go when we went back to the porch.

Maria came flying into his embrace. "I wanted to tell her to take me to you but she would have known - I didn't dare to say too much-"

While they hugged, and Walter stood there looking oddly dazed, I picked up the stupid weapon. The safety was on. I cracked the thing open and shook the bullets out into my hand.

Walter had been rubbing his cheek. Did Maria kiss him? Now he stood still, watching me with a hand still attached to his face.

I dumped the bullets into the breast pocket of his open shirt. "Sweet - my ass," I muttered, trying not to yell; Maria had enough angry men around. "You got two kids in the house and you act like a fucking amateur around weapons." I pushed the gun into his chest and he took it.

"Mikkel-" Tom tried to interrupt me.

I ignored him. "Last somebody slipped up on this around me I threw the damned thing into the sea. Those statistics on accidents stem from somewhere. Lock it up, man. Unloaded! Or throw it out; I'll arrange a boat happily. Dinner and music, too. It eats your brains out sleeping with such a one! It's sick!"

He glared at me. "You don't understand shit, Cityboy."

I what not? What the heck! "Try me! Give me one good reason for being careless. Then tell me how come you got careless." I poked the barrel. "It. Eats. Your. Brains. Out. Like a fucking zombie! Get rid of it if you can't handle it!"

"Miguel - stop. Please." Maria held out a hand.

"You, you ask him - let him explain the proper behavior around weapons; this week you live in the same house as one. He owes you that explanation, he took frigging responsibility! And then keep him to his own rules when you are around, yank his short hairs if you need to. I. Like. My cousins. A-fucking-live!"

"Cool down!" That was were-Tom.

I marched off to do just that. I shouldn't have talked like that to Maria. She was scared enough as it was, and now Tom was angry with me - he had growled. I was well away from the porch and outside the weak light before I remembered that I was afraid of the dark and bears. "Pis mig i uret!" If a monster came within my range I was going to take it apart!

Our car was parked behind the barn. I went to sit in it with the door open, smoking another tasteless cigarette and every so often growling back at the prowling monsters.

Bitch found me when I had smoked most of the cigarette; she came out of the dark, giving me a shock. "Bitch - don't do that." She wagged her tail and I scratched her.

"Are you okay?" That was Maria. Alone. "I mean, have you cooled down? Tommy said you probably had."

"Yes. Look, I'm sorry I yelled at you. I shouldn't, there was no reason for that."

"It's okay." She came closer and put a hand on the open door. "You shouldn't smoke. I like my cousins a-fucking-live, too."

"It's not okay, Maria. I was wrong." I put the cigarette out.

"Yeah. Well. Grandpa locked the gun up."

"What are they doing?"

"Drinking beers out on the porch."

Tom drinking beer? Man, then he's really angry at me.

"Are you really mad at Grandpa?"

"I was. If he locked the gun up properly then I'm not angry anymore."

"Good."

Maybe she actually meant it when she said he was sweet. I found the mints in the glove compartment, popped a few into my mouth and gave Maria the bag. "Take a handful. Better bring it along; Tom will want one if he's been drinking beer."

"You two have gotten to know each other real well." She dug into the bag.

"Yes, we have. It's weird; we've known each other for such a short time and, yes. I'm lucky I met him."

She nodded. "He's the best brother in the whole world."

"He's missed you too. A lot. He told me he was sorry about drawing a beard on Justin."

"Yeah?" there was a smile in her voice. "He got me a new poster, did he tell you?"

"Yes. Do you still like 'NSync?"

"Yeah."

"Paul - did Tom tell you about Paul?"

She nodded, even in that poor light her curiosity was very obvious.

"Paul likes Lance the best."

"Tell me more about Paul."

"Tom knows him better, really."

"You have seen them together. Do they kiss?"

So this is what little sisters are like. "Well, not when there is anybody else there."

"Oh," she said disappointedly.

"But when they are caught..."

"You caught them? Tell me!"

"Oh, yes-" She brought the worst out in me, and she drank the gossip like it was water in the desert. Tom is going to kick me for dishing it out like this. Apart from the kicks, it was perfectly safe for me to do - he couldn't really get back at me, not with Chris involved - it would be too risky, and Tom knew it.

Gleefully, I set myself up for a lot of kicks.

nnnnnnnnnnnn

End of Chapter

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