Grendel (short story)

  Deliciously empty, unplugged from the internet, Diane gazed at the bleak landscape stretching before her. Her tent had withstood the night’s wind and her stove was bubbling her morning tea. She was at 6000 feet elevation and she meant to make 8000 feet before nightfall. The Pacific Crest trail was ahead. She had a cache to replenish her supplies at a trailhead there. At her feet stretched her boxer dog.
   He was a fearsome sight. One of his eyes had never developed the white around the pupil and so it was perpetually bloodshot. It was unessential, cosmetic really and did not affect his vision. When he stared, as he did very often, with seeming menace at an animal or person, he earned his name again, Grendel. Every ounce of him was either muscle or bone.
   “Hey Gren!”
   He looked at her with unconditional love. He knew his name of course and he knew where she was, where they were, what dangers might be nearby, that a rat was about 600 feet away to the northwest, that there were no humans or dogs near enough to sense.
   Grendel loved being outdoors even in this bare and desolate scene. He had already prowled the perimeter of their camp and peed outside the campsite. He had felt what he could of weather and nothing was coming. Not that weather bothered him in the least. The She was now moving her yard ape items around. The She put on her backpack. Excited. Follow the She.
   The two of them went on. The landscape changed from bare to a few bushes. Gren could smell a few more prey animals, but none were close. Their scent trails were old, but followable. The bushes slowly gave way to fir trees. They were heading into a watershed that could support larger trees. The trail was a few miles ahead. Soon they were in stand after stand of firs with a rich carpet of needles under their feet. Each stand was separated from the next by granite fields that had flowed millions of years ago. The huge rocks they were walking over had been smoothed by glaciers and still showed ripples where the ice had melted or perhaps had remained longer. The ripples weren’t dangerous to walk on but did take some of Diane’s attention to keep from falling. Her pack was still heavy enough without the supplies she had had sent on ahead.
   Diane blinked each time they crossed one of the boundaries. The firs were dark and welcoming, cool and protected. The granite was clarity itself – views up and down the grade, bright and focused out to the eye’s full reach.
   As they were crossing a fire road in one of the fir stands they saw a ranger’s truck driving slowly across their track. The ranger stopped. She got out and approached Diane and Grendel.
   “Hi, Pacific Crest trail?”
   “Yes”, said Diane.
   “Which station did you check into?”
   “San Jotate.”
   “‘Kay. Has your dog killed any wildlife while you’ve been hiking?”
   “Excuse me. What?”
   “Has your dog killed any wildlife?”
   “No! How could you even think that?”
   “People do it. Dogs trained on guinea pigs and gerbils and then brought out here.”
   “No.” Diane said it flatly. This was a very odd conversation and even though she had not seen another person in a week she really wanted it to be over.
       “Now that I’ve got your attention, forget about the dog. There’s a main trail to Pac Crest and there’s a couple of bushwhack trails. As you know Cal land management  rules are to stay on the sanctioned trails and not bushwhack. Some hikers make a new trail to make a shortcut. I’m advising you to stay on the main trail.”
   “Why?” and then Diane thought “Who cares?” and continued out loud “Sure I’ll stay on the trail.”
   “You’ll  have a lot better hike by staying off the bushwhack trails.”
   “Okay I get it.”
   “Happy trails.”
   Gren had been unsure about the ranger. She had not had the silly information free scents, fruit, synthetic musk, flowery, that most yard apes rolled in. Either they were so thick that it was hard to get any facts about that yard ape, or the scent was just a slight addition (or subtraction) to their facts.
   Gren had been keeping close attention to Diane. He was ready to attack if that had become necessary. There were many muscles to watch on both Diane and the ranger. His ears had been ready to catch any aggressive warning scrapes in the gravel they stood on. The way the gravel would crunch in the fraction of a second when it was first moved by a yard ape would have been all Grendel needed to know. To make an instant decision to stand down at attention or use his formidable jaws.
   He smelled no fear in either woman. As the conversation went on he could smell a little wariness in the She, but it was no stronger than an ordinary meeting with an unknown yard ape.
   Diane relaxed after the ranger’s truck was no longer visible. She had a GPS unit. It was a joy because she could hike anywhere and not get lost. She had intended to go the bushwhack route. Nothing the ranger had said changed her mind.   Soon Diane and Gren were further in the trees – deep green with a slight tint of blue. The sun shone in crazy tangles. coming and going, changing with each step. Lighter, darker, the sunlight flickered because of the scrim of the branches above them.
   They made good time. The trail was clear and clean and easy. It was at least as easy as the trail the ranger had pushed so hard.
   Gren could smell ground squirrels and rats – all very light, but plenty to follow should he be given freedom. There was scat by the trail, but he did not pursue it even to smell because the She had not given permission. When the She did give permission, he would do a patrol around their location. The She did give that permission from time to time. Vigilance was served by patrolling. He knew the concept without needing words.
   As before, they came to a granite field and the smells were both attenuated and in a cleaner line. He could have followed them quickly, only checking every few feet, instead of the much shorter spacing, inches in length, that he would have to check while in the deep carpet of needles back only a few feet on the trail.
   Diane followed her GPS and continued on, close to a straight line to the Pacific Crest trail.
   They passed through that granite field, then a fir – then a granite, a fir many times, headed upgrade, gaining elevation. In each fir field the trees were a shorter by a small but perceptible amount. The sun was brighter with each granite field.
   Diane and Gren heard a very faint buzzing sound. Gren knew exactly where it was: high in the air,  about 1000 feet to the right. There was no smell associated with it, so to Gren it was inconsequential. Diane thought it must be an airliner at 35,000 feet. It was a drone with a camera and a GPS unit. Diane and Gren continued on.
   As they broke out of one of the fir stands, Diane saw a lot of tall plants in rows that she instantly knew did not belong there. It was a marijuana field. Just as she turned to get the hell out of there, two men in ski masks with a skull printed on them sauntered right up to her. The drone she and Gren had heard had tracked her every step.
   Gren took in the situation in a fraction of a second. He had been a few hundred feet away testing the perimeter around the She with permission. He saw a stranger touching the She. He saw the other stranger standing a little way away pointing something at the She. The She smelled of fright and danger. The two men smelled of aggression and domination.  There will be blood and pain. As Gren rushed them with fangs bared, the gunman standing away from Diane sprayed him with bullets from his automatic rifle. As his life drained out of Grendel there was one concept in his mind although it was not framed in words: “honor was served.”.
   Before Diane could accept that Grendel was dead, many things happened seemingly at once. The buckles on her pack were snapped and the pack lifted from her. Even as the shock of a man’s hand touching her, however lightly, got her attention, the other man grabbed her wrists and pulled a large strong zip tie tight over them. As the discomfort of her arms being pulled back and the pressure of the plastic sank in, the first gunman dropped a sack over Diane’s head. Even as all  that happened to her, which was too much to take in, the men holding her arms to keep her from falling marched her quickly in a direction they knew well. They marched quite a ways.
   Diane was in darkness in so many ways. She stumbled a number of times. She could see just a tiny bit by looking straight down. There was not much to see, a dirt track, gray stones, some pieces of footprints, but no green of vegetation. Occasionally she could see the gravel of a track and finally they did follow a gravel road.
   No one said anything the whole time. The two gunmen had been instructed by the Farmer to give nothing away by speaking. Diane thought of pleading with them but a couple of things stopped her. The first was: they had killed Grendel. What could she say about that? She could rage and that might make them mad which she definitely did not want, and pleading would not bring Gren back to life either. Second, what would she ask of them? What are you going to do with me? She shuddered at what they might say. They were keeping their hands tight on her upper arms and had not tried anything scarier like grabbing her boobies or worse. But being a prisoner in the dark, Gren dead, tied up like protester being thrown into the police wagon, no pack, no cell phone, no GPS was bad and she had to pee.
   The three of them stopped. They were in somewhere dark with artificial light. The gunmen sat her down in a chair.
   “I have to pee.” said Diane.
   One of them pulled over a pail and then unbuckled her belt and pulled her pants and panties down.
   “But, but…”, she started to say until a rifle barrel poked her in the back. Hard. That’ll leave a bruise, she thought incongruously.
   She peed into the bucket.
   “Toilet paper?” she asked and was handed a roll. One of the men cut the zip ties. The other pointed a rifle at her the whole time. She had the sack on her head and one arm held behind her the whole time. Amazing that everything got done somehow. She has round lines in her ass from sitting on a pail. Round lines. A gunman pulled her panties and jeans up but left her belt unbuckled. One or both of them yanked her over to a chair, sat her down and tied her arms in back of her, threading the rope through the back of the chair. She was tied tight. The gunmen, the hired hands, had obeyed the Farmer and not said a thing the whole time. Diane could see her jeans, parts of an old wooden chair and a concrete floor. Then the lights went out and she heard a door lock.
   Just like the clouds of a hurricane swirl around the eye, Diane’s thoughts went everywhere, but the image of Grendel dying was the center of the wild mess that filled her brain. He had not stopped running towards the gunmen until the bullets had torn enough of his muscles to pieces that he couldn’t run any more. Diane’s mind either remembered or imagined pieces of Gren flying along with the blood. The blood. It had been a pool where it had not been thrown around by the bullets. Then the sack on her head.
   Now she was in blackness, she couldn’t move, her wrists hurt where the zip ties had cut into them like sharp ropes, like barbed wire. Diane could feel tiny drips of blood where the plastic had cut her.
   As her body reasserted itself and no longer was in fight or flight mode, her mind followed by a little bit. There was a smell. Weed! she was a prisoner in a weed storage room. This sensation prodded her mind into a frenzy again.
   The next days went by with a rhythm she never became used to. There was always oatmeal in what she assumed was morning. She was allowed to use the pail and she was allowed to pull her pants down by herself. One hired hand would bring in the food and a second pointed a gun at her the whole time. As before, neither of them spoke to her. There was usually some kind of stew later in the day. She had the same bathroom privileges as the first time. At least someone changed out the pail so that she wasn’t smelling it all the time.
   As bad as the physical arrangements were, what took place in her mind was much much worse. At first she worried that she was going to be raped. Along with that, she wondered if she was too old to be trafficed. She had read a book ages ago and this phrase from it went through her mind incessantly “Yeah boys, you get a little taste before we send her south.” She was so sorry she had read that. She filled in the rest with terrifying details. Repeated details. She had the time to repeat this train of thought even against her will.
   As a respite from that, her mind also repeated Grendel’s death. In slo-mo. In fast-mo. With different views above below and with different amounts of bullets. What had Gren thought and felt as he made his last rampaging charge? Diane had always brought Gren along with her as protection when she hiked because he was so terryfying. Well that worked out shitty.
   As time went on she was wrung out emotionally with these two scenes. She tried mightily not to think of them. That was not so easy with a bag over her head and sixteen hours of bored wakefulness. She tried saying “happy thoughts” aloud over and over again.
   Her mind was exhausted even out of boredom with the terrifying scenes, and eventually happy thoughts returned from time to time. They didn’t replace the terrifying ones, but alternated. She reviewed her boyfriends, good sides, bad sides, indifferent. She reviewed the major turning points in each relationship and imagined as many different outcomes as she could. She repeated conversations she had had. She edited them to make herself smarter, more incisive, cutting but compassionate. All her boyfriends loved her more afterward.
   In contrast to those threads, she reviewed her likelihood of being rescued. Diane was not in a relationship, her parents had died in a car crash a few years ago, she was currently consulting (gave her more time for outdoors) so there was no employer to raise an alarm, she had paid two months ahead on her rent, oh god it just got worse as she went over this list. Over and over.
   She tried remembering previous long treks: Yosemite (granite and firs!), San Jimenez (along the river, cold and crisp), the Ho rainforest (emerald in every direction), the Ozarks (different but disappointing). She sweated metaphorically trying to remember every detail of every trail and stop. Lots of them were just hazy abstract signs with nothing to console her. Not satisfactory at all.
   She tried remembering meals. She tried remembering history, psychology, math, anything from school. Not much came back.
   As the days wore on she would lapse into incoherent times when she would just repeat a word or phrase that came into her mind. “Zane dum dee dundundun”, “Where’s the sugar?”, “Ow that hurt”, “see-ance bee-ance”, “thunk thud thud”, “oye miho”, “Zin zin zin”. Often they weren’t even words, just baby talk, syllables strung together.
   As the days wore on she started seeing things inside her headsack. Mostly they weren’t pleasant – a tiger’s face that swelled big and contracted,  over and over again. She wished it would stop but it didn’t. A tree that grew all around her and started to stick her with branches. She could feel the branches poking into her skin and she couldn’t do a thing about it.
   Bored bored bored, she tried talking to the hired hands. They never replied. She knew that hostages’ fate often depended on becoming human, a person, not an asset or liability.
   “What’s your name? If you can’t talk to me could you write it on a piece of paper so I could know? Do you have a wife or girlfriend? Are you rich from selling weed? How big is the farm?”
   Then she tried bargaining.
   “I won’t tell anybody anything. I’ll just take my pack and be on my way. I didn’t see anything. Grendel fell in a ravine and drowned. I got delayed by a twisted ankle that healed. I’ve got money if that’s what you want from me. Just let me go on the other side of your fields.”
   Nothing. She got no replies and no information,
   By her reckoning it had been five days when she started to feel funny. Her skin prickled, of course by now she was dirty. Every hiker is usually pretty dirty so these prickles felt out of place. She felt heavy in a delightful way. She really started to see things in the dark. Green glowing lizards that looked at her with understanding eyes. Incredible mandalas that spun slowly and changed color and configuration.
   “Shit! They’re feeding me edible weed! Those fuckers!” she had nothing at all to lose by saying it out loud.
   When it was time for a bathroom break, she seductively told the hired hand “You don’t have to feed me weed. Save it for sale. Please don’t feed me weed. It makes things worse. I could be nice to you…”
   Nothing. The Farmer had been crystal clear – whatever she said,  don’t answer. Don’t take advantage of her. She’s probably about ready to trade sex for even having her headsack off. We’ve got bigger things going on. There’ll always be two of you, but don’t get any ideas about both of you having fun with her. That’s a way for her to get the gun. Listen to me not your dicks.
   Diane determined to stop eating. Maybe that would force something, anything is better than this boredom. Let the worst happen she thought. At least it will be over.
   After a day of not eating, when her headsack went on the hired hands lit a small firepit in the storage room with weed strewn over the wood.
   Diane’s body and brain had been soaked in marijuana, and now she was breathing it with every breath. She was starving hungry and now incredibly high. Being that high is not fun. She saw endless screaming movies in the black of her sack. By now there was no sense to be made of them. Something was happening in the movies but what it was dissolved into incomprehension.  It was not the pleasant mandala-like quiet movies of a few days ago. Everything in the movie was being tortured in some way. There were creatures, people, animals, germs, gods or a mixture of all of them at once. All of them had no mouth but had to scream. Diane screamed for a while but it did her no good. Diane lost consciousness and that was a damn good thing. Consciousness was doing her no favors by then.
   When she came to she was lying under a tree. Her pack was right by her. A helpful sign pointed to the trailhead where her cache of supplies waited for her. She was still high as a kite but at least she wasn’t staring into the dark of a sack over her head.
   Out of habit more than anything else, she shouldered her pack and started up the trail. Everything was wonderful – sunshine, trees, the trail felt like she was on a deliciously subtle trampoline, she was breathing free air again.
   She was so high that any self-reflection was completely beyond her. She was. Nothing else could be said about it. It was. The whole world was one emotion.
   As she rounded a curve in the trail she saw some men in uniforms. Good rangers! She smiled a huge smile. I like rangers. They had my itinerary I’ll bet they got me out. Good rangers!
   “Hello young lady. I’m Sherriff’s deputy Bantley. Are you OK?” Bantley could tell she was toasted to 11. He’d certainly seen his share of that.
   “Couldn’t be bitter. Ha ha! Couldn’t be bu…better!” she said (or thought she said, it was hard to tell).
   “Are you Diane Wester? Mind if we take a look in your pack? This here paper is a warrant for us in the Sherriff’s office to do that.” He knew he’d better keep it simple – like on a three year old’s level.
   Why sure! Diane still wasn’t sure she was saying things out loud or only in her mind.
   A couple of deputies helped her get the pack off.
   “Have I got a story to tell you. I was a hostage. They killed my dog! They fed me edible weed but I told them to stop! I will take you there!”
   “We’ll just see about that”, said Bantley.
   “Here it is, B” a deputy held up a clear baggy full of a lot of vials of very dark brown liquid.
   “Un huh hash oil. Just as we thought.” Said Bantley.
   “Bu..bu..but I never I’m not… they! They did it! I never!” Because Diane was still really high this all came out as hysterical, screechy like an owl and sounded more like nonsense that anything else. Like an animal was howling in pain.
   “You’ll be coming with us. Stick her.” ordered Bantley.
   A woman in the same uniform as the men walked up to Diane and stabbed her with a tiny pipette that filled with her blood.   
  A week later Diane was speaking with her public defender.
   “Your THC levels were off the charts.” said York. Yes that was his name, Diane reminded herself. But how reassuring he was. He never got upset, he understood the system, he listened to Diane’s story without a trace of judgment. If he didn’t believe her then he had really learned how not to show it. Diane guessed being a public defender would tend to foster that skill.
   “I’m not surprised. They had been dosing me for a few days before and then really hit me hard. It’s a damn good thing there’s no toxic dose for weed.”
   “Even though the Sherriff wasn’t very forthcoming, there’s no crime scene tape up so I could enter the site you said was the farm. The fields had been stripped bare. The few buildings that were there had been rinsed with chlorine so there’s no evidence of a hash oil factory.
   “I suppose that the Farmer used the time you were held to clear out with whatever was valuable still.
   So there’s no direct evidence to support your story. The charge is still distribution of hash oil which is worse than distribution of marijuana. I tried to get it reduced to trafficking, but the DA isn’t ready to go along with that. You had so much on you that I don’t believe they will go with a simple possession charge.”
   York was reassuring even as he was informing Diane she was blued, screwed and tatoo’ed. He had on the public defender’s cheap suit, but it did fit. Diane could imagine him in outdoor clothes looking over the empty, chlorine’ed farm. He didn’t look the outdoor sort. She guessed he  probably worried endlessly about his clients, reading law books or whatever lawyers did when they weren’t arguing in front of a judge.
   “Time”, said the guard.
   “I’ll be back in two days.” said York.
   “Thank you so much.” said Diane with a catch in her voice. She had been hoping for a plea down to possession.
   As she was led back to her cell she could see that she had a cellmate now.
   “Hi I’m Diane”
   “Yeah I’m Marina, whacha?”
   By now Diane knew what this meant.
   “Possession with distribution.”
   “Weed, meth or pills?”
   “Hash oil.”
   “Did you get it from a farm?”
   Diane broke down, as much as she allowed herself to in jail. She told Marina her whole sad story. Marina listened without any emotion. Diane finished. She was tired.
   “whacha?” Diane asked.
   “Smacked my kid. Wasn’t nothing but his teacher called protective.”
   “You’ll be out in nothing flat.”
   Diane knew better than to react to what Marina had said. Everyone in jail was innocent. She’d seen a slap knockdown fight while they were being herded to breakfast because one woman had doubted another’s innocence.
   “Yeah I know. I’ve got to tell you something. Hash oil from a farm. You don’t look like no farmer. They’re all guys in order to keep down the drama.”
   In an ordinary conversation Marina would have nudged Diane at this point, but touching another inmate could be dangerous even (usually) without weapons.
   “So if you ain’t a farmer, you was just an innocent bystander. Now you’re up for distribution. D is a bad one. There’s minimum sentence, I don’t know three years, no time served.”
   “Yeah my defender says the most he can do is trafficking.”
   “Yeah there’s a lot you need to know. This is the poorest county in the state of Cal-you-done. There was never much lumber, it’s too dry to farm and cows can’t too much offa the ground.
   When weed came around everybody got a piece, especially the Sherriff and local law. There’s a confiscation rule that cars and houses and anything else Johnny Law thinks was used is theirs to keep or sell or whatev no questions asked.
   The Farmers use this as a way to pay off the suits without having to leave a paper trail. The hired hands or mules that get caught get to slide off with a fake probation.
   If you got a choice between being really poor, looking at your kids’ teeth rotting cuz you can’t pay no dentist or taking free money, nobody here says ‘No’. Same for J. law who would rather have a Escalade instead a Toyota in return for ignoring a victimless crime.
   You the victim of a victimless crime.”
   She laughed and coughed.
   “That’s the judges, too. You in the wrong place at the wrong time. To the Farmer you pissed off you was not worth killing and it was close to harvest time. They move the fields often enough anyway.
   The Farmer couldn’t know if you was connected. If he killed you it might stir up a bigger shitstorm than the locals could cover up. He played it clever. You’re just a druggie who either made a buy or a mule or who cares. You setup like a bowling pin. Only question is how much time served and how much might they get out of you on the side.”
   Poorest county in the state.”
   “Wow” thought Diane. This explains so much.
   “Thank you” was all she could manage, but it came out as sincere as a dog. She was overwhelmed again.
   “You’re welcome celly.”
   Nobody called each other celly. Marina was joking because Diane was such a knob head.
   Marina soon got out and Diane was alone again. This wasn’t as bad as a headsack. When she could make her next call she called the agency she worked for. She asked how much her last paycheck was. Not nearly enough to make bail. Often her calls ended early and there was no making a second one until next week.
   “Hey I wasn’t finished.”
   “Get up. You’re going back to your cell.”
   “But I…”
   Smack. Not hard, but hard enough that she didn’t want to know how hard the next one would be.
   She thought about calling Doug, her last boyfriend, but he wouldn’t have the money either, so why waste the call?
   She had isolated herself by not noticing she was doing it. Her goal at all times was saving enough so that she could refuse a contract and instead go for a long hike. Her ideal was to finish the whole Pacific Crest trail – unfortunately having to do it in pieces. She could never save enough to do the whole trail from end to end in one six months long trek.
   Now it was time for payback on that one. Like the bathwater going down a drain unnoticed, she felt like the last water was going down. She was going to spend years in jail and then get released to a bleak non-future.
   At her next meeting with York after some chit-chat he slid a piece of paper on the metal distressed table top over to Diane.
   “You must not take this paper. Do what it says. If you agree say ‘yes’.”
   He kept all fingers of his hand at the top of the paper.
   “Yes” she said.
   York kept talking about how she was being treated in jail.
   She continued reading: “Your case is getting to be embarrassing. The judge is willing to let you out for $2000. If you think you can get the money say ‘The stew was good this week.’”
   “The stew was good this week.”
   The paper continued: “The way Western Union works is you have your friend send the money to the office in Martinsville with Orrin Keepnews as the receiver. Remember that name. Remember the spelling. I don’t get to pick and choose about that. Your friend will have a tracking number once they send the money. You need to ask them for that number. You need to get a slip of paper and write it down and then pass it to me when I visit. You must not say it out loud. If you think you can do all this say: ‘But York I’m not high now.’”
   York had scripted his part of the vocal dialog so that his prompt came just before Diane did say: “But York I’m not high now.”
   York took the paper back, put it in his mouth and chewed hard.
   Diane’s next call was to a direct line to her favorite recruiter. God how lucky it was that she remembered the number – once she had lost her phone and had to remember it to use Doug’s phone to call in.
   “Hi Sheryl, Diane. As you know I’m hiking in the backcountry and I haven’t picked up my last check. Could you do me a huge favor?”
   “Sure, Diane you’ve always been one of our best and most reliables.” said Sheryl.
   “Could you stop payment on my last paycheck and send two thousand dollars to the Western Union office in Martinsville Calostia in care of Orrin Keepnews?”
   “Are you in trouble Diane? The caller ID said ‘restricted’.”
   “No not at all.” Diane was trying feverishly to sound unconcerned. “There’s an investment up here I can’t turn down.”
   “It’s not drugs is it? I know where you went.”
   “No. You know me – straight arrow if there ever was one.”
   “For you I’ll do it. Wouldn’t do it for anyone else.” Sheryl knew something was up and that she would make Diane tell her over lunch when she got back. She’d ply her with alcohol if she had to for something as dishy as this.
   “Thank YOU Sheryl. I’ll call for the tracking number next week. Please write this down: O R R I N space K E E P N E W S.”
   York knew the system and was playing it like a piano center stage at Carnegie Hall. A guard came for Diane. She was handed a stack of papers, her backpack and a sandwich.
   Outside York was waiting. He said “Well great Diane, you may not ever see me again but…”
   He looked at her with longing in his eyes. Diane too felt an attraction. He was cute, a little old but cute. After her ordeal where she spent days imagining the worst rape ever, she was not ready to have any romance right yet. She smiled and said “I may not, but I’ll remember you.” He gave her a bus ticket. Instead of shaking hands she let out a cry and ran away.
   A few months later she had reset. She was working – she owed back the favor Sheryl had done. She had told Sheryl all. What was Sheryl going to do, call the New York Times with an explosive corruption story in Martinsville CA?
   Diane got an email from an anonymous sender. Against her better judgment, she opened it. It was from York.
   [ I’ve used up all my credit for protection and they’re coming for me from about 13 directions at once. When you get on the bad side of certain parties the smart folks run away. I’m smart enough to know it’s time to run. Good news is I saved some money from “defending” a Farmer who pissed off two bigger Farmers and got him the least hurt he was due. What’s it like where you are?]
   She replied: [ Oh York I know how you feel and I’m worried about you. I’ve got a couch you can sleep on as long as you need to. ]
   Six months later they were married.
   Five years later York said “What if we got a cat? Would that be too hard for you after Gren?”
   “No”, said Diane wearily. “I guess a cat is okay. You have to take care of it. I don’t want to touch it.”
   She didn’t want to be reminded of Grendel. She’d done a little PTSD therapy but decided that a seldom felt pang of deep sadness and disorientation was better than spending time and money that might not relieve it altogether.
   Fifteen years after that York said “Now that Mister Tommy is gone, what do you say to a pair of kittens?”
   “Yes”, said Diane wearily.
   Seven years later York grabbed his left side on a bus and was dead before the EMT’s got there and tried to revive him.
   By now Diane was retired. York had made solid middle class money. Was it all made honestly? He had learned in Martinsville how to skate beyond the edge but cover his tracks well. She was financially secure. Emotionally was a different matter.
   She no longer camped in a tent. She had a small van-like RV for her continued outdoor travels. She locked it tight every night and there was a loaded pistol beside the bunk.
   After the Farm incident, she had reached out more than before. She had a small but tight circle of friends. She had taken up knitting in a class and a group at the local senior center. She had a few friends from a book club – same place.
   After York’s cremation, she cried at a few kitchen tables while her friend sitting across from her said “There, there.”
   She had York’s ashes in a box. She couldn’t think of where to spread them. The courthouse? His office? York’s whole life had been his practice.
   The worst time was a sunny day in spring. She was walking down a street and a garbage can whispered: “Kill yourself.” To her. She was able to ignore that, but soon the trees, the mailboxes, the houses and stairs were all repeating it.
   She got home and pulled the covers of the bed over her head. It never happened again.
   After a month of grief Diane returned to the senior center. What strength and resilience she had gained from surviving the Farm was coming back to dry her tears. She didn’t feel strong but she knew how to act strong.
   Her friend Clara was talking to her at the coffee urn.
   “All your friends are girls, Diane.”
   “Girls with gray hair and wrinkles.”
   “We’re always girls until we die if we want to be.”
   Diane laughed. She could do that now.
   “I want to introduce you to someone.”
   “Clara are you kidding?”
   “Nope. You don’t need a partner or romance, but you should broaden your horizons.”
   “Oh Clara, you are nuts.”
   “Don’t do it for yourself, do it for me.”
   “Are you manipulating me?”
   Both laughed.
   “Yes.” Said Clara.
   “You told me how in your youth you were so alone that you could only call your agency. You didn’t expect anyone else to pick up.
   This man is also not looking for romance. He was a friend of my husband. He’s cultured, loves the outdoors and volunteers at the community orchard helping disadvantaged youth.
   You might want to spend more time outdoors. Might cheer you up. He’d be a perfect re-intro to it.”
   “Okay okay Clara. I’ll eat my non-GMO non-gluten crunchy granola.”
   They met at a park next to the community orchard.
   “It’s not a date, it’s not a date, it’s not a date.” said Diane to herself.
   He had a dog! She couldn’t look away. It was a strongly muscled mix but no identifiable breed. That dog had Grendel’s eyes. Tears burned in Diane’s eyes. She knew as clearly as she knew her own name that Gren was trying to come back to her.
   She tore her gaze away from the dog. The man was looking at her with concern and compassion.
   He understood.
This entry was posted in prose, short fiction, short story.

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