Acorn has four feet and a pretty shrew-like tail by the time they get back to the farm.  She leaves him in the barn back by the broken John Deere, where she put the others. There’s a good little family of them now, six or seven over the past three years, since she got strong enough that they stopped falling apart.  Then she hustles off to do her chores.

It’s harder now that she has to do it all by herself.  She’s had to give up on the fields entirely; she tried to get the plow running a year ago, but whatever happened to it during the Bad Winter isn’t something she can fix by covering it in sap and talking to it.  The garden still gives her vegetables sometimes, and there are four chickens left that she’s managed to keep safe. Actually there are six chickens, but the two she woke up don’t lay anymore, or look much like chickens.  They’re great protection for the others, though.

Rack’s supposed to help her with the garden, but he mainly stays inside with Mom now.  She creeps into the house for a wash and finds him sleeping on the living room couch. Crouching by his head, she blows softly into his face.  He wakes up sneezing and she bursts into giggles.

“Mouse!” he groans.  “Where have you been?  Mom’s in a – ” he raises his head to look up at the ceiling, which looks back unhelpfully.  “Oh, she’s done. She was upset.”

She takes hold of his knees and jiggles them, producing a crackling sound.  “Did you fall down the stairs again?”

“Prob’ly.  And where were you, Miss Useful?  In the woods making friends?”

“I made a shrew.”

“Oh, good.  That’s what we need, more fuckin shrews.”

She hums in her throat and continues jiggling her brother’s knees back and forth, back and forth.  The crackling sounds change to follow along. She can feel the joint rattle and reorient beneath his thin skin.  Rackham’s face, drawn and ashen, softens a little when she takes her hands away. “Better?”

“Yeah, much.  Thanks, Tia.” He smiles, and raises his head to look at her, reaches out to her – and then the sense in his eyes dies.  For a moment he stares, dull as a stone, and she holds her breath until he takes another. Then the gesture he began completes in slow motion, his cheeks hitched up from each end, a smile that’s nothing but a muscle spasm like the hand that keeps on pawing at her.  It’s easy to duck under his arm and slip out of the room. He used to be a lot faster than her.

At the foot of the stairs, she stops.  It’s utterly silent up there, so she strives not to break the silence as she climbs.  A lifetime’s muscle memory neatly dodges the loose nail in the second stair, skips the third entirely, steps on the righthand half of the next four stairs and then skips one, a long step up, to avoid the first board in the landing.  Mom’s room is on the right and the door’s closed. No help. Mom could be sleeping or sprawled on the floor.

Instead Tia turns left into the bathroom.  When she closes the door behind her, the only light comes from the round window over the tub.  It pours in cold air, too – hasn’t been glass in it as long as she can remember. She shucks her  filthy clothes and chins up to the windowsill. Bare skin scraping on cinderblocks, she peers down into the yard.  There was a puppy there, once, a long time ago. It was gone long before the Bad Winter, but she still looks every so often, hoping the puppy will come back.

She jerks the handle on the wall and grits her teeth on a yelp as the showerhead vomits a gout of ice-cold, rust colored water.  After the first blast, it clears up a bit, but Tia doesn’t let it run – she’s got to fill the tanks on her own now too; Rack can’t lift them anymore.  She gets just enough wet to make the soap work, then crouches at the bottom of the tub, scrubbing herself all over. Soap’s easy to find still, that’s one good thing, cause Mom hates to see her dirty.  Hated to see the state of her own self even more, till Tia took the mirror out of her room. Then she stopped crying quite so much.

When she’s all soapy, she perches on the lip of the tub and gives the handle another jerk.  This time it starts to run without spitting first. She hastily swipes up and down across her arms and legs, dancing from foot to foot in the chilly stream.  Over the river of suds, water, dirt, and sap that runs toward the drain, she spreads her legs to pee while she finishes rinsing. One quick gasp as she dunks her head into the water and shakes her short curls hard.  Then she slams the handle up again and the water cuts off. Panting, Tia works her fingers through her hair for leaves, ticks, tangles. She’s gazing without much thought at the swirling water in the rusted drain when she realizes that there’s blood in it.

She frowns and straightens up, patting herself for wounds.  Nothing. Stepping out of the tub into the grey light from the window, she straightens both arms, turns them over, then lifts each leg.  Along the inside of her thigh there’s a thin streak of blood too. She wipes it away, but there’s no wound underneath. Blood’s running sluggishly from between her legs, is the problem.  Tia dabs at her groin with her towel, and it doesn’t hurt – it’s just bleeding.

That seems bad.  She wonders if perhaps she did something wrong, waking up the shrew today, or fixing Rackham’s knees.  Maybe she broke something inside? She presses on her belly, dimpling it with her fingertips – she doesn’t feel broken.  Something to wrap it up with, then, until it stops – she gropes around the bathroom, but anything useful within easy reach has already been put to some other purpose in the three years she’s been taking care of herself.  Finally she sits down on the filthy linoleum and takes her sharp little teeth to the frayed edge of the towel. She tears it in half, then those strips in half again.

It takes some time, but she’s able to put together something like a diaper, not a very comfortable one.  It fits under the skirt Mom likes to see her in, though, and that’s all that matters. She’ll check on Mom, then get some food and go to bed, and by morning it’ll probably be all healed up.

“Mom?  Are you sleeping?” she calls just above a whisper as she pushes the door open.  Mom’s not on the floor, but the room’s too dark to see much more than that. She reaches back into the bathroom for a polymer candle to replace the dead one on Mom’s nightstand, but before she gets there, she almost trips.  Oh, no… Mom is on the floor, she’s just over on the side this time.

Tia squishes the candle and it lights up, a wan green light.  It bleeds through her fingers, turning her brown skin black, and illuminates Mom on the floor in a bad position.  Dropping the candle, she crouches and gets her arms around her mother’s body. So much lighter than she used to be.

It takes a lot of effort, and her mom wakes up before she’s fully onto the bed.  She mewls and mumbles. Tia goes to her knees again, looking for the candle. It’s rolled under the bed.

“Tia?  What’re you doing on the floor, girl?”

“Nothing, Mama,” she murmurs as she bounces to her feet.  Her Mama is squinting up at the gleaming candle, and Tia hastily drops it into the cup on the nightstand, diffusing its light somewhat.  “Are you okay? Does anything hurt?”

“My damn wrists hurtin again.  Where’ve you been? What time is it?”

“Doing my chores.  It’s almost sundown.”  She scrambles onto the bed and takes her mother’s wrist in her hands.  Humming softly, she rubs and massages the loose tendons, the soft bones.  “Anywhere else? You fell down, are you sure you didn’t – “

“Girl, I said it’s my wrist, you gotta make me tell you twice when my head’s – “

“Your head?  Okay, just one minute, mama.”

She switches wrists while Mama bleats.  There’s nothing wrong with her wrists, or nothing new anyway.  Tia can’t do anything about the arthritis, but she can make it hurt a little less.  It’s the head she’s worried about. When she gets there, kneeling on Mama’s spare pillow, she finds an ugly black bruise spreading across her mother’s temple.  The ear is a little warped. Wincing, Tia slips a hand around her mother’s cheek. “Hold still, please, Mama. Please? Just for a minute.”

Not a prayer.  Mama starts bitching and squirming while Tia’s trying to see if she’s got a broken skull, and her fingers bump against the bruise and Mama howls and she’s out again, sagging against Tia like a dropped doll.  Tia sags too, and starts to cry, as much from relief as anything. Mama might be hurt, and she sure as hell isn’t any help, but she’s a lot easier to manage when she’s unconscious. It feels wrong to think that way about her mother, fills her with sick guilt that makes her belly ache.

She carefully shifts Mama down in the bed till she can lay flat, and more slowly gets to checking out the bruise.  No broken bones beneath it that she can feel, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt the brain. Brain’s not in such good shape anyway…  Another stab of guilt. She starts humming to drive the bad thoughts out of her head, and her fingers smooth the bruise, talk some of the blood back where it should be.  The stomachache makes her nauseated, but she swallows her gorge and goes on humming. Between her legs she can feel blood seeping now and then, a strange, uncomfortable sensation.  If she did break something, if singing them awake is hurting her and making her bleed… well, she’ll just have to tough it out. She can’t leave Mama on the floor.

Night falls outside the farmhouse.  The chickens are hustled into their coop by two bulky chaperones that are not exactly chickens.  Tia cries herself to sleep, curled up next to her mother’s motionless body. Downstairs, her brother sits on the couch in the deepening dark, staring without blinking at the space she last occupied.


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