LEAVING RED BLUFF[[Part Six|]]
MID JUNE 2009
The van moved through the driving rain along the highway, its wipers washing away the sheets of water obscuring the road ahead as Xenia continued to drive, her eyes shifting continuously from the sky full of grey cumulus and the road ahead. Driving in daylight caused her all kinds of anxiety but she had little choice. After what had happened at the reservoir, she wanted no possibility of running into those DeGens companions or worse yet, Visitors. The rain for all its inconvenience had been near God sent, Xenia thought. It made visibility poor and as hard as it was for her to see, it also had the corresponding effect of hiding the van.
Her new companions hadn't spoke since she left him on the floor of the van and started driving. She glanced over her shoulder at regular intervals to check on him. The brutal beating he had received from the DeGens had taken its toll on his strength and God only knew how long he had been tied to that tree, forced to watch something no husband should have to. She resolved herself to check on him once they were far enough away for her to dare stopping.
The journey ahead had been broken up quick detours to avoid other cars or when she thought she spied a Visitor skyfighter in the air, though a lot of times it was difficult to tell because of the rain. During these moments, she made the man drink, keeping hydrated as much as possible. A seemingly absurd notion when the buckets of rain were splashing against the van. Eventually the sky cleared and Xenia had turned into an old highway some two hundred miles away from where she found, deciding that she had to risk stopping awhile. There was still some hours of daylight and Xenia did not wish to tempt fate. They had been fortunate so far but she had no intention to gamble with both their lives.
At Red Bluff, she took the road leading to the Rancho Tehama Reserve, a designated Indian reserve, Xenia headed for the hills that surrounded the small community with its many trees, providing the van good cover while they get some rest. Xenia saw no reason to make their presence known to inhabitants. She wasn't staying long enough to desire getting friendly and who knows what kind of sensibilities this community might have in the wake of the Pulse. Looking through the windscreen, she saw daylight was dwindling in the sky. The evening was coming. A blanket of dusk was tugging twilight over the sky, creating long shadows across the landscape.
Xenia had been driving for most of the day and she was tired. She wanted badly to sleep because the sleep she would have normally had during the door had been denied her by her discovery of the man in front of her and his poor, tragic wife. He was entangled in her spare sleeping bag, still somewhat unconscious. She feared he might have concussion or worse. She knew how to tend superficial injuries, like cuts and sprains from her time in training where the odd fall or slip could result in injury. However, beyond that she was a novice.
"Okay," she breathed out as she got down next to him, first aid kit in hand. "Let's take a look at you." Xenia was speaking mostly to herself because her companion had been mercifully asleep for most of the trip although this in itself had been cause for concern, since he could have sustained a head injury that she was unaware of.
Xenia spent the next few minutes with a bowl of water and wash cloth, cleaning his face off the blood. It had obscured much of his injuries but now that she had cleaned most of it off, Xenia felt her stomach hollow at how badly he had been beaten. There were bruises and gashes across his face, his eyes were swollen shut, his lips split in several places. Her eyes misted over at the sight of him, her hand covering her mouth at one point. Gently, she brushed the unmarked part of his brow with her finger.
"Jilly...." he woke up with a start, trying to see through the swollen lids.
"No," Xenia said softly, as she felt his hand reached for her wrist “It’s not your wife."
He stared at her for a moment, as if trying to process her words before he closed his eyes and drew in a breath. He exhaled an anguished sob as Xenia saw the memories returning to him and he turned away from her, curling into a ball as he wept. His pain lanced through her acutely, bringing to bear her own recollection of holding Lukas in her arms, seconds after she realised he had died. She reached for the man, her fingers touching his bicep and he shuddered at her touch, before rolling into her lap and sobbing. Her heart went out to him and she held him, stroking his back and his head, offering him what comfort she could.
"I’m so sorry," she whispered, "I'm sorry I couldn't save her too."
He did not respond to her words but held on, nonetheless, holding her as he continued the outpouring of grief. Xenia held him for as long as he needed her to, until he had cried the last of his tears and there was nothing left but the empty hollowness that she had also become very familiar with.
As darkness descended over the van, with long shadows stretching across its insides and the landscape vanishing into the twilight, there was nothing to be done but to hold him until his tears were spent and his anguished exhausted into mourning and grief.
His name was Ethan Kelley and his wife was called Jillian. He called her Jilly.
He was trauma surgeon who lived in Sacramento when the Visitors came. After watching friends and neighbours getting taken up in the sweeps and feeling their own time running out, they had opted to make a run for the north. It had taken him ages to find the parts he needed to fix up his father's old Plymouth so they could make the journey. Everyday, he would scour junk yards and metal yards that hadn't already been hit by other people with the same idea, until he got the parts he needed. For three months, he continued this ritual until finally the car was ready.
Once they managed to sneak past the checkpoints around the city, thanks to the expertise of a coyote who knew how to get people through check points, he had thought the worst was over. That is, until they saw a truck parked on the side of the road, prompting him to stop and help even though he should have known better. Once in the trap, the DeGens forced them to drive to that little clearing outside Weed where they tied him up and ransacked their Plymouth for everything of value in it. Ethan had told Jillian to remain calm, to let them take what they want so they would leave. She had been more aware of what was coming than he.
Once they emptied the car, they turned to her and amidst his screaming, gang raped his wife in front of him. Over and over again.
They had made him watch all through the night, until his throat was raw, until Jilly's screams had become broken sobs, until she was begging pitifully every time they came at her. Where she had gotten the courage after all that to go for the gun, to scramble for that last bit of freedom, he would never know but it would be a reminder of how strong she was, how brave she had been.
Xenia heard his story when he was finally able to speak it and knew that those men hadn't just destroyed one soul by their callous violation of Jillian Kelly; they had torn asunder Ethan's too. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn't put Ethan together again, Xenia thought absurdly. She attended him as best as she could, sometimes with instruction from him when he was well enough to offer it. Even though it was slowing down her progress to San Francisco, Xenia didn't mind because she understood Ethan's grief all too well and at least she had spared anything as horrific happening to Lukas.
Instead of heading south, Xenia opted for the less populated solution of driving west, where they were surrounded by the national forests of Trinity and Six Rivers on either side. She had no desire to meet anyone else on the road although she wouldn't abandon Ethan whose mental state was reminiscent of her own when she had first lost Lukas. Perhaps if she helped him heal, she might assuage her own pain a little. The trip which would normally take a day or more had become lengthen by the number of times she had to stop to say nothing about the state of the roads in some of places.
At one road, a fire had started and hadn't stopped until it decimated everything in sight and exhausted itself. A gas tanker had lost control when the Pulse hit and the resulting explosion had created a fireball that took other cars with it and progressed until the road they drove through was filled with charred wrecks and surrounding foliage that was only now starting to show some new growth.
There were places they drove through that weren't scarred or left in ruins by the Visitors. The roundabout route on Highway 36 served to keep them away from running into people, at least while her companion was in such delicate condition, particularly when he needed tending, despite his claims to the contrary. They were surrounded 2 million acres of Trinity forest and the equally vast Mendocino wilderness.
It allowed Xenia to stop and take more frequent rest breaks as she was discovering that she tired faster than usually did and even though she was just past her first trimester, Xenia was still suffering the tail end of morning sickness which worked out well because by morning, she was ready to stop driving to rest.
They'd driven up a dirt track into the hills, concealed by tall conifers somewhere near Hayfork. Xenia took the vehicle as high as it would go and only parked when she was certain there was nothing around for miles, no one to see them. Leaving Ethan alone in the van to sleep, she went to stretch her legs and take care of her business in the bushes not far away. This was not just merely utilising the natural facilities but also manage the last of her morning sickness which seemed to be tapering off as she left the first trimester behind.
Returning to the van, she found Ethan awake. The stops she had been making had made all the difference for both of them. Sure, what should have been a trip of two to three days had now stretched into five. Fortunately, Xenia had anticipated delays and she had more than enough fuel to compensate for the lag. In any case, Ethan looked better, although his spirit was still in fragments, he had become more coherent and the instructions he had given to tape his broken ribs had allowed him to be more mobile.
"Hey," she greeted when she climbed back into the back of the van and saw him sitting up in his sleeping bag, flipping through a battered copy of her favourite book, the Count of Monte Cristo. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes," he nodded, staring at the woman who had come out of nowhere to save him for no other reason than he needed it. After what happened to Jillian, Ethan didn't think there were such people in the world any more. "I should be able to keep watch while you get some rest."
"Thank you," Xenia said gratefully, not about to refuse the offer especially after what he'd been through. She suspected he'd never trust another person again, never fully take a cry for help at face value. If it wasn't so necessary, it would be tragic.
"How far long are you?" He asked. "I'm thinking late first trimester?"
Xenia paused and looked at him as she sat down across him, reaching for a bottle of water from her food supplies. "Just past it," she smiled, supposing as a doctor, he'd be able to tell. "Beginning my second trimester now."
"And you're travelling south?" He raised a brow on his still healing eye. "I thought you would have stayed north."
"My brother is San Francisco," Xenia pointed out. "I'm going to find him."
"That's Occupied Territory," he declared, his expression grim.
"I know," Xenia nodded, "but when I was in Vancouver, I heard reports that the Visitors are trying to maintain status quo in the major cities that are still standing. They want us breeding and complacent. Best way to do that is to trick people into believing that if they behave, things will be okay. So things are as normal as they can be I'm told."
"It was getting that way in Sacramento but I wanted to get us out there," he said softly, eyes shifting away from hers as if unable to face her about the decisions that he had made that lead them to the truck and those men. "I wanted us safe."
"Ethan," Xenia scooted over to him and touched his shoulder. "You couldn't have known this was going to happen or some assholes would turn so much into animals that they'd be hijacking innocent people off the road. You were showing kindness to thugs who never knew any better. It wasn't your fault."
"I know," he swallowed and Xenia saw the anguish on his face again and found her arms around him, cradling his head in her arms as he wept again. It had become habit over the last few days and Xenia didn't mind. She saved him and felt somewhat responsible. Stroking his hair gently, she allowed him to expunge his latest bout of tears.
"I'm sorry," he pulled away a short time later, "you didn't ask for this...for me."
"Don't be silly," she replied holding his moist gaze. "You aren't the only person in the world capable of kindness. There are still enough of us around." She smiled. "Come on," she shifted to the can of spaghetti in her food pack. "I'll make us breakfast."
"Okay," Ethan watched her, admiring her for the same strength she had shared with Jilly.
As he wiped his eyes, he sat up straighter, wanting to be more than just a burden to her since she was taking care of him so well. "Can I help?" He asked.
"Not just yet," Xenia gave him a look. "Those ribs aren't going to heal if you put to much strain on them, you know that better than anyone." She smirked in his direction.
"Right," he laughed softly, easing back into the wall, watching her as she took out the little camping stove to cook outside. She was a petite thing he decided, seemingly fragile until you got to know her, until she saved you from marauders who had just murdered and raped your wife. He wondered why she was out here alone, why she was so determined to reach her brother, especially in her condition. The sensible thing would have been to run, to go north and raise her child in safety.
"Can I ask you something?" He asked her as she set the stove down a few feet away from the open side door of the van.
"Sure," Xenia nodded, setting down the stove and coming back to then van for a skillet that looked like one of those that was so often seen in westerns.
"Where's the baby's father?"
As soon as Ethan said it, he regretted asking the question. She stopped and looked at him, surprise at first and then such profound sadness that he understood immediately why she had given him her breast to weep into. She understood his pain on an intimate level.
"I'm sorry," he quickly recanted, wishing he could withdraw the question.
"Its okay," Xenia assured him, getting used to being asked this question whenever people learned she was pregnant. "He died in Italy, the day after this baby was conceived." She answered after she had a moment to compose herself. "This," she patted her belly, "is all that I have left of Lukas but that helps me to go on. Because no matter how angry or sad I get knowing Lukas is gone, I cannot let it get to me because my baby needs me to keep my head, I'm all he's got. And maybe that's why I have to find Daniel because if anything happens to me after my baby is born, Daniel will be all he's got too."
Xenia hadn't realised until that moment with such completely certainty, her baby was he.