Out of the Badlands 2, Part 1
It probably won’t come as a surprise that Sheila was trouble from the day we picked her up. By ‘trouble’ I don’t mean ‘troublemaker,’ because there was nothing of ill intent about her. She simply wasn’t suited to life on our little farm; nor had she ever, I think, come to grips with the reality that the Terrible Day had created. She was a third wheel, drawn into our family but not part of it; she was a woman without a man.
I had worried, at first, that she would try to steal Faustus from me. Stupid, I know. If he turned from me to her, it would not be theft but a rational choice on his part. I knew enough about him to know that this. The other thing stupid about the situation was that I had no claim of possession on the man. He stayed with me because he wanted to. If he didn’t want to, he’d have walked away. And vice versa, of course. But we liked being together. We liked each other’s company, and we’d mostly rubbed each other’s rough edges off before she joined us, which meant we had none left to protect us from hers.
We knew before we took her with us that she didn’t know how to survive outside the relative comforts or at least familiar trappings of a town, but we hadn’t really considered that she might not learn. She was naïve, although that word doesn’t really describe her properly: more accurately, she didn’t know, and she didn’t really want to know. She wanted food and everything to just keep appearing, like clean underwear in your drawer when your mom did your laundry. It just appeared, right? Like magic. Sometimes it picked itself up off your floor that way, too.
She wasn’t complete useless—she adored Bobby, so at least she was good for watching him—but if she couldn’t find boiled water to mix into the milk powder, she’d just get some out of the cistern rather than listen to him scream. The second time he came down with the scours, we figured out it wasn’t random. Remember, all we had was homemade cloth diapers which had to be washed by hand using one of our most precious and irreplaceable resources. I don’t know where the big town had gotten its water, and Sheila didn’t either—Faustus thought he remembered something about an aquifer, though we had no way to verify it—but she didn’t seem to grasp that quite apart from the baby being sick, and maybe becoming dehydrated with no hope of medical care or IV fluids, it also meant that every single one of his diapers was soiled and had to be washed with extra care, soap, and water. They could also be sunned, which I remembered would kill germs, and which definitely bleached out stains, but it couldn’t be substituted for laundering. We had plenty of detergent after our last supplies trip, but water was never a guarantee, and of course it was the only thing we couldn’t do without for even a single day. To waste it approached my idea of a mortal sin.
Faustus went to work replacing our lost hobo stove and cart. The stove was first and most critical, since cooking was otherwise a smoky and inefficient process, and the cart project required yet another hike to a neighboring farm in search of bicycle tires, as we had lost all the ones we had with the previous cart.
I had to gather the sheep back in, doctor a few minor injuries, and begin training one of the other ewes to tolerate being milked and two other wethers to be draft animals—all while resuming the onerous business of cutting, raking, and storing hay before the heat killed back the grass and bleached it to straw where it stood.
And through all of this, Sheila just drifted. I tried to put her to work with the scythe. She immediately cut herself with it, fortunately not badly, and afterward refused steadfastly to touch the handle of the blade again. I handed her the rake and put her to the task of carrying bundles of hay to the storage area. She dawdled on the return. She preened for hours in front of one of the bathroom mirrors, experimenting with different ways of styling her hair. I put Bobby into her arms and went back to work, since one of us had to.
My frustration level grew. Actually, that’s the polite way to say that. At the ends of some days, I wanted to point her toward the road to town and tell her to go back where she belonged, because she wasn’t fit for anything but opening cans and leaving the empties behind her like a trail of breadcrumbs. I was even seriously beginning to try to figure out how best she could carry enough food and water to make the trip.
Faustus was aware of the problem, but he seemed to think it would resolve itself eventually. “Look, Tanya,” he said as we lay together in our room one night, the door closed to give us the only privacy we could get. “You and I grated on each other a bit at first, didn’t we?”
“Yes, but it was different.”
“Sure. Because I’m not a woman. Don’t women interact differently with each other than men and women do?”
“Maybe. What does that have to do with this? I’d be irritated if a man acted like this, too. What difference does it make if she has pretty hair? Why can’t she just stay on task and carry her weight around here?”
“Are you certain you’re not feeling jealous? I’m not saying there’s any basis for it, since I’m not the least bit interested in her, but—couldn’t that be part of the conflict?”
I scowled at him, not that he could see my face in the dark. Of course it was true, but I wasn’t going to say so.
He ran a hand along my arm, soothingly. “She’s a potential competitor. I’m the only available male. She’s trying to make herself look better. Are you sure you don’t see this as a threat?”
“No, I don’t,” I said as dismissively as I could.
“Even deep down inside? You’re a female primate. She’s a female primate.”
“I wish you’d stop saying things like that.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t say it was the only thing that can ever motivate us. It’d be dishonest or self-delusory to suggest it’s never a factor at all.”
I didn’t like him very much right then. I didn’t like thinking of myself as a monkey, ape, or any other sort of primate. Being less than human was what the Day did to us. We who survived were better than that. We were more than that. We had to be.
He signed. “Hon, there aren’t a lot of alternatives. If she can’t live here, she has to live somewhere. What do you suggest?”
“I don’t know. She’d die in a few days out there. Starvation or thirst or snake-bite or spider. Or the wild dogs would get her. I don’t know. And the town—”
“The men in the town would go back to trying to breed babies from her, and kill the ones that look like Bobby,” Faustus said, and there was no arguing with that—we both knew it was true.
“What if we took her to a house somewhere nearby and told her to fend for herself?”
“You might as well leave her a noose so she could hang herself when things got too hard. Because they would, and soon.”
I wanted to cry. I felt imprisoned by the very logic and compassion that made me more than merely a primate. I couldn’t abandon Sheila to any of those fates. I’d have to try figure out a way to get along with her.
Faustus pulled me closer. “I don’t want her, Tanya. I don’t want you to be miserable, either. I can try to find something she can do, and how about this—I’ll make a rule. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. When she gets hungry enough, maybe she’ll decide to pull her own weight.”
“Realistic,” he said. “We can’t afford to feed her for the sake of feeding her. She’s not a little kid.”
“Then you need to be the one to enforce it, because she spends all day with me.”
He shrugged against his pillow. “I’ll be the tough guy. It’s not a problem.”
I sighed, moving closer to him. Things felt a little better as we fell asleep.