It has been a long cold snowy day here. I’ve had way too many meetings and things going on. So… I am pulling another story out of the vault. This is another story out of the Shifter Universe. It starts a little slow, and I hope you enjoy it. It is a Looong Story. Oh, and if ANY of you think of a better name, please let me know.
“Now be good, and don’t eat any Sheeple while you’re out shopping!” Kate said as she headed out the door. Behind her, Eric rolled over and mumbled into the pillow.
Kate was off to take the children to summer school. It was the first day she had gone without Eric. He and her oldest son Zach were going off with his girlfriend Anne to do some shopping. Living out in the boonies had its advantages as well as some disadvantages. One of them was being unable to find computer parts easily. Eric was building yet another computer and had run out of memory. Computer memory that is.
Kate ran out to her beat up Subaru where Jamie and Mark waited. It was a fair drive to the school, and while the radio blared, Kate started thinking about how life had altered over the last fifteen months. She was still deep in thought when they got to the school. Jamie kissed her goodbye and Mark muttered something and slammed the door.
“Don’t slam the doors!” she hollered at Mark.
The dust from the road rolled over the Subaru when she finally came to a halt at a picnic site deep in the valley. She stood up and stretched, smelling the breeze. Cottonwoods, pines, water and the smells of animals caressed her nose. She was very aware of just how sensitive she had become to scents.
Grabbing her water bottle and the light pack with her lunch, she headed farther up the road towards a spot where she and Eric loved to stop. Without Eric, she was hesitant to put the car in 4 wheel drive and drive up the rough road. Fifteen minutes later, she was sitting beside a stream that bisected the road. Her muscles felt good for the fast pace she’d set, and yet Kate was ready for a rest. Spreading out the blanket, she settled down for some thinking. The clouds floating by caught her attention. Especially the one shaped like a wolf’s head.
If anyone had told her she’d be living with Eric two years ago, she’d have said they were crazy. Widowed for nearly six years, new men in her life were a low priority. Four sons were enough, and she almost had them out the door. So, when Eric and his two children showed up at the shelter, the last thing she had on her mind was taking home strays.
Cats, dogs, kids. You name it and Kate ended up opening her door to them. All of the boys had friends that thought of her as Mom. Even some of the girlfriends adopted Kate as a big sister or mom, and stayed in contact long after they’d stopped dating one of the boys. Then there were the ferals. Ferals is what she called the kids that had dropped out of society and into her kitchen. Dysfunctional for the most part, she helped them get on their feet. They were just like the feral cats she dealt with. You coaxed them in and tried to domesticate them. Give them a place to stay, food, warmth and cleanliness. Feeding them was the hardest part. Some days she fed just her own family and other days she stretched the chicken or hamburger to feed fourteen people.
Granted, it didn’t help that she worked at the local homeless shelter. You’d think that there wouldn’t be a problem with homelessness in the rural parts of the country. However, after ten years of living here, Kate was no longer surprised by anything. The town was next to the interstate which also contributed to the shelter’s population from time to time. It was Suzanne who’d asked Kate to help. She realized that Kate had a knack for dealing with some of the really lost cases. Not the ex-military nutters living rough in the hills or the drunks, but the families that were down on their luck or kids that just couldn’t take the abusive home life any more. Kate had a talent for getting them to open up and discuss things that most people would rather never hear about. She also had a way of getting people to where they need to be whether it was a new house, a job or off to the next town. Most families either settled down in low income housing or disappeared in the middle of the night.
The Cole family showed up late in the evening. It had been cool all evening and Kate was just closing the windows in the kitchen when a knock on the door drew her attention. Opening the kitchen door she found two small children and a man standing in the pool of light.
“Our car broke down, and we’ve been walking for at least an hour. The sheriff that picked us up said we could stay here,” he said in a quiet voice.
“Oh. Yes. Come in. Are you hungry?” Kate asked as they moved into the kitchen.
The two children nodded their heads. The man shook his head in a weary way that told Kate that he was hungry, but nervous or upset enough in some way that he couldn’t eat.
“Well, I was just closing up the kitchen, so lets see what we can find.” Kate started towards the cupboards where the peanut butter and bread were kept. After she placed those items on the counter, she turned to the fridge to get the jelly. The man sat the two children at the table and stood off to one side.
“You’re welcome to sit. You look tired,” Kate made the sandwiches.
“I’ve….. I’ve got our things outside,” he started.
“Oh. What was I thinking? Please go get them. You can put them in the corner until we find you a room.”
“Okay.” He turned to the children. “Jamie, Mark, I’ll be right back. Stay put and mind your manners.”
The two children nodded and waited for the food. Kate put the sandwiches on paper plates along with some chips and a couple of cookies. She made a plate up for their father as well who was busy bringing in bags and placing them in the corner of the kitchen. After pouring glasses of milk, she started to tidy up the counter. The man was standing behind the children again, but not eating.
“I made you a sandwich. It’s nothing fancy, but it will fill you up a bit,” she said softly. She had a feeling that there was more than a broken car worrying this guy.
“I’m okay. Really.”
“Alright. I just don’t want food to go to waste, and you look hungry.” She put away the peanut butter. “I’ll go find a room for you and be back in a minute.”
The man sat down quietly and picked at the food as she left the room. Hurrying up to the front she grabbed a clipboard with forms on it and the keys. Heading up the stairs, she went down the hall to where she was fairly sure there was an unoccupied room. Ten minutes later, she was back in the kitchen.
“Alright, I’ve got a room if you’ll follow me. Oh, and I’ll need you to fill out some paperwork so that I can make Suzanne happy in the morning,” she said as light heartedly as she could. Tension was still radiating off of the guy, and the children hadn’t spoken a word since she’d walked back in the room. They followed her up to the room, and she helped settle the children into bed. He’d moved their possessions up to the room as well.
“If you’d just come downstairs with me a minute, we can fill this out.” She held up the clipboard. He nodded and followed her downstairs.
Sitting at the desk she took a better look at him. Dark curly hair, brown eyes and such a serious face. He was slight of build, but looked like he’d worked outdoors a lot. He looked back at her, and Kate figured she had better get this done. Kate hated paperwork. Almost as much as she did paying bills.
“I need to know your name and the children’s names and ages.” She was ready to fill out the form.
“I’m Eric Cole. Jamie’s seven and Mark is ten.”
“J-a-m-i-e?” she spelled out loud.
“Okay. You said that your car died. Is it fixable?”
“No. I think I blew the radiator, and may have damaged the block.” Eric sighed.
“Oh… do you have any means to replace it?” She totally forgot the form in her hands.
“No. That’s what has me worried. I am low on cash and was on my way to try to find work up North.”
“Ah. What kind of work?”
“Computers. I’m an unemployed SysAdmin. However, I’d wash dishes if it put food on the table.”
“I understand. When I was widowed, I was in the same position. My job skills just didn’t meet the jobs available. So, I worked in a cafe, a hotel and a few other places to keep food on the table.”
Eric nodded in understanding. He began to relax just the tiniest bit.
“Where are you from?” She looked back at the form.
Eric tightened back up and Kate wondered what she had said wrong. “Umm… do you really need that information?”
“Well, we are suppose to ask. If you don’t want to say, I’ll leave it blank or we can put in a fake address. You’ll just have to remember the answers if we do that.”
“I’d rather leave it blank.”
“Okay.” Kate took another look at him. That intuitive part of her brain was buzzing like mad. “You’re trying to disappear aren’t you?” she asked almost before she had time to think of what she was saying.
Eric gave her a look that was both hostile and puzzled. “I… Yes.” He paused. “You can put Virginia as last state of residence. I did live there once.”
“Okay. Not a problem. Eric, please realize that working here we see all kinds of people and situations. I understand that sometimes you just have to disappear. I don’t know your reasons and don’t need them. But, I do understand.“
“Okay. Can we finish this up? I’m really tired.”
“Sure. There are only a few more questions and then I need your signature at the bottom.” She finished up her part of the form.
Eric watched her fill out the form and took it from her to sign when she’d finished. Handing it back, he stood. “I don’t know your name.”
Kate blushed, feeling absolutely daft for having forgotten to introduce herself. “My name is Kate. Kate Ratkovich.” She held out her hand again.
Eric shook her hand and then said his good nights. He headed upstairs to where the children were sleeping while Kate finished locking up and headed home. She didn’t work at the shelter tomorrow and wondered if the Cole family would still be there. He had that feeling about him that made her think he’d disappear in the middle of the night like so many did.