I’m a Free Man
The Freeman Militia Center had grown considerably since Steve and his daughters had arrived a few weeks before. It seemed that every time a group went outside the wire, so to speak, they came back with new residents. Times were obviously hard for the general public and most of the deputies of the FMC had soft hearts beneath their tough exteriors. Typically, it seemed that the new inductees were women with children. Steve’s case seemed to be a rare exception.
A woman named Andrea had arrived two or three weeks after Steve and his daughters. She also had three daughters each of whom was nearly the same age as one of Steve’s girls. The six girls had bonded almost instantly. Steve’s daughters had asked their respective supervisors if Andrea’s daughters could work along side of them. The request had been granted and the six girls had become nearly inseparable.
A few weeks after the arrival of the girls’ new friends, Steve finally raised enough money to purchase several tarps and a few other supplies and make tent for his family. The tent was an ugly calico patchwork of colors but it provided privacy and protection from the rain. The girls had their own room in the tent – a space no more than eight feet square – where they set up their cots in a U-shape. Steve slept in the main area of the tent and dressed at the community showers.
Andrea’s girls spent many rainy evenings with Steve’s daughters in the small room with the three cots. Not wanting to be inhospitable, Steve usually invited Andrea over to visit along with her girls. The two played cards or shared stories of their children from happier days. When the weather was better, all six of the girls could be found sitting around the fire in front of Steve’s tent while Steve and Andrea looked on.
One particularly beautiful April evening, as Andrea sat in a ragged lawn chair by Steve’s side, she broached the question.
“Steve, I know this is prying, but can I ask what happened to your wife?”
Steve looked up at the stars and sighed. “It’s a hard story, Andrea. As I’m sure your story is.”
“We all have hard stories, Steve,” Andrea’s voice was low and calm.
Steve found a solace in the sound of Andrea’s voice that he’d never experienced before.
“You’re right, Andrea,” Steve agreed. “I’m sure everyone in camp has a hard story. For that matter, my guess is that pretty much everyone left in the world has a hard story by now.”
Andrea nodded and put her hand on Steve’s arm. The touch was nearly electric to Steve. He hadn’t felt the warm touch of a woman for years. His relationship with Rhona had gone south long before the crash. They had merely stayed together for the girls. Steve and Rhona hadn’t shared an intimate touch, word or even a glance since shortly after the birth of their youngest daughter.
Steve swallowed, “My wife … her name was Rhona … my wife struggled with emotional balance.”
Andrea chuckled lightly, “I dare say we’ve all struggled with emotional balance the last few months.”
Steve tensed. Andrea could feel it in his arm and removed her hand.
“I’m sorry, Steve. I wasn’t thinking when I said that.”
“It’s OK,” Steve assured her. “I wasn’t thinking when I heard it.”
The two laughed together as the girls looked up from their game of checkers.
“It’s good to hear you laugh, Dad,” Steve’s oldest had tears in her eyes that glistened in the moonlight.
“You too, Mom,” Andrea’s middle girl chimed in.
The girls went back to their game as Steve looked up at the stars trying to regain his composure.
Steve licked his lips. “My wife had some really serious problems. There’s no easy way to put it. She tried to trade our girls for a handful of Ambien.”
“Oh!” was all Andrea could manage. It was her turn to look skyward in search of composure.
“I’m so very sorry.” There was a lump in Andrea’s throat as she croaked out the words.
“Me too.” Steve hung his head and folded his hands in his lap. “It’s good to talk about it, though. My girls and I really haven’t.”
“That’s understandable.” Andrea put her hand back on Steve’s forearm.
Her warmth radiated through Steve’s body. Both of them shivered, almost simultaneously, in the rapidly cooling air of the spring evening. They scooted their chairs closer to the fire and, almost instinctively, clasped hands.
“It’s good to be free of that,” Steve confessed.
“Free of what?” Andrea thought she knew what he meant.
“Free of the burden … the guilt,” Steve’s voice cracked. “Free of her.”