Sunday, July 29, 2018

Side Story #1 - Colt - Page 1

~ Part One ~
A New Man in an Old Place

The sun had just begun rising high enough into the canopy of leaves that long beams of sunlight were starting to angle their way toward his humble cabin in the forest. The deep, satisfying thunk of an axe splitting wood was the only noise that wasn’t ambient, and when that, too, ceased, the man once known as Jeremiah Colt wiped his brow and glanced over at his two children.

Stephanie and Thomas were both standing there behind the wooden bars of their makeshift playpen, staring at him like they were prisoners waiting for the warden to let them out.

He hated it when they did that. With as active as they’d gotten recently, he couldn’t very well let them roam around freely while he was swinging a damn axe, but did that stop them from giving him those big, sad eyes? Of course not.

He rested his axe and began taking stacks of freshly cut logs down into the cabin’s cellar. He might’ve liked to keep more firewood stored down there, but too much would just attract bugs. He figured it would be better to simply chop wood more frequently than risk having to deal with an infestation problem. He knew the quick turnover wouldn’t give the wood a chance to dry out properly, meaning it wouldn’t burn as cleanly, but there were many things about his circumstances that were less than ideal. That was the least of his problems.

When he was he done, he let the kids out and watched them walk around. They liked to play in the fallen leaves, so he’d gotten into the habit of making a pile for them. Thomas fell, but Colt resisted the impulse to help him back up. Instead, he watched the boy do it on his own and enjoyed the tinge of pride in his son that came along with it.

Much as he might have liked to sit around and just watch them, however, there was still more work to be done by nightfall.

He had never lived off the land to this extent before. These past few months had been a learning experience, to say the least. The cabin that he’d settled in was one that he’d visited a couple times in his youth. His grandfather had taken him here, purportedly to “show him a thing or two about how to be a real man.”

It had been hell, of course. The old bastard didn’t seem to care that he was only seven years old at the time. If he couldn’t find food, he went hungry. If he couldn’t build a shelter, he slept out in the open. If he couldn’t make a fire, he didn’t get to warm up or cook anything unless he begged and cried for help. And certainly, if he didn’t understand something after Grandpa explained it to him the first time, the old man made him feel like a complete fool.

But he’d learned. His grandpa, for all his harshness, never actually gave up on him--not like his worthless father had, at least. Perhaps that was the reason why these lessons had stayed with him so clearly more than twenty years later, even if some of the skills that accompanied said lessons had since become a little rusty.

The cabin had barely been standing when he found it again after all this time. The roof was almost entirely caved in, so the first task had been replacing it. Doing the job properly would take days of work cutting down trees and carving battens and hooked tiles out of the lumber, but for those first few nights, it had only been a badly-woven canopy of leaves that kept the rain out--and not very effectively, either, especially after the wind picked up and knocked half of it off.

After a couple weeks, however, his perpetual worries about the state of the cabin began to abate. His continuous attempts at maintenance paid off, more or less, and the creaking and groaning mostly stopped. He made sure the walls had fresh support beams, and any patches of wood that looked rotten were replaced. Insulation was a bit of a problem, but thankfully, much of the cabin’s original material was still usable, and for the areas where it wasn’t, he resorted to a mixture of mud, clay, and straw.

He could’ve simply gone into town and bought new insulation instead, but that wrapped bale of straw had just been sitting there in the basement. No point in wasting money when he didn’t have to, though he supposed he should replace the bale at his next opportunity. He couldn’t get more straw from the forest itself, and there was no telling when something like that might come in handy again.

And yes, it was difficult living without electricity, but the basement also had a nice cache of candles and matches, which made things easier. And the cabin didn’t have running water, either, but it did have a sliding chamber pot for easy cleaning. Relatively easy, anyway. He’d even managed to make his own soap from wood ashes and animal fat, though he bungled the boiling, filtering, and mixing process a few times. That had been frustrating, the first few days, but by now, he had it down to a science, and he’d started mixing in new scents to make the soap more like something that he could find in a store. He preferred lavender, but that stuff didn’t grow around here apparently, so he’d mostly been trying sandalwood and evergreen aromas. The kids seemed to like it better, at least--possibly a little too much, considering Stephanie had started trying to eat it.

All things considered, though, he couldn’t really ask for more.

Except maybe diapers. He would’ve killed someone if there was no other way he could get his hands on some proper diapers. He intended to get some from town eventually, but first, he tried to make some on his own. And he even succeeded, though not without many failed attempts, and his successes--while admirable--had been middling at best. Sure, the twins looked excruciatingly adorable in diapers made mostly out of leaves--like little Tarzan babies, really--but the leakage was still quite the problem.

He’d tried getting them started on potty training, but alas, they hadn’t taken to it very well yet.

Still, in spite of everything he was doing--all the time, effort, and resources he was pouring into this little place--he knew that it wasn’t enough. Not for much longer.

Yes, he’d succeeded in creating a relatively safe and stable environment for them here, and yes, he could teach them how to live off the land as they grew older, how to take care of themselves and one another--but what kind of lives would they have?

These were his children. His boy and girl. They deserved the world, even if it didn’t deserve them.

He knew that he would have to return to civilization eventually. Probably sooner rather than later. He’d known ever since he came here.

That was one of the reasons he’d chosen this old shack in the first place: because it was near enough to a town in the case of some sort of emergency, but not so near that he had to worry about unwanted visitors.

That town was called Orden, and he’d been sneaking into it periodically under the cover of darkness in order to scout it out and learn about its inhabitants. Bohwanox had been of help on that front, too, but he still preferred do his own scouting, as well. Thankfully, he didn’t have to worry about the twins crying and giving away his position, so he could simply take Stephanie and Thomas with him instead of leaving them alone in the cabin with only an intangible reaper to watch them.

He tried to avoid doing that whenever possible. It was still necessary when he had to go hunting--which was just about every day--but he tried to never be away from them for more than half an hour, and he was always ready to bolt back to them at the slightest word from Bohwanox.

Mostly, though, the reaper didn’t hang around with Colt very much. Bohwanox spent his time elsewhere, presumably in Lagoroc, the capital city, which was only about a ten minute drive from Orden.

Snider was a good country like that. Everything was close together. Not a whole lot of wilderness to wander around in. Colt’s patch of forest sat right on the border with Dante, perhaps even crossing over it. The exact lines were a bit unclear. That was what it was like living in the second smallest nation in the world.

Lagaroc, therefore, made up most of the country by itself, so it was a safe assumption on Colt’s part that Bohwanox would go there. He could’ve simply asked, but he frankly didn’t care that much. Sure, Bohwanox was important, and Colt knew that acquiescing to the reaper’s “commands” was a necessary part of his life now, but Bohwanox didn’t seem particularly interested in ordering him around, either. From what Colt could tell, the reaper just wanted to do precisely that: reap.

Orden, on the other hand, was a small enough that reaping wasn’t much of a priority. With a total population under one thousand and a peaceful social environment to boot, death was a rather infrequent occurrence, comparatively.

Which was good. Colt hadn’t come here to get stuck in another death trap. He’d come here to raise his kids.

And the people of Orden were going to help him do that.

Hopefully.

That was the biggest problem, he knew. No matter how hard he worked to provide for the twins, they needed to be around other kids if they were going properly socialized and develop into functional human beings.

If they were going to be normal, in other words.

That was perhaps his greatest fear. That they would turn out like him, instead. They already had his blood. That was already one strike against them. They didn’t need a fucked up life of solitude with their debatably sane father, too.

It was strange thing to be worried about, he thought, because he wasn’t ashamed of who he was, of what he’d done. He wasn’t proud, either. He just was. Reality was reality. He was who he was. And he was fine with that. He’d been fine with all his life, even when he was a little punk-ass elementary schooler, lighting shit on fire and picking fights with kids twice his size and just breaking things for the hell of it. He’d grown and changed, of course--learned what was acceptable behavior if he didn’t want to end up dead, broke, or in prison. But he’d never regretted who he was or what he’d done.

And yet, now, the idea that Stephanie or Thomas might take after him... or end up like him...

He just couldn’t allow that to happen. He couldn’t even really explain why, either. Maybe he was lying to himself. Maybe it was parental instinct. Or maybe it was a goddamn paradox. He didn’t give two cold shits, whatever it was. He only knew that he had to do something about it.

Which was why, after months of getting settled in the cabin and scouting Orden for potential danger, he was finally going to go into town today and let people see him. Him, and his two kids.

He had to clean himself up first, though. It wouldn’t do to look like some kind of hairy-assed wild man, not as a first impression. The last thing he wanted was to give anyone there a reason to think he might be an incapable parent. He knew only too well how nosy some people could be.

And that was the kind of thing that he would have to kill someone over.

So when he finally entered Orden for the first time, he was looking about as good as he could manage. He was cleanly shaven. His gray shirt and black pants were both freshly handwashed and air dried. His work shoes and old leather jacket had both been scrubbed mostly free of dirt and mud. His hair was cut short enough to remind him of his boring days in the Atreyan military. And he was wearing sunglasses, because of course he was. It was so goddamn bright out.

He wasn’t just here to meet people, though. He hoped to be able to get his hands on some supplies as well, and he hoped to get via trade as well. He had some money, but he didn’t want to dip into it unless he had to. He’d considered the option of trying to find a steady paycheck instead of the woodsman life, but he doubted that a town this small would have much work available. That, and he also didn’t want to leave the kids at the local daycare while he was busy at whatever crappy job he could find.

Bohwanox thought he was just being paranoid, but Colt didn’t really give a shit about the reaper’s opinion on this particular subject. He had been scouting the staff at said local daycare--with the reaper’s help, sometimes--and what he’d discovered was easily enough to disqualify them.

The manager, Nina Margot, was a heavy drinker who also liked to get behind the wheel of a car while doing so. If Colt was still a cop, he would’ve absolutely arrested her stupid ass by now. He thought about trying to get her caught red-handed by the local sheriff, but he just didn’t have that kind of free time on his hands, right now. Maybe later.

Then there were the two daycare employees, an elderly man by the name of Isaiah Marsh, and a teenage girl named Susan Rock. The old man was barely conscious enough to look after himself, let alone children, and the girl was a fucking pothead.

Colt had always hated potheads. Having attended a high school that was absolutely full of them back in the day, he’d come to see them as just about the pinnacle of obnoxiousness; and the thought that this girl might light up a joint while she was supposed to be looking after Thomas and Stephanie--or perhaps in front of them, even--well, that just wasn’t going to happen. And he definitely wasn’t going to pay for that kind of service, either.

If you’re looking for a perfect babysitter, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed,’ Bohwanox had told him.

They don’t need to be perfect. Just not pieces of shit.

Bit harsh, don’t you think?

No. Fuck ‘em.

You know, you’ll have to trust someone other than me, eventually.

No, I won’t. And I don’t really trust you, either, by the way.

Wow, okay.

The only reason I ever let you look after them is because it’s physically impossible for you to harm them. No offense.

Oh, yeah, sure, why would anyone be offended by that?

If he was being completely honest, Colt did find the reaper amusing every now and then, but trust was a strong word, he felt. When he genuinely stopped to think about it, there was probably only one person in the entire world whom he would trust to look after his kids for him. Sure, there were other people that he liked, people from his past, people he would’ve been happy to see again. But liking someone didn’t suddenly make that person competent and responsible.

Unfortunately, that one person he trusted was in a completely different country now.

He wondered how things were going for Hector back in Atreya. Colt had pretty much stayed completely off the grid all this time, only occasionally checking his phone for messages, but he had a feeling that if he found a real internet connection and searched for news about the Darksteel Soldier, he’d find plenty of information about the kid.

And most of it would probably be wrong, too. That was part of the reason why he hadn’t bothered with it in the first place. He didn’t much care to read a bunch of twisted truths and made up horseshit. That would probably just make him angry, and he wasn’t looking for a reason to go back to Atreya.

And besides, Hector would be fine. Better off, even.

Colt knew that was the truth. One hundred percent.

He drove into Orden via the main entrance, an old and tired archway that had the town’s name written on in it bold and fanciful letters. He parked in front of the very first building on the right, which was both a grocery store and a gas station.

As he exited his vehicle and gathered the kids up, however, he noticed a familiar man in a familiar uniform already approaching him.

Rexford Margot. Or Rex, for short. He was the son of the daycare lady.

And also Orden’s sheriff.

“Wow, that’s quite a vehicle you’ve got there, sir!” the man called out to him as he approached.

“Thank you,” said Colt, trying not sound immediately annoyed. He hadn’t gotten the kids out of the backseat yet and decided to let them just sit there for a bit longer, out of the sheriff’s view, for the time being. The ex-cop in him was curious what the man’s first words for him were going to be.

Rex stopped as he reached the front of the car, admiring the headlights. “Why, I don’t believe I’ve seen this beauty around town before. You must be new here.”

“I am.”

“Well, then! Welcome to Orden!” The sheriff showed him a wide, toothy smile. “I hope you won’t think me rude for asking, but we don’t get too many visitors around here, and this is a place where folks appreciate their peace, so would you tellin’ me your business?”

“Not at all,” said Colt plainly. “I’m actually looking to raise a family here, believe it or not.”

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