Finally rejoining the others in the kitchen at Liz’s invitation—she wanted him to eat again if he could, and figured, though she knew he’d disagree, that he might benefit from the added warmth of the stove—Einar sat watching as Susan rinsed and drained a batch of barley and wheat sprouts, lightly roasting them the oven before grinding them, now dry, into flour for the sprouted bread for which she was semi-famous in the community. The process fascinated him, captured his imagination as anything and everything related to the preparation of food tended to do those days, and the watching helped him keep still, occupied if not content. Contentment would have come only in pitting himself against the fury of the storm which still raged on outside, leaning into the sharp bite of that wind as he pressed forward up a timbered slope, scouted out conditions on the ridge and planned for their departure, but as such activities were unwise if not inaccessible at the moment—maybe both, with Susan carrying that .45 and he not too quick on his feet—he did his best to focus on the bread-making, gladly nodding and joining in when Susan asked if he’d like a turn at the kneading.
Though glad to be part of the work, Einar did not join in the conversation, remaining silent, withdrawn, lost in his own thoughts even as his senses remained alert for any hint that things might be going amiss outside, danger approaching. He did not expect it in this storm, but one can never be sure, especially down near civilization where aircraft of various descriptions did not always play a vital role in such a raid; the enemy could just as easily come by land down here as by air. Staring out the window as he thought, Einar whirled around with a start when Susan spoke.
“I think it’s had enough kneading, now. Time to put it in the oven.”
A sheepish grin from Einar as he handed over the dough. “Yep, guess it’s more than ready, isn’t it?”
“I would say so! Now have a seat while I get this in the oven, because it looks like Liz has something ready for you.”
Which she did, having prepared a big mug of the banana, peanut butter and milk mixture which had seemed to be agreeing pretty well with Einar when he could bring himself to try it, this time replacing most of the peanut butter with Nutella and giving Will—riding on her stomach in a sling, where he could, to his great delight, be right in the center of the action at all times—little tastes when he grabbed for the spoon. In addition to the mug, Liz had laid out various little measuring cups at Einar’s place at the table, and remembering his agreement to let her lead him for a while—and where, exactly, are we going? Not sure I like this—he made no objection when she told him to drink what he assumed were portions of the various minerals and supplements with which Susan had the previous day returned from town.
Had Susan prepared the repast, he might not have been able to bring himself to partake. Certainly not without first carefully inspecting the bottle from which each substance was taken, reading the labels and making sure no tampering had occurred before he tasted anything, but only Liz had been involved in the preparation, and taking what was for him a giant leap of faith in her he sat, gulped down the contents of the little cups, one by one.
No immediate consequences as he sat there holding his breath, half expecting, despite himself—she wouldn’t do that to you, and you know it—to begin feeling irresistibly groggy, holding onto consciousness just long enough to see the two women coming at him with the webbing straps with which they intended to restrain him, tie him down until he’d been compelled to take in an amount of nutrients they saw fit, a process which would doubtless be repeated several times daily for a week or two, at the least… Shook his head, took a big breath, beginning to feel the lack of oxygen and not wanting to get it mixed up with any other effect that might be beginning to creep in. Sure, they might be wanting to do something like that, might have thought about it, but they hadn’t done it yet and he did not believe it was part of the plan. Certainly not for Liz. She sure was looking at him strangely though, and he glanced away, not knowing what to make of it and supposing perhaps she wasn’t looking at him at all, but at some object beyond him in the room. Not the case.
“What’s the matter with you? Can’t you breathe? Did something go down the wrong pipe, or what?”
Realized that he’d been holding his breath again, quit it. “Can breathe. Nothing wrong. Stuff just tastes weird, that’s all.”
“Says the guy who happily snacks on wolverine liver and the fermented contents of elk stomachs…” she laughed. “I didn’t know anything tasted weird to you!” Einar didn’t answer, and she could see that he wasn’t finding nearly so much humor in the situation as she had been. Scooting Will over onto her hip, she sat down next to him.
“It’s hard. I know. You’d rather not be doing any of this. But you’re doing fine. Just keep it up, and things will get better. Easier. You’re already feeling a little better, aren’t you? A little more energy?”
He shrugged. “Guess so. Can really feel the iron, when I take it. More alert all of a sudden, and a little less tired. Helping, I think. And of course there’s energy in the food, and I can feel that, but…”
“You’d rather quit again, is that it?”
“Don’t like to say it, but yeah. Really like to do that.”
“You know where that leads, though. Right?”
“Yeah. Guess I know the facts. Even if I would like very much to challenge them at times, prove them wrong… But you see, my mind just keeps going round and round about it. On the one hand, I know now without too much doubt that I can keep going, push my body further and further, live on less and less until it finally gives out, and what’s more I can perform useful work along the way the entire time, until the very end. I know that because I’ve almost been there so many times, and I like that fact, like knowing that I can keep myself on my feet and active until everything’s gone and I lie down for the last time, but really, what’s the point? That doesn’t prove anything, does it? If I keep going and things end that way. Only proves that I’m too stubborn once on a set course of action to stop and consider whether or not it makes sense to continue in that direction…”
She nodded. “I think that’s a good way to look at it.”
“Yeah, maybe. Guess some things would change pretty fast with me if I could really see it that way, but it doesn’t stop there. I start debating with myself, the other half of my brain coming right back and saying that actually, yes, it does prove something. Proves that I have the will and the strength to do it, to endure anything that comes, and that has value. Is worth the cost. Any cost. And I really believe that, and if it was just me, I think there would probably be no question, no reason to take a second look at what I’ve been doing. But then I think of you, and of this little guy here, and it starts all over again, the argument...