With the snow now falling at a decent rate, most everyone is tucked back into Refuge Point. Expedition teams will only make the most necessary runs after this, and so the duties of many people have shifted around. Natalie is one of the people for whom the duty roster changes are tough — the ability to get out of Refuge Point here and there, to get away from the crush of people and their emotions, has become an important thing for her mental health. Her shields are still not so good. And so it is in searching for a quiet place to hole up for a little while that she happens past the workshop and is stopped short not by someone’s voice but by the sensation of intensity. Someone’s emotions are definitely in turmoil, and without having to reach for the person, Natalie can feel who he is.
Pausing in the doorway of the workshop, she rested her her shoulder on the jamb. “Penny for those heavy thoughts,” she offered softly.
Santae had been thinking those thoughts for so long recently, it was hard to remember when he hadn’t been thinking them.
In front of him, on the workbench was a single wood carving of a snowflake. He had spent the last few hours working on carving it out of the block of wood he had been saving for a year now. He had chiseled and carved and etched and all the things he hadn’t done in so long. He had thought it would make him feel more sure, more secure. Instead it had made him feel less so. Maybe he was, to quote Lethal Weapon, getting too old for this shit.
“Did I ever tell you what I did before Destruction Day?” It was rhetorical – he never talked with anyone much about what he had done before arriving in Union Station.
“Nope,” Natalie replied, pushing off that door frame and walking further into the workshop. She settled onto a camp chair that’s not far from the bench he was using to carve, her gaze taking in the lovely piece of woodwork that he’s produced, and asked, “Was it boat building?” It was more a gentle tease than a serious query.
“I was a construction worker, Natalie. A foreman, but I was a construction worker. And somehow I stumbled into this job. I never really wanted it, you know. But I knew it needed to be done.”
And it had desperately needed someone to steer back then. A group of shell shocked refugees all trying to figure out what the hell they were supposed to do with themselves. Santae had stepped up because no one else had. He knew how to direct people, that was something he had been confident about. Leading people on the other hand? That was something completely different. Now Ida was about to help him by taking that off his hands. So why the hell was he feeling so lost about the whole damn thing?
Nat nodded slightly, acknowledging his previous career as she listened. “You’ve done it well,” she offered. “I have always believed in the idea that people who want leadership roles really shouldn’t be in them. The people who step up because something is needed are the ones who really should have the leadership jobs, not because they will always have the right skills but because they will always have everyone else’s good at heart instead of their own aggrandizement.” She tilted her head, studying him quietly for a long minute. “So… what’s got you second-guessing the fact that you’ve done well?” she asked.
“It’s always Geetha, Natalie,” Santae said simply. “Other things flare up, but in the end, where I allowed myself to be is what keeps me up at night sweating.” He stood up and put some of his tools away, to give his hands something to do.
“As the election approaches, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, letting Ida take the reins. I feel relief and guilt and worry and about eight thousand other things. I think I’ve hated myself for so long now that I can’t figure out what not hating myself would feel like. Maybe this is it?” Santae looked at Natalie with a tired face, the look of someone who has been struggling with inner demons for a while.
Pulling in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Natalie considered her words carefully. “What happened with Geetha was not one person’s fault, Santae. You did the best you could under the circumstances — you managed to get them to actually take a vote. That the vote went a direction that you could not stop wasn’t your doing. And although I know at the time I must have given you the impression that I — maybe even that we — blamed you, no one did.” She looked around the workshop, adding in her quiet voice. “There hasn’t been a day since Destruction Day that we haven’t each considered the possibility that we might get lynched in the night. The sentiment wasn’t hidden from us. We knew in a great many ways, we were here on sufferance. It was why we very quietly went about and made that evacuation plan pretty much right after we got here. We all hoped it would never be used… but I think we all knew that there would have to come a point where it would be.”
She looked at him and told him in a calm voice, “Human nature is what it is. And the survivors have a great deal of rage still. There’s no good target for them, because for most of them… they understand it wasn’t our fault. Most people are good people
- they don’t want to hate another person for something that wasn’t their fault. But down deep, the rage still burns. And it’s not any one person’s job to keep it in check. You stepped up when no one else could. You’ve given every bit of yourself that you can afford to give for the past two years. And if you need to step away, Santae, then you need to step away. There is no shame in needing to step back and salvage some of your inner Self.”-
“Larry Kilmer.” He said, apropos of nothing. “He worked on one of my crews on a big building job. Smart, ambitious, capable, and new to a job this big. I kept handing him bigger and bigger tasks not because I knew he could do them but because I needed him to be able to do them.”
A sad look passed across Santae’s face, half remembrance, half guilt. “One day, he got crushed taking too big of a risk because I had asked him to take on something he wasn’t ready to take on. I had to explain to his family…”
“I’m Larry here, Natalie. Knowing too little for a big job. Geetha was me getting crushed. Maybe I should step away. Maybe you’re right. Or maybe I’ve not done enough to make up for it.”
He paused for a minute and said, “You want to walk for a little bit? I’ve been in this enclosed space for too long.”
Immediately Natalie got to her feet. She waited for him to head out into the open air, so to speak, walking next to him with a stride that matched his. She waited until they’d been walking for a minute or two before saying, “You don’t have anything to make up for. Geetha wasn’t you getting crushed
- Geetha was… inevitable.” Her tone was pensive. “Regardless of why or how it happened, Santae, and regardless of who might have been mayor of this place… there was never any other way for that situation to go. All it was ever going to take was one spark. And maybe in part it’s our fault too. Maybe we should have all opened up and had a full-on community conversation between the former Powers and those who weren’t back when we were a smaller community. But I think… we were all just scared. And when Geetha blew, the lizard brain took over.”-
They found themselves walking from the second floor workshop up the stairs to the roof. The air was chilly, but not crazy cold. Yet. The watch had shoveled the half melted snow either off the roof or away from the walking paths. It wasn’t comfortable, but Santae needed the chill in the air…wanted to feel a little uncomfortable.
He stopped at a point on the west side of the roof, looking across snow covered city in the direction of Harris Stowe.. “This is where I watched Ang shoot and kill Zach,” Santae said conversationally. He paused. “Can’t prove it (and why would I need to?), but I think she took out Faith too. I’ve wondered a lot lately whether I could’ve taken that shot. Or should have. “
There was a long moment of silence while Natalie pondered what Santae had just said. Did she…? Natalie would never be sure without asking outright… and as she stood there, she realized something else. She would never ask. Because Faith had been extremely dangerous to any community she landed in. And she felt a lance of self-hatred for that thought — because once again, judge, jury, and executioner. Where does it stop? she wondered.
With her hands deep in her pockets, Natalie told him softly, “I can’t answer that for you. But I can tell you … that I’ve faced those choices too. And I don’t like making them. Having someone that I acknowledge as the team leader makes it so that I don’t have to face myself in the mirror after a decision like that. And in some ways, it’s the coward’s way out. In other ways, it’s the only way to save my sanity.” She sighed heavily. “I had a similar conversation with a friend not that long ago. And his response was basically… you have to make the best choice you can with the information you have. And in a world like the one we are facing, where the choices are limited and some kinds of choices are a luxury… you have to not hate yourself when you make the hard one.”
“Do you wish I had made more effort to run? Are you going to be okay with Ida? She’s a good person, at heart. I just don’t know how flexible she is.” A wry look crossed the current mayor’s face. “Maybe less flexibility is a good thing.”
She was silent for a period of time, her thoughts disordered at the question. When Natalie finally spoke again, her reply might not have been what he expected. “No, not really. What I want for you is to be okay. And right now, I can feel the relief that you’re feeling about the idea that you don’t have to make those calls anymore. That you don’t have to take responsibility for the situation when shit goes south, which it invariably does.” She smiled just a little. “I’m going to do whatever I have to do, Santae. And if I can’t be okay with Ida, then I guess I’ll figure out what my options are and make a decision. Right now? We have the winter to allow us all to get a feel for how she’ll manage. It’s not as if change is something new
- we all knew going into this that as the community got bigger and more settled, we weren’t going to just have the people who stepped up at first in charge.” She shrugged. “Life is all about change, right?”—
There was a long pause as Santae stared off into the distance. Then he said, “I suppose so, if you’re doing it right.”
Then a small smile crossed his face and a chuckle escaped his mouth. “I wish my wife was here. I wish you had a chance to meet her. I married Nell to kick my ass and keep me in line when I got like this. She didn’t take navel gazing from anyone. ‘_Foot forward, mister, and keep stepping until you get where you’re going._’ She’d probably be surprised as anyone that I outlived her.”
Natalie couldn’t help the soft chuckle. “I think I would have liked her very much, if that’s the way she handled life. It’s something my parents always said to me, too
- a little differently. That the only way out of any situation is by moving forward, through it, one step at a time. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” She nodded a little. “I’ve tried for a long time not to think about the people I outlived, about what might have been. And then recently it kind of slapped me in the face, which has thrown me a good bit off-balance.” She looked at him. “But … change. No matter which way you want all this to go, I want you to be happy, Santae. You’ve done a really good job, and you have nothing to look back on and be ashamed about.”—
“I didn’t have to be the one holding the gun, Natalie, but that’s not worth lingering on.”
He sighed. “I used to have a good idea where life was headed. Now I don’t have any clue. It’s how I know I’m getting old, that all I want out of my life is some stability and some idea that the next day will be like the last one.” Much like the President of the U.S., the stress of being mayor of Refuge Point had shown in Santae. More lines in his face, more white streaks through the dark short hair that he ran his hand over. “Oh well, at least I can have a drink and say fuck it.” Natalie’s not sure she’s ever heard Santae casually curse. “I’ve got some extra down in my room. You want to raise a glass with me to the end of one era, beginning of another? Or maybe just shorten that and have a drink to change, life’s constant companion.”
Natalie’s smile was amused, and she wrapped her arm around his. “Tell you what… I’ll keep you company while you drink yourself silly. But I’m going to stick to tea, I think. I never did much like the hard stuff, and the stuff we have around here these days is more like diesel fuel or engine degreaser in a glass.”
“But it does, at least, do its job. Or it will tonight, anyway.” He started walking them back towards the steps. “You can drink whatever as long as we do it somewhere warmer. I’ve decided it’s time to come in out of the cold.”