Had I never started thinking about women again, and it wasn’t that I didn’t think about women, I was still alive, you know, it would have saved me some trouble, maybe. But it’s hard to imagine trying to become intimate with a woman in a room with over ninety of your closest friends. Moreover, I was on the go all the time, and when I wasn’t I was so tried I could hardly stand. Now, well over four months deep into our occupation of the school, things had gotten better. I found myself with time to read again, and a small lamp under which I could enjoy a couple of hours each night of something other than exhaustion. The crops were growing well, the weeds were under control, the partitioning of the classroom into apartments was a work in progress. Sonny and Eric Johnson were recovering but neither of them would ever been the same again. Both walked with limps and neither could lift any great weight. Miles Johnson hadn’t been seen again and was presumed dead. Berg was relaxing a bit. He began to see things getting better and he backed off some of the work details, but he was getting his semaphores up and running. We could send a team into Quitman and know exactly what they were seeing and we knew how many men to send. Ray Spells became my right hand man, and I began to rely heavily upon him. I didn’t ask for it and maybe he knew what he was getting into and maybe he didn’t, but as bad as he hated Berg, Ray would obey his orders without question or hesitation or any talk. Sonny Johnson had lost two sons to the creatures and maimed a third. He stopped making demands and Martha Johnson eventually started speaking to him, some.
There was enough room in the compound for some small houses, two room cottages, really, and Berg thought we could get the bathrooms in the school itself up and running again. Our meetings now consisted of me doing most of the talking, Berg sitting by nodding, and there not being a lot of debate. People were well fed, they were safe, and we seemed to be winning the war against the creatures. Since the first one died outside the fence, five more had been found dead. They were starving to death, people believed, and for the first time, there was true optimism. We had paid a price for it, certainly, and I never forgot it.
Berg suggested that any woman who was pregnant could live in one of the cottages with her man or without, once we got them built, and that got everyone excited. The apartments were great but to have a house with a bed and a kitchen? Heaven! I thought it was a good idea, but I still wasn’t sure about how to even begin a conversation with a woman that might lead to romance. I had watched my wife be killed in front of me. My children died while I was at work. Deep down inside, masturbation, frantically in one of the stalls in the common showers, was as deep emotionally as I felt like I could handle, no pun intended.
Reba Johnson, the widow of Junior Johnson, came to visit me one night, as asked me if she might borrow a book. She had some time to kill, she said, and wanted to start reading again. I started to ask why she didn’t go to the school library and stopped. Reba stood there in clean clothes and her hair washed, dried, and slightly done. I was more than a little obtuse when it came to women, but this was as close as I would ever come to a woman asking me to spend some time with her. I invited her into my tiny space, and realized the chair was covered with dirty clothes, and all sorts of stuff. Reba sat on the bed and sighed.
“Let me put this to you straight.” Reba said. “I’ve a bait of being a Johnson, and a widow, and putting up with them people. I work ten hours a day then have to tend to Martha and her sorrow. I married into money, what they had anyway, and I don’t make any excuses for it. Now I’m a free woman even if they don’t see it that way. I’m twenty-three and I want to have kids, one day, I don’t mean soon, but I’m not looking to wait for one of those weed pulling idiots to be the last thing I can get.” She tossed her hair back and smiled, “You’ve made some pretty hard decisions. If there’s going to be any sort of future that’s what sort of man it’s going to take. If there was more of us, or if things were better maybe I’d feel different, and maybe you wouldn’t have done those things, but things are the way they are, and men like you are what is needed. If I’m going to have a baby I want a man like you to be the daddy because you’ll do what it takes to be a good one, no matter what happens.”
To say I was stunned would be an understatement, like saying Custer had Indian problems. Reba was a little on the short side, but she looked strong and healthy. It occurred to me that the razor thin model body type woman was a liability now, and we would all be looking for partners who would be an asset. Reba was a good looking woman with clear blue eyes and very dark hair and as I looked at her I could tell my silence was making her nervous.
“I’m flattered, Reba,” I began, and even I knew better than to screw this up, “and honestly, I have no idea where to begin this. Since my wife was killed I’ve just been doing one day at a time.” And that was all I could think to say, but it did seem to work.
“Nobody likes Bergstrom” Reba said after a moment or two. “But everybody knows he’s the brains here. You’re the heart. You’re the soul. No matter how bad it gets most people here think you’ll brake him if he tries to go too far, and some already think it. People are sorry it came to what it has come to, they are, but they want to live and they want their kids to live. They’re ready to follow you.” She stopped as if she thought she said too much. “Don’t leave me hanging here. You interested or not?” She looked at the door as if she already thought I would turn her down.
“Yes, of course I am.” I got up and sat down closer to her. I put my arm around her and was surprised at how good it felt. Reba’s body moved closer to mine and we sat there in awe of the feeling. “I guess this is how it was done back in the pioneer days. We’re there again.” I took a very deep breath and considered what would happen if I tried to kiss this woman, and what might happen if I didn’t. Either way, I was going to head down one road or another and if the monsters hadn’t taught me anything they had taught me how expensive regret was. I hadn’t kissed a woman in over five years but it came back to me, and quick, too.