The story so far:
Renni landed hard, the wind knocked out of her by the hound standing on her chest. George licked her up and down as she struggled to breathe and laugh at the same time. Gloria and Carter both raced up to her and pulled the dog away, Gloria sweetly admonishing the happy beast.
“You okay, Renni?” Carter helped her on her feet. She bent in half still gasping. He pulled her up, making her stand up and raise her arms. “Breathe deep,” he said. “This helps open up your lungs. When you bend over like that, it restricts them.”
She quickly got her breathing under control. George walked over to her, his tail now tucked, his ears down in the “I’m sorry” position. She pet him gently on the head, stroking the soft fuzz behind his ears and along his neck. “I’m okay, boy.” He twisted his head and licked the exposed part of her wrist between mitten and sleeve.
“Guess what, Renni!” Gloria jumped up and down a few times, her face radiant with smiles.
“Tell her, daddy.” Renni turned to Carter who also smiled.
“George is a father.”
“Yeah.” Carter laughed heartily, his barrel-chest heaving under his flannel shirt. “Guess he likes Ms. Whittier’s pointer.”
“They’re gonna get married.” Gloria pet George and patted his back proudly.
“Gloria’s arranged a whole wedding for the two dogs.”
Renni stifled a chuckle. “That’ll be fun,” she said.
“You’ll come, won’t you Renni?” The little girl moved away from her beloved pet and put her hand in Renni’s. “Daddy says you might be able to Off-I-shate.”
“Officiate.” Carter corrected, a smile still playing on his lips.
“That means you stand at the front, like this.” She pulled Renni around in front of George and told the dog to sit. “And then you say, ‘dear bee loved. We are gathering here to…” she paused and looked up at her father. “What else does she say?”
“I think Renni can figure that out, don’t you?”
“Yup. And then you say a prayer and then say, ‘I now pronoun you husband dog and wife dog. Daddy says that once he’s done making Mrs. Shoes rocking chair he can make them a dog house they can share with the puppies.” Her face fell suddenly. Renni kneeled and pulled her into a hug.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart?”
“I can’t go see the puppies yet. They’re too little.”
“That’s right,” Carter said. “The puppies need to grow. Once they do, you can play with them all you want.” He winked at Renni. “Now, didn’t you promise to help the other kids build a snowman outside the mess tent? I see Thomas rounding up your friends. Better run.”
Gloria took off. Stopping, she turned and waved at Renni. “You coming to help too?” she called back.
“In a little while.” Renni waved back and watched the child race towards Thomas and slip her hand in his. A sweet look of tenderness crossed the young man’s face. She nodded to him in greeting before turning back to Carter.
Carter was one of a handful of survivors who had two tents. One he used as a home, the other as a workshop. Handy with wood, he provided the camp with much of their furniture. Walking with him into the workshop, Renni took stock of his latest creation.
“She’s going to love this, Carter. What’s left, the runners?”
“Yep. I’ll be able to deliver it in a couple of days.”
“This will make her knitting so much easier. I just ache for her when I see her hunched over on that cot.”
“It was good of you to suggest this, Renni.” She shrugged and looked at the old-fashioned looking tools set about on various benches and tables.
“So, puppies. How does Ms. Whittier feel about that?”
“Actually, excited. She is, however, hoping several people will help and take the puppies off her hand when they're weaned from their mother. I think she wants to keep the boy. There are five and only one ended up male.”
“Five puppies. How exciting. And all this time I just thought that hound was getting fat from being spoiled by the camp.”
“So did everyone else. Let’s just call this an experience and a pleasant surprise.” He looked at Renni intently for a moment before turning to the tools on the bench.
“You going to keep one?” she asked.
“Not sure. Gloria will want them all, I’m sure.” His back to her, he picked up one of the tools and showed it to her. “Harder without electricity,” he said, his voice suddenly distant, his eyes intent upon the object in his hand. “But somehow, it feels more wholesome, doesn’t it?”
Renni joined him at the bench. “It does. Life seems so much simpler. And our community is so tight knit right now. Oh!” She reached into her pocket and removed the doll. “Speaking of knit, I almost forgot. This is for Gloria.” She set the doll on the bench.
“That’s good work, Renni.” He handed her a sheet of sand paper and motioned her to a piece of wood set in a clamp. “You mind?”
“This is all I’m good for in here,” she said, removing her mittens. Renni ran her fingers over the beautiful wood, feeling the roughness.
“You’re good for more than that. Renni, I was thinking,” he paused and placed a hand on her shoulder.
Renni kept her eyes on her work, moving the sandpaper lovingly over the wood, knowing that her work would make it more comfortable in the end. “What is that, Carter?”
The grip on her shoulder tightened a bit before his hand dropped away. He sighed, opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it, and sighed again before finally asking, “What if you took one of the puppies? They’ll be a little smaller than George and Mrs. Shoes is open to the idea.”
Renni knew that wasn't what Carter wanted to ask her. But she kept her thoughts to herself, asking instead, “When have you talked with Mrs. Shoes? About me?”
“When the pups were born yesterday. I went to look for you, but you were already on your rounds with Marshal. You’re a busy girl, Renni.”
“So Solomon told me.” Her smile faded.
“He’s right. We worry about you, sometimes.”
This time she stopped and turned to face him. “What is there to worry about?”
“You’re always moving. Don’t think we don’t notice that.”
A growl under her breath, Renni turned back to the wood, sanding with a vengeance now. “I like to keep busy.”
“Because of the memories?” She nodded, tears welling in her eyes. “Renni, we all have those memories. Every night I fight the nightmares of what happened and what could have been. When those Mongerer bears came to the cabin, I thought I was going to lose my daughter. Thank God for Marshal. I know I can’t imagine all you went through. I wish we could build units to help our hearts heal like we do our bodies.”
“Phys offered. He says there’s a different kind of unit, one that reacts with the brain. He says that it can add information or take away memories.”
“Is that what you want?”
“No. A part of me wants to remember. I want to learn. Marshal calls me Shepherd. He says I’m a Harbinger, that we are all Harbingers. He is training me to help protect the people of this camp. If I can’t remember fighting the Mongerers… well, that would be stupid of me, wouldn’t it.”
“It would, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“I never mind. No, I would never take away any of the memories. But at the same time… well, it isn’t just the memories.”
“I know what it is, Renni. You’re lonely.”
She shook her head and snorted indignantly. “Am I?”
“Yes. You are. You may spend your days with each and every member of this camp at one time or another, but deep inside you’re lonely. I see it in your eyes, Renaissance. You have companionship, friendship here. But it isn’t enough. Which is why I suggest the puppy. It won’t take the loneliness away. But it will help. Consider it?”
Renni moved the sandpaper over the wood, fighting the tears and the frustration. It hurt to have her emotions laid stark and bare before her. She fought with those emotions, fought with the idea of being lonely while surrounded by so many people she loved. Carter turned away and began working on a different piece of wood. Silence reigned between them, not uncomfortable and not comfortable, but in between as both thought of the future.