Heartbeats

No change, no differences. Something wasn’t right. Everybody should be here by now.

Theia chose not to worry; not yet. When they reached pavement, Theia pulled back her arms so that her father would set her down, but held his hand as they walked the remaining distance to the shelter. Merely the thought of sharing quarters with others unnerved her. “When can we live by ourselves again?” she asked, keeping close eye on the nearby passers.

“As soon as there’s space,” he answered. “Cannon Beach will have more refugees than residents.”

“Can we live in a tent?”

He glanced at her. “If you’d like,” he said softly. “There would only be room out of town, though.”

Yet, there was plenty of room still. “Nobody’s here yet. Where are they?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

“Should we go back?”

“You know that’s the worst thing we could do.”

He was right, she had to admit to herself. She chose a second time to attempt suppressing her fear. Now returned to the shelter, the other tenants were cleaning up from the feast. Both Theia and her father instinctively started assisting, despite how drained Theia felt. Despite being surrounded by others, she still had her father, and tasks got her mind off her anxiety.

Following cleanup, residents and staff brought out activities such as board games and crafts. Neither Theia or her father participated, but Theia found solace from watching. They sat by a wall, resting their legs. It was like being on another planet, seeing people get along, smile and laugh, having no care in the world. She envied their peace of mind. She clung to her father, holding his hand and keeping her face pressed against his side as she watched. She was inspired to recollect events in her own past which made her as happy as these people.

Even with Dad here, she thought, I’m going to need time…

“Let’s retire,” her father whispered, almost as a sigh. After standing, he asked someone where residents slept. It was the upper floor, to which they dragged their feet.

Mattresses covered the floor. There was nothing else, not on the walls or over the windows. Most had ‘reserved’ tags, and each were already supplied with blankets and comforters. Theia nearly picked one, but her father settled on one beside a wall. She could only assume he didn’t want to be surrounded on all sides while they slept.

“Going to sleep already?”

Theia shrugged. “I’m tired, but I don’t know if I’m sleepy yet.” She looked around. “Does every family have to sleep bunched together?”

“Probably. Cannon Beach is a small town; space is limited. It’s a health hazard, and maybe a safety hazard, but what else can they do?”

“How many people live here?”

“At the moment, one or two thousand.”

Theia’s eyes widened. “Oh wow! Weren’t there like ten thousand of us?”

Her father nodded. “Not everyone will stay here, though. I imagine Tyson coordinated migration with the whole region. Still, a sizeable number of refugees will remain here.”

“Why aren’t they here yet?” she asked frantically, running to the nearest window, which overlooked Main Street. From that vantage point, Sunset Boulevard, the road from which she and her father arrived to the town, was not visible. “They should have gotten here before us, right?”

“Calm down, baby. Some may be here already, and there could be other shelters.” He seated on the edge of their mattress.

“Can we wait on the highway?”

“That won’t affect anything, Theia.”

She walked back from the window. “I know…”

Watching her with concern, her father asked, “Would you rather stay in a tent outside of town?” Theia nodded. “Is it anxiety?”

“I’m just … not ready yet to … to be around people.”

Her father embraced her. “Okay. We’ll need to ask around for a tent. It’s too late to do that today, unfortunately.”

Theia understood, and accepted. It could have been worse. She could survive one night around strangers. As long as Dad’s here, she thought.

Before most anyone else came to the upper floor halls and rooms for the night, the two already tried to get some shuteye. For half the night, Theia couldn’t sleep. Somehow, she was not tired; the opposite, in fact. She remained still, lying there thinking and listening, like she had on the sand. As others came upstairs, she observed them with squinted eyes. Mostly, she watched the kids, expecting and even partially hoping some would display carrying emotional damage, so that she wouldn’t feel alone. Overwhelmingly, though, the kids appeared carefree and robust.

One boy, who shared the mattress beside theirs, on the left and closer to Theia, obnoxiously tried to get her attention. “Hey! Hey! Hey!”

“What?”

“Where are you from?”

She figured she just might enjoy talking to him. “Portland,” she answered.

“When did you get here? We came two weeks ago.”

“And you’re still here?”

“Have you been here for two weeks, too?”

She accepted that he didn’t elaborate on his own circumstances. “No, we came today.”

A half-second before the boy said something else, his father called him by name. “Leave the girl alone, Max. Go to sleep.”

The boy apologized then rolled over. She noticed a second boy beside him while their father was on the far-right side. She wondered why the mother wasn’t with them, but didn’t have the stomach to find out. By now, she could imagine many explanations.

Even less able to sleep now, Theia decided to expel her unneeded energy and got up. Her father didn’t seem to notice. Most everyone up there was asleep, but on ground floor, it sounded as active as earlier. She followed the faint light glowing through the downstairs door window, using it to navigate between the mattresses and dangling limbs.

Once she reached the first floor, to her surprise, she found only ten people present at most. Some were kids, who were standing near adults who looked just like them. A visiting family, she figured; one native to the town. Why would they still be here? she wondered.

“Hello, miss,” said the supposed mother.

“…Hi.”

Another adult, Theia assumed to be a member of staff, asked her, “Is something wrong upstairs?”

“No. Fine.”

“Do you need anything?”

She nearly froze from being in the spotlight. Nobody had a suspicious demeanor, but focusing was nonetheless impossible. Her eyes were fixed on the floor as she thought of something, anything, to break the ice. “I… My dad… We… Do you have tents?” She didn’t know whom the question was intended for.

“We have tents, yes,” answered the mother. “They’re at home. Do you need one?”

“Please.”

“What do you need a tent for?”

“We … want one. For space.”

The father asked, “Are you here alone?”

Shaking her head, Theia answered, “No. Have my dad here.” Happy being able to say that, she smiled a little.

“Well, it’s best we talk to him before you run off with one of our tents. It’s nothing personal, just a basic precaution.”

Just like that, without even trying, she had secured a tent. She smiled bright as the sun, and ran upstairs. Narrowly avoiding tripping over one other family’s bed, she flopped onto theirs. “Dad!”

Her father rolled over, reached out his left arm and pulled her snug against his side. Her face buried in his torso, she muffled, “I got us a tent!”

More asleep than aware, he groaned, “No tent tonight, baby.” Theia nearly failed to discern his words.

“Yeah, but can we still have one?”

Clearly his consciousness was failing him. “Who?”

“Who, what?”

“Tent… Whose tent is it?”

“Oh! A family downstairs.”

Kissing her forehead, he mumbled, “Okay.”

Before long, Theia was back with her drowsy father. The family was located in a different area now, sitting at a table playing a board game with themselves, but still saw the two. “We’re over here!” called the mother.

A feeling came over Theia as they approached, watching them play together. Such enviable joy.

“Oh, a big guy!” said the father to Theia’s. He stood and introduced himself. “I’m Derek. We met Thay just a few minutes ago,” he chuckled. “I’m Derek, this is my wife Sally, and our two kids: Sydney – she’s the oldest – and Luke.”

Theia was bothered that they got her name wrong, but chose to say nothing.

“I’m Ethan. Her name is Theia, not Thay.”

That was rude, Dad. “It’s okay,” she said. “You were only off by one syllable. Not a big deal.”

“Yeah, sorry about that… So, you guys need a tent? That’s strange.”

“We prefer the solidarity,” said Ethan. “We’ll pay you back in some way, when we can.”

“Oh, no need!” said Sally.

As they conversed, Theia’s attention was fixed on the boy – Luke – because he stared at her as if vexed. She couldn’t look back, nor look away. Awkward, but not intimidating. By the look of him, he couldn’t hurt a fly.

“Theia?” asked her father.

“Hm?”

“They’re getting a tent for us.”

“Oh! Thank you!”

Sally smiled. “You’re welcome! ‘Theia,’ right?” She laughed. “We’ll be right back with it.”

The parents gathered their children and headed for the exit. Theia followed her father to a chair then climbed onto his lap. Sally abruptly rushed back inside. “Hey! Actually… Would you guys want to live with us, instead? We have a guest room.”

Theia didn’t know how to feel about it. Her instincts said yes, but also said no. She trusted this new family, and she didn’t trust that.

“We’ll just settle for the tent, thank you,” answered her father. Sally apologized, excused herself again then headed out. As they heard the family’s car start up then drive away, Theia heard her father comment under his breath, “Waste of gas.”

They needed only wait fifteen minutes. Luke was the one to bring the tent, parts and all, in a single case, likely having never been opened from its original packaging. Luke stared at Theia again as he handed the case to her father. Without a word, her father walked toward the stairs.

“Thank you,” said Theia on both their behalf. Luke stood still, shamelessly continuing to stare at her as she followed her father.

–––––––

When Theia opened her eyes the next morning, she saw the morning light rays illuminating the walls. Muffled voices could be heard through the floor, birds chirped outside, and her father snored as usual. She was thankful it hadn’t been loud enough to wake her. His arm was still wrapped around her, as it had been most of the night, which made sneaking away substantially more difficult. Slowly yet surely, she slithered out from under his arm and their blanket.

No one else was awake. In this cold, who’d want to be? she thought. Coastal air was frigid, even during the summer, and always thick with moisture. She felt it in her clothes, which she hadn’t changed in a long while. A small level of guilt befell her as she dreaded wondering where she’d get new clothes, or new anything. She felt materialistic to be concerned about this matter.

Then, she remembered why she got up as soon as she woke. They’re here! Hurriedly, but carefully, she stepped between about two mattresses, headed for the stairs, when she heard her father.

“Theia…”

Caught. She slowly crept back to their mattress. “Sorry, Dad. I was just going to see everybody.”

He didn’t refute. “Don’t leave town.” He pulled her in for a quick kiss. “I love you. Stay safe.”

“Love you too.”

As Theia walked down Main Street toward Sunset Boulevard, keeping a close eye on her surroundings, she couldn’t help but gloat at the fact her father trusted she could take care of herself now. Never had he allowed her to be alone, at least outside of the house. She pondered this assiduously as she walked, nearly forgetting her purpose for being out there.

Dad trusts me to be responsible. He’s never treated me like a child, in that stupid ‘cushy’ voice like I was stupid or something. He treats me like an equal – like a friend – and not like he’s better than me. “Not like Mom,” she said aloud.

Theia only took Sunset Boulevard to the edge of town, obeying orders to go no further. Peering eastward, the direction the refugees would come from, she saw nothing. Then, she looked back, toward Main Street, and realized she hadn’t seen more people than the usual sum.

Why aren’t they here yet?

She still had to know something; whatever she could find out. Theia returned to Main in a hurry and braved speaking to strangers. She stopped a few people to ask what they knew. Every time she stopped moving, she made damn sure her back was against the outer wall of a building, and she never allowed herself near more than two people at a time. Ultimately, it turned out that nobody knew anything, except that they, too, were expecting thousands of refugees to arrive eventually.

At least half an hour had passed. Theia finally decided to return to the shelter. Half the inhabitants were awake now, either waiting for food or helping prepare it. Some kind of meat was being cooked; eggs as well. Suddenly, she realized she was hungry as well. Hasting upstairs, she saw that her father was absent, along with the tent bag. Back downstairs, she searched among all the faces, to no avail. Her anxiety rapidly increased.

She had to sit down, at the table with the fewest people. Luckily, at least, there was food in the middle already served. She needed to find her father, but her hunger and nervousness compelled her to eat a little and recharge. He’s Dad. He’s probably fine. He can’t be far. She kept watch as ate her fill.

By the time she’d finished, the others at her table and in the rest of the hall were still going, taking their breakfast slow. Theia wanted to leave immediately, but didn’t want to leave without feeling she’d earned the meal. Thus, despite her rapid heartrate, she stayed to help clean up. Some of the staff interacted with her, and though she spoke very little, it calmed her some.

Still not here…

Theia ran out to the street. He wasn’t in sight. Maybe he’s expecting me to be on Sunset? So, she ran back to where she had been. Sure enough, there he was, walking east with the tent bag and … a backpack.

“Dad!” She had jogged over to him.

“You found me.”

“Where’d you go?” She took his hand as they walked together.

“Couldn’t fall back asleep, so I visited Town Hall.”

“What’s that?”

“The mayor’s office, the police and fire departments… Had a chat with the mayor.”

“Why’d you go there?”

Her father didn’t answer. “So, where’ve you been the past hour or so?”

“I was looking for everybody, then I was looking for you.”

“You know I’m not far away. Don’t worry so much.”

“But where’s everybody else?”

Her father stopped where there was a relatively clear patch of land among the trees and brush. “Tell me about this family you met last night.”

Caught off guard, Theia took a moment to answer. “I think they volunteer at the shelter. They’re really nice.”

“Tell me about them.”

“I didn’t talk to them much more than you did.”

“I see.” He started extracting the materials and setting up the tent. “Did you want to live with them?”

A difficult question. “Well… I mean, they’re nice people… Maybe later, I guess…”

“If you want to. Just be sure you can handle it, okay?”

“I don’t know. What if they’re… What if…”

Looking her square in the eye, he said, “They won’t hurt you, Theia. I’m sure of it. Even if I’m wrong, I’m still here.” He didn’t smile, but was nonetheless reassuring in his tone. “That girl looked about your age. Maybe you’ll be friends.”

Theia shrugged. “I don’t know.” She did not forget her father’s mention of visiting City Hall. “Why did you visit the mayor?”

“To ask about our friends from Queen’s Quarter.”

“Did you find out?”

Her father simply said, “Yes.” Then, nothing else.

“…Dad? Why won’t you tell me anything?”

“They’re fine, baby. That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t want you worrying so much. Spend today doing something you enjoy. Play games at the shelter, walk on the beach. Put it out of your mind. Cannon Beach is our home, now.”

“But you won’t tell me. That just makes me worry more.”

Her father paused and glared at her, assertive.

Theia relented. With reluctance and fragility, she relented. “I’ll… I’ll come back later, then.”

She nearly walked away before she heard, “Theia… I love you.”

“I know, Dad.” She didn’t say it back, not out of spite, or of course lack of reciprocal affection, but from the first time in her life having a stronger grasp on the meaning of love. She desperately wanted to know, but out of love, she would not be told…

Departed again. Theia walked back into town, pausing on the corner between Sunset Boulevard and Main Street. Having always lived in the suburb of a large city, it was strange to see so few people. Nonetheless, she was nervous at the sight of them, and she had nothing to override the feeling; not excitement to see the other refugees, not the safety of her father’s presence… The faces, no matter how innocent in appearance, inflicted terror. She couldn’t predict what these people would do if she came too close. She was ordered to not only be among them, but befriend them; to make Cannon Beach home.

Regardless, Theia didn’t know how to occupy her time. What was there to do? Seeing people walking the sidewalks, passing in and out of buildings, most of which only had one floor, Theia had to wonder how this town sustained itself, no longer being part of a greater country to assist with receiving and giving supplies. Were she capable of interactions, she would have asked around about that, but even then, she reminded herself that her father said not to worry. Did he mean not to worry about the other refugees? She pondered for a moment. Maybe he just wants me not to worry in general. Theia watched the people for a short while. Something stirred within; something that could not be ignored.

She couldn’t. She wasn’t ready. This broke her heart, but she couldn’t deny how she felt.

Theia ran back to her father. Reaching the campsite, out of breath, she dropped to her knees in front of him. “Too much?” he asked, turning to face her.

Words escaped her. Her head lowered, her eyes stinging. “I’m trying, Dad.”

He reached forward, pulling her in tight. “I know. You need time.” Looking into her eyes, he asked, “Is it better if I’m with you?”

She nodded.

“Alright. There’s something I need to do before we can get settled here…”

Together, they returned to town, heading straight for the shelter. Theia was his silent shadow all the while. What her father was doing or why, she didn’t know or care. Her mind was more blank than occupied. She wasn’t observing anything, or thinking ahead. When she worried about the other refugees, she put it out of her mind. For now, she was content to merely follow her father.

At the shelter, her father first approached the man who operated the place, and asked if he could buy the blanket they used last night, offering to buy it with food, which Theia didn’t understand. Then, instead of the blanket they’d used, they were given an unused one.

Her father seemed to be walking aimlessly. She still followed without issue, never asking him what he sought. Finally, a mile north up Main, they landed at a small shop of unknown merchandise. “Here we are.”

“Where?” When they entered, Theia saw an assortment of animal heads mounted ornately over the walls. A hunting shop.

Theia continued to follow her father as he walked straight for the rifles in the back, then helped him carry all the items he selected. At the front counter, there was no clerk. Theia nearly assumed the store wasn’t in operation at all. When her father knocked on the counter loudly, they heard a voice call, “Be right there!’

“You ought to tighten your security. I could have walked right out.”

The man was old, pudgy, and overflowing with positive energy. “Oh, nobody steals around here. Not anymore. We gotta stick together these days.”

“You killed these animals?” Theia had to ask.

Cordially, the man replied, “Nah, these came from all over, before I even got the shop going. Had to buy ‘em. No worries, little one, they won’t eat you. What are your names, by the way?”

“Ethan. This is my daughter, Theia. How do I pay you?”

“Oh, the same way everybody does.”

“Rainchecks?”

“Bartering. Gasoline will pay for just about anything around here. Or, if you have lactating animals, gems, firewood has some value, or valuable materials. What do you have?”

“Just my experience with these. What if I offer you a week’s worth of dinner meat?”

The clerk looked impressed. “Strange bid. Can’t say I can accept. You could walk out of my shop, I never hear from you again, all hell breaks loose…”

“We didn’t walk out before you showed up.”

“True. Still, though.”

“We came from Portland. We’re here to stay and contribute to this community. I guess you’ll just have to judge my character.”

The clerk thought about it for a long moment. “Tell you what: Take the gun, the rounds, the camo… Come back with a catch today, you got yourself a deal.”

“Appreciate it, sir.”

“In fact, I’ll go with you.”

As they departed, Theia questioned the situation. She didn’t trust what she’d just heard, but she did not feel the need to speak up about it.

Her father led. The shop owner conversed with him about miscellaneous subjects, none of which being what he and Theia experienced in Portland. He was keen from the start to not discuss that. Still, the men had plenty to talk about, most of which revolved around hunting.

“Who taught you this stuff, Ethan?”

“One of the male figures in my life. His name was Michael.”

“Well, what’ya know? My name’s Michael as well. So, who was this guy? A stepfather, an uncle?”

“A father figure.”

 “Very well. I won’t pry.”

They settled in a spot not far from the tent – approximately five-hundred feet from it. When the men put on a little black make up, Theia did the same. At first, the experience was exciting, however, after an hour sitting in the dirt, Theia became agonizingly bored.

“Why aren’t we looking around?” whispered Theia.

“We shouldn’t stray too far from town.”

Another hour passed. Insects found them fine, but the more mammalian wildlife was scarce at best. Only deer appeared, far away, and each time, the men took aim but did not shoot. By the third hour, Theia had dozed.

“Wake up, baby…” whispered her father.

Theia jumped a little. Once she realized nothing had happened, she calmed, and followed her father’s sights. He had taken aim at a deer with its fawn. Where’s the mom? Or is that the mom? Theia covered her ears and closed her eyes, as her father fired a single shot. Peering downwind, Theia saw the fawn flee, and the adult writhing on the ground.

Gunshots… That sound was imprinted into every square inch of her body and every part of her brain. Deafening bangs, blood spatter, motionless bodies…

Michael the shop owner and her father stood and approached the dying animal.

“Theia…” She came at once. As they stepped up to the innocent creature, her heart sank. “Do you want to do it?” He extracted a thick knife.

“Kill it? NO!”

“It’s suffering, Theia. It won’t survive anyway.” Frantically, she locked eyes with him as if not recognizing him. She was angry, offended, and devastated. “The sooner you do it, the sooner its pain goes away.”

“Ethan, now’s not a good time. This will effect the meat if it keeps panicking like that.”

For only a second longer, her father looked into her eyes. She couldn’t possibly. So, he knelt down. “Look away, baby.”

Before he could… Before he struck… Theia laid her body over the animal. It couldn’t die alone…. She pressed her head against its torso. Then, in a swift, silent motion, a blade cut into it deep. Its heartbeat raced, then had come to an abrupt stop.

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