[note: If you are new to Oasis, you should go back and start with Chapter 1: The Last Shift]
I woke up several hours later with a screaming headache and on an inflatable mattress.
Somebody was lightly stroking my right arm.
I opened my eyes and waited for the fuzzy world to come into focus.
I turned my head to make sure it was really Beth.
She leaned forward and kissed my forehead. “How do you feel?”
I gave the most devious smile I could muster. “You missed.”
She sat back and looked at me. “Don’t push your luck, mister.”
“Why, are you going to kick me into a wall, too?”
She frowned and tilted her head. “Hey, don’t be like that. He’s not usually like that at all.”
I couldn’t fathom why anyone would defend Carl’s actions. “I’m just the lucky one, then.”
She bit her lip and looked away. “Corbin, I’m sorry.”
I let it drop. It wasn’t her I wanted to be mad at anyway. I rolled to my side and pushed myself up to sitting.
I could barely do it. Muscles creaked with every movement. Everything was stiff and sore. I saw that my chest was about the only part of my body that didn’t have any bruises. Little bits of blood caked around my various scrapes. Wait a minute, my chest?
I looked up at Beth. “Where’s my shirt?”
“Well you kind of threw up on it when Carl, I mean after you blacked out. My Aunt Janice felt bad and washed it.”
“OK, so, where is it?”
“Over where she did the wash. Do you want a shower or anything?”
“Why, do I stink? I thought I’d be good for at least another couple of days.”
She shook her head and stood up.
“I mean yes, I’d love one.”
My backpack was close. It had been emptied of the ammunition, but my change of clothes was still in there. I brought it along.
I had been put far away from the area that hosted the other bunks and beds. All by myself.
The warehouse was huge. The shelves were at least thirty feet tall. I didn’t have time to read all the boxes, but it became apparent that this was the central warehouse for most of the “Four Brothers” retail outlets.
Beth led and I limped behind. We came to the central isle.
A chill shot down my spine and goosebumps spread down my arms.
The bulk of the family was gathered around various tables. Some were playing cards, some were reading, some were just quietly talking. They all stopped to stare up at me.
I felt rather embarrassed.
“Everybody, this is Corbin.”
A few heads nodded a half hearted greeting. A few scowled for a moment longer. None looked like they were all that glad I was there.
Pretty soon they had all returned to what they were doing.
Beth led me on.
Built into the front of the building were some offices and the bathrooms.
One of the offices had a large window that opened up into the warehouse, so the boss could make sure everything was running smoothly.
Behind the window Carl, Paul, Max, Janice and one other woman were having some sort of meeting. They had a lantern on a desk to help add to what little light came through the big window.
They were arguing about something. None seemed to notice as we passed by.
Near to the bathrooms a couple was cooking in a makeshift kitchen made up of camping gear. Against the warehouse shelves were several six foot plastic tables. All had unlit candles.
Right next to the bathroom door was a nightstand with an oil lamp and a lighter.
Beth introduced me to the cooks. Her cousin and his wife. Oddly enough, they actually seemed friendly.
I thanked Beth, lit the lamp and went in.
The bathroom had several lockers and a small shower. A neatly folded pile of towels sat on the counter. I grabbed one.
It was not a comfortable shower. It hurt to move my limbs around, and the water was lukewarm at best.
After I was washed and dry, I put on my extra underwear and pair of scrubs from the backpack.
It felt good to be clean again.
I stuffed the dirty clothes in the backpack and went back out.
The cooks were getting out plates and silverware. The family was gathering around the tables. Must be dinnertime.
Beth’s dad walked up to me.
I extended a hand. “Hi, Paul.”
He pulled me aside. “Corbin, I just wanted to say thanks. I know you’re a good man. I’m sorry about Carl.”
I reached up and rubbed the sore spot on the back of my head. “Yeah. Me, too.”
“I don’t know how long he’ll let you stay.”
“Is he the only one with a vote?”
Paul looked around, like he wanted to make sure we weren’t being overheard. “He’s been the leader of the family since our dad died of cancer twenty years ago. He’s always done a good job. Almost everyone listens to him and does what he says. It’s just that as this situation has gotten worse, so has he. I mean, organizationally, he’s actually doing better than ever. But his temper, that’s another story. And I’ve never seen him… Janice, his wife has… It doesn’t help that I think he knows…”
I wondered what he was trying to get out.
“Oh, good, you’re up.” As if summoned by the conversation, the redhead Janice appeared. “And you’re in some fresh clothes. Are you all right? You’ve been asleep all day.”
I shrugged. “Well, I’m still tired and sore, but at least I’m still alive.” I wanted to add “No thanks to your husband,” but I wasn’t sure how well that would go over.
She gave a weak smile. “I know Carl can be rough at times.”
Paul touched her arm and pointed with a nod. “Janice.”
All three of us looked where he had directed. Carl was approaching.
He stepped close as if to excuse the other two. He looked me over for a moment.
I didn’t have anything I wanted to say out loud, so I just stood there.
He straightened up and glared into my eyes. “I’m sorry. I may have treated you more poorly than you deserve. You’re welcome to stay here a couple of days while you recover.”
It wasn’t exactly my definition of a heartfelt apology, but I was relieved to hear I wouldn’t be on my own tonight.
He stepped a little closer and poked his pointer finger into my chest. “But you be careful around my niece. I won’t have you dividing the family.”
I couldn’t come up with a good response for that.
Not that he really gave me a chance to respond, anyway. He was done intimidating me, so he wheeled about and headed for the food.
Dinner was awkward to say the least.
Night was falling and the warehouse was quickly getting dark. The candles on the table were lit and somebody said grace.
I sat on the end of the furthest table with Beth and her dad. Our conversation was pleasant enough, but it became apparent that there were plenty of egos and attitudes in the family.
It was a short meal, but there were at least three different yelling arguments. At one point Carl and his oldest son stood up and got in each other’s face.
I couldn’t tell what had started the problem, but by that time it had degraded to name calling and threatening.
At one point Carl raised his arm like he was going to backhand his son.
The blow never fell, but I was getting a good idea of how things were for this family. There may have been a lot of love, but there was also a whole lot of fear.
Soon enough, dinner was cleaned up and everyone had disappeared.
Beth and I stayed and talked for a while.
I was still hammered and in pain, but it was nice to have companionship.
As we finished up, Beth mentioned it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for her to be seen walking me to bed. I agreed.
Before we went our separate ways, Beth leaned forward and kissed my cheek.
“What was that for?”
In the continually dimming light I could see her smile. “Just wanted to say thanks for saving my life.”
“Hey, no problem. Besides, you’ve already made it even. The dealership thing worked great.”
She gave me a long gentle hug and went off to bed.
We must have lost track of time, because the warehouse was almost completely dark.
I started making my way back. I should have at least taken a candle with me, but I guess I wasn’t thinking straight.
The big space was dark and eerie. The moon threw little illumination through the skylights, and I was having a hard time remembering where my mattress was.
I turned a familiar looking corner and shuffled down the aisle.
Up ahead, I heard a muffled noise. I stopped and squinted into the blackness.
The noise continued.
I tried to will my eyes into adjusting for the extreme low light condition.
More noise. Like movement.
Doubt crept into my mind. Maybe I was just making things up. Maybe it was just a mouse.
I chanced a couple of steps forward.
Two fuzzy blobs came into sight. People, standing very close. In fact, It looked like they were kissing.
Who’s getting it on after dark? Find out next week in “Chapter 25: The Best Policy“