Annie watched her husband's worried, frightened face appear in the doorway as she used a damp cloth to soothe her son's feverish face.
"Is it...." Cal choked on the last word, and on his own fear. His hand tembled, and he gripped the doorframe.
"No. It's just a fever, Cal. Don't you worry none. I'll take him over to Doc's, if you get the wagon ready." She didn't look up at him.
"Are you sure? Are you sure, Annie?" Cal's voice was stretched thin and wiry, with stress.
"Of course I'm sure. Of all people, don't you think I'd know a changeover when I saw one? I saw enough of 'em when I was growing up." Annie's voice was matter-of-fact, and hard, reminding her husband of things he'd rather have forgotten.
Her husband sighed, a short, sharp exhalation, then walked away without another word. She continued to soothe her son's brow, and pulled the blanket up higher as he shivered.
His fever-bright eyes looked up at her, and she saw the fire of fear and hope in them. Between chattering teeth, he whispered "Is it true, mom? I'm not turning sime? Is it true?"
She stroked his hair, and smiled gently down at him. "Shush now. Momma's gonna take you over to Doc's, and he'll be able to help you get well again, ok?"
Her son did not reply, but his breathing seemed a bit easier. Several moments later, her husband reappeared.
"The wagon's hitched, Annie. Maybe I better come with you."
"No, Cal, you got to stay here. Workman's comin' about that hole in the barn roof, remember? I'll take him over there, you know it ain't far." She continued to stroke her son's hair.
Cal's face twitched slightly in anxiety. "But....Luke..." He closed his eyes. "All right, Annie. You take him on over there."
Gently, Annie wrapped the lovingly stitched patchwork quilt around her son's frail body, and lifted him up, then placed him in her husband's arms. "You go put him in the wagon, now, and I'll get some water for the trip, to keep him cool. Okay?"
Her husband nodded, then walked out, staring down at his son with a deeply troubled expression, the light weight in his arms only adding to his unspoken dread.
Annie quietly filled a jug with water from the basin, and wrapped her warmest shawl around herself. She watched her husband place Luke in the wagon, and paused slightly to take a deep breath. Then she stepped out the door.
Her husband stood by the wagon, looking lost and very much afraid. She paused by him, then turned, and gave him a quick hug, and kiss. "Don't you worry Cal. It'll all be all right, OK?"
He nodded, a slightly jerky motion, and reluctantly let her go. She climbed up onto the wagon, and took the reins in hand. With a brisk clucking sound, and a slap of the reins, she started the large draft horse on his way. As the wagon rattled down the worn dirt path, she did not look back.
It was five minutes later that she reached the crossroad. Hidden by the trees, she made her choice. One path was worn, rutted, and well-used. The other was eroded, overgrown....
Wagon wheels snapped branches from shrugs and small trees, and the cart swayed away down the abandoned trackway.
Annie's face was resolute, and calm. She took in everything around her; trees, landscape, the wood of the cart, with a sort of reverent nostalgia. Occasionally, she would glance back at her son, and her features would smooth further, and she would smile faintly.
It was about a half hour later that she finally stopped the wagon, as it seemed to her that Luke was loosing consciousness. She climbed into the back with him, and made sure he was well-covered, and waited. An hour passed before he woke again.
Clear eyes stared up at her. "Where are we, Momma? Are we at Doc's yet"?
"Not yet, sweetie. Don't you worry none about that. Momma's gonna take care of you, ok? We're gonna move on now. I think you fell asleep for a bit there. Would you like a sip of water?"
Luke's face twisted in slight nausea. "No, momma. My tummy hurts, I don't want no water." He groaned, and twisted slightly. The quilt fell away on one side, revealing his thin, light-boned arm....red streaks described angry paths from elbow to wrist. Annie deftly replaced the quilt, before her son's gaze wandered in that direction.
"You just hold tight now, you hear? We're heading out again. I know it's a rough ride, but you'll be all right."
She rose, and climbed back onto the bench on the front of the cart, and set the horse off again, at a quicker pace. The rough trail made the cart bounce and sway, and Luke groaned in pain behind her. Nothing to be done about that, though.
It seemed like hours before she broke through the trees at the top of a great hill. Meadow stretched out before her, and far off in the distance she could see buildings. This was a road she well remembered. She haulted the wagon. As she did so, she heard her son's rapid breathing behind her, and he called out.
"Yes, Luke....Momma's comin'". She climbed out of the wagon, and tied the horse's reins to a nearby tree, then returned to her son.
His face was full of fear, now, and he couldn't seem to catch his breath. "It's all right, son", she soothed. "Relax now."
"Momma, where are we? What's happening? You said we were goin' to Doc's place, that he'd make me better." His tone was slightly angry. "We're not going to Doc's, are we? Where are we?"
"Shhhh.....try and stay quiet, son. No, we're not going to Doc's. Momma's gonna tell you the truth, now." Luke gasped with fear, but she stroked his hair gently. "Breathe slower, now, ok? You have to do that for me." She watched her son steel himself, and slow his breathing by sheer force of will, in spite of the terror in his eyes.
Annie slowly lifted the edge of her blouse. Luke's eyes were uncomprehending....then they widened in horror. One side of her abdomen was discolored, and bulged outward as if there were some large, rounded object beneath it. the skin around the perimeter of it was pinched and puckered. She lowered her blouse again.
"Luke, honey, your momma's got the cancer. You remember old Donnie? He had a thing like that, and it ate him right up. It just kept gettin' bigger, and then he started feelin' the pain, and just wasted away. It was the most terrible thing I ever seen. When I first noticed this here on me, I knew that I didn't want to go through that kinda pain....that's the worst way to die, I think. So, I didn't tell no one. It was hard, keepin' it from your daddie, but I didn't let no one know."
She smiled at him with deep love. "Yeah, I thought mebbe you might changeover, become sime. And if that was gonna happen, I figured it'd be a lot better for me to take you back home. If I gotta die, it might as well be for you, and not for some evil cancer thing."
Luke's breathing was out of control again, and tears rolled down his face. "No, momma, no....you can't die. I don't wanna be a sime, I don't wanna...."
"Shhhh.....Luke, I'm gonna die anyhow, you hear? There's nothing anybody can do to stop that now. This here, this'll be quick, you understand? Not slow torture. Not like that.... You gotta do this for me, 'cause I want you to live, you hear? You got family over here."
She gently reached out, and pulled him to a sitting position. He winced, and his arms came free of the quilt again. His eyes flashed sheer terror as he caught sight of the long blisters there, and he screamed.
"Hush, now, Luke!" She caught him to her, hugging him tightly, and ignoring his feeble struggles she rocked him until he subsided again, sobbing. "You gotta calm down, ok? You gotta live, you hear?"
"Momma...." Luke's voice was anguished and muffled.
"Look over there." She pushed him away slightly, and pointed out across the fields, toward the buildings. "You see that?" That's a sime town. That's near where your momma grew up. There's people there, don't you believe otherwise. They's people, not demons. Yer mommas brothers and sisters are out there, and they maybe have kids too now. You go to them, and you tell them Annie Heathcombe sent ya, and they'll take care of you. Ok?"
"Momma, I don't wanna go, I don't wanna k...." His voice trailed off in panic.
"Hush!" She looked at him sternly. "You listen to yer momma now, there's no argument on this, hear? Yer all I got, you know that. You do as I say!"
He shook his head, eyes glazed, and then suddenly doubled over with a loud grunt as the first of the breakout contractions hit him. It wasn't long before hot fluids spattered against the grey wood slats of the wagon, and tentacles lashed about her arms. She stared into her son's sightless eyes, and lovingly pressed her lips to his.
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