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PART III - Rebuilder CHAPTER 23 – Now is the Time

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Nate muttered.

Matti stopped with Nate outside the museum to watch a quartet approaching from the other direction. The two men looked familiar, and in the few moments it took them to draw within easy speaking distance, she recognized Charlie and The Judge. She was pretty sure she had never seen the two women, one blond and one brunette, both in their thirties. She assumed the dark one was Charlie’s wife, or maybe his girlfriend, because they were holding hands as they walked, and she was carrying a baby.

The blond seemed familiar in a celebrity sort of way, but Matti couldn’t place her. When she saw the scar on the woman’s cheek, a white line circling around in the shape of a large letter “C” from the outside corner of her left eye to just beneath her prominent cheekbone, she couldn’t help but wonder how such a disfigurement had affected the otherwise beautiful woman. It was obviously an old scar, and such a thing was given much importance back … before. Matti pondered how the woman had accumulated more scars in the past few weeks, many of them of the mind. The woman had a look in her eyes of endured, but resisted, pain, a look of sadness and defiance at the same time, coupled with strength of mind as well as body. Matti blinked and looked at the woman again.

Now, how in the world did I get all of that from just one glimpse at her eyes? They’re just eyes. Did I catch some thoughts, images, memories drifting from her? Nate told me a little about her on the way over here, but he didn’t get into any detail of things that have happened to her, only that she had a rough time while the invaders were here, although, not so much from them as from the guys that captured her. And, he didn’t mention the scar, at all. As far as that goes, he didn’t really describe her at all except that she’s pretty. So, how did I know she’s the one he was talking about? But, I do know, without a doubt, that she is Erin. Well, if I can catch dog thoughts, why not human thoughts? Something to work on.

With a smile on her face and curiosity in her eyes as they swept over Matti and Satan, Erin said, “Nate, just look at who I ran across.”

“I am. I’d say treasure hunting has been pretty good for both of us. Welcome, Judge. Vonnie, are you managing to keep Charlie out of trouble?”

The brunette laughed as she answered, “Only on alternate days, Nate. How are you?”

Charlie’s eyes grew wider as they drew closer, and a smile spread across his face. “Judge, will you look at who’s with Nate.”

“I am. I certainly am. Matti, I’m so happy to see you again.”

“Hey, where’s your friend?” Charlie asked. “What’s his name … Woody?”

On the walk from the Wells house, Nate had described the friends he had made in Muir Beach and how their friendship had grown. By the time they had stopped at the museum, she had discarded her reluctance at meeting them, looking forward to associating with good, normal people with whom she could talk and maybe even laugh. But, with Charlie’s simple, friendly question, Matti’s joyful mood plummeted.

She was unable to stifle the single sob that leapt into her throat. “I don’t know. He led an invader away from me and didn’t come back.”

Erin stepped forward and placed one hand gently on Matti’s shoulder, and she said, “I think stories can wait until we get out of this sun. The inside of the museum is at least fifteen degrees cooler. Hi, I’m Erin Doyle.”

“Matti Raven.”

“Matti,” The Judge cut in. “Before I forget or before we get onto other things, and so you don’t think I ignored your request, we did find your brother’s name on the list of survivors. He was listed along with a Joe Louis McDaniel and another McDaniel — Johnny or Jerry, I think.”

Matti felt suddenly lighter, almost like she could float even without Woody’s help. “That’s Uncle Joe and Jerry, my cousin. Oh, that’s wonderful! Where are they? Where –?”

“There was no address,” The Judge said, shaking his head. “Maybe at the McDaniel home ….”

Matti’s joy began to fade as suddenly as it had bubbled up. “It burned down,” she mumbled. “I went by there with Woody.”

The Judge took her hand and patted it. “Well, that only means they’re somewhere else. The important thing is they survived, and they’re together.”

Silence dragged on for several heartbeats. In an obvious attempt to get back to the lighter atmosphere of meeting old and new friends, Charlie said, “Is that a dog or a horse you’ve got there?”

When Matti and Nate had stopped at the steps leading to the museum’s front door after sighting the others approaching from the opposite direction, Satan sat back on his haunches. With his tongue hanging out one side of his mouth, he seemed content to simply observe the interaction of the humans.

Matti was grateful for Charlie’s tactful distraction from what, judging from his blush before he brought everyone’s attention to Satan, he must have realized was a painful subject for her. She turned and knelt beside the huge dog, wrapping an arm affectionately around his neck before replying, “Most definitely, a dog. His name is Satan.”

“He looks … fearsome,” Erin remarked, apparently not certain how safe it was to be so close to such a large and grime looking animal.

Nate chuckled as he responded. “He’s definitely that – fearsome, I mean. But, only if he doesn’t like you.” He reached over to scratch the side of Satan’s muzzle before adding, “That right, big guy?”

“That sounds like a tale waiting to be told,” The Judge said. “But, I’ll bet we have lots of them, we six.”

“Come on inside,” Erin said, walking up the steps. “Jason and Emmie will be thrilled to see everyone. Matti, will Satan be okay inside?”

“Yeah, sure.” Satan, everyone here is a friend. Is Satan a friend?

Satan is friend.

“He’ll be fine,” she finished. From the look of knowing humor on Nate’s face, she assumed that Nate had taken note of the pause in the middle of her response. Even though she had not looked at Satan during the brief exchange, she must have gotten a blank look on her face or something that tipped Nate to the fact that she and the dog were communicating. She answered the question in his eyes with a subtle shrug and a lopsided-grin.

Nate held one half of the huge double door open while everyone filed through.

The museum, originally built decades earlier as another Andrew Carnegie financed library, was two stories of solid, reinforced concrete and granite upon a massive foundation. Huge concrete columns on either side of the massive front doors stretched to the roof. The ponderous, outer doors of thick, stressed oak hung on oversized, bronze hinges. Marble tiles covered the floor of the entryway.

Matti had been inside the building a few times, and she could understand why it still stood and why Nate’s group had decided to stay there. It was one of the most solid buildings in town.

She stepped from the entry hall out into the main room. It covered almost the entire first floor, and a raised platform in the center displayed an antique, horse-drawn fire cart. Twin stairwells, one on either side of the main entrance, led up to the second floor, mostly open mezzanine. Ornately carved, marble pillars supported its floor and extended to the ceiling above the mezzanine. A domed skylight, twenty feet in diameter, made of a thousand pieces of artfully placed stained glass, plus windows on all sides provided ample lighting in the current absence of electricity. And, even though much of the glass had been shattered in the windows by the concussions of explosive blasts to the other buildings in the area, the structure appeared otherwise untouched by the invasion.

Matti followed Erin up to the display area on the mezzanine. Nearly half way around, among various settings demonstrating how early settlers in the area had lived, a display showed typical bedroom furniture. In a chair next to the bed, a man sat sideways to the approaching group. A young girl sat on the floor near an older girl in a chair, both facing him.

“Surprise, we have visitors!” Erin called out as she topped the stairs, and they all turned.

A grin spread across Jason’s face. “Am I ever glad to see you guys. We’ve been wondering how everyone made out. I’ve been laid up here with my leg, and no one else knows how to get to your place. Are you still there?”

The Judge answered, “Still there. Some got out okay and eventually came back to the house. Some, I don’t know about. Sadly, many never got away. We were afraid all of you were among those killed.”

Sadness tinged Jason’s smile as he responded, “Damn! I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.” Then he brightened when he noticed the bundle in Vonnie’s arms. “Vonnie, how’s that boy of yours doing?”

“Hungry most of the time. We’ve found both canned and powdered milk, so he’ll be okay.”

“Ever decide on a name? You and Charlie were still tossing possibilities around last time I saw you.”

Vonnie smiled as she looked down into her adopted son’s face. “Lazaro,” she said. “It was my father’s name.”

“Lazaro … Lazarus. Yeah, a good name.”

Erin turned and motioned Matti closer. “Jason, Rachel, this is Matti.” Then to Matti, “He was badly hurt during the attacks, and he still doesn’t get around much.”

Matti smiled at them both. She recognized Jason, and Rachel appeared about as she expected from Nate’s description.

“Hi,” she said, nodding toward both, and both returned her smile. Rachel struck her as shy, just hanging back and returning her smile but leaving it at that. Then she remembered what Nate had said about how she had been treated harshly, whatever that meant. She’d have to make an effort with the girl. It sure would be nice to have someone her own age to hang about with. To Jason, she said, “I’ve noticed you around town. Sorry you got hurt.”

“Hi,” Jason responded. “I guess a new cop in a small town stands out, huh?”

“A bit. All the kids were glad to see you didn’t turn out to be some badge-happy – oh!” She felt herself blushing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

Jason laughed and held up his hand. “That’s all right. I know just what you mean. And, I’ll bet I’ve run across a lot more badge-happy idiots over the years than you have.”

“I’m Emmie.”

Jason’s eyes softened as his daughter stepped over beside the chair and motioned with her thumb at him as she drolled, “He doesn’t need a badge to be an idiot. You should see him climbing over a busted building.” And then she noticed the very large dog at the rear of the newly-arrived group and was now sitting just a few feet away. “Wow! He’s big!”

It took a moment for Matti to realize Emmie’s gaze had found Satan, who had remained back away from the congestion gathered about the bed. Then she noticed that Satan seemed to be locked in on Emmie. As Emmie took a step in his direction, he rose to all four and gazed at her. Sudden fear washed over Matti as she pictured the huge dog mauling Emmie, ripping her apart before any of the others could do more than gasp in horror.

She refrained from shouting words of warning, but as she extended her hand as though to restrain him, she projected, Satan! Friend! The girl is a friend!

The dog dipped his head for just an instant and blinked his eyes as though struck a blow, and Matti realized she had sent her message blasting out through the ether with all the mental force she could muster. He looked like he had been struck by a sonic boom. He looked at her with a hint of fear and hurt in his eyes.

Matti regrets hurting Satan. Matti and Satan friends?

Satan and Matti friends.

Satan, girl is not danger to Satan. She is friend. Satan not hurt girl.

He actually had a look of puzzlement in his eyes, like he would have said, if he could speak, “What in the world are you talking about?” Instead, he projected, Satan and girl friends like Satan and Kathy friends. Girl is like Kathy, only silent.

Matti understood. He wasn’t about to attack. He saw something in Emmie that touched his heart as Kathy had done, and he simply wanted to move closer to her. But – silent? Did he mean that Emmie didn’t project thoughts like Kathy did? Like she, herself, did? Could Kathy do what she was just learning to do?

Did Kathy talk like Matti? Did Kathy think to Satan?

Kathy and Satan think-talked, always. Others did not. Others were silent. Others only made word sounds.

“What kind of dog is that?” Matti had almost forgotten her audience and turned at Emmie’s voice.

“He’s a Mastiff,” Nate answered before Matti could speak. “A very old breed. Why don’t you ask Matti to introduce you?”

When Matti noticed the grin on Nate’s face and the silence as everyone looked at her, she realized she must have taken a little time in her exchange with Satan. What had it looked like to everyone? Here was this girl, a stranger to everyone but Nate, standing there gazing at a dog that was just gazing back at her. Had she been making any weird facial expressions? She knew she hadn’t spoken. How obvious was it that something was going on? She felt a blush burn her face. But when she looked into Nate’s eyes, her questions must have been glaring, because he answered them with a lopsided turn to his grin and a subtle nod.

To stall for time, to give her some time to think, she turned back to Emmie and said, “Would you like to meet him? Come on over to him.”

With a frown of concern suddenly pinching her eyebrows, Erin started to speak. Nate discreetly touched her hand, caught her attention and subtly shook his head, still smiling. It was comforting for Matti to see Erin apparently had enough trust in the old man that it wasn’t necessary for him to explain how safe he was sure Emmie would be. She was glad they had taken the time to use some water from Nate’s canteen to clean the blood from his muzzle before arriving at the museum.

When Emmie stopped before the huge dog, only inches from the maw that had killed repeatedly just over an hour ago, her gaze moved from his deep, amber eyes to Matti’s and back again. As a grin lit her face, she gushed, “He’s beautiful!”

Satan, girl is Emmie. “Satan, may I present Emmie. Emmie, this is Satan. Hold out your hand so he can get a sniff of it.”

At least two barely-audible gasps sounded from behind Matti when Emmie raised her hand and exposed the back of it to the beast. Satan immediately licked the hand, then, to Emmie’s giggles, her chin.

The more Emmie squealed in delight, the more the sloppy tongue lashed her. Finally, unable to maintain her feet under the onslaught, she sank to her knees and wrapped her arms around his thick neck when he reached for her. He immediately dropped to his belly then flopped over onto his back.

Emmie threw her leg over his massive chest and straddled him. As everyone looked on in awe, he began to squirm, twist, and wriggle across the floor with Emmie riding him like a bronco-rider. It was as though the giant, man-killer dog had suddenly reverted to puppy-hood. Emitting puppy growls from his grinning mouth, he sounded as though, while reciting the alphabet, he had gotten stuck on the R’s.

After a few moments, Emmie slid off and flopped beside him on the floor, both looking up at the ceiling and laughing. But, of course, only Matti could know the full extent of his joy as the mixture of pure emotion and actual thoughts poured from him. It began when Emmie first answered his greeting lick to her chin with laughter, then it grew, expanded and gushed forth in a fountain of unbridled ecstasy.

Happy. Fun. Emmie good. Satan happy for Emmie. Matti good to Satan. Satan happy. Emmie is like Kathy. Kathy was good for Satan, but Emmie can play with Satan. Fun. Satan happy. Satan happy again.

When Matti glimpsed the looks of uncertainty blended with hints of horror on everyone’s faces – even Nate appeared to have misgivings – she realized that Satan’s frolicking could be misinterpreted as aggression. She was just relieved that none of them had tried to attack the monster dog, although she did notice Erin gripping the handle of a sheathed knife at her waist.

Satan, Matti is happy that you are happy. But, the others don’t know Satan. The others fear Satan will harm Emmie. Satan must restrain Satan.

Satan not harm Emmie. Satan protect Emmie. Emmie safe.

But, others do not know Satan. Satan must restrain Satan until others know Satan. Others love Emmie, protect Emmie. Satan must not play/wrestle with Emmie until others know Satan.

He was still on his back and had tilted his head back to look at Matti, albeit upside down, as they communicated. He peered into her eyes for a few moments, and then the tension of excitement seemed to just drain from his body. He slowly rolled over onto his side, drawing his legs up so they didn’t flop across Emmie who had turned her head to look at him. With his eyes still on Matti, he rolled and humped his way to an upright position on all four legs.

Satan will restrain Satan. Others love/protect Emmie good. Satan and others friends.

Thank you.

“I’m sorry,” she said as she turned back to face the others. “Emmie was safe, really. Satan loves children. It’s just been a long time since he could play like that, and he got carried away.”

“Hey, I’m not a child.” Emmie had risen to her feet, too, although she remained beside her new friend.

“But you’re the closest thing to a child he’s had to play with since … since his young mistress was killed. And, he couldn’t even really play with her when she was alive. Not like –”

Erin stepped forward and said, “But, how did you stop him? I didn’t see any signals, and you didn’t say anything. You did stop him, didn’t you?”

Matti was glad her hand was no longer ready to draw the knife. But she had asked a question that Matti hoped wouldn’t be raised just yet. If only that darned dog had remained aloof. Why couldn’t he just … what am I thinking? I’m happy he’s able to enjoy fun and playing again. God knows he’s had enough of the other stuff. I guess it’s better to get it out in the open right in the beginning. Now I’ll know if they’re going to have a problem with me being a witch and if I’m going to have to go back to living alone. I wonder how much trouble I’ll have getting Satan to go with me. Would he have to go? He’s not a witch. He could stay. Probably be better.

Nate touched her elbow and winked at her when she looked into his eyes. He said, “I think now is the time. But, first I need to say something.” Turning back to face the others, he said, “Judge, you and Charlie and Vonnie are going to hear some things that may make you scratch your heads and want to walk out. But, stay. Hear it all. No one is going to be pulling your leg, and no one is crazy.”

“Of course,” The Judge replied. “I hope I’m still open-minded enough to listen to everything that’s presented. And, I think we all may be more receptive to new ideas than we would have been a few weeks ago.”

“Good. Matti, why don’t you start by laying everyone’s fears to rest regarding your impressive friend? I’m sure the full story of you and Satan, the Wonder Dog, will be fascinating. And, like I told you earlier, you’re not a witch.”

The effect his last remark had on everyone was obvious in the way they sat up straighter and looked at each other. She hoped Nate wouldn’t turn out to be just some guy that liked to watch people squirm.

Matti felt like she was on trial. Maybe I am … the first of the New Witch Trials. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and cleared her throat.

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