New to the series or certain you’ve missed a chapter? You can find the introduction Here and the table of contents Here.
We did not meet to discuss our grievances at noon. It came and went without word from either the Naturalists and Laborers and my attempts to set a new time for us to meet were unsuccessful. Understandably, Elder Brianna wanted more time to grieve and none of the other Naturalist Elders felt like taking her place. Representative Alexander told me that he had made his demands clear and would submit them in writing if that was what I needed, but he was not interested in negotiating. I resisted the urge to throttle the imperious frown off his face and started in on the massive list of tasks I’d created in my spare minutes before the meeting.
I wound up spending the afternoon doing a laundry so I could justify a small fire to dry out my socks. I gathered reports from Jonathan and Natalie, getting the updated status of our injured people, our supplies, and the early stages of a revised walking path. Since we weren’t going to make it to Des Moines before the next blizzard, Jonathan suggested stopping at the abandoned ruin that used to be the town of Cedar Rapids since it was still a good source of supplies. We’d never stopped there in over a decade since we were rarely in the position of needing to endure a blizzard outside an enclave these days, but other groups had as recently as a year ago so Jonathan was certain we’d find a decent shelter if not an entire Wayfinder supply cache.
Once that was done, I thanked Natalie for fixing the bullet hole in my pantleg and spent some time preparing a mediation session. Long before all this, right after I graduated from college as The Collapse was still in its early, pre-disaster stages, I’d taken a class on conflict resolution offered by my employer. It had been a mostly useless salad of corporate buzzwords, but it had given me a few structural tools I was using to this day. Still, despite that, I was having trouble focusing as I tried to write out the details of how I thought the discussion would go.
Just as I was about to feed a completely scratched out page of notes into the little brazier that was drying out my underclothes, the flame flickered away from my paper as a burst of cold air followed Cam and Natalie into our tent. I looked over my shoulder at the two of them as they closed the tent flap behind them and started taking off their gear. My attention was jerked back to the paper I was holding when a growing feeling of warmth reminded me I was holding something in the fire.
As I poked the flaming bits of paper I’d dropped into the brazier or the spark tray beneath it, I started hearing wisps of Natalie and Cam’s voices under the rustle of their clothing. As my scattered mind shifted away from my work to anything even vaguely interesting, I heard my name and then, a few seconds later, Lucas’ name. Before I could hear more, I started noisily shuffling papers around my desk.
Natalie must have noticed because, as I hastily flipped through the notes I’d taken on Representative Lex’s demands while also mixing the write-up of those demands he’d sent me into a pile of old personal notes, she said “Marshall? Everything alright?”
I stopped what I was doing and started tidying the mess back up again, piling it all into one quick stack. “Yeah. I was just about to take a break and go for a walk. Stretch my leg a bit. Maybe drop in on the Naturalists again to make sure they’re still doing alright.”
I stood up and gave them both a warm smile as I bustled over to my thermal gear and started pulling it on. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cam and Natalie exchange a look, but kept pulling gear on. The scwiff of my jacket brushing against my pants as I bent down to pull on my boots drowned out anything Natalie or Cam might have been saying, so the only sign I had that they might have been trying to talk was a frustrated look on their faces when I stood back up.
As I settled my jacket over my pants and started cinching everything down over my boots and gloves, the shame and guilt I’d been ignoring all afternoon pushed their way to the front of my mind and my movement slowed to a halt. I was about to dodge my friends and whatever they’d clearly come here to say to me the same way I’d spent the entire day dodging the thoughts of my conversation with Lucas the night before. Even now, knowing why I suddenly felt the urge to go for a walk as the discomfort and shame chewed me up from the inside, I was struggling to resist the urge to turn away.
“You wanted to talk to me.”
Natalie nodded and Cam gave me a blank stare, refusing to pretend I’d asked a question. I sighed and started taking my gear off. “Right. Sorry. I’ve been…” I struggled to find words to describe why I’d spent an entire afternoon endlessly puttering and, after a few seconds failing, shook my head and opted to take my boots off instead.
“Preoccupied?” Natalie offered.
“Cowardly?” Cam added.
“Avoiding difficult introspection?”
“Yes!” I dropped to sit on the ground and tugged my boots off. “All of the above and probably more. Yes.” I flopped back on the ground, still in my thermal pants, and looked up at the gently billowing tent canopy. “‘Refusing to acknowledge my feelings’ is how I’d put it, though.”
“Clearly.” Cam snorted. “An overly wordy and far too gentle way of saying it.”
“Cam” Natalie said, a note of caution in her voice. “We talked about this.”
“I know. Honest without being mean. He asked me to be honest with him earlier. Said it should be part of my job.”
“I said it should be part of someone’s job. Not yours. And that was to keep me honest, not bully me.”
I didn’t need to see Cam to know they were smirking. When I lifted my head to glare at them anyway, I found them smirking even more smugly than I expected. “What?”
“Natalie said you were going to try to run away. Thought you’d be in your ‘avoidance’ phase for another day or two before we could pin you down.” Cam sauntered over to where I was laying on my back and squatted down beside me. “And now look at you. I don’t even have to literally pin you down. You’re just laying there.”
“Hardy-har, Cam.” I let my head drop back to the ground and gave them the most exaggerated eye roll I could muster. “Real funny. Glad to see I managed to surprise you both after so many years. ”
Natalie stepped into view, a small frown on her face. “Marshall, you know I didn’t mean it like that.”
I sighed, letting my poor attempt at humor evaporate and all the negative thoughts I’d been pushing out crowded back in. “Yeah. I know. I just… I can’t go on like this. I can’t keep going around with him like this. How the hell am I supposed to push people to use conflict resolution skills I can’t even use myself? We were going to beat each other up.”
“Yeah, that was some real toxic masculinity shit.” Cam smirked briefly but then sobered up. “I was gonna break it up if you two started going at it, though. I was happy to see I didn’t have to.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything. I saw Cam look up at Natalie who briefly glanced in their direction and did my best to fight off a sigh. “Why are you two so nervous about this? Clearly you have something planned. So, out with it. What do you have to say?”
Cam looked down at the ground and turned their face away so I couldn’t see it for a moment and Natalie briefly glanced down at her hands before wringing them out. After a moment of silence, Cam turned back to Natalie. “Should I just say it? Get it out and rude or whatever but at least out?”
Natalie nodded without looking up.
Cam turned to face me and said “Marshall, if you don’t learn to let go of some amount of control, stress, or guilt or uncontrollable circumstances are going to kill you.”
“Uncontrollable circumstances kill everyone. If we could control circumstances, I bet a lot fewer people would die.”
“You’re deliberately avoiding the point and you know it.”
I didn’t nod or say anything, but the twisting, roiling sensation in my gut was making it hard to avoid reacting. After a moment, I nodded. “I know.”
Natalie threw up her hands, frustration written plainly on her face. “Then why are you fighting us on this? Why are you fighting everyone?”
I sat up and scooted a couple feet back so they weren’t hovering over me and this time it was I was the one turning my face away. After folding my hands and tapping my fingers together for a couple moments, I sighed and dropped my hands to my sides. “Because I don’t want to lose anyone and I keep thinking that if I can make everything run smoothly, then no one will die.”
“You do realize how dumb that sounds, right?”
I felt the searing heat of shame-fueled anger flash through me, but kept my mouth closed until it passed. “Yes.”
My head snapped up and the anger I’d been avoiding all day roared out of me. “Because a bunch more people just died and if I don’t do something even more are going to die! I’m the leader and it’s my job to keep everyone safe. And yeah, a lot of the time it means letting other people do jobs better than I ever could but sometimes it means holding people accountable to the rules we’ve made and sometimes it means fixing people’s problems. Lucas messed up and now people are dead. His mistake didn’t make those people die, but it put us on the path to their deaths and I signed off on every single step since that one.”
I was surprised to find myself standing and pacing around the tent as I ranted, but couldn’t seem to make myself stop. “No one blames him, sure, because we all probably would have done the same. It felt like the safest thing to do and hindsight makes it super easy to say it wasn’t, but my job is to make sure that we learn lessons from hindsight and avoid making the same mistakes again. And I still let all of this happen.”
I stopped where I was as my own words filtered through to my mind and sat heavily on the ground again. I took a few deep breaths, covered my face in my hands, and grunted out a heavy sigh. “I’m just mad at myself. I could have sent them away. I could have told Lucas to follow the rules, but I didn’t even think of it until later.”
I looked up when I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders. Cam was leaning down but Natalie had sat down beside me, each of them reaching out to comfort me. “You said it yourself, Marshall.” Natalie gave my shoulder a little squeeze as she spoke. “Hindsight makes it clear what we should have done. You made a call and we got attacked by Cultists. We all know how dangerous it is to do this job, to wander between Enclaves. This isn’t your fault anymore than it is someone else’s. Everyone did their best. You did your best.”
“Yeah.” Cam dropped into a squat and gave my shoulder a gentle shake. “You’re in charge because we trust you to make the right decisions. We trust you to do the best you can with what you’ve got and, right or wrong, at least pick a direction. If we’d gotten everyone to talk it through before making a decision, the entire band of Cultists would have caught up to us that day.”
“I…” I rubbed my face and sighed. “You’re right. You both are. I need to let go of this. Or, what was it you said? ‘Let go of some control and stress and whatnot’?”
“Have I been-”
“Marshall, you’ve been micromanaging everything lately.”
“Ah, shit.” I started to flop back and remembered I was much closer to the brazier that was drying my clothes, catching myself before I knocked the whole thing over. “I really should make it Cam’s job to let me know when I’m being a pain the ass.”
“You don’t even have to ask, my guy.” Cam smiled and started pulling me to my feet. “Now get back to work. You’ve actually got a micromanage-y problem to solve right now.”
Natalie rolled her eyes as she stood up and I sighed heavily. “Conflict resolution is a complex, nuance-”
“Personal micromanagement seminar. Yeah, I know.” Cam shrugged. “I’m not good at this stuff but I pay attention. You can call it whatever you want, but you gotta get them to agree to the right thing and that’s just micromanaging people.”
“Who’d all be very offended to hear you describe it that way.” Natalie moved over to the desk and started rifling through my papers. “Do you think you’ve got enough of this off your mind to actually get some work done, Marshall?”
I took a moment to check in with myself. “Well, the knot in my stomach is mostly gone and I still feel awful but at least I don’t flinch away from the guilt every time it pops into my head.”
“Baby steps.” Natalie smiled and gestured for me to return to my chair. “I don’t think the Naturalists or the Laborers will want to meet today or tomorrow, so maybe let’s focus on making other plans until then.”
I nodded and plopped down in front of Natalie, shuffling through my papers until I’d sorted out everything that had to do with the tension between the Naturalists and Laborers. Once that was done, I grabbed a mostly empty piece of scratch paper and started copying down the numbers and figured Natalie started feeding me from the most recent survey results of Cedar Rapids. Cam occasionally chimed in with information about past Cultist movement in the area, but it was mostly Natalie taking everything Jonathan had told her and relaying the useful bits to me.
After about two hours, right as Cam was finishing dinner, we had a solid plan for our travel and shelter. Lucas had shown back up in that time, but he’d mostly sat quietly while Natalie and I worked. During dinner, the two of us made awkward, halting conversation while Natalie and Cam sat stone faced between us. After dinner, Lucas went straight to sleep while I was cleaning so it wasn’t until the next morning that we had our self-effacing argument about each of us being the person actually at fault.
That day and the one after it passed quickly. Jonathan finally reported that we’d be able to move after a total of six full days of rest, which would get most of our walking injured, myself included, healed enough that we could do a few days at a lighter pace without straining our injuries. That would also be enough time for the uninjured Wayfinders to create a couple extra single-person sleds for people who were going to be too injured to walk for a while longer.
After that, I went over the plan Natalie, Cam, and I had produced with the Laborers and Naturalists, letting them know what to expect over the next three weeks before The Blizzard. The Laborers grumbled about delays and the Naturalists seemed to stoically accept it, but neither group raised any objections. The Laborers didn’t have any experience surviving blizzards outside of Enclaves and the Naturalists had enough to know that we knew what we were doing, so no one showed up for the Q&A session I’d offered to hold. That, or they knew there was only going to be the one session and both groups avoided it so they wouldn’t have to mingle with each other.
Despite the passing time, neither group showed any signs of backing down and the tension between the groups remained thick enough to feel even in the Wayfinder camp. If we hadn’t been literally between them and keeping watch to intercept any late-night wanderers, things probably would have escalated. As it was, even with both groups knowing we were watching, each one tried to sneak into the others’ camp at night. Unarmed, thankfully, but clearly ready to pick up where they’d been forced to let off when Cam and I interceded during their arguments.
On the third day, the first fight broke out. Two younger folks, a Naturalist and a Laborer, wound up tackling each other out of line while they were waiting to get breakfast. The fight was broken up almost immediately by the other Laborers and Naturalists around them, but the shouting kept going until we pushed both groups to opposite sides of the Wayfinder camp. We decided to split up meal preparation into two locations instead of one so neither group would have reason to go near the other, but that just piled more strain on us. We were down two Wayfinders, had a bunch of extra work to do in preparation for moving in three more days, and now had to dirty two sets of cookware and keep food warm in two separate locations.
That, plus the extra guard shifts at night, is probably what led to the late night fight that ended up with five more injured folks in the infirmary just after sunset on the fifth day. We just didn’t have enough people to keep watch constantly on top of everything else. I chewed out the Laborers and Naturalists who’d crept off to have a fight, but didn’t they seem interested in listening. Afterwards, I convened an officers meeting with the Wayfinders and we made plans for what to do in case the tension went up even further and the two groups started to attack each other in earnest.
Thankfully, the morning brought sense to the leaders of both groups. They finally agreed to sit down for a tense, mediated discussion. While nothing came of it since both groups refused to back down or even listen to the other, Elder Brianna and Representative Alexander agreed to continue talking. By the end of the sixth day, as we were packing the sleds and preparing to start moving in the morning, the tension had begun to abate. The two groups still stayed apart, but they’d stopped trying to get in fights or yell at each other.
With that accomplishment as our sole comfort, we broke camp one week after surviving the Cultist attack and started heading toward Cedar Rapids. The going was slower than usual, but we all knew there was ten days of rest and mandatory quiet on the horizon if we could just stay on schedule. After all, getting to that abandoned town wouldn’t do us any good if we didn’t have time to prepare for the blizzard.