Saturday, March 17, 2012

The New Geek Empire: Part Eleven

“Widdie,” a sad little voice whispered nearly into my nose. “I has a assident.”

My eyes popped open and then I wanted to close my nose. “Well, you sure did didn’t you.” Then I sat up in bed real quick realizing that the sun was streaming through the window and Kelly was standing by my bed looking heartbroken … and messy.

“Where’s your Daddy, Bumble Bee?” I asked Kelly.

Her bottom lip started to quiver and she said, “Daddy seepin’.”

My feet hit the floor and I went down the hall but before I even got there I heard Jax snoring. I looked at Kelly who had followed me and said, “Boy he sure is sleeping loud.”

I was hoping to get a little giggle but poor baby was just beside herself after having an accident. Well it wasn’t the first I had cleaned up one – the day care center was usually on the front lines of the potty training war – so I did what I had to do and gave Kelly a quick bath with some bubbles to make her feel better. After I cleaned her I stripped her bedding and hauled it downstairs to soak in a tub outside until I could get it washed. I had been bleaching the whites but was running low on that so I decided I’d use the peroxide; but, I would have to wait until Jax could help unload the barrels from the trailer.

I gave Kelly a piece of bread with jelly on it to tide her over and finally hauled her back upstairs with me so I could get dressed. I no sooner had my foot touched the top landing when Jax stumbled out of Kelly’s room in a panic. Kelly spots him and latches onto me like a vice, nearly strangling me which at the same time caused my nightgown to try for a little over exposure. I’m grabbing her and my gown at the same time … hadn’t even had a chance to change at that point … and didn’t know whether to pull it up on top or pull it down at the bottom. All the while Jax is just standing there with that been-hit-with-a-baseball-bat look on his face.

When nothing came out of his mouth despite the fact that his jaw was just swinging in the breeze I muttered, “Little clean up needed this morning. Gack … Kelly, you’re gonna choke my air off Honey, not so tight … and I think she doesn’t want you to know about the A-C-C-I-D-E-N-T.”

He finally seemed to get his brain out of reverse and shooting on all pistons and asked, “Did you take her out of the bed? I didn’t hear her calling. How long have you been up? I wish you would have woken me.”

Trying to address each thing he said I told him, “No. I don’t think she did. Not long. You were tired.”

He finally put things in order but then yelped, “She got out of the crib by herself?!”

“Apparently. I woke up with these little eyes staring at me over the edge of my bed. Don’t make a fuss Jax, she was really upset. I think it must still be that teething stuff you are talking about messing up her stomach.”

Well as soon as Daddy Jax got over his precious Bumble Bee not breaking her neck or any other bones climbing out of the crib for what he said had to be the first time ever … something tells me he just didn’t know about the other times since she was going on three years old … the two nominal adults in the house finally started the day.

Breakfast was more like lunch and not my best effort … instant grits, home-canned sausage patties, and drop biscuits … but it was quick and Jax volunteered to do the dishes since I had cleaned up Kelly. I wasn’t going to say no to that. From there I ran out to the barn where the chickens and rabbits let me know in their own way that I was a cruel and worthless human for messing up their feed schedule and that if I didn’t want to be pecked or gnawed unto the ends of time I had best not make such a grievous mistake ever again.

The rest of that day was taken up with things like finding the proper place for the stuff that came from the mill. Dad’s shop took the bulk of it and I was happy to see that Jax seemed to automatically use Dad’s organizing methods to put things away. Different barrels held different diameter pipes and rods. Gorilla shelving held well labeled tubs filled with fittings and other types of things. Vehicle maintenance stuff had its own area in the shed and was as well organized as everything else. Really long pipes were cradled by chains that were attached to the cross beams below the lofts with eye-screws.

Laundry was another chore that got accomplished and I would have kissed my father had he still been there to kiss. I couldn’t imagine having to clean those sheets by hand. While I was at it I just stripped all the beds and kept them going. The sun was shining and I had something to whiten the sheets with. All the sheets in the house were white with white embroidery work or white crocheted edging so I didn’t have to worry about bleaching any colors out and I finally agreed with my mother than all those hours carefully sewing the white on white designs was worth it; didn’t mean I didn’t want to do it again but it certainly made my life easier.

Going over the linens and doing the laundry made me realize that if the no one was ever going to claim those empty buildings then scavenging them might not be a bad idea after all. Jax had made me aware that I didn’t just have myself to think about anymore. Jax was about Dad’s size and I already knew from digging out some overalls that he could wear his old clothes but Kelly was another kettle of fish. She could wear some of the stuff in the attic but she would need underthings like “big girl panties,” socks, and other warmer clothes once the weather turned. Thanks to Mom’s habit of making things so they’d last I did have a few things. I also had enough fabric, yarn, notions, and other such sewing paraphernalia to stock a small quilting store.

“Jax?”

“Hmmm?” His mouth full of an early dinner of canned Chicken a la King served over egg noodles.

“What do you think people are going to use to pay their bills?”

“Mmm?!”

“All the money in the banks is probably toast … stolen, gone, destroyed, records messed up beyond retrieval, whatever. I know from listening to the radio that there is still a government out there in a bunker someplace and eventually they are going to come back out of hiding and try and start things back up. And if not them, some other group will try and do it … human nature.”

After finally being able to swallow he yelped, “Why do you want to bring that up for? Haven’t we got enough problems right now?”

“Sure we do but you and I both know that right now will be tomorrow before you know it. We are putting together plans for right and they seem to be fine … for right now. But what about tomorrow? This is my home Jax … and now yours and Kelly’s if you really mean to share it with me. It is paid off and I have all the papers to prove it; but what about taxes and things like that? You know governments always want taxes.”

Jax continued chewing but this time thoughtfully. “Lydie I don’t have an answer for you, not one I’m sure of. Too … too many variables. I suppose for a while we’ll trade work or stuff. Say we have too many watermelons and someone else has too many … I don’t know … turnips. We can trade and both of us will have what we want.”

I nodded, “That’ll work locally. At least it will if it is something we can grow. But I can’t see no federal revenuer coming along and saying, ‘Now see heyar young people, you’uns be owing us’ins ten percent of all you all produced this yar. You give me two dozen o them punkins, a double peck o’ them zukes, and a tenth o’ the corn in yore silo … add in a few dozen aiggs … and let’s see … a couple o’ them funny lookin’ carrot eaters and I reckon we’ll call it even.’” Returning to my normal voice I asked, “Can you?”

“Naw, not when you talk sound like my mother’s Aunt Beulah,” he laughed. “I take it you have as little liking for that sort of thing as your dad did.”

I nodded, “You might could say that. And another thing, what happens if they start taxing us for just having stuff or using stuff like they did during the Colonial days? Tea tax, coffee tax, taxing the number of glass panes your house had, the number of kids you had; frankly just about anything they could come up with.”

Getting a little huffy I said, “Then I guess we have us another Revolution.”

“That’s fine and it might just come to that one of these days. Dad had said we were coming to it anyway since most great civilizations eventually suffer sea changes, most of them violent. But whatever comes after that is still going to want their tax even if it is just a small one for maintaining a military force to protect our borders. Eventually someone is going to try and come put their hands in our pockets … it’s human nature. Even if it isn’t for money as we know it, it might well be for something else.”

“Gold, silver, that sort of thing I suppose.”

“Well I don’t have any of that. Do you? Dad had to use up what gold and silver he had been able to buy over the years to keep Will in medicine when the liquor wasn’t running.” Looking around and then under my chair just to be silly I asked, “And I don’t see Rumplestilskin around here spinning straw into that stuff either. You wanna be the one to give up your first born if the dragon comes calling because we don’t have what they want in the form they want it in?”

“Like hell I will!: Getting frustrated he said, “Look Lydie, I … I just don’t know. What kind of answer are you looking for from me anyway? You’re the smart one.”

I had hurt his feelings without meaning to and I did something I’d seen in the movies and I was anxious to see if it worked or would I get dumped on the floor. I stood up and hurried around the dinner table and wiggled into his lap and said, “Aw Jax, don’t be that way. If I didn’t think you were smart enough to understand my question I wouldn’t have asked you. You know I value your opinion.”

The last sentence was just too much for Jax; he went from surprised to laughing. “Just where did you think that up?”

I sighed, disappointed and tried to get up only he had decided I was going to stay put. I muttered, “I saw it in a movie. The guy seemed to like it well enough. And the girls would do it when we RPG’d and it always seemed to move things along.”

He laughed again and said, “Oh it’ll move things along alright. I’m just not sure if you realize what you’re moving.”

“Huh?”

He laughed again and set me on my feet and said, “Lydie, I’m not mad at you for asking and I should know better than to act Kelly’s age just because I didn’t like the questions you’re asking. I’m just … I don’t know; I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve been so consumed by keeping Kelly safe, fed, and clothed … scavenging is as far as I’ve thought at this point. Like I told Mr. Houchins, all I care about right now is us, anyone else … even my own cousin … is pretty much down my laundry list of things to do. I suppose we can look at them books in your dad’s office and see if he has anything on what might happen. Can it wait though? Do we need to think about that right now?”

I sighed and shrugged. “I guess not. I just don’t want it to catch us by surprise. I just can’t help thinking though it isn’t always going to be like it is right now. Eventually the salvage is going to run out. Eventually the government is going to come out of its hole and want its power back … or some form of it. And if it doesn’t, some other government from some other country – or their agents – are going to come sniffing around and I’m pretty sure we need to be ready. Even during the Dark Ages they collected taxes, if nothing else, to pay for wars or to protect people from wars.”

We both sort of picked at our food after that but as with everything else we were young, healthy, and were not the type to turn morose and stay that way. Our better natures kicked in and having Kelly around didn’t hurt either. Jax had nicknamed her Bumble Bee but she was more of a clown than a bee.

That night’s run to the mill was uneventful and relatively fast. We did see that something had been at the bodies of the dogs and pieces were missing or drug all over the place.

“Vultures maybe?” I said when Jax and I noticed.

He shook his head. “No feathers or bird poop. Enough birds to leave three big dogs little more than piles of bones should have left some type of sign behind. If it hadn’t been just last night I would have said insects as complete as they’ve been turned to skeleton. But look at that leg bone … something has broken it and likely chewed out the marrow.”

I shuddered, “I’ll take your word on it. I’m a farm girl but even I draw the line at some things … and it smells around here.”

“Yeah it does don …” He stopped and looked around. “Get in the truck Lydie and get going. The hauler is warmed up enough. Let’s get gone.”

“What’s wrong with you all of a sudden?”

“Tell you when we get on the road … go.”

Well, we went but it was a couple of hours later, after we’d hidden the tractor trailer down the old utility right of way that was overgrown but still passable so long as Jax drove slow, that he finally told me. “Pigs.”

“That’s what I smelled,” I told him feeling suddenly stupid.

“Probably drawn by the smell of the carrion. Could have been vultures on it but the pigs came up and finished the job. That’s why the bones were so scattered like that. No way did I want to meet enough feral pigs that could do what happened to those dogs, much less meet up with them at night.”

I agreed. Jax and I were tired. Not from specifically from the wood run but all the work we had been doing for a while plus the missed sleep the night before. The problem was we were so keyed up it was hard to get to sleep and Kelly was even worse. I dug out some old Looney Tune cartoon DVDs and hooked up the television in the room that Jax was using.

“Wanna stay and watch cartoons with us?”

Jax looked so hopeful that I said, “OK, if you don’t mind me doing my hair.”

Since it was up in a towel where I had taken a quick shower he said, “Nope. Actually, I’ve never seen it down. I … WOW!!”

I had taken the towel down pretty abruptly to make my point. “I know it is a mess, you don’t need to rub it in.”

“No! I mean that isn’t what I mean. Geez, I didn’t know you had so much hair! You had all of that in those braids you wrap around your head?!”

I threw a chair pillow at him which made Kelly laugh, pick it up, and do it a couple of more times for me. “Dad was kinda … well … strict. I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair until I turned eighteen. I’ve just … I don’t know … I guess I’ll get around to cutting it one of these days …”

“Awww why?” he asked.

I shook my head. Just like a guy to be goofy about the goofiest things. “Because the Rapunzel look is passé from what I’ve been told.”

“Huh?”

I rolled my eyes and told him, “I don’t know. Why? Do you like long hair or something?”

Crawling off the bed to come over and examine what I was doing he said, “Yeah … I do. I mean its your hair but … but it looks …”

He was starting to breathe funny and I was starting to feel funny and then Kelly decided to be funny. “Daddy! Ook at the ooster! I say, I say, I say … I’s a chickie awk!”

Jax whispered huskily, “Later.” Then he turned and swooped over and picked Kelly up and said, “Stop dancing on the bed before you fall off Chicken Hawk. You’re about as noisy as that runt too. I say, I say.” Kelly giggled up a storm but finally settled down once Jax laid down prone on the bed to watch the cartoons with her.

While the two of them snuggled on the bed I sat in the chair trying to turn my rat nest into something resembling a head of hair. By the time I had finished it had gotten awfully quiet and I looked over to find Jax asleep and Kelly’s eyes bobbing closed for longer and longer stretches, finally closing and staying closed. I smiled and realized that this was what I had been missing so much … not a clan necessarily but a real family, one I could be a part of. I had never really considered being part of a ready-made family by being with someone that already had a kid but this seemed to suit me and I decided to forget what I might have wanted at one time and enjoy what I wound up with.

I got up and switched off the television and then turned to pull the covers up over the two of them. Jax had made sure that Kelly had gone potty and hadn’t had anything to drink in a while so I thought she would be OK. I turned quietly to leave but Jax’s fingers had suddenly reached up and snagged the bottom of my shorts.

In a tired whisper he asked, “Stay with us?”

Quietly I said, “I’ll squish you two.”

“No,” he said softly. “Just … just stay with us.”

If I hadn’t been so tired I might not have given in. But I did. I wasn’t sure what my parents would have made of the arrangements but if I was being honest the fact was I had stopped worrying about that so much. I knew my parents would have wanted me to be careful and use some sense, but at the same time they would have wanted me to be happy. Turned out I slept better that night than I had in a while, certainly better than I had expected to.

--------------------------

“Oomph! Kelly! What …”

“Daddee! Potty time!”

A groan and then a soft¸”Wow.”

“Daddeeeee. Noowwww!”

I wanted to crawl under the bed but it was at that moment that I heard the rooster and I sighed. “Don’t look,” I told Jax. “I’ve seen myself in the morning. It isn’t pretty.”

“You’re right. You’re not pretty … you’re gorgeous.”

Well that’ll put a little wiggle in your morning. But a little was all we had time for. We got up and moving quickly, got dressed, ate, took care of the animals and the most immediate chores, went over the garden, then loaded up my old beater truck with a few odds and ends, attached the wagon and then it was off to the vacant trailers we went.

The New Geek Empire: Part Ten

“Lonny Houchins!! You put that gun in my face ever again!!! I oughta … I was holding a baby!!”

I was so mad I was boiling, nearly literally, giving serious consideration to turning one Lonny Houchins and his brother from roosters into hens, and my hands were shaking like autumn leaves in the wind. The only two things that kept me from getting up and scratching their eyes out was the fact that Kelly had cried herself into hiccups and I was on the ground cleaning up Jax’s bloody face where he and Lonny and his brother Ronny had just gone at it like three starving mongrels after the same bone.

Of course I didn’t really need to because Mr. Houchins had already knocked Lonny and his twin brother Ronny together by their foreheads. Just grabbed them by their scruffs and slammed them together. I swear that was just about the most satisfying sound I had ever heard … even after all these years I still rank it in the top ten.

Mr. Houchins walked slowly and carefully over and bent down to check Jax over and said, “Boy, you don’t look too bad to have taken on both my knuckleheaded grandsons at once; their wimmens gonna have a fair piece to go to clean them up. You wanna fight on my side you can do it anytime you ownto.”

Jax for his part had me grinding my teeth nearly as much because the gudgeon cracked a smile and said, “Nice to know Sir. I’m sorry about your boys but I couldn’t let it pass that they had that gun on my daughter and Lydie.”

Mr. Houchins gave him a hand up and he stood before I was ready for him to and Kelly and I both squawked. The crazy old man smiled and nodded and said, “Done the same thing myself in your place.” He turned to me and said, “Lydie, I told you you shouldn’t be coming around for a while. Boys are a little itchy about strangers.”

Finally, feeling like my head was going to explode, I told him in a righteous huff, “Well I was trying to do what Dad would have done which was come check on neighbors after that storm last night. We didn’t get any damage from it but between the lightning and the wind I wasn’t sure what it did to anyone else. There could have been a tree down, your animals could have gotten out, you could have lost a silo, someone could have gotten hurt like Roe Tate did when he worked for you, just anything. You and Dad were always friends and he would have had something to say if I hadn’t checked even if you did throw me off your place before. Now look at what has happened!”

Growing concerned Mr. Houchins said, “Now Lydie Girl, I didn’t throw you off … I just didn’t think it was a good thing for you to be coming around for a while.”

“Well I wasn’t coming around for a social call like before. I was coming around to check on you like Dad would have done.” I admit my feelings were hurt all over again.

At least they were until Mrs. Houchins showed up with two girls I figured were Lonny and Ronny’s “wimmen” a couple of seconds later. She said, “Honey, you don’t know the heartache that caused him, you really don’t. But never mind that, you’re here and just trying to do what your parents would have done in your place and I think that is just about the sweetest thing. And look at you Ajax Remington, I haven’t seen you since … well, I can’t remember when. And look at this baby. Awww, Rupert look how big she’s gettin’.”

You could always count on Mrs. Houchins to calm things down. I’m not sure how she did it but she’d come in and smooth things over like warm butter. And she was always really good to Mom; she and Mom belonged to the same Quilt Guild.

I was holding Kelly because for all of it Jax was still a little wound up and looking protective and the poor little thing was still sucking on her bottom lip in a pet over the ruckus. But just like magic as soon as Mrs. Houchins started cooing to her she smiled and reached out to be held. I looked at Ajax and he gave a barely visible nod and so I let Mrs. Houchins hold her while I got some wipes out of my pack to clean her face up with. When I turned back Mr. Houchins was giving Jax a look and Jax was turning uncomfortable so I just said by way of conversation with Mrs. Houchins, “Jax and Kelly here are living with me. I tried to look up … well, old friends … but that didn’t work out. Jax wanted a better place for Kelly and … well … this is working out for, all of us. Dad and Jax worked together at the mill and it is nice to have someone around that remembers him fondly and with respect the way I do.”

Mrs. Houchins nodded and said, “I bet it is nice to have a man around too. I always heard that raising this baby turned Ajax respectable and responsible.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw both men watching us and Jax’s ears couldn’t have been redder than if they’d been spray painted the color of the VFD’s fire engine. “Yes ma’am. He sleeps in the guest bedroom because it has the little sitting room for Kelly that we’ve set up like a nursery. About the only thing Jax doesn’t help with around the place is the cooking.” I threw a mischievous look his way. “He can make noodles and help clean up after Kelly but that’s about the sum total of his talents in the kitchen.”

Jax mumbled, “I didn’t mean to burn the toast. And it wasn’t all that bad.”

I laughed out loud at that fib. “Jax, one of the pieces were burnt all the way through. How you could stand to eat it I don’t know. You should have let me crumble it and feed it to the chickens like I said.”

He sighed. “That would have been wasting food and since I burnt it, it was my place to eat it.”

I made a face thinking about how awful it had to have tasted and Mrs. Houchins chuckled and Mr. Houchins seemed to relax. He clapped Jax on the shoulder and said, “Man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do sometimes, that’s for sure.”

Jax relaxed after that as well and turned to Lonny and Ronny and asked, “No hard feelings?”

Mr. Houchins didn’t give them a chance to answer, “Heck no there ain’t no hard feelings. Men do what men have to just like I said. Now, about last night … had one of our old pecans come down but it was going to take it out come spring anyway. Good Lord just gave me a helping hand by taking it down early. Laid down so sweet, didn’t hit anything else, not even another tree which only He could have made happen. We’ve got enough that can get it cut up and piled after we get the corn brought in. Did y’all have any problems?”

Jax looked at me and I let him do the talking. “Naw sir, just a lot of fruit that got knocked off the apple trees and the outside row of corn got laid over in places but I’ve already cut that and leaned it together to dry.”

Lonny, the more vocal of the twins, added, “Daddy said that he thought he saw a twister during one of the lightning flashes but that it was off toward town. Reckon we should go check?”

Mr. Houchins didn’t look pleased by the idea and Jax didn’t either. He said, “Unless it hit the school or that old church out on Haines Road it shouldn’t have hurt anyone. And you said he only thought he saw one. I’m certainly not dragging Kelly and Lydie through any mess in town even if there was one. I can only take care of so much and right now they’re my priority.”

Mr. Houchins clapped Jax on the shoulder again and drew him off to the side. I could hear bits and pieces of what they were talking about but not the whole conversation. Seeing my irritation at being left out Mrs. Houchins looked at me and with a twinkle in her eyes commented, “They always try and pretend we are so fragile.”

I snorted, “Humph. Mom always said that if a man had ever experienced childbirth they wouldn’t think we were so fragile.” I rethought that real quick. “Not that I mean to experience it myself too soon.”

Mrs. Houchins laughed gently and asked, “Not that I mean to … hmmm … how did my grandaughter put it … get into your business … but are you and Jax ….?

I cringed. This was my mother’s friend, old enough to be my grandmother, and talking about that stuff with her was very unsettling. “No ma’am, we … uh … aren’t. But … uh … we … we … uh … are … are kinda …”

“Seeing if you suit?” she asked gently helping me out.

I didn’t know whether to be grateful or cringe even worse. “Yes ma’am, basically. I mean we kinda already know we do but it’s … it’s happened awful fast and there’s Kelly to think about and so much other stuff going on. But we really aren’t … you know … in the … uh … same bedroom.”

She gave me a hug and said, “The good Lord put us on this earth to be fruitful and multiply and there’s only one way to do it. You just make sure that Jax is the right one to do it and with then I say what will be will be. He doesn’t strike me as the type to run off and leave a girl high and dry … look at this baby girl he fought so hard for when it would have been a lot easier to turn the other way. But life happens Honey and sometimes you don’t get the choice of whether you have to try to go it alone or not. You know Mr. Houchins isn’t my first husband; that Marilee’s father died overseas?”

“Yes ma’am, Mom once said something to that effect.”

She told me, “Well, I was alone in this world with a little girl and my parents weren’t around to help. My brother was a good man but he had his own he could barely keep clothes on. I took a job in the old Feed Store because they let me bring Marilee to work with me which meant I didn’t have to find and pay for a babysitter. Six months later Mr. Hounchins and I were married and I’d never known him before the secretary at the feed store introduced us, six months after that I was carrying the twins’ father. Life don’t always just crawl at a snail’s pace so you have time to think about it; sometimes you just have to have faith that what the Lord puts in your path is what He means for you to have.”

She’d certainly given me something to think about and then Jax came back over and asked politely, “Are you ready to head back to the house? Mr. Houchins needs to get back to work and I think we do too.”

I checked his eyes and he didn’t seem upset or hacked off so I said, “If you are.”

As we got on the bikes and started to pedal away Mr. Houchins told Jax, “You think on what I said,”

Jax waved and said, “Yes sir, definitely mean to.”

We were far enough away down the road that no one could have heard us and I rode up beside him and asked, “Just what did he want you to think on?”

He told me, “He knows about your biofuel set up and thinks we should be driving for safety sake rather than riding around on the bikes.”

I asked, “And what do you think?”

“If he already knows I don’t see any reason not to use your truck as long as we are careful. It isn’t like we plan on hot rodding all over the county; we’d be able to go further faster and bring more back than we could with the bikes and little trailers. It would be safer in case we do run into other people too.”

“And?” I asked.

“And?” he repeated. After a glance at my face he said innocently, “He just asked what I knew about what had been going on in town. Apparently he knows some of it because he’s in contact with a man still living on the stub end of Haines Road about a mile from the church where that other group is living together. I’m thinking we should listen to the radio when we can. I know it will use power but I don’t like the idea of being totally deaf to what is going on, especially if other people like Mr. Houchins already knows things.”

After he had fallen silent like he’d said it all I told him, “Ajax Remington, do not make me ask again and you know doggone good and well what I’m talking about.”

He sighed, “Fine. If you want an exact quote he told me that if I didn’t do right by you he’d be happy to see to my gelding if I needed it.”

Confused I said, “You don’t have a horse do yoouuuuu … oh … Oh …. OH!!! He so did not say that!! Oh God, I’m gonna die … I’ll kill him first but then I’m just gonna die!! And after Mrs. Houchins was so nice and sensible about it. Oh geez … oh …”

Jax started chuckling. “Stop being such a drama queen. That’s mild compared to what your dad would probably have said in his shoes and you know it. I assured him I did plan on doing right by you but not until after you decided exactly what that meant and that I had sense enough to know that no one was going to push you until you were ready … me, him, or anyone else … and that your dad had done enough good turns for me that even if you didn’t decide on me that I’d still look after you in your dad’s memory.”

I finally risked another glance in his direction and realized he was chuckling at how I had reacted but he was serious at the same time. Slowly I relaxed. “Well, for the record, my mind’s made up but I’m still concerned about the … er … possible consequences and I’d like to get a few chores out of the way before we … uh … see to the rest of it.”

His bike wobbled briefly making Kelly squeal but then he said calmly, “Sounds like a plan.”

-----------------

After getting home we did a few chores but nothing major. I went through the garden again, picked what was ready and couldn’t wait and made note of what would need to be looked at again the next day or two. It wasn’t as warm as it had been but the day was still hot enough that cooking at lunch time wasn’t my idea of fun but Jax surprised me by saying he wouldn’t mind just eating salad.

“You sure? You’re gonna wind up so hungry tonight you’re not going to be able to stand it.”

He shook his head, “Actually I don’t like working on a full stomach. Gives me heart burn.” Could we have that vinegar and oil dressing you made the other night? It was really good.”

I grinned, “Glad you like it because it might be all the dressing flavor we are down to eventually if I can’t figure out how to make anything else. I can make Italian too if you prefer but stuff like blue cheese or green goddess might not be happening anytime soon.”

“It’s not a problem, trust me; I don’t like a lot of goop on my food.”

“Yeah, I noticed that you don’t use a lot of gravy or sauce on anything I’ve fixed. I thought maybe you didn’t like it at first.”

Surprised he asked, “You kidding? Man it is soooo good not to have to cook all the time and on top of it, eat my own disasters.” I had to laugh at the face he made, mostly because it was true. Even Dad and Will had cooked better than Jax could. It was nice to know that there was more than just that one thing he needed me for.

It was difficult but we both tried to nap a bit after lunch while Kelly took her nap; to be honest it made me almost more tired than if I had just stayed up. By dusk we had loaded up my old Ford and attached the farm wagon to the ball hitch. We had decided that I would drive since I knew the roads in the dark best and that Jax would ride shotgun … literally. We were both well-armed and loaded for bear. It felt very, very strange but Jax felt it was a given necessity.

“Humor me Lydie.”

“I’m not fighting you on this,” I pointed out.

“Not in words … ok, not at all, but you still don’t think it is necessary.”

I sighed. “I’m not sure what I think about it. But … I trust you. You think I need to arm up like Lara Croft then I guess that is what I’ll do. I mean … wait … you do know who Lara Croft is don’t you?”

He sighed, “Tomb Raider.” Then he shook his head. “Lydie it is more than about being armed, you need to be able and prepared to use what you’re armed with. You’ve proven you can shoot … heck, you’re as good as I am and better if we are talking long distance. Which by the way I intend to fix with some practice.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I laughed. “Playing RPG does have its benefits.”

“Mebbe,” he admitted. “So long as you can bring it to the real world. Can you shoot a real life human being or just an animal or a character on a screen?”

I wanted to be able to say I would do whatever I had to but the honest truth was I wasn’t sure. Now it was my turn to sigh. “Jax, I know I’ve got to work on it but I’m not intentionally gonna let you or Kelly down.”

He reached over and ran his knuckles down my arm. “I know. Just you’ve got to remember, this isn’t a game. You didn’t see the violence and crap that went on in town like I did. I’m glad you didn’t but it might also mean you don’t understand just how dangerous people can get. I don’t want anything to happen to you.” I wouldn’t call the issue a bone of contention between us but at that time I was still absorbing what had happened to my life. I knew that violence existed – of course I did, look what happened to my family. But trying to really equate it with my immediate world hadn’t happened all the way yet.

Kelly was dozing in the car seat between us – I had found the car seat in the attic just like I had found the other baby stuff – and it seemed to take no time to get to the mill after traveling at the speed of bike for so long. I pulled the truck and trailer right into one of the storage buildings after Jax jumped out and got it open using bolt cutters and WD40 on the doors. He said quietly, “I’ll keep Kelly in the truck while I work on getting the tanker up and running. You think you can … I mean I hate to ask you to go off on your own …”

I told him, “Relax Jax. The dark doesn’t scare me and never has. I’ll go back over to the break room to start with and then work from there to see if there is anything I can get on my own.”

“Keep your radio on.”

I saluted and said, “Aye aye Sir!”

He rolled his eyes but I didn’t give him a chance to rethink it. I slid the LED headlamp onto my forehead but left it off to keep from losing my night vision which was really good. The moon was full and I had been running without headlights on the truck most of the way which gave Jax the sweats a few times until he asked me suspiciously, “You’ve done this before haven’t you?”

I gave a wicked grin and said, “Let’s just say Dad and I moved a few items for Luther McGraw.”

Which of course required an explanation because Luther McGraw was a big time moonshiner … or had been in his youth. And if certain people were suspicious he was still running it wasn’t his fault; or at least so he said since he told anyone that asked that he wasn’t running anymore which was technically true in a manner of speaking.

As I sat out some empty corrugated boxes in preparation of filling them I remembered Jax’s reaction when I told him, “Dad acted as LM’s middleman and took a cut of every run.”

“Your dad?! Razor straight and all that?!”

I sighed. “Don’t think bad of him Jax. He hated doing it but Will’s treatments were expensive, especially the bone marrow transplant. He didn’t want to mortgage our home because without it we had nothing else. The runs were just down to his brother’s place and was just to a group of old guys that still liked their homemade and kicking it like the old days.”

He was quiet then said. “I never even thought. Insurance covered Kelly’s birth and all. I … I didn’t mean to judge him like that.”

“Judge him and me,” I told him. “I ran all of the runs once I turned sixteen and could drive by myself because those that cared were usually expecting a man to be transporting. LM and his brother Mr. TD were the only two besides Dad that knew and we kept it really, really quiet. Mom never even knew. And before you get whacked out I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Take it however you want to.”

“What I take it as is that there’s more to you than I thought … the good kind of more.” I left it at that by not commenting on what he said. I knew he’d either deal with it or wouldn’t but I felt comfortable telling him in a way I would have never been able to tell Matt and I was hoping that meant something.

It took a surprisingly short time to start filling the boxes with stuff. Office and cleaning supplies took up a lot of room but if we were going to scavenge I figured we needed to do it right the first time around rather than constantly cherry picking things. I found an empty and clean blue plastic barrel and used it to start collecting clothing in; lockers had jackets, protective gear, and then there were a bunch of stuff with company logos in the back office. I figured we’d find some use for the stuff eventually. I was just going to put cedar and some moth balls in the barrel and shut it up until we needed anything out of it.

The owners’ office’s provided a few fancy coffees and their secretary’s desk gave me some fancy powdered creamers and flavored instant coffees. Found a couple of bottles of vodka in there too which told me the rumors about her issues were likely true.

From the main offices I wandered out into the mill proper and came across a large stack of rolls … some of plastic and some of what looked like paper so thick it was almost cardboard. I keyed the mic on the radio and Jax came on and asked, “Everything OK?”

“Yeah, just letting you know I’ve moved out of the offices and into other areas. And to ask, do you think we have room on the trailer for a couple of these rolls of … I don’t know … this thick brown paper? You know what I’m talking about?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “It’s a type of packing paper. We should have room. Don’t try and move it though, they’re heavy and if they fall on you it will do some serious damage.”

“Understood,” I said into the mic. “I’ll leave this area until you can come with me.”

“Yes, please. And watch out … there’s some big ol’ rats wandering around here. I had one surprise me by running across my legs when I was under the tanker and I almost tipped the truck over trying to get up and figure out what it was.”

That made me laugh as it was meant to and I let him hear a little bit of it before I signed off and decided to go out to the parking lot. Besides, I did not want him to hear the kind of noise I would make if I ran into a rat that was big enough to startle him.

I turned the headlamp off and gave myself a few seconds to adjust my eyesight before going outside. I wandered back to the employee parking lot only to return to the office to get a 16” heavy duty screwdriver I had seen in the foreman’s office. There was also a rubber mallet in the same tool box and I knew how to use the two to do what I wanted to do.

All of the cars left in the lot were older models that had a visible key lock for the trunk. If they’d been the newer ones that could only be opened from the interior latch I would have had to break a window and make a lot of noise. I might still be doing that to pop the hoods and get to the batteries but I was going to start with the trunks; and mostly because it was fun to play “locksmith” with the hammer and flathead screwdriver.

I found a few things … tools, bottle water, a few blankets and such … but nothing to get hysterically happy about. Found a rat nest in the back end of one and lucky for me it was the last car on the lot and was empty of its residents but man did it stink to high heaven.

Next I checked the cars over to see if anyone had been crazy enough to have a magnetic spare on them and sure enough one of the cars did. Easy Peasey Lemon Squeezy … that was one hood popped. The others weren’t as easy.

There is the tried and true sticking the screw driver into the window frame and jiggling it around until you get the window to shatter but I was going to try something that Dad taught me that was way cool. I stripped a spark plug out of the car that I had been able to pop the hood on already. With the large, heavy duty screw driver I broke the ceramic part of the spark plug so I had pieces that were about as big as my pinkie fingernail. One good, solid plink with that piece of ceramic and the car window shattered. Dad said it was because the ceramic has a negative charge to the window’s positive charge. Beats me if that is true, all I know is that it works.

I keyed the mic just in time to keep Jax from running to the rescue. “Sorry. I’m breaking into cars.”

I could feel the growl rather than actually hear it in his voice. “Little warning would have been nice.”

I thought for half a second and then said, “You’re right.” After another hesitation I asked, “Having a hard time with the tanker?”

“No,” he said in a short voice. “The valve is jammed on the storage tank. I’m working it loose.”

“Uh … want some help?”

“No,” he said distinctly and then didn’t say anything else. I was pretty sure his knuckles were going to look like ground beef and decided it was a good thing for me to be far away from him until he completed his mission. My dad had a few not nice things to say about the mill equipment on occasion and I knew when it was time for me to be someplace else until he cooled off.

Getting back to the breaking and entering was more fun anyway. I disconnected all the batteries and used the dolly to move them to a pile near the boxes that I’d already stacked. I was just finishing that when Jax called me. “Got it. Finally.” I could hear the relief in his voice. “I’m gonna fill the tanker so you’ll hear the pump. After that I’ll come help you. Kelly is still asleep.”

“Then just let me bring the stuff to the trailer instead of you having to go all over the place. I’ll … oh my gosh … I think I just saw one of your giant rats! It’s as big as a dog and is slinking this way!!”

“Lydie,” Jax said urgently. “I was joking about how big the rats were. Get your gun in your hand. Now!”

I wasn’t able to answer him because I was too busy scrambling on top of the closest vehicle which happened to be a powder blue Chevy truck older than I was. I was surrounded by three big dogs and I must have been wearing a sign that said chow time. They were jumping for me but I was high enough that I had time before they figured out how to leap into the truck bed and I picked the first two off easily enough and got the third one as it was running away.

“Lydie! I’m coming!!” Sqawk out of the radio.

“No … no don’t! Really Jax, I’m fine. I don’t want Kelly to see this mess I made but you be on the look out. There were three big ol’ dogs.”

“You swear you’re OK?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t lie to you about that. But you know, I swear I’ve seen these mutts before.”

After a moment where I could imagine Jax was debating what to do since he did have Kelly’s safety to consider he asked, “What do they look like?”

“Mutts … but big ones. One is almost all black except for some brown on his muzzle and front paws and a big old square head that looks like a battering ram but the fur on his butt is curly. Next one is kind of a short grayish white fur, barrel chested with a skinny butt and stubbed tail, long pointy face and a mouth full of teeth. Last one is …”

“White, brown saddle and paws, curly furred?”

Startled I asked, “Yeah, how did you know?”

“They belonged to that guy that lived next door to my aunt and uncle’s place. Matt must have told you about the time they broke out and tore my aunt’s garden up right before they voted on that ’best looking house in the neighborhood’ contest she won every year.”

Then I remembered. “That’s them! I knew I’d seen them before … they were plastered all over the newspaper because your aunt threatened to take the neighbor to court because they had let the dogs out on purpose.”

After a moment I asked, “Matt, you still there?”

“Yeah, just thinking. Food must be scarce in town if they came all the way out here. Not a good sign. We better put a note on Mr. Houchins’ gate post and make sure nothing can get at the animals.”

I blanched even though he couldn’t see me. “Better check the goats tomorrow if we can find them … assuming something hasn’t eaten them.”

I was about to sign off when he said, “Don’t touch the dogs Lydie; they could be carrying something.”

I wanted to ask him if he thought I was stupid but I didn’t. He’d let me handle the dogs without too much fuss so I figured he was just making up for it by being guy-bossy afterwards. Looking around the mill some more I went to the parts shed and found good quality plumping and fixtures. Some were too big but their handles might come in handy. I also found some full welding tanks. Best of all in another shed I found enough lye to last for a long time. In a separate location I also found a lot of very high strength peroxide that had been used to bleach paper. The lye was for making biofuel (http://journeytoforever.org/biodiesel_make.html ) but the peroxide was to go in the water treatment mechanism Dad had installed for Will just to be on the safe side since he couldn’t risk any kind of organism getting into his guts. I could also use it in place of bleach for the white clothes. The peroxide likely wouldn’t be good much longer since it has a relatively short shelf life as such things went so I figured the sooner it was used the better.

Finally I started hauling everything to the trailer where I found Jax cleaning spit up off himself and the seat of the truck. “I’ll clean it Lydie. Kelly threw up her dinner.”

I stopped the dolly and ran over. Jax tried to clean faster and I tried to slide by him. “I told you I would clean it up Lydie. Kelly didn’t mean to.”

I gave him a look that would have peeled paint. “Of course she didn’t mean to!” I turned to Kelly to ask if she was feeling bad only she was asleep. “Hey, should she be out like that? I mean she just puked! Does she have a fever? Oh no … did something I fed her spoil? Did I feed her too fast or something?”

After Jax finally shut his mouth he said, “Don’t freak. She gets a sour stomach sometimes when she is teething.”

Worried I said, “Should I have not given her the chicken noodles? Was it too much for her?”

“Hey, it’s ok. I just don’t want you to be mad about the seat.”

I nearly popped him. “The stupid seat is almost as old as Methuselah’s nanny and has more duct tape on it than vinyl. What is your problem? I’m not going to holler at a little kid because they got the pukes, especially if I’m the one that fed them what they threw up.”

He swooped down and kissed me before I could say anything else. When he let me up for air I asked, “What the heck was that for?”

“Because. Now let me finish wiping the sick up.”

“Maybe we should wake her up so she doesn’t … I don’t know … choke or something.”

He smiled then said, “Trust me, she’s fine. I’m a worry wart where she’s concerned but I do know that now that she has her stomach empty she’ll sleep better and is better left alone.”

He tried to kiss me again but I backed away from the paper towels full of spit up in his hands. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to say thank you for caring about my daughter more than about your seat cushion.”

Looking at the seat and knowing for a fact that it was more spring than cushion I rolled my eyes and made a face. “How about a rain check. The uck in your hands isn’t exactly … you know … conducive.”

He blanched. “Oh … yeah. Bad timing. Let me throw it away and I’ll help load.”

With both of us it didn’t take long to get stuff into the trailer but then I found out he’d located some pipes and fittings he wanted to bring back and we loaded that in there as well because even though my truck was long bed with the trailer hitched I wouldn’t be able to turn the corners with the pipes in the way. After that I took a break and watched Kelly while Jax took the foreman’s keys and grabbed up all the batteries off of the company vehicles and got them loaded, some of them being pretty doggone heavy. He also loaded all of the miscellaneous fix-it type stuff from the mechanical storage area including the stuff he used to keep the vehicles running.

We both sat after that and reviewed our plan to go home. “You sure you can drive the truck loaded down this much plus a trailer?”

“Done it plenty of times before. What about it, think you’ll need another night on the tanker?”

“No. There wasn’t as much tall oil as I thought, just the one vat and I’ve pumped that out and into the tanker already. But I’m not gonna fly without lights like you did even if the moon is full.”

“I won’t be flying going home either, not with that trailer loaded like that. If the load shifts it’s gonna be a bear to pull without messing up the truck. So just this one load?”

“Actually I do want to come back tomorrow.”

Looking around I tried to figure out what we’d left. Jax tapped me and then pointed over to some of the big trucks and I realized he’d left one untouched and it was still loaded, with hardwoods no less. I smiled and threw up my hands like a touchdown had been made. “Free firewood for the win!”

He nodded, though not as enthusiastically which told me he was worn out. “I can drive it, have my CDL, but we’re going to need to bring some fuel. I’ve got the pri-D in the tanker cab. I still ain’t looking forward to splitting that much wood.”

“Actually all we’ll need to do is saw the logs into two-foot lengths and then load them onto the log splitter. It’s still work but you ain’t gonna catch me taking an axe to all that stuff if I don’t have to.”

He leaned his head on my thigh where he was sitting on the ground and I was sitting on the truck’s running board. “You’re an angel.”

“And you’re silly. I don’t know about you but I’m ready to hit the road.”

“You and me both. Shower then bed. Kelly’s alarm clock is gonna go off way too early.”

The New Geek Empire: Part Nine

It is amazing what a willing partner can help you accomplish. In two days, with Jax’s help, I cleared off what would have been for me alone about five days’ worth of work. I didn’t just halve the time required to complete the projects, but more. The reason for this is that Jax is taller and able to lift heavier items without having to go get a step stool or some other tool to lift something down or to lever something into place. He could also carry two pails of feed or five-gallon buckets of fruit to my one.

In a voice a little on the other side of exasperated Jax said, “Lydie, just leave it to me instead of following me all over the place. Alright? Have I had any problems getting the work done or do you think you need to watch me all the time?”

Surprised at his tone I snapped back at him, “Well excuse me. I thought we were having fun working together but if you want to be a snot about it.”

I turned to leave but Jax grabbed my elbow real quick and said, “Hey. I’m … uh … sorry. I … you know … thought you didn’t think I could do it right.”

“Did I say that?” I continued snapping. “Have I said anything like that at all in the last two days?”

“No, but …”

I kept growling, “But nothing. You were the one that was all ‘let’s work together’ and stuff. So that’s what I was doing. If you don’t want me around just spit it out already and stop dancing.”

I jerked my elbow away from him and turned to leave again but this time he blocked the path with his whole body. “Lydie, seriously … I’m sorry. OK? I didn’t mean I don’t want to be with you. I just … you know … want to prove that I can help around here.”

Not ready to be mollified I told him, “Are you crazy?! What have you been doing all day if not proving you can do the work? I’m sure as heck not the one that moved two dozen more bales from out in the field so we could build the walls on the composting greenhouse. (http://www.appropedia.org/Composting...ater_(original) ).”

He shrugged, “I used a tractor, it was no big deal.”

I snorted. “Yeah, and those bales just jumped into and then out of the wagon all by themselves.”

He gave a small grin. “So … you noticed I’m good for something.”

His grin made me grin even though I didn’t want it to. “I suppose. And you aren’t exactly hard on the eyes either.”

That made him really grin like a pure chauvinist. I figure he was due it all things considered. And it was the truth. He most certainly looked good in that sweaty t-shirt … didn’t smell so great, but definitely easy to look at.

Then he got bashful and that made him even cuter if possible. “Thanks. But seriously Lydie, I’ve got this stuff. Kelly is napping in the playpen in the shade so it’s not like I’m having to do it with her on my back. Why don’t you go do something that doesn’t have so much heavy lifting required; something I’d just be slow at.”

Deciding to poke at him a little more I said, “Oh ho, so now it comes out. You just don’t want to pick beans again today.”

He shook his head and grinned. “Yeah, that’s it. It’s the bean thing.”

“Hah! Should have known. Well fine, I’ll go pick beans … but you have to help snap them after dinner if you can stay conscious after working in all of this heat.”

We were both sweating and he wasn’t the only one a little on the odiferous side. “Man, it is hot I’ll give you that. Not much breeze either.”

I looked at the sky. “I guess I really will go get the beans out of the garden and anything else I can pick. This heat is brutal. And …”

“And?” he prompted when I forgot to finish the sentence.

“And … it just feels funky. Could be a storm on the way.” Turning to him I said, “I don’t mean to sound like a nag but can you make double sure that those bales are tied down really well with the rebar? You know how a hot September can turn on us with little notice.”

He blew a breath out through his lips. “Yeah, unfortunately. You think we can still get enough finished so we can hit the mill tomorrow night?”

“I don’t see why not. If you really are willing to get the first phase of the compost greenhouse up and get that hundred feet of hose laid in it I’ll go ahead and get the picking done and start some sun tea as well.”

He nodded and said, “Sounds like a good plan. If Kelly wakes up cranky call and I’ll come get her.”

“Like I can’t handle a cranky little girl?”

He shrugged. “I just don’t want you to feel like I’m here to have someone to take care of my kid for me.”

Archly I asked, “Kinda like I didn’t want you to think I only asked you to come for your muscle?”

He grinned and said, “Touché … I reckon that’s what I’m supposed to say anyway. Seriously though, some of the other girls I tried to go out with after I brought Kelly home thought that’s what I was after. It’s … uh … even more important for me that you in particular don’t think that.”

He had that uncertain puppy dog face on and it finally sunk in Mr. Cool got kicked around enough that he’d lost a lot of his self-confidence. I decided those other girls had a couple of bolts and screws loose. “After I’ve seen what a good daddy you are? Forget it Jax. The last thing I would ever think is that you’re trying to dump your kid on someone else. Besides …” I made a quick decision and looked at him from beneath my eye lashes. “Besides, I know the two of you are a package deal.” I stepped forward and stood on my toes and gave him a quick kiss on his salty, sweaty cheek and then just about ran over to the play pen check on Kelly real quick before I grabbed a bucket and then hustled over to the rows of beans.

I got to the end of the first row before looking back. Jax was still looking at me and when he saw I was looking at him grinned real big, touched his cheek and then the pocket on his chest over his heart before turning and going back towards where we had both been working just a few minutes before.

Part of me felt like we were moving awful fast but at least a small part of me wanted to hurry up and go faster so I could find out if the story was good or not. I decided that it wasn’t necessarily my call to make the next move and after that I was pretty involved in finding all the beans that were ready for harvest. I had gotten two rows picked over when I heard, “Widdie!!! Need to go pottttyyyyyyy!”

She was dancing pretty good so I dropped the bucket and ran and got her to the bathroom in the barn just in time. The poor little thing actually sighed with relief. “Sorry Bumble Bee, I didn’t know you were awake. You’re such a good girl. Bet your daddy is going to be proud that you didn’t have an accident.”

“I’s a big girl now!” she said and proved it by pulling her clothes back together without my help. She looked like she was wrestling a bear for a second but she got everything pulled up and straight.

“Want some drink?”

“Yes, uh huh, pease,” she said in a rush.

Kelly didn’t want to especially go back into the play pen after her drink but she went after I coaxed her a bit and soon she was babbling at me every time I came back with more beans to dump into the bushel baskets in the shade. Each type of bean had a different basket and soon enough I was hot and dripping sweat all over again.

From my vantage in the garden I saw Jax come back and then get under the tree with Kelly so I didn’t have to watch so much and could move faster. I was kicking it with the beans and didn’t look up until a shadow fell across me. “Here. Drink something. You’re white around the mouth. Where’s your hat?”

I turned to look up at Jax from where I was squatted down and wound up on my butt in the dirt instead. “On second thought,” he said. “Come get in the shade. I’ll carry the bucket.”

He helped me up, handed me the plastic glass of water and then took the five gallon bucket I had been using and guided me to sit down near the playpen. I hadn’t noticed how shaky I was getting. After a few sips of water I told him, “Man, it has to be in the 90s”

“It is; ninety-two according to the thermometer on the barn. Why don’t you take a break?”

“I can’t,” I told him. “I’ve got to get the garden picked over. This heat is just too much and if it keeps up things are going to start to shrivel. Even with the solar drip irrigation system going this heat is too much this time of year. (http://www.cisolar.com/catDrip2.html ) As it is I’m probably going to have to water two or three times a day. Geez this is crazy. Thank goodness we have all the rainwater storage to be able to keep up. (http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects...WaterStore.htm ) (http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects...inCol/Main.htm )”

He told me in concern, “You’re gonna have heat stroke if you keep this up.”

I meant to shake my head but was too wiped out. “No. I’ll just have to do the picking early and late in the day instead of in the middle like I’m doing now. You’d think I’d know better than to try this when it is so hot but now that I’ve started I can’t stop. And I’ve got to get these beans some place cool or they are going to sour and mold.”

“I’ll carry them down to the cool cellar in the basement. You really need to just sit down for a little bit Lydie.”

His tone of voice had me cracking my eyes open and looking up at him. “Look that bad huh?”

“You look … yeah … you look bad. At least stick you head under a spigot to cool off for a little more.”

I rolled over and got on all fours and then forced myself up. “I’ll do better than that … but no peeking. I’m gonna step into the shower.” (http://www.homesteadingtoday.com/sho...d.php?t=321571 )

He grinned and it was tinged with relief that I hadn’t fought him over the issue. “I’ll climb in with Kelly when you’re finished if there’s enough water.”

“There’ll be enough water. I only plan on rinsing off real quick and then getting re-dressed. If I get too comfortable it is going to be hard to get back in the garden and do what I gotta do.”

By the end of the day I felt slammed. Luckily Jax didn’t mind simple beans and rice for dinner; I wasn’t even up for making biscuits or cornbread to go with it. The heat had wiped Kelly out and she only played a little before saying, “Blankey wants to go to bed.”

Uh huh, Kelly was the one that wanted to go to bed but didn’t want to admit it; but that’s kids for you apparently. Jax didn’t look like it hurt his feelings any at all. After cleaning the kitchen I still felt sticky and grimy and decided to take another quick shower. It was completely dark out and I hoped the worst of the bugs were done for the evening. I was so tired that even though I grabbed a fresh towel, I forgot to take clean clothes with me outside to the shower. After I had finished and dried off I debated on risking a run to the house when I realized I had goofed, but the blood-sucking skeeters decided it for me.

Wrapped only in a towel I ran for the porch and then skidded to a stop when the door opened in front of me. I stood there like a deer in the headlights and Jax just stood there with his mouth hanging open. I shook my wet head and then pushed him out of the way and fled up the stairs telling him over my shoulder to shut the door before all the bugs get in.

I was debating on whether to come out of my room … ever … when there was a soft knock on the door. “Lydie?”

I sighed and then warned him, “Don’t make fun Jax. I know I should have grabbed some clothes, I just forgot.”

“I … uh … wasn’t going to make fun. I was … uh … just … just checking to see if you were OK.”

“I’m fine,” I told him. With a bit of an attitude I asked, “You swear you aren’t going to twit me over this?”

I heard him chuckle quietly and then he said, “Promise.”

I stuck my very red face out of the door and he backed up, then I let the rest of me – the fully clothed rest of me – step out. Pretending that he hadn’t just seen me in nothing but a towel he asked, “Kelly is asleep. Are we going to do the beans?”

Pretending that I didn’t know he was still thinking about seeing me in nothing but a towel I told him, “I’m going to. You can do whatever you want.”

“Ouch.”

I sighed in resignation and said, “Sorry.”

With a grin he said, “I’m not.”

I growled in irritation, stuck my nose in the air and went downstairs with his masculine chuckle following me. He finally caught up with me down in the basement but instead of helping he took the basket out of my hands. “Lydie, let’s talk first.”

Still feeling awkward I moved away and said, “About what?”

“About … us.”

Well that caused a shiver right there. “Us?” I said, squeaking more than I had meant to.

“Yeah. Us. I know I promised not to push but can you at least give me a hint whether I’ve got any hope here?”

Irritated I snapped, “If there was any more hope I’d be a mental basket case.”

He looked confused for a moment then asked, “Is that good or bad?”

I crossed my arms defensively and muttered, “It means that … that I want to throw good sense to the wind and play house with you for real. The only thing keeping me from being completely stupid is the fact that I’ve never done this before so it is taking me twice as long to figure how what I’m supposed to do next.”

He thought that through then grinned. “Oh … so it’s a good thing.”

Getting really freaked out I said, “For you maybe … but I’m not easy. I’m not!”

“Whoa … hey …,” he said when he saw I was getting so upset. “I know that.”

“Do you? Because I’m starting to wonder if I know it. This is turning out just too simple … like some stupid, bodice-ripper story like the lunchroom ladies used to like to read.” Cynically I mimicked dramatically, “His sun bleached hair blew in the breeze. His muscular body was topped by a chiseled face and his chocolate brown eyes took her breath away. Her bosom heaved with anticipation as he …”

I didn’t get to finish because Jax busted out laughing. “Honestly Lydie, you’re too much. The lunchroom ladies never read anything like that.”

Indignantly I said, “They most certainly did. I used to hear them talking about the latest romance scenes when they delivered the snacks for the day care center. Can you imagine them women talking about heaving bosoms and … and other stuff? I swear I almost died every time they offered to lend me one of their books to quote ‘get spicey with it’ end quote.”

Jax cracked up again. When he settled down he said, “Not that I don’t want to see your heaving bosom but …” At my alarmed look he stepped over, still smiling but more gently and said, “I’ve already made an ass out of myself once … I will not make that mistake again.” He took my hand and then threaded our fingers together. “Come on and just sit down and talk with me for a second.”

Cautiously I let him lead me to the old sofa that was in the finished part of the basement and we sat; me on the end and him close enough that my bosom really did start to heave. “Lydie, listen. I think I’ve got it figured out. You’re a good girl … completely different from Darlene. Even if I might have wondered at one point because of how long you and Matt went out I’m not wondering any more. And because of that I’m going to be careful. If … when … it happens between us I’m going to make sure and take care of things … make sure it happens the right way. That’s … uh … one of the reasons I sort of suggested that we hold off on deciding whether to bring anyone else on board. I just wanted my chance with you … to show you that it can be good with me, that I won’t let you down like Matt did or go running off after another girl just for a taste of something different.”

With his last sentence doing the exact opposite of calming me down I told him, “Geez Jax … that’s … that’s crude.”

“Yeah, well guys can be pretty crude sometimes. I just want you to know that you can feel safe with me, that I won’t let you down.”

Feeling like it was now or never I asked him a little desperately, “For how long?”

He sat back and gave me a serious look; not like he was weighing my pros and cons but more like he was weighing his own words before he said them. “I’m not in highschool Lydia and haven’t been for a while. I worked in a man’s world and have a man’s responsibilities. I’ve got Kelly to think about. I don’t want to get her all mixed up. And I’m not looking for a do-over of what I had with Darlene. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t bad for what it was and she and I even parted friends of a sort, but I’ve outgrown that part of my life and I don’t want to repeat it. Do … do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

I thought about it but admitted, “Not really.”

He looked briefly uncomfortable before he explained, “I’m … I’m not looking for a friend with benefits or bed buddy or something … temporary. I want something I can … something I can lock down. With someone that I can trust will do right by Kelly for her own sake, not just as a favor to me.”

I must have looked like a blasted owl. My eyes felt as big as saucers and all I could do was blink.

Jax tried to wait me out but finally he asked, “What about you? Have you … uh … thought about it at all?”

Finally I drew in a breath to try and steady myself and said, “I’ve sorta been afraid to. Was afraid I wouldn’t like the answer I’d get.”

Hesitantly he asked, “Did you? Like the answer I mean.”

I couldn’t look at him, couldn’t even find my voice. All I could do was nod.

Then his husky voice was in my ear asking, “Can we seal it with a …kiss?”

For the next few minutes we were otherwise engaged but we practically jumped apart when there was a huge boom. We ran upstairs and I was almost to the kitchen door to throw it opened when he hauled me backwards. “Look first,” he muttered in my ear right before he pushed me behind him. About that time there was another huge boom and we could see the sky light up.

Off and on for the rest of that night we would be awakened by the lightning laced storm that danced all around us but never seemed to hit us directly. The next morning we were both bleary eyed as we picked up the stuff that had blown over or around. We were each carrying a bushel basket of fruit that the wind had knocked off the trees when I said, “Jax, I want to go check on the Houchins family.”

He gave me a considering look. “After they turned you away?”

I shrugged, “What if they did? Doesn’t mean I have to act like they did. Besides, as far as I know they are the closest people. I’d rather know than just guess how they’re doing after that storm. Don’t want them walking up the drive and catching us off guard do we?”

He continued to consider my words like they were worth listening to and then nodded his head. “It’ll also give us a chance to see how the road faired. Like you said, no surprises. As tired as we are I’m almost thinking that maybe we should put the run off one more day.”

I shook my head, “Not unless we learn something that we don’t like. You already said it may take two nights to do what we want since you don’t know how much work it is going to take to get the little tanker up and running.”

We came to an agreement and since the garden was really too wet to work in we got out the bikes, put together a couple of packs so that we’d be prepared for most eventualities and then struck out to see what we could see.

The New Geek Empire: Part Eight

“Lydie? Got a sec?” Jax asked rather tentatively.

I wiped the sweat off my face with a bandana and said, “Sure. Just let me push this wheelbarrow to the compost pile.”

“I’ll do that.”

“Naw, it’s full of rabbit poop and you’ve got Kelly.”

He sighed. “Let me do something Lydie. It’s almost been a week and I’m going crazy.”

I started to panic. I’d sensed he’d been dissatisfied with things. I’d asked what his favorite foods were. I’d showed him how to hook up the TV and game consoles. I’d shown him the computer … no internet access but there were sim games and stuff like that he could play and Dad had a gazillion files saved to disc. He still just didn’t seem happy. “I’ll show you Dad’s movie collection. There are all sorts in there … no chick fliks though, for that you’ll have to get into my mother’s movies.” I was trying to make a funny but he wasn’t laughing.

He snorted instead. “Lydie, stop. I don’t mean I’m bored, at least not the way you’re taking it. I just mean I don’t like sitting around on vacation while I watch you do all of this work. It makes me feel crummy … like a lazy bum or something.”

I stopped and set the wheelbarrow down. “Oh … But you have Kelly to take care of.”

He nodded. “I know but I can do other stuff too. I’ve been thinking about it.”

Sighing I said, “This isn’t working for you is it? You’re thinking about leaving.”

He bumped me just enough to move me from the wheelbarrow and then put on a pair of work gloves that had materialized out of his back pocket. Grabbing the wheelbarrow handles he said, “See? I can have Kelly in the backpack and do other stuff at the same time. We’re used to working this way aren’t we Bumble Bee?”

Kelly giggled and kicked her heels into Jax’s sides and said, “Getty-yup horsie!”

It was hard not to smile so I didn’t bother trying. Kelly was a cute kid and said funny things all the time. It was like living down the hall from a miniature clown. Jax pushed the wheelbarrow but when we got to the compost pile he did let me fork the mess out since I already had the manure shovel in my hands. While I scooped the poop Jax said, “I’m not talking about leaving so stop freaking out about that. I just want to be part of things. I don’t like feeling useless.”

“I’m not freaking out,” I denied but when I looked at him and put myself in his place it actually clicked. “I … uh … I just wanted you to know I wasn’t just after extra muscle.”

He smiled slightly and told me, “Yeah, I figured that out. But I’m a guy Lydie … not a kid. I need to be part of what is going on … allowed to swim in the deep end without floaties on. I don’t want to just wade around in the shallow end of things.”

I gave him an apologetic glance. “I guess I’m not used to that. Dad was like that sure … but he was just Dad. Everyone said he was different. I guess I just figured … I don’t know …” Unable to come up with a good excuse or explanation I shrugged.

“What about Will?” he asked as he took the wheelbarrow once again, this time to roll it back to the tool shed.

“Will had the desire but he was sick so much. Even when the doctors suspected he was going into remission he was still recovering his strength and health and had to be careful not to overdo it. That’s why my parents decided to homeschool him that last year. His immune system was shot after the bone marrow transplant. Dad wanted to homeschool me too but I was already dual enrolled at the College so it wouldn’t have helped anything really.”

“You were the marrow donor weren’t you?”

“Yeah. It wasn’t that big of a deal for me but it could have killed Will and nearly did in the beginning. As bad as the donor thing was – and it wasn’t really all that bad – it was a lot worse for my parents. It killed them to leave Will in the hospital as much as he was there for a while. That’s why I did so much around the house; so my mom could stay with Will as much as possible.”

He nodded. Our story was commonly known and I supposed he knew a lot of it from work for Dad out at the mill. I closed and locked the shed and he asked, “Can you sit down for a while?”

Instead I asked him, “Want to help me get the tomatoes put on the drying screens? We can talk and work at the same time right?”

He nodded, understanding I was trying to include him but really needed to get work done too. We went over to the screened in patio area that Dad had built for Mom to use as her outdoor kitchen. The “counter” space was made from old granite pieces that he’d scavenged from houses that were being remodeled.

Jax asked, “Did your Dad build this?”

I nodded. “Dad and I did together … about … yeah … about seven years ago. It was the year I turned ten. Remember when the mill owners bought that crummy apartment complex and then converted it to condos? Dad got permission to dumpster dive and brought back a lot of stuff. They let him do it for free because he gave them the idea of recycling and selling a lot of the copper wiring and piping that was being torn out and upgraded. Dad said as much as they replaced, they probably recouped the cost of one of the rehabs at least.”

“Cool,” he said, wandering around inside looking at things while I got the tomatoes prepped.

“I know the counters are all mix-n-match but Mom liked it. Dad had wanted to make them stainless steel but he lost the bids he kept putting in at auctions then when the granite didn’t really cost anything except paying someone to help him uninstall them, load, and then reinstall them here it was like a no brainer. The roof is new though … only about two years old anyway. Dad and I did it, the sheds, and the barns the same summer we did the roof on the house. One of Dad’s whacky auction bids finally came in and it was for the contents of an old manufacturing building. Turns out it was used as a storage location for this roofing contractor that went belly up. That’s why all the roofs are that strange green instead of regular roof colored.”

He smiled and said, “Hey, it doesn’t look bad. What’s ‘regular roof color’ anyway? So it isn’t shingles but who cares? A lot of those expensive places along River Road were starting to replace their old shingles with the metal panels.” He looked at all the tomatoes and said, “So tell me what to do.”

I shook my head. “I’m not gonna tell you, I’ll show you. What we’re doing here is making dried tomatoes. First we need to cut all these tomatoes in half, cut out the stem part and any bad spots, then we’re going to put them on these trays and put them into the dryer.”

“That metal drum thing?” he asked pointing to the fifty-five gallon drum that lay on its side.

“Yeah, it’s a wood-fired dehydrator. Dad made it when the solar ones either wouldn’t work because of the weather or they didn’t work fast enough for the amount of produce Mom was processing. He got it out of a Backwoods Home magazine (http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles/hooker41.html ) and it is a lot more reliable than a solar dehydrator and is meant for large quantities. Not even my mother’s electric Excalibur can keep up with this baby once it gets going.”

I handed him a sharp ceramic cutting knife. “Don’t drop it; you can’t sharpen those once they are chipped or cracked.”

He looked at it then started slicing tomatoes. “Then why use it? Why not use a good ol’ metal knife?”

“Mom always said that ceramic knives didn’t make the food brown around the cuts and it bruised them less so that they’re prettier. Mom liked pretty stuff … including the food she prepared.”

He laughed, “Your Dad used to get kidded a lot about it at work, especially when she would cut his food into shapes … like those curly carrots.”

I smiled glad that someone besides me remembered that sort of stuff. “Hey! I happen to like curly carrots.”

Kelly asked, “Tarrots? Can I has some tarrots?”

Jax groaned, that kid could graze all day long just like a goat if you let her. Instead I told her, “I’ll make some curly carrots for tomorrow’s dinner. For now just drink your sippy. If you are a good girl you can help feed King Kong in the morning.”

Easily pleased, that made her happy and she babbled away about “babbits and chickies” just long enough to go to sleep as Jax and I cut all the tomatoes. I showed him, “I cut an X all across the top of the tomato halves – these are plum tomatoes by the way – so that they don’t curl so much as they dry. Then once we get them on the trays I’ll sprinkle them with a little salt and some Italian seasoning, pop them in and let them go; I’ve already got the dryer warmed up.”

“I can feel it,” he said wiping his upper lip with his shirt sleeve. Then he seemed to sigh in contentment. “See, now this is what I’m talking about. We’re working together instead of me sitting on the porch like a lazy hound.”

“Jax I never thought of you like that,” I told him. “I just figured you would need some time to settle in and get used to things. You’re a townie after all.”

He grunted. “Only half townie. Every summer and most of my spring breaks I went to live on my Granny’s farm. Did that right up until the family put her in that nursing home; she got MRSA and died a couple of months later. That was the winter before I started going with Darlene and you know the rest of it from there. None of this is new to me except for your dad’s gadgets and gizmos.”

Thinking back I realized I did remember that he was usually gone all summer long. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Seriously though, I never meant to make you feel bad.”

“I know and I hope you’ll understand that what I want to talk about isn’t meant to make you feel bad either.”

Cautiously I said, “Ooo … kay. But you don’t expect me to like it.”

“Maybe, maybe not; I’m not sure. Some of it might sound like criticism but I don’t mean it to be. And part of it is just going to make more work which I think needs to be but which probably isn’t going to sound very fair to you.”

When he stopped talking and just looked at me I finally said, “Well say it already will you. The suspense is killing me.”

He snorted but did finally get down to it. “I’ve had plenty of time to look around and have the surprise wear off. I’m sure there are things I don’t know about and that’s fine but I mean the major stuff. But as pretty and as shiny … and useful … as it all is, I think there are some things that can be improved on.”

“What … what things exactly?” I was trying to keep an open mind but I felt defensive at the same time.

“You admitted you haven’t done any scavenging.”

I shook my head. “No. To be honest it just never … I guess it never really occurred to me. It seems wrong somehow. I felt guilty just taking things from the fruit trees and gardens without permission; like it was stealing.”

“Well, if you were able to go that far then you need to go a little further. We need to go back to the mill. There is still a lot of stuff there that could come in handy. And I’d like to have a look at those houses and those trailers you mentioned.”

Trying to play along I said, “Let’s start with the mill. Just explain the why of it to me.”

“First off, that battery in the shed you asked me to look at is bad … I put the meter on it … and you’ve got a couple of others out there that don’t look like they are charging and discharging properly. Spares need to be found pretty quick. Best place to do that is going to be the mill. We can take the ones off of the company equipment and off the few vehicles that are still in the parking lots.” At my nod of understanding he continued. “I also looked at the schematics in your dad’s shop. I can hook up the water wheel but we need a different kind of wire than what you thought … it needs to be a heavier gauge. They’ve got huge spools of the right type at the mill. Now here is the big deal. I also found in your dad’s notes how he was thinking about using tall oil to make biofuel with.” (http://www.motherearthnews.com/Renew...Biodiesel.aspx )

Trying to keep up I said, “Tall oil is that stuff they collect out at the plant when they use pulp from pine trees.”

“Exactly. They’ve got huge storage tanks of the stuff. I’m pretty sure I understand the process because they were thinking about making a small biofuel production plant right at the mill to cut down on regular fuel costs within the mill itself. I heard that was another suggestion your dad made by the way, they just never got around to the start up. Your dad’s set up here is sweet but still lo-tech enough that I don’t think I’ll kill it by experimenting but I swear I’ll be careful. We’ll have to figure out storage and all of that …”

“We have underground tanks for the biofuel because it gels at a higher temperature than regular fuel. But here’s another think to think. I use biofuel to heat with during those times a fireplace or wood stove isn’t enough. That usually means most of the winter nights for the furred and feathered out in the animal barn. That reason alone is why I’ve kept things up and running as much as possible. But the chemicals won’t last forever. I ordered more right before things fell apart but only half the order came in.”

“Not a problem. Your dad got most of the chemicals at the mill and I know where those are stored so that’s another thing that should be on our list. The problem is going to be transporting this stuff so that no one notices.”

“That’s not the biggest problem,” I told him. “We can move it at night if we have to. It is getting it down the last bit of road.”

“I’ve already thought of that and think I’ve figured a way around that. First we have to set up a storage container. Then if I bring the small tanker trailer we used to empty the vats with when the pipes clogged or for inspection, we can park that off the road, camouflage it, transfer it a little at a time … it won’t be easy but it is doable and the payoff makes it worth all of the effort.”

I thought about it for a moment and then said, “Alright. I’ll even give when it comes to taking things from the mill since you know for a fact that the owners and their families are gone … I mean dead. But … do you really want to go pawing through people’s houses? What do you need that we don’t have right here already?”

In less than half a second he said, “Clothes for Kelly for one. I hadn’t thought of that until a couple of days before you showed up in town. She’s already grown out of everything I bought for her before things fell apart and she can’t wear just socks once the weather turns.”

A little hesitant to offer I said, “There’s things up in the attic. They … uh … they used to be mine. Mom sewed all of my clothes and they never wore out before I went to the next size. Most of them are denim and cotton jumpers and things like that. I know my old winter coats and boots are still up there. Mom was a labeling fanatic … well you saw what it is like up there. And … um … oh geez.”

“What?” he asked as I sputtered to a standstill.

“Look, I know it isn’t cool but I can sew and quilt and all of that. Mom was on fire about me keeping up with the skills she taught me. It was just easier to give in and sew my own clothes than it was to listen to her lecture about economics and poor quality if I bought something at the store; she’d go over it and point out every little flaw and tell me how much time and money I wasted having to make repairs or alterations.”

He stopped putting tomatoes on the screens and really looked at what I was wearing. “You sewed that?” he asked referring to the shirt and capris that I was wearing.

Nonchalantly I said, “Yeah. What of it?”

Before I knew what he was doing he had stepped over and pulled the collar of my shirt back and said, “There’s no tag.”

I jerked away from him, “No kidding. My mom had these ‘made by’ tags she sewed into her stuff but I never bothered.”

He was still standing too close and when he started looking at my capris a little too close and then reached out a curious finger to touch the flat felled seam that ran along the outside leg seams I popped his hand and asked, “What are you doing?!”

“Huh? I was looo … oh … uh … oh boy.” He stepped back and looked a little bashful but not especially embarrassed. “I really was just … looking. I remember my grandmother making my Easter clothes when I was little and the spare bedroom had boxes of unfinished projects she kept meaning to work on but … I don’t know … I just thought it was …” He cleared his throat and said, “Anyway, next time I’ll warn you when I mean to touch.”

“When you mean to touch? Well, that’s some ego you got there Ajax Remington. I mean really.”

He wasn’t sure how to react at first but then he grinned and stepped back and started putting tomatoes on the screens again. “Did you think I was kidding when I said I would probably think about it?”

I’d never dealt with anything like Jax, at least not in real life and that was a whole lot different than dealing with the make believe gamer world. “Well … I guess now I know for sure don’t I.”

He got quiet when he saw how uncomfortable I was. “Ok, on to other topics. This looks like a lot of food.”

Well, I had to admit he was trying … in a weird guy kind of way. I smiled just a little and said, “I’m not totally against the idea Jax … just not used to you … anyone … being up in my personal space like that.”

“You sure that’s all?” he asked.

I looked at him and then had to smile a little bigger. He had a baby back pack on and his kid was in it dead to the world asleep. Her sippy cup had drenched his shoulder and he hadn’t even noticed. His hair was going every which direction where Kelly had been using it like horse reins. There was a smear of “pea-but” on his shirt where she’d wiped her mouth across his chest at lunch. And this was the guy that used to be too cool for words. “Yeah, I’m sure. Just … uh … just kinda figure into the equation I … I don’t know how I’m supposed to react to that stuff in the real world. Gamer land I would have shot you or thumped you with my sword or something … here … here I don’t know what to do. I really don’t want to thump you but, I don’t know how else I’m supposed to act without looking like a sleeze queen.”

He gave me a lopsided grin. “Just be yourself. And I’ll try to be less … uh … hands on … until you can figure out what that means.”

I looked away and made a face. “This is soooo strange.”

He admitted quietly, “Yeah, for me too. I tried to date a couple of times after Darlene but after a while it just wasn’t worth the challenge. And people kept watching me to see if I was going to ruin Kelly’s life or if I’d wind up like those crazy dads from hell you’d see on the news; shaken baby syndrome, leave the kid in the bathtub to drown in three inches of water, starve her to death or feed her until she weighed as much as a baby elephant. It got old real fast. The guys at the mill, they were about the only ones that didn’t treat me like I was brain damaged. A lot of them only got to see their kids every other weekend so understood where I was coming from. Geez, I sound pathetic.”

I shook my head. “No you don’t. I should have listened more when Dad talked about you to Mom. Sometimes it just felt like he was warning me about what could happen if I didn’t stay focused. But maybe that isn’t what he meant. Maybe he was trying to tell me that there were guys out there that were … were different from Matt.”

He laughed. “Your dad would have fed me to the pulping machine if I’d even thought about asking you out. And he’d been right. I didn’t have my head on straight back then and was barely keeping it together.”

“You don’t seem that way now,” I told him quietly.

He was going to say something cocky but then just gave me a quiet, “Thank you.”

Then I said, “So anyway … about the food. I know it looks like a lot but this is the beginning of September. Harvesting will be over by the end of next month and everything will have to last until next April and May when the next harvest of fresh stuff starts up again.”

Happy to change the subject Jax nodded. “For a while I bussed tables out at the truck stop diner while I was still in highschool; I know how fast food can go. It just seems like a lot for the three of us. My grandmother always had a big garden but she gave stuff to all the family and still had some left over.”

I told him, “We gave stuff to the food pantry and traded with the Mennonites. I’ve just kept gardening like Mom out of habit I guess. I know technically it’s too much but this way if the garden doesn’t make it for some reason, or there’s a hail storm, a drought, a swarm of locusts, or something like that we’ll still eat because we’ll have some left from previous seasons.”

He looked thoughtful. “OK. And on that note one of the things I was wondering about was if you still want to bring in other people.”

His question caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought about it at all since we left town. “Are you?” I asked.

“Technically this is your place and I can’t invite people here.”

“Don’t avoid the question.”

“You just did,” he pointed out.

I rolled my eyes refusing to admit it. Instead I told him, “I honestly haven’t really thought about it. It isn’t on my high-pri right now.”

He seemed to relax. “Ok. Could I ask you something else?”

“Stop asking like you’re some kind of supplicant. It makes me feel … I don’t … creeped out.”

He smiled. “Look … I’d just like to suggest that we focus on some other stuff first and let the idea of more people be put off for a while; at least until we see how the kids shake out in town. How do you feel about that?”

A little exasperated I asked him, “Why do you keep asking me how I feel about stuff? You sound like the school’s psyche counselor.”

It wasn’t the answer he was expecting and he closed his mouth and blinked a couple of times figuring out how to respond to the way I had phrased it. Finally he sighed and said, “One of the conditions my Uncle set for me renting the garage apartment was that I had to go to family counseling with them. You know they had started attending that new age-y church that went into that old car dealership’s building.” At my nod he said, “I guess more of it stuck on me than I expected. Matt’s mom was a bi … uh … bear about things being phrased just right.”

Trying not to show that I’d noticed what he had almost called his aunt I said, “OK, that’s cool. I was just wondering if you thought I was gonna have a melt-down if we don’t exactly think in lockstep. And can I ask you why you and Matt have different surnames if your fathers were brothers?”

He looked at me and then a grin of relief grew on his face. “Thanks for not saying anything about how I should have been grateful for the place my aunt and uncle gave me in their home. I was … am still ... just it wasn’t perfect for any of us. My dad and Matt’s dad are half brothers. My dad was older and when his dad when he was a baby. He had three older half-sisters from his father first marriage that Granny raised like her own. Then a year after he died Granny remarried and had Matt dad. Granny was that man’s third wife and he had kids that Granny raised also. When Matt’s dad died in the war she married a widower that had four kids of his own from another marriage and then they had two daughters together. You think you had to be careful of who you were related to? You should have seen my family reunions. You had to work it backwards to find out if you were blood related or related by marriage … people really did go to our family reunions to find dates sometimes.”

I whooped a surprised laugh then slammed my hand over my mouth to keep from waking Kelly. “Oh man, Dad could tell the same kinds of stories. He always joked that he kept expecting the local schools to be full of three headed and seven toed kids just from all the intermarrying that had to be going on. You are just too funny. It’s nice that someone actually gets that concept without thinking I’m from some redneck hell on earth.”

Matt laughed too and then grinned and it held something I couldn’t really define. Then he had to go and spoil it by embarrassing me. “Matt’s an idiot. I would have come over here even if I had to crawl the whole way with Kelly on my back.”

I blinked, then blushed. “Oh.”

“Yes. Oh.” Making another quick subject change he said, “Now you don’t seem to have a problem with the mill. And you seem like you can be persuaded about checking out the empty houses and trailers around here. I’ve got a few other things in my head but now that I’ve told you some of my ideas, do you have any of your own?”

It didn’t take me but a moment to say, “The goats.”

“Yeah, you mentioned them the first day we got here. What do we need for them?”

“Fencing and feed. Those goats are used to surviving on forage but they’ll need more than that when the weather turns.”

He pulled out a folded piece of paper and a broken pencil. “Anything else?”

“For the goats? Not off the top of my head. But … but I have a list of other stuff.” I explained about reading those books and how I’d thought of things here and there.

When I was finished he said, “What stuff is on your list?”

I grinned in spite of myself and told him, “Well I scratched off cannons and Holy water.” When he grumbled and gave me a look that told me his question had been a serious one I said, “Well … a … a few … personal items.”

“Per … oh … uh … you mean feminine stuff. I heard the girls talking about that back at the school.”

I shrugged and said, “I hope they were smart enough to talk about birth control pills and condoms at the same time.”

He almost choked on his own spit at the way I’d just thrown it into the middle of the conversation. After clearing his throat he said, “Not in so many words.” But then even more serious than he had been before he told me, “They don’t need the kind of trouble they were making for themselves so I started talking about dirty diapers, spit up, and formula for a little bit. The guys gave me dirty looks because apparently it was spoiling their fun but they still weren’t taking me very seriously. One night I simply threw a laundry basket condoms in the middle of what they called the play room and told them all to wear ‘em or wind up like me. That babies couldn’t be turned on and off like their game consoles, they didn’t come with extra batteries or volume controls, and if they killed their kid there wasn’t enough points in the world that would bring them back to life.”

Trying to envision it I said, “Oh … my … gosh! What did they say?!”

“I think a couple of them got the message but most of them just laughed at me and started calling me Father Goose. Matt however got all pinched up asked me not to be so … how did he say it? Oh yeah … not to be so crass about it. That he would speak to each of his ‘men’ privately and impress upon them the importance of things like personal hygiene and protection.”

I shook my head kind of disgusted. “You know, sometimes I wonder what I ever saw in Matt.”

He told me, “You were just doing what everyone expected. Heck, even I expected the two of you to date until highschool was over then as soon as the two of you went away to college the spell would have been broken.” I didn’t want to agree with him but I was starting to think maybe he was right.

We got quiet after finishing the tomatoes and getting them loaded into the dryer. Jax took Kelly to do the daddy thing with the potty and all that and by the time he came back out I was finished with the remainder of my outside chores that were on my list for that day. The problem was one of those chores had been to get another bale of hay out of the stack that was covered with a tarp. Getting it out had been easy. Putting it on the dolly to wheel it back to the barn had been fine. But I’d tripped over something in the animal barn, I never did figure out what, and when I went down it was hard and I scrapped my back on some empty cages that I’d had stacked off to the side.

I didn’t cry but it hurt. Had I been by myself I might have cried just to vent some steam but no way was I going to let Jax think I was a wimp. The thing is that scrape tore my shirt on the back of my left shoulder and also tore off some skin. I was trying to get a look at it but since my neck didn’t bend like a giraffe I wasn’t having much luck. That’s when Jax came in.

“Hey! What happened?!” Kelly said the obvious. “Widdie gots a boo-boo Daddy.”

Smiling for her sake I said, “I tripped I think. One of the rabbits must have pulled a fast one or …”

Jax interrupted by pushing my hand out of the way. “Don’t touch it. Geez … you look like you slid into first on your shoulder.”

I tried to laugh it off and say, “Better than sliding in face first.”

Jax was not amused and said, “I promise to not go all pervert but you’re going to need to lose the shirt so I can clean this. You broke your bra strap too.”

I stared at him. He just stared back and then said, “You’re going to need to trust me at some point Lydie and this might as well be it.”

Not ready to just strip right there I told him, “If you weren’t here I’d have to take care of it myself. I’ve had worse. Back in July I fell off the porch roof getting rid of a wasp nest. I don’t know which was worse, falling into Mom’s rose bushes or getting stung by the yellow jackets that survived the spray.”

“Am I supposed to think that’s funny?” he asked calmly. “Because it isn’t. You could have broken a bone … or your neck.”

“Ok, ok. Let’s just … go to the house. I don’t need eleventy dozen little eyes staring at me while we get this done.”

“Fine. And I’ll put Kelly in her highchair. She can play with those stacking cups you found for her.”

After we got inside and he put Kelly to play he told me to sit in a chair backwards and to just tell him where the first aid supplies were. “The big tub of stuff is in the laundry room above the cabinets that hold the cleaners.”

He got it down and whistled when he opened the top. “Man … you could do surgery with some of this stuff.”

“That’s the point,” I told him. “Farms come with farm injuries and it is too far to the hospital for some emergencies. I really need to show you where all of the stuff is just in case. There’s a matching tub like this one in Dad’s office out in the main barn and a smaller one in that closet back in that corner where I keep the stuff for the animals in the animal barn. The heavy duty stuff though that doesn’t need refrigeration is in my mother’s closet. And down in the cool cellar in that little locked cabinet in there is some real drugs.”

“Real drugs?”

“Yeah … antibiotics, heavy duty pain killers, sedatives, that sort of thing. Hey, how do you know what to use?” I asked noticing how efficient he was.

“I started taking classes to be an EMT after I realized it would take me forever to get a degree in nursing. I was still going to go nursing school after I saved up the money but figured I might as well have some useful training just in case I got laid off from the mill. They’d made noises about it a few times and I was definitely pretty low on the totem pole. If nothing else I figured I was preparing in case Kelly got hurt or something like that. It is one of the few things I did that didn’t seem to chap the butt of the social worker that the county assigned to Kelly.”

I was slowly unbuttoning my shirt and I told him, “Yeah, I remember that. Dad was pretty bent that someone had made an anonymous complaint against you.”

“So much for anonymous; I found out it was Darlene’s parents. They just couldn’t seem to stand that the judge gave me full and sole custody of Kelly after Darlene said she wanted to end her parental rights; they’d had someone all picked out to be Kelly’s adoptive parents that lived several states away and I think it embarrassed them that it fell through. That’s another reason why I stayed in the garage apartment rather than moving out on my own all the way; I didn’t want any trouble with child services.”

I looked at him then sighed. “Look … just …”

He pulled up another chair and sat beside me and tried to calm me down. “Lydie, I’m not a jerk. I’m not going to make a move on you when you are hurt or go crazy just because I see a little skin. And the sooner we get this done the sooner you can stop worrying about it.”

I figured I was being stupid but it was still embarrassing. He had to help me get the shirt off because the blood had already dried in a couple of places and the material was sticking. Then I held the shirt to my front because the bra strap on that side really was toast and the whole thing tried to go lopsided. He cleaned the area that was scraped pretty fast and then put cream on it and a gauze pad to keep the scrape from oozing all over the place.

“I’ll clean it before we go to bed. And … uh … I’m really not a jerk but maybe you should go put a different shirt on. Your skin is really … uh … nice and smooth.” That just about did me in and I took off up the stairs almost at a run so that he wouldn’t realize I was trying not to act like I might want him to be a jerk.

What to wear was a challenge and took longer to figure out than I had meant it to. I couldn’t manage a regular bra because of where the straps rubbed so I picked a strapless one that I had bought to go under a party dress. A shirt wasn’t that easy to find either, so I settled on a tube top and just threw a camisole shirt over the top to keep me from looking like I wanted the wrong kind of attention. I came downstairs slowly but was surprised to find Jax in front of the stove.

“Hey! That’s my job,” I told him. “You think I’m made of glass or something? It’s just a scrape.”

He looked over his shoulder and grinned. “Don’t get so defensive. It’s just noodles for the spaghetti you said you were fixing for dinner. I didn’t touch your precious meat sauce in the slow cooker or your bread in that shiny box thing.”

Snorting in an unladylike way I told him, “That shiny box thingy is a solar cooker. Dad built it …”

“Using some plans he got off the internet,” he said laughing. “How many times have I heard that?” (http://www.omick.net/solar_ovens/current_solar_oven.htm )

“Laugh all you want buddy boy … but you’ll be glad that it is that much less wood to cut for this winter. I mean you did say you wanted to share in the chores did you?”

“Awww maaaaan,” he groaned with a laugh which then had me laughing.

My shoulder was still sore but I was no longer embarrassed and the rest of dinner went really well. The spaghetti and soft breadsticks were delicious if I do say so myself. For dinner we had homemade apple yogurt parfaits. Kelly nearly wore hers so Jax fed her rather than let her feed herself. Pretty soon she was finished and while they had their nightly “tickle fight” and general mess fest with the toys we’d cobbled together for her I did the dishes and put away the leftovers that would be used for the next day’s lunch.

The two of them came galloping into the kitchen as I was scouring off the stove top. “Somebody wants to give you a hug goodnight and won’t go to bed until her demands are met,” Jax said playing it to the hilt.

I put my hands on my hips and said, “Is that so? Well does the noisy bumble bee promise to go to sleep if she gets a hug?”

Kelly giggled and something tugged in my heart. I started to realize I really like the little kid even if she was loud and messy. I gave her a clumsy hug … I was way out of practice … and then he was zooming her up the stairs like she was a plane for her nightly story then bed. It wasn’t ten minutes later when he was coming back down.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“Uh uh. She barely made it into her PJs before she was nodding off. I got two pages into the story and she was out like a light. Got anything left I can help with?”

I shrugged and then regretted it. “Ouch. You can take the table cloth outside and shake it off for me if you don’t mind.”

“Sure,” he said. He even managed to get it off without dumping all the crumbs onto the floor; but I still had to sweep. If Kelly had been shooting to get pieces of noodle, sauce, and crumbs all over the place she had great aim.

Jax came back in and put the plastic gingham checked cover back on the kitchen table. “I wiped it off outside with that spray you used to clean up her highchair. I’ll bring it in too. How’s your shoulder?”

“Sore but I’ll live. It’s a little early but I think I’m done for the night. I’m just gonna sit in the living room and work on my notes unless you need me to get a load to soak overnight.”

“No. Putting that bag over Kelly’s clothes while she ate was a good idea. You mind if I sit in there with you for a while? I don’t feel like going to bed yet.”

I rolled my eyes at him. “I wish you would stop acting like I’m your keeper or something. Why should I care if you want to stay up or where you want to stay up at?”

“I just don’t want you to think I’m stalking you. Besides, I’ll need to check that scrape before you go to bed.”

“I suppose,” I said. Then added, “And I don’t think you are stalking me. You live here too.”

He gave me a relieved nod and we went into living room and I climbed onto the end of the sofa, criss crossed my legs and started trying to rework my schedules. Looking over my shoulder he asked, “What are you doing?”

I explained, “You want to go to the mill and go to those empty houses. I have to make room in my chore times to get it done. I finished harvesting all the berries and cherries last month but I’ve still got apples and pears coming in out the wazoo, the peaches need to be finished getting cleaned off by the end of this week, the watermelons will be ripe pretty soon, corn needs to be picked …”

“Whoa … you’re going too fast for me to keep up. Go slower and tell me what needs to be done.”

I realized that if we were going to share the workload he needed to understand what was involved so I tried to explain without sounding snotty about it. “OK. I’ve already told you about the apples, pears, peaches, corn, and watermelons. I’ve got enough dried apples and pears and I’ve already canned a bunch of stuff out of them so what I’m going to make with most of what is left is apple juice and cider and pear nectar. If you want we can even make some hard cider; Dad did nearly every year (http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-...ard-Cider.aspx ) and he and Mom would enjoy a glass ever so often. He didn’t mind if I had a sip at the holidays but it is really strong stuff. I’m not sure how you feel about it.”

“Granny used to talk about my grandfather making it … the man my older cousins called Pap. He died before I was born though so I don’t remember him. Is it difficult?”

I shook my head, “No worse than anything else I guess. I wouldn’t mind trying pear hard cider. Dad used to say his grandparents did it and I like the taste of good pear nectar almost better than apple juice (http://www.hipchickdigs.com/2009/09/making-pear-cider/ ). I could make peach nectar too but to be honest the trees gave so early and well this year I’m just about peached out. I think I’m just going to dry what’s left … at least what you don’t eat first.”

He grinned, “You sure you don’t mind? I love fresh peaches.”

I grinned back at him, “Go ahead, less I have to worry about. Besides, the fuzz gives me the shivers. I like nectarines better but they finished out early last month.”

“Good deal,” he said. “So what else?”

“Beans.”

“Beans?”

“Yeah, I had a gap in the pole beans when a few rows didn’t make for some reason and I had to replant them but I need to start picking the next crop tomorrow. I’ll cook us up a couple of big pots then I’ll dry the rest into leather britches. I’ve got a bunch of dried pods to pick on the bush beans by the end of this month which are both next year’s seeds and the dried beans I’ll cook over the winter.”

“You don’t … you know … can the beans like at the grocery store?”

“Some I will. Some I’ll go ahead and fix into soups. I’ll even can some chili if we can get a deer or two. I took one over the summer that kept getting into the corn but I don’t usually like to hunt before cool weather sets in because processing the meat is too much in warm weather.”

“The meat spoils right?”

“Yeah, if you aren’t fast enough. Do you hunt?”

He shook his head, “A few times when I was a kid with my grandmother’s brother when he was still alive. I helped my grandmother cull her chicken and geese flocks; she always had a couple of turkeys too. Her neighbor would trade pork for chicken and a Thanksgiving turkey at the holidays but I didn’t get to see it because I was always in school.”

“Almost don’t need to keep hogs these days. There are wild ones that run loose and make a mess and Dad and I used hunt them and take a couple after the first freeze. When the people abandoned the land around here the wild pigs moved in. The boars are dangerous so watch out if you see any.”

“Yeah, guy at work got treed by some that had come onto his property.”

“Exactly; being gored is no joke. Anyway back to the garden stuff. I cut the broccoli and greens as I want them though next month I’ll probably start drying whatever is left.”

“Broccoli? Kelly calls it trees. Broccoli and cheese is like her favorite all time food next to peanut butter.”

I smiled, “Trees? That’s funny. Will used to call them that …” I stopped and looked away. Sometimes the hurt still caught me when I wasn’t prepared.

Quietly Jax asked, “You OK?”

I answered a watery, “Yeah. They lie when they tell you it gets better after a while. It just gets different.”

“I’m … I’m finding that out.”

I looked at him in understanding but we both knew we couldn’t do anything but keep going because those that left us behind weren’t coming back. “I also need to clean the root cellar out and make it ready for stuff to be put in there. I’ll save the best storage apples and pears to make them last as long as I can. Carrots and potatoes will be put in crates and set in their places down there. Cabbage, that I don’t intend to turn into kraut or canned slaw, have a shelf down there too. Cucumbers will go in the pickling barrel. Grapes that we don’t eat fresh I will dry into raisins; I’ve got enough grape jelly to sink the titanic and enough grape juice that I’m afraid it will turn into wine or vinegar before we can drink it all. I’ll dry or pickle the peppers you see all over the yard … don’t let Kelly put any of those little orange ones in her mouth you will have a flaming baby dragon on your hands. I should probably put chicken wire or something around them. I’m really sorry she got that jalapeno the other day.”

He shook his head. “That was my fault. She saw me pick one and eat it. I should have watched her closer. She spit it right out. I doubt she’ll do it again but just to be on the safe side I will put up that fencing if you don’t mind.”

“We’ll do it together. I’ll also stick labels near the plants so you’ll know what they are until you can identify them by sight. Mom said she used to fence everything because Will and I would graze like goats when she wasn’t looking. That’s why nearly all the landscaping around the house, barns, and pond is edible instead of mixed. She used to have to put Will in a harness and have him on a leash line because he was prone to wander away really fast and then Mom would panic and we’d be looking for a long time before we’d find him hiding in a bush or something.”

Jax shuddered. “I’d have a heart attack.”

“Yeah well Dad paddled Will a few times and after a while he got the point even if he didn’t agree with it and the running off stopped.” Jax was still looking cross eyed at the idea of Kelly wandering off so I just kept talking. “We’ll probably eat the last of the summer squash – I like it fried like I fixed yesterday for lunch – and the pumpkins and winter squash will get canned, dried, or put on their shelves in the root cellar. We finished off most of the tomatoes today except the ones that I want to turn into more juice and spaghetti sauce. The sauce is an all-day activity so I’ll try and do the juice while the sauce is cooking and kill two birds with one stone. I use Mom’s really giant pots so I’ll have to do it on the outdoor gas burners and you’ll need to keep Kelly with you most of that day. I’m just gonna tell you, the one thing I’m not good at is having kids around big cooking fires outside. You remember Julia Quinn?”

He nodded right away. “I worked with her older brother.”

I told him with my own shudder, “I was there that day. Our family and the Quinns used to get together and boil sorghum. She was old enough to know better than to play in the fire but no sooner had her brother told her to stop twice and then threatened to go tell their parents than she did something that shifted the cradle under the sorghum trough. We started screaming and got her pulled out … her brother got his hand all scared up too … but … you know how it went.”

“I had no idea Lydie. I knew that Ray and your Dad used to talk about their families but I didn’t know what the connection was. Your dad always said he was related to most of the county so I just assumed that was it.”

“Yeah, we were some kind of cousins but mostly it was they used to own that fallow land on the other side of Herman’s Creek and that’s where we made the sorghum. They moved away and I heard that Julia got out of the wheelchair after a couple of years of therapy but that she wasn’t ever really the same. She was in the burn center for a long time and Mom said the pain turned her mind a bit.”

“Don’t know, Ray didn’t talk about it much. I just knew the story. But you don’t have any trouble around fire yourself after seeing that?”

I shook my head. “No. It’s just watching kids around fire. I couldn’t even stand for Will to be around it much. I used to get so mad at the boys in his Boy Scout troop. Some of them acted as dumb as stumps,” I told him disgruntled even at the memories.

To distract me he said, “I’m afraid to ask if this chore list is any longer.”

I snorted. “What do you think?” I showed him the paper. “I’ve got herbs to hang to dry, sweet potatoes to dig and put in the root cellar, sun chokes to mulch so they’ll over winter, and count the jars and lids I have left. There’s all the beets to deal with and I need to can the sweet corn … and cut some off the cob to dry … and the dent corn out in the field that needs to be stacked to finish drying and then next month I have to bring it in, cut it from the stalks and tie it together for curing.”

“You don’t combine the corn?”

“Uh uh. I mean I suppose I could because Dad converted the tractors to run on the biofuel but I didn’t plant enough this year to make it worth it. I still have a bunch of corn in the corn crib that will need to be cracked for the animals as we go. Next year I’ll have to …” He gave me a look and I corrected it to, “… we’ll have to plant more corn. The corn combine is that big toothed thing at the end of the vehicle row in the tractor barn. The wheat combine is the one with the thing that looks like a rolling beater on the front.”

He nodded. “I know. Like I said, I worked on my Granny’s farm. Did you plant wheat this year?”

“Yeah, about five acres that I harvested in June; enough there was no way I was gonna try and bring it in by hand that’s for sure. I only got 40 bushels an acre though because I set the spreader too thin. Mr. Houchins’ was a lot prettier from what I could see but he has a monster irrigation system, we don’t. I did put in soybeans behind the wheat but I might wind up just deciding to let them go; the deer have already grazed the heck out of them anyway. I know the perfect spot to set up the stand if you are serious about hunting with me … we’ll need ear plugs for Kelly though and hope the deer are so numerous she won’t scare them all off before we can get a few.”

Scribbling away on his piece of paper he said, “I’ll figure something out.”

We talked back and forth but then it came down to going to bed and he said, “Let me have a quick look at your shoulder.”

“It’s not …”

“Lydie … did I jump you when I looked before?”

Giving him a look that told him not to be stupid I said, “That’s not what I’m saying. I just mean that you don’t have to.”

“I know I don’t. Now take your shirt off, I want to check you out. Uh … I mean … Dang it Lydie, you know what I mean.”

I wound up laughing at the irritated look on his face and giving in with a clear conscience. It was still hard to see the super cool guy I remembered in the one sitting behind me being so careful as he pulled the tap back to “check me out.”

“It looks ok,” he said. “It isn’t oozing anymore which is a good sign. I’ll change the bandage again in the morning.”

We went up the stairs together after checking all the locks. I turned to go to my room when he stopped me. “Lydie?”

Turning back I said, “Huh?”

“Thanks.”

Confused I asked, “For what?”

“Understanding about me needing to be part of whatever it is we’re doing. And … uh … trusting me … in the beginning and … uh … tonight. I … uh … appreciate it.”

I smiled inordinately pleased for some reason. I felt compelled to tell him, “And thanks … for not … you know … constantly ragging on me. I’m really glad … I mean … that you and Kelly … not … uh … not Matt and Marty … I mean …”

I was starting to feel stupid and tripping over my words. He closed the few steps there was between us and I had to look up into his face. He said quietly, “Me too.” Then he kissed me lightly on the lips and turned me back around and pushed me gently towards my room while he walked towards his and Kelly’s. I was still trying to figure out how to make my feet actually move when I heard his door close quietly behind me.