Saturday, March 17, 2012

The New Geek Empire: Part Seven

“Hold onto her tight; we’re coming up to another curve.”

What I really needed to hold onto was my temper. “Jax, you’ve told me to hold onto her about a dozen times already. I’m not going to let her bang her head, bump her mouth, fall out of the window, or any of the other horrors you apparently think I’m stupid enough to let happen. Just pull over already and switch places with me; I’ll drive, you can hold the wiggling wonder instead.”

He slowed and pulled over. “Look, maybe we better.”

I shook my head. “Suits me but more than likely as soon as I pull out you are just going to start back seat driving.”

Instead of moving so that I could get behind the wheel he turned to look at me in the late afternoon light. “I … I just can’t stand the idea of anything happening to Kelly. She’s all I have and all I’ve really had in a long time. She’s … she’s my kid.”

I sighed and told him, “I get that. I don’t have a problem with it either. I don’t really have a problem with you telling me a couple of times to be careful but … after a couple it kinda makes me feel like you think I’m an idiot. I may not have a kid of my own Jax but I do understand they’re precious cargo. You’re nearly as bad as my parents could get over Will.”

Jax drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and then sighed and pulled back onto the road. “I’m not used to trusting people.”

“You let Ashley, Ginger and the other girls babysit for you.”

He shrugged and said, “I didn’t have much of a choice and I only did it when I absolutely had to for as short a time as I could possibly get away with.”

“Fine … but I’m not going to hurl Kelly out a window, off the roof, or throw her down a well. I do have some commonsense you know.”

After a moment he chuckled. “Sorry. Guess I was being a little crazy.”

“Not much as you could have I guess, just give me some credit. I did volunteer at the school day care center in case you didn’t know.”

Not overly impressed Jax said, “Yeah, a lot of kids volunteer there to get their hours for graduation there. Last I heard they did it because it was a coast.”

I snorted. “Obviously your news was out of date. Mrs. Lemmin took over the DCC; volunteering there was work and you got a grade at the end of every week. If you didn’t pass the grade then you didn’t come back and you didn’t get your recommends letter for your next volunteer opportunity.”

“Ouch,” he said. “She sounds like she was a real battle ax.”

“Yeah but a lot of it was the new state regs she’d been hired to implement. I already had all of my first aid and CPR training but I still had to get recertified before I could start. I also had to participate in the parenting classes and afterschool training for the paid workers. It convinced me that while I like kids, I didn’t want to work with classrooms full of them at a time as a career. So no offense, but Kelly here is a piece of cake compared to all those monkeys at the DCC. They practically swung from the lights the first couple of weeks after they would start the program.” Shuddering at the memory of some of the kids I noticed we were getting close to the turn off. “Up there, you see those three bashed in mail boxes? Two entrances after that is the road that leads back to the house.”

He was concentrating on driving but he was also looking around with interest. “And you say town is spooky. I didn’t know there were so many houses out this way. And you say they are all empty?”

“Most of them area only facades; if you go beyond the front door all you’ll find is partially finished rooms and some are even empty shells that only have the stud walls up. My dad called them spec homes and no one has ever lived in of them. If you take the road opposite ours you’ll go to a small circle of houses that people did live in but I haven’t seen anyone in them for a while. I road my bike down there a couple of times but it’s like they just went on vacation and never came home. There are some houses over by the Houchins place too but those are what’s left of a foreclosed subdivision. There’s also some trailers if you keep going down this road but they’re abandoned too. I spent a lot of the summer running around picking fruit and stuff before it could fall and bringing it home to take care of just to have something to do. The deer got most of the gardens that had been planted that I could find, though I did manage to get some tomatoes but that’s about it unless some of the squash survive which I kinda doubt.” As Jax tried to come up with a response I told him, “Here … turn here. There’s a couple of good sized dips in the road and some annoying acute turns but Dad put them in that way so that no could use our back road for playing Dukes of Hazard or Burnout Paradise. There is one really narrow piece coming up … yeah … right up there.”

When we came up to the final mile long drive I told him, “Let me out here. There are two gates I’m going to have to unlock.”

“Dang, you are on the back side of nowhere aren’t you?”

“Is that your way of trying to tell me you’re having second thoughts?” He shook his head though didn’t talk as he negotiated around some oaklings that had grown too tall before their width could keep them completely upright. I told him, “We aren’t really that far out, it just feels that way sometimes because of how slow you have to go to get back the final couple of miles.”

Finally we pulled into the homestead lot and I directed him to pull over to the tractor barn. “Let me take care of the animals while you take care of Kelly. If you don’t have a problem with soup, dinner won’t take that long to fix. We’ll save what’s left of the bread and I’ll make French toast for breakfast and you and Kelly can have crackers instead.”

Kelly gave her vote by yelling for “Kackers! Kackers and Pea-buts!!”

For some reason that struck me as hilarious but I still told her, “If you eat all the pea-but now there won’t be any for tomorrow. Tell you what, you eat all your soup and I bet I can find a surprise that you’ll like.”

She still really wanted the pea-but but I told her to hush or she would scare the chickens and rabbits and then she wouldn’t be able to help feed them. That shut her up for a moment then she wanted to see the “chickies and babbits right now.” I was trying to figure out a polite way to tell Jax to stop dancing, that there was a bathroom in the barn but he figured it out for himself when I just pointed and walked off with his kid.

He followed the sound of his daughter’s squeals at the chickens pecking at the cracked mixed feed I had put in their feeder. I handed her over telling him, “The rabbits are a little more temperamental. They’re cute and fluffy but they’ll bite if they get startled, especially King Kong.”

I walked into the barn and turned up the gas lamp so I could see. Jax was watching the lamp for a moment but when he turned back around he jumped about four feet and just about yelled, “Holy … that’s got to be the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen in my life. You sure that ain’t a dog in there?”

I laughed. “No, that’s King Kong. He’s a Hungarian Giant. He’s got unusual coloring and is darker that most of his breed is. He likes to hide in the shadow and sneak up on me sometimes when I go in to clean his cage.”

“Is that I mean … what do you do with a rabbit that big?” he asked finally coming over to take a good look at the nearly eighteen pound animal.

“King Kong is a novelty breed and basically a pet in this country. You see the ones with the long hair? Those are angoras and you shave them or just keep their combings and use it to make yarn with. Those regular looking rabbits in the hutches between those two posts are the ones that are for meat.”

“Uh … meat? As in you … er … eat them?”

I rolled my eyes. “No, I feed all these animals just to give myself something to do a couple of times a day. I mean cleaning cages is just really, really fun.” When he got my sarcastic point I told him, “Yes I eat them, and you will too but if you don’t want me to tell you when I’ll just …”

“No … uh … no, that’s not what I mean. I’m not squeamish. My grandmother used to fix rabbit, squirrel, frog legs, goat, you name it. I just have a hard time believing you expected to be able to bring Matt … and Marty too … out here and expect them to eat Thumper.”

I turned away and bit my lip. Quietly I admitted, “I’ve figured out I didn’t have all the kinks worked out of my plan.”

He sighed. “You know, I’m not normally this bad about sticking my foot in my mouth. Maybe that mouth guard is a good idea.”

I relaxed. Jax was a lot easier to be around than I had expected. “No, but I tell you what. You don’t twit me about being stupid and I won’t twit you about having mouth-in-foot-itis. Deal?”

He chuckled. “Deal.”

Then I got more serious. “I do have one suggestion though and I hope you’ll understand. Don’t let Kelly start thinking of the animals as pets. King Kong is a pet but he’s already five years old and I really don’t know how much longer he is going to live. Most rabbits don’t live much beyond seven years though some have been known to live like fifteen or so. The angoras are a lot of work and they are used to being handled – some will even hop right to me to be brushed out – but they aren’t what you would call especially friendly. They will snap if I hit a knot in their fur unexpectedly. The other rabbits are like the chickens, they serve their purpose and I treat them as well as I can … but I don’t give them names or bring them in the house.”

“Chickens too?”

“Especially those feather dusters,” I answered. “Even the specialty breeds serve their purpose without being turned into pets. I keep the hens until their egg production drops off due to age and then it is time to turn them into fryers. Roosters I’ll cull when they are still young and tender so we don’t get a lot of fighting which can make them all a little crazy. Anyone of them gets mean and I don’t care how good they are, I’ll wring their necks and put ‘em in a pot as fast as I can. Getting pecked is part of the job, getting spurred or having them fly in my face at my eyes is not.”

He nodded. “I don’t want her to get hurt. Better for her to learn it now when she is little so that it is more natural than have to unlearn bad habits later. Do you have any other animals?”

I nodded my head then shook it. “Well, they aren’t my animals exactly. There are some goats that live in the kudzu that is growing into some of those abandoned track homes and they’ve gotten where they’ll let me milk them if they are in the mood. The Billy is a smelly ol’ beast but he took out a dog that tried to sneak up on me and now thinks he owns me or something I think.” I laughed. “Of course it doesn’t hurt that I always come with a bucket of feed to sweeten his nature a bit. And speaking of feed, how about I go fix the soup and you can pick the rooms you want for you and Kelly.”

“Uh … ok. Let me get her stuff … aw nooo.”

I looked sharply at him wondering what was wrong. “What’s up?”

“I can’t believe I forgot … no high chair or playpen or nothing. I’ve got to … to figure out … let me think.”

I tapped his shoulder and then when I had his attention I tapped my forehead. “Already thought of it. Will’s old stuff is in the attic; Mom never got rid of anything that might be useful later on. I know right where it is at too because I was up there last week looking for a lantern mantle.”

In short order I’d washed my hands and opened a quart jar of bean and bacon soup and set it to warm and then took Jax upstairs trying not to feel strange about having someone in the house after being alone for so long. After all I was the one that had wanted a “clan” of my own. I might have been covering it up but Jax wasn’t as good an actor. I showed him where my room was and suggested that he use the guest room that had been reserved for family when they came to visit. “The small room off of it used to be a nursery before it was turned into a sitting room. Might as well turn it back into what it was originally meant to be. Or you can put the crib in your room; whichever way you want to work it.”

“Uh … ok.”

It was dark going up to the attic so I clicked on the lights and not for the first time Jax jumped. “What the …? You’ve got electricity?!”

“Solar. We can’t be stupid about it but it never let my family down before although I think one of the batteries might have died on me. I can’t get a meter reading out of it.”

Uneasily he looked around and said, “Someone might see, come to investigate.”

“Black out curtains.”

“Huh?”

I turned around and tickled Kelly rather than punch Jax. “I told you I’m not completely stupid. We started out using the blackout curtains just to keep the sun out during the day to keep the house cooler – they’ve got this film on them that keeps out the light rays that cause heat – but after my family was killed it took time for me to get used to living out here by myself and I kinda pretended that the black out curtains made me invisible. In a way they do. During the winter I’ll reverse the curtains. It will reflect the heat back inside the house but still not let any light out.”

We didn’t talk much after that. We brought the baby stuff out of the attic that seemed useful and he wiped it down while I finished up dinner. By the time we were finished eating Kelly was nodding off so Jax got her ready for bed while I cleaned up the dishes. I was putting the drainer away when I heard him come down the stairs. As soon as I turned around I could tell he wanted to talk.

Before he could say something I asked him, “Be honest with me Jax, are you having second thoughts? You keep getting these looks on your face. I don’t blame you if you are and I won’t hold it against you. You’re used to having all those people around and …”

Startled he blinked a couple of times and then said, “No … no not at all. Actually I was wondering if you were having second thoughts. I mean, seriously, what do you need me for out here? It seems like … man, I mean look at this place … it seems like you have all you need.”

Then it was my turn to blink. Trying to explain I finally just said, “Let’s sit down. Looking up at you gives me a crick in my neck.” I split the last of the apple juice between two cups rather than putting it back in the cooler and then pulled out a chair and tried to find the right words.

“Jax I imagine you have felt alone before, but have you ever really been alone? I mean after Kelly was born and stuff?”

He shrugged, “I lived out of my car for about a week after Mom told me that if I chose to be Kelly’s father then I was choosing to be an adult and if I was choosing that that I had to go all the way with it … get my own place and everything.”

“Oh … oh wow. I never heard that.”

He gave me another careless shrug. “She did it while my dad was out of town. He wasn’t happy that she’d basically kicked me out without his say so. The family kept everything quiet. My dad found me out at the truck stop and arranged for me to live at his brother’s place and helped me to get a job at the mill but that’s about as far as he felt he could go. He didn’t disagree with Mom … he just didn’t like getting left out of the decision making process and having it play out like it did. One of the reasons I never moved back home is because they started to have marital problems right after that and having me around too much made it worse. Visits and stuff like that got to be where it was OK but anything more than that and my folks would start bringing crap up from their pasts and then it went right back to Mom making me move out.”

Hesitantly I said, “I’m … I’m sorry. Dad kinda said you’d had it rough but he didn’t really give details.”

“Yeah well … nothing I can do about it now and mostly I’ve learned to deal with it. But if you are talking about being alone, I … I kinda see what you are getting at.”

“Maybe,” I told him. “You were alone for a week and then I can see how having Kelly would be a huge responsibility and junk but at least you had her. After my family was killed and all the family went back to their lives I was in this house all by myself. It was my choice, what I wanted, and it was OK so long as I had something to take my mind off of things like work, school, and church; but then when things really fell apart the world kind of … shrunk. And even then I was OK until Mr. Houchins basically told me to stop coming around.”

“What?!”

I explained what had happened. He surprised me by saying, “I can see where he’d be afraid of the distractions you caused. You coming around told his people that there was something more out in the world besides his particular rules. But I am surprised you didn’t have trouble with the guys more … maybe even the older men.”

I made a face but tried to think about what he said. “They were all matched up … married or as good as. Lots of younger kids but only a couple my age and all but one of them were girls. But enough of that, it gives me the heebies. What I mean is that being alone was OK for a long time … then all of a sudden it wasn’t.” Shrugging I tried to make it as simple for him as possible. “Things I have. Things I don’t have I can either live without or build. People though … people I don’t have and can’t make. I got tired of talking to myself or the rabbits and chickens. I was worried one day they would start talking back, you know?” He chuffed a laugh and then I closed by saying, “I never thought of myself as a super social person, never thought I needed people but that’s because someone was always around. But then there wasn’t and I find … I want at least a person or two. It keeps me feeling human … keeps me from feeling crazy. I … uh … Jax … I really want you … you and Kelly … to stay. Please.”

I hated to feel like I was begging but I was willing to if it helped my case. He just kept looking at me and I was beginning to get the idea that I was losing then he surprised me. “You’re serious … this isn’t just some kind of gamer thing.”

“Huh?”

“I mean that it isn’t some fantasy you are trying to create. You’ve thought it through. It isn’t that you want somebody to help with the work – tote that barge, lift that bale sort of stuff – but that you really mean you want someone to … to talk to, share all this. Am I right?”

Still tense and worried I told him, “Yeah. I know I’m probably not saying it right. It … it’s just …”

Tentatively he asked, “What … what about that other stuff we talked about?”

I was tempted to get up and pace the kitchen but I forced myself to stay calm. “Honestly? Jax I … I wasn’t even thinking about that even when I thought about Matt coming out here. That … uh … never factored into … the equation with him if … uh … if you know what I mean.”

He nodded. “Kinda got that feeling but I’m still glad you told me. Matt let his alter ego Maestro bleed off so many of what most people would call normal urges in those games he played that there wasn’t any left for real life.”

I blinked at how perceptive he was being and then blushed thinking of some of the stupid ways I had behaved online and how I was glad I’d never acted that way in the real world. “Jax … I … uh … I need some time … I mean … I know you but … but I don’t really know, know you. And this is real life not gamer land. I … uh …”

He smiled and said, “Relax Lydie. I told you, I don’t want to make a mistake either. I have Kelly to think about. I just … I just thought you should know that I’ll … uh … probably be thinking along those lines when I think about staying here and if you get to the point where that isn’t a possibility you need to be upfront and let me know so there aren’t any misunderstandings.”

I blew out a breath in relief. I mean I was still uptight and embarrassed but I didn’t feel like a cornered beastie anymore. “OK. And … and for the record … I think … I mean … look I can’t promise but … at some … you know … point … I … uh … probably wouldn’t mind if you … I mean … we could talk about …”

He laughed, “Wanna borrow my mouth guard?”

“Huh? Oh … oh yeah. This is just … it’s just not as easy as they make it look in the movies. I mean boy meets girl, girl meets boy, they fall in love and … I mean … oh brother.” I must have turned ten shades of red after realizing I had started to talk about love. “I didn’t mean that … about falling in love. I don’t expect … I mean …”

Instead of laughing at the fool I was making out of myself Jax looked at me thoughtfully and said, “That’s not as hard for me to imagine as you might think.”

Suddenly the room got really, really warm and I jumped up and took our glasses to the sink and rinsed them out. “Uh … uh would you like to see the rest of the house?”

“Actually if you don’t mind I’d like to get the stuff out of the van and then hit the hay. It’s … a … been a long day.”

“Sure!” I said a little over eager. “I wanna check on the animals one last time and then I’ll help you carry everything in.”

We stayed away from deep topics after that and we both finally relaxed. He was right, it had been a long day. When we came in with the last box I showed him how things got locked down and told him I’d give him one of the spare keys in the morning. After we got upstairs I showed him where the emergency ladder was in case he had to exit by the window and then showed him where the bathroom was upstairs. I told him, “You can go ahead and use the hot water in the morning. I usually shower off in the afternoon before I start cooking dinner. I use … oh …”

“Oh what?” he asked.

“Uh, I use the outside shower. I mean it has walls up but …”

He groaned but laughed at the same time. “You are not helping Lydie.”

Feeling a little wicked I gave him an innocent face and said, “Well, at least here you don’t have to worry about sound carrying.” I scurried off to my room and when I turned and peeked at him before going in and closing the door I saw he was shaking his head but still smiling.

I quietly I picked a chair up and put it under the bedroom doorknob, not that I really felt any kind of threat from Jax. But good sense is good sense. I also realized that maybe, just maybe, things were going to turn out all right after all.

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