“You didn’t tell me we had to go back to the school,” I whispered more because Kelly was asleep than because I was afraid someone would hear me.
“We aren’t going back to the school, just near it. I put some stuff in the storeroom at the Watt-a-burger down the street,” Jax answered.
“Close enough,” I insisted. “I’m likely persona non grata right now.”
It had taken us about twenty minutes to get close to where we were going. “Don’t sweat it. The reason I brought us this way is so that they couldn’t see us.”
“And how do you know that? There’s windows all across … well nearly all across … hey … there’s hardly any windows on this side. I never noticed that before.”
Jax chuckled. “Yeah, well the dumpster and all the electrical stuff is back here. The loading dock is too. All nice and neat behind that concrete block wall. You don’t think anyone wanted their little darlings being blinded by the blight do you?”
“Blinded by the blight? Cute Jax, real cute.” Looking around I wondered, “This close to the school though, shouldn’t someone be watching from the roof or something?”
He nodded, “That’s what I told Matt. He ignored me. So I told Sas who told me that if Matt told me to shut up then I better shut up.”
“I swear, what has gotten into Sas? He used to be such a teddy bear.”
In a voice colder than I thought it needed to be Jax answered, “Inability to deal with reality. In real life he’s a big goober that can barely bend over and tie his own shoes. In fantasyland he’s Hotsnot War Hammer and all the women love him.”
I almost laughed … almost. “OK, I take it Sas stepped on your toes a few times.”
“Jerk took a swing at me and I was holding Kelly at the time.”
Shocked I yelped, “What?!”
He shrugged. “That’s when I realized how many of the kids were starting to really slip off into the Twilight Zone.”
“But what did you do?” I asked.
“I caught him when he was alone and decked him. Told him if he ever put my kid in danger again he wasn’t long for this world.” He shook his head. “He nearly wet himself. But now he acts like I don’t exist. Honestly don’t care so long as … dang this thing is jammed up. Bless it! The key broke off in the lock!”
“Take it easy. Just cut those fence ties and we’ll get in that way. Unless that key was supposed to work the door too?”
He turned to find me handing him my leatherman and smart mouthed, “You’re more than half useful, you know that?”
I snorted at his attempt at backhanded flattery but didn’t have to wait long before he had the fence pulled back so that we could roll the bike through and load up his stuff. After we got in and I saw how much stuff he was talking about I said, “And how do you intend on getting all of that in those saddle bags?”
“I don’t. Help me load it into this thing … uh … please.”
I looked at what he was dragging out of another room and it was one of those wagons you attach to a bike and can pull two kids in it while you pedal along. “Smart,” I told him.
“I hope so. There’s another one in the other room and another bike too. Your dad taught me that redundancy was a friend to cultivate at work … and in regular life it isn’t bad either.” He was tightening a bolt down when he said, “If you don’t mind pulling it I want to try and take a few things from my parents’ place.”
It was all good and pretty soon we were pedaling away. It took us another fifteen minutes to get there and then he came out with a couple of bags in under five minutes. “That was fast!”
“Like I said, I’ve been trying to think ahead.” He put the bags in the trailer on the bike I was using and then said, “Thanks.” I had been making sure Kelly didn’t wiggle and knock the bike over. “Look, if it gets too heavy …”
“It’s fine. Let me build up some steam so I can keep up. Just glad we don’t have to go up Look Out Mountain hauling this stuff.” He chuffed a laugh and we were on our way to the mill.
Summer was coming to an end but that didn’t mean fall weather had arrived. We didn’t see another person while we were out but we kept of a fast pace and we were both sweating by the time we pedaled into the employee parking lot of the mill. He said, “Let’s keep going over to office. I wanna check something out.”
I’d come this far with him so I figured why the heck not. It had been a while since I had been to the mill and it felt eerie and a little haunted. I hadn’t been there since some ceremony or other they had for my family where they planted a few trees in their memories. I asked, “How long are we going to be here?”
“Probably not long, hour at the most.”
He shrugged, “At most.” He looked at me and when he realized I was a little upset he asked, “Bother you to be here?”
I admitted, “Kinda. What are you looking for?”
He got down off the bike and pointed, “That.”
“That” was a funky looking panel van. “Wait … is that what I think it is?”
Jax nodded his head. “Yep, the Edison Electric van that the mill owners bought to show how ‘green’ they were. Most of us just thought it was to show off how much ‘green’ they had.” We both chuckled at the pun. “I tried to tell Matt we needed to get out here and check this place out but you know what his opinion was.”
“You mean his Dad’s opinion.”
Jax nodded. “Both of them and you know it. Matt is a snob … at least about stuff like this. You know how he talked.”
“OK, so I know it. It is one of the few things that was guaranteed to get us in a fight so we never talked about it.” Matt was a tree hugger. A great big flaming tree hugger. To him the mill was like the devil incarnate. They were killing Bambi and Thumper’s habitat, they were killing the trees, ruining the water, poisoning the land, yada, yada. Granted they used to do a lot of that in the old days but he never would give the mill owners credit for having joined the 21st century. The water coming out of the mill had gotten to where it was probably cleaner than what went into most of the town’s houses. And they planted way more trees than they ever harvested. They also helped to manage the local hardwood forests using selective harvest which made the ecosystem a lot healthier in the long run. But Matt wouldn’t have believed that if God Himself had written it on stone tablets.
I looked at Jax and told him, “But we don’t have a way to charge it up.”
“Shouldn’t need to I hope. This baby has a lithium ion battery. And …” He reached under the bumper and pulled out a little box. “A ha!”
“A key box? For real?! That’s like sticking a sign on the bumper that reads steal me.”
“Not around here. Besides, I have to rehook the … got it.” Jax had used the key to open the van and pop the hood and had reattached some wires. “Now let’s hope she starts.”
It only clicked at first but then it gave this weird buzzing noise and cranked up. “Well yippee skippee,” I said with my mouth nearly hanging open in shock.
Jax hopped out of the van and told me, “I’m going to turn it off to save the battery now that I know it will crank. Let’s load the bikes and the trailers and then have a look around to see if there is anything else useful.”
Feeling uncomfortable I said, “I don’t know Jax … I mean … isn’t that stealing? What if the owners come back and …”
He gave me an incredulous look. “Are you telling me you haven’t …?”
“How have you been living all this time if you haven’t been scavenging and stuff?”
I suppose it sounded a little self-righteous when I told him, “I haven’t needed to.”
He looked at me and then got thoughtful. “You really haven’t have you.”
“No,” I told him defensively. “So what?”
He sighed. “So, that puts you head and shoulders above everyone else probably. Are there any groups out by your?”
I shrugged and told him, “Just the Houchins.”
When I got a troubled look on my face he said, “What?”
“Well, I guess I just never thought about it but … but they took over the two farms on either side of them. I just … I don’t know … thought it was because they didn’t want the animals to die.” I was feeling pretty stupid.
For his part Jax just shook his head the sighed. “Look, we can discuss this stuff later but right now just try and get over your … your scruples. The owners are dead, trust me. I helped carry them out of their big old house out on River Road myself … they are definitely NOT coming back. And I don’t know for sure what is out here, if anything at all, but let’s just give it a quick look. No way I can bring back all the tools and stuff I want in one trip anyway.”
“Why do you need tools? Dad’s shop must have every kind known to man and a few that look extraterrestrial too.”
He blinked a couple of times and then said, “And … that’s a good thing. So one less worry for me to think about.”
As we walked into the building that housed the employee break room I said, “Kelly isn’t making a fuss or anything. I thought kids cried all the time.”
“She has her moments,” he admitted. “But usually she is pretty good. She’s used to going with me all over the place so it isn’t like something she hasn’t experienced before. She knows if she gets tired she can just fall asleep in the carrier and I’ll keep going. If she gets thirsty she has her sippy cup.”
“I take it the only problem is f-o-o-d.”
He gave me a grateful glance that I had spelled it rather than said it out loud. “Yeah, pretty much. I ran out of a lot of stuff for her that she was used to having and she’s having a hard time learning new habits. It’s hard on both of us. Nothing is easy anymore. All I can say is I’m glad she doesn’t need diapers anymore.”
It was dim in the break room but enough light came in through the windows placed high on the wall that we could see what we were doing. The first cabinet I opened I nearly screamed and then slammed it shut. Jax came running out of the back office and saw me throwing a hissy.”
“What’s the problem?”
“If you laugh I’ll brain you.”
He face slowly transformed into a huge smile. “The bug spray is in that cabinet over there or do you want me to spray the bad ol’ spider for you.”
I was tempted to flip him a rude gesture but decided to ignore him instead. I’m allergic to spiders … not I’m gonna die in a matter of seconds allergic, just the bite swells up and tries to get infected kind of allergic. Spiders are about the only living creature that will freak me out and all my friends thought it was hilarious. Every Halloween I donated all the plastic and rubber spiders that I had collected all year long from their pranks and there was normally enough to decorate the school’s haunted house with some left over. The jokes got old fast but there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
In the cleaning cabinet I found some of those blue nitrile gloves that you wear if you are allergic to latex. I checked them out to make sure nothing was hiding in the fingers and then put them on and went back to searching the rest of the break room.
“You drink coffee?”
“Sometimes, why … wait, did you find any in the break room?
“Yeah, like a couple of cases of the stuff. The bags are still sealed and the filters look ok too. Is this the kind of stuff you want to try and take?”
He walked back in and I saw he had suddenly started looking like Pancho Villa. “Uh …”
He sighed. “You don’t have anything against guns do you?”
“No, of course not … uh … just … where did … I mean … look at yourself.”
“I know. It was easier to carry like this than try and pack it all in here in my hands. Is there an empty box over there? There’s a bunch of shotgun shells and .22lr in Mr. Lachlan’s office. I don’t know what happened to all of the guns that were supposed to be in there.”
“Did you check Mr. Harmon’s office?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s where I found the key’s to Lachlan’s safe. I guess DHS might have confiscated them but I would have thought that they would have taken the ammo at the same time.”
He was starting to look frustrated and I told him, “Dad’s guns are at the house. If you feel you gotta have one then I suppose … you know …”
He looked momentarily relieved and then shook his head. “I didn’t even think to ask if you were armed.”
“With a gun no.”
I waggled my boot at him and he snorted, “That knife’s not gonna do you a bit of good in your shoe. You need to start packing … all the time. You still know how to shoot?”
Facetiously I asked, “Do spring traps launch orcs into flaming pools of lava?”
He looked at me like I’d lost my mind and asked, “Say what?”
I laughed, really laughed, for the first time in a long time. “It’s just a game called ‘Orcs Must Die!’ See there are these pressure plates …”
He shook his head in a hurry and said, “Never mind. I don’t want to know that bad.”
I laughed again and it felt good. “Yes, I can still shoot. I was actually thinking of going hunting once I got Matt and … and Marty … and …”
I sighed then said quietly, “I can shoot. Not a problem. And I usually hit what I’m aiming at too.”
Jax came over and helped me to dump one box of coffee into the other so he could have the empty one. “Look Lydie, it’s … it’s going to be ok. I … uh … know you’re hurting right now and …”
I looked over and realized that Jax could be sweet when he put his mind to it but I also realized sweet wasn’t what I needed right then. I shook myself and said, “They’re loss. Right? We’ll build what they … what they …”
I had to stop talking. I had started to breathe real heavy and my eyes had gotten almost too watery. I turned away from him. “Um … just go back to doing whatever you were doing. There’s the box you wanted.”
Instead of him going away he came in behind me and put his hands on my shoulder from behind. “It’s going to be really great Lydie. You’re right … they’re loss. You’ll see too, just like they will.”
I was biting my lip but one stupid tear still managed to roll down my cheek. “I’m not normally like this you know. I …”
“Hey, you don’t need to explain. Just try and keep in mind that they’ve got some damage to sort through.” After a minute he asked, “Are … are you interested in you and … uh … Matt getting back together?”
I shook my head. “No, and not because he just acted like Carth Onasi.”
I sighed, “A male character in Knights of the Old Republic. Don’t worry about it. Basically token male love interest with personal issues.”
He snorted, “OK.” He made me turn around and look at him. “If you can spout that gamer stuff you can’t be too bad off.”
I huffed and then sniffed the last tear away. “I’m just mad … mostly at myself.”
He corrected, “Your feelings are hurt.”
“And what if they are?” I asked belligerently.
He grabbed a napkin out of the pile of stuff I had put on one of the tables and surprised me by wiping my face with it. “It’s OK Lydie. It’ll hurt for a while and then one day you’ll wake up … and it won’t hurt as much.”
I took the napkin from him and blew my nose with it. “Experience speaking?”
He smiled gently, “Something like that.”
I blew a breath out and said, “OK. So if I’m not going to fall to pieces I guess that means we need to finish what we’re doing.”
He gave me an approving grin and said, “Right.”
In the end we didn’t go too much off of the break room and employee lockers and we still wound up with a van load of stuff. “Jax do you think we really need all of this? Not to brag or anything but I’ve got anything you could want.”
“Well, you might be bragging a little but …” He grinned to take any sting from his words but there was also curiosity there. “You know, that could be taken the wrong way.” At my blush he grinned even bigger. “Don’t sweat it, I know what you mean … I think. But no matter how much stuff you have you need to understand they aren’t making any more ‘stuff’ right now so anything we can pick up that doesn’t already belong to someone else will be something we hopefully will not run out of before they start making ‘stuff’ again.”
I gave that a thought and it made my heart thump hard. I hadn’t given very much serious consideration to how long my world was going to be neutral. A different view of things was trying to creep in and I didn’t like it. I said quietly, “Play time is over I guess. Time to get serious.”
He heard me and the look on my face had him asking, “Hey, you OK? You don’t look so good.”
I shook myself to regain control. “I’m fine. Let’s just get this stuff loaded. And …” I gave him a serious look. “I’m glad you’re around. I … uh … Matt never had much patience when I didn’t get his ideas right away. You … you do it differently.” He was surprised and tried to not show his pleasure but he’d won that point so I was more than willing to give it to him.
The van wasn’t huge and Jax warned that it wouldn’t haul more than 3,000 pounds. “We should be OK. I wish the GEM truck was working.”
“GEM truck? That’s a new one on me.”
He nodded. “It was delivered right after your dad … uh … died. Or maybe it doesn’t really matter whether it is working or not. It uses nine 8-volt gel batteries and only gets forty miles per charge, if that. Plus it sucks going uphill; the more uphill you go the less battery time you have. It was great for moving stuff around the flat areas of the plant but not for getting anything out to the guys in the field. Doubt it would even still have a charge at this point.”
“Well then don’t waste time thinking about it.”
He said, “It isn’t a waste exactly. It might be useful for something at some point I just don’t know what yet … or how we could transport it to your dad’s … your … place.”
“Easy,” I told him. “We’d just tow it.”
He looked at me sharply. “You still have gas? Is it stabilized? How much?”
I shook my head. “Only partly correct; I still make fuel. Yes, it is stabilized. And how much depends on what raw ingredients I have to work with. I’ve also got a steam powered tractor but that thing makes way too much noise … same with the other steam engines Dad and I used to play around with. But there’s plenty of charcoal for them if we really do need them.”
He gave me a blank look then said, “We really gotta talk. How many other people know you’re kin to Midas?”
I rolled my eyes and passed him another case of bathroom paper products. “I’m not kin to Midas. Dad and I just liked to tinker around and build stuff. Will would join us sometimes but usually he was playing catch up with living when he wasn’t sick.” Jax nodded his understanding. “As for who knows … me and … well there’s you … and then you … and oh yeah … you.”
“Not Matt?” he asked.
Sighing I said, “No. You know your uncle and my dad didn’t exactly … er … see eye to eye on a lot of stuff. Dad never held that against Matt or vice versa but it kinda forced me to keep my life … segregated I guess you would say. For me there was school and friends and then there was home and family.”
“And the two didn’t overlap much?”
“Not much except where Will and I had mutual friends.” To myself I added, “Or at least who I thought were my friends.”
I must have said it where Jax could hear it because he said, “They were your friends Lydie and might still be; I don’t know, I can’t speak for them. But life happens and things change. It doesn’t mean you throw out the good stuff of the past, it just means you have to get on with the living of today. But I am glad for your sake that people don’t know about how much you have. You’ve already had a target painted on you by being female and alone, no need to make it worse.”
“Geez, thanks for the warm and fluffy feelings there Jax. Makes me feel all comfortable and happy,” I told him sarcastically.
Suddenly sounding older than I had considered he told me, “I’m not saying it to make you comfortable. I’m saying it because someone needs to say it. You need to be more careful. First thing I’m going to check the locks and stuff and …”
Not prepared for his sudden overprotectiveness I responded, “Don’t go getting testosterone poisoning on me. I hear there’s no cure.”
He put the box he was holding down with a thump. “Lydie …,” He stopped like he was searching for words. “Lydie listen to me. I’m not trying to scare you, not really. And I’m not trying to come over all king of the hill and stupid. But the world has changed. It is a different place than it was a few months ago. Like it or not, you are a girl and you need to be more careful because there are guys out there that are just animals. And I know you’re going to say that it has always been like that and it’s true. But think on this … there’s no one out there to stop them anymore. They’ll take what they want from whom they want and if they decide that you are what they want, even if it is just for a minute, there isn’t a whole lot to stop them. Now I don’t want that for Kelly … or for you. It scares the crap out of me to think Kelly could …” He shook his head both mad and sick at the same time. He grunted, “But it is this way, at least for right now and if I’m going to be worth my place – for Kelly’s sake and yours – I’m going to do it the best I can and if that means sounding like a … like a …”
I stopped him. “I get it Jax. I was just making a joke for Pete’s sake.”
He calmed down a little but not all the way. “Well it isn’t a joke. Before so many people were poisoned and died town had gotten to be a dangerous place to be. The cops had their hands full with emergencies and all the new people coming in and not knowing how things were done around here … normal things like domestic calls and stuff like that became a low priority.” He looked at me and said, “Did you have a chance to see how everyone had paired off with Matt’s gang? There’s not a single female in the bunch. That’s going to cause problems before too much longer if I don’t miss my guess. That’s probably why some of the guys play games so much, to keep their mind off of what they aren’t getting on top of everything else they don’t have.”
“That’s a little crude,” I snarked at him.
“Crude maybe but it’s true. It isn’t easy being odd man out. Especially at night when sound carries.”
“Ew … TMI!”
“Maybe,” he snorted. “But just because I swore off making the same mistake I made that brought Kelly into the world doesn’t mean that I don’t still think about it.” He must have realized how that sounded because he got beet red and said, “I … uh … didn’t mean …”
I was blushing too and told him, “Well, you did … but not the way it sounded I guess. Just remember … you’re not Adam and I’m not Eve. If … you know … it does happen it won’t be because I’m being backed into a corner or that you can make me feel sorry for you.”
Looking indignant he said, “I wouldn’t want it like that anyway.”
“Good,” I told him and decided to change the subject. “Do we really need these cigarettes and cigars? Or did you pick up the smoking habit and I didn’t know it?”
“Trade or barter goods.” When he saw me looking the question at him he explained, “At some point we’ll likely have to trade for something we need. I read someplace that during war time cigarettes and liquor make good trade items.”
I laughed, “Well, this is a paper mill … maybe we should stock up on paper.”
Jax took the suggestion more seriously than I had meant it. “Actually what this plant makes for the most part is commercial packaging and corrugated products. The other types of paper products were shipped in from the other plants in other parts of the country. Don’t get me wrong, there’s probably enough toilet paper and paper towels to clog up the dam with but the supply isn’t endless. Neither are the reams of paper in the office. Geez, there’s so much stuff we should be taking with us.” He shook his head. “If I can figure out a way to charge … no … use a truck to … no … someone will see … maybe …”
I let him think, it seemed to keep him busy and relatively happy which was more than could be said for Kelly who was starting to get bored. I made her another half a peanut butter sandwich and Jax smiled. Made me feel weird but good too. Maybe this clan thing didn’t have to be as hard as I was afraid of it being.
Finally Jax said that we were as loaded as we could afford to be and we finally headed for home. We weren’t on the road five minutes before it started to rain again. “Sure feels strange driving again,” Jax muttered as he navigated the pot holes and pointed us towards the farm.
“Yeah.” Then I had a thought of my own. “I know I said I wanted to get home before dark but I don’t think we are going to make it. Either way, let’s take the scenic route and go home the back way to avoid the Houchins’ place. If keeping stuff to ourselves is that important then announcing our arrival driving this green monsters isn’t going to be a good thing.”
He nodded and I told him the basic route to take and without further delay we got pointed in the right direction.