Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Unholy Roamin' Empire: Part Two

The Unholy Roamin’ Empire
Part 2

Jax nodded and sighed. “Yeah, me too. But unlike Reg I’m thinking that maybe Matt is better able to pull it off than he thinks and might not fail. And I also agree that he’s a fast learner too. It is how he has been able to keep so many things under control and separate from one another … how he has managed to keep things from blowing up. So maybe, just maybe, he can set himself up to be indispensable to these creeps or close to it. I’m not sure how that is going to play out though.”

Shaking my head in frustration I said, “Fine. Whatever. Say I’m willing to accept at least some of what the two of you believe; I’m still not seeing how that has anything to do with whether or not we are going to have to worry about these barbarian invaders – oh for Pete sake, I’m done with hyperbole – the refugees. What has Matt got to do with whether or not the refugees come out into the county?”

Reg explained. “Unlike the barba …”

“Reggie let’s stay planted in the real world. Call them what they are … they’re just refugees.”

“Whatever Lydie. Call them the Golden Horde or anything else. A rose by any other name. OK?” At my groan of irritation he finally caved. “Fine. They’re refugees. But don’t make the mistake of underestimating the damage they can do or over sympathizing with them. Yes, they’re displaced people and are hard up … but they’re using it as an excuse to run amok.”

“Obviously,” I replied sarcastically. “But you still haven’t connected the dots for me.”

Then Reggie being Reggie said, “Then let me lesson you on it Grasshopper and stop being so hard headed and wanting to believe the best of everyone … and that includes the refugees you just took in.” Sensing I was ready to walk in irritation he reached out and after a couple of misses managed to grab my forearm. “It isn’t that I don’t appreciate it Lydie because I do and I know the others will when they get their head on straight. But have you even thought about what four extra people is gonna mean for you guys? Are you prepared for the added strain on your supplies of food and water and everything else?”

Trying to calm down I told him, “If you are worried about being tossed out because I start having second thoughts then the answer is you are worrying over nothing. I went to town the first time prepared to invite a bunch of people to come live here. It might not have been realistic but I was prepared to do it and had worked out most of the logistics. But only Jax and Kelly … well, sometimes things happen the way they are supposed to even when you don’t think so at first. And while it is going to take some smoothing out we can get through the winter just fine on the supplies we already have and in the spring we can plant and work from there.”

“You sure?” he asked.

I realized he wasn’t just being a donkey’s behind on purpose but was honestly unsure and worried. “Yeah Reg, I’m sure. You can’t see things right now but … but it is a good set up my parents left me.”

Hesitantly he asked, “Sweet enough that Matt will want it?”

That startled me. I looked at Jax and realized he’d already been thinking along the same lines for some time. “Oh for …,” I growled. “Do you really …? Geez, you do. Look, I’m saying you’re wrong for a couple of reasons. One, Matt has never been to the house. Two, Dad’s rules were that I … well I didn’t talk about what we had; family business was family business and no one else’s. You’d be amazed how everyone assumes that everyone else lives the same way they do and never thinks to ask. Three … and yes, OK, I’ll admit it … Matt could be a real snob. The few times him coming to my house for something came up he always talked his way out of it and I got the impression that he thought we lived in some really old, ramshackle house that ran on a generator because we couldn’t afford to keep the power on any other way. That I made my clothes because I couldn’t afford … just … look, for whatever reason I never corrected him or when I tried to he thought it was cute and then changed the subject because he acted like he didn’t want to embarrass me. At the time I thought he was being nice, but now I’m not sure. He always did believe what he wanted to believe. I’m not sure of a lot of things where Matt is concerned but the one thing I do know is that he is probably pretty clueless about the home place.”

Jax asked, “Are you sure Lydie? This is important.”

I turned to him and answered, “I’ve told you several times how things stood. Besides, he didn’t have a car and I did. When we got together it was because I drove to town, not because he came out here.”

Reg was unwilling to give up on the idea and said, “He could look up county property records, survey maps, that sort of thing.”

“Yeah, well ‘that sort of thing’ would probably lead him on a wild goose chase even if he had GPS.” When it was obvious they were waiting on an explanation I told them, “It was the utility co-op’s fault. Dad had a running battle with them and when the county resurveyed out on our end for those subdivisions and infrastructure changes they purposely fudged things to pay Dad back. Only what they didn’t know is that Dad couldn’t have been happier about it. Somebody would have caught it eventually but when the economy really tanked and those subdivisions never got built and were abandoned the county folks kind of avoided coming out this way to check on the shape things were in … because if they did they might have to do something about how everything was deteriorating. The aerials and surveys for the last forty years would have shown trailers and farms out this way that aren’t there anymore. Some were bulldozed by developers, some were gobbled up by other farms or bought as investment property or as hunting preserves by out of state people. But either way, you’d need to really know geologic land features to be able to figure out what you were looking at. Even the roads have changed; for example, what I call the driveway replaced another road that got washed out in a flood about five years back; the maps still have the old drive that no longer exists and doesn’t show the new one at all. The further back in the county records you go the fewer aerials you are going to have until finally you are just using hand drawn maps and plot lines and some of the old landmarks don’t exist either so trying to follow something that says ‘seven paces north from the east bend in Ruckman’s creek’ will get you nowhere … especially since Ruckman’s Creek dried up back in the 1920’s and never came back.”

Reggie said, “But they could still follow other landmarks. I bet Ruckman’s Creek used to be where Deep Hole is now.”

“And you’d lose that bet. Everyone knows that Deep Hole is connected to the Ruckman family but not everyone knows it is only because it used to be a rock quarry they owned and operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The flood of 1936 caused the Ruckman-Delaney Canal to back up and collapse. The canal was the water way they dug to drain water out of the quarry when they hit a series of natural springs during their excavations. The quarry was already going bankrupt when the flood struck so they never tried to drain it and it filled up and eventually got renamed Deep Hole. Dad knew the Ruckman’s, they’d been good friends with his grandparents, and the quarry is where we used to dig out gravel for here on the farm and where he got the granite to line the sluiceways for the fish pond which is why I know all the back story.”

Jax interrupted me. “We’re drifting off the topic. Not that I don’t appreciate the history lesson Babe but … Look even if you are right and Matt doesn’t know anything about this place specifically – which I still find hard to believe – he does knows that when they run out of food in town the only place left for them to salvage from is going to be the countryside. And generally he will know where to look to find out where the biggest farms are that would have supplies, possibly even including some fuel.” He looked at Reg. “You got even a guess as to how long that is going to be?”

Reggie seemed to be relieved to finally have someone to really discuss it all with because obviously he’d been thinking about it for a while. “It depends. We were still finding stuff every day before the … er … the refugees arrived. We had a pretty good stash before they arrived and Matt has some tucked away in various locations as part of the backup plan he’d made in case we had to abandon the school for some reason. I’ll give him points, he made mistakes but he rarely made the same one twice and he did at least try to seem like he cared about everyone’s well-being. I don’t know, listening to you maybe I am being too hard on him but … but at the same time I think it is more that he needs to see himself a certain way so he does what he has to live that fantasy … Geez, I thought I had this figured out and then you come along and …”

He was grimacing and gently rubbing his head like it hurt but was too sore to touch. “Reg, you should be in bed,” I told him.

“Not until we finish this. This is important.”

“Not as important as your health.”

He snorted cynically. “I might not have any health to worry about if we don’t get some things ironed out. I know you might not think so Lydie, but I … Jax and I both … think that eventually the refugees aren’t going to have any choice but to look outside of town for food. We’ve got a month … maybe … before things get bad enough that the guys that are in charge now get their people ready to rock and roll and look for places that are easy pickings.”

“Couldn’t they just pick up and move to some other town?”

Jax asked, “With what? Their looks? Remember they don’t have any fuel and somebody is likely smart enough to know they need to settle on a base of operations before winter settles in.”

Reggie said, “Some of them have talked about heading south for the winter but I don’t know how really invested they are in the idea. Some of them seem to be worried if they go too far south and the military or DHS catches them they might be close enough to the border to simply be deported … or maybe even ‘shot trying to escape’ if you catch my drift.”

I sighed and decided to stop being so difficult and cooperate since Jax and Reggie were obviously really serious about it. “There is only one farm family out this way that I know of and we aren’t talking a handful of people but a few dozen. I don’t know for sure but I suspect that the Houchins clan has already picked a lot of the big farms clean. They would have had to just to keep their crew and their farm animals fed and provided for. I don’t even know for sure how many there are but I know it’s a lot … enough that they can patrol not just their gates but their whole border and do it in shifts. And they’re armed, even their women and girls. They also don’t like visitors so I wouldn’t look to them for help.” The last I said a little angrily but then shook it off.

Jax asked, “No one else?”

“Jax, don’t you think by now I would have told you if I suspected anyone else was out this way? Mr. Houchins might know if there is anyone left elsewhere and I suppose we need to let him know what is going on in town so that he can prepare.” I tried not to be resentful that I was going to yet again do for the Houchins when they’d turned me away but I knew it is was the right thing to do and what my parents would expect of me. That led me to my next thought. “When Dad’s aunts and uncles sold out and moved away it was during a time when a lot of family farms were going under. Plenty of places were allowed to go fallow and just were never brought back online. The interstate is closest to the other side of the county. We’ve got one state highway that runs through this area and even that is still closer to town than to us. Everything else is either county roads or farm roads that have become common use. I don’t see how they’d maximize their results by starting on this side of the county.”

Reggie said, “Let’s hope that if Matt has started helping the refugees to plan their salvaging runs that he thinks along those same lines.”

Jax said, “Hope is good to have but it isn’t a plan. We need to figure out what we are going to do from now forward.”

Irritated that the plans Jax and I had been making would have to be put on the back burner until we could ensure we were safe, something I hadn’t really had to be concerned about until that point which shocked and depressed me more than I was willing to show. “Well we can’t sit around waiting for something that might never happen. The potatoes still need to be brought in. The last of the apples and pears need to be harvested. We have two trailers filled to the gills that need to be unloaded. The last of the corn needs to be brought in out of the field and the over winter grains planted. I still want to try and catch those goats and we still need to do some hunting … especially feral pigs … so we can stock the smoke house.”

Then Reggie added another worry to our pile when he said, “Hopefully there’ll be some pigs left for us to hunt. The refugees bring in at least one or two every day to feed themselves with. If they knew about your animals they probably wouldn’t last a week before they were all dead and in the camp pot.”

Jax said sarcastically, “Great, now we have to worry about them over-hunting the animal populations.” He growled, “So what are they killing the pigs with?

“Guns,” Reggie dead panned.

“Very funny. Ha. Freaking. Ha.” After another growl Jax said, “Seriously Reg … rifles, 9 mils, shotguns, what?”

Reggie shrugged and then winced a little and rubbed the back of his head again. “All of the above. These people aren’t really hunters so if they waste some meat it isn’t any big deal to them. All they care is see it, kill it. There’s pigs all over in town so they hardly have to even hunt them. They are desperate but dumb, know what I mean?”

We both sighed and said, “Yeah.”

Jax asked, “But they have guns? How many and what about ammo?”

“Yeah, they’ve got guns … or at least about half of them do. As far as ammo I haven’t been able to get close enough to anyone to ask. They don’t seem worried about running out though.”

Jax said, “Which means either they have a good supply or they are dumb as stumps and can’t think beyond the end of their nose.”

“Or both,” I said.

Reg cocked his head and said, “You sound concerned. Don’t you have guns around here?”

I saw Jax squint at him suspiciously but all he said was, “It isn’t a matter of what you have but if you have enough of what you have.”

For some odd reason Reggie gave a huge grin and said, “Finally, I can bring something to the table that buys me in.”

“Excuse me?” I asked feeling a little insulted without quite knowing why though in hindsight it was because it’s like he didn’t trust our hospitality was real and without strings.

Jax told him, “Stop fooling around Reg and make sense.”

Grinning like a fool Reg said, “You got more fuel for that big truck right?”

“Maybe.”

Stilling grinning Reg said, “You know the Caulderman Brothers?”

Jax and I both stiffened up and little. I said, “I know who they are but I wouldn’t brag about actually knowing them.”

“The older one … Bud … he and my dad graduated highschool together. They … kept in touch.”

Impatiently Jax asked, “Is there a point to this Reg?”

Being too tired to keep the game up long Reggie sighed and slumped back. “I’m not bragging just explaining how I knew them. They were in county lock up when DHS rolled into town and they got hauled off to where ever they took the rest of the prisoners that day. But I know for a fact that they’d just taken a big delivery – I heard Dad and Bud talking about it over beers out in the backyard a couple of nights before the brothers got arrested for not paying some court ordered fine or other.”

Jax said, “We don’t need drugs unless you plan on poisoning the refugees and turning them all into addicts.”

Reg snorted, “More than a few of them already are addicts of some flavor or other though they are being forced to detox and it isn’t pretty to be around. And besides I’m not talking drugs. Bud and his brother had gotten out of that line because they didn’t want to have to deal with the Mexi and Puerto Rican gangs. They had gotten into something more profitable.”

“More profitable than drugs?” Jax asked in disbelief but I knew what he meant.

“They were running guns.”

“Ding, ding, ding. A lollipop for the little girl that for some strange reason knows a lot more about those things than she should.” His statement was almost a question inviting an explanation but no way was I going to explain that I’d run ‘shine and heard stories and been propositions a couple of times to do some other running; not even Dad had known about that.

Jax looked at me suspiciously and I shook my head. I told him, “You hear things sometimes. And it’s not like it should be that big of a surprised after the interstate commerce restrictions they’d put on guns and ammo. People don’t like it when their 2nd Amendment rights get messed with.”

Reg broke in and said, “Sure. But it isn’t all altruistic. Certain types of people are more than willing to make a profit off of that type of outrage. And the Caulderman Brothers are just that type of people and I happen to know the likely locations of several of their stashes and I’d like to see us get them before anyone else does. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t actual guns this time but parts and ammo supplies … small stuff they planned on moving quickly.”

Jax asked, “Are you sure about this Reg? We don’t have time for a wild goose chase.”

“I’m as sure as I can be. I overheard my dad tell Bud one time that he’d give me up if I screwed a deal up so I always acted spaced or stupid about it and Bud was just a big scary guy my dad knew that I didn’t want anything to do with. Nothing of them to be suspicious of so they didn’t need to notice me or anything. But I still listened in because no way was I going to wait around for the house to fall in on me if one of my dad schemes blew up in his face.”

I was having a hard time reconciling what I thought I knew about Reggie’s father with what I was finding out. It and everything else was giving me a headache. “There’s too much to do in too short a period of time. You say we have a month maybe. Let’s just say we do have a month because they’ll start where it is more profitable to salvage from first which means the other side of the county. During that time we have a lot that has to be done. The crops need to come in. The trailers need to get emptied so I can get to the tractors. You want to go collect goodies from a criminal’s stash. But you’ve also spooked me and I don’t feel safe leaving the home place unattended anymore. Add into that the girls at least need some more clothes which means more salvaging and more being away from home. And I suppose it might not be a bad idea to salvage a few other places if we are going to have to be out anyway so long as it is away from an area the Houchins might have staked a claim to. And speaking of, we need to let them know what it going on so that they can make their own preparations. All of that and I haven’t even touched on finishing the canning for the season, taking care of Kelly, and all of the other day-to-day chores that need to be kept up with and I’m sure I’ve left things out.”

Jax scooted over and put his arm around me. “One step at a time Lydie. Stop looking at the list as a whole and break it down into bite-sized pieces.”

I had a smart aleck remark on my lips but I held it back because I didn’t want Jax and I to be at sixes and sevens, especially not with everything else that was going on. Reggie added his bit. “My eyes already feel better just from you putting those hazel things on them.”

“Witch hazel pads,” I corrected without even thinking.

“Yeah, those. Anyway maybe another day, two at the most, I should be able to see well enough to help go after Bud’s stashes with Jax. We move at night, maybe take Ginger with us for some extra hands, and that leaves you to hold down the fort, help Ashley with Aston, and do what all you gotta do. In the meant time we plan the rest of it out as well as we can.” Then he stopped and got a little uncertain, “I mean if … uh … if that isn’t … look, it’s no big deal …”

Jax looked at me and I rolled my eyes. Simple animals my behind; guys and their feelings are even more complicated than girls are. Jax reached out and fist bumped Reggie’s shoulder. “Good to have you on board Reg. Too bad Matt preferred to be a dictator; we could have kicked butt operating more like a council.”

A slow smile spread across Reggie’s face. “You got that right. Share the load, make it lighter for everyone. If everyone brings something to the table you’ve got more resources to work with. We’ll kick …”

Wanting to gag on the testosterone wafting on the air I interrupted and said, “Yeah, yeah, yada, yada, cave man, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know about you all but I’m getting hungry and since the kitchen isn’t magic that means I gotta cook. Let’s go back to the house and check on the others and I’ll get started.”

The Unholy Roamin' Empire: Part One

The Unholy Roamin’ Empire
Part 1

I slid down the wall beside King Kong’s cage and listened to Kelly babble about babbits and chickies and I haven’t got a clue what else. I was almost all give out but I knew if I could just hold on for a few more hours I would be able to start putting my biological clock back in order. Not the biological clock most people reading this are likely thinking of but the kind that is regulated by your waking and sleeping patterns. Humans are meant to be awake during daylight and asleep when it is night. When we don’t or can’t keep to those patterns our natural rhythms can be disturbed and our health can suffer. I wouldn’t have expressed it like that then; mostly I would have just said in addition to being tired I felt like crap after too many all-nighters.

Cleaning the animal cages wasn’t the only chore that I had done since we got home. First there was getting Aston settled upstairs; no easy task since our front staircase had a landing in the middle that made a ninety-degree turn before it reached the second floor. The back stair case was even worse; it was steep and had a landing half way up that actually doubled back on itself like a switchback road. Once on the second floor I directed Jax to the guest room and he gave me the squinty eye. I told Ashley that there was a small sofa in the sitting room that was a pull out that she could use until Aston was up to having company in the bed.

By that time Reggie had finally made it up the stairs using Ginger like a crutch and I got him laid out on the bed I’d made for him. “I’ll get it cleaned up in here better tomorrow if that’s OK.”

Even not being able to open his eyes he must have sensed something and Ginger explained to him, “It’s Will’s room.”

He shook his head slowly and said, “Hey, I can sleep on the sofa.”

I sighed. “Thanks Reg but … but Dad would go crazy if he thought that I was turning the house into a mausoleum of memory to them. This house is over a hundred and fifty years old … parts of it were built before the Civil War … and several generations have lived and died here; it’s a home not a museum, and is meant to be lived in and not locked up like some fragile heirloom. Besides, Will wouldn’t begrudge you, he wasn’t like that.” To shake off what I was feeling I told Ginger, “C’mon girl, you’re next.”

We walked in and I knew I had made the right choice. She turned to me and said, “Thanks. I … well … I like Reg but I think we both need …” She fidgeted then said, “I want to be his girlfriend before we’re bed buddies. No way am I ready to wake up and find myself in the same condition Ash is in. Not to mention twins run in my family.”

I blanched at her words and then turned to find Jax standing in the door way looking a little closed off, like he wasn’t quite sure what to think. I mentally sighed and left Ginger taking stuff out of her backpack and walked with Jax over to the remaining room. What had been my parents’ room. What would from that point forward be our room if I hadn’t managed to muck things up.

We got inside and I turned and quickly closed the door and then wrapped my arms around his middle and buried my head against his chest while Kelly watched my strange behavior from over his shoulder in the baby back pack. “Jax please don’t be weirded out. Please. I … I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone but us in here and I know it might take some getting used to and … and it is a mess … and …”

I felt him tilting my chin up and when I looked I nearly melted in relief because he was smiling just a bit. “I was wondering how you were going to work things out. And no, I don’t mind. I just … uh … thought maybe there was a reason why we didn’t use this room. I mean this is … was … your parents’ room but ….”

I sighed in relief. “Mostly I just didn’t think about it at first. But then when I thought about it it seemed … I don’t know … kind of momentous and I thought we would make something special out of it … out of moving in here. Only here it is and we’re scrambling around like drunk monkeys trying to fit everyone in unexpectedly.”

“Drunk monkeys huh?” he said smiling a little bigger.

“Yeah well … you didn’t see me trying to move everything around up here while you were playing Dr. Frankenstein downstairs, trying to put everyone back together. How are they anyway?”

We turned loose of each other so he could take Kelly off his back and put her in the playpen. While he did that he started his explanation. “Reg is probably OK but I won’t know for sure until the swelling on his eyes go down. Ashley knows what she is doing in the first aid department and got them both as cleaned up as she could under the circumstances. That’s probably what helped them the most at this point. She couldn’t have done anything for Reg beyond what she did. When the swelling goes down we’ll see if his eyesight has been affected. He might be light sensitive for a while at the very least so we need to find him a pair of sunglasses. Aston … Aston is another matter.”

My gut clinched and I asked, “Is … is he going to make it?”

Jax’s sigh was troubled and uncertain. “Only looking at the surface I would say if given time almost assuredly. But on the way here he told me there is blood in his urine and I don’t know if that is just bruised kidneys from the beating or if there is some kind of internal bleeding or something else. Those women got him with a couple of really good kicks in the gonads. One of the guards did the same thing just to be cruel. He’s … pretty bruised down there. He’s also got something going on with his ribs so I’ve wrapped him up the best I can and we’ll have to watch him real good, especially for pneumonia. Not too many places he doesn’t look beat on except for the back of his head; his lips are split but the nose isn’t broken and no signs of concussion in the eye that isn’t swollen. In that respect if you want to call it luck, he got lucky. I got a couple of Tylenol down him but I’m afraid to give him anything stronger until I can tell if there’s something more serious going on.”

“What about Ashley’s face?”

He sat on the edge of the bed and said, “There’s no way around it; she’s going to have a scar for the rest of her life. There are a few things that might help minimize it but it will still be pretty bad unless she can have plastic surgery at some point or skin grafts or something all of which are way beyond us. I don’t think she cares right now as she is otherwise focused but I’m sure she will at some point. Getting her to drink that sports drink was a good idea. They all should do it for a couple of days until we can get them fully rehydrated. By the way, Aston should only have a clear liquid diet until we’re surer of his condition. Reggie should stick to something soft until his nose and mouth start healing which means someone will have to help him eat or you can put it in a mug for him. Ashley needs to get on prenatal vitamins stat but I …”

He stopped, grabbed his head and started shivering which scared the bejeebers out of me. “Jax?!”

When I reached for him he pulled me close and clung for dear life. “Lydie I don’t have the training for this. I’ve only got a year of classes under my belt. Aston and the rest, they need a doctor … a real doctor … not some wannabee. What if I mess up and one of them suffers for it? Permanently suffers for it.”

I pushed him back and realized he was as close to panic as I’d ever seen him, much less imagined him to be. I remembered my Mom sometimes having to take care of my dad instead of the other way around. She always built him up. I asked her about it once and she said it was one of the biggest responsibilities a wife could have, to step in when her man’s confidence deserted him. I wasn’t Jax’s wife … I figured we were working on forever but I wasn’t living in lala land … but I could do what Mom had always done. “Jax, we don’t have a doctor … but we do have you. You have more training than any of us. And you can learn more. You don’t give yourself near the credit you deserve. We … we can find you books and stuff if the ones in the library aren’t enough. And I know home remedies and stuff like that. We’ll figure it out … you aren’t alone Jax. I’ll do whatever it is you need because I believe in you … I trust you.”

I kept holding on as he held me and I felt his shivers subside. Soon we were kissing and then the kissing turned pretty desperate. Right when I was ready to forget all common sense Jax broke it off despite the fact that he sounded like he’d been jogging up Clingman’s Dome. He muttered, “Bad timing. Sorry.”

“Not bad timing … no privacy. And there’s little eyes watching us from over there.”

That made Jax jump and I barely caught myself before I laughed at the expression on his face. “Take it easy Jax, she isn’t scarred for life. I saw my parents making out a few times and it didn’t hurt me any. It isn’t something I ever wanted a steady diet of and I always pretended like it totally grossed me out but it was actually kinda cool to know they were still so into each other after so many years together.”

His ears were a little red and he scratched his head like he tended to when embarrassed or frustrated and said, “Well, being into you isn’t a problem but … uh … maybe we could bring that wooden screen up from the parlor? I’d … uh … well …”

I smiled and told him I thought it was a great idea. He was definitely passed whatever had tripped his switch with the shaking and what all but in the aftermath of that and our brief bought of passion he looked completely drained. Then I had a solution. “Jax, why don’t you put your stuff away up here. That way you’ll be close until you’re sure about Aston and how long you can leave him at a time. It will also give the others someone to call if they need something though I’m going to try and convince them to sleep if they can. I’ll take Kelly and go take care of a few things outside that really can’t wait much longer. The animals need to be checked at the very least.”

Tiredly he said, “On one condition.” At my questioning look he answered, “That you don’t try and empty the trailers yourself.”

I nodded. “Not empty it. I may take a few things out but not much … those clothes mainly if I can get at them. And we need to go back to those house trailers to get the girls some clothes and probably the guys too if we can find any to fit.”

He puffed his cheeks and then blew air out. “Yeah but not today … maybe tomorrow or the next though I wish you didn’t have to go. I don’t want you near those spiders again.”

“You let off the bug bombs and I’ll just take precautions.”

“Yeah, I know … but still. And what we really need to do is talk about what is going on in town and I’d prefer it to be just the two of us at first.”

“To compare notes?” I asked him.

He didn’t even try to deny it. “Yeah. I want to make sure the two stories we heard match up before we go too much farther.”

So I took Kelly while he stayed in the house. The chickens and rabbits were fine and I even had a couple of dozen eggs to collect which I did with much fuss by the nastier biddies. I knew I would need to cull some of the birds before winter but I couldn’t be sure how many until I saw how many of the last batch of chicks survived passed hatching.

The rabbits needed a good brushing but I couldn’t give it to them right then. I did replace their water bottles with fresh but they only sniffed at them before being more interested in me cleaning up their piles of poop pellets which meant they weren’t thirsty and had enough while we were gone. I went out to the fish pond and noted that the water was a little low but not dangerously so I left the sluice open and while I was out there I threw them a couple of scoops of fish chow … some sinker, some floating.

Next came the garden and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t a total disaster. I got a good rattle snake watermelon and decided I would juice it and then turn that into a watermelon sorbet for the next day. The broccoli wasn’t doing too well in the heat so I cut what I could and decided to leave the rest to go to seed. The cabbage could wait one more day and then I would cut it and make some canned slaw. The keeping potatoes needed to be dug up and put in storage and the sweet potatoes looked ready too but I wouldn’t know for sure until I dug a hill out to check. I decided that could wait as well. I harvested the winter squash that was ready and then marked off the ones I was going to leave to make seeds. Everything else was just going to have to wait.

I was just sort of leaning there, hovering over a butternut, when a garter snake slithered across my feet nearly making me wet myself. “Ok, that’s enough. Time to take a shower and wake up.”

Kelly knew what that meant and started getting excited. The little exhibitionist loved the outdoor shower and would have played in it for hours if we let her. I tramped back into the house and found Ginger just sort of dazed and sitting at the kitchen table. She looked at me when I came in and said, “Shower. A real shower. With soap and shampoo and hot water … and privacy.” With a strange look on her face she asked, “Have I died and gone to Heaven?”

I shook my head. “No. But you’re loopy enough that you need to go lay down. Has everyone else showered? Did you have enough of everything? Towels, shampoo, that sort of thing?”

I pulled her to her feet and pushed and guided her up the stairs. I hadn’t been kidding about her being loopy. In tears she turned to me and said, “You … you even have pads. We’re all out in town. We’ve all be reduced to using … using …”

I shook my head and told her, “Enjoy it while you can. Nothing lasts forever kid. Eventually we’ll all be using whatever there is, just like in the pioneer era. Now come on, time for Ginger to go nighty night before she face plants on the stairs.”

I had no sooner got her taken care of than I came out and found Reggie feeling his way out of his bedroom door. “Reg?”

He jumped but then said blandly, “Need to use the facilities.”

“Oh ok. Take two steps out and then turn to your left. Then about five steps and if you put you left hand out you should feel the bathroom door’s frame.”

He reached his destination and then said, “Thanks for not asking if I needed any help.”

I snorted, “After having my brother throw some serious fits for being too helpful I learned my lesson.”

“Ah so Grasshopper,” he said in a very bad Chinese accent. “You have learned well.”

We both snickered though it really wasn’t funny. But I still hung out at the door of our bedroom until I was sure he could get back to bed without taking a header down the stairs. I turned to ask Jax how it was going and found him leaning against the dresser asleep where he’d been putting away his socks. I decided not to wake him but instead grabbed some clean clothes for Kelly and I and quietly left to go back downstairs after finding Ashley dozing in a chair beside Aston who was fast asleep but looking a little better nonetheless.

The shower felt good and I was finally getting used to sharing one with a squirmy little toddler. I noticed she was getting heat rash on her hindquarters and reminded myself that we’d gotten butt butter at the feed store; and that if the rash didn’t get better by morning I’d find the cream and take care of the rash before it got bad enough for her to be in pain.

Feeling a bit perkier I took Kelly and went to the tractor barn and put her in the swing we’d tied to a metal cross beam. Holding her captive every time we wanted to do something wasn’t a perfect solution but Jax and I figured it was the best we could do under the circumstances. Opening the back of both trailers I found that the loads had shifted. How I found out was that I had a bunch of stuff fall out and onto me. Kelly thought it was a riot, me not so much but at least it wasn’t anything too painfully heavy.

I had promised Jax I wouldn’t try and empty the trailers but since a bunch of stuff had already fallen out I figured I might as well at least get that stuff where it could be put away. The bolts of fabric were easy; I put them in a cart to roll over to the house and put in my mother’s sewing room. One whole wall was devoted to her fabric and it was sorted by color pallet for the most part. My intention was to try and continue that except for maybe some of the specialty material like denim and unbleached muslin which would get its own section. The bag of notions would also go in there. Absolutely no way was I going to unload all of the fabric so I stuck to what had fallen onto me when the door was opened.

I gave up trying to dig out the clothes; I would have to move too much stuff to find them. I did take some of the feed bags out of the other trailer and pour them into the empty metal drums that we used for that purpose in the animal barn but after that I found I had used up all the perkiness that the shower had given me. I slid down the wall listening to Kelly blather in another swing we had strung from the rafters in there and that’s where Jax found me about a half hour later.

“Hey, I thought I asked you not to try and empty the trailer,” he said trying not to sound like he was in a snit.

Giving him a look I told him, “I didn’t try and empty the trailer, the trailer tried to empty itself … onto me. If you don’t believe me ask your daughter, she thought it was funny. It was just easier to pick stuff up off the ground than stuff it back where it had come from.”

I had to explain in more detail what had happened as he sighed and sat down beside me. “Sorry … feeling a little cranky and out of it.”

“Not a prob Handsome,” I told him obviously a little loopy and out of it myself. “How’s the house?”

He smiled and said, “The house is fine and so are all the people in it. Even Aston is doing better … no blood where there shouldn’t be any.”

I sighed in relief. “Well, that’s good news.”

He tempered my relief by saying, “Still need to keep a close eye on him but I’m less worried than I was. Now you however, are starting to look a little crispy around the edges and need to lie down.”

“I definitely plan on making an early night of it but first we need to compare notes.”

He nodded. “You feeling up to it?”

“Better now than later and at least we have some privacy out here. I’ll go first.” I sketched out what the girls – mostly Ginger – had told me and he added what Reg had told him which was pretty much the same thing only with some guy-specific details like the model of trucks they had driven and the types of guns they carried and what the women in the group looked like.

“Aston was out of it the whole way home. But yeah, basically the timelines and details are the same. Reg told me a few …” Jax stopped and gave me a troubled look.

I asked, “Does it have to do with Matt? That he and Marty …”

He nodded and then insisted I repeat that part of our conversation as well. When I was finished his hands were in fists and he said, “I’m sorry you had to find out like that Lydie.”

“So you knew?”

“Not before … but after we were cooped up in the school together I heard stuff I hadn’t heard before and put two and two together. I never wanted you to get hurt like that and Matt and I … well we had more than one discussion about how he’d behaved.”

I looked at him trying to find my anger and realized it had evaporated. I snorted. “I must be fickle or something because it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I just can’t find whatever bone in my body used to care for him. Maybe you’d be better off …”

He turned and pulled me up sharp by saying, “Uh uh … don’t even go there. Ever.” Calming down a bit he said, “I’d like to say that how Matt has behaved is in the past and doesn’t matter, that we can forget about him, but the truth is … it could.”

I shook my head. “I told you it’s over for me Jax. Don’t care anymore; almost to the point of wondering if I ever really did.”

“For which I shall be eternally grateful. But there’s the big picture to consider.”

I must have been more tired than I thought because it took me a moment to piece together what he meant. I shook my head again. “It’s a fallacy to think that random past performance automatically predicts specific future performance.”

He scratched his head, “And if we were talking mathematical theorems or statistics I would say you’re probably right. But we’re not. We’re talking about human nature and personality. Think of it this way, it is a lot easier for a good person to break the habit of goodness and suddenly go bad than it is for a bad person to break the habit of badness and suddenly go good.”

“You think Matt is a bad person?”

“I think Matt is an arrogant jerk with some chunks missing from his self-esteem and that he uses people to plug those holes or to play roles that help me fulfill some preconceived idea he has of himself.”

After a stunned moment I said, “Wow. You’ve … uh … you’ve given this some thought haven’t you.”

A little sheepishly he said, “After Kelly and I left with you I guess I … just wanted to find every reason for you to get over Matt. On the other hand I didn’t want you to hurt any more than you already had. I … uh … wanted to be able to change your mind if … if you decided to give him another chance.”

“Another chance? No chance,” I told him with absolutely finality. I reached over and kissed him thinking he needed the reassurance. Instead he pulled me into his lap and held me.

“I really am sorry Lydie. I know Matt was your … your first love and … and all that … that it means and …”

Aw. He was so sweet. But I had realized something. With Matt it was all just academic between us … a little camaraderie, a little friendly competition and a particular understanding of the thing that is geekness. Beyond that there was a lot of fantasy on the gamer boards but no real action on it in the real world. With Jax it was totally real all the time … and almost from the very beginning. Sure I was using my head which I’ve always considered a good thing … but where with Matt it had been my pride that went with my head, with Jax it was head and heart all the way which flavored the relationship completely differently.

It took a little bit to get him to understand but by the time I was finished he was definitely satisfied with my explanation and believed it wholeheartedly.

Still holding me Jax said, “We’re straying from the topic we are supposed to be discussing.”

“Yep,” I told him with a grin.

He grinned and shook his head and then picked me up out of his lap and put back over by King Kong. “I can’t think with you ... never mind. We need to get serious about this Lydie.”

And just as suddenly all the play had left the space and we were indeed very serious. “I know. I suppose the first question we need to ask is how likely is it that the … I guess let’s just call them the barbarians since it really does seem to fit … how likely are they to branch out from the town looking for stuff? And if it is likely what exactly would they be looking for?”

“Good first questions,” he answered. “I asked Reg and he said that most of them seemed to be big city type people. He said they’ll try it but not until they’ve exhausted everything in town and immediately around town and from there they’ll be stuck making a go of it on foot. The primary reason they stopped where they did was because they were out of fuel.”

“So they scavenge some fuel from in town and poof, they’re mobile again.”

Jax shook his head, “Nope. Remember fuel supplies were already low before the terrorist attack. After it DHS siphoned all of the gas stations and known fuel depots in the area. After DHS left town those of us that remained had to siphon from all the cars and things like that we could find to keep the generators up and running in the school. Matt made the choice to go in the direction of solar rather than biodiesel because he said it wasn’t worth splitting the resources to do both.”

“Two is one and one is none,” I muttered.

“Huh?”

I shrugged. “Something Dad used to say, remember?”

“Yeah but I thought he only meant as far as supplies go.”

“Usually that is what he meant but sometimes he’d say it when he was talking about building redundancies into our plans. He meant that it was never good to be completely dependent on any one system or one method or one source. Always have a back up … and two or three or more back ups was even better.”

“OK, I see how that applies here but while we’ve got it going on thanks to your dad, Matt was looking for the free with the least amount of work involved to get it. He was also trying to stick with that environmental crap he is so freaking in love with.”

I cocked my eyebrow and said, “Obviously you now feel free to fully express your feelings about your cousin.”

He shook his head. “Don’t get me started Lydie. I did hold back some of what I’ve been thinking and feeling because I didn’t want your feelings to get hurt but this … this whole direction thing that Matt was taking is one of the biggest reasons he and I started avoiding each other as much as possible and why I think he started edging me out, minimizing any impact I had on the group. He doesn’t like being questioned and he didn’t like that I kept putting ideas in people’s heads that he had to compete with and come up with reasons why his ideas were better or more right.”

I realized right there that Matt had made a bad mistake. Jax was smarter than he let on, or maybe was smarter than he realized he was, but more than that Jax had experience that none of the others could even touch as far as building and maintaining mechanical systems of any size. “Matt should have put you in charge of pulling things together, not shut you out. At a bare minimum you should have been in on the planning.”

“If I agree does that make me as arrogant as him?”

Hearing the true concern in his voice I assured him, “No. It’s just realistic. Dad trained you but you still had to pull your weight. You were good enough that the big bosses kept you on out at the mill even after Dad died so you are also a quick learner. A good leader would have exploited that kind of resource, not thrown it aside like it was useless. If Matt missed something so obvious how many other things did his miss? And how did everyone not see that he was bluffing his way through leadership?”

A voice from the doorway made Jax and I jump and I nearly cussed myself no not having my rifle closer to hand. “Matt’s a fast learner too.”

“Geez Reg!” I shouted at him. “You are so lucky I didn’t shoot you!”

“Ginger was worried about the same thing when she saw you walking around earlier with a … a rifle?”

Jax had gotten up and gone over to check on him. “Yeah. A rifle. Where is Ginger?”

“Asleep at the kitchen table. She helped me down the stairs but ran out of steam. We didn’t know where both of you were so I stepped onto the porch and heard voices and decided to see who it was. You know that kid has a pretty good set of lungs … what the heck is a babbin?”

I snorted. “Babbit, not babbin. And she means Rabbit. If you listen you can hear them scrambling around in their cages. They aren’t familiar with your scent and are a little fritzy at the moment.”

After a moment he said, “Hey … hey yeah … I can hear them. Uh … it … it sounds like a lot of them or is it an echo?”

“No, we eat a lot of rabbit though some I breed for their fur. We got chickens too so you might be hearing some of them.”

“Yeah.” After a minute while we fixed a place for him to sit so he could prop up his leg he said, “Look, you were talking about Matt. I’d like in on it. You know that … that Matt is smart enough to be dangerous to you out here right? To us now that we’ve thrown in with you?”

I hadn’t gotten that far but Jax said, “We were starting to discuss it. But before we … uh … let you in on it, why do you care what we think?”

He seemed to hesitate and then said, “Because I don’t want to become a play thing for those freaks that have taken over the town. I … I’m in no shape to fight right now and even if I was, taking on all of them would get me dead or worse real quick. I just … just want some peace for a while. I think you do too Jax or you wouldn’t have run off with Lydie when she came to town last time. That means using our heads, strategizing ways to deal with the invaders. Ignoring Matt’s place in the scheme of things would be a mistake in strategy.”

No hesitation so I knew he really believed what he was saying. Jax said, “You know he’s my cousin.”

“Yeah and my brother and dad were what they were to me, but they still treated me like crap. I had to sleep on a pull out in the basement when my dad brought home his latest live in because they usually had kids that needed a place too. The only key to the house I was allowed to have was one to the outside basement door. I had to come and go from my own house like a blasted mole because I was an embarrassment to …” He stopped and fell silent. “Look, all I’m saying is that blood may be thicker than water but they both spill just about the same.”

Softly Jax said, “Fair enough. Now tell me why you think Matt is a problem.”

“How can you not see …”

Calmly in the face of Reggie’s agitation Jax answered, “I didn’t say I didn’t see it. I’m asking you to tell me how you see it.”

After a silent moment, one that he seemed to be trying to figure out if Jax was fooling or not, Reggie finally said, “Like I said, Matt is smart enough to be dangerous. And he can be charismatic when he wants to be. He’s got the ability to explain things to people in such a way that whether they originally mean to or not they wind up thinking just how he wants them to think. Some people escape … like the girls and Aston, like me … but most people have to be away from him for a while before they can shake the effect he had on them.”

I wanted to scoff but couldn’t as I knew it was the truth even if it wasn’t the whole truth. “If you are talking about me maybe you’re right … and maybe you aren’t. I still haven’t figured out if Matt fooled me or if I fooled myself. And I get cranky when I think about it too much … you really don’t want to make me cranky, especially not when I’m the chief cook and bottle washer around here.”

That got me a surprised laugh. “You always were alright Lydie. But you sure you’re over him?”

“Like I just told someone else … second chance, there’s no chance.”

He nodded carefully. “Ok, so we are mostly on the same page. And the reason I saw through him was because he was too much like my old man. My dad believed he could sell yellow snow to Eskimos and for the most part he was right. He’d win all the time, make the sale, make the deal, earn the award … but when he did fail, when he did lose, it was big and noisy and nearly wrecked all of the other stuff he ever did. I watched my brother trying to be just like him and always falling way short; he was good but he was never going to be as good as our dad because my brother lacked the sociopath gene.”

“Now hey, that’s going a little far don’t you think?” I asked. “Matt isn’t a sociopath.”

“I didn’t say he was. Neither was … or maybe is depending on where he’s at … my dad. But there is a facet of them that is. They are really good at fooling themselves into believing something so much that other people wind up believing it too even though it isn’t anything but a big lie. And to make sure that the illusion – or delusion – isn’t dismantled they’ll go to any lengths, up to and including anything immoral.”

Jax said, “Assuming we buy what you are saying how does that apply here.”

Gathering his thoughts Reggie finally explained, “Matt believes he can control the barbarian invaders the same way as Emperor Valens did in ancient Rome.”

Jax gave me a “what the heck” look so I did some quick thinking and said to Reggie, “OK, I get the reference. Valens thought he could control the Barbarians by making it so they were so busy fighting each other they’d leave the empire alone.”

“Exactly,” Reg said excitedly as he realized I could compute his conversation. “But it’s more than that. Matt thinks of himself as superior to the town invaders, the same way the Romans saw the Barbarians during ancient times. And just like the Romans made a lot of mistakes, Matt is doing the same thing. You should see how those gang leaders laugh at him behind his back and he doesn’t even realize it. Don’t get me wrong, they still want what he says he can provide … enough not to mess with him too much … but not enough to give all his crew a break. So … I think Matt has been making sacrifices with his troops. If you’ve messed with him or questioned him too much he turns you into a sacrificial lamb … to appease the violent nature the invaders have. The dumb among them think that they’ve pulled a fast one but the gang leaders pretty much suspect what he is doing because they’ve probably done the same along the way.”

Troubled I said, “You make Matt sound so … so mercenary.”

“Lydie what you have to understand is that Matt … Matt has changed. We all have. All the flaws in our characters have either been fixed or exaggerated. Take Sas as an example. Guy was big and strong … but was handicapped in a sense because despite looking like he could tear your head off he still did things like take a mangy old squirrel to the emergency animal clinic when he accidentally hit it after it jumped out in front of his bike. He was even too scared of hurting anyone to learn to drive. The only place he could be violent and tough was in an online fantasy world because it was nothing but make believe. When the world cracked open and swallowed us all whole Sas couldn’t handle it so he switched places with his avatar and brought his online world to life … it got easier to believe the fantasy was real and that real life was just a fantasy and couldn’t hurt him.”

“Fine,” I said stubbornly. “Matt is cracked just like the rest of them. I still have a hard time …”

Reggie grew frustrated and turned to Jax, “Explain it to her.”

I thought Jax was going to tell him to go pound sand but he surprised me and said, “Matt … Matt is a bit of a narcissist. He usually kept it under control but it was always kind of there. But at the same time Reg is right … he’s got a lot of charisma and pulls it off most of the time with everyone thanking him for it.”

“You too?” I asked surprised.

The New Geek Empire: Part Twenty

The New Geek Empire
Part 20

Ginger looked at me and said, “Jax must be some kind of good. No way would you have just let it go when we were back in school.”

I shrugged trying to make it look like it was no big deal. “Things change … so do people. I sure as heck had to grow up after my family got killed. Maybe Matt hasn’t. Right now your refugee problem is more important than some stupid little teen soap opera.”

In a huff she said, “You keep calling them my refugees … well they aren’t so stop it.” I suppose I was being a little insensitive all things considered so I nodded and when she saw it in the pink light of the dawn she continued. “What I was trying to tell you is that Sas was the one that started calling them barbarian invaders and Matt … you know how he can talk … Matt says ‘the analogy is fairly apt.’”

Agreeing that the phrasing did indeed sound like something Matt would say I asked, “Why … uh … apt?”

“You really going to make me recite that lecture?” she sighed.

I snorted, “I don’t need chapter and verse; just hit the highlights.”

She shrugged. “OK, if I understand what Maestro the Magnifico was saying …”

“Just call him Matt. That handle is just too dorky.”

“So you say … most everyone else was taking it way too literal when we left.” At my impatient sigh she finally got back on topic and it really did sound like she was reciting notes from a lecture. “Barbarian. Usually we use the term to mean someone who is uncivilized which could mean they are also brutal, savage, filthy and all the other fun adjectives you can come up with. But that isn’t exactly what the term started out meaning.”

I nodded. “OK, world history time. The Greeks made it up to mean anybody that wasn’t them or who thought or acted differently from them. Got it.”

“Yeah, thank goodness. And you managed to explain it in about a tenth as many words as Matt so you can be the professor from here on out. Anyway, so you get the context. But these barbarians aren’t like the ones back in ancient history … they aren’t ‘noble’ or anything else; they aren’t worthy adversaries or whatever it was that Matt keeps saying. They’re just killers … savages that don’t seem to have too many thoughts about anything beyond the moment. Some of them are like zombies … you get in their way and they’ll just eat you.”

An awful thought popped into my head. “We aren’t talking literal … you know for real cannibalism are we?”

“Not yet though some of the eggheads said that it might just be a matter of time.” Eggheads was a not too nice term for the clique of super smart kids that were about as fond of their own theorizing and own voices as the stereotype that you would sometimes see on college campuses. They were smart, could talk a good line, but ask them to actual do something with their theories and you were out o’ luck.

Doing my own thinking I said, “Yippee skippee, finally we catch a break.”

“Not for long if the spooky prognostications prove out,” she snorted. “Food is running low. I mean really, really low … even before the circus freaks showed up. The government keeps promising to send trucks with supplies to help out but they won’t do it if there is any kind of potential for danger for their personnel. I think it is how they are trying to control great big blocks of people. Seal the city off, tell them once they can control themselves they’ll get help. Nobody wants to listen so they kill each other off in mob violence until finally there are fewer people and they’re all beat down and no energy left to run amok. Then the government goes in and takes over and puts them all to work doing stuff … salvaging and that sort of thing … which keeps the people busy and out of trouble.”

“Sounds like a fairy tale.”

“No, it sounds like what a bunch of the circus freaks … the barbarians … were running from. Seriously, they say that our town is like an oasis in the dessert after what they’ve been through.”

“Yes and they are fouling the water so that nobody gets a drink.”

She shrugged. “Lots of regular people have been running from what is going on in the cities. They either have some place to go or they wind up in what they are calling hospitality hotels. Only hospitable is the last thing these places are … barbwire, tents and cots with barely enough food and water to keep people healthy. They aren’t like any hotel that I’ve ever heard of.”

I asked, “How on earth do you know this stuff? We’ve heard some rumors from the radio but I never would have put it together to make a picture like this.”

She shrugged. “Of course not, you’re basically a nice person. Nice people have a hard time imagining making those types of choices. Besides, not all of the bar … uh … the refugees are total freaks. Some of them are … they didn’t all start out like they’ve ended up. I guess you could say they are following the strong ones because they are the ones that keep them fed and safe and who they are following is kind of rubbing off on them.”

Realizing Ginger must have had something rub off on her too because I’d never heard her think this deep and I’d known her almost my whole life. I asked her, “These hospitality hospitals aren’t good enough for them or something?”

“More like some of them are like prisons than anything else. Some are ok if you are willing to conform but most have some really crazy rules and families get separated and stuff like that. Lots of sickness goes through those places. No privacy, lots of stress, a real pressure cooker. Not everyone is meant to live in a commune Lydie.”

I looked at her and said, “You don’t need to tell me that. I didn’t exactly conform in school, I can’t imagine trying to stay sane in a place like you’re describing. Would have been like fingernails on a chalkboard – or across my brain – for me.”

“Yeah but the stupid rules weren’t the worst of it. It’s the fact that the foreign terrorist and home grown gangs turn those places into targets. They’ve even taken some over as bases of operations and from what I can tell have enslaved the people there. The government isn’t a whole lot better about it … those places have to grow their own food, scavenge the surrounding area for clothes and stuff like that and … and …”

When she stuttered to a stop I realized she was describing the way that I had lived all my life … well, not the scavenging part unless you counted taking advantage of wild food and recycling stuff from the local dump but I couldn’t say that anymore since I had been doing my share of salvaging with Jax. Carefully I told her, “Life isn’t free. I … er … look, I know you all need time to … to heal and stuff … but I’m not going to be anyone’s slave. Y’all want to stay you’re going to have to help … and that means gardening and taking care of the animals and stuff like that.”

Ashley, once again showing that she had been listening rather than truly sleeping said, “You give us a place to say and we’ll do anything you tell us to.”

Glancing at her quickly before turning back where my eyes belonged I told her, “We work together, not me bossing you around like … like indentured servants or whatever. You want a place to say you’ve got it … price of admission is pulling your weight, doing what you can, not slavery. Got it?”

I’m not sure they really believed me but there wasn’t any more time to talk about it because it was time to turn onto the drive. A nerve wrecking thirty minutes later and two near misses with trees and I was pulling up to the tractor barn. Jax and I had already planned what we would do. I jumped out and ran to slide open the big bay doors on the hanger like building. The small and medium tractors lined one side of the barn. I pulled through and parallel to the other wall as tight as I could squeeze it, then Jax came in and pulled parallel to me. Everything fit and there was still a walking path between Jax’s truck and trailer and the tractors. We couldn’t really use any of the farm equipment in there until the trailers were emptied and moved out so that would have to be a big priority.

The girls jumped out of the truck and ran towards Jax’s to see how Aston and Reggie were. I was nearly dancing and with an apologetic look at Jax I ran for the bathroom for some relief. It hadn’t taken long but by the time I got back there was already a minor spat in progress.

“Why didn’t you stop?! You at him! I should have … could have …”

“Nothing you could have done to make it better Ashley.”

For about two second I thought the worst until I heard both of the guys moan. I knew any ruckus needed to be nipped in the bud and I wasn’t sure if Jax was up to handling the melodrama of two hormonal, love struck cheer squad queens. I ran forward and said, “Hey … ‘nough already. Jax did what was necessary. We’ve got too much to do for this to turn into Greek Tragedy 101. OK?” Seeing Reg leaning against the side of the truck I asked him, “Reggie are you ambulatory if we get you something to lean on?”

“Yeah,” he wheezed. “So long as there is aspirin at the end of the race I might even be able to run a marathon.”

I shook my head even though I knew he couldn’t see it. “Aspirin is a no no with black eyes, thins the blood and makes the eyes worse rather than dispersing the bruise. We’ll use some witch hazel pads to help with the swelling and pain and I’ll also make you some pineapple tea to sip on too. I forget what it is but there is something in pineapple that is good for that kind of bruising. Mostly we need to get you guys cleaned up so we can head off any infection.”

I turned to Aston and blanched. I bent down and quietly asked, “Hey, Football Head, you in there?”

“Lydie?” he mumbled through busted lips.

“Yeah. You are going to have to get well so I can lecture you on what to do with women that think they have the stones to take on varsity linebackers.” No reaction so I figured maybe then wasn’t the time for that particular lesson. “Look, we’ve got to move you and it’s going to hurt. And then we’re going to have to give you some first aid which is going to hurt even more. But I swear if you hang on, there’s a soft bed at the end of it and you can rest … OK?”

“Sure,” he muttered. Then he asked, “Take care of Ash for me? She’s … I got her knocked up. We got stupid just like Jax warned us not to and … and …”

Jax bent down and told him briskly, “You’re sticking around to take care of this yourself. We’ll help her but you ain’t leaving her high and dry. Got it?”

“Don’t … don’t want to leave her. But …”

“No buts Football Head. You gonna have to pay the piper so you hang on. She and that baby are going to need you.”

I think he nodded but he passed out so quickly it was hard to tell. Standing up I told Ginger, “Try and keep Reg upright and don’t let Ash get hysterical at what Jax is going to have to do.” To Jax I said, “There’s an old cattle sling in the other barn; it’ll probably work as good as anything else to help move him to the house. I’m gonna grab it and be right back.” I didn’t say anything but Jax knew that I wasn’t just going for the sling but to give a quick check on the animals that I’d been trying not to worry about the whole time we were gone.

Aside from a heavy odor where the cages needed to be cleaned the rabbits and chickens looked at me like they thought I was nuts for being the least bit worried about them. I was relieved more than I wanted to admit but I couldn’t hang around and fuss. I had to move a couple of things in the storage closet to get it out but I finally got the contraption untangled and was happy to see that the canvas was still intact except for a couple of small tears.

When I got back Ashley was watching Jax intently has he cut away Aston’s outer clothes. I yelped, “Whoa … uh …”

Jax gave me a questioning look. I made a face and then said, “Leave the pants on.”

He shook his head. “Lydie it will be easier to take them off out here where I don’t have to worry about cutting …”

Ginger snickered a quiet, “Commando.”

Startled Jax looked at her, at my red face, and then sighed as he looked down at Aston. “Figures.” He looked back at me and said, “Grab a sheet or something. These still need to go one way or the other and I’d rather do it before we take him into the house.”

I kept telling myself that it couldn’t be any worse than helping Mom to take care of Will when he was at his sickest from chemo therapy but for some reason my inner prude just didn’t want to believe it. Finally we were ready to go in. We had to wake Kelly up which was about like waking up an irritable hyena and she wouldn’t go to anyone but Jax which meant even as tired as he was he had to put her in the backpack carrier and still carry his end of the stretcher while I carried the feet end. Ashley hovered which was an accident waiting to happen. And Ginger played seeing eye dog for Reggie who couldn’t seem to decide whether he wanted to enjoy the attention or play me-heap-big-he-man-so-leave-me-alone-I-can-take-care-of-myself.

After we navigated the porch stairs Ashley had to dig the house keys out of my pocket so I wouldn’t have to put my end of the stretcher down. But eventually, with only a few minor near disasters, we were finally in the house.

Jax instructed, “Let’s put him on the table; it’s covered with a plastic table cloth already. This way I won’t have to get down on the floor to take care of him. Ginger, pour Reg into that chair over there and then get that leg up. I’m not going to ask him to strip down all the way but get the t-shirt off of him – be careful not to knock any scabs on his head off or he’ll bleed all over the place – and then cut those pants open up to the knee on the side the dog got a hold of.” He took Kelly off his back and handed her to me and said, “She needs a potty break and then can you …”

“Just let me grab the first aid box for you and I’ll take her. Ashley, Ginger, give Jax a hand. He knows what he is doing – he took EMT training – but he’s only got two hands and I need to make sure y’all have a place to lay down after he’s done. Reg … when Jax is finished I’ll have something to take the sting out of your eyes.”

Reggie, still playing tough guy, said, “Not a prob. Take your time.”

I shook my head at the weirdness of the male species as I ran up the stairs with Kelly who was all agog at the sudden increase in people in the house. I took her to the half bath in my parents’ bedroom and as she did what little girls everywhere needed to do I realized I had a very big decision on my hands and was slightly freaked about it. Where was I going to put everyone? The house had four bedrooms and it looked like two, possibly three couples though I still wasn’t sure about Ginger and Reggie although she was showing rather predatory signs for there to be nothing between them.

I figured Ashley and Aston could go in the guest room with the little attached sitting room giving them room to spread out if need be. Then there was Will’s room. I cringed at the thought but Will wasn’t ever coming back so I decided to stick Reggie in there knowing my brother wouldn’t care one way or the other; he was obviously well taken care of in Heaven so it was stupid to build a shrine to him here on earth.

That left two rooms … my room and my parents’ bedroom. They had the biggest bed in the house – a king because Dad was a bed hog – while my bed was barely a full size. Jax and I had been moving from guest bed to my bed and back again depending on where we just happened to crash. That wasn’t going to work anymore. In the end I blanched and decided I would worry about the woolie boogers it gave me later.

I ran and got Kelly’s portable crib and all of her other paraphernalia and put it in the corner of my parents’ bedroom. Then I grabbed Jax’s clothes and stuff, dumped them in a laundry basket and then onto the middle of the big bed to be put away more neatly later. Next I ran to my own bedroom. I’d always been pretty much a minimalist when it came to personal effects. My mother’s eccentricities would have driven me crazy if I hadn’t been. As it was I could move nearly everything in the storage boxes and tubs that my mother had labeled in her nearly typewriter like handwriting. Even so it still took a while to get most of my most personal items out of the one room and into the other. I went to the hall bath and grabbed Jax’s shaving stuff and my stuff and tossed them under the sink in the half bath.

I was in the middle of tidying up the guest room when Ginger found me and barked a surprised laugh. “Oh … my … God. Are you seriously changing the sheets?! And dusting the curtains?! You are aren’t you? Geez, will you stop channeling Martha Stewart already!” She laughed again but it wasn’t nasty … more like one friend poking at another for a humorously eccentric habit.

I sighed and said, “Just shut up and help will you? My mother would spin in her grave if I put you guys in dirty bedrooms.”

Ginger tapped me on the head as a joke and said, “Nope, not hollow.” She shook her head. “Lydie seriously, don’t like give yourself a heart attack. We can deal with musty sheets. Just having a real bed to sleep in is a gift from on high.”

With her help the bed we were going to put Aston on was finished but then I had an idea. To distract her I said, “There’s a bathroom across the hall if you want to wash your face. Just go easy on the hot water or there won’t be any for anyone else.”

As I was pounding down the back stairs in preparation of going to the basement I heard her disbelieving voice, “Hot water? Like from a tap? Are you kidding me?!”

I startled Jax bounding into the kitchen. “Uh … sorry. Um look … I’ve got a box of stuff we … we kept around for Will. It … well I’ll just get it and you’ll understand.”

Jax was getting used to my strange hairs and starts so only nodded as he went back to cleaning a nasty looking wound on Reggie’s calf. Ashley left Aston’s unconscious side and followed me down to the basement where I was scrambling around looking for a particular box. She said, “That one on top says Will.”

I stepped back and looked up and gave myself a thunk on the forehead. As soon as I saw it I remembered putting it up there the previous week. “Thanks,” I told her. “I’d be looking until next Juvember if you hadn’t seen it.”

“What’s in there? Meds or something?”

“Or something,” I told her. I sighed before explaining, “Chemo was really hard on Will. He’d puke so hard something that he’d … lose control of his … you know … bodily functions. Or he’d be so week that we’d have to let him use a bed pan and that can get … er … messy. Accidents happen. If Aston is going to be out for a while or unable to … to get to the bathroom … might be better if we pad the bed so it isn’t a problem.”

“Oh.”

I stopped and looked at her. “Ash, don’t take this the wrong way but are you up for this? It … it might be … uh …”

Instead of folding she seemed to straighten up and surprised me. “We took care of my grampaw … my dad’s dad … so he wouldn’t have to die in a nursing home. My folks didn’t hide any of it from me. And they expected me to help. That’s what you do when you love someone. You … you take care of them when they can’t take care of themselves.”

Tilting my head and looking at her I said, “I always wondered how you understood so well … about Will I mean.”

She shrugged. “It isn’t something you go around bragging about because that’s not why you do it.”

We looked at each other and I understood a little bit more about why I liked Ashley when a geek like me had a lot of reason not to. Then she turned and I saw the burn. She saw me looking and tried to turn away but I wouldn’t let her. “We need to take care of that. Does it hurt? Geez, sorry, stupid question. “

Stubbornly she said, “I won’t take anything that will hurt the baby.”

“Burn cream won’t hurt the baby and it will keep infection out that could. Let’s get this upstairs and start getting you to drink more. Getting dehydrated won’t help you, the baby, or that burn. I’ve got some powdered Gatorade that will help with your electrolytes. What flavor do you like?”

Instead of answering me she asked, “Is this your house? I mean … you know … your house from before.”

“Yep.”

“It’s … it’s really pretty. Jax said your parents were kind of … of … um … different.”

I snorted a small laugh despite the situation and said, “Yeah, you could say that. Look, I’ll show you and Ginger all over but it’s gonna have to wait.” We were about to go back up the stairs when I stopped and turned still holding the box. “Ash, are … are Ginger and Reggie a couple?”

Ashley shrugged. “Reg was … was interested I think … maybe a lot interested … maybe a whole lot interested before everything went crazy. They were lab partners in biology and he’d do things like do all of the dissecting and gross stuff so that Ginger didn’t have to; and do it so the teacher never caught them at it. Ginger just … you know how she can be. Reg was a little too serious about how nice he was and it freaked her out a little. She didn’t want to hurt him but he … he scared her some. Then the world ended and Reg kept his distance but we noticed that he wouldn’t let anyone mess with Ginger. You know Ginger could be kinda … you know … like her mom and … uh … always looking for love with the wrong guys. A couple of times guys thought she was being a tease and … well if Reg hadn’t been hanging around, things could have gotten bad. And when the three of us started to keep our distance from Matt and everyone else, then we noticed that Reg was doing the same thing and he … I don’t know … suddenly was one of us. I mean he still has these walls and stuff but he’s actually kinda cool when he lets you get to know him. And he is a lot smarter than he lets on; Aston says maybe as smart as you and Matt.”

I shrugged, “Cool. We need more brainiacs in the world.”

Surprised she asked, “Seriously? You don’t have a problem with Reg being super smart? Maybe … maybe smarter than you?”

I snorted. “Are you kidding? Contrary to gamer mythology no one really wants to bear the full burden of civilization on their brain cells all alone. If he brings some brain juice to the party, more power to him.”

Ashley grimaced and said, “Geez Lydie, you can be so weird.”

I smiled proudly, “Yep.” Changing the subject I told her, “And just in case you want to know but are too polite to ask, Jax and I share a bedroom and I’ve put you and Aston in one room too.”

Quietly she said, “Thanks. What about Ginger and Reg?”

“They’ve got their choice. Either, or. But if Ginger is smart she’ll take it slow. Reg may want her but he might not know what to do with her if he catches her all of a sudden without expecting to.”

She put her hand over her mouth and I realized she was trying not to smile. “Oh, I … I shouldn’t be laughing … not with Aston upstairs and … and …”

Her smile turned to tears and she was trying to control them just as much. I put the box on the stairs and held it there with my hip while I gave her a hug. “It’s just relief, that’s all. Adrenaline and stuff. But you’re safe right now. I can’t promise for always but we’ll do the best we can. Right now you just need to focus on you and the baby … and Aston … and getting your feet under you.”

The New Geek Empire: Part Nineteen

The New Geek Empire
Part 19

They started on me as soon as the engine came to life. I wanted to ask them just as many questions but I had a truck and very heavy trailer to drive around some very dangerous curves. “Ash. Ginger. Cut me some slack until we get across the highway; we’re loaded to the gills here. Imagine trying to drive the school float along River Road and you’ll see what I’m up against here. And I’m going to have to take the long way around to avoid the worst of the hairpins.”

That explained the situation to them in just a few words but well enough that they shut up for a while. I gave them the promised wet naps and also gave them a bag of muesli and some bottled water.

“Easy on the muesli if you’ve been eating crappy or it will tear you up and we can’t stop anywhere around here,” I warned them.

Ashley took a few cautious nibbles but it wasn’t long before she was asleep. I felt rather than saw Ginger crawl into the front seat since I was driving without lights so I asked her how she was doing. She answered, “Ashley is preggers.”

Realizing it might be her way of deflecting questions about herself I decided to respect that and went in the direction she took. Quietly so as not to wake anyone up in the back I said, “I saw. Should I ask if it’s Aston’s?”

A little protectively she said, “Not around her or it’ll upset her and every time that happens she starts puking. Some of rest of them asked the same thing and that’s when the … what do you call it … the scism or split or whatever happened.”

Confused I asked, “So she and Aston aren’t together?”

“No. Not her and Az. Us and … you know … Matt’s group. Kinda started when we got tired of playing dress up at the same time everyone else started taking it too seriously. When Ashley and Az got caught some of them got really freaked about it and said some mean things.”

“What? Were they afraid it was contagious or something?”

Catching her off guard I made her snicker a little but then she was quiet again until we crossed the highway heading out and away from town. She must have been thinking because she surmised, “You lived … are still living … on a farm.”

It was a statement, not a question. “Uh … more like a homestead than a farm, though I suppose things being what they are I could reclaim the land of all my grandparents on both sides and no one would care or notice.”

She said bleakly, “Care? Probably not. Notice? That’s something else and I promise you don’t want that to happen. Getting noticed is as good as getting killed.”

For the next little bit the road was straight but we still crawled along at a snail’s pace. I decided it was time and asked quietly, “You up to telling me what’s been going on?”

She turned to look at Ashley who still looked asleep as she leaned against Kelly’s car seat. Turning back around she pushed her hair back away from her face. “There wouldn’t happen to be clean clothes where we’re going would there? Or maybe a place to wash what I was able to bring with me? I feel all skuzzy.”

I wasn’t willing to share some information yet. “I know where I can get some clothes the right size or at least close enough that we can alter them to fit,” I told her thinking of the first trailer we had salvaged from. “I guess the guys need outfitting from the skin out too.”

“Yeah except that Aston and Reggie go commando so we won’t have to worry about that part.”

I cringed. “Geez Ginger … TM freaking I.”

“Huh?” she asked, looking confused. Then she gave an honest to goodness giggle. “Sorry. Forgot what a prude you are.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Not a prude; just some things should be left to the imagination.” Then I shuddered. “And then again, some things shouldn’t.”

Her smile slowly faded and she started fidgeting. “Those clothes aren’t in town are they?”

“Uh uh. Why?”

Breathlessly she whispered, “Don’t want to go back there … ever. Or at least not for a long, long time.”

Carefully I asked her, “Did these guy you mentioned … did they … you know … hurt you or Ashley?”

In a voice gone nearly dead she asked, “Do you mean did they rape us?”

Quietly I said, “Yeah. Unfortunately that is what I mean.”

She shook her head. “Not me or Ash. They got a couple of the other girls though … a couple of the guys too though you wouldn’t ever catch any of them admitting it. They got some sick jerks travelling with that circus.” She shuddered. “Ash and I got lucky and we were able to stay out of the path of the worst of them except for the last time. We made the mistake of trusting a couple of women that looked like they’d … you know … been hurt by those guys. But it was a stupid trap. They’re the ones that burnt Ash’s face. What a bunch of bent witches. They said she was too pretty and that she deserved it because she was … was bad to other women.” Even more protectively she said, “Ash is not like that. You know she isn’t and never has been.”

“Easy Ginger. I know Ash was never nasty like some of the pretty girls could be. And she put her money where he mouth was and took a lot of heat for kicking Renee off the squad when she pulled that prank on those girls in band. You don’t have to defend her to me. I’ve been on the wrong end of that stick too often not to know the ones at school that held it.”

She shuddered and started reliving what had happened. In a voice full of guilt she said, “I … I couldn’t make them stop. My best friend and all I could do was watch. They tied me to a mail truck. I tried to get free but I couldn’t get my hands out of the hand cuffs. Ashley was screaming and then they hit me a couple of times because I wouldn’t stop crying. That’s when Aston showed up. But …”

“But?”

She leaned her head back and stared out the side window. “God Lydie, you know what he’s like. His old man … he would have killed Aston if he had ever even raised his voice to a girl. He didn’t even know how to fight those witches, not even with me screaming to kick them if he couldn’t punch them. All he would do is take all the hits that those women tried to give to Ashley. He was protecting her … her and the baby … with his own body. And they weren’t going to stop Lydie … I could see it on their faces; they were like crazy or something. It’s like they were using Aston to get payback for anything any guy had ever done to them.” She turned to me and there was something in her eyes that was way on the other side of creepy. “And then that’s when Reg shows up.”

“Reggie was part of it too?”

“Oh yeah. Aston was going down and still couldn’t hit back … but not Reg. Reg came in running full tilt and took the whole pack of hounds down by clipping them in the knees. They threw a couple of punches at him but Reg, man he hits back. They run off and he gets Ash and I untied and we’re trying to drag Aston away when the witches come back with a couple of guys and man they lay into Reg. Reg holds his own but you know, three against one so it wasn’t going to end well. Then these guys everyone calls enforcers show up and break up the party but instead of everything being OK, they haul Aston and Reg away and tell us to run along before they let the women at us again.” She stops and draws a shaky breath. “Next day we hear they’ve had some kind of fake trial and Az and Reg were found guilty of … get this … disturbing the peace and insubordination. They were going to be executed as an example to quote ‘stop that crap from happening again.’”

It was a lot to take in and sounded like a very bad movie … one of those awful indies that go straight to DVD when it should never have seen the light of day to begin with. I asked her, “If they were in such bad shape and going to be killed, how did they get away?”

Another shaky breath preceded her explaining, “Ash and I found out they were being held in the boiler room of the old highschool.”

That told me more than just the content of the words. One of the reasons they had built the new highschool besides the fact of overcrowding was that there were far too many ways to get on and off campus with no adult knowing. The boiler room was the biggest escape hatch for those willing to take the risk. “They didn’t know about the old bomb shelter entrance did they.”

She shook her head. “Probably still don’t. The guards were all high on something and didn’t even notice. We heard about it the next day though when they came around. Ash and I had hidden the guys in my grandparents’ basement and we hadn’t told anyone anything so they couldn’t give us away. We figured people seeing us upset and shook up would be put down to the beat down and to finding out about the guys death sentences. Ashley was in so much pain it wasn’t even an act for her. After they left Matt looked like he wanted to say something but he didn’t dare.”

Finding the statement a little bit of a non sequitur I asked, “Why?”

In a tone that told me she thought I might be missing a few important brain cells she answered, “Because of Marty of course. Ash gave Matt a look that reminded him we weren’t the only ones with something to lose. We don’t know for sure where he’s hidden her but we probably could find out if we put our minds to it. We know where a lot of Matt’s hidden stashes are, by process of elimination she is probably at one of those.”

That made me uncomfortable. Sure Matt had been a two-timing jerk and Marty went along for the ride but turning them over to crazies wasn’t something I would ever consider doing … hadn’t thought the girls would ever consider doing. I nearly jumped when Ashley spoke from the back seat and it answered a few of my unasked questions. “I don’t … don’t think I could have gone through with it … but … but maybe in the heat of the moment I … I might have. I’m not sure I’d want that kind of temptation again. And that’s when I knew we had to get out of there. It scared me how … how easy … how fast we … we could change and be like those other people. I don’t want to be that way Lydie. I’ve got … I’m going to have a baby. I’m …” After a pause she asked in a small voice, “Is it safe where we’re going?”

Still reeling from the details of their story it was hard to answer her. “It was. It’ll stay that way as long as Jax and I can make it. We’ve got Kelly to protect and I’m not going to just roll over and let someone trash my home.” We were nearing the final stretch before we turned onto the road back to the house. I still didn’t know enough so I asked, “Who are these people anyway? They didn’t just appear out of nowhere or fall from the sky.”

Ashley sighed and returned to her quiet turmoil so it was Ginger that filled in some details. “Believe it or not they came on bikes, scooters, wagons … there were a couple of dump trucks and a few buses too that were full of people, but most everyone came under there own power some how. We think most of them are refugees from the cities although there are some prisoners and some psych ward patients in there too.”

“Prisoners and pysch … wha?! Are you kidding me?!” I asked almost loud enough to wake Kelly up.

Ginger shook her head, the filthy red curls weighted with dirt but still trying to bounce at the sudden disturbance. “I wish. The prisoners aren’t the worst ones … at least most of them aren’t. They were from a minimum security prison and were mostly addicts and petty criminals … stuff like writing bad checks, picking a fight with the wrong guy at a bar, or joy riding; you know, stupid stuff. The psych patients and addicts mostly do nothing but jones around looking for something to get high on and self-medicate. The other ones just try and stay out of way of the gang leaders and the guys that run things and are truly bad dudes.”

“Where do they come from?”

“Listening to them it sounds like all over. Sas … poor Sas … he called them Barbarians. Sas was pretty gone there at the end. If DHS hadn’t …”

I knew we were getting off the topic but something told me it was a piece of the puzzle I needed to know. At one time Sas had been my friend. I wanted to know what had turned a big ol’ teddy bear into Attila the Hun. “DHS were the ones that cleaned the bodies out of town after the water was poisoned.”

“Yeah, only it was more like they drove the trucks and held the guns while the townspeople did the work. And Sas … because he was so big and strong … he was put on some of the worst jobs. You know his story right?”

“Yeah, big brother to six little sisters. Big, happy, two-parent family. Grandma lived with them too I think.”

“Uh huh, and I guess you might have missed that his mom had just had another baby … a boy to make a book end for Sas. I probably know more about what happened because Sas was good friends with my stepbrother Mark.”

“Mark lived with his dad right?”

“Yeah … it freaked Dottie out, she couldn’t figure out why her son wanted to go live with the dad that never paid child support. Dad tried to explain he was just at the age where he needed to know where he came from but … anyway, wrong memory lane … Sas had gone over to Mark’s house for some 24-hour gamer gore-athon the night it happened or he would have … you know … died too.”

Horrified by my suspicions I asked, “All of them?”

“Might have been better if it had gone down that way. The baby was bottle fed from that special formula that was premixed in cans … some kind of allergy. And it was four days before anyone let Sas go to his house – they had that whole side of town cordoned off. It wasn’t poisoned water that killed the baby; I heard it was dehydration.” Both Ginger and I were trying really hard to ignore the nightmare she had just described. “So that on top of some of the other stuff he saw… it … you know … I think something broke. Then when what little bit of family he had left … cousins, stuff like that … took off and never came back, well it was just easier for Sas to play pretend than it was to live with his reality. But I figured Jax would have told you all this.”

Feeling forced to defend Jax I said, “He’s told me some of it but not every single detail. That thing with the baby probably freaked him out. He’s pretty protective of Kelly.”

After another moment of silence as I negotiation a bad pothole Ginger asked, “So are you and him like together?”

Feeling my inner beastie spring to life I told her bluntly and succinctly, “Yes.”

There was surprise in her voice when she responded, “Wow. Matt sure got that one wrong.”

Not that I cared or wanted to get into it I still found myself asking, “What do you mean he got it wrong?”

“He thought either Jax had taken Kelly and run off or maybe they’d had an accident around town and become some of the lost – we’ve had a few of those happen – or that you’d killed him in revenge.”

Barely keeping myself from slamming on the breaks I said, “What?!”

“I know,” she said ruefully. “It sounded stupid the first time he’d said it but Matt has this way of like I don’t know … making things makes sense after a while, even when they shouldn’t.”

In disbelief all I could say was, “I never would have dreamed that Matt would have turned out to be such a demented drama queen. I mean … c’mon I know I can have a hot temper but kill his cousin just because I caught him with his hand in the cookie jar? Guess Marty might have done me a favor rather than a hurt.”

“Maybe,” she agreed. “Matt was starting to … to give some of us … he was just getting … I don’t know.”

Her explanation leaving something to be desired I said, “Explain it in English please.”

She sighed. “OK, but don’t shoot the messenger.” After giving me a look she told me, “Matt wasn’t just always … look, he could be creepy and you know it. Mostly he wasn’t but he could be. But at the same time he could be … someone you wanted to know because he always seemed to have the answers. On the one had you wanted to mess with him because he could be so full of himself but on the other hand you wanted to be his friend but couldn’t because he was like … like so far above you. He was like two separate people competing for the same body. And he would do things that … I don’t know. If anyone else had done them they would have been toast. Girls for instance.”

“Girls? What the heck is that supposed to mean?”

“Geez Lydie. Marty isn’t his first and Matt and Marty have been doing it behind your back since last summer. Everybody kinda figured it out but you … well maybe you and Jax since he wasn’t around all that much and had turned into such a boy scout after Kelly came along … just …”

Outraged I asked, “Just? Just what?”

“Most of us like thought you knew and either didn’t care or where OK with it. He always went back to you so we just figured … that … well … c’mon we just thought you were cool with it so long as you know publically it was you he was with.”

With a high level of snark in my voice I said, “Oh really.”

“Yeah. Ash and I get how stupid that is now. We just didn’t get how stupid until after you came back and laid into them like you really hadn’t known about any of it.”

I shook my head, realizing it no longer mattered except as an ouchie to my pride and Mom had always told me pride goeth before a fall. Right then I couldn’t afford to fall … not even stumble … so I said, “Not important any more I suppose. Matt has obviously moved on but more importantly I’ve moved on. Let’s get back to your refugees.”