The New Geek Empire
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.”
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.”
“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.”