Tuesday, August 26, 2014

They Just Don't Make Emperors Like They Used To - Part 1


Sitting by the pallet we’d made up in front of the fireplace in the family room I looked at Marty’s papery gray skin and could only feel sorry for her.  She’d cried herself to sleep for about the fifth time in less than two days.  Of course she’d only been awake that many times in that period as well; it was just gut wrenching.   

“Hey … why don’t you go spend some time with Jax.  I’ll sit with her for a while.”  I was grateful to have learned over the last few months that Ginger was a lot more empathetic than I’d ever given her credit for being. 

“You sure?  She … uh …” 

“I heard.  And Mrs. Houchins explained a few things before she left.  So yeah, I’m sure.  Reggie said he’d be in here in a minute after he hit the john and grabbed a bowl of soup.  Aston is on duty up in the cupola.  I think he just needed some space and time to come to terms with things.  Ashley said he’s taking it pretty hard.” 

Sighing I said, “Ok, thanks.  I … I won’t be long.  I just need … need …” 

My composure was slipping but she understood.  “Go talk to Jax and maybe take a quick shower.  It’ll wash the fuzzy brain down the drain.” 

I gave a half-hearted snort and said, “Cute.”  Still, I nodded and quietly left the room and headed down the hall.  I hadn’t gone far when Jax came out of the kitchen with a steaming mug in his hand and a resolute look on his face. 

“You’re going to eat this soup and you’re going to …” 

He stopped talking when my bottom lip started quivering and I suddenly took off outside at a half gallop.  A few minutes later he found me on all fours heaving into the snow that surrounded the winter incarnation of my great great grandmother’s wild rose bushes.  When I was finished he helped me to stumble towards the tractor barn and Dad’s office.  He poured me into a chair and then got a cloth and some water so I could rinse my mouth out and wash my face. 

“Where’s … where’s Kelly?” I asked. 

“Down for her nap in the kitchen with Ashley.”  He brushed the hair away from my neck and put a damp cloth across it to help me combat my nausea.  “You can’t keep doing this to yourself.  It isn’t your fault.” 

Reluctantly I said, “No.  It isn’t.  But I didn’t exactly help either.” 

Gruffly he replied, “What were you going to do?  She’d already two-timed you by taking up with Matt; already gotten so emotionally locked in to believing what she wanted to believe, that she couldn’t see it any more than you could when you guys were all in school together.  Not to mention that it’s pretty much a given that it started even before the terrorist attack on the town.” 

Trying to be realistic I said, “Ok.  Yeah.  But … but she was my best friend Jax.  Why didn’t I see what was going on back then?  And then I waited to go into town for how long?  And now … maybe I should have tried harder, something, to find out what happened to her when we found out she … she wasn’t …” 

“We all thought Matt had her tucked up someplace safe.  How were you … any of us … supposed to know what really happened?” 

What really happened.  So many of the stories of what really happened in those days have been buried hard and deep.  No one wants to know those stories.  Many of the people that lived the worst of it have gone on to their rewards and if they are still living I’ve yet to meet one that wanted their story told so that the names they now use are attached to it.  Most of all no one wants to wonder if we’ve really come all that far from the brutality of those war years. 

Matt didn’t put Marty in hiding except from the remaining kids from the original group that got left behind.  None of them apparently knew what happened to her, not then.  What Matt did was unforgivable in human standards.  He used her as a sort of down payment to get in with one of the upper echelons of the gang leadership.  See what Matt did was play King Maker; and it was Suicide that he chose to make king. 

Matt knew that in the normal scheme of things he hadn’t had the time to really break Marty completely so that she would do what he told her to do without question so he set about speeding the process up.  At first he told Marty that he was keeping her safe but the only supplies she had access to were those he provided for her.  He kept her hungry and thirsty and literally in the dark, locked in the basement of a house not too far from his parents’.  She was scared with no way to run and completely dependent on Matt.  When she’d exhausted the first batch of supplies he was a little late in bringing the next batch and she pounced on them and never even thought to wonder why they were out of their original packaging.  Those supplies were laced with narcotics … just a taste. 

When Marty questioned how she started to feel after eating Matt had a ready excuse and apology handy.  I’m sure he gave an award winning performance.  He was so sorry, that she must have caught the bug that was going around through the refugees from him.  Oh how sweetly he apologized.  The next excuse he used was some of the food must have been bad, explaining the off taste that she’d noticed.  The next time she said it was that she was understandably stressed out and her sugar levels were fluctuating crazily … for that one he even rigged one of those diabetic finger prickers to make it look like she had low blood sugar.  Enter energy drinks that better covered the bitter flavor of the drugs he was doping her with.  That excuse worked a couple of times.  But then Matt started withdrawing from her and it became that she was imagining things … and then she was trying to play him for a fool after all the things he’d done for her, all the personal risks that he’d taken on her behalf; she was ungrateful and didn’t love him enough. 

Next time he came he doped her with what was probably either some type of ecstasy knock off drug or maybe even GHB because she claimed not to remember the first assault at all though there was no mistaking what had happened to her after she woke up.  By that time he also had her addicted to whatever drugs he’d been putting in her food.  He kept her in a constant state of craving and near withdrawal which made her easy prey for Suicide when the man decided to finally reveal himself instead of putting GHB in her drinks to make her compliant.  It wasn’t sex he truly craved but power.  He used her roughly and often in the beginning but as she lost her looks and became ill he came less often but became more violent.  And she let him.  All she cared about was escaping her reality with the drugs he would give her afterwards. 

She hit rock bottom when she accidentally overheard that all of the remaining girls from the school were being used in much the same way, or at least the ones that hadn’t run off; and some of them had.  Those that wouldn’t join the gang and didn’t run off in time were killed. 

It was beyond sickening.  None of us could conceive how our friends could have devolved in such a way even when it was a matter of survival.  In less than a year they had gone from being normal teenagers to becoming demented monsters or destroyed shells … and Marty was destroyed all right. 

I was shocked that Jax had brought Marty to the Home Place; shocked that he had brought any of them home.  I mean in hindsight I understand it but then … then all I could feel was shock and disgust at what had taken place.   

In addition to Marty there were five others.  There was Johnson Keefer and his twin sister Janice.  Janice had been used hard a couple of times before Johnson could escape and rescue her and as a result she was skittish and withdrawn.  They were one of the first to break free after the gang came to town and took over and had been making plans to leave when they were joined by Aiden Landon and his cousin Julian Hitchcock better known as Jules.  Amazingly enough Janice and Aiden had become an item shortly thereafter, recreating a relationship they’d had our freshman year of highschool.  It was even more amazing that Johnson allowed it. 

Johnson, Janice, Aiden, and Jules had been scavenging for supplies to tide them over until they could come up with a realistic plan on where to go and how to get there.  They ran into Alexis  Tindale and Genesis “Gennie” Lopez during one of their scavenging raids on Matt’s old supply caches.  Alexis was from Chattanooga and Gennie was originally from Atlanta but had been sent to Chattanooga to be with her grandparents right before some kind of terrorist attack at the CDC when the city got shut down hard by the military.  Both had been slaves of the gangs that ate or absorbed each other up until they’d ridden into our town and decided to settle down. 

Gennie was fourteen going on forty, but not in a really bad way.  She was an inner city kid with a rough homelife.  She’d obviously suffered badly at the hands of the gang members but we all realized she likely had a better chance of not just surviving but overcoming what had happened to her than many of our hometown girls did.  Alexis was eighteen and was as tough as new boots but at the same time she was very protective of Gennie and then of the rest of the crew as they threw in together, the boys included.  It appeared that she and Johnson would soon make a pair of it once they felt they didn’t have to be so on guard 24/7. 

As you can guess Alexis and I eyed each other a bit like two dogs after the same bone for about half a day.  She also managed to put Reggie’s hackles up, probably for the same reason.  The three of us were almost too much alike.  Reggie and I had found our groove though by learning where to draw the line or take a break from the other’s company.  Accidentally all three of us wound up alone in the kitchen mid-day after they came in.  We were all still reeling from the surprise … them for being able to escape town so unexpectedly, us for the almost doubling of the people at home. 

It was Reggie that finally said, “You know we can do this one of two ways … the hard or the easy.  I don’t know how you ladies feel but I’m about done with hard for at least a day or two.” 

I rolled my eyes and looked at Alexis for her reaction.  She obviously wasn’t sure what to make of Reggie’s patented weirdness.  I told her, “Despite the fact that he occasionally acts like he is operating with very few normal brain cells, he’s right this time.” 

A little warily she asked, “Yeah?  And?” 

“And … we got problems that could hurt us worse than worrying about who is going to be top b … er … top dog.”  Alexis snorted and then fell silent in embarrassment as her stomach growled.  I asked her, “You want a slice of bread with jam on it?  The soup I made for lunch didn’t go as far as I thought it would.” 

She looked at me and then asked, “You really got food and stuff here?  Decent water?” 

I nodded, “All the trappings of civilization.” 

She backed away suspiciously.  “Marty was telling the truth.  You’re like that freak Matt.” 

Crossing my arms I shook my head.  “No … at least not the way I think you mean.  I just … look … I …” 

Reggie said, “She talks like an encyclopedia sometimes but she’s not bad when you get to know her.” 

“Reg!” I snapped irritably. 

He only laughed at my discomfort.  “You know it’s the truth.”  Turning to Alexis he got much more serious.  “She and Matt were an item for a long time before; but no way was she like him.  Matt and Marty were …” 

“Her best friends.  Yeah, I’ve heard the story,” Alexis said, cynicism coating her words. 

“Great,” I muttered.  “My humiliation just keeps spreading far and wide.” 

Alexis gave me a searching look and then sat down at the table.  “Nah.  If you survived the Geek Freak more power to you.  He can rot in hell for all I care.”  Her words echoed mine in an eerie way.  “I’m just wondering where this leaves Gennie and me.  I can see you taking in the others, you went to school with them.  Doesn’t seem like you expected anyone else.” 

Reggie just leaned back in his chair as if to say, “This is your problem Toots, not mine.” 

I leaned back against the kitchen counter and said, “We all need to sit down and see where this is going to go.  I can’t make you stay if you don’t want to but the weather is starting to turn bad.  And we can’t just let you wander around, you might get hurt or tell folks about us and with the way things are we don’t need that kind of trouble.  Johnson, Jules and Aston were all on the football team together and Aston is vouching for them.  Jax says that the way … er … uh …” 

“You mean the scars tell you we were beat on a lot,” she snapped defensively. 

“No, actually I meant that Jax said that the way you and Gennie didn’t hesitate to fight on our side to escape when it might have been easier to turn them over to the gang means that he’s willing to trust you, or at least give you a chance anyway.  That Gennie saved Vernon’s life by taking out a guard that was about to snipe his position and that you volunteered to stay behind with Marty until Jax took her and carried her to the vehicles also says you are probably OK.” 

Protectively Alexis said, “It isn’t Marty’s fault.  I know how Suicide can be … he had me for about a week before he got distracted by some older chick that was looking to move up the food chain.  If it is anyone’s fault it is that freak’s.”  When she saw me wince she asked, “What?  You still have feelings for that sick jerk?!” 

With absolute conviction I told her, “No.  Not at all.  But he is Jax’s cousin and … and we have history even if I don’t like admitting it … and it is still hard to believe what he has become.” 

Jax stepped into the kitchen and with death in his voice said, “Rabid.  He’s obviously rabid.” 

I knew what he was referring to.  “Jax.” 

He shook his head.  “No.  I said if I found out … that I’d accept responsibility for doing what had to be done.  I tried … but …” 

“There was never a clear shot Jax, you know it.  You came close but he hid behind too many people.  There was no way unless you’d gotten a lot closer and Vernon wanted us gone asap,” Reggie explained. 

“He can’t be allowed to continue doing what he is doing.” 

Trying to understand I said, “I thought all of you said that Suicide was the man in charge.” 

Everyone nodded but Jax said, “But Matt is the man behind the throne.”  He finally let me get close enough that I could put my arms around him.  “Lydie I know you all were freaking a little that we were gone two more nights than we said but we got cut off and had to be sure what we were up against.” 

“You explained it already and I’m done having a heart attack.  Besides Ginger figured out what was going on by listening to their radio transmissions.  I guess they don’t realize even their street level hand radios can be heard outside of town because of the repeaters we set up.” 

Gennie stumbled in and looked like a completely different person after good head-to-toe scrub and letting Ginger and Ashley trim her hair and do something with her broken nails and torn cuticles.  “You can bet Suicide doesn’t know about this place,” she said with a bit of awe in her voice.  “Or he’d pop you of here like a clam from its shell.  Do you know how long it’s been since I been someplace where the faucets still work?” 

Feeling growly about the crowded feeling I was getting I said, “I’m not worried about Suicide, he’ll get what is coming to him one way or the other.  I just don’t want Matt to know about this place.” 

“I thought you and him were like tight, boyfriend and girlfriend.” 

I sighed.  “I did too.  But we didn’t really … uh … date per se.  And he certainly never came to my house.  He thought my parents were just a couple of hicks.” 

Looking at me with a decided lack of understanding she asked, “How could you go with a guy that disrespected your poppa and momma like that?” 

I shrugged defensively.  “Because he didn’t do it directly and because I was an idiot.  Can we change the subject?” 

There was a moment of awkward silence and then like Alexis had come to some conclusion she said, “Yeah.  Sure.  That bread and jam still an offer?” 

I nodded and turned and sliced the last loaf I had baked.  I sighed and Jax wanted to know about what.  “Wheat is going to get scarce before I can get the next crop in the field, much less get it threshed and ready for use.  I can replace it with cornmeal but even that will get low before I can harvest more.  It will also mean that our plans to try and locate more animals might be out unless they are good at surviving on fodder and grazing only.  I hadn’t expected to …” 

Johnson, still huge and imposing even after suffering depredation and weight loss, suddenly filled the doorway that led to the hall.  “You didn’t expect to have to feed so many.” 

Johnson was almost nineteen having failed both kindergarten and first grade before landing in a foster home that cared enough to realize it was a hearing deficit that caused his learning challenges and not his intelligence level.  A new-fangled cochlear type implant combined with intensive therapy corrected his deficits and his self-esteem issues were corrected when his foster father – soon to be his adoptive father – got him involved in sports. 

His fraternal twin Janice was his polar opposite in many ways; small and petite, her hair a long curtain that she used to hide behind where Johnson barely let any stubble crow on his head, a quiet voice she rarely used, and a manner that was so gentle she couldn’t even startle the goats.  Johnson was extremely protective of her – as was Aiden – and I could see him calculating the risks of staying even if he didn’t actually say it aloud. 

“No one needs to fritz out,” I said with some warranted confidence to keep the new comers from panicking.  “I’ll keep us fed, I just have to recalculate in a few areas and rearrange how we get it done.  The problem isn’t in the here and now, it’s the future if the upcoming seasons’ crops don’t produce enough.  But we were already going to have that issue, there will just be less cushion now.  I’ll also need to hold back more for seed, enlarge the garden, and include foraging for wild food as necessities rather than luxuries.” 

I mentally drifted away as my need to get the issues and sudden ideas I was being mentally bombarded with down on paper.  I started to walk out of the room but stopped and said, “Oh crud.  I’ve got to clean up and …” 

Jax shook his head and said, “Just grab your spreadsheets and go sit with Marty.  I’ll take your spot in tonight’s meal prep and put this stuff away where it belongs.  The state you’re in you’ll likely put the jam in the bread box, the crumbs in the frig, and the plates in the laundry.” 

I opened my mouth to deny the truth of his outrageous comment but then shrugged and gave him a kiss of gratitude instead.  I wasn’t often that kind of dozey but when I was it was when I was on serious idea overload and Jax knew the symptoms.  He’d found one of his boots in the potato bin and his freshly folded socks in the vegetable crisper on one such occasion. 

I could feel the cold wood of my father’s desk beneath my forehead as I tried to breathe through another bought of nausea.  I was using those memories to dig myself out of the dark place I had slipped as I began to understand exactly the position Marty had been in and recognized how close I could have been in exchanging places with her.  My parents were fond of saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I’d never understood what they meant more than on that day. 

Rewetting the cloth and using it to wipe my neck once again Jax asked, “Better?” 

“There is no better … just acceptance.” 

He kissed the top of my head gently.  “It WILL get better Lydie; it’s just going to take time.”   

“It won’t ever get better for Marty.  She’s slipping no matter what any of us can do.  Even Mrs. Houchins admitted it after she came and examined her with that granddaughter that was a trauma nurse.  If we’re lucky she’ll last out the week.  If she’s lucky God will release her from this hell of a life she’s been living sooner than that.” 

“Lydie,” he whispered into my hair, trying to comfort me the best he could.  But there was no comfort, only the truth and I’d learned the hard way after my family was killed that the last thing the truth often was in this life was comfortable. 

I turned and looked at him.  “Jax, don’t bother denying that you and the guys are discussing what is to be done.  I know you are including Vernon and Lon … don’t leave me out.  I have to be part of … part of whatever it is … part of the justice.” 

Jax didn’t even bother trying to hide anything which took him up a notch in my esteem of him if that was possible.  “Lydie we aren’t looking for justice.  Or revenge.  There is nothing that is going to make what has happened to Marty, or anyone else for that matter, any better.  There is no payment big enough.  What we are trying for is containment so that those in town are no longer a danger.  If that means using deadly force then we’ll use deadly force.  It likely will come to that.” 

“To me that sounds like justice.” 

“No.  There’s not going to be a trial.  No arrests.  No more investigating.  No interrogations or torture.  Nothing.  We aren’t the cops and we have no official authority.  This isn’t about paybacks.  We’re just a bunch of guys that don’t want to see this happen anymore … don’t want it to touch our families any more than it already has.” 

“OK … but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t justice in there too.” 

“Lydie …” 

I shook my head.  “You call it what you want to Jax.  Call yourselves doctors who are excising a cancer for all I care; it amounts to the same thing.  And it needs doing or eventually we’re all gonna wind up dead … in fact or in spirit.  This kind of sickness eventually infects everything it comes in contact with.” 

Jax warned, “Don’t romanticize and idealize this Lydie.  No heroic ballads are going to be written about what we’re going to do.  In fact it is very possible that we’ll be considered criminals.  If we are then all bets are off for the future no matter what our intentions are.” 

I nodded in acceptance.  “But the risk has to be taken.  The military doesn’t have the time, they’re too busy fighting foreign terrorists and battles in other countries.  The police?  When is the last time you’ve seen a cop or deputy?  The militia?  I’m not even sure that they haven’t been coopted by some of the gangs that have come through … the strong joining the strongest.  If we don’t do something I don’t know who will.  I haven’t exactly seen anyone else volunteering for the job, have you?” 

He sighed and then sat down and proceeded to tell me some of the details of the plan that they’d worked out up to that point.  I have to confess I was a little surprised at how far they’d already gone in sketching things out but then again, the addition of some of the minds and experience from the Houchins farm made all the difference.  My problem was that I struggled to find a place where I could insert myself and help.

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