Marty didn’t last out the week. Three days after Jax brought her to me she slipped into a comma; her body unable to support the damage that had been done to it, the mental stress of her ordeal, and the symptoms of withdrawal. I dug a grave for her in the family cemetery not too far from the memorial for my parents and brother. I still make sure and put fresh flowers on her stone for her birthday every year, more for me than her; I’m sure she is some place far better and probably doesn’t care one way or the other.
The only person that gave me a hassle about how I’d done everything was Lil’ Miss Queen of the ‘Tudes. “It ain’t no good. You didn’t even have a wake or funeral for her. No one even said no words over her ground. Her ghost is going to come back and punish us all.” Not even Alexis knew how to respond to Gennie’s blatant superstition so I gave it a try after she had pushed me once too many times.
Getting off the ground from where I’d been setting a temporary cross that Jax had carved for Marty I brushed the dirt off of my numb with cold hands and finally snapped. “Her last few weeks of life were nothing but a wake. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. They are supposed to bring closure. They don’t. Only time does that. I didn’t say any words over her grave because I said everything there was while she was still alive and could hear me. That piece of decaying meat in the ground is not my friend; she’s gone to a better life. And she knew I loved her and will not be coming back to haunt anyone because she’s too busy being happy where she is. Now knock it off and I better not hear another word on it. Marty made mistakes but God knows she’s paid for them and I won’t let anyone turn her into some kind of monster, living or dead. You try it and I’ll bust your butt so hard that it will be next Juvember before you can sit down in comfort.” She opened her mouth on an outraged retort but I stopped her. “You want to act mature, I’ll treat you that way. You want to act like an unfeeling brat with a tongue that is hung and the middle and running at both ends I’ll treat you that way too.”
This time when Gennie tried to open her mouth it was Alexis that intervened. She didn’t yell but she wasn’t exactly gentle either. “Enough Gen. We each have to handle this crap in our own way. You burn candles and pray to saints. Who’s to say which one of you have the direct line to heaven? Just let this one go. Besides, Lydie is right about one thing; Marty wasn’t the type to mess with people by turning into a ghost. Wasn’t her style.”
After Gennie left … surprisingly running off to Johnson of all people … I turned to Alexis and reluctantly said, “Thank you.”
“Don’t,” she responded.
“Don’t thank you?” I asked still woozy enough from emotional overload that not everything around me was making sense.
She nodded. “I didn’t do it for you; I did it for Marty who apparently liked you for some bizarre reason.”
Sighing at the bitter sweetness of the memories I explained, “Marty, Matt, and I have known each …” I stopped and then shook my head sadly. Quietly I continued. “Marty, Matt, and I knew each other from kindergarten. I’ve known most of the town kids since elementary school barring the few that came and went up until high school. Some I knew well … some not so much.” I shrugged. “You know how it is; cliques and clubs.”
It was obvious she didn’t want to like me but thankfully she wasn’t nasty about it. “Why did you throw her to the wolves?”
That did pull me up short. “Huh?”
“You’re rich as that old fool Midas and you left her to get eaten alive by that freak. Why didn’t you come to town sooner? Why didn’t you ever invite her to live here with you?”
I told myself that I didn’t owe her an explanation but back then I was a little more sensitive to people’s opinion of me than I was willing to admit. She’d also caught me at a low point when I’d been wondering the same thing. I was about to open my mouth when we all heard Gennie scream and Johnson roar.
I grabbed my rifle and adrenaline had me running and jumping the low hedge of shamrock inkberry holly that I had planted near the fish pond, one of the last landscape projects that Mom and I had done together. As I got nearer I saw that Johnson was in trouble. He must have tried to defend Gennie from a dog pack that had slunk up on her. I never even stopped. There was too much going on for me to fire and shoot; the danger of hitting Johnson was too great. I heard Jax and some of the others coming at their own run but I never even slowed down. I used the stock of my rifle like a bat and came in swinging.
I felt a dog try and get me only for it to discover my habit was to wear knee high work boots because of snakes and spiders. The bite hurt but more because it was like a vise clamp rather than a knife stab.
Jax was there beside me in seconds. He grabbed Johnson whose hand was bloody and having a hard time not going down under the onslaught of the dogs. I kept swinging trying to keep the dogs off. Aston and Aiden waded in and soon we had the dogs dispersed enough that the others could shoot them as they tried to run off.
“Get him to the house!” I said. “Lay him out on the floor in front of the fire place.”
“Easy Hon,” Jax said. “He’s more shook up than chewed up. They didn’t get passed his coat for the most part.”
I opened my mouth then cringed. How on earth I had forgotten Jax’s EMT training I don’t know. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
He gave me a searching look and then said, “I’m not.” I relaxed in relief that I hadn’t hurt his pride. He added, “Do me a favor and check the dogs.”
I knew what he meant … check for rabies or mange or some other disgusting thing that could be transmitted to humans. I could find no evidence that they weren’t anything but a dog pack but I was more than a bit upset. This was the first one that had come onto the Home Place though Mr. Houchins has mentioned that they’d had a few sniffing around their farm. I was even more upset when I found every dog had a collar on that looked exactly alike.
I turned to hear that Gennie wasn’t making sense and I wondered why. I asked Alexis, “Is she bit? Or afraid of dogs?”
Alexis was a little pale herself. Her answer didn’t make me feel any better either. “She’s afraid of those dogs.”
Gennie was shaking like a leaf and mumbling something I realized was in Spanish. “Did she just call these mutts devil dogs?”
Alexis smoothed out her face trying to appear calm and cool. “Yeah. See those collars? Those are some of the dogs that the gang used to use to guard their crap and mess with prisoners.”
I immediately went on high alert. I scanned the tree line but Alexis stepped up beside me and said. “Look at the dogs. See how skinny and unkept they look? There ain’t no gang members out there. They usually treat their dogs good. These either escaped or were turned loose. They ain’t on a leash neither and back in town the dogs were always kept on a leash because they was so vicious.”
Reggie came over to tell us, “Johnson won’t settle until he knows that Gennie is being looked after.”
Gennie took off at a run towards the house. I tried to keep the look off my face but Alexis saw it. “Nah. Ain’t that kind of thing. Johnson just treats her like he treats Janice. Gennie eats that crap up. She had an older brother that got drafted but he was killed in his first battle. Gennie has kind of forced Johnson to take his place … and he kinda let her. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks for explaining. I hate guessing about that kind of stuff.”
She looked at me funny but then turned and followed Gennie back to the house. Reggie sighed and I looked at him and then gave a grim chuckle. “Go on back to the house. I’ll clean up the carcasses.”
“Uh uh. It wasn’t that. I just hate the smell is all. Dang, the last time we burned this many bodies it took forever to get rid of the smell. If there are more dogs they’ll be attracted to it.”
Thinking I said, “I’ve got lime. We can take them out to the gravel pit and just … but I hate to waste the stuff when I don’t know where we’ll get more. I wanted to save it so we could have it for an outhouse. I’m not sure how well the septic system is going to handle this many people.”
Reggie shrugged and said, “Let’s just burn them. I’ll talk to Jax about the outhouse thing later.” We loaded the carcasses into the four-wheeler’s pull behind wagon – the one that Dad and I had always used to bring game home with when we were hunting on our own acreage – and in no time we had a very smelly bonfire going on the remains of the gang members that had attacked us weeks back.
“Uh … hmmm …”
I looked at Reggie and wondered what was up. He wasn’t normally hesitant about anything.
“Lydie … what … er … look, you think me and Ginger are a good thing or a bad thing?”
I blanked my face as fast as I could. “I don’t know if it is exactly my business,” I told him.
“I’m making it your business. So what do you think?”
“I think that it is more important what you … and Ginger … think than what I think.”
“So what if we both think it is a good thing but that I’m worried that maybe I’m too close to the situation to see it for what it is.”
I turned and looked at him and sighed. “Reggie, Ginger is crazy for you. She hasn’t been put off by you running in circles trying to figure out if she’s been serious or playing you. She isn’t put off by the fact that you are about as trying on the nerves as anyone can get and that you do it on purpose. She doesn’t get bent out of shape when you need some space because you are in a mood. She doesn’t care what your home life was like except how it affects you. She’s also strong enough not to take that crap you can dish out when you go a little overboard … but she doesn’t hold it against you. What more are you looking for?”
He shrugged and then changed the subject. “She says she isn’t ready to wind up like Ashley.”
“No kidding, neither am I. Too much crazy going on in the world right now and I feel like I’m in the middle of it.”
“But you and Jax … I mean … you do it.”
Trying to decide whether I wanted to hide or hit him in the head with a handy tree limb I simply said, “Yeah? And that is your business how?”
He rolled his eyes and scuffed his boot in the muddy snow that could still be found in the shade of the forest. “Don’t get bent, you know what I mean.”
Looking away I said, “I guess I do, that still doesn’t mean it is any of your business.”
“Well pretend like it is for a minute and give me some help here will you. I … I think I love Ginger but I’m not Jax or Aston … I don’t want kids right now. I don’t know if I want kids ever, at least not while the world is really, really flaking out. What if Ginger and I do it, she catches preggers, and then I like get drafted or something and go KIA. What kind of old man would I be to do that to my kid?”
I shook my head. “You wouldn’t do it on purpose Reggie.”
“That’s not the point. Aren’t dads supposed to think of things like that before they happen? Did Jax pick you because you’d be a good mother figure for Kelly or because you know, he wanted you?”
A little uncomfortably I told him, “You need to ask Jax that.”
“I tried. He threatened to bust me in the mouth if I went and said something about it to you so for God’s sake don’t tell him I asked. I like my teeth right where they’re at thank you.”
I nearly laughed because I could see Jax saying just that thing to Reggie. I shook my head. “Reg, I’d like to say that Jax and I have it all figured out and that we’re all righteous and holy and that we’ll never goof up with Kelly or with each other but I’d be lying if I did. Jax and I … we worked things out between us. We know how we feel about each other. We’re going to try and do the rightest thing for each other and Kelly that we can. And for us, that right thing isn’t having kids yet. I don’t even know if we can … not all the women in my family had their own biological units.”
“Uh uh. Two of my grandmother’s sisters never had babies; they raised their husband’s kids from an earlier marriage. Another one of her sisters didn’t get married until she was in her fifties. Some of the women on that side of the family had female problems and only had kids after medical intervention. So it isn’t a given.”
“I didn’t know that.”
I shrugged. “The guys on that said and the ones on Dad’s side were pretty prolific though so I’m not sure. Either way Jax said he … well … you know … not until after Ashley pops we’re just being careful.”
I cannot express how uncomfortable and embarrassed I was trying to explain that sort of stuff to Reggie but when I’d finished he just sat on a stump and said, “Huh … little more complicated than I imagined it. Protection and calendars and …”
“Well … how the heck is a guy supposed to know if you people that do know won’t share the data?!”
I couldn’t help it. He looked so outraged I had to chuckle. “I swear Reggie. Just go talk it over with Ginger. If she doesn’t kill you then you’ve got a keeper.”
Looking serious and thoughtful he said, “I think maybe I already do but … but I don’t know if I’m ready to … you know … settle down yet. How do I know I’m not going to screw up like my old man and brother did?”
I shrugged. “All I know is that you aren’t them, you’re you. You’ll make mistakes but they don’t have to be those kinds of mistakes if you make different choices. Just go talk to Ginger and let me alone already. Maybe she isn’t ready to settle down either.”
He sighed. “But it’s hard to be around her and not want what you and Jax and Aston and Ash have. And now comes along Aiden and Janice … and Johnson could have that Alexis chick if he bothered to make an effort.”
“Leaving poor Jules with Ginnie?”
“No way. Johnson would kill Jules if he messed with that piece of jail bate. Besides Jules is still mourning his girlfriend Susie that threw him over for one of Suicide’s buddies.”
Surprised I asked, “Where did you hear that?”
“Aiden told me. I was … uh … ribbing him a little bit over Gennie. It kinda came out.”
I shook my head. “Sounds like your teeth nearly came out.”
He gave me a truthful half smile and admitted, “Nearly.”
The bonfire was finally dying down when a whistle came from up the road. I whistled the signal back and Jax walked in without startling us. Reggie saw him first and walked over and handed him the dog collars before saying something I couldn’t hear and then walking up to the house.
Jax came my way and said, “I’m NOT checking up on you … or at least not because you are out here with Reggie.”
I relaxed and said, “Good to know. But in case you are wondering Reggie is just still weirding out about Ginger a little.”
“Having second thoughts?”
I shook my head. “Can’t get passed his first thoughts … or should I say worries. I think Ashley getting as big and as miserable as she is kinda has him spooked.”
Jax made a face and said, “He asked you about us didn’t he.”
I walked over and tucked myself under his arm because it was turning chilly. “Yeah. It’s like having a little brother and having to explain the facts of life to him, only Reggie is older than I am the big dork. Reggie means well but he has absolutely no tact.”
“He bother you?”
“Nah, not really. I suppose if I was in his shoes I’d probably be trying to find someone to ask about it too. It just makes me feel …”
“Old and tired?”
I looked in his face and realized being two years ahead of us and with a lot of life experience he’d probably felt like that more than a few times. “You must feel like you are living in a house full of puppies that all want to pull your tail.”
I got an honest grin from him and he said, “Sometimes. “ She stood there watching the fire turn to embers. After a little while he asked, “You OK?”
“Yeah. What I said to Gennie was the truth. I … I don’t want to talk about it … not yet … but don’t feel like I’m dying or anything.”
“Better. Seeing the dogs go after Gennie scared him worse than the dogs going after him did.”
I nodded. “Sounds like Johnson. He would have probably come totally unglued if the dogs had gone after Janice.”
He snorted. “He’s already laying down the law to both of them. They aren’t to get x number of yards from the house without an escort, blah, blah, blah.”
“I’m happy for them,” I said sarcastically. “So long as it doesn’t stop them from helping out around the place he can chain them both for all I care.”
“Getting on your nerves already?”
“Yes and no. Janice isn’t so bad. She’s been through a lot but honestly she was like this even before. Sounds awful I know but … but she’s a real shrinking violet. Johnson does too much for her and when he isn’t she has her nose in a book instead of taking some initiative to help. You know she intentionally failed the same grades Johnson did so that she wouldn’t have to go to a class without him?”
“Aiden told me. He makes it sound like something heroic.”
I shrugged. “Each to his own I guess.”
“Yeah … which leaves us with Gennie.”
I groaned. “No, let’s not.”
“She’s really getting under your skin.”
“Yeah … or at least sort of. I just don’t know why she has to be all in my face so much. I’m not sure what I ever did to her.”
“Probably nothing,” he said. “She’s an inner city kid that has had really horrible things happen to her and if that wasn’t bad enough she’s like a fish out of water. Put her back in the city and she probably wouldn’t be so bad.”
“If you say so.”
Another few minutes and we kicked wet snow around the edges of the fire and left the embers to die. Jax asked, “You ready for tomorrow?”
“Yeah. You ok with it being me going with Reggie instead of you?”
He nodded as we walked back to the house. “One of us needs to stay here and since all of the new guys are staying Aston and I are going to watch how they act when there are fewer than us.”
Suddenly uncomfortable I said, “Maybe I should stay.”
“Uh uh. I need you to look over the lay out and our plan, see if you can add anything to it. I don’t like you getting that close to town but Lon will be with you so I’m not as worried as I could be.”
Sometimes it is nice to have a fella look after you and sometimes it isn’t. This time it was a mix of both but I didn’t complain. I was going out tomorrow and that was that. I was going to help lay out caches so that they could have them in case they needed them. It wasn’t going to be pleasant work to be digging in cold mud. The other thing I was going to do is Reggie and I were going to throw in with Lon and come up with some presents for anyone that tries to follow our group out of town after the raid was complete. We hoped to make it as interesting for them as the time we gave to the gang members that had tried to attack the Home Place.