It took a while – despite the fatigue and nerves the day had wrought – to start to get the house settled as the sun went down and evening set in. Ashley was sent to bed again after Jax checked her blood pressure and didn’t care for it. Ginger was doing her best to keep our injured from climbing the walls and sniping at each other. Suicide’s death – actual or imminent – was a victory of sorts but they didn’t feel it because, as I had warned, the problem didn’t go away but merely changed. And Delorey’s reputation was enough to leave everyone with a sour stomach.
Alexis was in a strange mood. She just sat in the corner of the kitchen, silent and withdrawn. Not even Gennie could reach her.
I asked the girl to come out to the hallway in the guise of giving her something to do that was urgently needed. “Gennie, I know you mean well but give Alexis some space,” I told her quietly. “It’s nothing against you. She’s probably just having a rough time with some memories of what all happened today. And maybe getting wrapped up in what happened to both of you before. She had to get awfully close to some of the people that likely had a hand in hurting her.”
“No way, Alexis is tough. Nothing can shake her.”
“Yes way … and it is because Alexis is tough. If I had to guess, this is her way of holding it together for the moment; but she’s human, not a robot. Cut her some slack. She’ll snap back, but you gotta give her some room to do it. The more you ride her the less focus she has to deal with what is going on inside her head.”
Janice overheard us in the hallway and interrupted. “Gennie, come give me a hand with Johnson. He’ll stay put if he thinks he is doing it for you. I need some air from all these guys.”
Gennie gave me her your-are-crazy look and went to do Janice’s bidding. Janice looked at me and said, “See what I mean about her not getting things? She’s awful young for the age she claims to be, even after everything that happened to her.”
I nodded. “Maybe. But if she’s going to lie I can’t make her spit her real age out. Might be trauma or something setting her back too.”
Janice admitted, “Maybe.” Before I could go back to the kitchen she asked, “You think Alexis is really alright or is it something else?”
“I think she’ll be OK if people stop constantly asking her if she is OK and give her a chance to deal. I know what it is like to need some space to think things out. You’ve heard what Reggie and I did the first time we had a run in with those thugs from town.”
She shrugged. “As long as you don’t think it is anything else.”
“Anything else like what?”
“Johnson … he said … there might be a spy.”
For two seconds I wanted to laugh. On the third second I scowled instead. “Doesn’t Jules wonder if that’s me?”
She had the grace to blush. “Maybe you should give him some room to deal like you’re willing to give Alexis. I know he’s not doing too well at the moment but you know he isn’t a bad guy.”
“All I know is that he needs to at least try better than what he’s been giving it. Make sure Aiden understands that and gets his cousin to understand that. We’re supposed to be a team. A team is only as good as its weakest link. If Jules wants to feel sorry for himself then he needs to understand what he is actually doing is putting the rest of us at risk. Other people start understanding that part of it and Jules might just wind up with something bruised besides his heart.”
She nodded and went her way and I returned to the kitchen where I was cooking up a light supper for those that wanted something. I was flipping corn patties when Alexis looked over at me. “They asked you about being a spy yet?”
I looked at her casually and shrugged. “People always need someone to blame when their plans don’t work the way they expected them to. I doubt they really mean it; why should they. It’s just that they made a plan that sounded good but when they were in the middle of implementing it they found out at that their enemy was smarter than they gave him credit for being.”
Then she asked the question no one had been willing to ask up to that point. “Is Matt too smart for us to beat?”
I’d already considered it but had tossed that idea out the window. I’d realized Matt didn’t belong on the pedestal I’d had him up on. Casually I told her, “Nope.”
Surprised, some of her lethargy disappeared. “You say that like you are absolutely certain.”
With absolute conviction I said, “I am.”
“After today how can you be?”
I revealed, “It is because of today that I am.”
A creak behind me had me turning to find Jax looking a little forlorn but trying not to show it. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense right now Lydie.”
I put a couple of corn patties on a plate and handed them to him to hold him until I finished everything else. “Molasses and stuff is on the table. You should eat something; that belt doesn’t have another notch in it.”
He sat and I tried to hand a duplicate plate to Alexis but she only took one of the patties and then pushed the rest back at me. She sat there forcing herself to nibble to keep me off her back but wouldn’t let me ignore explaining what I’d said. “So if you weren’t sure up until now that we could beat him. What is it about the fact that we got our butts kicked that changed your mind?”
“All the mistakes he made,” I told her like it was obvious.
“I didn’t see no mistakes,” she said quietly.
I shrugged. “Pull back from the battle field; right now you’re too close. First off being prepared for our attack let us know he thinks we’re capable of attacking which means he was worried enough to be prepared. That’s a confidence booster right there.” I added slices of country ham to the skillet and the sound and smell of it frying filled the kitchen. “Then there was the fact that he wasn’t prepared for the amount of firepower we mustered. Vernon and Lon would be able to recognize something like that and if they said it I have to believe that was what kept the ambush from being successful. That was a big mistake Matt made … underestimating the enemy.”
I flipped the ham and the sound of sizzling renewed. “He also gave away that the waterfront was important. If we know what he considers important then we know where he is vulnerable. And then there is the fact that he gave up so many of his chess pieces … his pawns. Even if he can talk himself out of looking like he wasn’t as prepared as he thought he was, people are going to be resentful that so many were hurt and killed, especially because they didn’t send any of our side to the Pearly Gates. It will get some of the remaining pawns wondering if he is all that they think he is. Of course Matt can blame Suicide for the failure but that doesn’t mean that we have to believe him even if the pawns ultimately do.”
I took the ham slices out of the skillet, added a little coffee, and proceeded to make red-eye gravy from the drippings left in the pan. “But if our observations are correct, Suicide didn’t have enough people to control all of the land within the city limits to begin with. Whoever is now in charge is going to have even fewer. That means that they can’t watch every building and road all the time. They’ll be stretched thin and it will create areas of vulnerability. I suspect they’ll set up observation points and probably get remote cameras going but power will be limited so …”
Jax interrupted. “He’s got the power back on.”
I turned and found that either my voice or the smell of cooking had drawn several of the guys back into the room. Looking at Jax I asked, “What do you mean he has the power back on?”
Aston – Reggie was currently on duty in the cupola – looked grim and said, “The National Guard got the dam back on line. But from what we observed it looks like it is only partially online, kinda cobbled together with duct tape and drywall screws.”
I was literally speechless for a moment but not from being stunned. I was royally hacked. I turned like a snake and threw the spatula into the sink so hard Reggie probably heard it up in the attic. “Somebody – anybody – wanna tell me why I didn’t know that?! How on God’s green earth am I supposed to come up with a reasonably accurate hypothesis if I don’t have all the data?!!!”
Jax looked very uncomfortable as did Aston. Johnson just shrugged like it was obvious. “We didn’t want any leaks. Someone seemed to be feeding him information.”
That idea settled in the pit of my stomach like a piece of brimstone. “We’ll get back to the idea of who that someone is in a minute. Right now I wanna know what you mean that it seemed that someone was feeding him ideas or information.”
Jax stood up quickly and came to my side but not before Johnson could finish saying, “You talked about the dam coming back online and suddenly it was. You talked about using the river for power and suddenly it happens.”
Something inside me snapped. I almost heard it, knew what it meant but it was too late. I shouted, “Did you get concussed one too many times on the playing field?!! You people wanted to know how Matt would think and what he was likely to do so I tell you!! Now you’re blaming me because I was right?!” I then turned and snarled at Jax, “And you! How could you … you … you …”
I was so angry that I was losing my ability to verbalize it. Jax had never seen me this angry. No one had. No one knew about the fact that I’d had to do some major repairs and remodeling after the last person left after the memorial service for my family. I hadn’t been able to hold it in another moment and it wasn’t until I’d thrown, kicked, and broken enough things to wear myself out that I was able to stop. My anger boiled up and out – had been trying to for a long while at that point – and I grabbed the hot skillet and flung it straight at Johnson’s head. He barely had time to avoid it and scalding gravy went everywhere.
I growled like a wild beast and would have thrown a chair next but Jax jerked it away and suddenly I found myself on the floor as he tackled me before I could go for something else. “Lydie! Stop it!!”
“You! You traitor!! Get off me!” I screamed.
“I’m not! I swear I never believed any of it!!”
“Get off me!!”
“Please listen to me! It’s not like you’re thinking!! Just give me a chance! I knew you’d be hurt if you found out! But I knew you’d prove them wrong!! I knew you’d prove it Lydie just by being you!! I thought this way you’d never have to know!!”
We wrestled for a bit. Then still fighting I screamed at him, “How could you let them say those things?!! Why didn’t you tell them to shut up or get out! Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?!! If I had known about the dam I could have told you it was already too late!! You wouldn’t have had to risk getting killed! Get off me!!!”
“I got out voted! I told you I knew you’d prove them wrong!”
“When did any of this become a freaking democracy?!!” I asked, finally levering him off of me.
I jumped up and would have started throwing things again but the alarmed look on Jax’s face had me spinning around. He shouted, “Don’t lay a hand on her Johnson. If you do I swear it will be the last thing you ever do.”
“Look at her. She’s insane! She burned just about everyone in the room just because her feelings got hurt.”
Jax stepped between me and Johnson, whether for his sake or mine I don’t know. “And how would you be if you’d gone through everything she’s gone through, invited people into your home out of the goodness of your heart, and then basically had them turn on you?!”
Reggie had come from someplace but I only registered him as another problem. But unlike his normal behavioral choices this time he stepped in and seriously manned up and started addressing the problem rather than just reacting to it. “You’re right Lydie, one of us should have said something. But I gotta say, Jax hated it from the very beginning. He busted Junior in the mouth hard enough to knock a tooth loose. He got in a fight with a couple of the others from Houchins Farm as well. He nearly got into it with Vern and Lon and you know what they could have done to him with all their training, but still he was willing to go there. He wouldn’t let anyone bad mouth you while he was around. He never once, not once, believed any of that crap. I didn’t either, I just … I just didn’t know they’d ever be stupid enough to say anything to your face about it.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin when Alexis put her arm around me. Reggie said, “Don’t! Alexis, just back away. When she’s like this she … she might not know …”
“So you know she goes nutso beserk?” I heard her ask the question but it was like it was over a bad phone line.
“I saw her once. Will, her brother, was already bad sick but still able to do some things at that point so long as he was careful. That day we were all down at the Little League park for the play offs when these out of town kids from the other team came over and started messing with him. His face was all out of shape because of some medicine he was on, steroids I think, and they … well they chose the wrong person to try and hurt. I’m not sure they meant to but one of them knocked Will down and that port thing he used to wear in his arm started bleeding. Lydie went bye-bye and She Hulk showed up. If the guy she’d been aiming at hadn’t moved he would have gotten caught between the metal trash barrel she threw and the light pole he’d been standing by and gotten squished like a bug. It took Matt, Marty, Will and a couple of the adults to keep her from ripping that guy’s throat out. As soon as she calmed down she started crying and asking for her father. She wouldn’t let anyone near Will and he wouldn’t let anyone near her until their dad showed up and man, he was nearly as angry as Lydie had been. Cops got called and everything. Funny though … it was Matt that suggested that if something happened like Lydie getting arrested or anything, there were plenty of people standing around that would sign affidavits to the effect that she’d been protecting her dying brother and it would look really, really bad in court for the other guy and maybe even some of the adults would then be sued for not being responsible and keeping the kids they brought with them under control. He said it would be a real shame to see the coaches on the other team and some of the parents over there take a financial fall just because of one crap head. We were only like fourteen and he still managed to work that situation like … well like a maestro.”
I was shivering. Too much emotion and adrenaline were still zinging through my veins. I don’t know why she said it but something must have happened because the next thing I know Alexis is putting my coat on me and saying, “Give me a break. Haven’t you guys done enough damage as it is?”
Next thing I clearly remember is sitting on the floor of the animal barn with King Kong in my lap and realizing he was going to be hacked at how wet I was getting his fur. I brushed the tears off his back and then off my face. I looked up to find Alexis watching me. She asked, “You ok now?”
I gave a cynical chuckle. “If by ok you mean will I survive the fact that I just destroyed my life? The answer is that I’m doubtful.”
She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Geez, be a drama queen. You didn’t destroy your life.”
Hesitantly I asked, “Did I hurt anyone? I can’t remember.”
“Only their pride and that deserved a good swift kick in the front of their pants.”
“No,” I told her. “You can’t do guys that way. It messes with their heads too much. It’s too hard to fix when it gets broken.”
“They aren’t broke,” she told me and then came to sit beside me on the floor. “They might be a little dented but broke they’re not.”
The door opened and Jax slid inside. Alexis looked at him and said, “You better figure out how to fix this. She still ain’t all here and we need her.”
She got up and left. It took a moment but Jax took her place. He sat so close our hips touched but I had nothing left to react with. “Can I fix this Lydie? Will you let me or have I screwed up too bad?”
I pulled my knees up to my chest and put my head on them. “Why would you want to? You think Matt is nuts and don’t want to have anything to do with him even though your close blood kin, which I understand. But now you know I’m nuts too. You’ll leave and take Kelly away. Everyone will leave.”
Slowly and gently he put his arm around me. “I could give a rat’s behind about anyone else but Kelly and I aren’t leaving. Maybe it would be best if some of the others did leave. There’re too many people in too small a space. Things get said that shouldn’t be said. We’re too close to what is going on to be objective. You were right, we shouldn’t have been running it like a democracy … at least not about some things. I … I should have said something Lydie. I just didn’t want to see your feelings get hurt after all you’ve done. But I didn’t know how to … to prove to them that they had it all wrong. I knew in time you’d prove them wrong, I just … just misjudged the timing. But that’s no excuse.”
I felt like curling into a ball, disintegrating, and blowing away. “Why Jax? Why?! I did what everyone asked me to do. I didn’t even fuss when they kept me out of things even though it hurt the way it was done. Do I have to go take out Matt myself … be the one to put a bullet in his brain … for people to get off my back and give me some credit? And why would they think I was in cahoots with him? It doesn’t make sense.”
“No it doesn’t. I tried to tell them they were letting their feelings get in the way of their commonsense but they didn’t want to listen. I … I tried to handle it without you finding out. I only wanted to protect you Lydie.”
I faced a choice, maybe one of the most important I had ever made in my life. I could hold onto my hurt which would eventually accomplish exactly what I was afraid of … being left all alone again … or I could try and meet Jax half way. It wouldn’t change the fact that I was hurt. I couldn’t take back the things I’d done to hurt them in return. But I could try and be as brave as he was being and not give up.
Slowly and carefully I leaned my head over until it rested against his shoulder. He seemed to be holding his breath but then leaned his head over so that it barely rested on mine and then even more slowly he turned his face and kissed me near my ear. “I’m … I’m sorry I messed up,” he whispered into my hair.
“I’m sorry that I went nuts over it,” I whispered back.
I shuddered, some of the things I’d done and said coming back to me. “Easy,” he said. “It’s OK.”
“No it’s not Jax. This isn’t the kind of thing that can be swept under a rug. For a lot of reasons.”
He told me, “We’ll deal with it.”
“How? How can I expect anyone to …”
Both Jax and I jumped when Johnson said, “About that … I … uh … just got really reamed out by Janice, Alexis, and Ginger so … you know …” He’d stuck his head in the door but decided to follow it the rest of the way into the room where it was warmer. He shut the door and started again. “Let’s just call it even and move forward. We made a mistake. So maybe I hate Matt more than I realized and was looking for a reason to hate him some more because it feels good; at least that is what Janice said. Maybe … I don’t know, Reggie brought this up … maybe part of Matt’s game plan is to turn us against each other. He’s apparently pretty good at it. If that’s it he can go pound sand. If … if we … uh … still have a place to stay we should stay a team just to hack him off if nothing else.”
Jax looked at me and I sighed tiredly. “What do you expect me to do? Kick you guys out in the middle of winter with no place to go and no food? That’s as close as it gets to murder without pulling the trigger. You still think I’m that bad a person?”
“Not … uh … not really. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you maybe wanted to.”
“Well I don’t want to so there. Just … just …” It was too much. I shivered again.
Jax said, “Take off Johnson. And keep everyone else from bothering her too. I’m going to take her up to our room and I’ll be down later to talk things out.”
After Johnson had left I said, “You don’t need to do that. I made the mess, I’ll …”
“The mess was made by everyone. Too many missteps. Too many assumptions. We haven’t been thinking things through right. We’ve been reacting and that’s about it. We’ve paid a price for it. It doesn’t matter whether Matt set us up somehow or if we are doing it to ourselves, it’s time for this crap to stop. Now I want you to let me do for you, give you one of them cups of tea you take when you have a headache. Then I want you to rest. We’ll have to get back at this tomorrow but for tonight just do as I ask.”
Trying for his sake to offer a small smile but failing miserably I asked, “Doctor’s orders?”
“No. I’m no doctor. But I care about you Lydie … love you more than I know how to show you. Just for tonight let me pretend I can protect you the way I mean to. Let me take care of you and tell everyone else they can go to Hades for a while.”
Sighing in relief that I wouldn’t have to face anyone for a while and beginning to feel that maybe the whole world wasn’t going to come to an end after all I said, “OK. I think I can handle that.”