Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Unholy Roamin' Empire - Part 3

The Unholy Roamin’ Empire
Part 3

 The next two weeks went by in a blur.  Reggie’s eyes improved though he continued to look a little like a doll someone has squeezed too hard and the eyes had bugged out.  But at least the swelling started to subside and he was able to see after a fashion and didn’t constantly need Ginger as a seeing eye dog. Well, he didn’t need her but she wasn’t shy about offering her services just in case.  All Reggie really needed to do was protect his eyes from bright light and not over tire them; that meant the running around he did with Jax at night was perfect for him.  Me?  Not so much.  It was very hard to stay home while those two, and sometimes Ginger, went gallivanting around the county.  I know it helped all of us out but I felt left out after being the one to …

Oh well, it really doesn’t matter after all these years; just memories that have come back to twit me here and there.  Taking the long view it was a good thing that I hadn’t had any real desire to be empress of my little kingdom.   I think for the guys it was enough to swallow that they lived in my house on my land and it had all started out as my idea.  They didn’t suffer from what some of us girls back then called testosterone poisoning but I’m pretty sure living in a matriarchal society would have been too much for them to deal with.  Actually I didn’t consider that a bad thing; if you need to fight the last thing you wanted was for your army to be full of metrosexuals that was too concerned with chipping their nail polish or running their eyeliner.  Contrary to some opinions, real women aren’t much into men that spend more time on their hair than they do.  This is just as true today as it was back then.

It didn’t necessarily have anything to do with them being real guys, but had I demanded more or forced them to give more than they willingly did it might have destroyed the accord we developed.  I was pretty sure if our positions had been reversed I would have felt the same way.  Besides, the accord was a good and constructive thing that got better as time went by with only the occasional bump in the road … like seven people having to share the same indoor shower on a system that was designed to only serve four people.  We wound up having our first council meeting over that one. 

Nervously I agreed to start the meeting out.  “Let’s skip the calling to order and all that pretentious crap OK?  Ashley wants to keep minutes and I’m cool with that if everyone else is; it might actually come in handy at some point.  I just don’t want to turn this council thing into a farce.”  As everyone agreed I got down to business.  “OK, I don’t want to go all Mother Bear about this but you’ve got to be more careful with how much water you are using, especially hot water.  The tanks are being run dry every night and yesterday I even had to haul water in from the pump just to get dinner cooking and clean up afterwards.  Until I can figure out a way to increase the capacity you’re going to have ration yourselves … especially the hot water.  I mean I don’t mind showering outside right now but it ain’t happening in the winter, not even for you guys.”

Obviously making an effort to take it seriously Ashley asked, “What can we do? I don’t like taking cold showers, but a cold shower is still better than no shower.”

 I told her, “In the winter no shower might be what we wind up with at this rate; at a minimum we could wind up with shower rotations or something like that.  See, come cold weather I have to drain the outdoor tanks and lines so they don’t freeze and rupture and switch the system over to the small indoor tank that uses methane to heat it up.”

“Methane?!” Reggie barked in laughter.  “You mean you heat hot water with farts?!!”

Leave it to Reggie to channel George Carlin.  “You should take that act on the road,” I sighed.  “If you want an explanation it goes something like this.  I take the rabbit and chicken poop and use it to keep these tanks called digesters topped up..  The resulting methane is collected and used like natural gas.  ( )  After the stinky stuff has been fully digested it leaves a organic sludge behind.  I take that leftover sludge and I spread it over the fields like a wet fertilizer.  My folks collected quite a bit of methane this way but, pardon the pun, the supply isn’t bottomless.  It’s not like I have access to big animals like cows or horses that produce a lot of … er … poop.”  Reggie was trying to be serious but I guess like a lot of males under the age of sixty (and some even older) poop has an innate humor to it that was hard to resist. 

Aston had improved enough that he was coming downstairs for a couple of hours every day and had insisted on sitting in on and participating in our “council” meeting.  “Sorry Lydie, I’m still not getting it,” he said, rolling his eyes at Reggie.   “I thought everything here was solar.  Matt thought solar was where it was at too and from what I’ve seen and heard about everything here – now that I’m awake enough to listen – I can’t say he’s wrong.  It sounds kinda perfect.”

Reggie leaned forward obviously interested in my explanation of this aspect of our lives as well.  Trying not to make it sound like a lecture I said, “Nothing is perfect Aston.  What happens to the solar if we have a week of cloudy weather?  And you know that happens during the winter … and it happens during the summer too for that matter.”

Reggie answered manfully holding back another snicker, “Switch to the methane?”

I shrugged.  “Sometimes; but the methane production isn’t a huge set up and is dependent on how much poop the animals give out and if I can keep the digesters warm enough to keep the reaction going to actually create the methane.”

Ginger said, “Then there’s that biofuel thingy.  Or is that the methane thingy?”

I saw Reggie give her a goofy smile and had to fight a smile of my own because if anyone else had said “thingy” he would have gone into some long drawn out reason why it was stupid.  “The big set up in the barn is biofuel … but it’s dependent on chemicals and what we can feed it to keep it going.  I’m not going to use all of our corn to make ethanol; that would be cutting into our food supply.  You want to know the full details about it ask Jax.  He does better on the technical explanation than I do because he helped get the system up and running – and keep it running – out at the mill.”

 Ginger shook her head forcefully causing her curls to spazz out.  “No technical anything thank you very much.  Just wanted to know what it was called.  I’m officially on vacation from science class for the duration.”

I did smile then.  “OK.  Look.  Bottom line is we have redundant systems.  We bring the redundant systems on line when they will give us the biggest, most efficient return.  I run solar all year but the output is naturally going to be better in the summer than at any other time of year.  During the winter we get the biggest kick from the BTUs of the natural gas system.  Biofuel runs all year long as well but we’ve tried to take all the waste out of the way we use it because each system has its own needs.  The tractors use up a lot of the biofuel as does the heaters for the house and the animal barn.  The redundancies mean that no one system gets overloaded but we still have to use some … some …”

Jax said, “Common sense.  Just say it Lydie and stop worrying about hurting people’s feelings.  They’re not little kids and now that you’ve explained it I’m sure they understand better and we’ll all be able to be more considerate.”

It was Reggie using his non-goofy persona who responded, “Jax is right Lydie.  Don’t let it go until it is a problem next time.  We’re just used to turning on a faucet and having water and not thinking about how it got there.  Having to do without was a real pain – I swear I got to the point I hated hauling water – when we were living at the school and then coming out here we just went back to old habits.  But now we know that old habits aren’t going to work we can make new ones.  No big.  Right Ginger?”

Wide eyed she said, “Uh … yeah … sure.  I … uh … suppose I don’t have to wash my hair like every day.  Ash?”

Ashley nodded, “I guess … but that’s … that’s gross.  I mean we’re all sweaty and junk at the end of the day because it is so hot.  We can’t sit under fans all day long.”

Feeling bad I said, “If you really need to rinse you hair out you can use a bucket of water from the hand pump outside, but I wouldn’t recommend it when cold weather finally arrives unless you want to catch a cold.”  I inwardly cringed hating the idea of giving another lecture.  “When cold weather arrives heat is going to be precious.  Look, I’m not saying this is going to be easy …”

Aston coughed and then grimaced but pushed off everyone’s concern.  “I’m fine … but Jax is right.  We’ll just be more careful from here on out.  About everything.  It won’t all come at once – like trying to learn a new way to play an old sport.  Besides the water, what is the next most important thing?”

 He was asking me but Jax answered.  “She won’t say it but she needs some help cooking and getting the garden stuff in.  I’m going to turn the potato hills over in the morning but need to spend the rest of the day unloading one of the trailers so Reg and I can take it and hit a couple of places we mapped out the other night when we brought that other stuff in.  Can a couple of you help take the potatoes to the cellar?  There’s also the last of the apple and pear trees that need to be picked over.  The best looking apples go in the fruit cellar and the others are going to get pressed for cider.”

The girls were looking uncertain and Aston was looking depressed but then Reggie said, “Mmmm … fresh cider.  I likey.”  He sounded like that comedian that was called Jim Carey.

He looked so weird and goofy that we all chuckled, even Aston.  The “meeting” broke up with everyone grabbing one last muffin from the basket I had made to try and soften them up.  I was emptying the crumbs into the pail I used for scraps that I gave the chickens when I noticed that Jax had followed Aston out to the porch where he was going to sit and soak up some Vitamin D.  The conversation was short but I knew it had to have been something special the way Aston seemed to sit a little straighter after Jax walked off towards the barn.

Being incessantly nosey I finished what I was doing inside and then used Kelly as an excuse to go see what Jax was up to.  I found him stacking bags of fertilizer and soil on pallets in the old tack room attached to the animal barn.  “Hey,” I told him.

“Hey,” he answered back with a grin.

“So … what were you and Aston talking about?”

The grin turned to a laugh.  “You’re worse than a cat, you know that?”

“Maybe … but you’re gonna tell me anyway right?”

He smiled and then getting a little serious said, “Aston’s pride has been hurt.  I’m worried he’s gonna have a relapse or set back if he starts giving up.”

Confused I asked, “Why would he give up?  He’s getting better isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Jax answered while he wiped the sweat off of his face with a bandana I had fashioned for him.  “Yeah, he’s getting better but he isn’t anywhere near where he can really help out with anything.  Aston isn’t the kind of guy that is going to just be able to brush that off.  He’s already feeling the responsibility of getting Ashley pregnant and now he can’t do anything really to protect her or help get things ready so that other people can protect her.”

I sighed.  “Oh.  So this is one of those guy things that don’t make a lot of sense.”

He took his hat off and popped me in the head before taking the last few sacks off the dolly and placing them just so.  “It does make sense and you know it.  A man needs to have some pride … and right now Aston’s is hurting.”

“So what did you say?  You obviously made him feel better.”

He shrugged but then grinned sheepishly.  “I asked him whether he’d prefer a rifle or shotgun for tomorrow while he kept an eye on things.”

“While he does what?” I asked a little outraged.  “Jax, he can barely stay upright for more than an hour or two at a time.  You can’t expect him to …”

Cutting me off Jax said, “I expect him to do what he can and you girls need to start letting him.”

“Excuse me?” I asked feeling a little snippy.

Jax stopped and leaned on the dolly.  “Aston doesn’t need three mothers, three sisters, or three nurses.  He needs to be allowed to be a man.  That isn’t going to happen if you trap him by hovering too much.  Can’t you see he is starting to feel useless, starting to get depressed?  That’s not good for his health and mental recovery.  Bad enough that he got the crap beat out of him by women; it sure ain’t doing him any good for more of you to keep him down.”

He walked out leaving me with my mouth hanging open and just this side of being mad.  But to be honest he did give me a lot to think about and by the time I put dinner on the table – with the help of both Ginger and Ashley who themselves seemed to be inordinately proud of their role in the meal – I realized that Jax had told me nothing but the absolute truth.  It was also a truth that could apply to how I was working with Ginger and Ashley.  I wasn’t used to there being anyone else but – and before that it was mostly just Dad and I while Mom took care of Will – and I was turning into my own worst enemy.   I had to learn that I couldn’t manage or do everything myself, that there was no need to be a martyr because there were other people I could count on.

And I tell you as the remaining days of that second week went by I was very happy to have help.  It was the end of October and except for a couple of the Granny Smith apples the rest of the trees needed to be gleaned.  The Chesney and Buckingham apples were our best long storage apples and we went over the trees by hand first to pick the best of the best.  After that we just picked as we went and took the bushel basketfuls to the cider presses.  Yes, I wrote presses as in plural.

Dad got tired of it taking forever to get all of our apples pressed at the end of the apple season; or our grapes for that matter during grape season.  Plus, went we started making nectars to bottle he said it only made sense to be able to having multiple presses running at a time.  He built multiple fruit presses for the same reason he built Mom more than one cheese press; because he could.  ( )  We had four presses, two with very large baskets, one with a medium basket, and the fourth with a gallon sized basket for berries and the like.  Dad did some pretty extensive experimenting with the smallest press; basically if it was soft enough he would try and press it.  He reminded me of how addicted to her dehydrator Mom could get on occasion.

With all four presses going it kept us hopping filling containers.  Despite the warm weather the apple crop was one of the best in my memory.  All of the apple trees on the home site were standard sized.  Dad just didn’t have the patience for dealing with the dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties.  “Them runty sized small trees are for city and town yards.  We don’t live in town and I see no reason to restrict ourselves.”

Taking care of all the fruit that came off of those standard sized trees was another matter.  A standard sized apple tree will give you anywhere between eight and eighteen bushels of fruit.  That year we got close to between sixteen and seventeen bushels a tree but most years it was closer to fourteen and fifteen.  Not all the trees were for cider making but there were about six trees left to deal with for that fall’s crop.  A standard sized bushel of apples weighs in at forty-eight pounds.  And a gallon of cider usually requires an average of fifteen pounds of apples.  In other words for every bushel of apples I would get between two and three gallons of juice.

I pulled out the old account books to review our harvest that year and sure enough the math went something like this:  six trees times fifteen bushels equaled ninety bushels of fruit.  Out of that ninety bushels we peeled and dried another ten bushels to add to what I had already done.  We also put back about twenty bushels of fruit for winter use in the apple house.  Another twenty bushels was split between apple butter and apple sauce making.  That left us forty bushels for the cider press which we got roughly a hundred gallons of juice off of.  Jax, Reggie, and Aston took twenty five gallons of the juice and made five five-gallon casks of hard cider and another ten gallons went towards some fine apple wine.  That left sixty-five gallons to bottle.  Not just sixty five gallons to bottle but sixty-five gallons of juice to find room to store. 

Council time.  “Uh … you know, we’re kinda running outta room around here.  Between you guys making your midnight runs and trying to store all the produce I’m tripping over stuff.”

Strangely enough it was Ashley who yet again understood what I was feeling.  “Lydie you are just like your Mom.  This mess would have driven her crazy too.  I remember what she was like whenever she got involved at our school functions.  Man oh man.”

We both laughed a little at the memory.  “I’m trying not to be that bad,” I told everyone.  To the ones that didn’t get it, mainly the guys, I explained, “My mother literally had to have everything hyper organized.  It was like an ingrained personality trait; it wasn’t just something she did but a big part of who she was.  You’ve seen the attic.  I grew up living like that and … and this is a little … little … challenging.”

Aston said, “So what do you want?  More cleaning or what?”

I shook my head and tried to smile despite the fact that Aston was being a little snotty.  “I know not much can be done about it right now.  I’m sure as heck not going to look a gift horse in the mouth; but space is something we should be considering as it is getting in short supply.  I know Jax doesn’t think that much salvage is being brought in beyond like building supplies and stuff but to me it looks like a lot because keeping it neat and organized is getting almost impossible.  I guess I was more making an observation.  I mean this meeting was to talk about what we had and what we needed.  Or maybe I’m missing the point.  It’s not like I’m not willing to listen to anyone else’s opinion.”

It was Reggie that came up with the start of a potential solution.  “Actually I got an idea.  Kinda something that I had talked to Aston about when we were still in town.”  Reggie looked at Aston and asked, “You remember that idea we had about hiding stuff outside of town, just in case?”

Aston shifted in his chair and slowly seemed to throw off whatever had been bothering him.  “Yeah … yeah I remember.  It was after we found out that Matt was the only one that knew where all the stuff was that we’d been salvaging.  It was supposed to be for the whole group but Mark was like keeping the locations of the best stuff secret.  We didn’t know whether even Sas or Marty knew where everything was although probably Sas did since Matt would have needed someone to move stuff around for him.”

I sighed but hadn’t meant for other people to hear it.  Aston asked, “Am I boring you?”

“Huh?” I asked surprised.  “Uh … no.  I just keep walking into these huge billboard like signs that tell me how stupid I was about Matt.”  I hadn’t meant to share so freely and was uncomfortable and went to stand up to refill the pitcher of juice.

Jax grabbed my hand and said, “No one is blaming you for what Matt did or did not do.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not that.  I’m not taking responsibility for what he did.  I’m taking responsibility for what I didn’t see.  And frankly I don’t like feeling like an idiot.  Especially not in front of other people.”

“C’mon and sit down, we don’t need any more juice or cookies or whatever you were about to go get.”  I sat down and Jax continued.  “I could say the same thing about Darlene.  That’s just … just life.  Sometimes you just don’t see things until they slap you in the face.  This war or whatever it is is changing people, and not always for the good.  Matt has changed.  You couldn’t know that because you were insulated from it by living out here.  The fact is however that you do know now and you are choosing sides … our side … so let’s just stay on topic.”

Ginger said, “Yeah Lydie.  We all make mistakes.  Like Ashley and Aston are the only two I know that have stayed together as long as they have … at least people our age.  And now you’ve got Jax and … well, it’s cool.  You don’t need to freak out every time it comes up that Matt has seriously taken a vacation from normal.  We don’t blame you for it.”

Reggie just looked on but seemed to relax when Aston sighed and mumbled, “Don’t mind me.  Matt just … I feel like he stabbed us in the back when he should have had our back.”

Reggie brought the conversation back around by saying, “Exactly which was why I was talking to Aston.”

Jax in an attempt to keep the conversation going in that direction prompted, “Talked to him about what?”


“Whatses?” Ginger asked.

While Reggie laughed and everyone else rolled their eyes I asked, “You mean storing stuff off site?”

Aston nodded.  “Yeah.  We didn’t really have time to pull it off but we did some thinking on it.  You know my dad and uncle dug basements and septic fields?”  I nodded.  “Well, during the summers I would help when they needed another hand.  A cache wouldn’t have to be as big as a basement of course.”

Then a thought came to my head, “But could you like rehab an old basement or an old storm cellar?”

He gave me a considering look and said, “Maybe, depends on how old and how bad it is.  Why?”

“I might know of places like that but I don’t know how far away you want them from the house.”

Jax said, “You thinking about the abandoned houses?”

I shook my head, “Uh uh.  Only one or two of them even have basements and I figured they might be too obvious for what Reggie and Aston mean.”  Turning to them I explained, “Two of my dad’s aunts and uncles built houses on the land they inherited from my great grandparents. About fifteen years ago they sold out to some investment company that was going to put in one of those high end gated communities but the company hit a lot of legal snags and the whole plan fell through.  But not until after they had bulldozed down the houses.  The investment company lost the land to foreclosure to some lender that was based in India.  The lender went in there and put in planted pines because supposedly they were going to sell the trees to the paper mill later but then just basically abandoned the land when they went belly up too.  The county was always threatening to take the land because the property taxes weren’t being paid but they never did.  You can imagine what the land looks like after fifteen years.  Dad and I hunted all over that area so I know the cellars are still there though I won’t go down in them for love or money.”

“Why not?” Aston asked.

Jax and I answered in stereo, “Spiders.”

So then the spider story had to come out and Ginger and Ashley both got grossed out and sympathized while Reggie had an evil twinkle in his eye that told me a plastic spider was likely in my future.

Aston said, “I’ll have to look at the interiors of them first to make sure they haven’t collapsed or don’t have standing water in them.  And it isn’t just spiders we have to worry about; holes in the ground sometimes turn into snake dens.  But if they look half way decent – even if it means shoring them up a bit – we could use something like that to maybe set up not just a cache but Reg and I talked about having a base camp to work around.  Can the cellars be capped off?”

“They are already capped off; with metal doors no less.  I don’t know what shape they are in as the doors have rusted closed.”

That gave Aston something to spend his energy on which I think is what Reggie was after.  I knew he and Jax talked a lot and I decided to leave the guy stuff up to them as I had already experienced just how wrong I could read them.

By the end of October we were all really tired.  It was a good tired but a bad tired at the same time.  Good tired because we were really getting a lot accomplished and we were starting to work together smoothly as a team but bad tired because in addition to everything we were accomplishing we thought about everything that we weren’t accomplishing.

We still hadn’t managed to lure the goats out of the kudzu.  Of course that wouldn’t have done any good anyway because we didn’t have an enclosure built to put them in.  We hadn’t done any hunting and we badly needed to.  It was amazing to me how much food the guys could put away and the canned and dried meat I did have was not going to last forever.  We hadn’t culled any of the chickens and I was beginning to wonder if I should since all the additional mouths meant that I didn’t have near the surplus eggs that I used to.  We hadn’t done any spying on the refugees in town when we really needed to know what they were up to.  There were lots of things we hadn’t done; the list was depressingly long.

But Jax constantly reminded me that there were the unexpected things we had accomplished that we hadn’t expected to.  For one telling Mr. Houchins what was going on in town seemed to soften him up a bit and he and Jax spoke of possibly doing some trading come the spring once we all saw ourselves through the winter.  Then we got a double dose of friendlies when Jax and Reggie, on one of their midnight runs, crossed the county line to check out some of the farms out that way and ran into an older couple that were just about on their last leg and bad shook up because they’d been robbed the week before.  Turns out they were close kin of Mr. Houchins.  Jax couldn’t leave the old couple so he and Reggie packed them up, animals and all, and figured if Mr. Houchins wouldn’t take them in that we’d figure something out.

Oh my word, Reggie said Mrs. Houchins was crying and Mr. Houchins wasn’t far from it.  But while Mr. Houchins was more than willing to take his kin, the animals were just going to be too much for their laid in supplies so the older couple decided to take a couple of animals that were sentimental to them … like their hound and a couple of noisy geese … but we inherited the rest of them.  Geese, ducks, chickens, and quail then numbered into the birdbrain clan I was already caring for.  A young female cat that they’d rescued from their neighbor’s abandoned house because it was fixed and declawed so wouldn’t really survive in the wild … and it was an indoor cat which Ginger fell in love with and it with her.  Sigh.  Three young dogs, housebroken, that were the pups of the hound the older couple kept.  Two more flaming rabbits which I suspect means that shortly it will be a whole lot more than two because it was a male and female kept in the same large cage.  And to top it all off there was the parrot.

Its name was Green Bean and Reggie fell in love with the lunatic thing.  It was pretty young as parrots go but someone had already taught it to talk and mimic human speech and it seemed to enjoy attention.  Luckily the cat and the parrot were friends or I can imagine the trouble that would have led to even if the cat was declawed.  The dogs learned really quickly that Green Bean was king but after the pecking order was established things settled down in the house.  I just wish they had stayed settled down everywhere else too.

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?”


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.


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.