I was bent over trying to catch my breath and then the tears really started coming. I was nearly upchucking my guts when I was pulled between two buildings. I couldn’t scream because there was a hand over my mouth and a big guy squashing me. I was too shocked to fight at first and by then he had me pretty physically under control.
“What are you part gazelle?” He asked calmly.
Then I heard a little girl giggle. “Tickle fight! Tickle fight!” My eyes moved to the side and saw the little girl then looked back at the guy and finally thought returned enough that I bit the hand over my mouth.
With my mouth uncovered I hissed, “Get off me you jerk!”
“Hey, none of that mouth Lydie. Look I need to know, are you still set up out at the farm?”
I snarled, “Kiss my …”
His hand came over my mouth again for a moment before I could brush it away. “Uh uh, not with my kid around you don’t,” he said flatly.
I pushed Jax off of me … Ajax Remington, Matt’s cousin. Got his girlfriend pregnant when I was a freshman they were juniors. Then right before the baby was born he made a big stink out of wanting to raise the baby even if his girlfriend wanted to give it up for adoption. My cousin the judge gave him custody of the baby when the girlfriend’s parents forced her to sign away her parental rights and then sent her away to live with relatives in another state.
Jax wasn’t a bad person, and in fact Dad had thought it had taken a lot of guts to fight to raise his kid. My dad’s opinion went a long way towards making it easy for me to say, “Fine. I’m sorry. But geez, get off me. You totally freaked me out.”
He shook his head but still got up. “You deserve a little freaking out. I can’t believe you are just running around like this. Some guy could have pulled you into an alley and …”
I gave him a dirty look and said, “Some guy just did.”
He sighed then said seriously, “You know what I mean.” He picked up his little girl who laid her head on his shoulder and he gave me “the eyes.” You know when someone wants you to get the point but won’t use words to explain the point.
Figuring I understood what he meant but that he didn’t want to have to explain in front of his kid I asked, “What do you want Jax? I’ve got places to be.”
He ignored my question and stepped over to a bike with a kid carrier on it and saddle bags. He reached into the saddle bag and took out a bottle of water. He looked at it for a second and then handed it to me. “Drink before you get sick. I can’t believe you ran all the way from the school like that. I had a hard time following you and I was on the bike. If you had run through anymore backyards I probably would have lost you.”
“You were at the school?” I asked as I unscrewed the lid and sipped the water. “I didn’t see you.”
“No. I was feeding her,” he said pointing to the little girl that still clung to him. “I knew there was going to be fireworks as soon as I figured out it was you. ‘Nother reason why you did see me is I stay there but don’t really hang with any of them. I just needed to make sure that Kelly had some people around if something happened to me.” He looked around. “So, look … I figured Matt was holding out I … I just didn’t know how bad. I mean you make it sound bad …”
His statement was more of a question so I told him. “He’s holding out but I don’t know what you know and what you don’t so I can’t say how bad.”
“Just figure he hasn’t said anything and all we’ve been told is what you’ve heard thus far. World is a dead place for miles and miles all around.”
I snorted. “And you believed that?”
“Me? No, not really. Some of the kids? Yeah … yeah they do. They have to believe it because otherwise why wouldn’t their families have come back? It might also mean they should do something like go look for them or something besides zoning out on games all day and night.”
I looked at him. “Your mom and dad?”
“No. They … they died. The water was poisoned and …”
I nodded stopping his story. “I heard about it. Your parents … that must have been rough.” After my parents died it seemed that Jax and his parents had started to try and work things out but I didn’t know how far it had gotten. He continued to live in the apartment at Matt’s which could mean anything. Now I didn’t know how to ask and was pretty sure it wasn’t my business either way. “ Look,” I told him. “Why did you nearly scare me to death anyway if you are part of Matt’s crowd?”
He shook his head. “I told you, I’m not. I just didn’t know what else to do for a while. Ashley and some of the other girls help look after Kelly so I can scavenge but … things are getting so weird. Last week I came in and they had her all painted and dressed up like some freaked out goth baby doll. Kelly thought it was funny but I don’t want her into that crap.”
I thought about it for a minute and realized I’d never heard about him being a bad father only that he should have let the baby go for adoption because that is what his girlfriend wanted. He saw me looking and then got a long face on. “Don’t start telling me that I should have …”
“I won’t,” I said interrupting him. “It isn’t any of my business and I wasn’t walking in your shoes.”
He blinked a couple of times. “Oh.”
“So again … why the Jack the Ripper routine.”
“Hey!” When he saw I was being sarcastic rather than serious he relaxed a little. “I need a better place that is safe for Kelly and I’m willing to work to get it. If you are out at your parents’ place … no way can you do it all yourself. I figured you might be looking for some help; that maybe that is why you came to town only Matt and Marty turned things upside down on you.”
“Town isn’t safe?” I asked not prepared to respond to the rest of it yet.
“Yes and no. Right now it is for the most part but maybe it isn’t next week. Matt … he’s OK. Smart and knows what he is doing as far as the power and all of that.”
Sighing he admitted, “But right now he’s a little unstable too. All of them are. I’m the closest thing to an adult they’ve got and Matt made sure no one would listen to me, even if they might have been tempted to in the beginning. The prefer their weird fantasy life to thinking about the hard stuff right now. For some of them it is probably the only thing keeping them from going off the deep end.”
Thinking of how Sas reacted when forced to face real life I nodded. “I’ll buy that. But what has that got to do with me?”
“Nothing,” he admitted. “At least nothing right now. Later? Maybe it does depending on how they shake out. Could be having you show up gets some of them to thinking. Or maybe Matt just reasserts control of the group. It’s weird but he’s got a talent for telling people what they want to hear and then going further and giving them what they want too. So if he hangs on maybe they keep going the same direction they are right now or maybe they freak out even more. There’s a lot of dangerous crap just lying around waiting to be picked up by the wrong person. I hid some of it but you know if Matt and a couple of those others really get it into their minds to do something a locked door isn’t going to stop them.”
He sighed and then added, “Right now they aren’t really doing anything about making sure they’ve got good food and stuff like that for this winter. I think some of them really believe that the government will be here at some point soon to rescue them … or that their families will come back and everything will eventually get back to normal.”
I hugged my arms and kind of walked around in circles while he just looked at me. I was starting to have a hard time absorbing everything. I was freaking but I didn’t want him or anyone else to know it. Nothing that had happened that day had turned out the way it was supposed to. I’d also lost my part time boyfriend and best friend in the world in one fell swoop. I had found out lots of people were dead and lots more were missing and the people that were left all seemed to have taken a vacation from reality. And now here was Jax with his little girl and I knew he didn’t just follow me for kicks.
I looked at him, “What is it you want?”
“I told you …”
I nodded, “Yeah, I know what you told me. And say I believe you … that can’t be all of it. It can’t be that simple. I know you Jax … there’s a plan in there some place and I’m not going to walk into it blind. You gave up going away to college for your kid but still wound up working for Dad at the mill because according to him you were smart enough to know what you were smart at and smart enough to get smart about what you weren’t. He said you had a plan for everything … how to make up hours when Kelly had appointments or was sick, how to work it so that you could take online classes to get a degree a little at a time, how to stretch the dollars you were bringing in, how you were going to move out of your aunt and uncles place once Kelly started school … I had to listen to it all the time. It got irritating. You’d messed up big time but somehow my straight as a razor father still admired you.”
Something in Jax’s shoulders relaxed. “I admired your Dad too. He was one of the first that let me earn some respect after everything that had happened. Certainly not my dad … not even my uncle would do that. I rented from him, that’s about as far as it went most of the time.” He saw me just standing there looking at him and he sighed. “If I say, you aren’t going to want me.”
“First off …” I tried to come up with something and completely drew a blank. “Forget it. Just say it and have done. As you can see I didn’t escape with my bikes so it is going to take me til dark to get home.”
“You can’t walk around in the dark like that Lydie, it isn’t safe. Matt tries to act like the school is the only place there are people but there’s a small group on the other side of town that didn’t buy into his act. Thing is they are even more unstable than the kids are.” He shook his head. “They’ve gone all religious and stuff and keep to themselves though I’ve caught them watching every once in a while.”
“But where there are two groups there might be more.” I told him knowingly.
Jax nodded. “Not big groups but I’ve seen people creeping around. I think some of them come in from out of town or they are passing through but don’t hang around. I don’t recognize them either way and rarely see them more than once or twice before they are gone.”
I snorted. “Not recognizing them doesn’t mean anything. I almost didn’t recognize Matt and Marty and they …” I shut up suddenly sad in a way I hadn’t been before.
He patted my arm awkwardly and said, “I’m … I’m sorry. About … you know …”
Yeah, I did know. “I know the same thing happened to you. You survived so I guess I will too. Just … just I don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, you’re supposed to tell me this plan of yours.”
He licked his lips and looked really uncomfortable. Just when he opened his mouth to start explaining the little girl in his arms sat up and said, “Daddy, I starvin’.”
Jax didn’t groan but he did make a face. Then he tried to sweat talk her. “Daddy will get you something in just a little bit.”
“I staaarrrvin’,” she said completely pathetic.
Jax was starting to look a little desperate and I don’t know why but I laughed. “Well, they’re probably squashed or crumbly but I still have my backpack so let’s see.”
I looked for a place to sit down but Jax mouthed, “Food?”
I nodded, “Yeah.”
He asked, “Seriously?”
“I wouldn’t kid a kid,” I told him sensibly. Then in a bad British accent I said, “Bad form and all that.”
Jax winced. “Please don’t start talking that crazy talk. I couldn’t understand Matt and the rest of them half the time.”
I smiled a small smile. “OK.”
“Come on. Let’s go in here,” he said pointing to a convenient mart. “It’ll be better if we aren’t in the open anyway.”
We went into the back office, now empty except for the cob webs, and sat on a couple of folding chairs. When I pulled out the bread, cookies, and brownies I don’t know whose eyes got bigger … Jax’s or his daughters. I handed them some wetnaps that were also in my pack and told them to wash their hands.
“Lydie … are you sure you want to share …”
I gave him a grumpy look. “I already said I would didn’t I?”
“Yeah but … I mean …” He gave me a close look. “You were going to use this as a hook weren’t you.”
I gave him a sour smile. “Dad said you weren’t stupid. But I guess I was thinking something like that would work.”
When I put the jar of mixed peanut butter and jelly on the counter I had to hand Jax a napkin to wipe Kelly’s chin with when she started drooling so much. “Geez, what’s up?” I asked.
“Peanut butter was her favorite and it ran out a long time ago. And she’s going through a growth spurt probably, teething some molars too … she’s always chewing on the edge of her blankey and always hungry lately. I … uh … don’t cook too well. We used to make do out of the freezer and stuff my aunt would bring to the apartment but … none of that stuff is left.”
As we sat together and the goodies disappeared I found I was actually more interested in watching Kelly and Jax eat than I was in feeding my own face. Curiously I asked, “Jax, just how bad is it?”
He shrugged a little embarrassed at getting caught inhaling the food I had given him. “It could be worse. At least no one is starving. A lot of the grain silos are still full except for the couple that got rats in them; even that might be salvageable for animals only none of the kids want to go out and bring it back to the school to store it. I’ve been trying to find books on how to cook grains or kill chickens and that sort of stuff but every time I bring it up to Matt he just ignores me and says there is plenty of cans and stuff, that we aren’t reduced to quote ‘primitive necessities’ unquote.”
Trying to ignore the twinge I felt at Matt’s name I asked, “Is there enough food to last?”
“Yes and no. I got a partial inventory made before Matt locked things up so I can say they are decent right now. Enough probably to get through the winter but by spring there will be rationing of stuff pretty hard if some new supplies aren’t found; cans will get lost to freezing too if they don’t move it to a more protected area.” He sighed. “Now, about this plan I sort of have.”
“Yeah?” I said, more interested than I wanted him to know.
“Look, you’re alone right?”
Getting suspicious I said, “And what if I am? I’m not helpless.”
“I didn’t say you are. You can’t be to have made it this far unless maybe someone has been helping you.”
I shook my head. “Either way, not your business.”
“Well, I’m trying to make it my business,” he persisted.
“You can try,” I told him defensively.
He sighed. “Look Lydie … Geez, don’t make me feel more stupid than I already do OK?” I blinked not expecting the conversation to go that direction. “Your Dad always told me I should be stockpiling a little of this and that since I had a kid to look after. I didn’t because I thought … well, because I didn’t want to think I guess, at least not about that stuff. And look now. I’m reduced to begging …”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa … we aren’t talking about begging and if you don’t start making sense I’m gonna walk,” I told him using irritation to cover my embarrassment at seeing him … well, almost begging.
“Lydie, I meant what I said about working for a safe place for Kelly. I … I kind of know your Dad looked at things … different. He said it was bad to be too dependent on things that could go away too easily. That I needed redundancy plans. He told me a few things about what he and your mom did. I just … just never seemed to have the time or money to get around to doing something about my own situation. But I know your Dad did. I’m asking if … if …”
And then a light bulb went off. “You want to come out to my place and live.”
“Yeah,” he admitted.
I know some people might think it strange but I nodded giving it serious consideration. After all I had come to town to get a “clan”. “What else and don’t tell me there isn’t more.”
He licked his lips again. “I thought maybe … if things worked out … if … you know … you and me … could …” He stood up with Kelly in his arms and said, “Forget it. I … uh …”
“Jax. Chill.” He looked at me. I shook my head. “I can’t talk about this stuff with you holding her. Can you sit her down for a minute?”
All of a sudden Jax got real stiff. “We’re a package deal.”
I rolled my eyes. “No kidding. Just … you know … what you were talking about … kinda hard to have a conversation about it with her blowing spit bubbles and being all cute and junk.”
“The floor’s dirty,” he said.
Exasperated I told him, “All right. Fine. Hold her just … you know … don’t use her to get what you want. It is freaking weird to see a guy your age acting all … all fatherly and stuff. I watched you play Little League and win pie eating contests at the fair when we were little. It’s bizarre to see you with a little girl of your own that calls you daddy you know?”
He said quietly, “Yeah. I get that a lot.” He sat back down on the stool and rocked a bit so that Kelly started getting sleepy. “Geez. I know this makes me sound like some kind of … of gigolo …”
I choked on crumb of brownie I had just put in my mouth. I gave him a dirty look and said, “I knew sex was part of this somehow.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be. I mean … maybe if we want it to at some point. I was trying to think about that with any of the other girls and just couldn’t figure how it could work and …”
This time it was me that reached over and put my hand over his mouth. He pushed it away and asked, “What?”
“You need like a mouth guard or something because when your boot finally hits your mouth as hard as it is about to you’re going to break some teeth.”
“Huh? Uh … oh … you mean … well yeah … I know how it sounds.”
I doubted seriously that he did. “Jax?”
“You used to be cool with the girls. What happened?”
He looked indignant for a minute and then sighed and shrugged. “I had to learn to change diapers and put up with being laughed at because I’d get to work and there was spit up all down my back. I learned that tired wasn’t what you felt after a football game but what you felt after your kid stayed up half the night with colic and you still had to go to work the next day because if you didn’t your kid wouldn’t eat. I learned that girls think it is ok for them to have a kid or two at home but the guy isn’t supposed to. I learned that all those single parent support groups are really for girls and women because the guys are all retards and unwilling to pay child support and othe things like that.”
“Really?” I asked. “That sounds … awful.”
“Really,” he said in a voice like sour milk. Then with a look at the little girl asleep in his arms he said, “But I’d do it all again if I could know that I’d still wind up with Kelly.”
There was a big boom that made us all jump and woke Kelly up and she started to whimper. I looked outside and saw the clouds had gotten pretty dark. “Storm,” I told him. “This is not going to be fun to walk home in.”
“I told you …”
I put my hand up to stop another one of his lectures. “I know what you told me but I have to get home to take care of the animals. They’ve got automatic water troughs but I feed them by hand.”
He just kept lookeingat me and then I sighed. “Look Jax, walking in the rain isn’t my idea of fun but I have to get back. I’ve got responsibilities.” Then I scrunched my eyes shut for a brief minute then said quickly, “But if you want to come you can.”
He hadn’t expected me to give in that easily. “What?”
“I said …”
“Wait, no, I mean I heard that but … but are you serious?”
I rolled my eyes. “No, I just said it to make myself look like a complete fool.”