The New Geek Empire
Jax and I had planned it out. He would check the doors and unlock them, then at his signal I would start the truck engine, he would run back to his truck and I would slowly nudge the door with the truck and my wider trailer would open it enough so that he could pull out right behind me. But whatever he had noticed blew that plan right out of the water. He frantically waved me to come to the warehouse door.
Kelly had already crashed but I still got out of the truck as quickly but as quietly as I could. I jogged up beside him and he cupped his hand around his ear but made the shushing motion with his finger. I got the picture; listen but don’t say anything. Then I heard it, or should I say them.
Quavering female voices. “Ginger, please don’t cry. As soon as we find a wagon or something we’ll go back and get them.”
“God Ash … how can you be so sure that we are doing the right thing? Maybe … maybe Matt was right. Maybe if we just … I don’t know … give them what they want then they’d get, you know, so dependent on us that they wouldn’t dare hurt us and junk.”
In a hollow voice the first girl said, “Tell that to Deb and Sas. Those animals practically tore her apart before she died. And they killed Sas when he tried to save her. You want to stand in line for some of that too? Isn’t what they already did bad enough? How Matt could just … just stand there when they wanted Marty.”
A shivery whisper said, “I think he hid her someplace. They never found her when they started their sick game. Why couldn’t he have done that for us? Why didn’t he help Aston and Reg? Or at least say anything?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. We’ve got to find something to help the guys and then we’ve got to get out of here. They can’t walk any further.”
“They don’t need a wagon … they need a doctor.”
The first girl snapped, “Well the store is fresh out of one of those!”
“Shhhh. God Ash, don’t flip a switch. I’m … I’m sorry. Really. Aston is going to be totally OK. I’m … I’m sure he is. He won’t, you know, like leave you and the baby alone. He totally won’t die.”
My head felt like it was about to explode. I put my hand on Jax’s forearm; it felt like stone beneath my touch. We looked at one another. Here it was; the choice despite the fact that it was so totally unexpected.
Jax slowly leaned down and put his lips against my ear. “Ashley. Ginger. Aston. At least one more … maybe Reggie Green from the sound of it.”
I knew all four. Ashley was the only one that I knew particularly well enough to really like but knowing her as I did, no way would she leave Ginger – her BFF since preschool and co-captain of the cheer squad – nor would she leave Aston. They’d been going together off and on even longer than Matt and I had with even less reason; they were from opposite sides of the track if you catch my drift and neither set of parents was particular thrilled. I always thought that was why they were so set on being together back then but age and experience has given me a slightly different aspect on it; the heart is a really strange piece of equipment being both software and hardware at the same time and about as quirky as that old museum piece the Apple IIe.
Lately there are days when I feel as old and as out of date as that behemoth but sitting here writing my memoirs – how pretentious of me – I can once again feel the turning that night wrought. Ashley, Ginger, and Aston were known quantities; or they had been at one time. Reggie is the one that didn’t fit in the picture. He was a new development and that night I struggled to figure out if he was Ginger’s attachment de jour – when it came to guys she tended to sip and then move on about as often as a butterfly – or if he rounded out as a fourth to make it even. Obviously at that moment Reggie was injured but we weren’t sure how badly. Aston on the other hand sounded dangerously bad off if Ginger’s backhanded comments were to be believed. Those thoughts flashed through my head in less than a second.
As unexpected as the girls’ arrival had been, Jax’s next question was like a line out of a movie. “Take them or leave them?”
He was leaving it up to me. I gave him the evil eye for putting me in such a spot but he remained calm, barely blinking whereas my stare would have burned him to crispy critterness. But then he did something to surprise me. The hand that wasn’t holding the rifle pulled me close and then ran down my back. It was an odd sensation but not unpleasant. He leaned in even closer than before. His breath was on my neck then back at my ear. “Here’s a fork in the road, a chance. I can see how a few more extra bodies would help out especially if trouble is coming. I can deal with more people as long as they’ll share the work load. I can share space if you can. You,” he whispered huskily. “You I don’t want to share. Don’t want to lose.” He ran his hand down my back again going a little lower and pulling me a little tighter to him.
You know, to this day I don’t know what it is with the male of the species. We have to have them and frankly I wouldn’t want to live without them. But most women must admit they are certainly a puzzle. And I still don’t completely understand how everything the get involve with seems to devolve into some issue with testosterone. I understand even less why I don’t have more of a problem with that happening. Something in me, the primitive part some would call it, had a need to reassure Jax that it was a two-way street.
I tilted my head and changed positions so that it was now my mouth near his ear, a move I couldn’t have accomplished without his cooperation due to our height differential. My own free hand crept up his chest and then my finger wrapped the few strands of chest hair right above the V in his t-shirt and pulled not quite as gently as I could have while I told him, “You Tarzan but me Jane and Jane don’t likey no sharey either Bub.” Jax was so weird that despite his wince I could feel him smile as well. Then I released his captive fur and sighed. I whispered seriously, “I can’t turn my back on them Jax. Can you?” I felt his own sigh of resignation and the shake of his head.
So it was decided. Since the girls had already apparently had a bad run in with some men and might freak out if confronted in the dark by an unexpected male I was going to slip out and get their attention while Jax covered me from the shadows just in case it was some kind of set up. He didn’t like it but it was what made the most sense under the circumstances.
I stood in the dark listening, trying to figure out where they had gone to. They had stopped talking but I could hear something coming from over in the direction of the pawn shop. I eased into the shadows and then stopped when I caught sight of them coming out of the building.
Ginger’s voice drifted over to my ears. “It looks like the place has already been laid to waste. Let’s turn back; we’re getting too far away from them.”
Ashley answered, “Shhh. Our group never took this area. Matt thought it was too rednecky to bother with. So if it wasn’t us then … then …”
I heard the panic building in her voice. In a beam of moonlight I also realized she had a small baby bump showing so I knew Jax and I had gotten it right. I shook my head and put that worry to the side then whispered, “Psst. Ash … Ginger … don’t freak or scream or make a bunch of noise. It’s me … Lydie.”
I could see them fighting their natural inclinations to run. They did step into the shadow. I whispered, “I’m coming out. Yeah I’m armed and it’ll show, just don’t fritz about it. Are y’all hurt? You need some help or something?”
As I crept closer the two girls didn’t move but they didn’t exactly relax either. I made it over to them and we just stared at each other. “Well?” I asked. “Don’t just stand there like that. Say something already.”
Ashley straightened up and got straight to the point, “Where have you been all this time? Where did you run off to?”
“I didn’t run off … I ran back where I came from. And as far as where that is I’ll tell you in a bit.”
Ginger asked belligerently, “Did you kill Jax?”
I must have just stood there with my mouth hanging open for a moment or two and then I heard a faint chuff of laughter and threw a dirty look behind me. Turning back to the girls I said, “No, I didn’t kill him … yet. Right now I’m considering it if he doesn’t knock it off.”
Ashley suddenly got excited. “Jax is with you? What … what about Kelly?”
“Don’t worry about them right now. What I want to know is if you two are OK. What are you doing out in the middle of the night on this side of town? I know I’ve asked this several times but you aren’t answering. Do you need some help?”
Ashley wasn’t one to give up. “Is Jax with you? Aston … and Reggie … need some help. We’ve got to get out of here. They … they’ve got prices on their heads.”
“Prices on their heads?” I asked confused at the odd phrase. “Put there by who? And for what?”
Ashley was shaking, uncharacteristically so; normally she took the lead in just about any conversation and did it with confidence. When she turned her face I nearly gasped in shock. Her cheek was … it was burned; or, branded would be a better word for it though it was too raw and angry at the time for me to really see it.
Ginger stepped forward and I could see she’d been roughed up too. The skin around her eyes was a fading rainbow of colors and her nose was healing an obvious break.
“What the …?!”
Ginger said quietly, “Things have changed Lydie. You did well to stay out of it. Those … those … people,” she spat. “If you want to call them people … they’ve taken over and they’re dangerous. They take what they want and move on. They …”
Ashley grabbed my arm startling me. “I need Jax to come help Aston. He’s too big for me to carry and he can’t walk anymore. Reggie is sitting with him but he’s messed up too … his face got beat on even worse that Ginger’s and his eyes are swollen shut and he can’t see. One of his legs is all chewed up too from those dogs …” She stopped and shuddered.
Ginger had a strange look on her face. “He … he couldn’t even see but he still tried … tried to save me Lydie. I … I couldn’t just … just leave him behind when we ran.”
I asked, “Where are they?”
Suddenly Ashley got suspicious. “Why should we tell you? How do we know you haven’t thrown in with them?”
Jax must have slinked his way over because his voice came from the dark and from close by. “You mean like Matt has?”
His voice started both girls into almost running. I got a little bent out of shape and ignoring the girls I said, “Uh … like … who is watching Kelly?”
“Relax. She is asleep and the truck is locked.”
“And if she wakes up? She’s like going to be so totally scared. How could you just …”
Ginger stopped me by punching me lightly on the arm. I jerked my head in her direction and gave her a sour look. She just gave me a half grin and said, “Same old Lydie.” But there were also tears flowing down her face. “Matt hasn’t really thrown in with them exactly … just … just trying to keep them off our backs. But it doesn’t always work. We …”
Ashley was looking really strung out. “What we … what we need to do is get out of here … find a place to … to hide out until they finish up and move on. That’s what they do you know … they strip everything and then when there isn’t anything left they move on. I’ve heard them talk about it.”
Jax and I looked at each other. I nodded. Jax said, “Story time is going to have to wait. It will be light soon and we need to move out. Where are the guys?”
From the dark I heard a guy’s pain-filled voice say, “Here.”
Ashley gasped and ran to a shadow that took me a while to decipher. When I did I blurted, “Talk about your blind leading your blind.”
Aston for all the pain he was obviously in tried to snort a laugh. “Yeah.” Then he voice became dead. “The girls … they were gone so long …”
Reggie had been silent up to that point. I realized he was concentrating so hard at carrying Aston that he had nothing else to give. Jax and I ran over and got an even closer look. All I can say is they both looked like road kill.
It took a moment to figure out what we were doing. Aston and I had never been particularly fond of each other; we weren’t enemies but we sure as heck weren’t close. It stemmed from the fact that the coach had forced him to get tutoring from me to stay in the sports program at school and he resented the heck out of it. His folks couldn’t afford to pay for a tutor sot if he got kicked out of sports more than likely he’d lose his chance at going to college as his folks had been counting on a sports scholarship to get him there. It hurt his pride though I never twitted him about it; but guys and their pride could make some bad juju.
Reggie was one of those conundrums you sometimes meet in life. He could be nice but preferred being difficult to get to know. He was really smart but hung around with so many of the “wrong” crowd that behavioral issues always dropped his grades down. He wasn’t a big guy build-wise but he was known for getting into vicious fights … usually with guys a whole lot bigger than him; and though he lost as often as he won those battles it never seemed to slow him down. He lived with his dad and older brother – both of whom personified the term professional with their big paychecks, expensive cars and more women than you could shake a stick at but I’d never heard Reggie had even been on a date much less had a girlfriend. His mother was a trashy drunk that spent most of her time in various rooms at the local motel but he treated her like she was a queen and even the two men he lived with knew not to say a word against her. Add it all up and then throw in the way he dressed and he was a prime candidate for being the feature character in a news story on yet another school mass shooting.
Jax was obviously going to have to carry Aston and even then it was going to be a challenge. That left me with Reggie. I tried to diffuse the potential situation with humor. “Man Reg … you’re going to think this sucks but if you puke on me …”
He nearly toppled in my direction and it took both Ginger and I to keep him from face planting into the concrete. When he spoke his voice was a dead and raspy whisper. “Nothing left to puke.” The sour smell of his breath attested to that.
I nodded and then realized he probably couldn’t see me. “OK then. You got anything busted inside? Can you handle a fireman carry?”
He shrugged. “Just my face and leg. Does it look as bad as Ginger refuses to say?”
Dryly I told him, “You look like a freakin’ zombie.”
I saw a smile tug the corner of his mouth and she said, “Cool.” Right before he passed out.
Carrying him to the truck over my shoulder was not fun. I wasn’t kidding about the fact that I was worrying he was going to puke on me. For another thing Reggie’s dead weight was doggone heavy; he didn’t exactly smell like roses either. And to top it all off Ginger hovered enough that I practically tripped on her a few times when she got overly helpful.
“Ging … don’t take this the wrong way, “ I said approaching maximum irritation. “But get the frell out of the way already!”
That startled her just enough to get her to back off the last few feet to the warehouse and then Jax was there taking Reggie down and carrying him to the truck he would be driving. After he’d gotten them in and belted so that they wouldn’t slide all over the place he turned to me. “You take the girls and I’ll take them.”
Ashley started to make noise but I turned to her. “No Ash … listen. We split the load so no one is overcrowded. Besides you know … guy talk if either of them come around. If they’ve got something to say they might not want us to hear it. Besides, I’ve got wetnaps and stuff in my truck if you want to clean up or … you know … do whatever you need without a guy’s eyes around …”
Ashley shuddered to a stop but then finally thought to ask, “Where are you taking us? I swear if you …”
I told briskly her, “I know you’ve got trauma and all that crap but you don’t need to be insulting. If you don’t want to go just say so otherwise get in … we’ve got to go. We’ve got an hour of dark left at best before the sky is gonna lighten up and I want to be well away from here before then.”
“Then how far are we going?”
I was done with the questions. “You either trust us or you don’t. If you can’t make a go of it we’ll figure something out but for now … seriously … stop talking and get in the truck. Unless you want to stay here in town and if that’s the case …”
Ginger said, “No!” A little more calmly she turned to Ashley and said, “C’mon Ash. C’mon … it’s gonna be OK. Lydie won’t leave us high and dry and Jax won’t let Lydie get far ‘cause his kid is riding with her.”
And finally we were out and on our way.