The New Geek Empire
“Jax, please don’t take this like I’m … I don’t know … questioning you or anything,” I said feeling hesitant to say anything and possibly wreck things between us. “But why do we really need to go armed like we’re about to fight the Battle of the Bulge?”
I underestimated Jax; his ego was not near as sensitive has Matt’s had always been. He sighed and said, “I know what it looks like Lydie; trust me, I’ve got eyes. If I start to over think it I start thinking that I might be overreacting. I’m just trying to be careful and think ahead. I never understood why your dad always insisted on taking the big panel truck with all the supplies out into the field if the maintenance order only listed one particular piece of broken equipment or one particular problem. It would have been a whole lot simpler and quicker to get the little truck into some of those places we squeaked into. But after a while I stopped asking. You know why?”
I shook my head and fed him the answer he expected. “No.”
“Because more than half the time if we had only taken the equipment that we thought we would need we would have had to turn around and go get something else from the shop before we could finish the job. You dad always said it’s better to be safe than sorry.” He shrugged. “I don’t know for certain that we’ll need the equipment in the truck bed or all the ammo and weapons we are carrying but I would hate to need them and not have them and make it a wasted trip if not worse.”
I nodded and said, “OK.” Then feeling somehow that wasn’t enough Ieaned in and gave him a hug even though he was sweaty and smelled pretty whiffy. “Jax, when I ask it is because I want to know, not because I’m … you know … questioning your competence or whatever.”
We both sat under the big maple in the front yard that provided a huge amount of shade and kept the house from roasting when it was hot. I had a basket of herbs I was tying into bundles to hang in the drying shed while Jax was drinking some sweet mint tea to cool off from changing the oil and checking the brakes, hoses, and belts on the two trucks we were taking on the town run the following night. Kelly was strapped into a swing learning to make it go by herself but kept getting distracted as she sucked on her sippy cup.
Jax took another pull on his drink before setting it down and leaning over to help me finish bundling things before the plants wilted in the unseasonably warm weather. “Lydie, if I asked you a … uh … couple of questions do you … well do you trust me enough to answer them honestly? If you don’t or can’t I’d rather you just not say anything at all than to just tell me something because you think that is what I want to hear.”
A little unsure where he was going I told him, “Ask … I mean it isn’t like we haven’t been living cheek by jowl for over a month and you’ve … well … seen it all as it were.” I added the last bit and then felt hot all over but I wasn’t sure if it was because I was embarrassed or because more and more Jax made me feel that way.
He reached out a hand then jerked it back before wiping it on a rag he had half stuffed in his pocket. He reached out again and pushed the stray curls behind my ears that seemed to escape my braids no matter how tightly I wove them. “That was different, you didn’t really have a lot of choice. I wish it’d been a different way but don’t ask me to regret what I saw … ‘cause I don’t. You’re beautiful.”
That turned the heat up a few notches right there but then he surprised me by going back to tying the herbs with me and asking, “I know how Matt can be Lydie. He’s the smartest guy I know but he … I don’t know … he couldn’t handle people questioning him, especially if it seemed like they were questioning his intelligence. My uncle was kinda the same way so he came by it honest but it was only about his job or that subject matter. With Matt it was …” I could tell that Jax was trying to be careful with his words. “It was anything that made him feel stupid, even when there was no reason to feel stupid. My aunt and Matt’s sisters used to tease him but after a while they simply ignored him. I saw him go off the deep end once … and once was all it took for them to learn to leave him alone. His sisters made a fool out of him in front of a few of their friends that were over. Matt … well, no one can actually prove it or had the nerve to ask him … but I’m pretty sure that it was Matt that set those two girls up by taking pictures of them with a couple of guys at a frat party they were at and when the video got leaked all over …”
I remembered the incident – a small town scandal – but was shocked to realize that Matt might have had something to do with it. Then on second thought I realized I suddenly just wasn’t. “That was last year wasn’t it?” Jax nodded. “I didn’t know anything about it. I … geez if I had known …”
“Matt’s pretty good about only letting people know what he wants them to know. He mostly ignored me because he didn’t think I mattered. I was just the cousin that had screwed up. As a result I saw things that other people might have missed. He … I’m not saying he was crazy or bad … he just wasn’t really who he let people think he was most of the time. I used to wonder if you knew but then realized there was no way you would have been able to act the way you did; it’s one of the reasons I haven’t brought it up til now.”
I sighed and wanted to hang my head or walk away and go off by myself but there was work to do. “So if you’re asking if I was in on it? The stuff with those girls at that part? No. Matt’s sisters could be … they could be nasty pieces of work when they wanted to be but that was just cattiness because they were spoiled by their mother. I figured what goes around would eventually come around for them. Maybe if I had been their target more often I would feel differently – I was never close enough to being one of the pretty ones – to catch their notice or get in their way. I’m not even sure if they knew that Matt and I were … well whatever it was we were supposed to be. Lately I don’t even know if the boyfriend/girlfriend stuff was just all in my imagination.”
Jax shook his head. “No.” He snorted and shook his head again.
“Matt had a picture of you inside his closet. He had a lot of pictures of you on the inside of his closet door but he had one that was enlarged and framed and his sisters knew that to touch it would have been … uh … a bad choice.”
I choked on some spit I was swallowing. “What?!”
“You won some big science quiz club thing or other and went to the finals in Nashville.”
My mouth fell open and my nostrils flared enough that I could have taken flight more than likely. “Gross! I know that picture! Ahhhh! He had it enlarged? And framed?! I was fourteen years old … I … I … I think I’m just gonna die! I’m gonna die of total embarrassment right here and now!!”
Kelly looked over at my antics and thought they were funny because she started giggling and clapping at my performance. Jax had learned to take my occasional need to turn drama queen in stride and waited me out. He finally asked, “You through yet?”
I sighed, silently agreeing that it was too hot to be foolish. “I suppose. But that picture was really horrible. It was taken right after the end of the last round and by then my hair had done its springy best to go every which direction, I was covered in right on wipe off marker where we kept going up to the board to work proofs, and I sounded suspiciously like Donald Duck because I still had my teeth wired from where I’d had to have some dental work done. That has to be the worst picture I’ve ever taken. You might has well have hung a sign on me that said Geeks R Us.”
“The teeth thing was from where the guy swinging on the rope in the gym was playing Tarzan and kicked you in the mouth? I heard it was because he swung too hard and went into the bleachers.”
“You heard about that? Geez, it was so embarrassing.”
“Relax and don’t have another cow; it’s too hot,” he said wiping sweat off his face. “I got to see it, blood and all because I was still in school back then remember? The ambulance made a nice break from Mrs. Cridlebaugh’s English midterm. Sinjin was blubbering so loud you could hear him on the third floor even with the windows shut. Found out later he was positive that he was a dead man walking; if it wasn’t the Coach or Dean that was gonna kill him, it was gonna be your dad, and if none of them then it was gonna be his dad for hitting a girl.”
“Sinjin better be glad he scared himself so bad that he let go of the rope and landed on his head and busted it wide open or I woulda been the one that killed him oh so dead. I nearly did it anyway after I found out how long my mouth was gonna be wired shut.” Jax was looking everywhere trying not to smile. “Oh alright. Go ahead and have your laugh. You try having your mouth wired completely closed for weeks on end. To this day the sight of a straw sends me into PTSD.”
That did it, Jax busted out laughing. When he finally got himself under control he said, “I think what impressed everyone so much is that Sinjin had managed to knock six of your teeth out, break your jaw, knock you out, and when you came to you still didn’t cry … not a single tear from what any of us could tell.”
I shrugged a little at the memory. “Oh I wanted to, believe me. Just Sinjin wasn’t the only one that was scared my dad was gonna kill him. I figured me crying would only make things worse and things were already pretty bad at that point. Will had just taken … taken a turn for the worse and our whole family was … was pretty frayed around the edges.”
Regretfully Jax said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up bad times.”
I tried to shrug it off and told him, “That’s when we learn the most about ourselves. I had overheard the doctors talking to Mom and Dad about a bone marrow transplant and the risks and everything. It was looking more and more like that was Will’s only chance. But it would mean … it would mean a lot for me too. I didn’t know whether I was strong enough or brave enough to do it. But Sinjin’s stupid Tarzan stunt taught me I wasn’t near as scared of the pain as I thought I was. I was more frightened of losing my brother and was using the fear of physical pain to avoid the thought of the emotional pain.”
He gave me a knowing look. “Now that sounds like a psychologist talking. Didn’t you mention the school had you see one to deal with the stress?”
“Nope,” I told him with a smile of fond remembrance. “They kept telling my parents that I should see one but Mom had this thing against that sort of thing and would freak out at the very mention of it. She thought they’d want to stick me on antidepressants and stuff like that. My personal “shrink” was the janitor lady at the hospital. She must have mopped up more messes in a week than most people see in a lifetime but she always did it with a smile. You know, everyone is always talking about the doctors or the nurses but you know what I found out while my brother was sick for all those years? It is a team effort, no one member of the hospital team is more important than anyone else. The doctors may call the plays but it takes everyone else to make sure they happen. And of all those people, Mrs. Bell – that was the janitor lady - was the one that made me realize that I didn’t have to be afraid … of the hospital, the procedures … or even to love my brother.” I looked off toward where Nashville was … or at least where it used to be last time I’d heard … and told him, “It hurt so bad when Will died … when all of them died … but it would have hurt worse to have had them die and me regretting I’d never been brave enough to love them because I’d been too afraid of being hurt. Sometimes you have to take a chance even when you never know what tomorrow might bring.”
I turned to look at him and even if my eyes were full of unshed tears he got the message. We both kind of cleared our voices and went back to tying the herbs up. We might have been thinking things but there was work to be done and a little girl that still had a long way to go before it was her bed time. I finally asked, “What was it you wanted to talk about before I went off in a different direction?”
He sighed, “I don’t know whether …”
“Jax, just ask. Nothing is going to change how I feel.”
He sighed, “That’s good to know, real good to know. I’ve been trying to ask but I haven’t been sure … look, I’m sure I know that you and Matt … never …” He stopped and shook his head to clear it. “I’m am sure and do believe you when you say you and Matt never had a lot of … let’s just call it alone time because frankly I’m not comfortable thinking about you and Matt doing anything else.”
“Well, you don’t have to be uncomfortable because there never was anything much less anything else if you catch my drift. You know Matt had this … this touch phobia kind of thing. I used to pretend that I didn’t want my parents to get the wrong idea if they heard something but the truth is I got tired of being the reason Matt carried wetnaps and hand sanitizer in his pocket so I stopped trying to … encourage him in that way. A girl’s ego can only take so much.”
“He doesn’t have that problem now.” He winced. “That … that didn’t come out …”
I smiled to let him know there were no hard feelings. “I kinda noticed. So did you just need … like … assurances or something?”
“No,” he said shaking his head. “I … I just notice how you sometimes seem hesitant to … I don’t know what to call it exactly. You just seem afraid that I’m going to bite your head off if you ask me something. I … uh … thought … well wondered to be honest … if … uh … look, Matt never hurt your or anything did he?”
“No!” Moderating my voice I repeated, “No. But … no … I mean I know what you mean but he never … no … definitely not. I mean … look … I hope I didn’t give you the wrong impression. Yes, Matt hurt my feelings but at the same time … I don’t know … look how … how quickly … I mean … you … and how I feel … and …”
He finally put his hand over my mouth to stop the blabbering. “OK. I just wanted to make sure. Like I said I know Matt … could be …” He stopped and then sighed. “Matt could be a good guy but … I don’t know … he could be pretty self-centered too. And my uncle … used to have problems with it … his temper … my uncle had problems with his own temper I mean. My uncle and aunt … they were separated for a while because of it and that’s why there were several years between Matt and his sisters. Matt is a lot like his dad … so … I just felt I had to ask.”
I sighed. “No, Matt never hit me or anything like that. He had a mean streak but it was never directed at me and never physical; he’d get people back in other ways. The only time I ever saw him get that way was like when someone would try and make him look … look stupid or something close to it. He hated that. But I guess you noticed that. He could ignore practical jokes, people being bullies, and a lot of things that bothered me but people that questioned his intelligence … that could make him mean. People that stroked his ego though … sometimes he didn’t see he was being used. That’s … that’s what I thought my job was, to protect that part of him that didn’t or couldn’t see when he was being used.” I sighed and then asked, “Can we change the subject? It’s … it’s not that … geez it just feels kind of weird talking about Matt to you. I don’t have anything to hide, ask me anything you want, it’s just … I don’t know … Matt is in the past and … and you’re not.”
He smiled and said, “Sure. I understand the weirdness factor. I’m not sure … I mean talking about Darlene … I can do it if it comes up but I don’t really want that stuff to be part of … you know … our … our …”
As he sputtered to a stop, lost how to describe things I said, “Dialogue?”
He thought about it and then said, “Yeah, I guess that’s a good word for it. Like you said, that part of it is in the past and now I just want to move forward … with you … together I mean. I mean forward with you the other way too but ...” At my grin he grinned and then laughed at himself. “You know what I mean Lydie.”
“Yes I do. But I also know you’re trying to tell me that you might need to talk about Darlene when Kelly gets old enough to start asking. It’s OK. It isn’t going to freak me out.” I had a thought then that almost took my breath away.
Jax must have sensed something because he asked, “What?”
I wasn’t sure how to explain so I just said, “I’m … I’m thinking long term and it isn’t freaking me out. I mean … with you. I mean … you know … Kelly growing up and us still being …” I was almost afraid to put it into words.
He caught me off guard by leaning towards me and kissing me. Then he pulled back and said, “Still being … yeah, I like that too … I like it a lot.”
The day wore on and we managed to get quite a few chores done and by the end of it we were both very tired but Kelly just did not want to go to sleep. Then she started to get cranky and pull on her ear which kind of put the kibosh on Jax and I doing much more than trying to figure out how to take care of her. Finally we were both exhausted and I turned to him and asked, “Has she ever been like this before?”
“Yeah, every time she gets more than one new tooth at a time. I thought she only had one coming in but I guess …”
He was so tired … so was I but he’d been working really hard in the heat all day. “Jax, I promise I’m not going to hurt Kelly but you have to let me try something.”
“What?” he asked so tired that he sounded desperate and depressed.
“I’m going to clean out her ears a little bit with some peroxide in case there is any infection in there and then I’m going to put a little warm oil to soothe her.”
He gave me a bleary look and asked, “Oil her ears? She isn’t squeaking. It … it won’t hurt her will it?”
Shaking my head at the fact that he was so tired he was getting silly I told him, “No Jax, it won’t hurt her. I swear.”
Soon enough it was done. The peroxide didn’t bubble so there was no infection in the ear canal and within thirty minutes of the oil going into her ear she stopped fussing enough that her fatigue let her go to sleep. Jax and I both laid her in her bed and then we turned and looked at each other. Neither one of us said anything but from that night forward we were totally committed together and a real family though it was still a while before Jax and I could fully act on part of it. That night all we had the energy to do was fall across the bed, half dressed, to grab what sleep we could because the next night we were scheduled to go to town.