The New Geek Empire
The thrift store had a picked over feel to it but not necessarily from any recent activity. Things had gotten tough after the hospital was bombed and my family was killed. The act of terrorism brought in a boat load of new restrictions on personal freedoms. At first people were willing to give up a lot to feel “safe”; but, after a while the reality of what they had given up began to set in and there were a lot of people expressing their regrets at what their own choices had wrought.
It wasn’t just personal freedoms that were affected but somehow it all spilled over into other areas of life like manufacturing, trade, the ability to acquire goods and services, and personal and commercial banking. A lot of imported items became outrageously expensive even when they were necessary for quality of life, such as medications and reasonably priced food. With the newer, stringent laws -and the “tell on your neighbor” atmosphere that sprung from them – the economy didn’t just sputter to a stop again but did a one eighty and started to pick up steam in the wrong direction like a runaway freight train.
Thinking about how things had been in the last days prior to the collapse, or whatever you chose to call it, I wasn’t surprised that the feed and farm store and the Mennonite store had had that derelict, hanging on by the fingernails, atmosphere to them. You could see it in how the inventory was spread extra thin to hide all of the otherwise empty shelf space; items only one or two deep on the shelves rather than five or six. And what inventory was there looked a little beat up like even the scratch-and-dents were put out rather than sold at a discount.
Despite how large the trailers were, filling up a twenty-four foot enclosed trailer shouldn’t have come anywhere close to emptying the feed store but it did except for the dirt and spoiled items we left behind. The eighteen foot trailer that Jax had been driving shouldn’t have emptied the Mennonite store either, but it did; and there was still some room in the eighteen-footer plus the beds of the two trucks and the cabs had we really been pushed for space. Remembering those trailers I’m still glad Dad had opted for the tandem wheels or the loads we were hauling would have destroyed the trucks’ frame and alignment.
All of this ran through my mind as I looked hard at the interior of the thrift store while I tried to ignore that locker room smell that those types of stores could develop when hot weather set in with poor ventilation and no relief available from air conditioning. Mildew lay almost like a blanket in some places and dust was thick in others and the miasma of the atmosphere was depressing. But despite that and despite being tired as we were I figured since we were already there we might as well grab a few things.
I found some old, canvas laundry bags in the back store room and split them with Jax as we started going over the racks. First off we got all the useful shoes in our sizes that we could find. I ran barefoot as much as possible but wore shoes when I went beyond the house and porch if for no other reason than developing a bad case of ring worm was not something I wanted to have to deal with. From the shoe section we split up, trying to cover as much area as we could in as little time as possible.
I turned my nose up at most of the kids’ clothing but we did find a couple of sweaters and a winter coat that Kelly could use and which would leave her some growing room; though there was no way any of them would last more than a season or two. By next year I would need to either use my old ones in the attic or sew her one of her own.
Jax took a quick look at the music and DVD area but looked at me and shrugged. I couldn’t see his face for sure in the gloom but got the idea from his body language that there wasn’t anything interesting in the collection. I did run through the books and magazines area and found a couple of cookbooks and craft books that looked interesting. I also grabbed a cookie tin full of mismatched buttons, some of which were like antiques from the look of them.
We dumped all of the blue jeans on the racks into the bags because even if they didn’t fit any of us I could cut them up for patches or some other project. We even managed to find a couple of Dickie winter coveralls that would come in handy for Jax to wear if we managed to go hunting … assuming it ever cooled off enough for it. We piled the bags near the door and then headed next door.
The pawn store was a bigger mess than the thrift store was. It had obviously been ransacked; didn’t look like any rhyme or reason was used unless you count the smashed glass display cases where the expensive stuff would have been put on display to tempt customers. In the back however I saw Jax pick up a string of keys lying on the floor and after a couple of tries opening the big safe behind the owner’s desk. Most of the jewelry was gone but there were still tubes of coins and some loose precious stones that he raked into a small bank bag. He looked at me but I just looked away. I had to keep justifying it in my head so decided I’d leave that part of it up to Jax since he seemed to already have it thought out. The one thing that made both of us happy was a small locked room with a heavy door labeled “PRIVATE – KEEP OUT.”
“Eureka,” Jax whispered excitedly. There weren’t any guns in the gun cabinets but there were plenty of fixings for reloads and not a few rounds already in boxes. Jax was so excited he started to look around for something to pack the supplies into right then and there.
Trying to be cautious I told him, “Jax, ease up. If you want to grab some of the shot and powder fine but I thought all we were doing was coming to check things out. We already spent an hour in the thrift store. The sun will be coming up soon. We had a plan, let’s stick to it.”
He nodded excitedly. “I know, trust me my butt is dragging. But I don’t want to take a chance and miss this in case we have to bug out during the day for some reason. Dang, I wish we would have come here first now.” He turned as asked, “Can you go grab a buggy from the thrift store? We can at least bring back a few things.”
There was no turning him off once he’d gotten going so I carefully did as he asked, feeling strange being out relatively alone and walking those particular streets in the dark. Once I got back my nerves were pinging and I insisted that we head back to the truck. “Jax, you’re so tired you aren’t thinking straight. Let’s just go hunker down. If you won’t do it for yourself or me, look at Kelly.” That stopped him and he realized his daughter was weaving drunkenly in her back pack, unable to stay awake but also unable to sleep with all that was going on.
The shopping cart was quickly filled and we finally pushed the overloaded buggy to the warehouse, hid our tracks by brushing the dirt and gravel with a handy branch, and lock ourselves in. I managed to convince Jax to crawl into one of the truck cabs and go to sleep while I put away what we’d brought since it would give me something to do while I kept watch. Finding corners in the trailer for the reloading stuff wasn’t as easy I thought it was going to be because it was heavy and bulky. However, after a little frustration I pulled it off and locked the now full to capacity longer trailer with a thick hasp.
I walked the perimeter of the warehouse a few times and did some stretching trying to relieve my tension. I was feeling anxious for some unknown reason. It was like how the hair on your body feels right before a big lightning storm. When the sun came up I heated a little water on my butane stove and poured it into a large thermos of oatmeal and then set it aside for Jax and Kelly. I had a feeling by the time my watch was over I was going to crash and burn pretty and that feeding them would be beyond me; better to prep it while I still had something left in me.
The other problem with those no-doze pills was that not only did my scalp crawl but I got jittery. Physically jittery on top of mentally jittery is not fun when you are the only one awake for what seems like miles and miles … only you aren’t sure that you are the only one awake. Your mind starts playing tricks on you.
I jumped at every little noise … and a few not so little noises as animals came and went though they never bothered us. Birds landing on the roof clicking and clacking across it with their claws was another nerve wracking sound that brought forth memories of all the horror movies and books I had consumed in my life. Dogs having a brawl and then deciding it was more fun to come together as a pack and chase a couple of cats … with the cats fighting back the few times the dogs got too close. I even saw a family of feral pigs banging around down by the river and finally settling down once the dogs left the area.
A few times off in the distance I thought I heard engines but I wasn’t completely sure. Sound carries funny on the wind and I admitted to myself I was beyond making good sense of what it might have been. By lunch time I was sick with fatigue and nerves and stumbled over to Jax just in time to see Kelly rudely wake him up with a teddy bear to the nose. The guy could move when he needed to I’ll give you that. Unfortunately I was so tired I couldn’t even laugh at the expression on his face as he tried to figure out what was going on.
Jax quickly got his bearings, took one look at me and moved out of the way so I could lay down. I mumbled about the food and to listen for strange sounds in the distance but I later found out I hadn’t been very coherent. I didn’t even get all the way into the truck before I was asleep and I only vaguely remember Jax pushing me up onto the seat.
“Bless it all Kelly,” the voice whispered fiercely. “Didn’t Daddy tell you not to do that? Now come here you little wiggle worm and stop throwing chips at Lydie.”
“Shhhhh. Lydie seepin’,” came a soto whisper followed by a giggle and a very loud “IT’S UP TIME LYDIE!!!”
Despite having sensed someone nearby I hadn’t felt threatened so I didn’t try and wake up. However, when you have a toddler blaring like a bugle in your ear all of a sudden sleep evaporates pretty quickly. I sat up fast enough to make myself dizzy and the surprised and alarmed look on my face only made the little terror laugh even more.
Jax groaned and said, “Just point me in the direction of something to feed this eating machine and you can sleep a while longer.”
I squinted at my watch which said dark was still a couple of hours off and told him, “You were supposed to wake me up before now so you could get a few more hours of sleep before we headed out.”
“Sleep? With Brunhilda here trying to wake the dead? Ain’t happening. I’ve had to keep her in the other truck most of the time or you would have been able to hear her clear across town.” He was half joking and half exasperated and a whole lot irritated. Jax had a ton of patience but even a saint needs a break every now and again.
I crawled out and said, “Give me a sec and some privacy and I’ll pull dinner together.”
He told me, “I popped the lock on the old bathroom. It’s pretty disgusting but not as bad as the one at church camp used to get.”
I made a face, “Nothing could be as bad as those bathrooms. On a hot day with no wind those things would gag a maggot.”
I used a moist towelette to freshen up a bit but I was still no spring rose when I came back to our makeshift camp. “Has she been hard to handle?”
He nodded. “She’s gotten used to being able to move around during the day in that run we built for her. The novelty of the back pack has worn off and she wouldn’t even stay in that without pitching a fit. I don’t know what we are going to do if she doesn’t go to sleep tonight. I mean I know we could give her that kid-strength Dramamine but I’d prefer not to knock her out if we don’t have to.”
I agreed. “Last resort for sure.” After I pulled the butane stove back out and the baggies of dinner I told him, “Let me have her and you go lay down. Now don’t fuss Jax … just until dinner. If nothing else it will give your ears a break.”
He looked guilty and relieved at the same time which told me that Kelly must have been out doing herself while I had been asleep and dead to the world. As soon as Jax crawled into the cab she tried to tune up and I gave her the I-Don’t-Think-So look. Then she stuck her bottom lip out which I knew meant she was about to turn mutinous.
“Listen Bumble Bee, you’ve worn you’re daddy out and he’s frazzled. He needs to take a nap so he isn’t cranky. You don’t want Daddy to be cranky do you?” The bottom lip didn’t move. If anything she looked like she was going to really let loose a scream so I decided to head it off. “Of course, if you stay quiet and let Daddy take a nap like a good boy then you get to help me make dinner and you get a dessert too.”
Her mouth was half way open when she heard the magic word dessert. “I hungin’ Widdie … I hungrin’ yots and yots.”
Rolling my eyes I said, “You’re always hungry. As a matter of fact there is no way in this plain of reality that you can actually hold everything you eat every day. But … and this is only if you behave … I have some yogurt drops for your dessert if you’re quiet and help me make dinner.” I know that no two year old is really going to understand fully the way I was talking to Kelly but my mother had been one of those that really didn’t agree with a lot of baby talk by adults to children once they started leaving diapers behind. I’d heard the same thing in day care training so I just talked to her like she would understand but helped her understanding along by giving concrete directions and clues as we went along.
Believe it or not I was able to distract her by asking her to hold things until I needed them just long enough for me to get dinner finished. Then I fed her, cleaned her up, and gave her a plastic cup of the dehydrated yogurt drops that I had made just for this trip so that she’d have some finger foods to keep her busy. It was one of the tricks that I had learned working in the day care … cheerio type cereals did the same thing but the homemade yogurt drops were just as healthy.
Dinner was Lemon Tuna Spaghetti and before anyone goes gack and gag I have to tell you it is really good. You take eight ounces of spaghetti and break the noodles into thirds and then store them in a baggie. In another baggie you pack a quarter cup of bread crumbs, a quarter cup of Parmesan cheese, a teaspoon of dried parsley and a quarter teaspoon of ground black pepper. In another baggie you pack a three ounce packet of tuna, three packets of TrueLemon or enough lemon juice packets to make three tablespoons of lemon juice, a packet of olive oil (one tablespoon worth), and if you want a very small can of chopped kalamata olives.
In camp you bring four cups of water to a boil. The water was from the jugs I had brought from home and I boiled it in a small pot on the butane stove. I added the noodles and then cooked them al dente and then drained them of all the water except a half cup. Next I added everything to the pan of noodles except for the bread crumbs and stirred to coat the pasta evenly. Then I sprinkled the bread crumbs over that mess and gently tossed to distribute them evenly with everything else.
While Kelly ate her yogurt drops in her car seat I got Jax awake. While he cleaned up I ate my serving of the dinner out of a plastic bowl, wiped it clean and when he came back he used it to eat his portion while I cleaned the pot and put everything else away as well as packing the trash up so that we would leave as little evidence of our presence as possible. Right before it went dark the bugs came out making us all miserable.
“Dang Lydie, these blood suckers are going to drive me crazy,” Jax growled as he swatted at several that had decided to use his carotid artery as a buffet.
Neither one of us was at our best and I almost snapped and asked what he expected me to do about it. Instead I reached into the door pocket of the truck I’d been driving and pulled out some bug spray. “Spritz some in your hands and rub your ears and neck and put some in your hair. I’ll do Kelly. As soon as full dark gets here the vampires should settle down.”
The spray helped and we all got some relief and stopped fidgeting so much. I turned to Jax and asked, “Did you hear anything while I was asleep?”
He nodded slowly. “Problem is I don’t know if I was hearing it because it was real or hearing it because you’d put the idea in my head that there was something to hear. It could have been a fan spinning on a warehouse, a vent stack on a building … for all we know Matt and his crew could have dreamed up something new. The sound wasn’t close whatever it was and I haven’t heard any repeats for a couple of hours. Let’s just be careful and not go borrowing trouble.”
That only brought so much comfort but it was the best he had to offer. I thought at least he’d admitted to hearing something. Besides it was time to get a move on.
The first order of business was to collect what we had gathered from the thrift store and pack it into a trailer. Next was to go back to the pawn shop and go over it better than we had the night before. Jax spent some time taking chains off of the bikes and go over the gas powered yard tools for parts for what we already had. I was looking through the music and DVDs. I know that may have seemed very shallow under the circumstances but since we didn’t know what winter was going to be like it was best to be as proactive as possible.
Which reminded me … “Jax?”
He grunted a response.
“Try and not use all those tubs for parts and gizmos and things. There’s a used bookstore beside the fabric store and if we have time I want to go in there.”
He grunted again in what I thought was an affirmative. A half hour later when he looked like he was going to continue grunting and going through things I told him, “I’m going across the street to get started on the fabric store.”
That made him look up and take notice. “I don’t think so. Just give me a few more minutes …”
“Jax, you said that over an hour ago. All I’m going to do is start stacking bolts of fabric … assuming there is anything worth taking.”
“Just … aw heck. Just hang on. I’ll throw the rest of this in to the back of the truck whole and then dismantle them back home. This could take all night at this rate.”
We had to take the time to load the buggy up with stuff and then take it to the trailer but on the way back I grabbed three more shopping carts to take to the fabric store. As soon as I got the back door opened I smelled damp and mold and mildew. Sure enough the roof had leaked and roughly half the store inventory that remained was ruined. I looked at Jax and grimaced, “So much for that.”
“Any of it worth saving?”
I shrugged. “Let me go to the front and see.” As it turned out most of the ruined fabric was actually the fancy stuff that I wouldn’t have taken anyway … or at least wouldn’t have taken if I had fought temptation. This way I didn’t have to fight it which may have been a blessing in disguise. I directed Jax, “If you want, why don’t you just start taking all of those notions and threads off the wall over there and putting it in this laundry bag. I’ll go through the fabric and try not to get silly.”
I did the best I could by prioritizing what I took since space was becoming a premium and so was time. First were the bolts of denim then the muslins and then the lightweight and heavyweight fleece and flannel. That filled up three of the four buggies and the fourth was full of stuff that Jax had been gathering. Run it to the trailer, stick it in as fast as we could and then back. Next came the sweatshirt material, then heavyweight cottons, the lightweight cottons, fat quarters for making quilts with, and then the materials I could make under garments with. Jax emptied the file drawers of patterns and we went back to the trailer and then returned again.
“Lydie, I hate to rush you but we need to leave time to get home and driving the trailers is going to be slow going.” He added to tease me, “At least for me it is.”
I gave him a half smile though my heart wasn’t in it. “I know Jax.”
My tone of voice caught his attention. “Hey … what’s wrong? Feeling bad about taking this stuff? Memories? I know your mom …”
I shook my head quickly, not wanting to bring any of that up. “No. I’ve … I’ve got the heebies. Not like anyone is watching us … just … just the heebies. Don’t you feel it?”
He looked at me in concern and then around. “No. But if something is bothering you then that’s good enough for me. Let’s check the fabric store one more time and then hit the bookstore …”
I shuddered. “Forget the book store and forget the fabric store. Let’s go. Now.”
Realizing how upset I was getting he said, “Hey, you are shook aren’t you.”
I couldn’t explain it but now that I’d admitted to the feeling it was only growing. “Let’s go now Jax. I’m not kidding. Something …”
I stopped because Jax had gotten a strange look on his face. Then he lifted his nose to the wind. As soon as he did it I did it too and I could just make out an odd smell on the wind that was blowing from the other side of town; not odd as in unusual in and of itself but odd as in I shouldn’t have been able to smell it. “Jax? Is that …?”
“Yeah. That smells like … like …” He gave a confused look and then asked, “Is it me or does that smell like the fair?”
There are smells from childhood that are forever and indelibly written into your memories. The smell of my mother’s canned green beans cooking while cornbread was baking in the oven is one for me. Another fond memory was the smell of the ancient cedar chest that sat at the foot of my parents’ bed and which held all manner of family history; it was like a treasure chest, one my mother only rarely opened. But then there are the shared memories like the smell of the bathrooms at church camp; all either one of us had to do was bring it up and it evoked the same type of memory response in the other. Another one of those shared memories was the fair.
On the air floated faint whiffs of a combination of scents so complex that they immediately brought to mind the yearly event held out at the old air field on the end of town closest to the nearest interstate. There were food smells – greasy yet with a sweet undertone – but there was also the smell of machines that used combusting engines, animal smells from the rodeo and petting zoo, an odd woody smell from the farm exhibits and chainsaw art contests, and a bit of pungent body odor and trash gone sour from the heat.
Jax and I looked at each other and I could feel my chest growing tight and the hair on my neck not just standing up but doing some pretty complicated ballroom dancing. Jax said, “OK. We’re out of here as of fifteen minutes ago. I don’t know what that is from but I don’t want to get caught out in it with what we’re hauling.”
Back to the trucks we went lickety split with the last couple of bags and bolts of fabric that hadn’t it in the last load. Kelly was pacified with her sippy cup and being told that it was time to go home to her toys. I was going to lead back again pulling the larger of the two trailers and was ready to go as soon as Jax opened the warehouse bay doors wide enough for me to exit but he kept just standing there like he was looking at something or listening to something I couldn’t hear.