Tuesday, April 17, 2012

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.

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