Even looking back I can say without doubt that there is no way that I ever gave anyone, including my parents, as hard a time as Gennie gave me back then. All things considered I’d like to say she wasn’t as bad as she was but frankly … she was. I’ve never been able to decide if it was her real personality, her age, the trauma she went through, or just plain meanness, or possibly some combination of those things. Back then I tried to cut her as much slack as I could because I thought it was mostly damage but the intervening years has made me wonder.
“Gennie, I don’t care if you don’t like asparagus, that’s what there is on the table tonight. Janice and I spent most of the afternoon hunting this stuff up so we could all have something fresh for a change. And it’s good for you. Lots of antioxidants and B vitamins and all the healthy stuff we need right now to get us through until we can start harvesting from the garden.”
“You said the strawberries would be ready in May. Well it’s May and I don’t see no strawberries. I want strawberries.”
“The strawberries are late like everything else. But they should be in by the end of May.”
“Well I want them now.”
“Well you can’t have them now. They aren’t ready. The asparagus is what is ready now. If you don’t want to eat it then I’m not going to force you. But you also aren’t going to get anything else either.”
“You are such a ****,” the vulgar mouthed girl yelled at me at the top of her lungs.
Since we’d all just sat down to eat – those of us not on duty that is – there were plenty to finally hear and be shocked by the way she’d been talking to me.
Johnson stood up and said, “That’s enough Gennie. Waaaay out of line.”
“Oh so you’re going to take her side too?!”
Upstairs we could hear Ashley moan as the baby started crying right after she’d gotten him to sleep. Those of us with better ears also heard her grumble something to the effect that someone was going to get pull baldheaded if they did it again.
Johnson either didn’t hear or ignored Ashley in favor of ringing a peal over Gennie. Something that surprised the rest of us. “I’m not taking anyone’s side kid, I’m just calling it like I’m seeing it. Now knock it off. I thought people were exaggerating when they said you were acting kinda crazy. Now I know they weren’t. You don’t want to eat it then fine but like was said, you ain’t getting anything else.”
“You’re just like the rest. You don’t understand!”
“I understand better than you think I do. I was a foster kid for a long time. Janice and I ran through more foster homes than I want to remember. Not all of them were nice people. Of the ones that were nice only a few of them really gave a crap. But you lived with what you had to to make it through to another day when things might were gonna get better. You got the same chance here, a better chance because you can know that all of us do give a crap about what happens to you.”
“She don’t,” Gennie snarled pointing at me. “It’s her fault. All her fault.”
“No. It isn’t. You’re starting to get stupid on that.”
“You do too believe that. Why are you lying?! I’ve heard everyone here say it. Lotsa times.”
“You’re hearing what you want to hear, not what everyone is saying. Some mistakes were made because we all have a hate on for Matt but if it comes down to it we all made the mistake in believing the stink he was selling there for a while. But we’re over it. All of us. Now sit down and eat or go sit in the corner.”
“I ain’t no baby!”
“Then stop acting like one!”
Alexis who was just coming in from taking a turn on watch said, “The bottom line is you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. We are all too close to going hungry to waste food.”
“I ain’t wasting it. I just ain’t gonna eat something that looks like slimy sticks.”
Ginger added insult to injury by telling her, “Since you screw things up every time you are supposed to help cook I’d shut up if I were you. Those of us that are working hard to put the food on the table that you are complaining about are starting to really not appreciate it.”
“You don’t let me cook what I want!”
“Because you aren’t the only one in this house …”
Jax had just come in behind Alexis. “Shut up Gennie. You’ve used up your last get out of jail free card. From here on out, you don’t work, you don’t eat. You act like a baby, you’re gonna get treated like one. You don’t share the load then I’ll haul you out to that militia point Reggie and I saw the other day and leave you there and they can take you to the nearest military camp. I … am … done.”
Gennie looked at Johnson smugly like she was waiting for him to tell Jax where he could shove his threat but got a real shock when he only reinforced it. “Might be the best thing for her. Supposedly they’ve got professionals in those places that work with the troubled kids that get brought in.”
We all started eating and Gennie just looked at everyone with wide eyes. Then she made a grab to throw her plate and Alexis popped her in the mouth. Not hard, but it caught us all off guard. “I don’t know what your problem is chica but the problem stops right here, right now. You ain’t gonna screw this up for me or anyone else. Sit down. Shut up. You want to eat, then eat. You don’t want to eat, then don’t. But you ain’t gonna ruin it for the rest of us. You ain’t the center of the universe.”
Thirty seconds in it was Janice that shocked us the most by saying, “And if you are thinking of running away or turning on us you can forget it. You and me are now joined at the hip until you can prove you aren’t going to turn traitor. I will NOT go back to the way things were.” Very quietly and very savagely she looked at Gennie and repeated, “I won’t. No matter what it takes.”
Johnson and Aiden both patted Janice to comfort her and she backed off the crazy that was peeking through her eyes. Between the drama and everyone’s fatigue the remainder of supper was a silent affair. Not the good kind of quiet you find in peaceful places but the kind of quiet you find in a sick room or in a house where you are alone and lonely. I was too familiar with that quiet and hated it. Hated more than it was once more to be found in my home.
After dinner wasn’t much better. And Janice hadn’t been kidding; she didn’t even let Gennie go to the outhouse by herself. She and Alexis talked over the top of Gennie’s complaints, making plans to take turns looking after the girl. The last I saw of her that night she was looking shell-shocked as both Janice and Alexis followed her to their shared bedroom and from what I heard did what they had to to make sure no one (meaning Gennie) could creep out during the night.
Later, after I’d finally been able to put my notes away and go to our bedroom, Jax moaned as I massaged his shoulders to try and help with his stress. He’d finally gone through everything he’d brought here from his stashes and pulled out his textbooks and was trying to refresh himself as well as learn more. The thing with Ashley and the baby had him spending every spare moment he could to get ahead of the next emergency. “God I am so glad Kelly wasn’t there to here that crap falling out of Gennie’s mouth.”
I whispered back, “I am too even though I hate it is because she is still getting over her cold.” After a moment I asked, “How serious are you about … you know … dumping Gennie off?”
“Serious as a heart attack. This can’t keep happening. You shouldn’t have to take it and none of us has the patience left to … to …” Jax shook his head. “Would it be my preference? No but she’s making everything way too hard. The food thing is bad but if she wants to go hungry no one can force her to eat. It is the intentionally screwing up on her share of the chores that is getting impossible to put up with.”
“Let’s see if Janice and Alexis can change her attitude.”
“She better hope they do. I’m not going to put up with it much longer. We can’t Lydie.” I heard him and knew that he’d do what he had to do to protect Kelly … and the rest of us. I also knew however that he wasn’t going to jump for joy if he had to send Gennie away.
He changed the subject by telling me, “Saw Vern today. He and Lon got a lot closer to town than they’ve managed in a while. Used some kind of camouflage suits they made up.”
“They still need to be careful.”
With a little caution in his voice he said, “They were. That stuff was what they trained for and did in the military.”
I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t say I was going to say anything to them about it. I’m not looking for a fight you know.”
Jax turned and pulled me into his arms. “Just be careful. Reggie said the last time you went over there they were … er …”
“Firing on nothing much more than testosterone and coffee to keep themselves going?” When Jax snorted a quiet chuckle I said, “Yeah, they were cranky but it isn’t much better around here. Which is why I said they need to be careful. We’re all tired. We’re all stressed out. We all need to be careful.”
“Message received loud and clear,” he said giving me a kiss that landed somewhere around my ear because it was so dark.
“Good,” I said giving him a kiss back … with better aim. “Did they learn anything beyond what we already know?”
“Possibly. You know those big trucks that used to sit down by the river? Near the damn?”
“Sure. Big diesels with all the trimmings.”
“Those are them. Well, they’re gone.”
“Nope. Gone. Vern got … er … real close and said that production has stopped too.”
“Production … you mean the drug manufacturing has stopped? How can he tell?”
“No smell and no run off going into the river. Those big ventilation fans aren’t turning either.”
“Oh I am just so terribly sad about the demise of their economy.”
I thought it was funny, until Jax shook his head. “I think they’ve found a new way to make ends meet.”
“Do I want to know?”
“You know the Houchins have a pretty good idea of the groups still in the area?”
“Yeah. They haven’t even really shared them with us.”
“That’s right. Lon says it is some kind of courtesy or whatever.”
I nodded and said, “Which is why we haven’t shared that we’ve figured out how to triangulate the locations of most of them for ourselves.”
“Yep, and we’re going to keep on not telling them. But I had to be careful not to let it slip when they started sharing that some of those that they knew about aren’t transmitting anymore.”
“We figured that out too.”
“But what all of us made the mistake was in assuming it was because of a lack of fuel or because of some kind of mechanical failure.”
I tensed as I started to wait for another shoe to drop. “Just spit it out Jax. Give me some data to input.”
“It looks like what you and Reggie hypothesized would happen has already started. They’ve started with the smallest operations first from what Lon and Vern could see … apparently they recognized some equipment and other stuff in one of the warehouses and …”
Upset I nearly yelped loud enough to wake Kelly. “Are you telling me …?! That wasn’t just a little closer they were on the outskirts of town! They could have been seen! Someone could have followed them back with a drone!”
“I know Babe. Calm down please. If it had been anyone else but Lon and Vern … but it was them. And what they saw needed checking out. It was a calculated risk. No drones … I think we might be running through their inventory finally. And the few cameras and stuff that they did see were inoperable.”
“What do you mean they were inoperable?”
“Busted up. Compromised by the weather. Hanging by their wires. Just inoperable.”
I don’t like to say I didn’t trust Vern and Lon’s observations. As Jax pointed out they were trained for that sort of thing. It was more I didn’t trust Matt … or Delorey or whatever minions of his were left. It would be very easy … too easy … to camouflage a camera and throw someone off by decorating with what looked like equipment that wasn’t being taken care of. I didn’t like it, didn’t like it at all. Wanted to put my own eyes on it for some reason.
But I liked even less what Jax said next. “Aston, Reggie, and I are going to recee the areas where Vern said the farms were from.”
“Clear on the other side of the county?!”
“Not that far.”
“But farther than any of us have gone, even you and I back in the beginning.”
“Don’t. I know as well as you do that it has to be done. We can’t get all of our info through the Houchins farm. I just … Jax, be careful. Desperate people do desperate things. If … and this is a big IF … Matt has taken control it is going to be Maestro all over again only on a grand scale.”
“Reggie said the same thing.”
“So you discussed with them already.”
“I didn’t do it to …”
Suddenly I felt bad … guilty. “Hush and … and don’t listen to me. I know what has to be done and I trust you. But if we have … have somehow gotten to a new level of the game … Jax I need to know who is in charge. If it is Matt I’ve got to get ahead of him before … before …”
“Matt has never spooked you before. What’s wrong?”
It was hard to quantify and put into words that didn’t sound like I was tripping on a game. “If … and right now we don’t have any facts only assumptions … if Matt has finally decided to come back into the open all bets are going to be off. There is no longer anything holding him back. No former reputation to be tied down by. No moral compass to guide him. No reality checks of any kind. He isn’t just going to be playing a part he is going to be the part … be Maestro. And if that is the case I need to know what he has to use … resources, assets, weapons, people, all of it. I need to know if he took over any or all of Delorey’s territory. I need …”
“Easy Babe. Even if I didn’t get it … and for the record I do … Reggie gets it. He’s worried. He says there are too many unknowns that need knowing.”
I forced myself to relax. This was the part of the game I had never liked, when you first hit a new level and have to figure out if it is just a continuation of the old one or if your opponents have suddenly amped up and gotten new things to use against you. Or if you opponents were even the same ones from the old level or if there were all sorts of new Big Bads that were going to be coming at you.