September is the time of year when the temperature begins to cool. By the end of the month it can be more than cool. September is also when you start thinking of winter, but only in a far off fuzzy way. But not that year. That year winter was upper most in our minds around the farm.
With the late start to the year and then having to replant what little we could after the floods receded, we were on a race to play catch up. September was the last month of big harvests. The apples and pears would hopefully continue to produce into October but after the damage to blooms early on, what was being harvested seemed much less than last year’s plenty. The fruit wasn’t as large or pretty either which told me that they needed something … more compost, more spray, more pruning, I wasn’t sure … and didn’t have to give. We’d have to watch freeze damage once it got good and cold or we’d harvest even less the next year, and have nothing to replace it with.
Beans would likely be our salvation though we were running out of rice to go with them to make a complete protein. We were coming to the end of the fresh greens as well as we harvested beets, broccoli, cabbage, wild greens, domestic greens, and herbs.
The cantaloupes and watermelons added to the grapes and peaches to keep us in sweet fruit though raccoons got into the garden and stole or damaged more than we could afford to lose before Jax put an end to the robber’s existence. I put the robber on the menu and once he was baked up with carrots and sweet potatoes not even Gennie turned her nose up at first … or second … helpings.
We traded squash – both summer and winter – as well as peppers with the Houchins farm in exchange for some heirloom tomato varieties that I’d never grown. They were as happy to have the squash as we were the tomatoes as some kind of beetle had gotten into their garden and done a lot of damage before the kids could pick them all off the plants.
In addition to the beans, white potatoes would probably be a staple at least at one meal a day during the winter. I’d still been fairly weak when they were planning that part of the garden but I had been awake long enough that I cut the seed potatoes for planting. They were half the size that I could ever remember planting and I was worried that they wouldn’t make. And when something started digging up the tubers not long after planting I worried so much it almost made me ill all over again. Ashton and Johnson took turns patrolling the fields and whatever had been doing the digging stopped … whether animal or human we never found out.
The sweet corn made plenty, so did the popcorn. The problem was that the ears were smaller and some didn’t make kernels all the way to the tip. The same was true of the heirloom dent corn that was earmarked for turning into cornmeal and animal feed. Not having commercial fertilizers or enough manure was really beginning to show in everything’s growth and production. Next year we knew it was likely to be even worse.
The one thing that didn’t seem to be phased were the cucumber and zucchini plants. The difference between that year and earlier ones was that no one was groaning when it was put on the table for the umpteenth time for the week. Everyone was hungry. Everyone was hungry all the time. We all worried that if we were this hungry now, when so much food was being preserved, what was winter going to be like. We weren’t just worried, some of us were scared. And I numbered myself among them.
The other girls and I had just brought the first ripe pumpkin in from the field to clean and slice for baking when Jules came bounding down the stairs looking for Jax.
“You too Lydie. Something is going on. Vern has his ears on too. Looks like DHS showed up in town a little early and it sounds crazy.”
Alex stepped outside and whistled the guys in from the barn and we all filed up to the attic to listen. Vern and Lon would occasionally send us a comment over the radiofax but for the most part all we could do was sit there and decode what was going on based on the chaos of people begging for Matt to come save them like he had promised and the comments from the DHS patrol that we picked up.
When the radio quieted down it was Ginger who summed it up by saying, “That was sick and I don’t mean that in a good way.”
I was thinking, trying to look into a future that was foggy. The others talked around me for a bit having recognized the symptoms. I wasn’t zoned out, I was hyper focused. It was Gennie who lost patience first and nudged my ankle. “So … what’s it mean? Give already.”
I looked at the girl who only a few months earlier I had considered selling to the gypsies and shook my head. Gennie still rubbed me the wrong way but at least she had backed off her hate enough that it didn’t steal all the air out of the room.
“I think he’s playing ‘possum.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You heard them calling for a medic and then for their psych eval team as they lined people up and separating them off. They were splitting them off and pulling out the able bodied men first, then the able bodied unattached females. Those got bussed off to some kind of training facility. Able bodied females with children and anyone under thirteen who claimed to be an orphan were put into another group and bussed off to a work farm. Anyone that was medically or mentally unfit were being sent to the other side of town. We’ll need to find out what is going on there, and soon. The last group looked to be the thirteen to seventeen year olds who were sent to some kind of industrial facility, presumably where they are going to be trained to build the tools of war.”
Reggie snorted. “Munitions plant … somebody has to make the bombs and bullets you know.”
She got quiet, then wonder of wonders she sat down at my feet and said quietly, “Don’t let them send me to one of them places. I … I don’t wanna make those things. I wanna stay here.”
I could see Reggie tuning up to say something that wouldn’t be helpful so I forestalled him by telling her, “When I invited you to live here Gennie I meant it. You just have to help out and not create problems. If you can do that then we’ll all do what we can to protect you.”
She looked at me like she was seeing me for the first time but all she answered was, “Ok.”
When she went back to looking at her shoes I glanced around and saw that most people were looking at her like she’d suddenly sprouted a third head with green hair and purple boogers. Catching Jax’s eye he gave a small nod. Detente had been temporarily agreed upon.
Ashton interrupted the quiet to ask, “Do you believe that Matt was really given a mentally unfit whatchamacallit?”
“A mentally unfit designation? I believe he was given one, someone using his names definitely did. I believe he deserves that designation.” I put my hand up to forestall any comments until I could finish. “I believe he was given one and deserves it; however, I also believe he manipulated the situation so he would be left behind. I think he is still going to try and impliment with his getaway plan.”
Jules copied my comment onto the radiofax and Vern replied, “I concur. Boy got himself what amounts to a military section 8 on purpose. Question is why.”
“Because,” I said reminding them. “Matt doesn’t like to play the game by other people’s rules. If he can’t control the board then he leaves the board. If he isn’t sure he is going to win the game he chooses not to play.”
Reggie said, “You sure Lydie? Because in his shoes I would have let DHS take me and then I would have attached myself to someone powerful. He could have started his games all over … trading up with each move.”
“You forget one thing.”
Before I could answer Jax grimaced and shook his head as he saw it. “He’s a snob. And he still believes in all of that utopian crap. Those DHS patrols didn’t sound like much more than crowd control keystone cops. Until Matt can be sure that whoever he is attaching himself to is at least temporarily worthy of his support he won’t jump into the next frying pan.”
I nodded. “This presents a problem. For him and for us.”
Johnson shook his head and said, “Just explain it already Lydie. I need to get back out to the barn and unload that corn before it gets dark.”
Ashton agreed and added, “Yeah and I need to get going on getting those logs split. I’m not going to live splinter-by-splinter again this winter.”
It just hit me all of a sudden. I started chuckling, then laughing, then I was practically hee-hawing and there were more than a few in the room that thought maybe I was in need of a mentally unfit designation.
Jax picked me back up where I’d slid to the floor I was laughing so hard. “Lydie? Babe? Uh …”
“Oh God. Don’t you see? Didn’t you just listen to yourselves?”
Reggie gave a disgruntled, “Not seeing the humor here Lydie.”
“Geez you guys. For months now Matt has been the boogie man. He was the greatest enemy, the most dangerous foe. You spent endless hours trying to figure out what he was going to do to us next; wat Big Bad he was going to invite to stomp on us. You used to question me ad nauseum trying to figure out why Matt is like he is. You had nightmares about him. You questioned whether he would ever lose.”
“Listen to what you just said. Getting in the corn and chopping the wood is much more important than anything Matt is going to do. You almost don’t even have the patience to make the time to think about him. Don’t you get it? You don’t have to worry whether Matt will ever lose because we’ve already won. He’s running out of lives, running out of energy points. He’s flickering out of existence.”
Vern radiofax’d over that he wanted a confab and would Jax mind bringing me to the midway point. I signaled in the affirmative and then turned to find everyone looking stunned.
I was about to head downstairs and get ready when Gennie stopped me with a pull on my pants leg. “But … but he’s still alive.”
“Yeah. And we still need to be careful which is why Jax is going to drive me over for a meet up. But we aren’t just living in this little bubble that Matt controls. The bubble is gone and it is not coming back.”
“So’s everything is going to be ok now?”
I sighed. “No … not yet. But it will be better for our heads from now on. Matt can’t hide in the closet or under the bed anymore. He’s not the boogie monster. We see him for what he is … not how he sees himself or how he wants us to see him. He’s just a shadow. And how do you get rid of a shadow?”
After thinking a moment she answered, “Put light on it.”