Monday, November 14, 2011

Update ...

The following stories are now complete:
A Will To Survive
Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men
Forsaken Harvest (completed as of 11/14/11)
Over the Mountain and Through the Fire
This Is Me Surviving

Stories Currently in Progress:
All Roads Lead Somewhere
Carry On
Gurl
Mom's Journal of the Zombie Years
To All Things There Is A Season
Il Agita Di Amore
And the Geek Will Inherit the Earth

I plan on a very short break and then will begin to try and complete another story. I hope to have at least two more completed before the end of the year.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Just a Note ...

Over the next few days I hope to upload some additional chapters of the other stories that are in progress. I've loaded two new chapters to Forsaken Harvest and a couple of the others will get new chapters as well. You can find the links for the other stories in the right side bar on this page.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chapter Fifty

Chapter 50

Good Lord, looking at it I can definitely say that when it rains it pours. And here I was thinking I had things calmed down and under control. Teach me to think won’t it. Granddaddy used to say that the fastest way to make God laugh was to tell him you had plans. Well, I suppose that’s really just an old wives’ tale but on the other hand it sure seems that it might be true, at least it feels like it is sometimes.

I don’t know how well this will come out, I feel so restless and out of sorts … better than I have been feeling and better than others still are feeling but that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel pretty bad and sorry for myself in general. I shouldn’t complain, we’ve been blessed here compared to some others. I guess I’m just so … well, might as well start at the beginning or I’ll make even less sense than normal.

Woke up ready to go hunting wild leeks … better known to us common folk as ramps. Some people can’t abide ramps and some people love ‘em near to death. With the way things have gone since my family died I’ve learned not to turn my nose up at any kind of food, you never know where your next meal is coming from sometimes … and sometimes you might not want to look too hard at what it used to be. It’s only been since coming to Dino’s house that I realized just how bad things were. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize it before – it was staring me in the face – maybe it was just self preservation; I suppose you can just get used to anything. Now that I’ve given myself time to think on it, guess that might be one reason why Sol was so easily duped by his uncle; he hadn’t been able to withstand the temptation of all that was suddenly just plunked down in his lap. I don’t say any of this to Dino, I don’t want to hurt him. He’s grieving enough as it is; we all are.

So as far as ramps go I have what you might call more of a “like ‘em good enough not to pass them up” state of mind. Doesn’t mean I haven’t seen the bad side of ramps though. Lord have mercy, if you eat too many of those things you better be around other people that are eating too many as well or you ain’t gonna exactly be good company if you know what I mean. And it ain’t just your breath that is going to be the offending party. The smell of ramps had cleared more than one room.

Ramps aren’t just good but good for you; they cleanse the blood first thing in the spring when you are looking for some of the first fresh things to add back into a diet after a winter of nothing but preserved foods. Might actually be one of the biggest reasons they give you gas so bad … being the first fresh after a long season of nothing but preserved food.

Ramps are full of iron and antioxidants, or so it says in the books I’ve read. They’ve got a strong garlicky, oniony kind of flavor that is pretty intense for the uninitiated. But for a spring food there’s not much that can match a batch of ramps. If you ain’t feeling perked up after that you need to go see the local yarb woman to get some help and that’s a fact.

Unlike many spring time forage foods, the first place you don’t look for ramps is in the bottom land where things have warmed up. Nope, ramps is generally found on a north side of a good sized forested hill or mountain that has a few open places here and there. To me the leaves remind you a bit of tulips but yet not. Not too many folks eat the leaves anyway though you can, or so I’m told. Most folks stick to the bulb and stems that remind me most of scallions.

Ramps is also best used fresh unless you plan on blanching and freezing a bundle. I planned on picking more than I could use fresh and storing them for a bit in the ice room down in the basement. I got all dressed and was really feeling up to the gitty up and go when a very pale faced Hannah knocked on my bedroom door.

“I swear I’m not faking it Riss,” she muttered dejectedly.

After one look at her face I sighed. “No, I guess you aren’t. Let me get you some raspberry leaf tea.”

Grimacing and holding her lower middle she whispered, “Geez, you are saving my life, you know?”

I shook my head, “Don’t get silly on me now. You ever ask them doctors you worked with about why you get cramps like this a couple times a year?”

“Not the doctors, no,” she said shaking her head. “But believe it or not one of the Sisters told me it was because I lost too much calcium going into it.”

“One of the Sisters? You mean them nuns you were working with? I thought you said they was too strict for words?”

She shrugged and then made another face. “Well, maybe not that strict. I probably exaggerated a bit. They were strict I mean but … but most of them weren’t mean strict. And they are female and just because they, you know, have taken a vow and everything doesn’t change that. I reckon some of them have normal female problems too. They just aren’t allowed to make a big deal out of it I guess.”

“I guess,” I repeated remembering a few of the “big deal” times that Hannah acted like she was dying when we were growing up. Mrs. Bly would take to her bed the same way nearly every month. I asked her one time if it didn’t take all the fun out of being a girl and she gave me this real cross look so I learned to leave her alone when she was hormonal.

Knowing that Hannah was going to be useless or worse I told her, “You might as well stop beating around the bush. You know you aren’t going to make it ramp hunting.”

“I know,” she gloomed. “And I was hoping to rub AJ’s face in it. He laughed and said I’d give up. But that’s not true … I just … I just …”

Forestalling the tears I could see on the way I told her, “Humph, that’s a guy for you. But tell you what, dinner is all set back and only needs to simmer. Why don’t you do the dinner – surprise AJ that way – and take care of Kerry for me. Don’t ask me why but he seems to mind you well enough that I don’t have to worry about him tearing the house down.”

“Oh honestly Riss, he’s not that bad.” At a look from me she said, “OK but he’s no worse that you and Harry used to be and you know it.” I couldn’t help it and grinned a little nostalgically at a few memories that she had resurrected. She laughed then grimaced, “Tea … tea now … before I just about die.”

I rolled my eyes but didn’t laugh. “That bad?”

“Probably just stress. Everything seems to be out of whack lately. God, I even have pimples this month and I swore that I’d outgrown that.”

Since I still broke out when it was getting close to that time of the month I could have told her she was just wishful thinking but didn’t and instead got her some witch hazel to go with the raspberry tea. “Remember Hannah Banana, you drink the tea and use the witch hazel on your face.”

“Ha ha. Just too funny.” She was a little grumpy but not much and added, “Go already or you’ll never get back before I have to figure out how to work that monster stove and fix supper.”

So I did … get that is. I probably looked ridiculous but since the men weren’t about and I could care less what the animals might be thinking I just laughed at myself. Pita was in a sling strapped across my back and she was kicking to beat the band. I swun she musta thought I was some kinda pack mule or something; it felt like she was setting spurs into me to make me go faster. The old overalls fit like they used to with maybe a little extra room here and there – especially in the patched and baggy seat – and I was pulling my jacked up wagon to bring back what I was going after.

I knew exactly where I was going but I also knew I’d have to leave the wagon down at the bottom of the trail and bring the ramps down by the basket full. The morning was still spritely and Pita and I had a fine ol’ time. I was coming back down the trail with my third load of ramps and what to I find but five young men standing around all my hard work … and one of them was eating one, raw of all things, to see what it was I guess.

“Hey! I didn’t just work all morning to feed you trespassing fools!”

I know, stupid thing to do but I was surprised and acted in anger; never the smartest thing to do and you’d thought I would have learned that by now. When they turned on me it wasn’t the look in their eyes that had me backing up and pulling my pistol but what their eyes looked like and the rash all over ‘em.

“You stay back!”

One of them young men said, “We’re hungry. You give us what you’ve got and we’ll leave you alone.”

“You’ll leave regardless of whether I give you anything or not. Now get! You already got something and I don’t want to see my baby get it.” I made my point by pointing my pistol a little more surely and forcefully.

Two of them tried to rush me in a clumsy fashion, for what reason I have yet to figure. I couldn’t run and turn my back and give them a chance to get to Pita so I did what I thought I had to do. The other three were momentarily surprised and then took off down the trail and back towards the road as lickety split as their sick bodies let ‘em. They moved clumsily out of my sight, stumbling now and again and shading their eyes like the sun hurt.

Pita got scared by the noise and was crying loud and hard right in my ear. I sat down right there on the trail, pulled her sling around, and tried to comfort her (and me if I’m honest) while I decided how best to get around the bodies that were blocking my path. The most important thing was to figure out how to get around them without coming in contact with them. Pita was in fact crying so hard the horses were just about on top of us before I heard them plain.

I heard the voice I’d wanted to hear most call, “Riss!!”

Calling back to him I said, “I’m all right Dino but stay back from them bodies, they’ve got something. They’ve got spots and their eyes are peculiar gross.”

Dino was off his horse and up the path before I could tell him once again, “Dino, stay back!”

“It’s OK Riss. It’s measles and I had it as a kid.”

I started backing up even faster than I had when I first noticed the rash on the trespassers. Dino gave me a strange look but I kept going. I was nearly running and tripped, sitting down hard on exposed cedar tree root. “Measles?!” I finally cried in horror.

Dino had reached us and started asking all sorts of questions but I had a few of my own and was struggling to stay calm. “Dino I’m fine, stop checking me over like a mule on the auction block. They didn’t come near me, but how did you get here so quick? Did you hear my pistol?”

“No … well yes, but that’s not what started me in this direction in the first place, only what nearly gave me a heart attack. We ran into Josiah who told me that there’s a bunch of folks in town coming down with measles; that it started in the city jail.”

I started shaking again, horrible memories trying to fog my brain. “Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

I had conflabergasted Dino and I guess Alec and Ajax who were riding with him. “Riss?”

“I’ve already been through this type of thing once Dino and I lost just about my whole family. I don’t know if I can do this again. We gotta keep our babies safe, we gotta …”

“Shhh. Easy Love, if you’ve had it before or you’re vaccinated you can’t get it again. It’s all right.”

Holding Pita didn’t give me much scope for my frustration but in desperation I banged my forehead on his shoulder. “I’ve never had it and I haven’t been vaccinated for it since well before we went to live at the farm I know I’m due because it’s been over ten years. And you don’t grow out of being able to catch it so when your vaccine runs out … oh no, oh no. Oh why oh why did they have to come around here?! And Pita … oh my Lord Dino … she … she could … and Kerry … and oh no, has Tina … I can’t remember about Hannah … and …”

I was some fretful and Dino could see it. And I could see that Ajax turned his horse and took off like a shot … guess that told me he didn’t know whether Tina and their baby was safe, the one already born or the one she was carrying. Dino and Alec looked at each other and I could see they had been given something to think on too. Things aren’t like they used to be. Medicines like antibiotics are hard to come by and with vaccines going out on folks all it took is for one infected person to come into a home or community and start an epidemic. All I could think about was the virus that had taken so many of my loved ones from me. I remember from that point forward there were announcements on the radio about how to recognize different diseases and treat them at home. Guess it had been long enough since the last epidemic that people had forgotten … or some people had, but I sure hadn’t.

Dino insisted on carrying me over the bodies and my feet never hit the ground; he just sat me up on the saddle and then climbed up behind me. “Hold on to the wiggle worm. We’ll get you two home in no time.”

Still fretting I asked, “But what about my wagon … and the ramps …”

It was Alec that said, “You aren’t going to want those ramps anyway. As for the wagon someone will come for it as soon as we get things straightened out.”

Straightened out, that’s a hoot right there. By the time we got home they’d already closed the school had been closed and sent all the children home. Six kids were showing symptoms and not one of them were in the same classroom. One of the boys in particular was a good friend of Chester’s sons and I knew right then that we were in for it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Returned to the land of the living

Hey everyone, I'm sorry it took me so long to get back on track. Real life has just been having its way with me as I'm sure we can all attest to. Economy, work, children, blah, blah, blah ... where's a girl supposed to find the time to write?! (sigh) Thank you to all of those that commented both on and off the blog. Your support has meant a lot to me and has helped me get through an extraordinarily challenging summer.

I have a new piece and it will be going up either tonight or tomorrow.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sorry for the delay

Suffering from a summer cold following the vacation. No excuses but will try to post in the next day or two when my brain is not so foggy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter 49

Wouldn’t it be nice if a good night’s sleep really did make things better? Oh, I shore ‘nuff agree it doesn’t hurt when it comes to your attitude and outlook but as far as really changing things that have already happened or that might happen … well, nothing is going to do that. You just have to accept it and deal with it, though I know that is a lot easier said than done.

As far as it goes AJ and Hannah actually slept more than a night; more like two nights and a day. “For goodness sake Riss,” Hannah mumbled around one of my fresh made cat head biscuits smothered with fresh butter and sorghum molasses. “You should have kicked me out of bed like when we were kids.”

I smiled and told her, “Hush before you make me laugh and upset the baby.” I was feeding Pita and she was in hog mode. When she gets hungry she can be downright foul if she gets interrupted and laughing as much as I wanted to at the memories that Hannah had brought up would definitely have dislodged her.

Out of nowhere Hannah asked, “Do you like your life?”

“Do I …?” She’d caught me completely off guard. “Well of course I do. Why would you ask that?”

After hesitating a bit she said, “I don’t know. I mean I do, but I’m not sure you want to talk about it.”

I’d known we were eventually going to have to get around to talking about Sol. I figured if that was what she was trying to say it might as well go ahead and get said. “Tell you what, you talk and if I don’t want to talk back I’ll let you know. Just don’t get your knickers in a knot if I decide I’m not ready to talk about something. It won’t be anything against you OK?”

She snorted a bit of a giggle. “Good grief Riss, I’d forgotten how ‘corn fed’ you can sound when you want to. You don’t need to anymore you know. It seems like Dino would tear anyone up that even looked at you the wrong way. You don’t need to camouflage yourself like that.”

“Who said I was camouflaging anything?” I asked a little outraged for no reason.

“Dad did. He said that it was your way of … of … of staying connected I guess you could call it to your family that died. The ones that took you in. Like it is some kind of loyalty thing but hiding your real self at the same time.”

Thinking about it a bit I said, “I suppose so. In a way. But it’s gone from something I did to something I am now.” Smiling a bit I admitted, “I know I can slather it on heavy on occasion but even that is part of who I am now. Not talking with three dollar words when a nickel one will work just suits me better with the life I’ve led and the one that I look to be living from here on out.”

With a thoughtful look she said, “But what happens when things change … when they go back to normal. You’re the wife of this big vineyard owner and you’ll be expected to be a certain way to help him grow his business and interact with a certain level of people. The Pappas Vineyard is a pretty big deal from what I understand and that comes with a certain social obligation.”

“OK, I’ve given that some thought too,” I told her letting some of my more troubling thoughts bubble to the surface like sulfur at the old hot spring. “Here’s where I stand Hannah; I’m not sure what normal is going to look like if and when this infernal war ever lets up. And I’m also not sure how much, if any, that I’ll have to put on airs to help Dino with his part of the business. I won’t embarrass him but I have to be myself. But I do trust that Dino and I can work it out when the time comes; he’s like that you know … willing to hear my side. He accepts me for who and what I am now and if I need to learn to watch my p’s and q’s around a certain kind of clientele I will … just not at the cost of my soul.”

She tilted her head like she was trying to see something in me that she hadn’t before. “You’d do it for Dino but not necessarily because you liked it.”

“I’m not sure if I would like it or not. I haven’t had to go there. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. Until I experience it I won’t know for sure. I won’t commit myself either way right yet. I didn’t enjoy Thanks … well … that’s …”

She gave a small, knowing smile. “AJ already told me about it. Mom would have fainted. And I swear I may too if I ever have to meet Mrs. Nichols. How you had the … er … the courage to do what you did I don’t know.”

Giving her my own knowing smile I told her, “Courage wasn’t the word you were going to use and you know it.” I laughed and then said, “As for Adona, you’ll have to meet her all right. Nine will get you ten though she already knows as much about you as is possible for her to have found out.”

“Lovely,” Hannah groused.

I shook my head. “She’s not so bad, not really. She’ll probably think you’re just peachy. You’ve been raised right, dress right, speak right, and you’re pretty and AJ … er …”

“AJ what?” she asked like she wanted to know but didn’t want to know at the same time.

“You know good and well what and don’t tell me that you have no interest in that quarter when we both know you do.”

At that she looked troubled which surprised me. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “I think I do but … but he … he isn’t exactly like … oh I don’t know. And he’s older and … I don’t think … Riss, if I admit that I like him then I might have to admit that I care for him and if I do and he only likes me and doesn’t care for me … I don’t want to get hurt … not like that. I don’t know if I want that risk, not with him, not when it could matter … could matter a lot.”

You know, having a sunny kitchen leads to some interesting shadows. Dino wouldn’t have stopped in the door but would have barreled straight in making a ton of noise. And Alec would have backed off and given us privacy. That long, lanky shadow though stood too still not to be noticed. “Hannah, I’m gonna ask you straight out, do you like AJ?”

“Yes,” she admitted quietly. “But … but please don’t say anything to him until … until I figure out how … how …”

“How what?”

“How am I supposed to explain about him … you know … not being … you know … the … the first?”

“Oh,” I said, stymied. “Well, that … er … I mean …” I stopped, not wanting to dig a hole, especially not with a certain pair of ears listening in.

“I know you are going to say that for the right man it won’t matter. But for the right man it will matter to me. I don’t even remember … well … the worst part of it. I’ve even thought that I’m not remembering on purpose and that’s ok to me, at least for now. I just don’t want to get into it and really … really let myself get involved and then turn around and find out that … that it just …”

Pita was finished, burped and asleep so I laid her in the cradle and then went to sit beside a very pensive Hannah. “I don’t know what the answer is Hannah except you need to be honest. I couldn’t exactly hide the truth from Dino but he could have assumed that I was … well loose as a goose and with more than Sol and more than once. I was just real straight up front and in my case Dino chose to believe me. If you really are … are considering letting your feelings get involved with … with anyone or with someone in particular … naming no names of course … you owe it to yourself to be honest so you know where you stand up front.”

“Oh that’s easy enough to say,” she sighed. “And I even believe you but it isn’t exactly something you bring up out of the blue. Like, ‘Oh, hey I know we are thinking about getting involved but I just want to tell you up front that you won’t be the first guy I’ve been with and that the only guy that I have been with wasn’t out of choice so take it or leave it.’ Yeah, that will go over real well as a conversation starter.”

“Uh, well … ok so that’s a little different than my situation was but … well, to put it bluntly you are going to have to find a way to get around it.”

“Well duh,” she snarked. “I know that, I just don’t know how.”

“Then let it alone for now and just take your time,” I told her.

She turned to look at me and asked, “Is that what you did?”

“Dino and I …,” I stopped and had to laugh despite myself. “We were a mess. Or, I was the mess and Dino was just … just being a guy about the whole thing. I don’t know exactly what you would call it but it has turned out to be good. Mostly I learned to trust him and he let me prove that I could be trusted too. I needed that … for someone to trust me, and to believe that someone trusted me. Mostly it was my own bad choices and how I felt about them that kept getting in the way. I didn’t like knowing I could be a nincompoop and I still don’t but … but Dino hasn’t ever rubbed it in.”

“He hasn’t?”

“Nope. Is that what you were wondering about? Back at the beginning?”

“A little,” she admitted with a nod. “I mean I know you seem happy … and more … more something than you were before. Confident? I don’t know if that’s it or not because you were always pretty confident. I just wondered if … if you … I mean this isn’t exactly like you imagined how things would turn out, is it?”

Trying to be honest without saying anything that would hurt her … she didn’t deserve that … I told her, “I’m not sure exactly what I expected Hannah. I think back and I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t thinking too clearly or too far ahead. I felt … safe … with things going the way they did. I thought Sol would come back from finishing his assignment and life would just keep rolling along. But they didn’t. I could say it started when your dad died but it had probably been coming on before then and I just didn’t see it.”

“Is this the part where you tell me you don’t want to talk about it?”

I looked at her and sighed. “Part of me doesn’t but … but mostly I think because I don’t want to … to stir things up. I like my life here Hannah. No, I love my life.” More quietly I added, “I love Dino and the live we have together. The way it has turned out was better than any daydream I’ve ever had because it’s … it’s richer, more real. Dino is …”

“Better than Sol?” she asked softly.

Just as softly I told her, “Yes, yes he is. I’m sorry Hannah. I don’t want to hurt you … or your momma … which may be part of the reason why … why for a while I wasn’t sure that I wanted to … to communicate with you all. I don’t want to mess up what I have with Dino and I thought it required a … a break. Dino isn’t happy about me having any kind of contact with Sol but he doesn’t have any trouble with you. I’m not sure how he would feel about your momma but don’t ask me or him to have anything to do with your uncle.”

She snorted, “Don’t worry about that. I’ve finally escaped and I’m not going back even if nothing ever comes between … well, you know.”

The shadow was gone as quietly as it had come so I didn’t pick my words quite as carefully. “Hannah, AJ has experienced his own bit of pain in his life and he’ll need to figure out how to tell you about it because it is part of who he is. And the family dynamics around here can get … er … interesting. Take it slow is all I can say.”

She nodded and then returned to the original topic. “So you’re happy. And you don’t regret, not even a little bit, about not being with Sol?”

“No. Sol wasn’t … isn’t … who I thought he was. I thought he was like a version of Harry or your father, only he wasn’t … isn’t … whatever.”

She looked at me and then her face cleared up. “Ok. Harry … Harry explained it to me but I wanted to hear it from you. But I need to tell you something Riss … not to hurt you but because I think you deserve to know.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what she said. “Sol is sorry. He may not be sorry enough after what he did, the way he acted, but he is sorry. And … and he isn’t happy. He regrets picking the road he did. I know you’ll say he made his bed so he has to sleep in it or something like that but … but he is paying a pretty high price for that gold ring he was reaching for. Shantelle … well … well, never mind. Let’s just say she’s done to him what he did to you a few times. Even Uncle Bill … er … at least that’s what the housekeeper said.”

“OK … ew … yuck … you’re over the line and I’m done talking about it.”

She grimaced. “Yeah, kinda the way I feel about it. Pretty nauseating. Just thought you should know he is getting paid back.”

I shook my head, “I’m not interested in that Hannah. I don’t want that to … to corrupt my life here. I just want to let it go and move on. I’ve got enough real problems in the here and now without creating any more for myself.”

After a confused pause, “So you really don’t want revenge?”

“Gross, not that way for sure. Besides, one of these days I’ll have to answer to Pita for how she came to be and the less I have to be ashamed about the better. Dino, Kerry, and Pita-pie are my life now and I am very happy for it to be that way.”

I guess she came to believe me because it was the only conversation we ever had on the subject. And I wasn’t just telling her tales to get her off my back. There really was enough in my everyday life to keep me busy, why dig more trouble for myself.

There was the garden, cooking for everyone … teaching Hannah to cook which has been an adventure in and of itself … and dealing with the daily reality of the war. My wares are in even greater demand than before because nothing is coming from the normal manufacturing routes. It os a good thing that I had Mr. Chamberlin taking in lard and tallow as payment for goods in the store or there would have been a quick end to the soap making venture. I like building credits to get things that we need but no way am I going to deplete our own supply of cooking lard to do it.

There are a lot of shortages all over and as a result there is a lot of hunger in this country. You would have thought that the war would have taught people that you need to have a garden if it had taught them nothing else. Problem is that people keep telling themselves that the war will be over soon or next week the grocer’s shelves will be full again. Things only get worse when you try and rely on the way things used to be to be that way again. Plan for the worst while you hope for the best and you’ll never be sorry. The food riots have started up again but this time I don’t think the government is going to respond has they have in the past by passing out free stuff to quiet down the angry folks. I have a frosty feeling that this time the rioters may be in for some unpleasant consequences.

Here is no different. People are thinner and the pickings are slimmer. I’ve been taking advantage of the foraging this spring time but it takes a huge amount of time and effort for the reward we get. I’ve felt blessed by all that we have had but the truth is I’m just plumb sick to death of nothing but dried, salted, or canned foods. I was just about sick for wanting something fresh. Thank goodness the early foraging stuff has finally popped through. Miner’s lettuce is abundant and because things have been so damp I’m not worried at all about over picking it. The yard isn’t anything but dandelion greens it seems I can’t get enough of the greens wilted by hot bacon grease and a little crumbled meat and goat cheese on top for dressing it up. Ajax said he passed by a patch of fiddlehead ferns on one of his circuits of the farm and Hannah and I went straight out and picked a mess of them.

I’ll give Hannah one thing, when she sets her mind to something she gives it one hundred percent. When she set her mind to being a brat she was a brat a hundred percent and then some. Well now she has set her mind to learning the trade of running a household and I felt rather inclined to ask her why she hadn’t shown the same industry when we were growing up.

“Didn’t need to Riss, you would do it if I put up just a little fuss just so you would have to listen to me complain … and you know it so don’t bother denying it.”

I rolled my eyes but had to admit that it was true. Maybe I was a little full of myself at that point but I couldn’t stand to listen to her whine and complain at me. I preferred being alone to her snipping.

Hannah’s honesty is … well, it’s refreshing. I know where I stand with her and always have. Before she was angry but she was honest. Now she is honest and is pushing me for more every day. It drives me a little batty on occasion because I feel like I’ve lost the little bit of alone time I had but the help she gives me is worth it. Some day she’ll move on but until then I can at least help her in Harry’s memory if nothing else. And with her around there is another person to remember him with.

And speaking of Harry two of his favorite foods are ready for picking … fennel and morels. And tomorrow Hannah and I are going to go in search of the wild ramp. That ought to be interesting. Dino flat out said though he didn’t want us going out by ourselves because there has been word sent out that there are strangers moving through now that the city people have breached the barriers at the bridges.

I wish folks would just leave us alone to live our own lives but I don’t guess that is going to happen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thank You and Quick Note

Thank you all so much for the wonderful feedback. It is truly appreciated.

I will be out of town for the next week with limited internet access. If I am able I will post the next chapter but it may very well be next week before I can. I will defintely be coming back refreshed with lots of good ideas I'm sure.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter 48

I looked at the stairs and though I had only recently passed my nineteenth birthday I felt about as old and arthritic as I imagined old Mrs. Chamberlin had felt on occasion. I also had a feeling I was not going to like what I heard. That certainty had been building all through AJ’s recounting of their tale.

Finally I put my food on the bottom step and slowly started up into the dark. Me not wanting to hear didn’t change the fact that I needed to know. It didn’t change me having an obligation to listen and do what I could to help. I owed it to Hannah who had sought refuge in the home I managed. I owed it to Mr. and Mrs. Bly – even if only their memories – for their acceptance of me. I owed it to Harry, God rest his soul, because he had stood by me in my own time of troubles. And I owed it to myself too. I had been through many awful things in my life and there had always been someone there for me. I’d be nowhere near the person I wanted to be if I hid from paying forward the acts of kindness I’d received, no matter how unwilling or hesitant it had been offered.

I knocked. “Hannah?”

The rustling of the bed sheets told me she heard. A quiet, “Come in.” bade me enter.

Even in the dim light coming in through the shutters I could tell she’d been crying. Before I could ask she said, “It was awful Riss. It was just awful.”

There was a moment of silence and then I felt compelled to sit with her on the bed. We both drew our legs up and sat criss-cross facing each other, the way girls do when they are sharing confidences at a sleepover.

I tried to carefully pick my words. “Hannah … AJ … and maybe me too … thinks there is more to the story than you’re … well more than you’re saying.”

“With those boys? Just the gruesome details,” she shuddered. “They … they tried. I … I fought. I probably would have eventually lost; it was three against one. But one of the things we were taught on the wards was how to handle an attacking patient. We dealt with PTSD, anger management issues, dementia due to brain injury, and all sorts of things including detoxing drug addicts. We had to know our stuff.”

I let her ramble. It was her story, she had the right to tell it her way. “I used what I’d learned but … but I couldn’t have lasted long enough for them to get tired and give up. They … they wanted what they wanted.” She hiccupped a small sob. “It just makes me mad. We’d been friends. I thought they were nice boys; safe. If Mr. Nichols … AJ … hadn’t made so much noise coming down the stairs we’d probably both be dead now. That’s what they had planned for him at least.”

I patted her shoulder and knew it was inadequate when I did it. But what else do you do? “It’s OK, they didn’t succeed ‘cause you kept your head. Even AJ knows it and said as much.”

“He … he did? Really?”

I nodded. “Yes he did. But … but he still thinks there is more to it. Feels guilty and he isn’t quite sure why. Hannah, I’d like you to tell me, did they hurt you?”

“Hurt me?” she laughed brokenly. “Yeah. But not the way you think. They tried. They left bruises in places I’d prefer not to talk about. But they never succeeded at their real goal. Even if they had I know I could have survived it. What’s once more?”

Her words shocked the pee doodle out of me. “Hannah?” I asked, not even sure how to finish the question.

Hannah understood anyway and didn’t make me ask twice. It all came out like she’d been waiting, holding on ‘til she could pop the cork to someone she thought would give her understanding. “It was right after we moved to Uncle Bill’s. I thought I wanted to fit in. I thought it was the fulfillment of all my dreams when we were stuck on the farm. Now I look back at that time, before Dad died, like they’re an ideal and I’d give a lot to go back and change some of the ways I acted, take advantage of what might have been.”

She stopped and her eyes were unfocused and full of unshed tears. “I thought Chad was fun. He paid me the kind of attention the Prince Charmings of my daydreams always had. Oh Riss, he was a perfect specimen of a young man – blonde wavy hair, great build, educated – at least until he expected payment for his ‘sevices,’” she sneered. “I was so stupid. They call it date rape but walking in the back garden hardly qualifies as a date. I said no I don’t know how many times and when I tried to scream he shoved my shirt in my mouth; I couldn’t breathe and after a while I passed out. When I came to he was gone; he’d just left me in the bushes. I ran crying to Uncle Bill of course because Sol wasn’t home. I thought he’d protect me, avenge me … but he only blamed me. Told me if I acted like a tramp and sent out certain signals I shouldn’t have expected anything different; that I brought it all on myself.”

I said a few choice, creative words about “Uncle Bill” starting with the fact he was likely left on the doorstep as a baby after the animals thought he was too ugly for them to raise and Hannah slowly relaxed. She didn’t smile exactly but I could practically smell the relief she felt. “Shoulda heard what Sol called him when he found out … and to his face. But eventually he caved to Uncle Bill and Shantelle’s point of view and desire to keep things quiet and not make a fuss because Chad’s family was pretty powerful. I don’t think Sol believed what they said, that it was my own fault, but he didn’t defend me very much either. He told me later there was a price for living in Uncle Bill’s world and we had to face that fact and toughen up.”

I didn’t even want to talk about Sol to Hannah, not yet, not in her condition … maybe not ever but I was still shocked. “What about your momma?” I asked, horrified that anyone could rationalize what had happened to Hannah.

“We were forbidden from saying anything to her. Uncle Bill threatened to send her away for her own good if we bothered her. He said she was too fragile. That became his go to threat for controlling Sol and I. And it worked – at least for a while – until Mom overheard him tell Sol that right before he was reassigned. Mom started waking up to what was going on around her. But about that time Uncle Bill got her to this new doctor for her ‘headaches.’ He diagnosed them as stress induced migraines and put Mom on this really strong medicine that kept her buzzed. She’d sleep a lot and when she was awake she was pretty zoned out. Uncle Bill blamed Sol’s leaving and my ingratitude when I started fighting him about how much she was taking. I made the mistake of telling him I’d talked to a couple of the doctors on the wards about it. He blew up and then – mysteriously – my school program got cut. It was all downhill from there. I thought for a while that I was the one that was gonna crack until AJ offered me a way to earn some money of my own, a chance to get away.”

“Good Lord, what a Picadilly play,” I muttered.

“Yeah, and I haven’t even told you the one how the housekeeper got fired over some complaint of Shantelle’s and how she … she told me some other things that were going on including the fact she’d been having an affair with Uncle Bill. I know it sounds like the plot of a bad television show. I used to think that it was because of Uncle Bill’s money … that he had too much, that we were living too affluently and that somehow made things happen the way they did. But working at the warehouse I met people who were the exact same way. They may not have had the money to have it happen in the same kind of setting but it was the same kind of cockamamie stuff going on. I learned the hard way it doesn’t matter how much you have or don’t have, it is what’s on the inside that dictates how you act. I guess you did too. Maybe I deserve some of the trouble though because of the way I used to act.”

Not knowing exactly what to say but needing to say something I told her, “Don’t think that Hannah. You were a kid mostly and just had some growing up to do. You didn’t ask for what that … that Chad did and you didn’t deserve what those three boys tried to do. You didn’t cause your uncle to act the way he acts. Bad things happen. All we can do is survive them, learn from them, and then try to make our little piece of the world a better place to balance out the evil. At least you didn’t go looking for it like I did with Sol. It is still hard to believe where that piece of stupidity has taken me. I feel guilty whenever I weigh my good fortune so I’ve given it over to God.”

“Can you? Just let it go like that I mean?” she asked disbelievingly.

I shrugged. “Sure. On the other hand I’ve got a bad habit of picking it back up and putting it back into my bag of burdens. The day I learn to leave it alone I’ll have passed a mile marker in my life. I worry most about how Pita will take it when she’s old enough to understand.”

Hannah asked, “Then why tell her?”

“’Cause there’s no good profit in lying, you’re only digging your hole deeper. Eventually you have to learn to lay the shovel down. And if knowing the mistakes I’ve made prevents her from making similar ones I’ll accept whatever comes; hurt and otherwise. But I’m not the topic of conversation here. You are. Um … you know … you know it doesn’t have to be the way you’ve experienced … with that Chad and those boys. … right?”

One shoulder lifted in a half shrug. “Sure. For some women I guess. I’m not stupid; but I’m not sure that … you know … I’m cut out for that sort of thing. Look at the mistakes I made.”

I shook my head. “Don’t start thinking like that. It’s not … not … Oh phooey. Look, the one time I was with Sol I was honestly left wondering what all the fuss and bother was about. But with Dino … it’s completely different.” The way I said it gave us both the embarrassed giggles. Finally I hugged her and said, “It’s not just the circumstances, but the person you’re with, what you want out of it and how much you trust the other person you’re with. I don’t mean to preach at you but … but I really believe you need a public, forever-type commitment to really get all the … er … benefits out of it.”

We snickered a bit and then all of a sudden she started crying. “Oh God Riss. I killed two men and I don’t think I’m even sorry for it.” The wall had cracked and the final bit of poison was freed and allowed to bleed off. I held her and rocked her just like I would have Pita and she eventually fell asleep exhausted. I covered her and crept out of her room. The hallway was pitch dark and I was feeling the definite need to feed my baby girl when I headed to the bedroom only she wasn’t in her cradle. Then I heard Dino downstairs singing a Greek lullaby he said his father had sung to him.

Nani nani my child.
Come Sleep make it sleep
and sweetly lull it.
Come Sleep from the vineyards
take my child from the hands.

Take it to the sheepcote
to sleep like a little lamb,
to sleep like a little lamb,
and to wake up like a little goat.

The words always tickled me but they seemed to work … most of the time. “Has she been fussing long?” I asked stepping into the kitchen trying to hide my condition. I was surprised to see AJ still up. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“Can’t,” he muttered dejectedly.

“Where’s Kerry?” I asked Dino as I took Pita from him.

“Fed, watered, and put to bed. He was falling asleep as soon as we got in from chores.”

“I’m sorry,” I said as I tried to juggle Pita who quickly grew hysterical once she saw and smelled my damp shirt.

“Don’t be,” he smiled. “Go feed that girl before she eats you alive. I put your rocker by the stove. It’s dark enough for modesty over there and warmer than any place else.”

Putting Pita to feed was like I remember trying to hook the hose up on an old vacuum that had already been turned on. She tried to bite me too. “OK, none of that,” I told her. I’d been warned the day would come and took evasive action. It only took twice and she got the picture; use manner or lose the meal ticket.

“Damaris?” came the quiet and tired question.

Dino said, “Let her finish feeding the baby AJ.” I could hear the edge to his voice so they’d obviously already had this conversation at least once.

“It’s all right Dino. What is it you want to know AJ?”

“Is … is Hannah … OK?” he asked, knowing the words he used were unequal to the question.

“She will be,” I told him. “With time and care. There’s a lot involved that I don’t feel at liberty to explain. Those three boys came close but as Hannah herself said they didn’t reach their goal. But it’s all wound up with some other stuff. But none of it is your fault. She didn’t say it outright but I think knowing you actually helped her to not lose complete confidence in the male of our species. You helped her over some hurdles but she has a few more to jump.”

He growled, “Some … someone else hurt her? Is that what you’re saying?” AJ could be discerning when he put his mind to it.

“I’m not saying anything of the sort but if I did I might could also say it happened in the city before you entered the scene. Now stop growling. I’m not sure why you care anyway,” I added egging him just a little.

He snorted in disgust. “And just why should I clarify that when you won’t tell me what happened?”

“Because what I know isn’t any of your business … yet.” I paused for effect then told him, “But getting where you might be going might be easier with a friend in the right place. And if you want my opinion, under the right circumstances I could be that friend.”

Dino strangled on a half-suppressed laugh at AJ’s outraged expression. “You should see her negotiating with Mr. Chamberlin.”

AJ ignored Dino and answered me with a disgruntled, “I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think too long,” I warned. “A girl likes to know where she stands.”

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter 47

I looked at AJ and thought have some patience indeed. He’s lucky I didn’t have a flyswatter near or I would have popped him the same way my grandmother used to take after the boys for slamming the screen door.

AJ cleared his throat and asked me, “Should you go up and … er … check … I mean … er …”

“Hannah needs some time to gather herself. I’ll check on her in a bit. She probably won’t talk to me until I’ve heard it all anyway,” I told him, not willing to be pushed in a direction that would bear no fruit. Hannah could be obstinate and she’d signaled, in her way, she’d only be willing to talk to me after I’d listened to the rest of the story.

He sighed but then continued. “We spent most of the night moving stuff from that tunnel and loading it into the suburban. I kept a supply of fuel secreted with my getaway stuff. Usually I kept more than I had there but the market had been so hot – you won’t believe what people are willing to pay or trade for a simple gallon of fuel – I wanted to make a profit and it ended up costing me instead; I didn’t know at the time how much.” He raked a hand through his hair and then said, “As we moved in and out of the tunnel you could feel the vibration of big trucks going by on the street above us. I had thought to empty the tunnel then rest but something told me not yet. We went back to the warehouse and starting on the third floor where sewing machines are …”

“Why are the sewing machines up stairs?” I asked, interrupting him despite myself.

“Less power loss, what they tell me is called voltage drop. At one time we had solar panels up there and the shorter the power cords the less power loss, hence the reason for the machinery being on the third floor. It was breezier up there too. With the windows open the lint blew outside rather than remaining inside for people to inhale like it did during the industrial revolution causing all of those lung ailments in the loom factories.”

“Solar panels?!” Dino and Alec asked excitedly completely ignoring everything else AJ had said.

He shook his head and opined, “They aren’t there anymore. The government sent out confiscation notices and came when I wasn’t around to do anything about it.”

I thought “why you awful liar.” I knew for a fact exactly where at least some of them panels were but that was his business and he had trusted me to keep my mouth shut. But I would never lie to Dino if he asked me or brought it up and AJ knew it, so he glossed over it and distracted the two men onto the next part of the tale.

“Hannah found some sewing supplies and must have taken every needle out of every machine that was left. She wouldn’t leave that floor until she had stripped every machine and supply cabinet. She’s as bad a pack rat as you are Riss,” he said. The words made it seem like a criticism but the tone made it sound like a compliment. I begin to have thoughts about Mr. AJ and Miss Hannah Banana that might very well come to something if either one of them could unbend their pride enough. “The second floor is – or was – normally full of final products awaiting shipment and a few office cubicles but most of the final products were gone. There were a few bags of scrap material and a couple of bundled clothing orders that had been missed so those we hauled down stairs along with all of the spare parts that were on hand. The offices were pretty cleaned out except for mine and I’ve never kept much there anyway. First floor had even less than the top two but we did grab the big fire extinguishers, the fire ax and a couple of other odds and ends. Hannah had agreed to leave the corpses alone in the corner but then said we needed to search them to see if they had anything worth salvaging. I don’t know if she was trying to prove something to me or herself but she stood right there as I rifled through their pockets and found a few things; it was like she needed to know they were going to stay dead. Occasionally I would hear some banging around outside like someone was checking to see if they could get in but no one tried to force their way in, at least not right then.”

“Last thing we did was haul the water cooler jugs over. Hannah had been a trooper and despite mostly showing commonsense I could see she wasn’t going to stop until I did no matter what condition she was in. My head was pounding by that point and I knew we both needed to eat. We availed ourselves of the lavatories and then headed over to spend the night with the suburban. I can’t even remember what we ate, I think it was dried fruit and ration bars that I had … er … requisitioned from this place I know. As soon as the food got into our system we crashed. The car was hidden behind a false wall in a locked location so I saw no sense in either one of us trying to post a guard.”

Dino shook his head, “AJ, you’d already had one run in with the enemy were you looking for another one?”

“Dino,” AJ groused. “I’ve never been a soldier and I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time so pardon me for not acting like Rambo. Thank God Hannah wasn’t the hysterical type or I would have lost it.”

“Admit it, you got lucky,” Dino said in disgust.

I said, “They were blessed. End of discussion. I cain’t abide arguing at the dinner table so both of you stop it right now. What kind of example are you setting for Kerry?” Kerry got a disgusted look on his face thinking that he was going to be sent out of the room but both men smoothed their ruffs. “What happened next AJ?” I asked.

Dino and AJ looked at each other and then Dino smiled and mimicked me by saying in a sing song voice, “Yeah, what happened next Cousin AJ?”

I gave Dino the evil eye and nearly kicked him under the table which made AJ smile despite himself. He looked at Dino and said, “You still happy?”

Dino said, “Yep.”

“That’s what I figured.”

I was ready to swat them both with a wet kitchen rag but Alec stepped in. “OK you two. AJ, I have to have a story to take to Mother and if I’m not back before dark she may talk Ajax to bringing her over.”

Now that loosened AJ’s tongue right up. “Well, I hadn’t meant to but we slept the day away. I woke up with a pounding head to see Hannah trying to get one of the cooler bottles open. She nearly jumped out of her skin when I told her to let me. She scooted off fast. I know she isn’t afraid of me but she’ll still react weird to someone getting in her space all of a sudden. That’s … well … just talk to her Riss.”

“I will AJ, don’t worry. But it can’t be pushed. She needs some real sleep first.”

He nodded, finally satisfied and then said, “I could tell she’d changed out of her clothes. She got worried when she tried to explain that she’d pulled some out of the clothing bundles but I finally got her to see it was fine that she did so. She relaxed a little after that and told me she’d gone into the tunnel because she needed to use the lavatory but had heard noise over in the warehouse. We were both in a bad way so we went into the parking garage and each found us a little private corner. The smoke had seeped down there as well and the smell was pretty bad. I used what cover there was and took a look at the warehouse and sure enough someone had broken into it during the night; doors were wide open, shutters torn off, and windows broken … but no one seemed to be doing any more than looking around inside. There were still too many people out and about and it looked and sounding like constant fighting or rioting or something came from different sectors of the city. I decided to wait it out another night and we used the time to repack the suburban with more care. One more day turned into two and then into three as rioters moved in and out of the area. On the night of the third day another fire started to move through and I knew that it was either leave then or possibly not leave at all if more debris began to fill the street. It was night but I didn’t need the headlights as the firelight helped just enough though it was still was an inch by inch escape. The soundproofing on the engine compartment and the driver sound control on the muffler kept the normally noisy monster quiet and we passed by several open areas without being seen. All eyes seemed to be focused towards the fires rather than in the direction we were going.”

Wiping a hand across his face he said, “I’ve been in some bad traffic but that was a nightmare. We were the only thing moving besides the fire and the occasional CSP truck. Smoke was so bad I worried about it clogging the air intake on the suburban. Even with all of the windows raised we had to wear covers over our noses and mouths again because the air coming through the vents was rancid. I finally got us out of the factory district but we weren’t home free. I hadn’t counted on the fact that so many people would be staying so close to the city. When you think of mass evacuation and panic you think people are just going to keep running away but a lot them don’t apparently. We lost one of the side windows to a crowd that tried to stop us. After that and with the clearing of the air the further away from the city we got I picked up speed and then hit the back roads along a path I had marked out previously. I was worried about all of the bridges we would need to cross.” A yawn from AJ told me he was beginning to wind down again.

“AJ do you need to lay down?”

He nodded, “Yeah, but not until I finish this. Alec, I’m not up for Mother right now. I hate to ask it but can you … ?”

He snorted, “Yeah but emphasis on the try. If she gets it into her head …”

“Yeah,” AJ said. “I know. You can only do so much.” Another yawn and he continued. “I never meant for it to take as long as it did. Within a day of leaving the city I noticed the engine sounded like it was struggling and kept losing power. I thought it was bad gas or being overloaded. Then one morning I couldn’t get it to crank up at all. Checking, I found the air filter was dirty – it was actually black – and I knocked what I could out and got the engine going again but the engine just continued to struggle. To make it worse we were forced to detour around a lot of the bridges and we were running low on fuel. Communities had their accesses blocked off intentionally or they were blocked off with stalled vehicles; it looked like scenes from the first mass urban exists at the beginning of the war. I cut across fields and through woods using back ways I’d checked out before, eating up more precious fuel. I didn’t want to get caught that far from home in the middle of nowhere so I decided to get back to the county roads and then about two miles from here the engine made this wheezing noise and nothing I did could get it going again. We were out of fuel as well. It took everything Hannah and I had to push the loaded suburban off the road, down an incline, and then hide it in a thicket. We were so close neither one of us wanted to stop so we hiked the rest of the way in. You know the rest.”

AJ had slowly sunk lower and lower in his chair. I looked at Alec and said quietly, “That’s going to have to be enough Alec. He’s not in any shape for a cross examination. And you are going to have to book it if you want to get home before dark.”

Alec helped AJ up and gave him another back pounding hug before helping his brother into the bedroom off the kitchen. I told Dino, “I’m going to check on Hannah. I … I may be a while. Can you deal with Kerry?”

“Aw Momma Riss,” Kerry complained from his seat at the table.

I looked at him and quietly said, “Don’t Kerry. Not this time. OK? This is serious business … serious family business. That means it stays in the family. We let you stay because we need to learn if we can trust you. Do you understand what that means?”

Well his little chest puffed out and his shoulders went back. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good. We’re counting on you. I need to check on Hannah and then feed Pita who has been good to sleep as long as she has. Mind your daddy and I’ll see if I can throw something together for supper in a bit.”

Dino said, “Don’t go to any trouble Riss. We have canned vegetable soup and there’s a pan of cornbread left over.”

Giving him a grateful hug I quietly made my way up the stairs while he headed out to do the evening chores and let Chester know what was up. Dino could handle his cousins I had more serious work to tend to. I’d given Hannah space to pull her story together but it was time … and I very much feared we were both going to wind up crying.

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter 46

At AJ’s words I looked over at Hannah to see she had a worried look in her eyes and a green tinge to her already pale face. I scooted my chair over a little closer and put my arm around her and suddenly she leaned over and I could feel her crying though she didn’t make a sound.

“That was later though,” AJ said softly, almost regretfully. Any regret he had didn’t stop him from continuing however. “The fire from the factory district had started to spread and my apartment building was in its direct path. I threw a few more things in another duffle bag with the idea I wouldn’t be coming back and looked around one last time. We were almost out the door when I stopped Hannah and had her put on one of my dark hoodies; despite the fact she’s nearly a head taller than you Riss it was still long on her and we had to waste time rolling up the sleeves so she could use her hands. But we didn’t have a choice, that red hair would have acted as a beacon and having to stop and fend off would be kidnappers or attackers would have slowed us down.”

Hannah sniffed and sat up. “I’m … I’m sorry. I guess I’m more tired than I thought. Riss? Do … do you mind if I go lay down?”

“Of course not. You want me to come with you?” I asked, worried at the dark circles and deep sorrows in her eyes.

“No,” she answered shaking her head. “Just finish listening to the story. I just want to sleep.”

I looked at AJ after I had watched Hannah to the top of the stairs and then turn into the room we’d put her in. “I better not be hearing that some man hurt her. Hannah may seem silly – and she can be – but she never let it get her into trouble with the opposite sex.” I said with dead seriousness in my voice.

AJ sighed and shook his head. “No. But it was close, and from an unexpected source. I’ll get to that part of it in a bit.” I nodded and he picked up the thread. “We had just made it down to the ground floor when I heard a roar and saw another explosion in a building not too far away; the fire was starting to catch the natural gas lines. Not too many people had been prepared for the explosion and I went down along with a bunch of other people. Must have cracked my head on something because the next thing I know Hannah is trying to drag me off of the side walk and into an alley to keep me from getting trampled by the panicked herd of humanity around us. I crawled the rest of the way when I couldn’t get my legs under me and then tried to get the ringing out of my head and the blood out of my eyes. I’d cut my scalp on something and it was bleeding like a … er,” he stopped when he saw Kerry was watching him wide-eyed. “It was bleeding a lot.

I started to scoot my chair back to take a look and AJ grimaced. “No way Riss. You’re worse that Cheryl and besides, it’s been long enough that the scab has already come and gone.” I sighed but then relaxed when I realized Adona would probably have him by the ear soon enough. He must of seen it in my eyes because he grimaced again before saying, “We finally got it to stop bleeding but I looked a mess. But so did almost everyone else on the street so I was in good company. The smoke was getting bad enough that a lot of people had started to tie stuff across their nose and mouth so Hannah and I did the same. It didn’t help much then but long term it kept most of the crap in the air out of our lungs.” He stretched his neck and moved his shoulders and by the sound they made I could hear how tense he was getting. “It was late in the afternoon by the time we had gotten away from my apartment and the number of buses and foot traffic as people tried to get home from their workplace or volunteer location only added to the confusion. As we passed the Western Union kiosk I saw a kid about to take off out of the city. Lucky for me he liked the color of my money and we made a quick exchange and that is how I got the message out to you.”

Alec shook his head, “It isn’t like you to be so trusting. He could have taken your money and simply bolted.”

“No, those kids that Western Union hires are as good as the ones that used to work for the Pony Express. They take their personal reputation seriously and are always trying to one up the regular in-town messengers. He probably just took it as a challenge and the bling I gave him was just icing.” Dino and I made a face when Kerry asked what “bling” was.

“Nothing for you to worry about Squirt,” was AJ’s response. “It was night time before we were able to maneuver our way to my warehouse just ahead of the street patrols who were bashing people to get them off the street for curfew. There was going to be a fight but some shots over the heads of the crowd had them running for cover. After letting myself in I wasn’t surprised to see most of the ground floor was ransacked. I figured that the workers would take what they could and scatter. Hannah was pretty upset though. Kept going on and making all sorts of noised about loyalty.”

I told him, “It wasn’t what they did. I’m sure she understood that. But for whatever reason Hannah has started to see you as … as a … I don’t know, a friend, mentor, protector, Lord knows what at this point. She probably saw what they did as a kind of threat to you and because of that to herself.”

He shrugged and said, “I’m not sure she knows what she thinks of me either but someone needs to look out for her, her family certainly hasn’t. And if I hadn’t been there who knows what would have happened to her. As it was I left her alone when I shouldn’t have.” He was tense and angry but I was beginning to realize the anger was directed at himself as much as it was at whatever he was about to describe.

“I know I closed and locked the door so they must have gotten in through the basement or monkeyed in through a roof panel. Or maybe they had gotten locked in somehow. Regardless I shouldn’t have assumed that just because I had to use a key to get in that the place was clear. I’d gotten too used to being able to hire security and letting them handle things; I was out of practice thinking that way.” He cracked his knuckles simply by balling his fists and his eyes took on a cold look that told me he wouldn’t make that mistake again. “I told Hannah to wait by her work station while I went upstairs to the office area to see if any of the flashlights or lanterns remained. I found what I was looking for and was on my way back down when I heard Hannah scream. I go barreling down the stairs like an idiot and was jumped as soon as I stepped onto the floor. I heard a gun shot and my blood ran cold but I was in the middle of a fight for my life. The scuffling reopened my head wound and when the guy tried to grab my hair for leverage he lost his balance and we fell away from each other. I heard the gun go off again. She’d gotten them both. That little red-headed spitfire had kept her cool and gotten them both.”

His voice was tinged with surprised respect and I understood it but it only proved that he’d been underestimating Hannah. I knew what that red hair could mean. Harry had taught me and I knew Hannah had it in her too … but their father had instilled in them the need to control it at a very young age. I’d only ever seen Hannah lose her cool once and that was at some boys that had come after Harry with BB guns. Hannah has a good arm when she is angry and one boy had to get stitches where she’d cold cocked him with a big rock. Nothing ever came of it, most of the townsfolk already had grievances against the family of those boys and Josiah Calvert put the fear of God in them in a way his daddy never could.

“It took me a few moments to get Hannah’s attention. I didn’t dare draw too much of her attention until I was sure that she wasn’t going to startle and shoot me as well. Then she got real still and said, ‘There was a third one but he ran. I can’t believe they’d do it. I can’t believe that Jimmy tried to … tried to ….’ She suddenly ran off to the lavatory and I had to follow her in because she wouldn’t answer me.” He looked at me and said, “See if she is really all right. It was three young men she’d made friends with working in the warehouse. I can’t say for sure but I think who it was bothers her more than what they tried to do. They’d had time to rip her clothes up pretty good as they jumped her as soon as I went upstairs. Her scream was to warn me because they’d all heard me coming down the stairs and had said they were going to kill me. She refuses to tell me if it went further than rips.”

He shook his head and you could see there was more to it than that but I’d have to get it out of Hannah. His next words broke into my thinking. “We were too exhausted to go on but too wired to sleep. I decided to try and wait the worst of the exodus out. The streets were full of the rats leaving a sinking ship. I didn’t really want to be out in it and on foot but there would be no getting a car out until the roads cleared a bit. Across the street from the warehouse was a below ground parking garage where I stored my emergency transportation. I’d utilized a utility tunnel that ran between the warehouse basement and the underground parking garage by making a false wall on either end and storing some getaway items. Remember that old suburban Alec?”

At Alec’s confused nod AJ turned to Dino and I. “Alec and I converted and then restored this old Chevy Suburban while he kept me from going off on another drunk after … after my divorce. I kept that thing as a reminder to never let the bottle get me.”

“What?!” came Alec’s surprised squawk.

“What? Did you think after all those hours we spent putting it back together that I’d ever be able to see anyone else have it?” He snorted and shook his head. “Leaving it in that thicket felt like I’d had to put a faithful pet to sleep.”

“What thicket?” Alec asked still obviously confused.

“I’m getting there. Have some patience.”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter 45

People can call me a country bumpkin if they want to, or even be polite and just think it, but AJ’s words made me feel as scared as a porcupine about to give birth … and I did have some experience to compare it to so you know it was bad. But I didn’t let it show, not with Kerry there, nor with Hannah. For some reason I was worried that she might be taking her cues from me and how I reacted to whatever AJ was going to say. I knew I’d give her a chance to show what she was made of but at the same time I could see something in her eyes that said she was feeling pretty on edge and fragile. I didn’t want to overset her and make things worse.

AJ’s words hung on the air all through dinner. They tried to drain my appetite away but my body craved the calories even if my mind did not, so I ate. I noticed that Dino didn’t seem to be shoveling his food in as he normally did either. We’d glance at each other and then go back to trying to eat; there wasn’t a whole lot we could say; besides AJ and Hannah made up for our lack of appetite. Hannah had never been a big eater but I’m telling you, she was putting it away like a field hand that meal. Even Kerry looked at her wide-eyed a couple of times.

I heard the hard jangle and creak as a horse was ridden up hard and fast, and the horses subsequent snorts and pawing the ground with its hooves at being brought to such a quick standstill. Boots on the porch and then the screen door was wrenched open. Dino and AJ were half out of their seats and Hannah and I were scooting back from the table but there was no need for alarm, at least on everyone’s part but AJ’s.

Alec practically yanked his brother the rest of the way upright and grabbed him in a hug that looked like it could have cracked a few ribs. As it is AJ’s breath woofed out of him like the time that Kerry stumbled and landed on ol’ Tom. I hadn’t known cats could make that kind of noise and was just as surprised at AJ making it. AJ was some surprised himself judging from the bug-eyed look on his face. Alec turned loose just long enough to put AJ away from him and ask, “You hurt?”

AJ tried to answer but Alec pulled him into another hug too fast. “Uh, Alec. I’m … uh … fine. We’re both just fine.” Trying to regain some control AJ quipped an embarrassed, “You would think you thought I was dead.”

Alec was finally getting himself under controlled and admitted in a strangled voice, “We were beginning to. God all bless AJ, don’t do that again.”

AJ being AJ simply winked and said, “Relax Alec. I wouldn’t leave you to take care of Mother alone.”

After a second’s worth of surprise a slow smile spread over Alec’s face he said, “Better not.” Men. I swun. You’d think I’d know the length of their peculiarness by now but they still seem to have the ability to surprise me. I wouldn’t say that Alec and AJ have completely made up – there’s a lot of years of damage to heal over – but they are doing better. And thank goodness though AJ remains under Dino’s roof, ostensibly because it is closer to the gatehouse where he has already begun repairs. But let me get back on track.

“AJ … AJ …” Alec started twice unable to get the sentence passed his teeth.

Dino stepped in by pulling a chair over and telling Alec to sit. “We put off hearing the story ourselves so that AJ would only have to tell it once to start with. Maybe if they’ve gotten enough to eat they’d feel up to telling it now.”

Hannah piped up, “Well, I guess to give Mr. Nichols to catch his breath I better tell why I’m here.”

AJ groaned and Alec’s eyebrows went up. “Hannah, this is my brother Alec Nichols. Now I’ve already asked you several times to call me AJ and you had better start doing it because ‘Mr. Nichols’ is my brother.”

Alec said quietly, “Don’t put this off on me.” He looked at Hannah and said, “You might as well call me Alec; not even the workmen call me mister these days. Our mother on the other hand – at least for now – it might be best if you were more formal until … er …”

Hannah smiled mischievously, “Don’t worry. I’ve already figured that one out … Alec.”

AJ snorted, “Exactly why you will do what he says so quickly but give me so much trouble …”

“That’s because you are my boss and it isn’t proper,” Hannah retorted.

AJ snorted again, this time with more force and a rather mulish look on his face said, “Well, I’m not your boss now.”

Hannah grinned and I knew a zinger was coming. “Which means I have to listen to you even less doesn’t it?”

Alec put his hand over his mouth which left his twinkling eyes visible when an obviously disgruntled AJ asked, “Are you going to start this story or not?”

Hannah, never one to care how much she was skirting danger said, “I was trying to. You are the one that interrupted me.” On the other hand with the hot look that was rising in AJ’s eyes Hannah got comfortable in her chair and started before he could say anything. “I was on the bus making my way back from the long term care facility where I volunteer when there was a horrible noise. I didn’t have far to go to my bus stop and had gathered my things together. We were at a traffic light and off in the direction most of us needed to travel you could see that there had been a large explosion. Lots of people on the bus started to panic. The light changed and the bus driver started to pull through only no one was minding the lights anymore and there was a horrible accident. Then debris started raining down and everything turned to chaos.”

I reached out and put my hand over her wrist and she stopped pulling at the cloth napkin on the table in front of her. “Sorry Riss, I guess even though it has been days and days since it happened …”

“It’s not the napkin Hannah, you’re cracking your nails and it is going to hurt if it goes back to the quick.”

Hannah looked down at her nails and sighed, “Not as badly as some of the people on the bus were hurt. The bus driver was killed outright. My bruises are almost gone but I got banged up pretty well when someone from the other side of the buss landed on me. A dump truck slammed into us on one side and tipped us over the top of some cars that had run into us on the other side, crushing whoever was in them. I didn’t look. I hope that isn’t awful but … but I just couldn’t. If it wasn’t for some big woman beating some people back with her purse I would have been crushed by the people trying to climb out the window that should have been beside me but were above me. She said, ‘Come on Honey. Let’s go to the back of the bus and get out the way sensible people do. I ain’t fittin’ through them little winders anyway.’” Hannah sniffled a damp laugh. “I never even got her name. She just beat through the crowd with that monster purse of hers and got us to the side walk and told me to get on home and then disappeared, I assume going to hers.”

Hannah was starting to lose what color she had regained since the previous night’s journey and it bothered me. I got the kettle out and started a strong pot of mint tea. She continued on though she did give me a weak smile and said first, “You think tea is a remedy for everything.” She sighed. “Wanting to get home was the easy part. Getting there took a lot more effort. It took me three hours to go the distance that it normally only took thirty minutes. There was so much smoke I got turned around a couple of times; everyone was just going crazy and the CSP kept trying to stop people and put them on evacuation routes. Then once I got to the entrance gate I had to go another hour to find a way into Uncle Bill’s compound because the other one had been blocked by falling debris and as well as a couple of trucks that had caught fire. And what did I find when I got there?!” He voice had risen alarmingly. “No one, just his ugly note stuck to the door!”

“Calm down Hannah Banana. You’re going to make yourself sick,” I warned her, worried at her state of mind.

“I am sick. Sick to death of him.” It was obvious to everyone who ‘him’ was. “I was so mad after reading it the first time I ripped it apart. But I saved those pieces and I’m going to show them to Mom if I ever see her again.”

That last had a bit of sob to it. “That bad? You … you don’t know for sure …”

“She wasn’t dead when they left if that is what you were asking but Uncle Bill said he had been ‘forced to sedate her’ and claimed it was my fault, that if I had been at home like a dutiful daughter should have been none of his harshness would have been necessary. Liar. He was just too scared for his own skin and didn’t want to wait. The fact that they left within thirty minutes of the bombing told me all I needed to know.”

“Thirty minutes?” Alec asked.

AJ said quietly as Hannah was too angry to reply. “They’d been gone at least three hours before Hannah made it home. He had his own evacuation plans and vehicles, he could have waited but he didn’t.”

I asked, “So where do you come into this?”

He answered, “I was leaving a meeting and on my way to the warehouse and got caught in the same traffic jam. I was getting off the bus I was on when I saw Hannah heading towards her home. She’s smaller and got away from me before I could catch up. We were both going against the current but she could duck under and around people better than I could. I also kept getting stopped by people who recognized me.”

“Don’t let him fool you Riss,” Hannah finally said. “I hadn’t had time to even start to cry or wonder what I was going to do before he was there. I was just standing there on the front steps looking at that stupid, torn up note and nothing had sunk in yet. But with him there I didn’t ever feel like crying.”

A brief look of surprise flew across AJ’s face before it was hidden but I noted that Alec had seen it and filed it away with a considering look. “There is no way I could have broken in the door myself and the shutters were on all the windows. Mr. Nichols … AJ … found a way in though. We climbed onto the roof of the garage and then up some scaffolding to the roof of the main building and then down through a hole that had been created by some debris falling through.”

“Why didn’t you evacuate to someplace safer?” I asked, horrified at the idea of Hannah climbing roofs and scaffolding; when we were kids she was terrified of heights and would scream bloody murder to her mother when she caught Harry and I climbing in the pecan trees.

AJ answered, “We needed off the street. Smoke was everywhere and people were going crazy. The CSP patrols that remained weren’t in much better shape and were jumping at shadows. You could hear gunfire and screams from several different directions and I had no desire to get caught in a crossfire. Besides, we needed to regroup and catch our breath.”

Hannah sighed. “I don’t know how he managed it in such a short time but Uncle Bill had stripped the house.”

AJ interrupted with, “Of anything useful; there was still plenty of stuff there but anything that might be valuable or useful was gone or locked up in the walk in bank style vault we found down in the sub-basement.”

“The kitchen,” she said giving him the eye for interrupting again. “Had been completely stripped except for a half bottle of water and a bag lunch … and another note saying if I had somehow gotten in I should be grateful he left anything at all since it was taking food out of Mom and Shantelle’s mouths and that I had better not have broken anything. He said if he found anything missing he would hold me personally responsible.”

You could hear the absolute outrage in her voice and I couldn’t blame her. At the same time though her tendency towards drama was beginning to grate on my nerves a little as it slowed the story down. AJ must have noticed or felt the same way and he took over the narrative from that point forward and Hannah deflated a bit lifting the mug of tea I gave her with shaky hands.

“Yeah, the old man has a kind and forgiving nature that is for sure,” AJ said in his characteristic sarcasm. “But it is what it is and I refused to waste time letting it worry me. I had Hannah check her room while I checked the others. Mrs. Bly’s had been packed quickly but neatly, probably by some staff person. That Shantelle’s room was a wreck but held nothing useful. Nothing remained in the uncle’s rooms; it had been stripped to bare walls and floor. Hannah’s room hadn’t even been touched however. I asked her to change out of her Sisters of Charity get up and into something more practical and dark-colored.”

You could see a bit of justice denied simmering beneath the surface and I knew that if AJ ever had a chance to pay Hannah’s uncle back the comeuppance was going to be quite a sight to see. I asked, “How long did you stay there?”

“Long enough to figure out we were no better off in that building than out on the road. I found a couple of containers and we drained what water we could by using a sink that was down in the basement. The water pressure in the lines was completely gone by then and all we had to use was gravity. Hannah packed a few personal items and then we got out the same way we got in. The smoke hid us but I could see gangs of people starting to gather around buildings belonging to people that were known to be well-off.”

Hannah muttered, “Coming down was harder than going up. I could hardly see where to put my feet.”

We all looked at AJ. “Yeah, it was bad; she’s not exaggerating. We also couldn’t come down in the front but had to take the steeper route down into the back of the garden area. Riss, you might have been able to find something useful in that jungle but to me it looked like a lot of nothing but an expensive hassel to maintain and a waste of water pressure. We used the garden shed to get over the back wall and then we were off.”

Alec who’d been listening intently asked, “Off to where?”

“My apartment first. By taking side roads and a few back alleys we got there in an hour but the smoke was getting worse and it was a relief to get into the stairwell. It was dark in the hallway but luckily no one bothered us. I changed clothes, told Hannah to pull together what food I had on hand and dump it in anything she could find and then got my go bags. Hannah surprised me when she told me you had forced her to learn to shoot so I gave her an old keltec PF9 to carry with a couple of extra magazines. She looked ridiculous with it in her hand and I wondered if she was going to shoot herself in the foot with it.” Hannah stuck her tongue out at him. “Later I was very glad that I’d let her have it.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter 44

With phone service and other types of communication so spotty in some areas telegrams are the only way to get important messages directly to those that are most important to you. They are expensive but when it is important they are one of the most reliable forms of communication.

Dino Pappas
Care of Pappas Winery

Hannah safe with me Stop Others evacuated Stop No injuries though stuck here Stop Don’t worry or try to come Stop Be there soonest baring more trouble Stop AJ.

Trouble. That’s a mild way to put it; seems like the only law left in this land is the law of gravity. AJ’s telegram couldn’t have been a bigger understatement if he had tried and it arrived right as Dino and Alec were about to take off to try and make a run to the nearest bridge to see if he needed help getting across or pay a toll or bribe if that is what it took. It seems instead of it being darkest before the dawn, this time it was the brightest before the fall.

Peace talks – real peace talks not those make believe things that had been in the news up to that point – began in Switzerland and was attended by a worldwide delegation of men and women, including from the super powers, that were dedicated to doing what it took to put the skids on this blasted war. As a result consumer confidence shot up all over the place, lots of hopefulness abounded, and in general people were feeling giddy with the idea of peace at last. After so many years it seemed like there was a real chance of things returning ot the normal that things used to be. The talks were even serious enough to spark talks of what to do with all the returning soldiers and CSP so that their unemployment wouldn’t crash the already fragile economy. Most every nation seemed to be walking away from the table with something, even if it was just their pride or honor, and that everyone was more than ready to put the toys of war away. They had announced a day to sign all of the treaties and there was much rejoicing.

Then something happened. We still don’t know for sure who set it off; no one is claiming credit. It was a planted bomb, not one that flew through the air. Geneva simply ceased to exist as a real city taking the souls of all of those peace-seekers with it. You’ve heard of the shot heard ‘round the world? Well that was the flash seen ‘round the world. Live feeds from numerous media outlets and the general public were all focused on that area of Switzerland when it happened. Most only lasted a few seconds but some like from the international space station caught all of the horrific details for posterity.

We don’t have a television signal as you can barely get the signal from an aerial in town much less as far out in the country as we are. But we heard it on the radio. All the men, Alec and Ajax included, had been over for breakfast and to hear the news before starting on some maintenance or other of the bottling equipment. It was hard to believe what we were hearing. Lots of important media personalities got vaporized right along with everyone and everything else. Every country that had delegates at the talks immediately started pointing fingers as soon as the shock had eased some. Then bombs started going off around the globe. Not too many nuclear warheads flew but enough that a few more places ceased to exist just like Geneva … but not one flew from the major, not even China with all of its posturing and bloodying screeching, and that was what told us there might be a chance left if we prayed for it hard enough.

It happened so quickly … three days of nerves and hell. Three days of not much but static or crazy talk from the radio. Three days of heavy work by every adult and child between our two households. It was the news that several bombs had exploded at the munitions factories not far from where Mrs. Bly’s brother had his compound and AJ kept his apartments that really made it hit home for all of us in the Pappas world. It only took an hour from the time Geneva died for them to break in with local emergency news of it happening so we knew it was something big and pre-planned going down all over the world.

We didn’t know at the time how it happened but we would eventually learn that an armored truck loaded with tons of explosives simply barreled through one of the factory gates and kept going until it was inside the factory itself before it was detonated setting off a chain reaction of such magnitude it is said that it melted steel beams.

I don’t know what started me off but I jumped up and started carting things down to the basement at a pony trot. Dino grabbed me and asked, “Riss! What are you doing?!”

I reckon he thought I’d lost it or something but I was as sane as I had ever been when I told him, “If my children have to live underground for a while they are not going to do it like some ol’ cave man. I can at least give them some civilization that will last a little while.”

All of the men that had been sitting listening to the radio got up and looked at each other, nodded and then in some weird accord went to start their own tasks. Mr. Chamberlin and his son left for home at a fast space and Josiah Calvert got on his horse and went lickety split himself to put the militia on notice that hadn’t already heard. By the second day the field hands’ trailers had been jacked up and split between Alec’s place and ours so that the men would have a place close to run if something did happen. Chester asked to come to us and we backed that trailer right into the tractor barn beside all of AJ’s mess.

I don’t know what all they did at Alec’s place and haven’t thought to ask but at ours we worked from before sun up to after sun down trying to do what we could to protect the animals and ourselves. I spent hours making the basement into something less like a dungeon while at the same time securing and covering the few windows that were in the closet sized storage rooms on the outside of the space down there so no light could find us nor be let out if we were down there at night. The shutters on the entire house were closed, locked, and braced and are that way still.

The military contract had been fulfilled just the week before so the wine cellar was emptier as was the tunnel between the basement and the grape shed and as soon as it got too dark to work outside I had the men help move things into all the nooks down there. The ice room was full to bursting of sausage and other types of fresh meat as well as what could be moved out of the smoke house and I put a quilt across the door to keep Kerry out of there looking for “ice cream” and other people stumbling in there just because they’d opened the wrong door.

I tried to think of ways to secure Chester’s place but he said, “No ma’am, no sense in it. Waste of time and resources. If something seems off I’ll run the boys over and if you’ll take ‘em down into the basement with you I’ll stay up top and keep an eye on things as long as I can.”

Suddenly and unreasonably turned inside out I said, “Oh no you won’t! You’re family! You’re coming down there with us if I have to pull you by your ears!!”

I was so upset at what he was willing to sacrifice that my voice was a lot louder than I meant it to be and Dino popped into the kitchen from the porch where he’d been unloading something, I forget what. He looked at Chester and then shook his head morosely though it was more to let the man know he felt the same as I did but played it different so that male pride wasn’t pinched. “Better give her what she wants Chester. You know how women can be.”

Chester’s ears turned as red as a sunset but there was a bashful smile on his face as he said, “If I don’t know, no one does.”

That was the third day and was as close to hysteria as we came except for the angina attack that Aunt Adona had on the same day and the fainting spell that Tina had due to standing up too quick when Aunt Adona stumbled into the kitchen looking like death warmed over worrying that she was having a heart attack.

For the first two days we waited with baited breath for news from the city but it was hard to have hope. Then came the telegram and I haven’t a clue how AJ got it out. It reached us by courier late but words were never more welcome. The young man wouldn’t stay for supper but he was more than grateful to accept what food I could put together for him at such short notice. I still wonder if that young man made it to all his stops and then to his home in time. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know but I’ll say a prayer for him often because not too many people would have done what he did for complete strangers, even if he was getting paid for it.

On the fourth day we woke up to find that there hadn’t been a true conflagration of the whole earth, and that thus far the world – or at least our corner of it – hasn’t been knocked back to the Stone Age; but we’re hurt … everyone is hurt. The world still teeters back and forth no matter how much most countries are trying to pull back. There are just some that keep stirring the pot.

For our country it was mostly the infrastructure that was targeted and more attacks were successful than they should have been. A few dirty bombs were mixed in there, some limited bioterrorism, but most of the damage has been conventional. The locations of the damage have mostly been kept out of the radio news but Alec still gets some news via his ham radio and we’ve paid a horrible price in some places that will take a generation or more to heal from.

Them folks that run DC these days however ain’t timid or half-hearted; when they entered the fray on that first day they fought to win. The damage they inflicted was enough for our country and our troops to be the first to be left alone with Canada a close second as we offered support to the country that had remained, thru it all, our ally. Fighting does remain harsh along our southern border and the Gulf Coast and it has sent all those that headed south for the winter back north as they try to escape being drafted by the militias and the CSP. News of people going AWOL and then being hung or shot after a quick trial has become almost normal. Evacuation and refugee camps are also common on the outskirts of the suburbs but people quickly stopped utilizing them – at least willingly – when they turned into drafting stations for the militias and work camps for anyone left behind.

The first couple of nights either Dino or I would fall asleep in the front room in case AJ and Hannah should arrive after night had fallen. As the days turned into a week we gave up our waiting. They’d come or they wouldn’t. Then one week was nearly two and a big rock hitting the shutter of our bedroom had Dino running down the stairs with shotgun in hand. It was AJ and Hannah.

They were both a terrible mess but there was a fierce light of success in their eyes. There was no time to talk that night as they were both shaking with exhaustion. Throwing the rock had taken the last bit that AJ had and Dino had to all but carry him and put him to bed. Hannah was little better and the light of the kerosene lamp made her look almost ghostly with big dark circles under her eyes and hollows where her plump cheeks used to be.

AJ still looked like he was ready for the coffin maker when he woke up after hearing me in the kitchen. He and Dino were leaving as soon as the sky turned pink. They were half way out the door when Hannah came stumbling down the stairs only three quarters put together demanding they wait.

“Don’t be pig headed Hannah. What would your mother and uncle say?” AJ asked trying to get her to see reason.

“Mom’s not here and I could care less what that ol’ bastard … stop glaring at me Riss, there’s no kids around … I could care less what Uncle Bill thinks, says, or does. He left me with a bottle of water, a worthless bus pass, and a lecture pinned to the front door. I helped push that monster as far as we got it and then hide it, now I’m going to finish the job.” She didn’t stomp her foot but she might as well have.

With one more look at her set face AJ mildly grumbled, “If you aren’t in the wagon when we pull out no amount of pouting is going to stop us leaving without you.”

I don’t know which of us were more surprised; Dino watching AJ slam a hat on his head and stalk off the porch or me watching Hannah fly back up the stairs to rebutton her callywhampus shirt and grab a jacket. I turned to Dino who shrugged and said, “Don’t ask me. It looks like they’ve both done some changing.”

Not thirty seconds had lapsed behind Dino shutting the door when Hannah clattered back down the stairs nearly falling.

“Don’t break your neck Hannah Banana, you just got here.”

She hugged me so hard my neck popped. “I want to meet Pita and talk and just everything else but Mr. Nichols really will leave me behind if I don’t get out there.” She flew out the door hopping on one foot trying to put her shoes on. It was like a summer wind devil had kissed the kitchen and then moved on.

Kerry suddenly stuck his head over the banister and asked in shock, “Who’s that?!”

Trying to remain calm and matter-of-fact I told him, “Hannah Bly.”

“Wow,” he said in awe. “She’s noisier than Pita is.” Miss Pita-pie picked that moment to try to beat her aunt’s noise level and my day returned to more familiar rhythms, at least until lunch time when I saw the wagon pulling in.

Kerry shot out the door before I could hold him back but he knew to stay out of the way until Dino put the break on the wagon. “Uncle AJ!! Uncle AJ!!”

“Down squirt,” I heard AJ moan tiredly. “Or Riss will have my head for encouraging you.”

“Naw … Momma Riss will say it is OK ‘cause we have all … been … worried … sick!” He sounded like a little old man scolding a reckless youngster and despite whatever was on their minds all three adults he faced smiled.

Pita was asleep in the cradle in the kitchen and I carried her up to the bedroom so that we could eat in peace without waking her. I set cold sliced ham, farmer’s cheese, dried tomatoes, a few condiments and sliced bread that I had baked the day before on the table. There were also a little bit of wild green salad and some dried fruit fried pies for dessert.

Hannah surprised the heck out of me. She was half way into her chair before she popped back up and asked what she could do to help. “You can sit down before you fall down is what you can do. And eat, you don’t look like you’ve had a proper meal in I don’t know how long.”

“Not because Mr. Nichols didn’t take care of me,” Hannah said coming to AJ’s defense even though I hadn’t meant to take him down any notches.

“AJ doesn’t shirk his duty of that I’ve no doubt. I mean neither of you look good and I don’t mean that unkindly.

“Oh,” she said blushing. “I … I guess … well anyway it took longer to get here than expected and we worried that a fire would draw too much attention.”

I turned to AJ after I had finally convinced Hannah to sit. “I want to know what’s been happening something awful but I need to see you two eat even more. Chester went to tell Alec that you’ve arrived and if I don’t miss my guess they’ll be here shortly. Relax if you can and then you only have to tell it once.”

Hannah was looking at AJ anxiously and I wondered at it. He finally nodded and said, “That’s probably a good idea. It isn’t a story I want to have to repeat too many times. Can we move the wagon load into the barn first?”

“Chester’s boys are doing it,” I told him as I looked out the window. “They’ll tend to the horses too. I’ve already made sure they ate so they’d stay outside in case it was Pappas family business involved. They’re good boys but still just boys all the same.”

AJ stood up and looking out the screen door then nodded and sat back down. “Always thinking Damaris … you’re always thinking ahead. And we might very well need that head of yours to make plans for what is coming.”