Well, can’t stay in a cacoon forever. I’ve done my birthin’ and I’ve done my grievin’ – though the truth is there will always be a bit of it with me – and now it is time to get on with livin’. Is that harsh? Probably, but so is life. There’s a cycle to it – birthin’, livin’, dyin’ – and sometimes the turns you get to take seem awful short, sometimes it seems so long you just near can’t stand it. I’ve seen people wail at young people being taken so young and quickly from this life and then have heard old folks cry for being left in it too long. Nothing to be done about it either way but do the best you can not to shame your Maker.
It seems the cycle is stacked heavy in the dying end of things lately. The war has worsened, or so says the radio, both abroad and at home. It has people in the cities scrambling like ants that have had boiling water poured on their mound. AJ is here and kinda stuck here. And by “here” I do mean here, as in Dino’s … I mean our … house.
A big ol’ delivery van came down the road about two days ago driving slow and deliberate though not in a particularly straight line. “At least,” I thought. “They had the sense to stop before they got to the gully bridge.” The times had gotten so that Dino wouldn’t leave me at home alone any longer. Chester went out of the van carefully while I covered him, whether he thought it was necessary or not, from the front room. Chester stood there for a moment then looked hopped on the cab’s runner and then came back to the house in a skedaddle.
“Missus Pappas?! That’s Mr. AJ and he’s hurt … shot in the leg from the sound of it. Been beat on more than a little too. I’m gonna bring him in and if you can fix a place for him I’ll then run and get Dino and Mister Alec.”
I’d gone from Miss Riss to Missus Pappas and I was still having to work on Chester to go back to calling me Riss but that moment wasn’t the time to get into it. I ran to the room I used to use and after pulling down the bedspread threw an old quilt down across the sheets and mattress. Next came a fire and a warming pan – well, wasn’t a warming pan precisely but a skillet I had been warming up for some fry bread for dinner – to take a chill out of the top sheet and covers. I heard the unsteady steps on the porch that told me they were to the house and ran and added my shoulder, such as it was, to lend a guide to keeping AJ steady.
We popped him on the bed and then Chester took off for the barn to get the horse we keep saddled for just such emergencies. Lord have mercy AJ was a mess. Eyebrow, nose, and lip all split and bloody. Both eyes blackened so I knew the fight had been at least a day ago. Shirt torn revealing more bruises beneath it. But it was the pants that confused me. They were a little bloody but no hole.
He started trying to get up and ignoring me when I tried to get him to stay put. Finally I told him, “You see that skillet over there? I can move a lot quicker than last time you were here and don’t doubt that I’ll use it too.” He looked at me and I gave him a look right back.
“You’ve been …” he coughed. “You’ve been taking lessons from Mother.”
That pleased me. “Well now, that was a compliment I wasn’t expecting,” I told him with a smile.
His lips twisted in the closest thing to a smile he normally gave. Then his face got hard. “Lock and bolt the doors Riss. I … I don’t think I was followed but …” he started coughing again and I noted he was a little feverish.
“You delusional or are you serious AJ? Because I don’t want to freak Dino out unnecessarily.”
He looked at me and nodded, “Fair enough. The city where my office is is in flames, or was when I left. I … I tried to drive by and … and check on Han … on that …” He was flummoxed on what to say.
“Am I hearing you right? You tried to go check on Hannah … Hannah Bly?”
A cough ruined his attempt at being frosty. “Yes, her. The factory district had already shut their gates and the CSP were there in full force. They’ll let the rest of the city go to hell but they’ll fight to the last man for the munitions plant; she’s safer there than she would have been with me.”
I wanted to tell him he was sweet but that would have been a good way to shut him up. “What set it off?”
“Food riot, anarchists, terrorist agitators … who knows, it doesn’t really matter at this point. What matters is that big trouble is probably coming this way.” He coughed again and this time wasn’t able to control it and he nearly passed out. I realized he was in pain.
I tried to start undressing him but he wasn’t cooperating. “Lock the doors Riss. I told Chester the basics so news will spread as fast as it can be shared. And look, I’m busted up but I don’t know how bad. But … but here, I want you to take these keys.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring of them. “If I die I want you … you, no one else … to open the van and open my files in there. You’ll find everything you need to figure things out. But until I die I want you to keep everyone out. That is mi … mine.”
Giving him a look I asked, “Why would I want your ol’ stuff AJ? Got enough trouble taking care of Dino’s. Besides you aren’t gonna die, you’re probably just gonna feel like it after Cheryl gets finished with you. She’s real good at that … pray she don’t make you start walking a marathon trying to drop a buffalo from someplace you don’t think it’s gonna fit.” As I left the room I hoped that the wheezy noise he was making was his odd laugh and not because he’d punctured a lung.
I checked on Pita who was asleep in her cradle in the kitchen. Amazing. That child will wake up if you are trying to be quiet and then sleep through a heard of thundering elephants. Kerry was with Dino checking the fence line, a blessing but now it worried me. I closed the doors but I went one better and closed the wooden shutters on the first floor windows. The cross-shaped cutouts continued to let some light in but not much. We’d already brought in everything on the porches small enough to carry off due to vandalism at other farms figuring less temptation the better; and the big stuff had been brought in and taken down to the basement for the winter so that was good as well.
I went upstairs for a minute to see if I could see anything from the second story windows and there was nothing but the brown and crunchy grass, the leafless trees with a few cedars here and there and the empty road. The only thing new was that big ol’ delivery van that sat next to the wagon looking so out of place. Which made me think parking it there hadn’t been the smartest thing and I went back downstairs and down to check on AJ.
The man was obviously in pain. “You going to let me tend to you or do you like suffering for some reason?”
His mouth was grim but he said, “No and no. I respect Dino too much to create possible gossip.”
He made that wheezy noise again but it didn’t sound real pleasant. “How can you possibly still be so naïve after what you went through with people?” He shook his head slowly then told me with a little nasty sound to it, “Do you really think people are going to pass up a juicy chance like this to create something from nothing when it comes to gossip? They’ll think we’re having an affair. That that was why I came here.”
Well didn’t that just singe my tail feathers but I gave him credit for making me think. On the other hand I thought anyone who did think what he said had a brain so messed up it needed physical rearrangin’. “One, I agree that most people are probably idiots. Two, I also agree that there are some folks with too much time on their hands. Three, don’t take this the wrong way AJ but Sol just about ruined me on men and it took even your cousin a bit to get under my skin and make me want him, you couldn’t have fixed me that way. Four, anyone with a lick of sense knows that you come by our place before Alec’s because you wouldn’t want your Momma to see you like this before you fabricated some kind of story to cover what really happened. And five, it’s obvious that Alec has some trouble accepting the … er … career you’ve chosen and feels guilty for needing you but that only makes him act pricklier and who’d want to be beat on emotionally when they’ve already been beat on physically. And six …” I stopped when I saw the look on his face. “Well, I guess that’s enough to be going on with. Bottom line is people that don’t know me and don’t know you won’t know anything so they’d be better off keeping their tongue in their head instead of flapping in the wind.”
Slowly the ice melted out of his face and for once out of his eyes. “You must drive Dino insane. Not even I’m that honest with my opinions.”
I smiled back, “He was nuts before I got to him. I just made the crazy more interesting is all.”
He wheezed and shook his head but laid back down and seemed to zone off a bit. I left the room to go check on Pita and she was just starting to wake up and chew on her fist. I sat in the rocker near the stove and let her nurse while I tried to find the patience to wait for Dino or Alec to show up.
Pita had finished her meal and I had just finished putting myself back together when I heard someone on the back porch. “Riss, it’s Alec. Can you hear me?”
I rain to the door, unbarred it, and let him in. He wasn’t alone. Brother Calvert’s son Josiah was with him. Josiah Calvert was about Dino’s age and was the Captain of the local militia; he looked pretty fierce though I knew him to be a fair man. He and his house had never turned nasty to me though he’d gone a little cautious for a while.
“Alec I wish you would talk you brother out of being so demented.” That caught both men’s attention. “He’s lying there in pain but won’t let me do nothing for him. Says he respects Dino too much to do something that would make people talk. I think it’s the pain making him giddy but you know how stubborn he can be and under the circumstances I hated to try and push him.”
Alec got a thoughtful look and then said, “How bad is it?”
“Go see for yourself. It looks like one or more people got a hold of him but good. And Chester said something about a shot to the leg but while the pants leg is bloody, there’s no tear. He’s keeping it close to the vest – I guess he thinks I’m just a faint-hearted female or is worried about upsetting me with the baby and all – but he did say that the city is going to Hades in a hand basket. And the loon tried to go check on Hannah for me before escaping and I’m worried that is why he got beat on.”
Still thoughtful both men walked to the room where I pointed. I noticed they were both pretty chilled and that the air coming in was definitely frosty so I made sure the cradle was out of any draft and then put a pot of chicory on; I even put a speck of real coffee in there and a little bit of yaupon for the caffeine. I had a feeling the men were going to need every little bit of kick they could get. For myself I put on a pot of cambric tea which isn’t nothing but warm milk with a little bit of tea in it. It seems I have to watch everything that goes in my mouth now even more than I did when I was pregnant.
I was anxious about how long they were in there. I could hear them talking but not make out the words as they’d closed the door. I started a fire in the fireplace if for no other reason than for light. I didn’t want to have to use the kerosene lamps nor the candles unless and until they were really needed. I then snuck a peek out of the shutter just in time to see Dino ride up with Kerry riding pillion.
I had the door opened before he got there and took Kerry while I pointed at the bedroom where they were. “He ain’t gonna die I don’t think, not unless there’s infection somewhere that I don’t know about. But he’s being AJ and hard headed. And Alec and Josiah have been in there a while so you might better get in there and see if you’re needed for peacekeeping.”
I turned to Kerry to see he was white as a sheet, both from cold and from fear. I don’t know how many times I tell folks to watch their words around little kids, that it does them no good, but some grownups listen about as well as a doorknob does. “Come on Squirt, let’s get you warmed up.”
I put some of the cambric tea in a smallish coffee cup and told him to “sit right up to the table” and “watch that first sip, I mighta made it a bit strong” and my strategy of treating him a little like I treat his daddy worked. He took it right in and even imitated Dino enough that I had to hide a smile. If you pay attention it is amazing to find out what the little kids are noticing when you aren’t paying attention.
He finally spit it out, “Momma Riss? Chester said that Uncle AJ was bad hurt. Is … is he gonna die?”
“Not as far as I can tell. He’s as ornery as ever. Bet he feels double bad when his Momma rings a peal over his head. Aunt Adona has a talent for that.”
The look of agreement on Kerry’s face nearly had me laughing again. I bit my lip and then when he’d finished his “warmer upper” I asked if he would mind watching Pita in the front room if I let him take some of his toys in there. Well since that was place he was normally allowed to do such a thing the novelty of it kept him distracted. The fireplace in the front room was a mate to the big one in the kitchen and I soon had it warm enough that Kerry could take his coat off. I made sure the grate was locked before I left them unattended and I reminded Kerry to come get me if Pita started to fuss too much.
I had no sooner done that than I heard a wagon and looked out to see Chris and Steven driving their momma and grandmother. I nodded figuring they had Ajax watching the house and let them in. I told the boys to get them and their grandmother something warm off the stove and then started answering Cheryl’s questions.
“I’m sorry I honestly don’t know. He wouldn’t let me do anything for him but take his shoes off and get him warm. Claimed he was trying to avert possible gossip.” I rolled my eyes but Cheryl and Adona glanced at each other in surprise. “Cheryl when you go in can you see if Dino will at least stick his head out?”
Dino didn’t come out and when I heard a good, loud curse that had to be from AJ I stuck my head in. “Hey! Got kids out here.”
AJ was in a snit, a royal one and Alec was looking foul. Dino was closed off and only gets that way when he’s getting aggravated at family … only he wasn’t looking at AJ, but at Alec.
“All right, that’s enough. I didn’t help Chester drag AJ in here for y’all to pester him to death; imagine what’d have to go on his headstone. Cheryl, tell these big ol’ men to get out of the way and if you won’t I will. Josiah, have you got enough for your report? Then come on out here and get you some chicory, it ain’t coffee but it’ll warm you. Alec, look at your Momma, she looks fairly faint with anxiety and ready to pop you one at the same time. Whatever it is it can wait until everyone’s nerves are settled. Dino, I need you for a minute if you please.”
Seeing as how I was carrying a broom and a skillet when I started giving orders the men sorta took me seriously. By the end of it AJ was making that noise he makes but I took care of him too since I figured he’d done his fair share to stir the pot. “Wheeze while you can ol’ son, I have a feeling Cheryl is just about to let some of your air out.”
I turned and in but a moment there was movement in the room and boots following me out leaving the room’s door open. Dino bent and kissed my head by way of recognizing what I’d been trying to do and asked, “Anything wrong?”
“Not wrong precisely but I can’t drive, never learned, and AJ’s van is sitting out there like a chunk of burnt cornbread in the buttermilk. Don’t you think it would be better off in the barn and out of sight?”
A call from the bedroom said, “She’s right. And she has the keys. Dino …” A yelp of pain interrupted him and when he started up again there was a grim tone to his voice. “Move it where you will but give Damaris the keys back.”
I could hear Cheryl mutter, “If you don’t stay still this is only going to take longer and hurt worse.” Since there was no more orders coming from where his highness currently lay I figured he was ready to conceded defeat.
Dino looked at me and I took the ring of keys out of my pocket and said, “He gave them to me to hold onto in case he dies.” I rolled my eyes. “But he wants everyone to stay out of his stuff until then. I nearly asked him if the van was full of old girly magazines but I didn’t have the heart seeing he was in so much pain. Might save it for later though if he starts acting like a stinker.”
I heard Chris and Steven trying to hide their snickers. I hadn’t exactly tried to hide my voice so it could very well have been the reason for the second yelp I heard in AJ’s general vicinity. Josiah’s eyes were crinkled up at the corners but it could have been trying to see in the dimness of the room, who knows. Dino just shook his head and said as plainly as I did, “Didn’t know AJ would need those kinds of things but I guess it’s possible. I’ll make sure everyone keeps out just in case. Wouldn’t want to embarrass him any.”
I heard Cheryl laugh clearly so I think the mark had been hit. I looked over at Alec thinking at the very least he’d be shaking his head at our tomfoolery but instead his face was like ice. After Dino walked out I went over to him and very quietly and calmly asked if he would come to the front porch. My words said I was giving him a choice but the look he gave me said he knew that I really wasn’t.
Stiff as a board he followed me out and then before I could say anything he asked, “Did AJ offend you Damaris?”
Boy he was spoiling for a fight or something like it. “You know, I don’t know what is between you and AJ that would make you act like this with him but not here and not now.”
He drew himself up and started to say, “I don’t know what …”
“Oh yes you do. I’m not asking to get into your business. But, this is Dino’s house … mine too now I guess so I have some say … and AJ has never done anything but be a little stiff and reserved. And he’s hurt and he came here for help. I’m not going to stand by and allow him to be made an object of scorn when he isn’t in a position to defend himself.” Getting frustrated I continued, “I swear you, AJ, and Dino could be from the same litter as much as you look alike but AJ stands out all the same. It’s like the man is afraid to let people see him laugh, to be a part of things. You and Dino aren’t like that at all. You know how many times it takes getting kicked before you get like that? If you don’t I do. He ain’t no angel, that’s plain as the nose on your face, but I’ve never seen him be anything more than cut off from people and I’m beginning to wonder if that was by choice or if that is simply all he expects anymore, family or not.”
The two brothers were more alike than Alec wanted to admit. They both got that block of ice look in their ices just the same and while AJ may have more practice at it and do it better, Alec wasn’t no slouch neither. “I hardly think you’d understand Damaris.”
“Why? Because I ain’t experienced people doing me wrong? Or because I ain’t got any family to speak of?”
He visibly winced, “That is not what I meant.”
“Sure sounds like it.”
“You … you don’t know what AJ is.”
“Well, I know you two share the same father and mother so that makes you brothers. You also share some personality traits and from this side of it not all of them are pretty. If you are talking about what AJ does for a living, I’m not stupid; I’ve figured some of it out and if there’s more it wouldn’t surprise me. I figured out you treat him like the problem child of the family, like he isn’t good enough. Anything else you don’t think I know?”
Folding his eyebrows down he said, “I do not treat him like …”
“OK, then what do you call it?” I broke in. “When you have to be around him your face is all blank most of the time. When it ain’t blank you act like he’s making you chew rusty scrap metal . The faces you make at him … the faces you make at him that he ignores and accepts like he has come to expect nothing else … make you look like you smell something spoiled and rotten and not good enough. I understand you and your father didn’t get along but is there some reason that you’re repeating the problem with AJ? He is your little brother, younger than you by at least ten years is my guess. How on earth did it become AJ’s fault that your father was the way he was and made the decisions he made?”
I’d made Alec mad. He walked off the porch tight and careful and then around to the back of the house. A deep sigh from behind me made me whirl. It was Aunt Adona.
“Thank you for trying my dear but I don’t know if anything or anyone is ever going to heal that wound.”
Ashamed she’d caught me talking I sighed but then got up the nerve to ask, “What happened? What was so bad that Alec – Alec of all people – can treat his brother this way? I just don’t understand. AJ doesn’t seem like that much of a stinker.”
She smiled slightly and shook her head. “He can be. But once upon a time Alec could be as well. It is what made him leave his father and my father and seek his own way. He didn’t like who he became when they started pulling at him at the same time.”
“And Alec resents that AJ never had to go through that?”
“But AJ did my dear. AJ simply ignored both men and told them to accept him for who he was or not, it would not stop him one way or the other. The difference is that AJ never felt compelled to run away to do it. My father never could quite get over AJ refusing point blank to even give the winery a try. AJ’s father, my ex-husband, did. He became very proud of AJ, gave him the respect Alec never felt he got from his father. The other thing was that AJ also has maintained contact with his father. AJ was still young enough – there’s eight years between them not ten – that when we divorced a visitation agreement and child support was part of the decree. As many problems as Andrew and I had, not the least of which was the affair he had with the young woman who would become his wife, I knew AJ still needed his father in ways I could not simply ignore. But it was difficult on Alec to understand that and impossible for him to accept.”
Still confused, “But they’re both grown men now, surely there has to be something else to it.”
“Alec does not approve of AJ.”
Not meaning to be disrespectful I still said, “Well duh, that’s about as obvious as stripes on a zebra. But why doesn’t he approve of AJ?”
“It’s as I told you.”
“You mean all of that … that stuff is left over from something in their childhood? Something neither one of them really had any control over anyway?”
“I’m afraid so,” she sighed.
Getting angry I said, “I’m going to knock them both in the head. This is just plain ridiculous. Alec all holier than thou and AJ pushing at him making it worse trying to get Alec to prove how he feels one way or the other. They’re both dug in and invested in being the victim. I’m gonna skin ‘em both.”
Cheryl who had followed her mother in law out said, “Not today. Wait until after AJ heals and Alec helps with the butchering.”
I jump like I’d been pinched. “Oh. I’m sorry Cheryl it’s just that that sort of thing doesn’t make any sense to me. I know it happens but … life’s just too short and too hard to turn on the people that could help you best to make it through in one piece.”
Cheryl said, “There is a little more to it.” Adona rubbed her arms and walked back into the house.”
“That wasn’t because she was cold,” I observed.
“No. Look, I know you want to believe the best of AJ … and of Alec which I appreciate … but the truth is AJ is … or can be … a very dangerous man. He associates with people that aren’t … aren’t …”
“You saying the company he keeps isn’t the same company you would keep or want around your family.”
“Yes,” she confirmed in relief at my understanding. “I can understand, from a purely analytical sense, why he does it. But that doesn’t change the fact I’m always worried about the influence he is going to have on the children.”
“Seems to me he comes here when he’s trying to escape all of that. Why would he bring it with him?”
“It’s happened before. A group of men followed him out of the city, this was right after the war started and AJ had just … er … gone into business. Alec got hurt and AJ killed a couple of them and afterwards we heard he hunted the rest of them down too and did the same again. Ajax saw it all and was terribly affected by it. If AJ hadn’t left on his own accord afterwards Alec would have asked him to leave.”
“Yet Alec still calls on his brother when he needs something he can’t get around here. He’s good enough to fetch and carry but not to be invited into the big house as a guest.”
She buckled up her face and said, “It sounds very bad when you put it that way.”
“It sounds bad anyway you put it. And what is worse that knucklehead lying in the bed in there comes whenever he’s called and then stays around waiting for scraps before he can’t stand it anymore and takes off again.”
A step on the gravel and I saw Alec standing there looking at me but he was more confused than anything. “Is that really how you see it?”
“Alec, let me put it his way, if I was in the same position AJ has been in I would have given up a long time ago and gone my own way and to heck with being used the way this family has been using him. He isn’t good enough most of the time because of the company he’s chosen but he’s good enough when that company he’s chosen can get you what you want. What all AJ gets up to may not be right but the way he’s treated by those that use him to do what they can’t or won’t isn’t right either.”