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.”