Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter 17

May 14th – I haven’t felt much like writing the last couple of days. I probably wouldn’t be doing it now except he is doing it; I mean writing on some paper I gave him for in his own journal. I didn’t know guys liked to do that but he said he does. I hope he’s not just trying to fool me. I don’t think he is but you never know.

Nothing has made much sense until today and I’d say today was still on the iffy side. I don’t suppose this will make any sense at all if I don’t start back where I left off.

I don’t know what happened when the lamp ran out of juice on Thursday night because I kind of ran out of juice also. I never made it to the bed. I woke up the next morning on the floor right by the window seat where I had been writing. I could barely move and I was fuzzy headed like you get sometimes when you are sick. The only thing I could think about was getting down the stairs so I could get to the bathroom. I crawled to the stairs and then sat on the top stair and went down on my bottom one at a time. Finally at the bottom I was able to use the stair rail and get up and I limped really fast to the bathroom in my parents’ room. Luckily there was enough water left in the five-gallon bucket I keep in there to “flush” with.

When I was able I finally took a good look at myself and the picture I made brought all that had happened the previous day back to me. I had just changed clothes but didn’t take a bath. I still had some spots of dried blood on me. My hair was wild and going every which direction and even had a small twig stuck in my braid. My nose hurt and I had a black and swollen eye that was really ugly (still do though it isn’t swollen any more). My nose was all stuffed up and that was only from the neck up. My arms looked like I had taken a rust brush to them. My knees were scratched and bruised and my ankles were cut to ribbons.

I thought about taking a bath but knew that I would be working outside as soon as I could get up the nerve to go out the door. Part of me remembered all of those counseling sessions that I had been through about trauma and all that junk. Another part of me kept telling that part of me to just shut up. It was like I had two whole debate teams going on inside me. Taking a bath won. The water was cold so I only stood up in the tub and wet myself down, soaped up, scrubbed and then rinsed off. Took less water that way anyway and I didn’t have to sit in the dirt I was washing away. Wish I could have washed away everything else as easily.

I didn’t feel like cooking so I made oatmeal honey balls. All that is is rolled oats mixed with enough honey to make them stick together into balls; more of an energy food than a true meal. I like it but it makes you real thirsty and too much will upset your guts.

With breakfast over I went to stand by the front door. It took a lot for me to go outside but I remember the Bible saying “Fear Not!” and stuff like that. I also remember Daddy telling me that caution is good, fear is paralyzing; of course he was talking about dealing with bullies but in a sense this was the same thing. Bullies had tried to hurt me and take away my freedom and maybe my life. If I stayed hiding in the house then the bullies won. It still wasn’t easy … it was really Fraidy that finally helped me.

She was sitting on the end of the porch just looking at me like to say, “It’s about time you showed up.” She would only come so close and then she would walk away to the end of the porch again, teasing like cats can do. I dared myself to go as far as Fraidy and if I was too scared I could turn around ‘cause I wouldn’t be too far from the house. We played that game for a while and I wound up as far as the barn. Finally I figured if I had made it that far I could do what had to be done.

My “fence” had fallen down during the night. The twine was still there but everything else was on the ground. I was ready to cry again but then I heard the cows mooing and they sounded so pitiful. I picked up a couple of the leafier saplings and carried them over to the fence and they practically jerked them out of my hands. There were only seven cows. I don’t know what happened to the other two. I thought maybe someone was taking them away but now I don’t know, it might be something else I saw.

I got the swing blade and cut some more grass and threw it over the fence. By that time the sun was straight up overhead so I decided it must be noon. I went back to the house and ate some peanut butter and granola and then made myself drink a glass of milk. I wasn’t very hungry, just thirsty, so after the milk I drank a couple glasses of water. Mostly I was thinking … and I admit delaying a bit.

Since the saplings wouldn’t stand up my next idea was to try and make a potato vine fence. I took the hatchet and went out in the woods where I knew long thick potato vines grow in the trees. You can just about swing on some of them like Tarzan. In fact I had to climb a couple of trees to cut some down. I drug them home and laid them out. After going to the barn and getting a hammer and nails I nailed the potato vines in horizontally between the two trees on either side of the driveway. Then I took shorter and more flexible sections of potato vine and wove them in vertically. I had to use the ladder to get the highest parts finished but when I was done it looked like a woven lattice, like you see on a pie.

All that did was say “Hey! Look here, I’m trying to hide something!!” I took pruning shears and cut some vicious saw brier vines and some scraggly blackberry canes and wove them into the lattice of potato vines. It still didn’t look much better but I figured I could plant some honeysuckle or Jessamine on it and it would eventually fill in the gaps and make it look more natural.

All I was trying to do was make the house less noticeable at that point. It was already hidden but I wanted it more hid from the casual observer. The tall grass growing in our road helped and the trees and underbrush grew tightly together all around the remainder of the home site which included the barn, shed, and orchard. The barn is practically invisible as it is set back from the house and the road and surrounded on three sides by a dense growth of oak saplings that grow so close together they are hard to walk through. The orchard I’ve already described. Behind the house is a big open area but it has a dense canopy and the oak sprouts, blackberry canes, and cactus are beginning to take over in the few places the grass isn’t growing. The open area is surrounded by areas that have never seen a tractor or anything else and on the other side of that, what was supposed to be the fire line around the inside of our fenced forty acres, has grown wild and the cedar trees that Momma and I planted on each fence post on that side of the property are now all taller than me though most of them haven’t filled out all the way yet; they are tall and skinny. In that quadrant you can’t even walk the fence line anymore and the fence itself haa disappeared under saw brier vines and moss that falls from the huge water oaks back there. There is plenty of Devil’s Walking Sticks back there too that make it dangerous to just push through willy nilly without really heavy clothes on.

So my front entrance is “hidden” and my back is covered and inaccessible except on foot and only then if you know the places you can push through. I tried a few places and the paths have become so overgrown even I have trouble making my way from one side of the bush to the other. I was thinking of clearing the old paths but now I’m not so sure.

By the time I finished that I was sore again, tired, and my black eye was stinging pretty bad where the sweat kept rolling into it. It was late afternoon but there was still plenty of light left. I put my tools away and headed out to the orchard. I saw a whip snake slither away so I was careful. Whip snakes aren’t poisonous but they are kind of high strung, you never know if they are going to run away or act big and bad and strike trying to scare you off. The blueberry bushes are pretty well loaded and by the time they are finished ripening I’m going to have a mess of them. This time out there I didn’t do much but graze down the rows. Every one that was really ripe I pulled off and ate. By the time I got to the end of the two rows of bushes I must have eaten three or four cupfuls. The whip snake is probably keeping the birds out of the orchard so I’m not too worried. There are going to be more than enough berries for me and them … I hope.

I wasn’t real hungry any more but I had enough commonsense to know I couldn’t keep going eating the stuff that was easy to grab and didn’t require cooking. For one thing that was using up my emergency stash and for another I didn’t want to get sick or so weak I couldn’t run if I needed to. I built a fire in the pit and as the wood burned to coals I boiled water and prepared a Dutch oven of beans, this time enough for two meals. I put some of the boiling water in my thermos carafes, some in a mug for cocoa, and poured the rest in the bathtub with some more water to cool it off and then dumped in my clothes and underthings from the last couple of days. I had just left them in the middle of the bathroom floor and they had soured and were stinking up the place. Lesson time for me: at least hang the dirty clothes up so they don’t sour otherwise I’ll be doing a wash load every other day.

I locked things down early. I tried to get Fraidy to come inside but she only blinked at me and went back to sleeping up in one the trees she likes to stay up in like a mountain lion. I left her alone figuring she was turning into a night hunter. I was still really sore and decided I needed to do something about that. I don’t like pills much but I was grateful for the acetomenaphine I found in the medicine cabinet.

There was still some daylight so I looked around to see what I could do. That’s when I noticed how dirty the house was. Momma would have been ashamed at how it looked. The kitchen wasn’t too bad, just needed some minor picking up and putting away of the dishes in the dish drainer, but the great room was a pig sty. There were boxes and junk everywhere from where I was inventorying and then trying to find a place to put everything. I nearly had everything inventoried I just hadn’t done a very good job of finding a place to put stuff away. It took me two hours but I got everything neatened and organized.

I was so tired by the time I finished I just went up to the dormer room, undressed and fell across the bed. I’d been a lot better off taking a couple of more pills because when I woke up in the morning I could barely move. It was worse than the day before. I finally got downstairs, dressed, and used the still hot water in the carafes to make instant grits. I wanted another cup of cocoa but the other one had given me a big fat zit on my chin; it hurt almost as bad as my eye did.

I went out and cut grass for the cows and threw some palmetto fronds in there for something different. There were still seven cows thank goodness and to me they looked like they were happier if not too much fatter. At least they were swishing their tails and not just leaving them limp and hanging. They also looked like they had more cow slobber on their noses and mouths. I figure that has to be a good sign.

Yesterday I was so sore that I decided to work around the house instead of going off all over the place. I was glad to have my meals and cooking already taken care of. And I knew I needed to do something about getting better with the guns. I had gotten lucky, or my guardian angel had been looking after me, but I’m pretty sure it was the noise of me practicing that brought those two men snooping around. I’m still trying to figure out what to do about that even though today I kept getting nudges to just get out and do it. I wish he would stop it.

It was work but I finished inventorying everything left in the barn and bringing it into the house. Putting it away wasn’t as fun mostly because I am realizing as much storage as the house has, there still isn’t enough. I need more book cases upstairs in the bonus rooms; I’ve got a lot of reading books just piled in stacks against the wall. I don’t have enough hangers so I divided the clothes up into different closets (like all the jeans in one, all the t-shirts in another, etc.) and what I couldn’t hang up I folded and just put on the closet floor. I’m using my parents’ bedroom furniture for socks, under things, night clothes, and stuff like that. I don’t have enough cabinets to put away all Momma’s sewing stuff like patterns, material, and all the other odds and ends.. There are also things I don’t have enough of like pens and pencils, writing paper, and the sorts of things you don’t realize you need until you need it and you can’t make it yourself.

I was wondering where I could put all of the office supplies I do have when I decided to take it up to the dormer room except for a small supply I put in the coffee table drawer. Those cabinets and drawers that Daddy built up there were mostly empty and I figured that is as good a place for that stuff as any. Also managed to get most of the boxes and bags emptied that were left from Momma and Daddy’s stuff. I’m not sure what to do with all of my brother’s clothes and toys; it hurts too think about it. Most of it I just left in boxes stacked in a corner upstairs. I finally found all the photo albums and photo boxes but I haven’t been able to look at them yet; it’s like with brother’s stuff, it’s still too hard.

Also managed to start a bean stew for my food the next day; again to save my matches. My bean stew isn’t exactly like Aunt Wilma’s because she cooked hers in a crock pot but I figured – and was right – that the slow cooking the beans did in the ground was just about the same thing. I put in some dried chopped onion, dried chopped garlic, some paprika, a half-cup each of four different dried beans (I used pinto, white, kidney, and black), seven cups of water, a bay leaf, a little bit of dill weed, salt, pepper, a bouillon cube, and a handful of dried potato chunks.

I did the whole routine – boiled water while the coals were making, yada, yada, yada.

I went to sleep thinking, “Now that wasn’t so bad. You got over it a lot easier than you thought.” I got up this morning kicking myself for the jinx.

I dreamed all last night. I kept waking up to the sound of gunfire in my ears and everything going red. Then just before the sky started getting some color to it I said to heck with it and just got up. I’d sweated through my sheets last night which meant another load of laundry. All this was made worse when I looked at the calendar and realized that today was Mother’s Day. That totally took my appetite away.

My soreness wasn’t quite so bad but I still took a pill. I learned in the hospital that sometimes it was just better to take your medicine than to try and be tough and prolong the agony. I tried really hard not to look in the mirror as I cleaned up. I was a mess. My eye still looked bad. My nose wasn’t really swollen any more but that wasn’t much of an improvement. The zit on my chin wasn’t the size of Mt. Vesuvius any more but that wasn’t saying too much either. It seems I can’t get a break. It’s not like I have any reason to be vain of my looks. If I had been inclined the wreck would have taken care of that. I have scars all over. Some of them are little tiny things that no one notices but me. But I’ll never wear a two-piece bathing suit. It would have been kinder had they just put a zipper on me from my chest to my belly button. The scars on my legs aren’t too bad but every once in a while someone would ask me why they looked like they’d been beat up by a weed whacker. I had a lot of surgeries to put me back together. I even have scars on my back but those aren’t very noticeable ‘cause they are down low … but I never will wear low rider jeans either.

I pulled myself back together and tried to stop feeling sorry for myself; it’s not like anyone will ever see those scars but me since I don’t have to go to the doctors any more. As far as I know there aren’t any doctors around even if I didn’t need to go to one.

I had granola with milk and realized I would need to make my own granola before too long the way I was eating it but I have honey and oats and there has to be a recipe in Momma’s books that I can use. It was still just half way light when I went to check on the cows. The grass was still too wet to cut but I figured I could give them some palmettos to tide them over. When I got to the usual place I throw the grass over I didn’t understand why they were all bunched up against the fence until I saw what I think might be getting the cows. I’m still not for sure though.

There were about two dozen of them trotting in a straight line across the field. That Rottweiler looking one (or its twin) was with them. All of them were big and most were the kind of dogs that can be scary … Doberman, pit, Rottweiler, German shepherd, and mixes of those breeds. Not one of them was a small dog. No way do I want to run into a dog pack. He might not be able to convince me to carry a gun because of more bad guys – I’d just try and avoid people like that – but I might just do it for those dogs. A man I can run from but I wouldn’t get two steps before those dogs were all over me. I had already experienced that when that Rottweiler tried to get in at me at the first house I was salvaging from.

There were still seven cows and it wasn’t until the dogs moved through and away that they unfroze and started milling about. They were happy to see me … or cow happy anyway. I can’t pretend it’s really me they want to see, it’s the grass and stuff I bring to them.

I was tempted to sit down and mope but I knew I had to go get my sheets and get them washed before they ruined the mattress. I had a mattress pad on the bed but it needed washing too. I dumped them in the tub and poured water over them and stepped on them a little bit to get them soaked and then started the laundry routine I had developed. While the sheets soaked I went to pick up more wood and brought back a bunch of broken branches that were about as long as my leg and big around as my wrist. A tree had blown over at some point in the past and was so brittle in places I could rip the smaller stuff off without too much effort.

I am piling the wood in the barn but I guess I’m going to need a lot more wood than what I’ve got before the cold weather gets here. It doesn’t snow but I remember it could get pretty darn cold compared to Tampa. But working on the idea of how to get more wood and where to put it also helped me to think of a possible solution to the lack of matches. A magnifying glass.

I went back to the house, cut grass for the cows, washed up, and hung out the sheets. It was a pain to wring the water out enough that I could get them out of the house without making a mess. Then I set to experimenting on starting a fire using the magnifying glass. To make it easier on myself I decided to go get some sappy pine needles to experiment with. Where all the loblollies grew over the fence on Magnolia Drive, there was a thick carpet of them. In my mind I was also using this as a justification for walking back down my road to the gully area. I wanted to prove to myself I wasn’t chicken, that the bullies wouldn’t keep me from going anywhere on my own property that I wanted to.

While I was up there I stepped into the dense pines to take a bathroom break. When I came out a wagon pulled by a couple of big mules was coming down my road from CR49. There were also two guys on horseback. When they saw me the guys on horseback galloped towards me. I panicked. I admit it. I just dropped the pine needles and ran.

All I could hear was the pounding of the horses’ hooves. I didn’t even realize someone was calling my name. The horse overtook me easily and got in front of me. The guy jumped off his horse and grabbed me. I was kicking and trying to get away and then he shook me pretty hard. I drew back to try and poke him in the eye when I finally realized who it was but it took me another second to focus on what he was saying.

“Hey kid, take it easy. I’m not going to hurt you. Hey, don’t you recognize me? It’s Ra … Whoa! What the heck? What happened to you?”

He said some other things but when he finally let go of one of my arms I nearly fell down I was shaking so bad. I heard Rand shout, “Laurabeth! No … the rest of y’all stay over there a sec. Uncle George can you give me a hand please?”

I was already realizing I’d made an embarrassing mistake but when the young woman Rand called Laurabeth put her arm around me and started talking to me like I was a frightened little kid I felt even worse. I tried to tell her I was OK but my teeth were chattering so bad that I had to scrunch them together hard and could only shake or nod my head in response to her questions of whether I was OK or not.

I was still shaking pretty bad but I finally got my teeth under control and was able to answer their questions better. They didn’t ask me much except to make sure that I was all in one piece. Uncle George said, “I apologize for dropping in like this but Rand wanted to check on you and to share some information with you we came by in church this morning.” He hemmed and hawed a bit more after I apologized back for not recognizing them. No one was saying much of anything until Laurabeth came over again and Rand and his uncle walked back to the wagon like they were checking things over.

Laurabeth is nineteen years old and has that auburn color of hair most people have to use a bottle to get. She was also a lot nicer than I expected after the way I acted. She said, “Um, look, what Dad and Rand would like to ask but they don’t want to upset you again is what happened. Will you tell me and I can tell them? Um … did someone … ?”

Nice people. They just can’t bring themselves to walk by without trying to help. She was giving me time to think about it but I figured if the Jew could stand to be helped by the Samaritan then I could stand to be helped by Rand and his family. Sometimes you’ve gotta look at things from the other side. I wasn’t sure what they were going to do to me but it was for sure they weren’t going to just walk away until they made sure I was OK so I gave in as gracefully as I could.

I told the story to Uncle George except I left out everything about the shooting practice. He wanted to know if I was telling him everything and at first I thought he had somehow figured out I had left out the rifle but when I looked at his face it was all red and Rand looked a little green around the gills. Laurabeth put her arm around me and ask what I guess they had been wondering all along. “Did those two men … hurt you … you know … “

Oh. They thought … well, it was pretty obvious what they thought given how I looked and the way I panicked. I promised them the men hadn’t though I admitted they’d pretty much been promising that was going to happen once they caught me.

Uncle George and Rand went to go check where I had dumped the bodies leaving everyone else with the horses and wagons. While they were away Laurabeth introduced me to everyone that was left. The other horse was being ridden by a young man named Jonathon. He was Laurabeth’s fiancé and two years older than Rand and built a lot thicker though he wasn’t fat at all. I recognized Mick who was holding the big mules still so they wouldn’t walk away with the wagon. In the bed of the wagon were two girls. The older of the two girls was named Charlene and she was my age, though a couple of months younger. The younger one was named Janet; she was fourteen with hair so blonde it was almost white and very frail looking.

We had all been standing around not quite knowing what to say when Uncle George and Rand came back out of the loblollies.

“Young lady, you had an angel watching over you,” Uncle George said gently.

I told him I knew that but what came next turned things upside down. Rand explained that the reason they had come over to begin with was because they had announced at church that tomorrow was the next “work for food” opportunity. How this works is that normally every other work day they alternate by last name -- one is for people whose last name begins with A through M, and then the next is for people whose last name begins with N through Z. Each person who shows up and gives a full day of work for whatever project is organized gets a box of food stuff. They’ve been doing it for about four months this way. This time however they are asking one person from every family to come regardless of last name, but only one person from each family.

Rand explained, “You were asking me why there weren’t cars lined up along the road up this way like there are in other places, this is why. We were having work days very regularly there for a while but there hasn’t been one for three weeks. You would count as the one from your family.”

I opened my mouth to say something but closed it and nodded instead. Uncle George said, “Honey, none of us are so rich we can afford to look a gift horse in the mouth. There’s no need for them to know you are the only person in your family. You do have something with the address for this place, a utility bill or something?”

I told him that “yes, sir” I did – and I do. I have some legal correspondence with my dad’s name on it made out to this address.

But then they started trying to manage me. Uncle George told me he’d feel better if Rand stayed here for the night, like he did before, and escort me to the meet up point and then keep an eye on me during the work day. My opinion of that must have showed because he sorta smiled and said, “I know Little Miss Stubborn but look at it this way. Rand stays here with the horse. In the morning you can ride double and get there faster, plus it will be faster for him to start out from here rather than from our place. You get someone to teach you the ropes and next time maybe you don’t need anyone’s help. He’ll be able to introduce you to the right people and I feel better knowing that you won’t be trying to figure things on your own. How’s that?”

I just gave in. He’s too nice to stay mad at. They “took their leave” never even going back to the house. They needed to get back to their place, Brendon had stayed home to look after things and if they didn’t show up soon he’d worry and might come looking for them.

Rand rode to the gate with them, shut it, and then came back to where I was standing. “Does it really bother you? I can sleep outside … “

I rolled my eyes at him because he was being a doof and totally not getting it. I told him Fraidy liked him and I’d dealt with enough foster boys that I could tell a good ‘un from a bad ‘un but that I didn’t like being managed like I was helpless. When I just started walking he shook his head and followed. It bothers me that he thinks I’m some kind of cause he needs to work on.

I slowed down when we approached the house and thankfully he didn’t have anything awful to say about my trellis fence. He didn’t ask why just said that I’d need to watch the ends in case they split when he saw I’d used nails to attach them to the trees. I led him and his horse through the brush and then just kind of stood there not knowing what to do next. Rand was letting me take the lead which was kind of nice but I didn’t know what to do until his stomach growled. His face got red and I couldn’t help it, I laughed; the first time in days.

I left him taking care of Hatchet – that’s the name of his horse – and went to take care of lunch. I’m glad I fixed as much as I did. Instead of having two or three meals for me we split the whole thing between us for lunch. Rand acted like he liked the bean stew and asked how I had it fixed so fast. I showed him the cooking pit and he looked at me and then asked me if I would write the directions down so he could give them to Laurabeth.

He asked me what I did all day by myself. I told him about picking up wood and cutting grass for the cows. I asked him what he did all day with people underfoot and he laughed and told me about helping his uncle with the animals, the garden, and all the stuff that has to be done on a farm. We were running out of things to talk about when the cows mooed so we walked over that direction to have something to do. He agreed that the cows looked pretty pathetic but they seemed frisky enough when I threw over some palmettos.

While Rand was playing tug with one of the cows with a palmetto frond I asked him some things that I’d been wondering about. Did he know if the cows belonged to anyone? Who did all the other properties around belong to and were people still living there? What would the law have to say about what I’d done to those two men?

“Well, when you start talking you really start talking don’t you,” he grinned.

After a moment where he looked like he was wondering how to answer me he smiled sadly and told me that I wasn’t to worry about what I had done to those men. The gangs … and they were the only ones that rode motorcycles around here … had done a lot of killing, stealing and had hurt a lot of people. The law wouldn’t have anything to say about it because there wasn’t really any law around here anymore. “That’s why Mr. Harbinger and his ‘community volunteers’ have been tolerated even thought not everyone agrees with the way they’ve been handling things lately.” He told me that I’d defended myself against deadly force so even had there been lawmen nothing worse than what had already happened would have occurred.

I was trying to think about there not being any police when he went on to tell me the property the cows were on was part of a big estate. “Mr. Duval Sr. died during the first round of flu and his kids and ex-wives were fighting it out in court because he hadn’t made a more recent will that included his last set of kids that he had had with his fifth wife.” Rand laughed at the look on my face. “Yeah, the old guy was crazy, for a fact. I used to earn extra money for school by working as a field hand at some of his different properties. Uncle George didn’t have much good to say about him but like everyone else Mr. Duval wasn’t all bad. He sure paid better than what I could have gotten bagging groceries at Winn Dixie.” Rand said if no one was taking care of the cows they were abandoned property.

I was going to ask him more about “abandoned property” when he went on to tell me there was a family two properties over and across CR49. “I don’t know them that well except for Momma O. Her husband was my 8th grade Sunday School teacher but he’s dead now. Her daughter and son-in-law live with her these days and from what I understand her grandsons help keep things running. They’re both older than me by a few years.”

He went on to tell me the only other people that he knew down this stretch of CR49 were the Hendersons and they had a big dairy and grain sorghum operation. “They are one of the few independents around here that still have fuel and apparently they have a lot of it. They keep to themselves pretty much. When things started getting really bad they moved some trailers onto their land and their hired hands moved there with their families. You won’t see them much unless there is a big county-wide meeting. Don't just show up at their place or you could get hurt accidentally. They aren’t bad people, they just don’t tolerate strangers well right now.”

When I asked what had happened to everyone else he got solemn and told me that some people had died of the fourth wave of flu, some folks had died because they couldn’t get their medication any more, the gangs murdered a lot of folks before people started killing them right back. “It wasn’t any one single thing. The population has just been chipped away bit by bit. Every family will have a different story to tell.”

I got a little more daring and asked him what exactly “abandoned property” meant. He explained that when food and stuff had gotten short around here the local authorities issued a statement that Chapter 705 of the Florida Statutes would be enforced. “Everyone has read that chapter backwards and forwards around here. Basically it states any property left unclaimed or uncared for more than ten days is considered abandoned property and can be claimed by other people. Yeah, I know that is stretching the law so far it’s in danger of breaking. I think it was just a justification for what people were doing to survive. The Feds have something similar going called ‘redistribution of resources.’ We haven’t had any trouble with the Feds around here though you hear about it sometimes through the rumor mill. ”

He said if I didn’t see anyone take care of the cows for ten days I could take them for my own but if the legal owner did come looking for them after that I might have to turn them over. “No law these days but most everyone tries to do the right thing. As puny as these cows look I don’t think you have anything to worry about. But why would you want them and where would you put them?”

I shrugged. I figure I have another week before I have to decide that. Then I asked him about houses. “You talking about this house? Yeah, if anyone had known it was back here they probably could have taken it and no one thought anything of it but if you showed up and there had been someone living here and you could have proven ownership in some way then they would have been expected to move out and give it back. At least that is the way it is supposed to work. But something tells me you aren’t asking about this house.”

He’s patient, I’ll give him that. The way he listens you feel almost forced to answer. I finally told him what I had done at the four houses that I had “salvaged” from. He asked if I would show him where they were and while we walked to the first one – he kept his rifle with him the whole time – he told me that I was lucky if I had found one abandoned house that hadn’t been completely emptied much less four. “Some of those early work days we spent going house to house and hanging up public notices stating that if no living relative (they needed proof of kinship) stepped forward then the goods within the house would be collected and redistributed to those in need. We got more than a few bodies out of some of those houses too. It was a terrible job.”

We only went in the fourth one and I could tell Rand had done this before. He seemed to know all the places to look and what to look for. When he asked me if I minded if he took a few things out I asked him why I should mind. “Finders keepers.” I sighed and rolled my eyes at him again … he makes me want to do that a lot … and he smiled and grabbed a bag and took a coat, two pairs of shoes and some of the other guy things that were in the tractor bedroom. I found some more pens and pencils all rubberbanded together in a desk that was sitting in the den and Rand and I split them along with the stack of writing tablets that was in one of the desk drawers.

At least now I don’t have to feel quite so bad about taking things from those houses. Rand said that to his knowledge no one had any claim on any of them. “I don’t see any public notices so this house might have been missed; I don’t know about those other houses since you said that had all the food removed. One of the gangs could have done it too I suppose.”

As we walked back to the house Rand got quiet. I knew that quiet. It’s the lack of sound that comes right before someone tells you something that they don’t think you are gonna like hearing. Sure enough Rand wants me to keep the fact that I’m all on my own here to myself, to lie if I have to. He didn’t even want me to tell his girlfriend who was going to be there with us tomorrow. “Julia would probably be on your side – I know she would – but her brother is a big mouth and if he finds out it’ll be all over. And I hate to say it but he’s friends with the Harbingers and I don’t think you want that kind of attention. Plus people talk … me staying here with you and no one else around … well, people can be nasty minded.”

I know about people talking but it is pretty rude for people to assume that just because I’m letting Rand help me a little bit that that would mean that I’d put up with anything else. When I told him so he laughed all the way back to the house. “You remind me of Missy.”

When I asked him who Missy was he said she was Uncle George’s daughter from his first marriage. She got a little wild when she was a teenager and Uncle George who was raising her let her go live with her maternal grandparents. “She’s funny. She works the big supply depot they put in at the Lake City Municipal Airport. That’s where a lot of stuff that is gathered on the work days is sent for redistribution. No one messes with Missy; she’ll put you in your place real quick. But at the same time, if she considers you a friend watch out … you won’t be able to ditch her. If you think Uncle George and I are trying to manage you, Missy is even worse … but she means well.”

I knew I needed to think about dinner but when I asked him he said he wasn’t going to hog all of my supplies and that he was still full from the bean stew. I thought about telling him that I had plenty but I figure that information is no one’s business but my own. Rand may be nice but I haven’t known him long to trust him that far yet.

While Rand went off to check on Hatchet again I went out to the orchard and low and behold it looks like I am really going to have to start picking the berries for real pretty soon. I ran back to the house and grabbed a small bucket and went back to the blueberry bushes and picked a bunch. I knew exactly what to fix that Rand wouldn’t be able to fret about … blueberry dumplings.

“Knock, knock.” I turned around real quick to find Rand at the gate. I know I’ve written that Rand makes me want to roll my eyes a lot but it bears repeating. He came in and looked around. “You’ve got way more fruit here than you can eat fresh. We have a farmer’s market planned for next Saturday and you could probably bring some of these and trade for something else if you want. You’ll still have a lot going to waste though and that’s a shame. These trees look like they are setting up really nice.”

I snorted, not falling for it. I’d dealt with way too many therapist to fall for that kind of information gathering. I told him I knew how to can the fruit. “Maybe I’ll trade you in on one of my cousins.” When I asked if they’d ever really had to cook or preserve food before now he said, “No Granny. Uncle George took care of everything after Aunt Rachel died. I think it was his way of trying to work through his grief. They are learning now though. At least they don’t burn the water anymore.”

When his stomach growled again I gave him a handful of berries and asked him what he thought of dumplings for dinner.

Dumplings are so easy. I made them all the time at Good Eats. You just make a soft dough and then dump clumps of it in something boiling until they are cooked through. Stew with dumplings, soup with dumplings, vegetables with dumplings but one of my favorites is stewed fruit with dumplings. I washed and picked over the blueberries to make sure that there weren’t any bugs and then I put two cups of water for every pint of fruit I planned to use on to boil. When the water boiled I added the fruit and enough sugar to sweeten everything and continued to boil the water and fruit until a syrup formed. Then you drop rounded spoonfuls of dough into the boiling fruit and syrup and cook for about ten minutes.

Gosh it was so good. Rand nearly licked the silver off of his spoon trying to get the last bit. He’s cool in a dopey big brother kind of way. A couple of the foster boys had been like that too though most of them had just been plain trouble.

Rand had intended on picketing Hatchet under a tree for the night but when I told him about the dogs he asked if I minded him going in the barn. There will be horse poo to clean up tomorrow but I’d rather do that than worry about him getting eat up all night.

We got to one of those awkward nobody-knows-what-to-say moments again and that’s when he asked if I minded telling him about those men again. I did mind but I figured he wasn’t asking me to be mean so I told him. Then he looked at me and asked me why I had been in the hayfield and what I had been doing that I hadn’t heard the motorcycles before they were right on top of me. I explained about my APD but he just kept waiting. That’s when I told him about the rifle … not about anything else, just the rifle.

I expected him to lecture me or be upset I hadn’t told him before but all he said was, “Look, I understand that this is your house and whatever is here is yours. To be honest, one of these days I hope to have a place of my own; I have to have one if Julia’s dad is ever going to take me seriously. I’m just telling you so that you’ll know that I really do understand; but there are things that are easier to learn and to do with help. I want to help, to pay you back for not leaving me to die in that gully, but it’s harder for me to do that if you don’t trust me.”

I want to trust the guy although he’s looney if he thinks he has to pay me back. However I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him he sure was asking a whole lot so instead I got the rifle out of the coat closet (the doorway to the dormer room hidden behind coats) and brought it to him. He looked the gun over and told me that I needed to keep the barrel wiped down and he gave me a few more pointers and pestered me about practicing some more. He said if I worried about the sound of gunfire drawing the attention of the gangbangers then maybe I could pick a spot away from the house … like over by one of the abandoned houses.

Then he asked if I had tossed the gangbangers guns into the septic tank. I told him they were out in the barn with the motorcycles. He told me he’d look at them tomorrow and see what kind of bullets they used … I told him the bullets that were in their pockets were out there too. It was his turn to roll his eyes. “Locked in the barn is not doing you a bit of good. I’m not saying you have to wear a gun on each hip and carry a bazooka but you need know how to defend yourself.” I told him I’d give it some thought.

This time the quiet was better, the friendly kind where you are talked out but it’s OK ‘cause the other person is talked out too. That’s when he asked what I did at night and I told him that sometimes I wrote in my journal. Then he told me about his journal and he asked if I minded if he wrote while there was still a little light left. He said that he shared a room with Brendon so didn’t have a lot of privacy and the house was rarely quiet until everyone went to bed.

So that’s what we’ve been doing and that’s why, even though I have company, I’ve been able to write this all down. The only other thing we’ve really talked about was that we’d need to take our own canteens and eating utensils for tomorrow. Apparently they provide a mid-day meal of sorts, and that they have a truck of potable water, but not cups, plates or spoons. I got out a couple of plastic bowls and a spoon for each of us and two ruck sacks to carry them in. Rand already had his own canteen with him.

The lights gone and I’m finishing up this last paragraph by moonlight. I’ll have to be up extra early tomorrow so that I can feed the cows before we leave but that’s OK. Best of all, I’m going to get to ride a horse tomorrow!

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