Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter 21

May 22nd – I have the house to myself again. Rand left late yesterday but by the time I finished all my chores and looked through some more of Momma and Daddy’s notes it was too dark to write and I really had too much thinking to do anyway. Sometimes writing helps me to think and sometimes it just slows me down.

It’s a relief to be by myself again. I don’t mean that in a bad way, Rand is good company, it’s just I have a lot to think about and a lot I need to do but couldn’t because with him around I couldn’t get to the dormer room. He was also a little hard to be around, not that it wasn’t my own fault for inviting him to stay.

I feel bad for him, his broken heart is for real; the beating he took just added insult to injury. I just don’t know what to do or say to help him. He’s a twenty-year-old guy; I don’t think he’d appreciate advice from a sixteen year old “kid.” The few times I tried he would get all stressed like he was trying to not get mad at me. And I don’t know how far to take this friend thing either. He said himself once he is only around because he thinks he owes me. If I get too invested I could wind up with hurt feelings and that’s the last thing I want to deal with on top of everything else that is going on.

But he is a nice guy. That’s the thing, he really does mean well even if he is kind of managing and bossy like I’m a little kid that is half crazy and needs looking after. I’m none of those things and I wonder if that is all he sees me as or if maybe … oh forget it. All that stuff just gives me a headache. Rand is Rand and I am me and if he can’t live with it I’m not about to change just to fit how he thinks things should be. I like him and his family, they seem to be good people to have on your side, and the rest is just going to have to take care of itself. If I get hurt then I’ll have learned another lesson and deal with it.

Rand was still asleep when I got up yesterday but I noticed that the ibuprofen I had left on the coffee table for him were gone and the water bottle I left was only half full. The wind-up flashlight I left for him just in case was wrapped up in the covers with him so I knew he woke up at least once during the night.

I tried to be quiet as I put together a breakfast of cheese grits with TVP bacon crumbles but Rand woke up at the sound of the first cabinet door opening. He was so different from the other time he was here that I got a little worried. The happy morning person was nowhere in sight. He was trying to get up and having trouble so I went over and gave him a hand up. I don’t know why he had to act so weird about it, he would have done the same thing for me. I put out two more ibuprofens for when he came out of the bathroom.

Broken heart or not, Rand can eat. Where a thin guy like him puts it is beyond me. My grandmother would have said he had a hollow leg. He was quiet but he ate and he didn’t say no to a second helping when I scooped it into his bowl. I had made sure I had enough so that even if Rand had eaten a third helping there would have been enough but since he didn’t I poured the leftovers into a glass dish and set it in the useless microwave. For lunch I used the congealed block of grits to make fried mush just like my grandmother used to. But that was later.

Rand just sat there after breakfast and I wasn’t sure what to say to him. It was weird. I’ve never seen him like that and I’m pretty sure it’s not normal for him even though I haven’t known him that long. He was just staring off into the distance so I went ahead and did what I would have done even if he hadn’t been around. I started picking up wood.

I had brought the first load back to the house and was putting it in the barn when he limped out. I put the ax in the wheelbarrow and went back to the downed tree, ignoring him. I need wood and I figure at the rate I can get things done it will take me all summer and fall to keep up with my daily usage and get ahead to what I will need for winter.

There wasn’t a lot of talk once he finally caught up; mostly he was fussing at me in a kind of half-hearted way about not using the ax right when I was trying to get some bigger limbs off of the tree. And then fussing at how dull the ax was. I just let him ‘cause getting angry seemed to do him more good than sitting around moping had.

After four loads though I had had enough of wood and his bossing me around. I knew when I started tuning him out that I was reaching my limit. I told him if he wanted to go whack at the tree some more and make himself feel better that was fine but I’d had enough of him whacking at me with his mouth and then I grabbed a bucket and went out to the orchard.

I’d picked half a bucket of berries when I started feeling bad about snapping at the poor guy. When I finished the bucket and walked back to the house he was sitting on the porch. “I’m sorry kid; I’m in a bad mood. That’s no excuse to take it out on you. Laurabeth and Charlene would have already thrown something at me.”

“Good for them. And I’m sorry too. I know you aren’t feeling good … just … look, I know you won’t like me bringing it up and I know it’s none of my business. What Julia did was wrong, at least from what I know. I don’t like her much now and I meant it when I said I didn’t trust her any more. If you two do get back together and it makes you happy then fine but …” I didn’t know how to tell him I thought the girl he was in love with was a less than polite word without hurting his feelings.

“Rand, I’m not real sure why you go to all this trouble to be my friend but … thank you. I could have figured things out eventually, but your family being nice to me has helped and I won’t forget it. But Julia is another story. I’m not sure that she’s a person I want to get to know so … whether you two get back together or not I’d appreciate it if you … look, I’m not comfortable with her knowing where I live or much of anything about me. Her being friends with people that did this to you and played dirty at it … I don’t need that kind of trouble. I just … “

“It’s OK. After this … I don’t know if I could trust her very much either even though part of me still wants things to go back to the way they were before.”

“Yeah, well, as long as we’ve got an understanding on that. I won’t go out of my way to be rude to her if we wind up in the same places but … I can’t promise not to pop off at her if she gets in my face. And that Freddie Harbinger … eeewwww.”

“He didn’t bother … “

“Oh relax. Nothing really happened; let’s just say he was living down to his reputation.”

At least he was talking a little bit and not chewing me out. I thought while he was willing to talk (and eat the berries I was trying to prepare for making more juice) I’d ask him something that had been bothering me.

“Why was everyone so … I don’t know … different I guess, from on the work day?”

“Different how?”

“On the work day there was smiling and kidding … at least at first … but on market day everyone seemed to have the mully grumps.”

“Mully grumps?”

“You know … they weren’t talking to each other, no one was smiling, everyone was acting stressed out or sad or something.”

He leaned his head back and closed his eyes and I thought he’d gone to sleep but then he said, “I guess you didn’t hear did you?”

I wanted to ask him “Hear what?” but he went on pretty fast. Apparently Major Sawyer wasn’t kidding when he said that command … whoever they are … wasn’t happy about the near riot. That was the third town that there had been problems at and the second where civilian staff had been injured. All work days and other forms of community assistance had been summarily put on hold until further notice. On top of that – and unrelated despite people trying to say otherwise – is that rationing has gotten even tighter. The fact that there wasn’t that much food at the market yesterday confirmed everyone’s worst fears.

“Uncle George has been holding back cash for years to have a stash at home. He’s just that way. But when the banks started going belly up he took out almost everything he had and put it in small bills and hid it. We had a blow up about it when I was home for spring break that year and found out. I thought he’d gone crazy. They kept telling us at school everything would right itself with enough time. Turns out the old man is crazy all right … crazy like a fox. It’s helped keep the pantry full but it’s getting harder and harder. Laurabeth is doing her part and has started a garden and we have been having fresh stuff on the table but … were you serious about canning berries or were you telling Momma O a tale.”

That drives me crazy. Right when I’m finally getting some answers to my questions Rand switches gears and starts asking me questions. I asked him what did he think I was doing with the berries in front of him, making a mess just to pass the time?

That got a grin out of him big enough to make him wince when his lip re-split but settled down and watched while I did all the work of cooking the blueberries and then dumping them in the jelly bag to drain. He kept talking while I worked so I didn’t mind too much.

At first everything was all right. Work was hard to come by but you could still find it if you were willing to take a pay cut. The farm still managed to do all right because of the contracts that Uncle George already had in place. But when the contracts expired and they would only renew at less than 50% of what they had been previously things got tougher. The cost of feed went up, cost of fertilizers went up so that it almost wasn’t worth trying to grow your own feed, what you could get for your cattle and crops was going down. Uncle George sold some of his cows at a loss just so he wouldn’t have to watch them starve to death. He got rid of all but one of the big chicken houses. He hired family to help on the farm rather than pay the field hands he used to bring in seasonally. It was just stop gap measures. And then just when everyone thought things were turning around and that the pandemic was winding down the fourth wave hit and things went crazy all over. Bomb threats, actual bombs, food riots, no fuel to be found for miles at a time and what was available cost an arm and a leg, people dying of the cold over the winter, you name a bad thing it was happening.

“Uncle George locked down the farm and we didn’t lose much but for a while there were regular battles with people trying to break into the barns and outbuildings. Jonathon’s family all died and Uncle George had him move out to the farm with us. Janet got so sick we thought we were going to lose her. The rest of us had already had the flu, I spent a week quarantined in my dorm during the second wave sick as a dog but Janet … There was no room at the hospital and Uncle George went about two weeks with no sleep, refusing to leave Janet’s bedside. We thought we were going to lose him too for a while; he was having bad chest pains. We were all a mess but managed to pull through but you can see how Janet is. Uncle George is very careful with her and the only time she leaves the house is once a month for church. Jonathon can’t stand to be away from Laurabeth for more than a couple of hours. And … and people started changing and it was hardly ever for the better.”

Rand had been trying to keep up with what was going on out in the rest of the world outside Live Oak but news was scarce and what there was had been put through the washers before it was released to the public or was nothing more that flat out propaganda. There were detonations of regular type bombs in several major cities, another bad one in NYC, and it wasn’t happening just in the US but all over the world. Israel has basically shut its borders and brought out the heavy artillery against those that oppose its existence.

“I’ve heard there was a nuclear bomb that had been aimed at Israel but something happened and it failed and came down in the country that fired it off. Uncle George said God swatted it down. I’m not sure what to think but after that the Middle East came unglued and we haven’t gotten good info out of there since.”

The rest of the world was also hurting pretty badly. When the US stopped sending aid workers and supplies to all those places it used to people started dropping like flies and fighting worse than cats and dogs. China and Russia tried to step in and take the US’s place but it didn’t take long before it change from humanitarian aid to true imperialism. People weren’t any more grateful for China and Russia’s help and would battle against them leaving those two countries fighting wars on too many fronts - biting the hand that feeds them is all some people are good for apparently. Somebody goofed and somehow Russia and China came to nuclear blows with one another but there were only a few bombs dropped, That happened last month and everyone has been holding their breaths ever since. No one is certain whether a limited nuclear exchange will cause the weather problems that they predicted for all out nuclear war or if the misery they caused one another is just something to add on to the tally that the world is currently experiencing.

“Pretty much we are being told that most countries outside of the Middle East and Africa have turned turtle and are trying to just deal with their own country’s problems. India and Pakistan and still posturing … do you get what I’m talking about?”

I told him I’d been in the IB program so I wasn’t a complete idiot. I knew in general what shape the world had been in even if I didn’t always understand why. Then he said, “Well then just let me say, anyone that thought they could win a fight decided the time had come to take it outside and just do it … only a lot of those people and places found out their ego was bigger than their ability. Quick and dirty fights have turned into long drawn out ones. It’s caused a lot of misery around the world and we’ve still got a long way to go before things get better. And all we can do right now is try and survive our own troubles. So, since you seem to be at a stopping point let’s go practice and see if you can get any closer to actually hitting the target.”

Smart aleck. I was hitting the target before, just not those stupid little circles he drew. He made me shoot the rest of the bullets he had brought except for a handful he held back. It didn’t take very long. I felt pretty bad about using all of them up but he had me pick up the metal things that had come out of the gun after I fired each bullet (he was too sore to bend down and pick them up) and told me not to worry about it. He had a standing offer from a friend to come over and help him put in an addition on his house and in exchange he could use his reloading equipment.

I’m not sure what that means but I think it means taking the metal pieces and refilling them with the stuff that makes a bullet. Apparently if they are in good shape they can be reused a few times. “And Uncle George always kept extra ammo on hand just because when you are living on a working farm it is a good thing to do. And don’t get your feathers ruffled, he’s already told me it is OK to get you started. We’ll have to figure out what Clyde will take for trade to get you your own supply but I’m thinking your cooking might be one thing he won’t be able to turn down.”

Clyde is a bachelor friend of Uncle George’s and Rand. I kind of doubt that he’ll trade for my cooking but it’s worth a try. What can he say except “no”?

On our way back to the house it started to rain and we both got soaked. That meant that canning the blueberry juice was out and I fussed a little bit at it. I thought it was going to go to waste when Rand showed me how to keep it kind of cool and it lasted until I could get it done today. We put a large picnic cooler in the coolest part of the summer kitchen and filled it about half full of fresh, cold well water. Then we set the blueberry juice into the cooler and added water until the water covered all but the top of the jug I had poured the juice into. The lid of the cooler was able to close and when I checked it this morning it was still pretty cold. I’ll have to see how I can use that for other stuff.

I had to use the last of my wood out of the inside wood box to make lunch with. I used a heavy skillet heated up and oiled good. I sliced the leftover grits and fried them on each side until they were golden crunchy. I opened up a jar of applesauce and that was lunch plus Rand ate even more blueberries.

I know that wasn’t much of a lunch for Rand but it filled me up enough that I gave him most of everything. I was feeling a little closed in and awkward so I took a moment to step outside to get some more wood from the barn since it had stopped raining. When I came back in he was reading one of Momma’s notebooks I’d left out on the counter. He asked for some paper and pencil and started making notes. He was involved with whatever he was doing … it was one of the Y2K books that I had pulled down to look at the recipes … so I went back outside and was looking for Fraidy. That’s when I heard the jangling of a wagon coming.

I ran inside to get Rand and we came back just in time to hear Missy say, “Jonathon, if you made a wrong turn … “ in a frustrated voice.

Rand grinned and limped out to meet them and I followed more slowly. I’m still not sure I like it when people come back to the house.

Long and the short of it was that Missy was going crazy stuck at her dad’s home and had somehow convinced Jonathon to let her come along. She didn’t look too bad; a scab on her forehead and a bandage on her wrist was all that I could see of her ouches. Jonathon had delivered whatever it was to the Henderson place and now he was ready to get home. Missy just needed a bit to “freshen up” and I didn’t have much choice but to invite her around the fence. It was funny to see her mouth fall open but then she looked at me and grinned and said, “I swear I’ll never tell but don’t blame me if I happen to find this funny … Julia is making it out like you are some poor little waif with nothing but the clothes on your back and lookie here.”

She also gave me my ration book and repeated what Major Sawyer had said about if I had any points at the end of the month that I might be able to trade them in on allotments that hadn’t been claimed. She told me from the look of things I was better off than a lot of folks and it got me thinking enough for me to worry.

I told her that it wasn’t just Julia that I didn’t want knowing and asked her to please not go around telling people where I live or what I had (and didn’t have). She answered me by saying, “Aw honey, I know, I’m just having a little fun. Trust me, I wouldn’t have the job I have if I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I’m just happy to see Rand looks so much better … well, he sounds it anyway. What did you do?”

I hadn’t done anything and told her so and she said that it didn’t matter, Rand still seemed better than she had expected. “Sugar, it was awful. Daddy was getting really worried when dark started coming on and Rand wasn’t back from the Winston place. He and Bill, that’s Major Sawyer to you chickadee, took the wagon over to see if he’d even been there or if there was other trouble and they found him just lying in the yard.” She had to draw breath she was so mad and I didn’t blame her. “They’d just left him lying in the yard like he was an old dog. Thing is I don’t think anyone had expected Bill to be there or I don’t doubt they would have done something to Daddy too. Now they are trying to tough it out over what’s happened but word has gotten around and the Winston and Harbinger families and their kin aren’t having too much luck getting supplies up at the depot like they had been. And now word of that is spreading and people aren’t sure what to do; they’re looking for a side to pick, someone to lead them, and they thought Harbinger was it and now they find out he ain’t nothing but a big … well, let’s just say he isn’t all that he was making himself out to be. Julia’s Momma came over to ask why Daddy had set people against them. Daddy wasn’t there but Laurabeth flat out told her that they should look in the mirror and think on what they had done if they wondered why people were starting to be set against them. She called Julia a … well, you never mind what she called that she-cat. Not everybody cares of course. Some people still think might makes right and are backing the Harbingers and their crowd but mark my words … “

Rand came around the corner and in a snippy voice said, “She doesn’t need to mark them. None of this is her problem so just leave her out of it.”

I still don’t have a clue why Missy winked at me but it was kind of funny to see Rand huffing and puffing like that. Before they left I picked another bucket of blueberries and gave them to Jonathon to give to Laurabeth and Uncle George. When Rand started squeaking I told him it was either give them away or watch them fall to the ground in waste because I couldn’t keep up with them. That only half way appeased him but Missy put an elbow in his ribs that took his breath away. He was still wincing when they headed home with Hatchet tied to the wagon.

I spent the rest of yesterday doing what I said and this morning I spent washing bedding and my clothes. The afternoon was spent canning more blueberries. They look like they are finally slowing down so I figure whenever something gets ripe I’ll have a week or maybe two to get as much done as I can before things give out. I could be wrong about the bigger fruit trees but I’m going to go with that in my planning. Anything more than that will be icing on the cake … or at least I think so.

The next thing that should get ripe is the blackberries and boysenberries. I love blackberries but until I finish with these blueberries I can’t even get started on thinking about the other no matter how much I want to. I’ve looked in Momma’s books and most of her drying books are on using an electric dehydrator and that doesn’t do me a bit of good though I did find Momma’s dehydrator in with a box of other small appliances in the bonus rooms. There are a couple of designs for drying stuff without electricity but neither one is something I can do right now. One is a drying oven that uses a small fire underneath a big metal drum kind of thing. The other is a solar dryer but it uses plexiglass and screens and I’m not sure how well I can do that one either. Before I start a project like that I want to be sure that I can finish it.

Right now I’ve got the garden seeds to deal with that I traded for with Momma O. I know the garden plot isn’t ready for me to plant in yet so I thought about something I saw in one of Momma’s books called container gardening. Tomorrow I’m going back to those four houses and I’m going to grab all the dirt from the dead houseplants and stuff out of the sheds that might be useful. I’m going to use those barrels that the trees originally came in that are still sitting in the shed and I’m going to fill them up and plant those seeds. I haven’t got anything to lose and a lot to win if it works.

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