Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 18

Chapter 18

The afternoon wore on, the sun passing over and into the west but I hardly noticed; I was getting a lot accomplished. It wasn’t until I had to put dinner back yet again that I started to worry. I called down to the farm twice and all I was told was that there wasn’t anything to worry about, that Mark would be along directly. I was about to call down there again when Micah showed up.

“Del, don’t flip a switch. Mark is on his way up, he’s just had a hard day.”

Looking at my brother I suspected that he meant “bad” rather than “hard” but I was prepared to let Mark explain. I knew I was being “managed” and didn’t appreciate it. I also knew however that whatever it was must have been something for the people that knew me best to try and do something so stupid.

“Dinner is in the warmer if you want some,” I told Micah. My brother blanched a little; I guess he didn’t trust me … of course he had good reason to beware. But about that time I spied Mark coming into the yard from the road. A nine percent incline up a long road takes a while to recover from but it was more than that that had Mark quiet.

Micah quickly entered the cabin and disappeared which was weird. My first thought was that the two men in my life had come to loggerheads somehow although that didn’t quite seem to fit the situation either.

I looked at Mark and he looked at me. He knew that I knew something was up. I knew whatever was up had badly upset him to the point of shaking him up. His walls were up and he did not have the look of a man that was too happy to see me.

“I’ll get dinner on the table,” I told him. Whatever was going on I knew that he had to be the one to tell me and explain. If I had to ask him to explain … well it just didn’t bode well for our future.

“I’m not hungry.”

I made the mistake of trying to coax him into doing what I wanted. “You’ve worked all day, you need to eat,” I said to him in an unfortunately sweet voice.

“Dang it Del, I’m not hungry!” he snarled. Then he stopped, having startled himself as well as me with the tone he used. He wiped his hand across his face and then looked like he was going to apologize. Instead he hunched his shoulders and stomped off to the woodshed.

After I checked to make sure that Jessie was still sleeping I followed him out there. I found him swinging the ax too crazy to be safe. Then he saw me watching him and that seemed to upset him further and he chunked the blade into the stump and stormed towards the front porch again. I wasn’t sure what to do but it was beans to bullets I wasn’t going to just leave him to hurt himself like he seemed bent on doing.

He was slouched on the granite blocks that served as the front stairs. I approached him like he was sweating dynamite. I wasn’t afraid of him but this was too much like the old Mark for me not to know that no matter the vibes he was throwing off he still needed me to at least try and be there when he was ready to open up. Yeah, Mark and I had gotten on each other’s nerves when we were kids but at the same time I think we must have told each other stuff that we’d never have revealed to another living soul and that was because we refused to back down from the other’s quills.

Mark seemed to cave in on himself a little as the initially tension of whatever was hounding him finally broke … but the breaking seemed to break him a little bit by bit. His next words were shockers.

“I saw Kelly,” he said in a dead voice.

Every possible problem began to slide through my brain like left over pickled okra juice gone bad. She was bringing more charges of child endangerment against Mark. She was going to take Jessie. She was accusing him of dereliction with regard to Cici … or worse. She was going to take Jessie. Mark found he still had feelings for her. She was going to take Jessie.

I didn’t know what to say. The horrible what-if’s were slicing my brain … and heart … to ribbons. Mark finally turned to look me full in the face and his eyes were haunted scaring me even more. Whatever it was words wouldn’t be enough to fix it. I worried that nothing would be enough.

But I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit there. I put my arm around him and I finally felt how badly he was shaking beneath the light jacket he still wore. He turned into my one-armed hug giving me the courage to wrap my other arm around him and pull him close. The tighter I head him the harder he shook until it was all I could do to keep us from falling off the steps. From over Mark’s shoulder I saw Micah glide down the path doing his best not to get noticed and break whatever spell Mark and I were under.

I wondered at that for a moment until I realized it was some kind of guy thing where they pretend that others of their kind don’t have emotional break downs. And that was precisely what it seemed Mark was having but I still didn’t know the reason for it beyond that he’d seen Kelly. He wasn’t crying but in hindsight it might have been better had he allowed himself to. The poison might have been purged a little faster.

I started to get more worried; his skin had gone cold and clammy. I finally managed to coax him up and into the cabin but he didn’t have the energy to mark it far before he collapsed onto the settee in the front room. I built a small fire hoping to warm him from the chill that practically radiated from his body.

“Where’s Jessie?” he mumbled from where his head hung over into his hands.

“He played hard all day and tired himself out. He may sleep straight through the night as hard as he is sleeping right now.” After a moment I opened my mouth to ask him what was wrong when he beat me to it as if waiting only long enough to make sure his son was taken care of.

“I … I saw Kelly,” he said again in a voice that sounded like he was in danger of being sick.

“You … you said that before. You mean Kelly … as in Jessie’s … as in your …?” Frankly I didn’t want to connect her to either Jessie or Mark but the fact remained that she was and I was jealous of her even though I’d never willingly admit it.

“Yeah,” he shuddered. Right then and there the quality of the shudder let me know that I had nothing to fear that Mark had rediscovered he had feelings for his ex-wife. But something was definitely wrong and I waited with fear to find out what it was.

“She … she … oh God Del. She was like them people. Those zombie people. Sick. She didn’t even recognize me. I don’t think … I … I’m not for certain but … I think she is going blind or something … her eyes …”

I could feel the horror he must have experienced. Mentally running through the inventory of my first aid stuff I asked quietly, “Where is she now?” I didn’t expect that answer I got.

“On a refugee truck heading west to a work farm.”

His words fell like rocks in a quiet pond stirring up my thoughts even more. I wasn’t sure what to say but I tried to think of him and Jessie. “You … you could … I mean … here … bring her I mean … um …” I sounded like Yoda, words all out of order but making a little bit of sense anyway.

Mark turned to look at me, disbelief on his face. “No. Absolutely no,” he said definitively.

“I … I only meant …”

He swallowed painfully past whatever emotions were clogging up his throat. “I know what you meant and for Jessie’s sake I …” He stopped and scrubbed his hands across his face. Slowly he sat up straight and then eased back into the cushions and afghan that lined the back of the old-style sofa. “No. I … I made the decision to let her go with the rescue workers. We don’t have the … the necessary to…” He faded again for a moment but finally continued, “Del, after your Dad, I couldn’t ask you to go through it all again. The head … manager … whatever he was … the boss rescue worker said that had the facilities where they were heading to take care of cases like Kelly’s. She may never regain her full sight – or any of it – or her mind. She’s broke in her head, maybe permanently, maybe not. No one can say for sure. There are lots of people like her apparently. Some charity groups are setting up programs to retrain people in blindness survival and better daily living skills. No one is going to have the capacity to simply babysit large numbers of people like that. That guy, he said the goal is to teach them to be more independent and less of a burden, get them to understand they have to take an active role in their own survival, permanent disability or not.”

I wasn’t taking the time to process things as I should have and opened my mouth around a question as it occurred to me. “So these people seem to be on the up and up? They aren’t just going to put these people they ‘rescue’ into slave camps?”

Mark got defensive immediately. “As far as I could tell. I did the best I could.”

I hadn’t meant to cause him more pain and mentally kicked myself for letting my mouth slip in gear before I had checked for oncoming traffic. “Of course you did. That’s not what I meant. I’m … I’m sorry Mark. I know … well no I don’t … I’ve heard how hard you had it … Oh Lord … I can’t find the right words. I seem to be making a banquet out of my own feet.” I felt like crawling in a hole with embarrassment.

He turned his head and looked at me and then a ghost of a smile slid across his face for a moment. “I’ve been feeling like that since lunch as I kept trying to explain to people why I …” He stopped, sighed, and then said, “I did the best I could. I’m not sure it was the best someone else could have done but it’s the best I could do and no one else was stepping up.” I sat closer to him trying to giving him the support that he must have thought he wasn’t getting before. “I … I tried to get her on a train heading south to her parents but Florida has closed the border for the year and on top of that no one has heard from Kelly’s parents since I last spoke to them … or as far as the aid workers can tell that have been trying to get information out of Kelly for the last couple of weeks.”

Last couple of weeks? I wanted to ask more but Mark continued, “Orlando is apparently doing OK but the retirees in the state overall … a lot of retirees around the country and people will health problems and other stuff … have really suffered as the medicines they were taking has disappeared.”

That I could understand. “We experienced that with Dad. How has she survived this long if she has been this bad off?”

He shrugged. “Kelly’s … she’s a survivor. She always like to act like she was a hot house rose orchid but she wasn’t. Her mom was which kind of makes me wonder but her dad was … was bone deep tough. Kelly wanted to seem like her mom, all delicate and needing taking care of but underneath all that play acting she was like her old man. You should have seen her fight when …” He stopped, a little choked up in spite of himself and what Kelly had done to him in the past. “Del I barely recognized her. All that crazy coloring and junk she did to her hair is gone. I … as well as I thought I knew her I nearly didn’t recognize her except for a couple of tats she has and … and the fact that even as bad as she looks I can still see where Jessie gets some of his coloring. She looks like she’s been used hard at some point; scars where there weren’t any before. She … she smelled like … like she wasn’t taking care of herself. I don’t know how she survived … she just did. But I have to think of our survival too. Kelly would have been a liability and … and a personal problem for us. I know what I sound like I …”

I immediately fired up. “People better not say a dang word or I’ll …”

“Easy tiger,” he whispered into my hair. “It’s just the way things are. I lived with people talking before, I just don’t want to bring it into our relationship. I had hoped people would let the past die but … but this could bring it all back up again. As long as you understand we’ll be OK. I’ll … I’ll just have to face Jessie when he gets older.” I finally understood that that last was what he was really worried about. Hang what everyone else thought, he was worried his son wouldn’t understand.

We’d have to face that when the time came. I’m sure there was more to it than Mark was letting on and I had to trust him to spell it out when he was ready. I also had to trust that the decisions made now would continue to hold up in the future as good ones.

I can’t say that I wasn’t sorry not to be turned into Kelly’s caregiver. For Jessie’s sake … and for Mark’s … I had to make the offer and I would have done it too, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was grateful it hadn’t come to it. That might make me a selfish person but so be it. Dad raised me better and so did the Aunts, but I was me and at that moment was I was relieved not to have to find the Christian charity for a woman who had broken so many hearts in the pursuit of her own desires.

I walked into the kitchen to find that Micah had been into the food. I didn’t mind, I had made plenty. It also made me smile a bit to know that my brother still enjoyed my cooking. It wasn’t much but it kept my emotional scale from becoming totally weighed down with sorrows I suspected would visit us again in the future.

I put a plate together and turned to carry it out to Mark only to find that he had followed me. “I’m not sure I can eat Del.”

“Try. It isn’t going to do Kelly any good for you to let yourself get sick because you feel bad about doing what you had to do.”

“You understand? I mean, really understand?”

I debated on how much to say. Too little would make him think I was condemning him and too much would condemn me. “Mark, we promised each other that we’d always be honest with each other. If you think that what you did makes you look bad then just hear what I’m saying. I’m … I’m relieved I don’t have to be Kelly’s caregiver. I could do it for your sake and for Jessie’s but I’m … I’m glad I don’t have to. I’ve never met her yet I don’t like her … for a lot of reasons … but mostly because she had you first. I know that sounds juvenile but that’s what I feel. And it makes me mad at myself that I feel this way and maybe with time I could have overcome it … out of compassion or whatever … but again, I’m glad I don’t have to. I’m not always a nice person Mark.”

He took the plate from my hand and took it over to the table and sat down. He looked at me and asked, “Aren’t you going to eat?”

“Didn’t you just hear what I said?”

“Yeah. Yeah I did. And pardon me for being a guy but …” He stood back up, walked over to me, and bent me over backwards with a kiss so powerful it would have rattled my fillings if I had had any. He had to put me in a chair or I would have slid bonelessly to the floor.

“What … on … earth?” I whispered through nearly bruised lips.

“Del … you make my life so much easier. Better too. Bringing Kelly into this house would have been all kinds of bad. But you would have let me do it just so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty. You would have done it for Jessie. And eventually – and you can deny this if you want to but I know it’s the truth – you would have done it for Kelly’s sake too even if she turned out to be a witch on wheels. You are a lot more like your aunts than you realize but at the same time you are you. I know you can be hard, but I’ve never seen you be hard unless you have to be. That’s the main difference between you and Kelly. Kelly may have ‘had me first’ but you are the one that will have me last and in the end that’s all I care about.”

Well ring my bell, ears, and tail. For a guy who swore up and down at one point that he was ruined for romance he sure knew how to get to me. And I sure as heck wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and try and talk him out of it. I’m occasionally stubborn but I try and avoid stupid when at all possible.

We sat and ate, talked about the rest of his day and mine, and even got a little silly about what we wanted for a wedding. Every day seemed to have its bit of drama to deal with but this was pretty over the top and we both needed to work through it before trying to put it behind us. Jessie never did wake up and eventually we were both so wore out that we went to bed. Mark had finished helping set up the barriers to the townies from heading out this way en masse but he’d promised to help dig out a basement foundation so that John could start moving his house. I’d be alone again tomorrow but I’d put the time to good use; my To Do List never seemed to get any shorter.

Chapter 17

Chapter 17

Mark just sort of looked at me then gave a weird shake of his head like he was trying to knock a mosquito away from his ears.

“Did you hear me?” I asked him, beginning to wonder if maybe I should have waited.

He opened his mouth and took a breath then paused, took a breath and then opened his mouth again. Still nothing came out.

“Forget it. I was just thinking is all,” I said as I got up from the sofa and started stacking my notebooks.

“Uh … Del?”

“I said don’t worry about it.” I carried the notebooks back into the butler’s pantry and put them on the shelves in the right order. I was trying very hard not to make anything of his reaction, was trying really hard not to think about his reaction to my question at all.

I turned around and ran nose first into his chest. “Ow! What on earth are you doing just standing there like that for?” I really detested being snuck up on.

“Del?”

I was starting to get a little miffed. “What?!”

“I am awake right? This isn’t a dream where later on I really do wake up and make a complete fool of myself?”

I couldn’t do anything but stare at him. He seemed to be missing a few nuts and bolts in his upper workings. “Well goodness, remind me never to try and have a conversation with you after you’ve been asleep for a while.” I was starting to feel relieved and hoped it was just my timing and not his inclination that had caused his strange reaction.

“So I am awake,” he said with a very serious look on his face.

“Hopefully not for long. Go on to bed Mark, you’re acting punch drunk.” I managed to turn him around and push him towards his room and miracle of miracles he actually went without a fuss.

I turned and walked into my own room and closed the door laughing a little at the whole situation. I figured had someone told me that this happened to them I never would have believed it. Truth can be stranger than fiction after all. I was half way into my flannel gown when my bedroom door flew open. I didn’t scream but I was startled. Instinctively I grabbed for Mr. Sparkles and had just brought it around when Mark said, “Please don’t hit me with that, I’m addled enough as it is and electrocution isn’t going to do me any good. Did you just ask me if an April wedding was OK?”

“Mark! You nut case!!” I angrily whispered trying not to wake Jessie despite the scare his father had just given me. “What if I had grabbed my pistol instead of … oomph!” Mark had backed me into the wall and pulled the tazer from my hand.

“Did you or did you not just ask me if an April wedding was OK?” He was looking at me so strangely I was beginning to wonder if he hadn’t taken a nose dive off the deep end of an empty pool.

“Ouch you loon! Yes,” I laughed. “Are you sleep walking or something? You are acting stranger than … than … than I can find words for right now. And what do you mean by barging into my bedroom like this? I could have been in my all together!”

“So you did say what I thought you said.”

“I just said that didn’t I?” I had to laugh again at the look on his face. If I hadn’t known better I would have said he had been drinking. “Honestly you …”

I never got to finish what I had meant to say. “Pull your gown straight, it’s distracting me too much. And … and when you’re done come to the kitchen. I can’t think in here right now.”

I was left standing there with my mouth open thinking, “Honestly. I will never, ever try and talk to him when he has been in a sound sleep again.” I did agree that it would be better to get straightened up before dealing with him because in his current frame of mind there was no telling what I’d have to deal with. Not only did I straighten my gown I threw my terry bathrobe on over it and put my flannel slippers on my feet.

I walked into the kitchen to find he’d turned on the lamp and was pacing around.

“Mark?” I never got a chance to say anything because Mark started reading me the riot act.

“Now see here … this is how it is supposed to work. You are supposed to be shy and coy and keep making me wait and guess exactly how far I can push things … really build up the tension. Then, when I’m just about crazy you give me some signal that you might be receptive to the possible idea of getting things more settled out. So then I make this big production … walk in the woods, candlelight and moonlight, the whole nine yards, real romantic stuff … get down on my bended knee and ask you if you’ll marry me. Of course you say yes but you still kind of want a bit of time to savor things and ask if we can set a date later because you are just overwhelmed with emotions. All is chocolate kisses and roses until you tease me into insanity at which point you finally agree to set a date and then draw that out some because you need a preacher, a dress, and whatever else you plan on getting up to. On the wedding day I get scared to death you are going to change your mind at the last second and you leave me guessing until I just about can’t breathe. Then you say I do and we live happily ever after.” The he got this really insulted look on his face and added, “But somehow you didn’t get the memo. There’s been teasing but no real torture and I get all comfortable, go to sleep, and then you wake me up and ask ‘How’s April sound?’! Now you’ve got me all turned around. I had plans you know. I was going to take you out to the reservoir, have a picnic, and … well, I had plans. I figured you’d have to say yes at that point! What am I supposed to do now?!”

Oh my gosh, he was serious. I looked at his face again, at how outraged he was, and I couldn’t help it. I busted out laughing like I hadn’t in months and months … if ever. I swear I’d never felt so special and so happy. Mark Griffey was upset because he hadn’t had a chance to wine and dine me and propose marriage the old fashioned way … the dream most little girls have from the time they are old enough to imagine about Prince Charming. When I could catch my breath I looked at his face and he was still upset.

“Oh Mark!!” I giggled, feeling very unlike my usual self. “I love you. You have no idea how much. But please tell me you don’t really expect I would make either one of us suffer quite that horribly before we finally did something about the way we feel?” I walked into his arms and gave him a huge hug that made him grunt at being squeezed so enthusiastically.

I tilted my head back to look up at him and his outrage was slowly turning into a grin. “I wouldn’t mind, not much anyway, so long as I knew when all was said and done I was still gonna get what I want. Good things come to those who wait afterall.” The double entendre didn’t escape me and I laughed again but had the sense of self preservation to step out of his reach.

“Behave Mark.”

All I got was a none-too-innocent leer before he himself stepped back. “Are you sure Del? I mean, really sure?” I didn’t understand the suddenly serious and slightly shuttered look on his face.

“Of course I’m sure. You acting like a half-asleep zombie didn’t even phase me … not much anyway. I doubted your sanity a bit but not your feelings. How could you ask such a thing?”

He sighed. “This … You rather … already mean more to me than Kelly ever did and it just about killed me when … when she … changed her mind about what she wanted. I’m not sure what it would do to me if … And then there’s Jessie. He counts on you; I count on you to be there for him. I just …”

I could have been insulted at his backhanded way of comparing what we had with what he had with Jessie’s mother but since I’d compared him to the Lathario that I’d made an idiot of myself over I couldn’t blame him.

“Mark, there are very few men in this world that I would dare compare to Daddy; to the love and security and everything else he always gave me. There are also very few men that have ever just accepted me for who I am, warts and all. And you are the only one of that small number that I’ve ever imagined spending my life with much less loving forever. The only thing I’m concerned about is that one of these days you are going to wake up and realize I’m cantankerous, bossy, and more fond of having my own way than I should be. I will try to improve but try is all I can promise to do about it, actually changing may take some time and more effort than I’m capable of. I’ve spent enough lonely time defending myself against potential pain. It is way on the other side of worth it to take a leap of faith with you.”

The rest of what happened is no one else’s business but it sure didn’t make for an easy time of falling to sleep … in our separate beds. We were crazy in love, not crazy. We both wanted to walk into the future knowing beyond a shadow that we’d not have anything to be embarrassed by or regret and if nature took its traditional course the calendar watchers wouldn’t be able to wonder if we had jumped the gun any.

Next morning came too soon for both of us. I let Mark have both cups of the small pot of coffee we were now rationed down to and I popped two of my supply of Exedrin migraine tabs (two per 24 hours is all you are allowed to take) and got a jolt of 130 milligrams of caffeine to help get rid of the pounding inside my skull. Mark headed down to the farm to try and finish up what had been started yesterday after doing our morning chores. I decided to do some early foraging and see what was out there. But first I wanted to make sure that I didn’t unintentionally procrastinate on anything that needed doing out in the yard.

One look out of the window while I was stuffing Jessie into a coat that was already too small and I saw my first chore. The antique roses needed pruning before they started putting off new growth. They’d been neglected over the years but I’d managed to bring them back but having missed a year of pruning I was going to have to be pretty brutal this time. I pruned each branch back to four or five healthy canes making sure the cuts were at a forty-five degree angle to force new growth to an outer direction. I worked into the soil what little bit of rose fertilizer I had left and then wrote down on my pocket notepad to ask Aunt Lilah for her recipe for homemade rose food.

Several of my exotic house plants hadn’t survived the winter no matter how I had tended to them. The house just got too cold and stayed that way for too long. But my violets, begonias, aloes, and ferns hadn’t done too badly and neither had several other things. My cactus gardens actually seemed to like the drier weather and the cool nights; I guess it mimicked what they were actually bred for.

Suddenly Jessie squealed, “Kitty!” right in my ear. I turned my head to see that the crazy barn cat I had feared had crawled somewhere and died was stealthily creeping into the animal shed with a kitten in its mouth. Nature certainly was taking its course already despite the spring being fairly new. I silently warned the squirrels and the songbirds to keep an eye out and then went back to work. I knew better than to try and figure out what that cat was up to; she’d let you watch from afar and come bump your leg if she was in the mood but she preferred to make the moves and would streak away if she wasn’t interested.

I noticed that the ivy needed pruning back off the wall it had been growing on over a hundred years. When Dad and Momma had first gotten married they’d pulled it all down and re-mortared the rock wall underneath. I hoped that the job they did would last as long as the first one had but just to be on the safe side I’d give the ivy a serious haircut and check beneath it. I also made a note for Mark to check the roof. I hadn’t noticed any leaks but not even metal roofs last forever and we’d need to keep up with any maintenance on it to make it last as long as it was supposed to.

I’d already fertilized the acid loving plants with the last of such fertilizer I had in the garden shed. I had no idea where I would get more although since many of the trees had been living without my help since well before I was born I supposed I was being a little silly. But I did like how pretty the blooming shrubbery looked after a goodly dose of what they needed helped them along.

Since I was in the frame of mind I pulled back the black cloth I had laid down over the front flower beds, loosened the soil underneath, and Jessie helped me to plant seeds of cold weather annuals like nasturtiums, pansies, violas, snap dragons, English daisies, sweet William, and calendula. I also made sure to cut the old honeysuckle vines that had snuck up onto the porch railing while I was too busy nursing Dad to notice. The rest of my annual seeds were getting potted into the greenhouse as I found a few minutes here and there but starting the vegetable seeds still took precedence.

I’d pruned the grape vines before Valentine’s day to prevent sap bleeding and I could swear it looked like they were just about to put off new growth. The early spring really had things hopping. It sure did me. I opted for an early lunch since I’d gotten hung up around the cabin and then Jessie and I were finally off to do what I had meant to do first thing.

It turned out it was a good thing I waited because the dew was even heavier out in the woods than it had been around the cabin. I hadn’t said anything to Mark, though he couldn’t have helped but notice, that Jessie needed real shoes now that he was walking most of the time. I still had the patterns that Dad had used to make Micah moccasins but it isn’t like I had real leather to work with. Rudy had given the cow hides to someone when he’d culled so much of the heard last Fall but I hadn’t ever found out why. There was an old leather chair in the den that had a skirt around the bottom and I seriously thought about cutting it off and using that as material for Jessie’s shoes.

I got to where I had been heading and then threw a rope over a handy tree and turned the baby pack into a swing. Until I figured out the shoe problem I just couldn’t let Jessie walk around outside. He thought it was funny and I had to stop every few minutes to give him another push but he was out like a light after a few turns which left me to finish what I was doing. The old raspberry hedge had needed pruning last harvest and it was even worse in the spring. I spent an uninterrupted hour clearing out the old canes and getting more hopeful by the minute that I’d get a bumper crop in the summer.

When I’d had my fill of that I looked around a little to see what I could forage for dinner. The only thing I really saw that appealed to me in the least was dandelion, some bracken fiddleheads, some plantain, and then I spotted the poke. Hot dog, we’d be eating good tonight. I remember the look on some of my friends faces when I would try and get them to eat this. To them it was nothing but a noxious and poisonous weed … to me it was a banquet.

Poke can be poisonous but so can a lot of things if you don’t treat it right. For one you only use the young leaves in spring for poke. For another, even then you have to boil it once, drain and rinse, and then boil it a second time until it is tender and you pour that water off as well. When that was done I laid the poke in a casserole dish and made up a cheese sauce with the powdered cheese I had in storage. I was dying for come cheddar cheese but hard cheeses are one of the things that I’d never had the opportunity to learn to make. I was hoping that once the Bait & Tackle really got up and running I could barter for some … or maybe barter for the knowledge of how to make my own.

I added a little sautéed onion and butter over the poke and tossed it a bit before pouring over the cheese sauce. I set that in the still operating frig … gotta love a solar powered refrigerator … until I was ready to bake it for supper. I was in the middle of deciding what to do next when I heard, “Sis? You around?”

“Micah! For goodness sake, why didn’t you just come in instead of hollering from the porch? I was in the kitchen.”

“It seemed kind of rude since I’m not living here anymore.”

So that he wouldn’t see how that managed to hurt my feelings a little bit I said, “This will always be your home so stop being silly and come in. I’d open the door but my hands have butter on them.”

“Whatcha making?”

“Poke Au Gratin. Want to eat dinner here tonight?”

“Um … actually why I come is that there are some folks down at the farm and one of them had a bug bite that looks like it is trying to turn nasty. Rudy asked if you’d come look at it ‘cause Aunt Lilah is resting. She was up all night with Rudy’s youngest who had the croup.”

“Oh no. Is she OK?”

“Oh, she’s all right now. Aunt Lilah did something and she coughed up all that gross stuff … Hey Jessie! How you doing buddy? … Anyway, will you come?”

I grabbed my bag and Jessie and followed Micah back down to the farm. Mark had filled in some of the bad places in the road with the dirt from where we were cutting the terraces but there were still a lot of places that needed attending to, especially on the switchbacks where the melting snow had washed out the edges a bit.

I was introduced to the Tatum’s. The family consisted of a set of brothers, their wives, and their combined children. Rudy looked pleased with himself which made me wonder what he was up to.

“Del!” Rudy boomed loud enough to bother a hen asleep in the snowball bushes. “Come over here and meet everyone!!”

There was no telling him no though I was tempted to just to see what the look on his face would have been. The thought put a smile on my face as I tried to hold back a laugh and the folks I was being introduced to must have thought I was being as welcoming as Rudy.

“Well, don’t you look a pert picture,” the older of the two wives said.

“How do you do? I’m Del Nash. Somebody mentioned that …” I didn’t get a chance to finish because Jessie grabbed my face and pulled it his direction.

“Dewwie. Awnt O Essie. O Essie has kee-kees.”

“Of course my sweet boy wants his Aunt Esther.” Oh brother. Somehow Jessie had worked his magic and had my irascible aunt wrapped around his finger. Since neither one of them would have given me any peace until they had their way I turned Jessie over and watched them walk to the farmhouse. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes before turning back around.

“Sorry about that. They’re both strong-willed. As I was saying somebody mentioned that there was a bug bite that was trying to fester.”

“Oh honey, would you mind? It’s Mr. Tatum … my Tatum … Matthew, come here and let her see that bite on the back of your arm.”

A man who was somewhere around Rudy and John’s ages limped over. “It’s sore as an ingrown hair,” he said as he rolled up his sleeve to show me.

“When did this happen?”

“Felt something sting me when I was getting dressed yesterday morning. Was like acid. But I didn’t feel anything when I slapped at it and Lou she didn’t see a stinger or anything like a wasp had got me.”

“I don’t think it was a wasp. It looks like a fire ant sting but I didn’t think there was any up this way.”

“Where are they from?” the other man, brother to the first and a little younger, asked.

“South and west as far as I know for sure, but they’ve been spreading for years … like the Africanized bees.”

“That’d be it then,” the second brother said while I still examined the first. “Night before last we helped a truck of Hispanics fix and change a tire in exchange for a couple of bushels of the oranges they were hauling to the Army base. Picked a big banana spider out of my tool box less than an hour later.”

“I supposed it could have come from that,” I agreed. Looking at it reminded me of the bites that were really acid burns that Micah used to get when Dad was stationed in Florida. I sterilized my tools, lanced open the festering head and then cleaned out all of the puss. There was quite a bit in there so I told him if it was a fire ant bite it looked like that if he wasn’t allergic to them it was close.

“Figures. I have this same reaction to mosquitoes and spiders on occasion; not all the time but often enough.”

I told him after it was cleaned out to use warm, wet compresses to draw the swelling out but to make sure that water was clean and then I gave him a couple of the one dose triple-antibiotic cream packets I had and encouraged him to keep this dobbed on to minimize the risk of further infection.

“Already startin’ to feel better just getting that head off of it and letting some of the pressure out,” the man said. “Sure do appreciate you looking at it. What do I owe you?”

I was flabbergasted and then looked at Rudy who was smirking. My mad was just about to boil to the top when from behind me I hear, “Watch out! She’s gonna blow!!”

I turned around and spit, “Micah Hysaw Nash you let me get ahold a you and I’ll …”

“Do I look crazy?!” he laughed dancing backwards.

I turned around and faced Mr. Tatum and said, “I am not a doctor … a nurse … or a vet … or any flavor of the above. I do not charge for helping someone in need and if anybody told you otherwise …” I looked at Rudy with death ray vision.

He laughed too. “Whoa Dellie, last thing I would dare to do is to tell anybody your business. The man was just being polite.”

However Lou stepped forward and said, “Oh Lord, you’ve got some of ‘em in your family too? Bless your heart. Honey, ignore ‘em. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and women like us what has men like that to pester us all our days is some of the strongest around.” She ended on a wink and I couldn’t help but like this woman and added my grin to her hearty laughter.

And then I heard them … “Baaa … baaaaaa .. baa … baaa.” I looked outside the gate to see several teenagers and younger kids guarding a livestock truck with several goats in it.

“Goats!!”

“Sure are,” Lou said proudly.

I looked Rudy and asked suspiciously, “Did Mark say something?”

That got a laugh out of him. “I thought he was crazy but then Matt here said that heck yeah goats eat kudzu just like John said they would and it looks like the reservoir is the perfect place for them to take up residence. They can live up in the rangers’ cabin that is up thata way and they can convert the pole barns up there into what they need for the animals.”

“I do small gardens and small livestock but I’m thinking that people might like my goat cheese and some of the weaving I do … using the goat hair, baskets from the kudzu, rag mats. Rudy said that Bait & Tackle place is already starting up a trading post.”

We talked for a few more minutes before Rudy told the Tatum men, “Why don’t you go ahead and pull your trucks over in the field and get some rest. We can talk later and tomorrow we’ll show you where the reservoir is.”

After the family had done as Rudy “suggested” I tried to figure out how to say what I wanted to say without it coming out wrong. Rudy smiled and beat me to it. “No, I’m not crazy Del. At least no more than I was yesterday. I know they’re strangers but they are kin to the Cherries the long way around. To be on the safe side I’ll take ‘em to the reservoir the back way through the Montgomery place. Now here me out before you get your feathers ruffled. I see this solving a few problems I’ve been pondering on. One, John is bad concerned about the reservoir. This will put someone up there to keep an eye on it full time. Two, your idea about the goats being another source of food is a good one but I just don’t see either one of us having the time to do it. It is going to take everything I have to keep the fields running this year and you try and squeeze one more thing in and you’ll collapse no matter what you say. And that’s where my third point comes in at. Matt Tatum has two grown sons and his brother has one a couple years younger than Sam and Micah. I’m hoping that they’ll be willing to trade work for supplies, at least this first year. Don’t hurt none that there are also daughters in that mess of kids the Tatum’s have. In case you hadn’t noticed Sam and Micah sure have.”

I had noticed and had decided to reserve judgment on the whole issue. The girls looked presentable … read that as everything important was decently covered … but since I hadn’t really talked to anyone but three of the adults I wasn’t prepared to say one way or the other.

Looking around I asked, “Where’s Mark?”

“He and John are off … er … doing a few things. Heard you and Mark are looking at making it official in April.”

“Rudy,” I said warningly. “I wish you wouldn’t say it like that. It’ll make people think we’ve been up to something we shouldn’t have.”

“I ain’t even gonna comment on that. I swear, you and Mark have to be the oldest young folks I’ve ever had dealings with. That aside, you need to be thinking how you’re going to handle the legal stuff. I can help you find a preacher but don’t think there is going to be a way to make it ‘legal’ in the same sense of the word as we might have a year ago. We can write something up … for the marriage certificate and for the land ownership issues … but whether it will be recognized in a court o’ law down the road a piece I can’t say for sure.”

“We hadn’t talked about that part yet and I also have to make sure that Daddy’s wishes are carried out about Micah’s security and … Oh Lord, this is a lot bigger mess than I thought. Maybe there won’t be an April wedding after all.”

“Dellie, don’t think that. And don’t say it to Mark either. You and me will sit down and have a talk. We can get everything written out the way we want but leave it worded in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the current legal mumbo jumbo.”

I admit I was a little suspicious and it must have shown no matter how hard I tried to hide it. “I know Dellie, we ain’t always seen eye to eye. For one I just never did understand why Hy let you run things the way you did but on the other hand the results are what counts and I’ll never fault the man for how he raised you. Cain’t say I’d ever raise my girls like that but Hy did good with you. For another thing I promised Hy that I’d help where I could. You may be even more capable that Hy gave you credit for being but I can be meaner and nastier to get what I want done; I also have more experience and know more people around here than you do. We’ll get it fixed up.”

“And you want in return?” I asked him, not to be insulting but to acknowledge that he was saying the truth.

He got a sly smile on his face. “Yeah, I think Hy just may have underestimated you … and I’m not sure that Mark fully understands yet either.” He sniffed and spit and then said, “It’s my kids, especially the girls. John’s my brother but … let’s be honest with each other … you’ve seen Cal and Cindy and I don’t want that for my kids. You raised Micah as good as Hy would let you. Esther and Lilah are too old to start off raising kids 24/7 and Ali is just … Ali.”

“What about Cheryl?”

“What about her? I do intend on making an honest woman out of her after I’ve talked the kids around. Have to deal with Esther too. They still pretend Margie is gonna show up one of these days and we both know how unlikely that is going to be. Margie … she’d complicate things. She is the mother of my children but I just about can’t stand to be in the same state with her much less even think about having to support her and her proclivities again. But I can’t stand the idea of hurting my kids either. I’ve told Cheryl that if she can’t wait I understood – I don’t but I gotta say it ‘cause it is what I’d expect in her shoes – but I wanted to give it a year before we make it official. Either way she’s too young to take on my kids.”

I snorted, “Well call me Grandma Methuselah.”

“You know what I mean Dellie. She had to deal with all them brothers of hers and how they treated her. I just ain’t gonna do that to her.” Which told me more than Rudy had probably meant to. Cheryl wasn’t a convenience to him, she was the real deal.

I agreed to act as guardian to his kids, should something happen to him though Sam was getting a little old for it, and in exchange he agreed to work things so that no one would question the legalities in the long haul.

I dropped in the house, said my hellos and got some congratulations – surprisingly even from Aunt Esther – picked up Jessie and then headed back up to the cabin. I wanted to go through my seeds and bring a list with me next time to compare with what they had at the farm and what they might have at the Bait & Tackle, my inventories needed updating again, and not the least bit of work ahead of me I had a wedding to plan.

Chapter 16

Chapter 16

John used his talents and got the tractor back up and running and Micah was as proud as a peacock to be able to show off his new skills to me. John said that whoever had been maintaining it all along had done a good job and that there were spares and other things in the shed it had been kept in that Mark should move over sooner rather than later including some tools that had been left in there.

The “yard” that surrounded the cabin area was getting crowded. They were having some crowding issues down at the farm as well and Mark managed to solve both of them with a simple act of generosity – he gave the farm his travel trailer. Sam and Micah moved into the trailer freeing a room in both the farm house and in the trailer where John’s family stayed. This let John store more of their personal belongings in the trailer rather than under a tarp in the yard. There was a plan to move John’s prefab house to the farm but it would have to wait until after the spring gardens had been prepared, laid out, and planted … and as it turned out after some other things as well.

We parked the tractor where the travel trailer had sat and would eventually build a pole barn which would then get sided before winter weather set in again … or that was the plan. Of course the tractor wasn’t sitting there very much. Mark and I were out on the slope laying out and then cutting in the terraces that we would experiment with this year. We weren’t making as much headway as we had hoped. The ground was rocky and difficult to work with. It started going much quicker when John and Micah went out to the reservoir and brought back a little bobcat front loader with some other attachments.

“Boy, ya make me cringe every time I see you on that slope. Park the tractor and use this here to cut them terraces in. The tracks won’t let you slip and slide and its low slung enough you won’t tip. My nerves cain’t handle it no more,” John opined with exaggerated grievance in his voice.

The bobcat did help – helped everyone’s nerves, not just John’s – but it was still slower going than we had expected. The work wasn’t necessarily so much in cutting the terrace itself, though that was pain enough; time was involved in building the retaining wall to keep each terrace from washing out. We took advantage of a few natural retaining walls in the landscape but most of them we had to build ourselves by bringing in slabs of sandstone and granite from the old rock quarry several miles away. That was not fun. We built smaller terraces up towards the top by building the retaining wall first and then back filling it. It was these smaller terraces that I planted in first. The other terraces we built would have to wait a season as we did what we could to improve the soil and to see how bad a problem erosion was going to be.

My first plant plantings were of the leafy green variety – cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, and spinach. I also planted as many onions, English peas, snap peas, and radishes as I had room for. Cheryl and Aunt Lilah planned and planted a large kitchen garden down on the farm and then Rudy – I’m not sure I want to know where he “found” the seeds – added quarter acre plots of peas, onions, and some of the leafy greens for possible trading at the Bait & Tackle.

“Mark! Mark!!” Rudy called as he walked over to where Mark and I were working on the latest terrace as he waved a hand. “Give me a sec of your time? Sorry Del, didn’t see you there. This’ll save me a trip.”

I could tell there wasn’t an emergency; had there been he would have radioed up on the handheld I kept clipped to my pocket. Jessie was a little wiggly in the backpack as he was getting excited at seeing his daddy get down off the bobcat and head our way.

“What’s up?” we both ask near simultaneously.

“My flaming blood pressure but I think I’ve got a way to fix it.”

“Rudy, don’t take this the wrong way but sometimes the way you fix things has a tendency to break them first,” I sassed at him a little.

He snorted in appreciation at the jab. “Maybe so but all things considered I think you’ll agree I behaved myself.”

At that I raised my eyebrows. “What now?” Mark asked already knowing he wasn’t likely to like what we’d be hearing.

“That delegation from the town finally arrived. And right hacked off they were that the bridge was out.” Rudy seemed to take some satisfaction in their being hacked off. “They are trying to take an inventory of what people still have to eat, including what they might have to feed their cattle with, so that people can be ‘taxed an equitable portion’ to support those that don’t have much left.

“Taxed?” I yelped. “Do they even have any legal taxing authority?” In all the madness of trying to survive I had completely forgotten about things like taxes and the like. What on earth would they need taxes for anyway except to support the military and fix the road? I wasn’t going to pay for some bean counter to go around to my neighbors, demand to know what they had in their pantries, and then sic some dogs on the ones that were mandated to contribute to some kind of redistribution of resources.

Rudy saw that Mark and I had both gotten the problem real fast and nodded his head. “I asked them the same thing and that may be the one fly in their ointment. They told me to shut up about that and that either I gave willingly or the natives still living in town might get restless and come take it all.”

Mark growled, “Let ‘em try.”

Rudy nodded in appreciation. “As much as I agree with the sentiment son reality tells me I don’t know enough about the enemy and their numbers to say for sure who would win that battle. I’m out to avoid battles when I can and just plain ol’ win the war without having to make casualties out o’ any of our own people. Lord I miss Hy … er, sorry Del,” Rudy said looking at me in concern.

I closed my eyes for just a second then drew a smile up from someplace and told him, “I miss him too Rudy, for a lot of reasons. But you’re right; he of all of us had training in this stuff. You might ask Micah.” At Rudy and Mark’s looks I had to laugh. “OK, I know that sounds strange but Daddy used to quiz Micah with some kind of strategy game he made up. I never had the time for it and Daddy … well, you know how Daddy was about women on the front lines. He could be as old-fashioned as Shakespeare’s Quill about some things.”

After shaking his head Mark asked Rudy, “You said you had something you wanted to talk to us about?”

“Yeah, you think you have enough terraces to get you started? You can have room down in the kitchen garden if you still need it.”

Mark looked at me since that was my area. “These we are working on now are for later, trying to get ahead so I can build the dirt up.”

“Yeah, I see it. But for right now are you finished?”

I looked at Mark before saying, “I … I guess we could be. I’ve got the raised beds closer to the cabin I can use for what needs to be planted next month.”

“Good,” he said relieved. “Mark, what I need … what I’d appreciate,” Rudy said, trying to be conciliatory. “Is some help and since you have the most experience with a bobcat and dozer, with you involved the work will go faster.”

“I’m listening,” Mark replied.

“Since we’re one of the closest with the ability I wanna pull down the highway and county road over passes between here and town. It won’t stop an army but it’ll slow down a bunch a gang banger wannabes in pickups, SUVs, and what have you.”

I said, “They’ll just go around.”

“They’ll have the same problem no matter which direction they try. I got on the radio as soon as the ijits left and everyone that can is going to pull down every bridge and overpass they’re near. A couple of men I know say they have a source to get some demolition equipment and they’ll blow the cuts too which will really limit their options. They want to play that game we plan on boxing ‘em in the best we can … or at least cut down on the roads that they can come out here on safely with any speed. Mark, you got anything left at your sister’s old place you better let one of us ride in with you and get it. I have a feeling that things could go from bad to worse if the townies keep pushing at us out here.”

I shivered like a goose was walking across my grave. “Why are they wasting time making threats? Don’t they have enough to take up their time? Spring planting is here. They’ve got all those houses in town to salvage from and do something with. If there are some people that can’t behave themselves they could form a delegation and start rounding them up and dumping them in the state prison and tell them you don’t work you don’t eat. If the knowledge base is small they could make that work using community gardens or something like that. Are the Looter Laws still in effect? Couldn’t we get them on that? We don’t even know if these people from town are legitimate representatives that have been officially voted and sworn into office … they are legitimate representatives period and aren’t out to make a profit for themselves.”

I had to stop and draw breath which gave Rudy a chance to step in. “All of them’s is good points and have been brought up; but I don’t have the answers for your Dellie. In general my opinion is most people are just plain dumb as stumps. Might not be what you want to hear but that’s been my experience.”

Well, what are you going to say to something like that? Frankly even though I was just twenty-one that had been my own experience too; some of the things the people in my university, or those that I worked with, got up to went way beyond stupid to the criminally ridiculous.

Rudy started talking to Mark. “When the levies went the National Guard emptied their armories in this area but we got some good ol’ boys that know how to get up to some high jinks that when they let ‘er blow will be just as bad as those big guns. Ol’ Man Cherry’s grandson worked at the quarry and … er … liberated a few items that will help curb the townies enthusiasm for trouble.”

“What can I do to help?”

Both men looked at me like I was the sixth string on a five-string banjo. “Well now Dellie …,” Rudy started to hem and haw. Mark just opened and closed his mouth a few times trying to figure out how to say no without saying it and setting me off.

Feeling pity for both of them I relented and said, “I’m not asking to man a gunnery position for pity sake but if you think I’m going to sit in a rocker and twiddle my thumbs if there is work to be done you can think again. I will keep Jessie safe Mark, but there are other things … like first aid, camouflage outfits, reloading shells … there has to be something I can do to contribute.”

Both men relaxed enough that I nearly laughed in their faces. I really wasn’t looking for a fight, nor did I want one to come to us, but if it did I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I hadn’t contributed to the safety of those that did fight for our sakes.

“Let me think on it Dellie but go ahead and get started on making up any of your supplies in case we do need to make sure that if someone needs patching up you can do it.” Turning to Mark Rudy added, “We aim to get this done before they can muster any kind of opposition to it which means for the sake of safety starting right now. Can you drive this thing down to the farm and help us get going on it?”

Well, that pretty much destroyed my plans for the day and after Rudy told me that they’d feed Mark from farm supplies all I had left to do was go back to the cabin and … well, I wasn’t pouting though someone who wasn’t very kind might have said so … but not to my face if they wanted to keep their skin on.

I had planted the last of what I had to plant the day before so I was left with time on my hands and I hated when that happened; it was always so unsettling. And contrary to Rudy’s assumption I was already fully stocked on all of my first aid components and homemade preparations; it was one of the few things – that and sewing – that I could do while I nursed Daddy. So I pulled out my master list of projects and turned to the ones that I had listed as pressing or urgent. Right at the top of the list was one that needed doing and needed doing bad. The root cellar had to be cleaned out.

I grabbed a couple of five gallon buckets and headed down stairs with Jessie who was more than happy to play in a corner of the basement I cordoned off for him to keep him out of trouble. It was cool bordering on cold down there but I knew come summer we’d probably move some cots down to take advantage of it again.

All of the apples were used and so was pretty much everything else except for some sprouting potatoes that I was going to use as seed next month. I really hadn’t had a chance last fall to do the job properly but this year I was going to have to do a much better job of stocking up. I knew Micah hadn’t said anything to anyone about the supplies that Daddy had stashed but if things got rough at the farm I couldn’t in all conscience withhold something life sustaining to them especially after all that they’d given to us. I wouldn’t see any of them starve if I could help it, not even John and his family even though they were no kin to us at all.

After a couple of hours of organizing, scrubbing, and sweeping the root cellar area was clean as a whistle and ready for any new additions once they started coming. Jessie had fallen asleep on a quilt I had put down and I knew when he woke up he’d be hungry. I really wasn’t in the mood to cook so I grabbed a couple of biscuits that I had left over from breakfast and then made a little bit of tuna fish salad from one of the numerous cans that still sat in my own pantry. Micah didn’t like tuna fish and Daddy hadn’t been able to keep it down and Mark never said either way so I hadn’t used up much of it up to this point. There seemed to be a gazillion of those little cans in the tub I had stored them in.

Jessie was more than pleased to eat tuna fish though he preferred it with crackers rather than on the biscuit. While he ate I decided to go through the whole inventory of food stocks to see if there was anything besides the tuna fish that wasn’t getting used up the way I had expected. I also checked all of the seals on the jars and cans. Everything was pretty much what I expected though I did find a can of tomatoes that was leaking and I got rid of it as quick as I could and scrubbed the shelf down with hot water and vinegar.

I was wondering if they would feed Mark supper too when I heard boots on the back porch – I had locked and bolted the front of the house already – and looked up to see the man I was wondering about.

“Hey! You’re home!!”

A slowly widening smile on his face told me that he was happy to be home and have me notice it.

“Brought leftovers your Aunt Esther sent up. They had Stone Soup out at the gate. Everyone that showed up brought something to contribute and somehow there was enough for everyone to take a bit home too. Did I catch you before you started cooking?”

“You sure did. Gosh it’s been years since I had stone soup,” I laughed. “Anybody get the stone?”

“I heard Lilah was going to put one in but Esther turned green and absolutely forbid it. Even without the stone it turned out pretty good. Seems like everyone out this way has just enough or near to it to get them through until the spring gardens start producing though I noticed most people look like they’ve been on a diet this winter.”

“Any interesting news? Besides a bunch of grown men blowing things up I mean?” I teased, simply pleased to have him home. I was helping him out of the coveralls he was still wearing to protect his clothes when he said, “Got a few of them playing around with biofuel but no one with a set up as big as John’s. And John’s got a new project too. Big John’s son … the one that was living in Elizabethtown showed up two days ago and wants to start what he calls a methane digester which could be an alternative to biofuel. Got more than a few people putting together plans for stills.” That made him laugh, and me too. “Got a few people asking us to hold onto some syrup in the hopes of making a trade later and somehow or other … maybe at the funeral … folks heard you know what is edible out in the wooded areas and what isn’t so’s you might be hearing from some people asking for some lessons.” And with that he grabbed me around the waste and planted a breath-stealing kiss on my lips.

“My goodness Mark. What was that all about?”

“Being thankful.”

“What?”

“I’ve heard some pretty sorry tails of what people have been eating and how they’ve been forced to make do over the winter. Most of them have forgotten what their grandparents foraged for if they ever knew. More than a few men my age from town have come belly crawling out just to have a chance at the farmers’ daughters as the girls in town seem to keep waiting for the grocery stores to open up.”

I looked to see if he was exaggerating and he caught my look. “I’m telling the unvarnished truth Del … right from a couple of the horses’ mouths. I couldn’t believe it but Kermit …”

“Our Kermit? From school?” I asked surprised, not having really thought about him since we had stopped at the propane store a lifetime ago.

“How many Kermits do you know?” he laughed. “Well guess what? He’s living out on the Harkness place. His parents’ both passed when they couldn’t get the medications they needed, but Kermit escaped with his little girl right before the gangs hit town. And guess who … naw, you’ll never guess. He’s taken up with Louise Harkness!”

His announcement fell flatter than he expected. I’d never heard of the woman. “Come on, you have to remember Louise. She’s every bit of seven or eight years older than Kermit … she worked at the Piggly Wiggly before it closed down … always looked road hard and hung up wet? Thought she was the karaoke queen out at the Ranch Bar & Grill?”

I handed him a glass of milk to hold him over until I could get the soup heated up. “So?” I asked finally vaguely remembering the woman he was referring to and the occasional jokes that were made at her expense. “Kermit looks like a big mouth bass during fly hatching season. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Well … it just … well … for one she’s older than him.”

“Not that I have any experience but from what I hear tell from gossip older women and younger men make a good combination … especially in the bedroom.”

I had to hand him a rag to mop his face as he choked and spit up the swallow of milk he had just taken. “Del!!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I may not have any experience in that direction Mark but I didn’t live under a rock. And if you look at the history of many families you’ll find matches like this that are very successful.”

“Wellll …. I … I suppose. Kermit seems happy and more than a couple of the other men looked like they wished they had whatever it is that Kermit has got.”

“See there?” I told him. Then I asked, “Did it seem like any of the men were checking out Ali and Cindy?”

His eyebrows shot way up. “Whoooeeee. Rudy would have forbid them from stepping out of the house if he could have gotten away with it. He did make sure that his oldest daughter stayed inside.” He laughed like it was funny but I had a feeling that Rudy didn’t see the humor at all. I pitied the man that even thought about courting Rudy Carlisle’s daughters for they were sure to be in for a rough row to hoe.

“Did you all manage to do whatever it was that Rudy wanted?”

“Partially. My ears are still ringing where we brought down the overpasses. And since there was room on the flatbed I brought back some concrete chunks that when I can get around to it I’ll break up and we can use in the retaining walls. Had more than a couple of the men ask me to let them know how it works out because they’ve got some steep areas that might come in handy for gardens closer to their houses.”

“What about the farmers in the bottoms?”

“Most of them have been flooded out; they’re moving to higher ground and taking over the farms of families they know won’t be coming back for whatever reason. A lot of the topsoil is gone which means the easy farming is gone. And without the levies it’s just going to flood again; maybe not this year but it could.”

Talk quieted down while we ate and tried to get most of Jessie’s dinner in his mouth rather than on his face. Afterwards we took turns in the shower, quick ones since we were trying to save the propane for canning season which meant the water was only as hot as the sun could get it during the day.

I was shivering even after getting dressed, it was another cool night and washing my hair had been a mistake.

“Wanna help each other warm up?” Mark asked with a devilish look in his eyes.

I might have been tempted but I wasn't about to tell him that. “Mark, you said you wouldn’t push.”

“I know. I just like to torture myself. Come on, I’ll build a small fire in the fireplace and you can dry your hair in there and I’ll pop some popcorn. We’ll even put garlic salt on it.” He wasn’t making my self-denial any easier.

“Humph, if we both have garlic breath how is that going to help?”

“Welllll, you weren’t supposed to think a that.” With the air of someone that had been caught trying to be naughty. I knew he was just funning, and frankly I was enjoying the attention, but I wondered how long we'd be able to play such dangerous games before we got in a pickle that might be hard to back out of.

We were half way through the bowl of popcorn when I looked over to find Mark dead asleep and working on his first snore. I looked over at Jessie to find him nodding off too. I just rolled my eyes and put Jessie to bed then brought my inventories, lists, and menus to the sofa to work on them where it was warm.

It was almost the end of February and I’d planted everything I could up to that point. Now it was time to prepare for what needed to be planted in March. I decided I would plant the beets in one of the smaller terraces but the broccoli and leaf lettuce like Black Seeded Simpson would be planted in raised beds nearer the cabin. I was running out of ideas on how to build varmint proof barriers to our garden with what we had on hand and decided I would just have to plant enough that I could afford to lose some.

The deer population had been completely decimated. No one had even seen scat which wasn’t a good sign in the long run. Hadn't seen rabbits, raccoons, or hardly any wild creature of any size. Mark had warned me but I hadn’t given the problem enough thought. And Rudy had been forced to cull a lot of our own stock of domestic meat animals. Those goats were looking more and more important but I don’t know how I would take on anything else … especially when I would have a sharp learning curve at the same time. I put the idea of the goats down on the list to mention to Rudy, and maybe John, as it never seemed to come up in conversation naturally.

Picking my planting schedule back up I noted all of the other plants I wanted to get in the ground next month: more head cabbage, turnip greens and root turnips, more head lettuce, more onions, and more peas. The biggest task however was going to be getting the Irish potatoes in the ground. I only had one area that I could grow the potatoes in at the moment and that was in the raised beds. There was no way I was going to get enough potatoes to last us year round that way.

I hated to do it but it looked like I was going to have to take Rudy up on his offer to use part of a field down on the farm. I made a note to ask him sooner rather than later but I also wondered where other people were getting their seed potatoes from … or if they had been able to hold any back at all. I was babying my sweet potato slips and praying they survived until May when I could plant them. I was starting to get the wooly boogers when I realized that with the “Seed and Feed” type stores closed the kinds and variety of foods that any of us could plant was going to be determined by how well a previous crop did and whether we could save any seed for the following year.

To take my mind off of that problem I decided to look into the future a little bit. After March’s planting I would have a bit of break in April … strike that; I’d be planting corn, beans and tomatoes in April but at least it wouldn't be too bad. May would be a real kicker and it would also be when I would need the larger fields ready because squash and melons spread like crazy as they grow. May would also be the month when some soft fruits started ripening. June was mostly successive planting of what went into the ground in May but it was also when the domesticated fruits started producing more heavily. I looked at July and knew that I was probably going to slip into a coma from the amount of work I was looking at in that month, assuming the heat didn’t get me first. I had a ton of stuff to plant in July, plus what was ready for harvest from previous plantings, plus July started the serious fruit harvesting season. August looked as bad as July and September even a little worse if possible. October was when the last of the apples came in for winter storage and when I had to scramble for what forage I could to help stave off empty shelves before Spring. Cold spells in November would be culling time if I remember right and that was no small amount of work either.

I looked and looked and looked trying to figure a way that offered more options but just didn’t see it and I hadn’t even asked Rudy if he was planting any grains besides corn this year. I joggled Mark awake. It wasn’t easy.

“Aw man, you shouldn’t have let me go to sleep. What time is it anyway?” he asked just this side of grumpy.

“I don’t know but we need to talk.”

That gave him pause and he was finally completely awake when I asked him, “How would you feel about an April wedding?”

Chapter 15

Chapter 15

Life goes on whether we are ready or even want it to. There was no denying I was alive but the days following Daddy’s death and burial was like a remedial course in actually living.

The first project we worked on was syrup making. It was work, and a bunch of it, but we only had a small window of opportunity and I was bound and determined to take advantage of it. For this project it was actually easier for the farm to come to us rather than us haul everything to the farm. The cabin homestead already had the set up and we also had access to a larger supply of wood to keep the fire the right temperature. And the trees; I can’t forget we had the trees in much greater abundance than the farm itself did.

For my part I was much more comfortable keeping the youngest kids … Jessie and Rudy’s two youngest girls … at the farm and away from the boilers. Aunt Esther and Aunt Lilah watched Jessie and the others helped haul the sap from the tapped trees; but having them near the fire made me a nervous wreck so I never let them hang around at the cabin very long. There is a story in our family that two children were lost one year when they got too near a boiling vat of tree sap. One of the children died immediately but the other lingered for days during a time when modern health care was nonexistent. That story has always stuck in my head and not even Rudy or Aunt Lilah could make me ease up on the restrictions I set. I’m simply not convinced I could have handled anyone getting hurt on my watch, it wouldn’t matter whether it was my fault or not.

I had already marked several trees that we had used in years past – maple, birch, box elder, and black walnut. You can technically get sap and therefore syrup from all trees but you’ll wind up with a nasty and potentially poisonous mess from some of them. I always stuck with the traditional tree varieties because of this. Besides, it was enough to keep four vats boiling at a time.

Purists would have a conniption if they saw the way we had always boiled sap. For one thing if it was a maple the sap went in the maple vat; it didn’t matter whether it was a sugar maple, a red maple, a silver maple, or whatever. A maple was a maple was a maple when it came time for us to make syrup though I will admit to a partiality for the sugar maples. One year the tree taping days were cut so short that Daddy simply dumped all of the syrup from all the different varieties of trees we tapped into the same batch. We were thankful for what little syrup we got that year but the syrup itself had an unusual taste to it that we were never able to replicate and I wasn’t necessarily disappointed by that.

That first day was chaos. We had the kids cleaning and sanitizing all of the equipment – buckets, lids, drill bits, spiles (what the taps are called), and hooks. The women pulled out all of the cheesecloth we had and was hand washing it and laying it out so that it would dry straight without the loose weave being pulled out of whack and making holes. I had more cheesecloth than they did down at the farm because I had been stockpiling it for years and keeping it in my cedar chest. I had a thing for cheese cloth for some weird reason and Daddy and Micah bought me some as a gag nearly every Christmas and birthday. The men, after they finished their morning chores, took the equipment and started setting up the taps. Often paths had to be cleared just to get to the trees we wanted which only added to the labor.

Most of the trees we tapped only had one or two taps. A tree has to be in excess of twelve inches in diameter before you can tap it at all unless you want to kill it or weaken it to the point it might as well be dead. At twenty-one inches you can have two taps and even the most conservative tree tapper said that if it is over twenty-seven inches you can have three taps. I’ve never put more than three taps on a tree; you want the sap but you don’t want to bleed the tree dry.

We didn’t collect any sap that day but we were experiencing good weather for what we planned to do. It was warming during the day but still fell below freezing at night. When the tree would freeze at night the capillary pressure would squeeze the sap out through the taps that had been drilled. Starting the next day we collected a goodly amount of sap, better than I remember the last time we did it in fact. The weather was pretty much perfect and the weather had been damp rather than dry as it had been the last several years.

The sap looked like water unless you let it dry on you, then it could feel tacky and sticky. Each type of syrup was collected from the bucket and then poured into larger holding buckets until we collected enough to boil. It takes forty gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. I had five gallon buckets stacked high and deep out in the shed where they stayed below thirty-eight degrees. You have to remember that sap is like milk, it doesn’t stay good long and it has to be kept below a certain temperature or it will spoil.

Maple and Box Elders make the most syrup as they only require a 40:1 ratio of sap to syrup to reach the right sugar percentage which floats around 66% plus or minus a very few tenths. Black walnut was next at 60:1. It was the Birch that provided the least amount of syrup for the most amount of work at 100:1 but the taste was so phenomenal that I couldn’t resist the temptation to do it anyway, especially after everyone else egged me on after remembering the batches that Daddy used to make.

We got enough of the maple sap first so that is the first batch we started. We built a trench fire in the old fire pits that were older than Aunt Lilah and that was saying something. Then we carefully lay the tub on the rocks that had been laid around the trenches in the days of Methuselah. We then poured the sap we’d been collecting into the two-foot by six-foot flat bottomed tub that was properly called an evaporation pan and then brought it up to a boil. That was the tricky part and we had long paddles we used to keep the syrup stirred so that it wouldn’t scorch; the fire had to be tended just right as well. Slowly a rhythm would set it. Given the size of our evaporator pans we managed to produce two gallons of maple syrup a day and once we brought the other evaporator pans into production to handle the other saps we were getting two gallons of maple per day, two gallons of box elder, a gallon and a half of black walnut syrup, and maybe a gallon of birch if we started it first and had a nice long day of dry weather.

We had an average year and sugaring time … when you turn sap into syrup … lasted three full weeks. I’d never participated in such a large and constant production. We finished up with about forty gallons of maple syrup, the same in box elder syrup, thirty gallons of black walnut syrup, and fifteen gallons of birch syrup. This was split evenly with the farm.

I suppose, given that most of the sap had come from the cabin land and that Mark and I supervised we could have asked and likely received more but when we discussed it together we decided that we’d phrase it to be so that we could get fuel for the tractor. Rudy was no fool and he took Mark and I aside and said that both the farm and cabin should have what he called a “grace period” this first year so that we could all get on our feet. We’d produce and share with the farm and the farm would produce and share with us and we wouldn’t worry about every jot and tittle so long as everyone was pulling their weight and was content to leave it the way it was.

That was fine by me, I wasn’t really eager to have to deal with a competition of that sort. It might come in the future but I was praying that things would work out peacefully in both the short term and long term.

I did learn a few things during that period and had a few others reinforced. One of my biggest mistakes was in thinking that I could just carry on with my other chores the way I always had during syrup making time. Wrong. For one the amount of sap we were working was greater than anything I had ever participated in in the past. Two, my chores were greater than they had ever been in the past. Three, a larger number of people participating in production did not necessarily lessen the work by an equal percentage.

I tried to keep doing things the same way and within two or three days I was so tired and exhausted I was on the frayed edge of tears all the time. People put it down to grief but I had to admit to Mark on that third day that the truth was I wasn’t working myself to exhaustion on purpose it was just turning out that way.

“Del, you’re gonna make yourself sick. Take a day off. I’ll tell John that we have to have Micah for a couple of more weeks, at least until sugaring is over with, to give you some time to recoup from everything.”

“Mark, it isn’t that. I can’t just pick and choose when I’m going to let Micah have his trial period and when I’m going to put it on hold; that’s not realistic and won’t solve a thing,” I told him.

After asking me to sit down before I fell down which I gladly did while he poured me some warm cambric tea … warm milk with just a bit of heavily tea mixed in it … he asked, “Is it just the sugaring or is it the chores … or both?”

“I’ll admit my energy level is low but don’t tell Aunt Lilah or she’ll pester me until I drink that foul spring tonic she makes. Rushing into the sugaring hasn’t helped and neither has trying to pick up my regular chores that you took over so I could nurse,” I had to swallow past a catch in my throat. “So that I could nurse Daddy. If it was just one of those things I could likely get through it without looking like such a needy weenie.”

He chuffed a tired laugh and then said, “You aren’t a ‘needy weenie.’ The things you say girl.” He rotated his neck and shoulders to release some of his own fatigue. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly full of energy myself. Those paddles and lifting those buckets are as bad as splitting wood all day, which I might add is what Sam and Micah are doing plenty of too just to keep the fires going. Trying to keep up with four evaporators at once is like trying to dance with four girls at once … tricky and on the verge of being dangerous.”

That last made me give him a look but there was no way I was going to stroke his ego and ask him how he knew exactly. Instead I told him, “Micah will be up here tomorrow to help. He knows what has to be done and how to be careful with the boiling sap.”

“Speaking of … I thought you said you didn’t like kids around the evaporator pans. How did you and Micah learn? The way you make it sound you were younger than Rudy’s girls when you started.”

“We didn’t start on the pans but on the kettles … those big stainless steel ones I pulled out of the basement before deciding they were too small. They were set up over a propane burner outside . And … well, Daddy had the nerves to teach us. I just don’t have it in me right now to force myself to let the girls learn. Not to mention those two youngest ones are a little airheaded right now. I know it’s what the Aunts would call ‘a phase’ but I just don’t have the patience for it, not while I’m trying to work around that hot sap, syrup, whatever.”

“Then don’t force yourself. They can help gather the sap and Sam and the older girl can cart it up here. But what about you? How are we gonna fix your tired?” he asked sidling up beside me on the sofa so he could get his share of the popcorn.

“We’re gonna be eating a lot of beans.”

That brought another chuckle from him. “We do already.”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “But not every night. I’ve got two big Dutch ovens. I’ll use the coals form the fire and one Dutchie will have lunch in it and the other will have supper, I’ll just start them both in the morning at the same time. Stuff that takes shorter to cook will be for lunch, longer for supper and the only thing I can think of that won’t hurt from sitting in the Dutchie for that long is beans.”

The only answer I got was, “Leftovers.”

“Huh?”

“If it is a problem just cook an extra large pot of whatever you are cooking for lunch and we can eat leftovers for supper. Micah has been eating down at the farm for his first and last meals and Jessie isn’t picky; neither am I for that matter. It’s your fault we got spoiled.”

“Oh you,” I said, pleased by the inference he liked my cooking. “Well, maybe on some days I might do that but I hate to do it every day; makes me feel lazy.”

“The last thing you are Sugar is lazy. And this popcorn is all finished. I don’t know about you but I’m not up for a late night. I’m going to hit the hay.”

I know people probably thought there was a lot of temptation, if not outright hanky panky going on, with the two of us living together and the only chaperone being Jessie. We did leave the bedroom doors open which helped me to not feel so sick-alone at night, but in all honesty we were just too tired for any kind of teasing each other much less getting up to real shenanigans we had no business getting up to. Those three weeks was hard labor plain and simple.

One of the few good things that came out of that time was that I was too focused and tired to really let grieving for Daddy consume me like it had the first few days. Life did go on and I knew in my heart that that was what he would expect of me. It isn’t like we didn’t have any warning what was coming. To be honest though when it did happen it still took me by surprise. You learn to live in a … a bubble where the only thing that exists is what you are going through and you lose sight of the fact that one day it will come to an end. When the bubble pops it’s like relearning how to live. Those three weeks were my baby steps; sometimes I fell, sometimes I crawled, but by the end of that time I was walking fairly well though I still managed to stumble every so often.

The last tap had been collected, all the equipment washed and scalded and stored away for next time we would need them, and the worst of the mud dried up in the yard when I decided to see if I could find anything fresh for the supper table that night. The early spring gave me hope so I put Jessie in his backpack, grabbed a woven basket, left a note for Mark who had gone to the farm to see if John could come see what the tractor needed to get it started and headed off into the woods.

The first thing I noticed was that there was an odd little stream developing where none had been in memory … at least in my memory. I followed it until I reached the forestry boundary and stopped, not having any desire to spend all day on the mystery but I did make a note to tell Mark. It had been exceptionally wet last year but I hadn’t thought that the winter had been any snowier than usual and the runoff in that stream wasn’t really cold enough to be snow melt.

I did manage to find enough baby greens to make a spring salad with and some brackens – the ones I found were cinnamon ferns – that I could fry up and then season like asparagus. We’d had our fill of beans for a while but I thought I could manage a wheat pilaf to go with it and then a couple of pieces of fat back if Mark insisted on some meat. I remembered that Daddy had always insisted on a little meat with each meal even if … and that was all it took, the waterworks hit again.

I slipped Jessie off my shoulders and sat on a damp stump and cuddled him while I tried to get myself back under control. Some little while later Mark scared me out of a year’s growth when he put his arm around me; I hadn’t even heard him come up or noticed Jessie tugging at me to be let go.

“Hey, you OK?” he asked as he handed me his handkerchief.

I sniffed and said, “Yeah, it just sort of hit me and …” That’s when I noticed Rudy and John off in the trees and I was ready to sink into the ground. The last thing I wanted either of them to think, especially Rudy, was that I was weak.

“Don’t worry about them. Understand or not sometimes you’ve got to let it out or it is going to eat you up.”

Thank God Mark understood. I dried my tears and wiped my face then asked, “What are you doing out here?”

“We came to look at that tractor but found a stream and decided to see where it went.”

Rudy and John chose that moment to come over, “Dellie, you ever remember a stream running through here? I can’t remember Hy … er … I can’t remember ever hearing of one.”

“There hasn’t been one in my memory. There used to be a stream if you look at the old family maps but it wasn’t this one and if I understood Granddaddy’s stories right it dried up before Momma was even born. I followed this one to the forestry land but no further. It’s not cold enough to be snow melt. I was gonna ask but it seems like y’all don’t know either.”

John was scratching his chin and you could see him thinking. Rudy saw it and asked, “John, what’s on your mind.”

“There’s several springs and streams on that land. Not all of them run year round. We also had a hundred year flood and then the levies going. Lots of disturbances to the local water system. And you know, the reservoir it right not too far on the other side of the forestry land. That reservoir isn’t too big, they never really built good overflows on it and the water isn’t getting used like it was … Rudy, I need to get over there. This stream might be a sign that the reservoir is overflowing or something along those lines. If the reservoir is in bad shape we could wind up with another flood on our hands and I’m not real sure which way it will pour.”

I wouldn’t let them take off straight away but made them come back to the cabin and get some canteens and some edibles to take with them. Mark also grabbed more ammo for his rifle and a machete in case they had to go through any thickets. When they left I radioed down to Sam and Micah and let them know what was going on.

It was night before they made it back and I was starting to get twitchy. I offered Rudy and John a bed but they said they’d just as soon walk the little bit that was left and sleep in their own beds but they thanked me for the offer.

Mark was chilled and muddy and frankly we didn’t bother too much with modesty as I helped him skim out of his filthy clothes, wrapped him in a quilt and plopped him in front of the fire with a mug of hot cider.

“Reservoir OK?” I asked anxious to know.

“Yeah. It’s as full as I’ve ever seen it but it looks like it’s spreading out rather than over flowing towards town. John wants to continue to keep a watch on it and he found some equipment at the maintenance shed he wants, but there’s no immediate danger.” Through chattering teeth due to damp, cold, and fatigue he complained, “I missed putting Jessie to bed.”

“Yeah, you owe him two stories tomorrow. He’ll probably eat your alive in the morning,” I tried to joke with him to deal with his mood.

“Humph,” was his response. He ate desultorily after I had brought him his supper on a TV tray but eventually he warmed up and put a little more effort into it.

“How did you get so wet and dirty or don’t I want to know?” I asked. He was much worse than John and Rudy had been.

“Trying to clear an apron from the ridge that had slid into one of the larger creeks in the forestry land … I don’t know if has a name or not but it is pretty good sized. I don’t think it is honestly worth the effort to clean it out. Now instead of a good sized creek you’ve got two medium sized streams going off in different directions. The lay of the land just happened to guide the water this direction,” he said, ending on a huge yawn.

An “apron” was a sheet of sand and gravel that lay like a blanket on the side of a mountain or ridge. They could slide, just like a mudslide or avalanche. Intrigued with what he described I asked, “Will the stream run year round you think?”

“John thinks so but it might depend on the weather and whether there’s another slide right there. There is lots of granite in that dip that the water is following so it’s going to have a harder time just soaking into the ground and drying up. If it gets any wider I’ll build a footbridge over instead of that log you used, but get this … there is fish in the creek so we might get some fish in the stream if it keeps getting deeper. I’m not sure I would mind that at all.”

We both agreed that fresh fish would be a welcome change and addition to our current diet of cured meat.

“Saw some deer up there too and something has been in the kudzu.”

“The kudzu was probably those goats I saw last summer and fall. Did the nibbles look fresh?”

“Yeah, I thought the deer had gone all desperate at first until Rudy said he’d never known deer to eat kudzu at all, just hide in it.”

Worried I asked, “How bad is the kudzu? Has it gone past the reservoir yet?”

“No, not yet; but, with no one up there to maintain the barrier either by cutting, burning, or spraying it will be all over in no time.”

That put me back to thinking about the goats. “I wonder how many goats it would take to keep the kudzu cleared off.”

“Don’t laugh but John actually knew the answer to that question.” When I gave him a funny look he was the one that laughed. “He worked in Chattanooga when they started using goats to keep kudzu clear of the tunnels. According to him a heard of fifty goats can clear anywhere from three to five acres of kudzu in one to two weeks. Depends on the weather and the size of the goats.”

“Fifty goats?! That’s … that’s … that’s way beyond what I could manage and I don’t know if anyone could manage it right now.”

“Might be some people willing to try if there was something in it for them. Goats are a sight easier to raise than cows and you still get your meat and your milk.”

“And how would you know that?” I asked surprised.

“I did work on some Mennonite farms when I was trying to pay the hospital bills from Jessie and clean up the mess that Kelly left me holding. The kids are funny little things but don’t turn you back on the billies or they can’t turn mischievous on you if not downright mean.”

I laughed at the look on his face and then saw how really tired he was. “Go to bed Mark, you’re exhausted.”

“I will when you will.”

“No you won’t. You’ll sit here and fall asleep, start snoring and then it will be hard as Hades to get you up and in there with Jessie.”

He got a mulish expression on his face and then thought better of it and said, “Come here for a sec.”

“I am here,” I told him since I was just sitting on the other end of the sofa.

“Here, here … next to me. I wanna ask you something and I wanna be able to see your face real good when I do.”

I scooted over into the firelight and leaned up against the quilt but he didn’t put his arm around me. “Del, how long … how long do you want to wait? I know I promised and I’m not having any trouble sticking to it. I know you need time to pull your head together but … I just … I’d like an idea of some kind of … um … timeline.”

The look on my face must have made him feel like he’d said the wrong thing but it wasn’t that I was only thinking. “Del, if you aren’t up to thinking about it yet I understand. Just Rudy and John were asking me and were telling me that no one seems to think you either need or even should wait a full year for mourning your dad. It … I just started thinking.”

“It’s all right Mark.” Then I blushed and said, “When I don’t really think about all the things that have happened I feel like I could … well … be with you tonight, tomorrow and not have any worries at all about it. But if I think how fast things have gone, all the changes that have happened in such a short period of time, I start to … to panic and wonder if I‘m making the decision because I want to or because I’m scared of losing you too.” My chest felt heavy and congested at even the hypothetical suggestion of losing him.

“Hey, you aren’t going to lose me Sugar,” he said finally putting an arm around me.

“You wouldn’t do it on purpose but life is just so … so … Mark I don’t know if I … I could handle losing you too on top of what all has been happening.”

“I said you aren’t going to lose me and I meant it. I know … well look, I know he wasn’t my dad but Mr. Nash did mean a lot to me. He’d been there for me a few times when Butch … well, that’s water under the bridge. And he offered me a place to call home even before Dee and Cici … and that’s water under the bridge too. Most of all I knew … know … what he meant … means … to you so it hurts me to have lost him too for your sake if for none of the other stuff I mentioned. I wouldn’t intentionally put you through that again, especially not if you are saying you … you care for me that much.”

“I’m saying I love you Mark. I don’t know how it happened or exactly when. Maybe a bit of me always has and that’s why you could make me so mad, especially when I thought you were being reckless on purpose. You scared me sometimes and you didn’t even seem to notice.”

“I’m not like that now.”

“I know you’re not … but it feels like life has turned reckless. I’m still having trouble with the idea of Micah being gone out of my reach to look after him because he has that same streak of recklessness you had to the point of being thoughtless. If you haven’t noticed I’ve got a problem with trying to be controlling.”

I could feel him trying not to laugh. “It’s not funny Mark,” I complained.

“I know it isn’t Sugar. Just hearing you say it out loud tickles me for some reason. Look, you wandering around the woods makes me anxious too. I don’t know how I would handle it if you were like Ali or Cindy and insisted on going to the Bait & Tackle every chance you got. They’re not even shopping, mostly running their mouths and catching the latest gossip.” Mark shook his head in disgust.

This time I was the one to laugh. “Mark … they’re husband shopping … or at least trying to see what’s available on the market.”

“What?!” he nearly choked on the last sip of cider in his mug.

“I expect Sam and Micah are going to start looking around pretty soon too. Oh, get that look off of your face … not to get married silly, but to … to … see if there is anything out there interesting enough to cultivate.”

“Good Lord Del!”

“Well, tell me if that isn’t what you were doing at their age.”

After thinking it over and shrugging he said, “OK, I’ll give you that … but we’re getting off topic here. What they are going to do isn’t near as interesting to me as what you … we’re going to do.”

I hid my face in the quilt, embarrassed at what I was about to say. “I don’t want to wait a year Mark … I don’t think I could wait a year, not with us living right on top of one another. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to wait long at all. But … but not tomorrow or even the next day. Please understand I’m just still too … too …”

I looked up expecting to see disappointment and instead saw a huge toothy grin that surprised the heck out of me.

“Del Nash, you get surprised by the least thing. Of course I understand. Besides, I’ve gotten more than I expected to get tonight. You said you loved me and that you don’t want to wait a year. Gives me something to look forward to and remember if I get impatient. Besides, when we do this I want it done right. We’ll need a preacher and I’ve got to figure out how to get the papers done up for it.”

I hadn’t given any of that any thought at all and it must have shown on my face because he laughed again but I could tell he was on the tail end of keeping his eyes open and I was finally able to stand him up and get going.

“Del, don’t be up late.”

“I don’t plan on it,” I told him. Thing was his late and my late weren’t necessarily the same thing. Like always, I had a lot to think about and a lot of planning to do.