Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Exposition and Codetta

It is a good thing Mark knew all the dirty tricks that girls are taught to use or I could have done him real damage. Also a good thing I was wearing tennis shoes and not the boots I normally wore at chore time. Good thing for me that he wasn’t a guy bent on holding a grudge or one that enjoyed taking advantage of his size and strength or he could have done me some damage.

It took a good ten minutes for me to wind down and stop fighting. Felt like longer truth be told. He was the victor despite all my efforts but he was gracious enough to never rub my nose in the way I acted and even said he understood. I can see now that he was doing what he thought best. I’m still not sure even today that I completely agree with him, maybe the shock of that day would have prepared me for events in the future, but I’ve told myself many times since then that that, in part, is what makes men and women different and that I’m just going to have to live with it.

In the battle of wills I did manage to fight my way closer to the farm house, and as my strength gave out before my fight did, Mark had to hold me tightly even after I had conceded his strength topped mine. He had me around the middle as I faced the open doorway. I faced it like I could force whatever was on the other side to reveal itself to me. But suddenly, even from several yards away, a smell wafting out of the door caused me to pause.

I know what a muddy barnyard can smell like. I had to rake enough of them growing up. I’d also worked enough 4H petting zoos to know that what I was smelling wasn’t quite right. The smell wafting from the house was … different. There was the smell of overripe manure true, but a rancid and sickly sweet smell accompanied it.

I stilled, trying to identify the odor. Mark started pulling me away from the house again but as I turned to tell him to let me loose we bumped into someone’s pick up. Mark fumbled with the door latch which was unlocked, pulled a set of keys from the sunshade with a muttered, “Thank you God,” and he pinned me against the door with his hip while he started the truck up.

“Mark … blast you … let me …”

He grabbed me by the shoulders and got down in my face and said earnestly, “Listen to me Del. I need to know you won’t run away. I need to be able to trust you and you need to trust me.”

If he’d said anything else I would have likely continued to do what I wanted regardless of good sense but the word “trust” caught my attention just enough to make me pause and think. He let loose but started holding my hand; not as a leash to crush me into submission but twining our fingers together gently like you do when you are joined in something and you’re offering and trying to receive support.

He leaned further in and grabbed the mic off of a CB radio that sat on the doghouse between driver and passenger seats.

“Breaker, breaker. This is Mark Griffey. If anyone is listening and can respond we have an emergency at the Missus Porter’s farm. Please, anyone out there that can get a message to the … the … I guess the Sheriff is who we need first.”

The noise seemed to die back on the channel and then a rumbling voice came on saying, “This is Big John son. Sheriff and some state troopers are across the street grabbing a bite to eat. Someone is running for ‘em as we speak. What’s got you so shook?”

“Sir …” he squeezed my hand. “Sir we’ve got several … several dead folks here. I don’t … don’t know how many. I couldn’t stay in the house. We came to check on ‘em and …”

Another voice broke in, “This is Sheriff Noble. Slow down son and start again for me.”

“I … Del Nash and I … we came to check on everyone because it had been a couple of days since we’d seen them. It’s … it’s bad Sheriff. I honestly don’t know for sure what has happened. It’s more than either one of us can handle and …”

“Easy there. Can you tell me if it was violence or something else?”

Mark tilted his head and closed his eyes like seeing it again, even in his head, was making him sick. “I … I don’t think … well, what I saw I don’t think it was … Sheriff, I just don’t know. The doors were left open and a goat came out and there sounded like there was something else in there but I don’t know. I … I was too busy trying not to …” he was breathing heavy and couldn’t finish.

A brief pause and the Sheriff said, “Mark, stay out of the house and don’t let anyone enter it. I’m about 30 minutes out but you’ll likely see Ryland Harris sooner. You understand? I don’t want anyone in there until I get there.”

“Yes sir.”

Mark hung up the mic and leaned against the side of the truck, white as a freshly bleached sheet. “Mark?” I asked, shaking after having my worst fears confirmed.

“You aren’t going in there Del. You heard the sheriff.”

“OK. I don’t like it but,” and I struggled to find some way to both deny and accept what Mark had said. “Ok, ok. I won’t go in. I’m … I’m not even going to think about what you said. You can’t know for sure. You can’t. So … so you didn’t say it. That’s all, you can’t know for sure but the Sheriff said that he didn’t want anyone in there. He’ll bring help and then everything will be OK.”

My denial was illogical and I sensed it even before the words were formed on my lips but I let it stand. To distract myself from being logical I asked, “Who is Ryland Harris? Is he an EMT or LEO or something?”

He changed from holding my hand to putting his arm around my shoulders and to this day I’m not sure whether it was for my benefit or his. “No. He moved to town about the time you graduated and moved away I guess. He’s got kin that are nice people so everyone kind of let him in the town’s inner social circle without thinking. He was OK at first, sure had me fooled. Turns out however the guy thinks he is God’s gift to the world. He’s always in people’s business. He’s “helpful” for his own puprose if you catch my drift. Last year he tried to convince folks that your aunts were too old and feeble to live out here on their own, that they should be moved to a nursing home for their own good. Nearly worked too until someone got wind that he had been trying to buy the farm from them and they weren’t cooperating. Lot’s of people turned on him for a while but when your aunts hired me he acted all relieved and made out he wouldn’t worry so much anymore. He’s such a smooth talker plenty of people fell for his act and actually apologized for thinking the worst.”

“Mark?” finally remembering that I’m too much of a realist to hide from what I would need to face for long.

“Del, I already told you that I can’t let you …”

“Then … then at least have the decency to let me know …”

Mark shook his head. “Del, I don’t know for sure what I was seeing. You said as much yourself. I know that there isn’t anything in there I can do anything about. I can guess what might have happened but it doesn’t make sense. It … it looks like some kind of … well, at least what I did see … looks like they were sick. I saw a couple in bed and then on the bathroom floor … in the kitch …” he shuddered and swallowed real hard. “We’ve got to … your dad … someone needs to …”

Before he could finish a big wheeled, customized truck drove up to the gate and I saw Rudy Carlisle get out with a bunch of good ol’ boys with rifles and shotguns visible in every hand. Beyond that point my memory only wants to work in flashes.

The good ol’ boys lining up at the gate facing out like some kind of militia brigade and Rudy talking to Mark, throwing a bottle of something at him.

Another man driving up and getting all bent out of shape when Rudy wouldn’t let him pass.

The sheriff and some national guardsmen showing up and the Sheriff patting Rudy on the back and nodding.

A young national guardsmen rushing out of the house and doing the same thing Mark had done and even the Sheriff looking green and wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

Being startled when I came to myself again with Micah in my arms, his face wet with tears.

Mark being sprayed down with something by someone in a hazmat suit and then Micah and I receiving the same treatment while an antiseptic smell drifted up into my sinuses.

Daddy showing up just as the Coroner’s van and ambulances did but not being allowed inside the taped off area where Mark, Micah, and I stood.

Overhearing Mark say to Daddy from our side of the tape, “I know Mr. Nash but Dr. Battles said your immune system is probably compromised so you can’t get anywhere near the house or yard.”

Empty body bags going in, filled ones coming out. A couple of gurney’s going in and coming out at the same time.

I remember my ears ringing, my head feeling like it was full of helium and my stomach feeling full of lead. Finally Dr. Battles came over but not returning the handshake Daddy offered.

“No offense but best not take any chances. This is the worst case we’ve seen so far. CDC people are on their way here.”

Dad asked, “Not a robbery?”

“Well, I’m not going to say for certain that something didn’t happen because it looks like some ransacking has occurred, but I’ll leave that to the Sheriff. My professional opinion from what I’ve seen of the bodies however is that none of the deaths are directly related to … Mark, sit Miss Nash on that stump before she’s sitting on the ground.”

Cryptosporidiosis … E. Coli … shigella … and Lord only knows what else that had been lurking to strike the unwary in the flood waters that swept through the farms and towns in the area. I knew first hand that just because something was so small you couldn’t see it that that in no way meant that it wasn’t dangerous or even deadly. But I still walked around in emotional shock for nearly a week as the farm, and its remaining inhabitants, remained quarantined.

First it hit the town of Kechum hard and fast. We hadn’t heard it on the radio because we’d been listening to local stations and they’d done everything they could to keep the situation from becoming a news story. They did double their warnings about the need to boil water and be careful about personal hygiene but most people treated it like background noise, including my own family. As far as I know they never determined whether it was an engineered tragedy to go along with the levy destruction or if it was just a natural consequence of all the water moving into the town having first run through pastures and manure-sprayed fields and causing septic systems to spew out raw sewage on top of everything else.

The speed that the symptoms moved caught even the best trained medical staff in the area off guard. It was only the day before we found the family that the first case had been reported outside of the city limits. With the CDC involved, using one of their mobile labs, it only took four days for them to hypothesize a chain of infection. It’s a wonder that they were able to because they were dealing with staff shortages. Similarly strange illnesses were popping up all around the country and they were in the process of trying to find out if it was due to infrastructure break down or if it was intentional terrorism.

In our arm of the flow chart patient zero was Roy. He’d brought it in after a night of drinking with some buddies from Kechum after the Aunts had supposedly laid down the law on what they would tolerate out of their guests, family or no, and what they wouldn’t stand for. He’d simply blown them off, secure in the knowledge that they’d never really cut him off. One of Roy’s sons is who gave that vital clue. Roy couldn’t answer, he’d never answer for any of the things he’d done, at least not on this side of the veil.

From Roy it travelled to JD and his family and then from those in the trailer into the farm house via the buffet meal set up that was being used since there were too few chairs and tables for everyone to eat at the same time, and the outhouse which was also communal. The swabs taken by the investigators showed massive contamination of most surfaces including the toilets, the eating utensils, the kitchen phone, drinking glasses, door knobs, and the surfaces of the jugs holding the drinking water.

I’m not sure I believe the terrorism angle though it was never ruled out. No enemy could have devised such an intentional and insidious destruction. Both cryptosporidiosis and e. coli are spread through fecal matter, usually in contaminated water. Shigella is the same only more contagious. Brought in and transferred to previously clean surfaces and then somehow being ingested … it was like a domino effect. They were boiling their drinking water but weren’t sanitizing everything. People would touch a contaminated surface and then touch their face or the part of the fork that went into their mouth. Bleach doesn’t really work on the cryptosporidium protozoa so even if they had sprayed surfaces with bleach it wouldn’t have helped. You have to keep everything clean, clean, clean using boiling water.

E. Coli is a bacteria. Mark and I theorized that someone had it on their hands from the animals or some other source, picked vegetables out in the garden and then didn’t wash the vegetables well enough … probably making the mistake of thinking that if they didn’t look dirty they weren’t dirty.

Shigella is just insidious. It will close a day care center faster than most childhood illnesses and then it is taken home to the families of the little germ and disease factories. Shigella is as vicious as norovirus and that is saying something.

Not a single person on the farm had been spared infection by one of the three and there were several co-infections. As more people fell ill it left fewer to act as caregivers. With fewer caregivers, dehydration was added to the risk factors. When I asked why no one had sent word to us that they needed help I never really got an answer. And the few times that I’ve asked the question since then it’s mostly been rhetorical on my part.

The authorities placed the farm under quarantine, the animals were hauled away as a possible source of contamination, the gates locked and warning signs put all over the fence that ran along the county road. The mess that remained was left to us to decide how we wished to deal with it. We could either let it go, retreat to the cabin and be free to travel or we could travel between the cabin and the farm trying to save what we could and share in the quarantine.

After a night of serious discussion with Daddy we decided we were socially trapped one way or the other as Ryland Harris had already gossiped our circumstances across three counties and a lot of people had been talking about it on the radio. People said they wouldn’t want us coming near for fear that we would spread the sickness to them and theirs. Then there was the issue of keeping the farmhouse secure from further looting and potential vandalism, a problem we had been warned of by the Sheriff. Daddy wasn’t completely happy with the plan we eventually cobbled together but couldn’t find any real fault with it either.

Dee and Cici stayed at the farm to keep an eye on things up there during the hours Mark and I worked at the farm. They would be responsible for Jessie’s care as well. Micah would keep an eye on Daddy … whether it was stress, heat, or the cancer I don’t know but I’d noticed that he had deteriorated a little … and he would try and make sure that Cici didn’t do something wild like try and run away or come down to the farm. She was one unhappy girl but there was nothing that we could do about it right then.

I’ve worked in some pretty nasty and dirty settings. My motto when I was job hunting was that there was no job beneath me. The year I worked on the cleaning crew that turned the dorms out at the end of the each semester was a real eye opener. I’ve mucked stalls. I’ve cleaned animal cages and rental properties; even rehabbed garbage dumpsters but nothing prepared me for what Mark and I went through during that week.

Our primary concern was sanitation. It wasn’t just keeping the little beasties from getting into our nose, mouth, etc. It was making sure we didn’t transfer any of that stuff up to the hunting camp, certainly not into the cabin or trailer. We used heavy duty latex cleaning gloves on our hands, wore a dust mask and goggles, and wore the same type of rubber boots that you wear to rake muck in. We started out wearing rain ponchos but that became dangerous when we started to dispose of all of the contaminated stuff using a bonfire as our tool.

We had to air out the house for several hours before we could start – there aren’t words to really convey how awful the smell was – but once we did manage to make it so we could at least breathe without heaving we accomplished a lot. All of the soiled bedding and dirty linens were pulled into the front yard and burned. Nothing potentially contaminated was spared including mattresses, floor rugs, and curtains. I had to turn off all sentimentality to do this as some of the linens were quilts I’d grown up snuggling in, that I knew my mother had grown up snuggling in.

If it looked like someone had sneezed, spit, vomited on it or … er, worse … we hauled it out and put it on the pyre. The farm house didn’t have much carpet but what there was got ripped out leaving bare floors behind that I then spent much of the day by gently sponge cleaning with a solution of one quarter cup of white vinegar to a gallon of water and then letting it air dry. If there had been an obvious spill of … bodily fluids … I would use a stronger solution.

We were nearly finished with that first day when the same truck, the one I came to realize belonged to Rudy’s oldest son, showed up at the gate and honked. Mark picked up his rifle and slowly walked over but relaxed when Rudy himself stepped down from the cab and shouted, “Halloooo the house.”

With Rudy on one side of the gate and Mark on the other they talked for about fifteen minutes. I had thrown the last pile of disgusting sheets on the fire when both men waved me over with their hats. When I got there Rudy asked, “How you holding up Honey?”

“About as well as can be expected I guess. Since you’re here your kids … ?”

“Have a couple of more days at the hospital. They were badly dehydrated. And the people from the CDC are using them as some kind of control group and asking them all kinds of stupid questions they’re too young to answer. But …well, I dated one of the nurses that is looking after them and she says that the doctors are happy with their progress and not just feeding me a line to keep me from making noise.”

I “hmmm’d” a response to that still unsure how to be happy while still being devastated. “How’s Aunt Esther?”

“Well, she and Aunt Lilah … about as well as you’d expect folks their age to be under the circumstances I suppose. Both are … well, in shock pretty much. From what Junior, Roy’s oldest boy, says both of them were the last two to succumb. Losing Sheba and Bel, that’s been harder on Lilah than … than the rest of it put together.”

My chest felt like it was going to cave in and both men gave me a moment to breathe through the feeling of needing to cry.

Mark was the next one to talk. “Del, they … “

Rudy broke in, “It’s my responsibility Mark. Let me tell her.” I knew I probably wasn’t going to like what was coming next just by the way he was holding himself, like he expected me to not like what he had to say. “Del, they don’t have any more room in those refrigeration trucks. It was either let all of ‘em get hauled away to who knows where or let ‘em get buried up at the Church Road cemetery in a … well what amounts to in a mass grave. I didn’t like it but the alternative might have been the last straw for Lilah. I talked to her briefly and she’s weak, but her mind is sound and she understands. Said something about ‘dust to dust’ if I was hearing her right; she didn’t have her teeth in. But, if it was going to be done I had to make the decision immediately. I just come from the burying.”

“What?! But …” I thought no viewing, no funeral services, no graveside service, nothing. And then it finally clicked what Aunt Lilah had always said.

“Child, the only time you can really do something for the people you care about is when they’re still alive. Viewings and funerals and all that don’t mean a hill of beans to the dead; they’re already where they were going and what is left is nothing but a husk. The rest of it is just something to ease the pain for those of us that get left behind.”

I guess both men were waiting for me to cry or fuss or something and when I didn’t Mark put his hand on my shoulder and shook it a little to make sure I was still there in mind as well as body.

“If Aunt Lilah of all people understands then I won’t say nothing about it Rudy but … but when there is time do you think it would be possible to have some kind of memorial service? For the family that is left? I never knew JD too well, his wife and kids not at all, but there’s bound to be some people on that side of the family that would want to come and I know that the Aunts had lots of church friends and … and …”

“I think that is a fine idea Dellie girl. It might have to wait a long while though. Esther … well Ali and my kids are just about all she has left now and to be honest, I just don’t know how’s she going to come out of it. She’s strange about things like that. Her mind is … well, she ain’t real there from what I can tell. It’s so bad that Dr. Battles has ordered some kind of test to check and see if she’s had a stroke in addition to everything else.”

I’d never really had a close relationship with Aunt Esther despite she and my mother looking very similar when I was younger, but even I realized how horrible that would be for her. She was a handsome woman and had always kept herself up real well even as a widow. She also hated anything to do with sickness and disease, probably a leftover phobia from her own mother.

Rudy broke into my thoughts to ask, “You two need groceries? There isn’t much around, world is going to hell in a handbasket and suddenly everyone is panicking, but I’ll do what I can. I’ve got some stuff at my place that I can bring over.”

Mark left me to take the lead on the subject and I said, “Don’t worry about it Rudy. I know how to use the feed wheat and corn to make do and the water up at the cabin gets cleaned with a UV light when we run the pump and just to be on the safe side it is boiled too.

“Have the same system at my place. Or I’ve got the system, but not the place. Water has receded but the house isn’t livable. Basement is still full of water and mud and in this heat the wall paper is sliding off the walls from the resulting humidity. Which … well, that’s something else I came to talk to you about. I’ve already mentioned it to your Da girl because I didn’t want it to come as a shock to him and because I didn’t want him to have to worry about anyone encroaching on what your grandfather had left you and Micah.”

I was too tired and sad to have much energy for more secrets and drama but I knew I needed to hear what he was telling me.

“See, last year when Ryland started pestering them about selling the land and then went so far as to … well, I assume Mark told you what happened.” At my nod he continued. “The old ladies knew then they needed to make some kind of decision and they talked to that retired Judge that goes to their church. He helped them to set it up. The life estate is to remain in place until all three of ladies pass … and only Aunt Lilah is left at this point. When the last one passes the farmhouse and land will go into a family trust that they asked me to be one of the executors of. The profit from the estate, after expenses, insurance, taxes and the like are taken out will be shared equally between the blood descendants of the family. For instance, I won’t get a thing but my four kids will get a share; it will skip your father but you and Micah will get a share. Esther will get a share, as well as Ali, but whoever Ali marries won’t. Roy’s son will but that no count wife … never mind, shouldn’t be talking like that at a time like this. Anyway, do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

Thinking about it I asked, “And you told Daddy all of this?”

“Yeah. That day I came up to visit. After the stunt Roy pulled I figured he deserved to know but I asked him not to say anything because the Aunts said they’d let everyone know when it was time. So I’m holding you to the same thing. If Lilah wants to say something, or she becomes incapacitated then we’ll get the lawyer in with his papers, until that time things should stand as they are.”

“What about the farm house?”

“The Aunts said they’d prefer to have someone from the family living in it but if not it could be rented out to a caretaker for the property with the rent being considered part of the estate’s profit and treated accordingly. Upkeep and maintenance of the house would be considered an expense of the estate unless it is something beyond normal wear and tear and that would be the responsibility of whoever was living there at the time.”

I sighed. “I suppose that business where the house was being emptied to make room for the family was their way of settling some of the estate early.”

“That’s the way I understand it.”

All I could do was nod my head and say, “Well, if the paperwork proves out then so be it. It was always their property to do with as they saw fit.”

“Actually … well, I’m not the only executor they listed.”

“Oh? Aunt Esther really doesn’t …”

“Not Esther … you.”

“Me?! Why on earth would they do that?!” I asked sharply, wondering what I’d ever done to them to make them pay me back in such a hard way.

“Seems they think you and I can work out the differences that might arise in the family over the distribution.”

All I could think in my head was, “Just kill me now and get it over with. There goes the plans for the rest of my life.” But I didn’t say it aloud because it would have made me sound ungrateful and it turned out to be more prophetic than I had any way of knowing. I guess my face must have showed my opinion of the job I was gonna get handed because both Rudy and Mark chuckled. Then we all sighed and prayed that it was down the road a long way before we had to deal with it. Rudy left saying that so long as he could get fuel he’d stop by every other day or so and keep us up to date on what was going on and we told him to let everyone know we were praying for them.

I was able to keep my spine stiff until Rudy went out of sight and then I took a few steps back towards the fire that was beginning to die down and felt the weight on my shoulders bow them back down. Mark came up behind me and asked, “You ok? Or is that a stupid question?”

A snappy comeback just would leave my lips. Instead I said, “I have to be ok. I don’t have any choice.”

He knew what I meant and nodded. It was time to secure the house and return to the cabin before they started worrying about us so we both put our backs into finishing up. After we’d completed what we’d set out to do for the day we headed back up. “Girls on the right, boys on the left,” Mark said. To keep from contaminating anything outside of the farmyard every day we would come down and change into our work clothes and hang a shower bag on a branch. Then at the end of the day we would reverse things only we’d shower before changing into our clean clothes, dump the work clothes into a laundry bag, walk up to the cabin and then dump it all straight into a barrel of boiling water that Micah prepared in our absence.

On the second day we removed everything from the kitchen and the bathroom that wasn’t nailed in place. It meant using the water out of the hand pump which was very poor quality … it had lots of silt in the water … but I strained it through some cheese cloth before bringing it to a boil. I put the dishes and utensils in mesh bags I’d brought from home, in scouts we’d called them “dunk bags,” and set them down in the boiling water for five minutes then I would move them to a very hot rinse barrel that had bleach added. From there I would hang the mesh bags on the clothes line to allow the dishes or whatever to drip dry. Metal pots I dipped using hangers that I had bent straight except for a hook.

After all the cookware, dishes, and doo dads and decorations in the kitchen had been cleaned we went to town on the rest of the interior. This sanitizing solution was made of peroxide and water mixed together at 1:1 and then put it in a spray bottle. Everything that people might have touched and some they mostly likely hadn’t were cleaned with this homemade disinfectant. We did the same for the bathrooms.

It was dark by the time we got home that night and I was very grateful that Dee was being so accommodating about not only cooking for her crowd but for mine as well. I told her so and I swear she actually blushed. A grown woman with more than ten years on me; I had a hard time believing it but I didn’t want to say anything in fear of undoing whatever good I’d managed to do without trying.

The third day was a trial in more ways than one. Mark didn’t cotton to the idea of me working in the yard in his words “like a field hand.” I was too tired to really argue with him but I asked him if he was sure he hadn’t caught something from Aunt Esther because he knew good and well I’d been raised to do manual labor the same as my mother before me. He hunched his shoulders stubbornly and started for the barn leaving me to shake my head at the strangeness of some men, him in particular, and to finish up in the house alone.

I lost track of time. Suddenly a huge BOOM nearly had me coming out of my skin. It was a shotgun blast close by. I knew immediately something wasn’t right because all Mark had brought was his rifle. My pistol was in my hand and I was looking out the window trying to see what was going on when I heard stealthy footsteps on the stairs. Mark knew where I was so there was no reason for him to be sneaking up on me … and he would also know he needed to do a better job than that if he was going to succeed so I figured that it couldn’t be Mark.

A rifle shot from outside had whoever it was turning around in a rush and going back down. I stuck my head out of the room in time to see a roughly dressed man head out the front door with what looked like an old Remington double barrel in his hands.

I came down the stairs even more quietly than the man had tried to be going up. I heard a step on the porch and before I could step back Mark and I nearly shot each other. Both of us pulled our weapons up and back as quickly as we had aimed but we’d given each other a scare.

Mark stepped the rest of the way into the house and then pushed me over into the hallway. “Are you ok?” he asked quietly, still shook up.

Just as shook I whispered back, “Yes, but what is going on? Who was that man?”

“Men. Plural. There is two of them. I don’t know their names but I recognize them as some that used to hang out with Roy. I think they live on the far side of Kechum. They must be here looking to steal something. They’re the type if I’ve got them pegged. I was in the barn when I heard someone getting into one of the trucks. I came out of the barn and just barely jumped back in time to avoid getting blasted. Both of them have shotguns.”

I spotted them heading towards the barn. “Look.”

He swore. “They must have seen your Aunt Esther’s Cadillac. I just moved it not thirty minutes ago and hadn’t bothered to lock the doors yet. It’s got a full tank of gas confound it.”

“Is the door on the back of the barn still nailed shut?”

“That door’s been nailed shut since Noah was a kid. What’s that got to do … oh …” he grinned wickedly. “You sure you’re up for this? It’s gonna take two of us to shut and throw the bar fast enough to avoid getting shot.”

“Stop asking or I’ll have it done before you’re ready.”

Well it didn’t exactly come off without a hitch but the plan worked. I had to dig a shallow piece of buckshot out of Mark’s forearm but he said it was worth it. We left them in there to suffer and they quickly ran out of shells trying to shoot their way out. Not only that, the fools disturbed a large nest of barn wasps up in the eaves and spent quite a few minutes screaming and hollering and calling us every name in the book before wising up enough to shut up so the wasps would stop freaking out.

Mark and I were still trying to figure out what to do when Rudy pulled up at the gate. I ran down and told him, “Rudy, there are two men … Mark says they were friends of Roy’s … that came here with shotguns to do some stealing or something. They’ve taken a couple of shots at Mark and I’ve already dug a piece of buck shot out of his arm. What …”

I didn’t get to finish before Rudy was on the radio calling the Sheriff. When he was finished Rudy made a rude gesture at the quarantine signs and hoped over the gate with his own rifle, one of those flat black ones that looked like it could deliver a payload of pain and death at the bare press of its master’s finger on the trigger.

“Rudy …”

“Don’t worry about it Sugar. From what your Daddy told me … close your mouth before you catch some flies, he does know how to work that radio you know, not just listen to it … you and Mark have got everything pretty well sanitized in the house and since I don’t intend on drinking the water or licking my boots I should be OK.”

I was beginning to remember that one of the reasons that Esther and Rudy hadn’t always gotten along was because Rudy could be extremely … earthy … with his vocabulary and way of dealing with things. Another example of this came when as Mark was explaining what had happened and we got to the part about the wasps Rudy pointed his gun and fired a little to the left of where Mark had told him the wasp nest was in the eaves.

“There?”

Mark was trying not to smile and said, “Close but a little more to the left.”

Rudy fired again but to the right of the wasp nest that time. The two men in the barn were screaming and hollering again when Rudy asked so that he could be heard over the noise, “There?”

Mark snickered, “Close enough.”

The sheriff pulled in at a run as both Daddy and Micah came out of the bushes with guns drawn. Both men looked at Rudy then at the barn where muffled crying and begging for mercy could be heard punctuated by squeals of pain. The sheriff looked at Rudy and shook his head while saying, “Son, you just won’t do … you just won’t do.”

I tried to get Daddy to get back out of the farm yard but he wouldn’t, telling me basically the same thing that Rudy had said only giving me a look that dared me to try and make him go back to the cabin and that if I did try I would surely find out I wasn’t too old to spank.

The men were left in the barn for another ten minutes because neither the sheriff nor his two deputies that showed up right afterwards wanted to risk getting stung. Before the men were allowed to come out they were told to throw their weapons out. They sobbed, “We don’t have ‘em, they’re in the hay some wheres. We lost ‘em trying to get away from them blankety blankety blankety wasps.” Of course they hadn’t said “blanety” but I don’t find it necessary to repeat their foulness.

The whole incident may have ended like a scene from the Three Stooges but the reality was that Mark and I could have been dead real easy. The Sheriff looked at Mark and I very seriously and said, “Now I want you two … the rest of you as well … to listen to me. Things are bad and to be honest they’re gonna git worse before the git better. The governor’s sent down the word … if you shoot a looter you can’t be prosecuted. Those types are leaving the cities – big ‘uns and small - as people have taken him at his word and now they are coming into the countryside. Can’t shoot someone just for trespassing of course so don’t take it that way, but if they bring a weapon to bear on you, the only sane thing left for you to do is to defend yourself with like force. You understand what I’m saying?”

I said, “You mean we should have shot those two idiots and saved you the time and cost of taking care of them until they get their day in court.”

Daddy rolled his eyes then look heavenward as if in supplication for patience. Rudy, Mark, and Micah tried to cover their startled laughs with a fake cough. The sheriff just raised an eyebrow and responded, “Well, that’s one way of putting it I’m sure.”

Trust me, it’s not as if I hadn’t thought about shooting them. I had been hunting since I was old enough to point and aim a Jr. rifle and I had taken several self defense courses as well as some weapons training that Daddy had insisted on since it allowed me to use the firing range on base. I’d even used force on opponents including using the tazer, my nightstick, and even pepper spray on a couple of drunken frat boys; but I’d just never used deadly force. And I’d never aimed a gun at another human being before that day either.

Sheriff said as he was leaving, “Farm is still under quarantine. That’s not my perview to change. I’ll inform ‘em what all y’all have done to clean the place up and see what they say. But it might not be a bad idea to just relax on that until you get some family in here to live full time. Quarantine won’t stop all the ijits but it might stop some of ‘em.”

I could see Rudy and Daddy with their heads together while Mark and I explained what had happened to Micah and then watch him take off back up to the cabin to let Dee and Cici know that everything was OK.

Daddy called, “You two come over here a minute. Rudy needs to leave but he’s got a proposition he wants to lay out.”

Basically Rudy said that his place was a total loss and he needed to finish moving all of his things out. His kids needed a place to stay as well as they were getting out of the hospital in two days as was Ali. Aunt Esther and Aunt Lilah weren’t in any shape to leave the hospital yet but should be by the following week and they’d need a place already set up for them. He proposed to move into the farm house lock, stock, and barrel at least for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve done my final assessment. My fields are shot for the season and maybe longer. I have to see how much of the top soil was washed away by the flood. I have just enough diesel left to work the fields here and that will get the stock through the winter and maybe have some left to sell. My brother has a small working set up for bio-diesel. I could trade him feed for his livestock for some of his homebrew fuel. We’ll get by without losing either farm but just barely. I know the farm here isn’t encumbered and I just finished paying off my fertilizer loan so I’m mostly free and clear as well except for the new combine and I was thinking about letting it go back anyway.”

Everyone was looking at me, “What?! How did this turn into my decision?”

Daddy said, “Del, don’t be hard headed. It can’t be the men against the women. And it can’t look like Rudy is just moving in and taking over. You are the other executor …”

“Speaking of which I haven’t agreed to that and further more Aunt Lilah isn’t dead.”

The men just kept looking at me. “Oh for … no, I don’t have any objections. It sounds as good a plan as any and better than most that I’ve been trying to come up in my own head. To be honest I’m tired of traipsing down here every day when I’ve got my own work waiting on me at the cabin.”

Rudy relaxed and smiled. “Why don’t you show me the house and tell me what’s needed.”

Mark glowered a little but Daddy clapped him on the back and told him that Rudy wouldn’t run off with me and he wanted to hear the story of the wasps again now that he was calm enough to appreciate it.

In the house Rudy asked me, “Did the basement get wet?”

“There was a small seep for two days but as soon as the water receded out of the ditch on this side of the road it dried back up. It’s dry as a bone down there now as far as I can tell.”

“Anything ruined?”

“From the flood? No. But as you can see …” I showed him around pointing out everything we’d had to do to clean it up.

Rudy sighed and said, “We’ll make it work, it is just going to look strange to see the stuff from my house spread out in this house.” He caught sight of the garden through the kitchen window. “How’s the garden doing?”

“Better than it should be considering how it’s been neglected. It needs to be hoed but I don’t have the time Rudy I …” Mark walked into the kitchen to let me know that Daddy had gone back to the cabin. That gave Rudy a chance to explain what he meant.

“I wasn’t asking you and Mark to do it. Can the garden work wait until I can get the kids out here?”

“Are they going to be in shape to do any kind of work?”

“The kids are doing so much better they are driving the nurses nuts. My oldest has actually been begging me to find him work so he can have something to do. To keep things off his mind I suppose. Mostly it was just dehydration and they’ve gotten over the effects fairly quickly. Had it gone further … but it didn’t and I don’t let my mind walk those fields if I can help it. Ali is really milking the whole situation but she’ll do her share or she won’t eat. I’m not the Aunts or Esther and anyone with sense knows it, including my kids. I’m not going to let them turn out like their mother without a fight. Life isn’t all fun and games and … sorry, that soap box trips me up fairly regular,” he said slightly abashed.

“Relax Rudy, Daddy is the same way. He would give Micah a lot of leeway that I didn’t get but he could ride him pretty hard too. Chores came first before any kind of entertainment in our home no matter where we were hanging our hats at the time.” I could tell Mark was getting a little uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation so I said, “So anyway, I did pick a few things out of the garden just because I can’t stand seeing it rot. I keep thinking what Aunt Bel would say. What do you want me to do with it?”

“Esther and Ali have one thing right. That garden is too big for the number of people it is supposed to serve right now. If things don’t get better in the economy we might have to keep it that size, may even have to expand it, but right now it is too much to handle. I hate to ask but I know it won’t go to waste up at your place. Can you just go through and pick anything that is going to spoil for the next few days? Rotting vegetables will only attract more varmints and pests. I’ve got a lady that came in to clean my place a couple of times a week, cook meals when the kids were there, that sort of thing. She a farm girl herself and is calm and levelheaded and has helped me out of a couple of jams when I had to be away from the house more than expected. She lives with her brother and he’s got a houseful, most of them women which while she hasn’t outright said seems to be a little rough for Cheryl right now. I think she’d be willing to move in here full time. That would mean that there’d be someone to keep an eye on the kids and on Lilah and Esther when they get to come home because as I understand it the two of them – older and all that with their existing health problems – are going to be a lot longer coming back to full strength.”

Rudy left after that and Mark and I locked up, cleaned up, and headed back to the cabin.

Mark asked, “What do you think of Rudy?”

I shrugged, “I guess he is OK. He’s about like the rest of the family. I will admit he fits in better than his wife did and she is the one that is blood related to me.”

“Oh.”

“What oh? Did you expect me to say he is charming and nice? ‘Cause he’s not. He’s all right but he’s got a worse mouth on him than I do and that’s saying something.”

“Oh.” Same word but it sure sounded different to my ears … like he’d liked the second answer a whole lot better than the first one. We got passed the next switch back when Mark asked, “Why does your dad keep including me in all the decision making? I don’t have a stake in this and no standing in your family.”

“Well, Daddy must not see it like that. His definition of ‘family’ doesn’t always mean blood relations. Besides, you’re living with us so that counts for something doesn’t it?”

“But I don’t own anything.”

I snorted, “Neither technically does Daddy if you want to get right down to it but I value his opinion and advice and I’m coming to learn I can do the same with you. If it really makes you that uncomfortable just talk to him about it.”

“Huh? No … no that’s not what I meant. I just … well, I didn’t understand. I don’t want pity that’s for sure.”

Slightly irritated at the reemergence of his defensive armor I told him, “You’ve got screws loose. I doubt you’d ever get pity from anyone in our family. They might make you pity yourself but …”

For some reason we both started chuckling at that but then we fell silent. I don’t know why he did, but for me it was because I just remembered how much smaller my family had become. Life sometimes hits with little warning. I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to the idea of that being a truism but I’ve never quite gotten over feeling the need to fight it.

No matter how tired we were we finished up our chores at the cabin and then got up the next morning to try and finish up what needed finishing up. We brought the truck down instead of walking however. While Mark siphoned all of the gas from the vehicles after lining them up more neatly than they’d been up to that point I went picking in the garden. I became irritated at myself for having forgotten to bring bushel baskets and went to the barn to see if there was anything there I could use.

I walked in and found Mark had popped open the Cadillac’s trunk and was looking down inside it. “Mark?”

He jumped guiltily but then said, “I didn’t know this was here. Esther is plain crazy.”

I walked over to see what had caused him to make the comment to find he’d shoved a tarp out of the way. “I noticed the Caddie’s wheel was flat. I didn’t want to listen to Esther’s complaining that it was my fault so I was just going to put the spare on until I could get the tire patched. When I opened the trunk to get the jack out … I can’t believe she just left this stuff in the trunk and didn’t even lock the car.”

Looking down into the wheel well where the spare was supposed to be I saw Aunt Esther’s jewelry boxes. Yes, that was boxes, plural. And my aunt didn’t wear the cheap costume stuff either. I remember my father saying something once. “Esther sets a high price on her love.” I thought he was being philosophical at the time, what I was looking at made me rethink that however.

Mark asked, “I …we … We can’t just leave it in there Del. My Lord, your aunt is off her rocker. I’ve seen some of that stuff she wears. If I had known this stuff was in here I … your aunt is nuts!”

The look on Mark’s face was enough to make me giggle for the first time in days. “Breathe … if you really want me to I’ll take it in the house and hide it down in the basement. There’s a place that the Aunts keep stuff sometimes.”

“Yeah but don’t tell me where it is. I don’t want anyone to think I have anything to do with this stuff,” he shuddered.

“Oh honestly Mark.”

“I’m serious. You …,” he stopped and then calmed back down. “Look, you want to know why I’m so surprised about whatever this is between us?”

I laughed again, “I know Mark, I know. We used to dry each other crazy.”

In a serious voice Mark said, “No. I’m going to lay it out for you. If you don’t want to have anything to … Well, here it is and you need to know so you can understand. When Kelly told me she was pregnant I said some pretty nasty things. She had claimed she was on the Pill so I didn’t act as responsibly as a guy should if you … well, I made lots of excuses and asked questions that would have been better off asking when I could be politer about it all. I honestly don’t know if she planned the pregnancy or not but I found out later that a lot of people had thought that my family was wealthy because most of the guys in the frat I belonged to were … guilty by association I guess … and Kelly had said some things to a few of her friends. She didn’t like going to college but her parents said it was either that or she was on her own. I guess she thought marriage, or at least having a baby of a wealthy man, would get her the freedom she wanted.”

He leaned against the Cadillac with arms crossed looking into the past, examining what had gotten him where he was in his life. “I told Dee and she said of course that I had to marry Kelly. Dee was still dealing with feeling ashamed of the divorce and was afraid the social stigma of a ******* in the family would be just too much to survive. So I asked Kelly to marry me and she was so happy I started thinking that it wasn’t going to be as hard as I had worried it would. Then we told her parents and they flat out refused to give their consent – didn’t seem to matter that we were both of legal age at the time – and that I could support Kelly and the baby financially. When I tried to explain that I didn’t have much money Kelly called me a liar and her parents believed her. That’s when they tried to take me to court and all of it came out. Kelly’s parents were shocked to find out some of the things their daughter had been up to at school and … and a few other things that we don’t need to go into. They kind of washed their hands of the whole situation and all but disowned Kelly in the process. By that time Kelly had pretty much run through all the sympathy of her school friends and she came to me one day and we talked and … well, somewhere along the way I’d started loving the baby and wanting to be a father. She … she acted all sorry and scared, and she may have been for real with no financial support to speak of and a baby on the way, and we agreed to get married after all.”

“Things weren’t too bad after Kelly and I got married. For the people that cared about those things, they figured getting married fixed the sin of her getting pregnant with Jessie out of wedlock. For those that didn’t think it fixed anything, I don’t think anything would have fixed it and there was lots of doom and gloom being prophesized for us. For those that hadn’t cared one way or the other they just tried to be happy for us and keep any misgivings they had to themselves. Actually what happened was that for a while it seemed that things were going really well. Then Jessie was born and Kelly … changed.”

Jessie’s face changed as well. He’d been impassive before, like he was telling someone else’s story, now he looked confused and angry despite the fact that Jessie was a year and a half old. “What I didn’t know at the time was that she had been changing before Jessie was born. We didn’t kid ourselves that we were in love. If we had ever been in love we fell out of it, or I did, when she tried to blackmail me the first go around before we got married. But I thought we’d come to an understanding; we would do that co-parenting thing for Jessie’s sake and the rest we would have to deal with some time down the road. But she hated being on a budget and she hated having to give up so much of what she’d had access to when she was still just her parents’ daughter.”

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be getting from his story and I squirmed, figuratively, to hear about his marriage. I still hadn’t reconciled that to the picture I wanted to have of him. I wasn’t stupid, I knew he hadn’t found Jessie under a cabbage leaf, but I wanted to ignore what I considered the unpleasant stuff. Obviously I still had personal issues but it was hard accepting the fact that maybe I wasn’t as mature on the inside as I tried to be on the outside.

“It all came to a head one day. I got laid off of one of the four part time jobs I was trying to juggle to keep a roof over our heads and came home from work early. Kelly was over at her mom’s with Jessie. I got the mail out of the box and went inside to get something to drink. It was all there Del. What I had thought was just junk mail turned out to be something totally different. We had late notices and demands for payment for all of the people that Kelly had said she had paid off or was in the process of paying off. It’s a small town and most of these folks were local. The looks and cold shoulders I’d been getting from some of them started to make sense. I started calling around, found out things that made me furious. I took the two paychecks that hadn’t been deposited yet, cashed them, and started driving around town trying to take care of things and make arrangements for payments. “

He swiped a hand over his face to wipe the sweat away and maybe to give himself a moment to gain control of the hurt I could hear buried in his voice. “Some of the people were nice and believed me when I said I didn’t know what had been going on. Some of them laughed at me scornfully and blamed me for not knowing what was going on under my own roof, under my own nose. A few didn’t believe me and still don’t. I didn’t know what to do. When Kelly called to tell me she was staying the night with her parents I tried to stay calm so that she wouldn’t know that I knew. I went to Dee and asked for a loan and that’s when I found out she’d run through all of the settlement money from the divorce and was just about to be evicted from the house she was renting. I hadn’t seen her except when I’d been invited over and she wasn’t prepared, she couldn’t hide … she was a mess Del, much worse than she is now if you can believe it.”

He fell silent. I reached out and touched his hand and he jumped and pulled away from me, adding a few extra feet to the distance that had separated us. “Now I didn’t just have my own mess to clean up but Dee’s as well. I didn’t want to do it but I felt I had no choice. I went to talk to Kelly … but she wasn’t at her parents’ house, and neither was Jessie. Only Kelly’s father was home. He’s not a bad man, not really. After he accepted that I was trying to make up for my mistake, to make it right, he loosened up a bit and had even helped me to find two of the part time jobs that I had.”

“Not being able to find Jessie freaked me out a little. I got scared and … well, I spilled it all. All of it. Getting laid off, the unpaid bills, the confusion, finding out about Dee … all of it. He called his wife and she didn’t know where Kelly was either. Then we all started calling around, no one knew where she was at. We tried calling the police but Kelly is an adult and had every right to have Jessie with her wherever she was. About four in the morning her mother got a call on her cell phone. A tearful Kelly was calling because she’d been busted; a party she’d been at had been raided and drugs had been found. She begged her mother not to tell anyone and just to come bail her out but to say that she’d been with her if anyone asked.”

“That’s … that’s when the nightmare really started. Kelly’s dad was … could be … a scary man. Not a bad man, just scary. He wouldn’t let his wife bail Kelly out, practically threatened her with divorce if he found out she assisted Kelly in any way even if that meant sending a friend over to bail her out. Then he and I went down to the jail and talked to the arresting officers. No baby had been found at the party. They questioned her without letting her know where their information had come from and she denied she even had a child. Then she claimed the child was with her parents and the cops told her that was a lie too. In the end it turns out she left Jessie with a friend and that the friend had grown tired of waiting for Kelly to pick him up so had left him with one of their friends.”

“Kelly was charged with child endangerment and a bunch of people suddenly got involved like social services. I lost Jessie for about two weeks until they finished their investigation and I was later told that had they had a home to put him in it would likely have been for a lot longer. Kelly’s mom and dad helped me get the house ready for a home visit and that’s whent we uncovered evidence that Kelly had been stealing … from her mother a piece of jewelry she had thought she lost, a lot of expensive items with the tag still on them … a lot of it shoplifted more than likely.

After her father confronted her Kelly got scared and then found some lawyer that turned everything around on me and said that Kelly was suffering from postpartum syndrome or something like that and made me out to be … well, what do you think she tried to say I did? Everyone had an opinion on who was more at fault, Kelly or I. And I felt so guilty and angry and hurt that I said some things that did not help my case at all.

Finally this woman lawyer who had heard my story from a friend came to me and said that she’d take my case on for pro bono but only if I shut up and stopped making her job harder than it had to be. She really knew her stuff. Stopped allowing the case to be ruled by innuendo and he said/she said and made it be about the evidence. She found out things about Kelly I never knew and got lots of depositions from people that we owed money to that they’d never spoken with me only with Kelly. But the dye was already cast and a lot of the damage Kelly had done couldn’t be undone.”

“And she kept talking, telling people horrible things that I’m not going to repeat because they make me so angry. The divorce was finalized pretty quickly all things considered but it left me with a lot of debt and a lot of hard feelings. Part of the deal with the lawyer was that I had to agree to join a divorce support group and attend so many counseling sessions. I hated her at first for it but in the end it really did help me get my head on straight and I got some good advice from people that had gone through the same things as I had. And I got sole custody of Jessie and everything was worth that.”

Hesitantly I asked, “Where … where were Kelly’s parents in all of this?”

“They love Kelly, she’s their only kid. But the stress of it was too much for her mother. She had a minor heart attack and Kelly’s dad thought it was time they retired and moved to Florida. I think he did it to get his wife away from Kelly’s manipulation as much as anything else. They’re still good about keeping up with Jessie, send him presents and stuff for no particular reason. And I talk to Kelly’s dad about once a month but it is hard on both of us; even so I feel I owe it to him and Jessie to try. And I make sure they get pictures of him and stuff … email and things like that to save on postage and phone bills. They’re probably worried sick about him but I don’t know what I can do right now.”

“We have satellite internet connection at the cabin, it is the only kind we can get while we’re up there so we have it bundled in and keep up the payments. Last time I checked most websites seem to be down and a lot of service providers seem to be in and out too. I wound up just turning off my laptop to save power and haven’t had time to check if …”

He just looked at me. “Didn’t you hear a word I was saying? I told you what some people think of me. They don’t just think it Del, they act like it too. My life is a mess Del and you’re going on about having satellite at the cabin.”

I took a deep breath, “Yeah, I heard what you said. It made me … uncomfortable. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve been here for me when I needed you to Mark. My life isn’t exactly … my dad is dying and I’ve got a sixteen year old brother to be responsible for and now I find out the Aunts wanted me to be an executor of their estate and … and … the world is coming down around our ears. You heard the radio last night. Every day we go back to the cabin and find out about the next bad thing that has happened. Sometimes it’s something that affects us directly and sometimes it is happening on the other side of the world and I am to the point that as awful as it sounds I could care freaking less. I’ve got enough on my own plate without having to worry that somebody dumped something in the Yellow River that is killing all of the fish. I know people depend on those fish to put food on their table, to keep their families from starving, but I just had to say goodbye to several of my own family members without benefit of church, preacher, or anything else. And there is more loss to come.”

“So,” he said slowly, “you don’t care about my story.”

“No!” I cried, upset that I’d given him that impression. “That’s not what I mean. I mean that … that … that while I care it doesn’t change things, or not much. It helps me to understand a little better but it doesn’t really change things. There are still some crazy people out there doing their best to destroy my country and set off world war three, my family members are still dead all for the sake of someone not washing their hands properly, my dad is still dying a slow and painful death … and you are still more than my friend but I still don’t know how much more or even what that means, or what to do about it.”

He gave an anti-climatic “Oh.”

He started puttering and I was sure that I’d really messed things up but then he looked over at me and said, “Despite the way I treated you when we were kids you really don’t believe all those stories that Kelly told people do you.”

It was a statement and not a question. “Of course I don’t. You may not be an angel but I’ve never known you to be physically abusive, lazy, or whatever else I read between the lines of what you were saying. I gave you plenty of opportunity to go off on me when we were kids and you never did. I don’t know what … look, I’m bad at this. I’ve made mistakes myself but it looks like both of us learned from our mistakes and we’ve turned our backs on whatever it was that caused us to make the mistakes and we are trying to move forward. You aren’t sitting around crowing about the wild and wooly sex you used to have in your frat and I’m … I’m trying to be more careful, look before I leap, think before I speak, that sort of thing. The Aunts taught me all sorts of homilies and Bible verses for situations like this, I should remember them, but I can’t right now. I’ll go looking for them tonight. Just … just …”

“That guy really hurt you didn’t he?”

Startled I said, “What?!”

“The guy … the one you said you made a mistake with … he really hurt you. It makes you scared to think about … stuff.”

“Well if by stuff you mean making an idiot out of myself all over again, then yes.”

I knew somehow that having shared with me Mark expected the same out of me but I was scared to death. Mark was the victim but in my story I was the “other woman” and I still hadn’t gotten over it. But it was now or never. I owed Mark that much.

“He was married.”

It was Mark’s turn to yelp, “What?!”

“He was good looking, in three of my classes, my age … and married. I didn’t know. I know that sounds like a lie. No one else believed me either except for Daddy and Micah. A lot of my friends that I had at the time … they turned on me. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know he was married either, that he’d lied to them too but everyone thought that I should have known. We’d been dating about three months; I’d introduced him to my father for God’s sake before we even went out on the first date. I was trying so hard to do everything right and still ...” Remembering how awful that day had felt I got embarrassed and because I was embarrassed I got angry. “You want to know how I found out? That he was married?”

“Del …”

“I’d just gotten home from one of Daddy’s first doctor’s appointment and we’d gotten the initial inklings that his stomach problems were a lot worse than acid reflux. She’d been lying in wait and rushed me before I had done much more than gotten out of the car. She started hitting me … his pregnant, under age wife started hitting me I should say and I didn’t know how to defend myself without hurting her. She was crying so hard she’d made herself sick. I’ve dealt with hysterical children before but nothing like that. She was really and truly off her rocker, screaming at the top of her lungs. I was sure there had to be a mistake. I called … him … and instead of coming himself he sent his mother over to deal with her. What a coward and I completely didn’t see it until it was too late.”

“Del …”

“No wait, it gets better. A neighbor had called the cops but the story somehow got turned around that I was the one abusing her. Everyone was looking at me like they’d seen me for the first time. Then another cop car showed up and one of those guys was in a night class with me and … him. He couldn’t get personally involved of course but he was able to help straighten the stories out … but it was too late. You’re right; people only believe what they want to believe. Add into that I was a completely gullible idiot that missed all of the signs because I didn’t want to see them and … and … “

“Del …”

“What?”

“Micah already told me. About everything but the married part, or maybe he said it and I didn’t hear it. I dunno. Either way, it’s OK.”

I was left speechless. I wanted to be furious with Micah, for telling my personal business, but I hadn’t ever told him he couldn’t say anything. He knew I didn’t talk about it however. I was left floundering like a catfish hung up in the muddy shallows.

“Del, if it doesn’t matter what I did I can at least give you the same courtesy. At least you didn’t get pregnant.”

“Humph, not unless immaculate conception got put on my list of things to worry about.”

He looked at me and then said, “You’re kidding.”

“No. I told you I’d been trying so hard to do the right thing and apparently he wasn’t going without because I wasn’t the only girl he was stringing along. It’s the only good thing that I can say came out of it.”

“Uh …” Mark said with his mouth hanging open like I was some weird species.

Rather than deal with a conversation going a direction I was far from ready for it to go I picked up the three heavy jewelry boxes and took them inside and then down to the basement and his them in the cubby hole hidden behind one of the shelves in the darkest corner. Then I returned to the garden and worked until Mark reminded me of the time.

We were loading the last bushel basket into the back of the truck when Micah came skidding and breathless out of the trees. “Y’all need to come back right now. The world has gone crazy. There has been some kind of nuclear accident in Iran and a lot of people are hurt and dying. Apparently they tried to get off a bomb on Israel only something went wrong and it went off right after it took off. All the countries over there … it was a really big bomb, some reports are saying that it was over 50 megatons, bigger even than that big Russian bomb Daddy told us about the other night.”

1 comment:

  1. Quick note: This sentence, "Jessie’s face changed as well. He’d been impassive before, like he was telling someone else’s story, now he looked confused and angry despite the fact that Jessie was a year and a half old. “

    I believe it is Mark telling Jessie's story and not the baby telling his own?

    Great start!

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