Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

I’m ashamed to say that I froze as badly as my little brother at the sight of Daddy on his knees and all but insensible. It was Mark that moved first.

“Del … Hey, Del, come on Sweetheart he’s gonna be all right. Take Jessie off my back. Micah, come get on your dad’s other side. Mr. Nash … Mr. Nash … let Micah and I bear your weight. We are going to pick you up. Micah … yeah, now grab … yeah, like that.” They got Daddy into a two-man carry. This saved Daddy the indignity of being tossed over Mark’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes and I think he appreciated it ‘cause he nodded weakly.

Getting him into the house wasn’t that hard; the steps up the porch were wide enough for the three of them. Getting him down into the basement was a completely different story. The steps were narrow and steep. Mark wound up having to piggy back him while Micah walked close behind to keep Daddy from falling backwards.

Mark continued to be in charge. “Micah let’s see about bringing down what we can while Del takes care of getting your dad comfortable. Del, I’ll set the playpen up for Jessie. It’s cool enough down here so hopefully he’ll just relax and you can do what you need to unhindered. I’ll come back and …”

“Go Mark. I’m OK,” I told him finally beginning to come to terms with the shock. My heart hurt at the sudden manifestation of just how ill Daddy was but there was no choice. Bad things happen at the worst possible time, it is like a law of nature or something, and we had to do what we had to do.

I fixed Daddy’s cot over in the corner away from both the traffic down into the sub-cellar and in the opposite corner from Jessie who wanted “Hy Paw’s” attention any time he could get it. We were already sleeping down there about half the time anyway because the cool was just too tempting when the nights were miserable; the heat of summer had dragged beyond its normal season. But I wasn’t thinking about convenience at the moment. Right then I just wanted to have Daddy stay still and quiet until I could determine what the best course of action was.

His pulse was erratic and he was still very pale. I checked his sugar level using a sugar meter I had gotten from the doctor well before we had ever thought of moving back to the cabin and it was very low, lower than it should have been. Daddy wasn’t hypoglycemic but I worried about his nutrition because of his disintegrating appetite. And while I was taking a closer look at him, helping him off with his dirty shirt and into a clean one, I noticed that he was bruising way too easy for my comfort. I suspected, but couldn’t prove anemia.

One of the potential consequences of poor nutrition is anemia. Anemia is also a common ailment of many cancer patients. Basically what happens is that the body’s ability to produce red bloods cells is compromised. Red bloods cells are what carry the oxygen around in our bodies. Since treating the cause of the anemia was beyond me I decided to try and treat the symptoms by making changes in diet and with vitamin supplements. I’d bought vitamins as a way to address potential illnesses back … it already seemed so long ago … the first time Mark and I had gone to town when I went to the warehouse store. I had the B12, C, and Folic Acid that Daddy needed but it was still better that he also get the Vitamins from his diet.

For one I needed to add more meat to the diet to help with the B12. To help encourage healthy growth of bacteria in his intestines and to help with his stomach problems I would get him to eat more of our homemade yogurt which was another rich source of B12. Eggs would provide both B12 and Folic Acid. Dark leafy green veggies would help with Vitamin C and Folic Acid. Banana Chips would be his treat … I had several cases of the LTS banana chips in storage so splurging on this one luxury wouldn’t hurt.

I was pretty sure the rest of it was simply stress … although stress and its causes are far from “simple.” He’d most definitely badly overextended himself arranging the animals on top of being worried they wouldn’t be able to find me “in time.”

The first thing that the guys brought down was the radio. Mark left Micah to set it back up in a cabinet the two of them had built for it as a surprise for Daddy’s birthday a couple of weeks previously. While Micah worked on that, Mark brought down the few of his and Jessie’s belongings that remained upstairs. We’d been working steadily to bring all essential and most nonessential items down to the basement and sub-cellar and had nearly completed the task. We’d done it in the evenings after it got too dark or buggy to work outside. It left the upstairs looking a little bare and sterile but no one really cared at this point.

Mark took a break from the stairs and started arranging Jessie’s stuff which allowed me to go up to my bedroom and the kitchen and continue where I had left off moving things, just at a vastly quicker rate. From my bedroom I tossed the few personal items left … like my pictures in frames, hair brush and hygiene items … into a laundry basket left there for just such a purpose. I grabbed all of the inventories and supplies that remained in the butler’s pantry. And from the kitchen I grabbed the everyday dishes, cups, utensils and the few pots and pans that hadn’t been relocated.

That was two trips then Micah and Mark both went while I stayed with Jessie and Daddy and tried to listen to the radio and turn the mess we were making into a little better organized chaos than it was. Daddy wanted to get up but I had to beg him to rest. We’d already planned out how we were going to do what we were in the process of doing … we just hadn’t expected to have to do it quite so quickly.

It wasn’t long before the remainder of the books had come down and been stacked in the sub cellar so they could be put on the shelves the guys had built just for that purpose. They also manhandled several of the smaller pieces of furniture as well as everyone’s mattresses so that they could be put on the bed frames that had been built down in the sub cellar just in case we had the opportunity to do what we were doing then.

Every once in a while Rudy would call to see if we’d pick up a particular change or addition to the information that was coming in. When I told him Daddy had had a spell and that he was resting as comfortably as could be expected you could almost hear the wheels turning in his head of whether or not he should provide some kind of help.

Before he could say it I told him, “All is well and going according to plan Rudy. Daddy is right here and nodding his head in agreement. Hopefully you and yours are having the same results.”

That said just the right amount without saying too much … especially in case someone was listening and looking to take advantage of the situation. When all had been brought down we rested and then would get up and organize for a while, then sit and rest, and then get up and organize some more, then I fixed a light meal, we ate, cleaned up, did a little more organizing, and then sat and tried not to stare at Daddy or at each other too much.

We hadn’t moved completely into the sub-cellar yet. The basement was enough for now; cautionary without being claustrophobic. If something did happen we knew we’d be spending more than enough time down there, perhaps cut off from everyone and everything. And all the while the radio stayed on and we listed to people ranging from calm to positively hysterical, a few were obviously suicidal. This is what the first “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast by Orson Welles must have been like … only this wasn’t fiction. There was no going to be waking up the next day to find out it was a piece of entertainment or a hoax.

During the night all I could do was pray. I wanted so desperately for things to get back to normal but as the days began to pass the only thing we could do was develop a new normal that only vaguely resembled the old one.

Daddy improved but it wasn’t a dramatic healing. He was still sick, noticeably so, but he got to a level of health that allowed him to manage the cancer and its affect on him better. His mood wasn’t depressed, it actually seemed … anticipatory, like he had a goal. He talked more openly about Momma and his own parents than he had in years.

Micah and I struggled with the reality of his illness more than Daddy did. He had reached a level of acceptance of the ending than we were unprepared for. Personally for me, trying to reconcile the two diametrically opposing goals of accepting my father’s approaching death while simultaneously striving towards the survival of the rest of our small group was emotionally and physically debilitating. I tried to be as strong as Daddy, I knew my duty, but there were times I hid in a dark corner of the sub-cellar and silently howled at the unfairness of it all.

The world stood on the brink, toes closer to the edge than ever before, and no one seemed to really want to do what it took to pull back from the precipice. Contrarily, any work being done seemed to be in preparation for the final leap. It was rather like an unexpected opportunity for the masses to prepare a hole to crawl into. No one had expected to have this much warning and people were confused. Some people used the time well, many did not, never really believing it would happen … or if they did believe that there was any sense in prepping because life wouldn’t be worth living afterwards. Some people, from the sound of the gossip on the radio, believed that if things were going to end … and that there was nothing after the end … there wasn’t any reason not to party themselves to death. I still wonder how many of those suffered needlessly all for the want of a little faith and common sense.

Other countries began to experience the attacks on their infrastructure that this country had been first in line for. The Yangtze River dam in China was destroyed and the resulting deaths and damage were incalculable. Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle airports were incapacitated when trucks loaded with explosives, some of them likely without their driver’s knowledge, were used to damage the runway and air traffic control towers. Hundreds were killed and many more injured because the airport terminals were being used to house tourists stuck without a way home. Water supplies were poisoned. Power generating facilities were rendered useless. Fuel refineries were set ablaze. Internationally the situation was even grimmer than what we had faced in this country, even with the radiological attack on the UN. Every petty (and not so petty) grievance against neighbor was taken up as a cause and acted on … race, religion, and economic reasons were big fights but other things pitted neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother.

It wasn’t that there weren’t problems in the US. Food riots were barely manageable. The Administration attempted to nationalize the entire food production and distribution chain but that caused nearly as many riots as the lack of food did, destabilizing large rural areas and turning people even more solidly against the civilian power structure. There simply wasn’t time to constructively implement the plans they were making … and there wasn’t enough cooperation either regardless of which side of the debate you were on.

The riots weren’t only about food. The traditional melting pot of divergent races, religions, and creeds turned into a cauldron on full rolling boil. Race riots – “my” people vs. “your” people. Revenge – I’m going to get you now for what you did in the past because I may not have the opportunity in the future. Ageism – who truly deserves to be saved, what do they have to offer in the unknown future, what can they contribute now and down the road. Gender wars – one of the more ignorant ones in my opinion considering it took both to continue the species, one cannot reproduce without the other. Every ideology, belief system, creed, code seemed to show the worst of itself. There may have been groups out there doing their best for their fellow men, not repaying evil for evil, not determining who was “worthy” and who was “unworthy” of the limited resources, setting the best example under the worst circumstances … but those groups didn’t make the news.

The infrastructure problems, already cascading into all corners of our existence, became even more pronounced and trying. You learned to live without like you had been doing it your whole life … no electricity, no natural gas, no vehicle fuel, open and undamaged retail stores few and far between, ration books and stamps, corruption the norm rather than the exception, no policemen, no firemen, no schools, lines too long for too few resources. You learned to make do … making your own potable water, acquiring by barter or growing your own food out of necessity if not desire, educating your own children, providing your own security. Commonsense became the most valuable commodity and too few people seemed to have it in any quantity.

You learned to make do or do without but it was a fragile and exhausting existence. One poor choice, one more thing going wrong, and your house of cards collapsed. Some people got the chance to start again, many did not. The network of charities and public assistance that once stopped the fall of both the deserving and undeserving no longer existed. You learned to count on God and yourself, occasionally you were lucky if you could count on family, even luckier if you had a community support group that functioned effectively.

The days crept by without news of any additional successful attacks … at least not on US soil. Mark and Micah completed the few remaining feet of tunnel that connected the cabin and the animal shed and started on a branch off of that tunnel that would lead to the woodshed and from there to the well house. We stopped living in the basement 24/7 but we didn’t move back upstairs either. Daddy spent part of the day on the porch soaking up Vitamin D from the sun … and regaling us all with stories from his youth and trying to impart a lifetime of knowledge to us in what time he had left. He stopped losing weight and his color was better, but it didn’t take a degreed and experienced doctor to tell the illness was unremittingly taking its toll and would, in the end win no matter what we did. But Daddy still acted like whether the cancer won or not he would be the victor.

We focused on trying to complete the projects that Daddy had always meant to do, trying to reach a point of true self-sufficiency and sustainability in case we lost contact … or refused contact … with the farm. Better to be safe than sorry as you never knew what tomorrow might bring.

Mark was able to borrow Rudy’s bobcat with the front loader, both he and I insisting on exchanging labor for the loan. I helped to strip the orchard trees of the last bit of viable fruit and doing it quickly enough that Rudy insisted that I take some of the winter apples and some of the other softer fruit for our own use. I also helped bring in a whole acre of watermelons and cantaloupes, the remnants of what the Aunts had grown for their church’s fall festival fund raiser and took our share of what was left over after Rudy traded many of the melons for supplies for the farm. I also gave Mark some of my junk silver coins to pay for the bio fuel John brewed that would keep the bobcat in motion for as long as we needed. That was quite a “discussion” when Mark found out about those coins. He had his own coin collection left to him by his father but very little of it was junk silver except for a jar of silver dollars. Most of what he had were those books filled with pennies, nickels and the like and sets of all of the state-run quarters.

With the front loader Mark dug a kind of expedient shelter under and around the shed that we could shove the cow and chickens into and hopefully protect them enough that they would survive. It was like they were weird hobbits, living in a partially underground hovel. Designing a way to deal with their feces was challenging to say the least but we managed a sort of compost pit whose opening was under ground by using an old septic tank and field from my grandparents’ time that had been replaced as a gift to Momma and Daddy when they lived in the cabin as newlyweds. We only found it by accident when Mark was digging the animal shelter. Daddy said he’d forgotten all about it and the long dormant and useless items suddenly became useful and productive again.

We enlarged the woodshed and improved the well house by transforming it into an earthen mound structure like the animal shelter. We cut the late autumn hay and tall grass for animal feed and took the time we should have taken before and moved the barrels of animal feed off of the trailer and into the “found” five gallon buckets I had gotten so long ago. We also reused the ones that I had emptied to this point. Daddy sat in the shade of the porch and helped clean the feed before it went into the buckets; he did what he could and I think it kept him feeling tethered and attached and with us … less likely to simply slip away further down the valley road.

I continued to forage but not far from home and not for long hours at a time as I had done previously and certainly not on my own. Mark was the one that normally came with me. One, we took Jessie so that the little boy could have some outdoor time; and two, Micah just didn’t want to leave Daddy’s side any more than necessary. I think we gathered at least as many acorns, chinquapins, black walnuts, butter nuts, hickory nuts, and pecans as the squirrels did. The barrels we emptied of feed were soon filled with nuts.

I hunted all over for fresh greens to help boost Daddy’s immune system and entice his appetite. Pawpaws, persimmons, ground cherries, wild grapes, huckleberries, and the very last of the rose hips keep me canning when I wasn’t foraging or working on some way to make the basement and sub-cellar more appealing to people who preferred the outdoors to four walls and ceiling under the ground.

I picked and dried flowers and herbs and then at night I would tie them together in garlands and hang them on the walls down there. It served two purposes. One it mimicked the outdoors in a somewhat similar way the silk flowers and ferns that had I in baskets in out of the way places down there and two, the dried herbs and flowers acted like a potpourri and kept musty odors at bay. I made sachets and dream pillows – cedar filled ones for the drawers and closets to keep moths at bay; sachets of lemon verbena, rosemary, and coriander to perk the senses up; chamomile, mugwort, spearmint, rose petals, and lemon grass for a pleasant rest. I even made catnip treats to lure the lunatic female cat into the animal shelter and keep her there when we discovered she had a nest of three small kittens. This wasn’t completely altruistic on my part; she’d proven herself to be good at rodent control and the last thing I wanted to worry about was mice, rats, and who knew what else getting into the hay and chicken feed we were storing.

I worried about what would happen to the world if too many animals were wiped out, especially the birds and the bats that controlled the nuisance insects like mosquitoes, but I could barely take care of my own family. I’d have to leave the wild animals in God’s hands.

I dressed our beds in bright sheets and quilts and put similar types of throw pillows and rugs in our shared living space. It was particularly important to me to keep Daddy’s space cheerful; Micah’s as well. I really worried about the two of them for vastly different reasons.

Mark was a rock, there is no other way to say it. One day about six weeks after the UN attack Daddy had another particularly bad day. He’d fought it most of the morning and then finally conceded that he needed to return to his bed. It was just a bad time for me as I had caught him throwing up blood again. Micah was being … he was being a nearly seventeen year old young man suffering in advance for the loss he knew was coming. I can say that now but then all I could feel was hurt for the way he was being, like it was my fault that I couldn’t fix Daddy and make him well again, like I wasn’t trying hard enough.

Lunch and dinner that day wasn’t my best either, my mind constantly wandering onto the next task before the first one was finished. I burnt the corn bread, scorched the beans, and the crust on the dried apple pie that I had hoped to use to perk people up with was underdone and soggy. Then I dropped one of my better cast iron skillets when I was taking it outside to clean, it hit a rock in my garden border and cracked.

I couldn’t take it. It was either walk away or break down and scream in pain and frustration. I grabbed the ax, went to the woodshed and tried to do something constructive to work off my emotions and instead dropped a log on my toes and nearly took my leg off when I over balanced and missed the wood I was aiming at.

I was nearly ready to come completely undone when hands closed over mine and said, “I don’t care what it looks like in the movies, trying to chop wood when you are upset isn’t the best thing to do. Here, if you want to try this don’t make it so hard on yourself.” Mark proceeded to show me the correct – and safe – way to split wood.

After I had done a couple relatively correct he took the ax away and we sat down on a couple of stumps. “Del, you are going to make yourself sick. You can only be angry for so long before you start self-destructing.”

Sitting there bent over I knew I couldn’t afford to make an enemy of my friend but it was hard to answer calmly and without rancor. “Mark, I’m not … not angry. Not in a way that makes much sense anyway. Things are just hard right now and not getting any better for who knows how long. It is like I’m … I’m grieving even before Daddy … before Daddy …,” I couldn’t go any further.

“You’re right. Angry isn’t exactly what I meant to say. You’re upset and hurting. I wish I could bleed some of it off for you. I feel like if Jessie and I weren’t here …”

I panicked for a moment. “Please Mark, please … don’t take Jessie. I know he is your son and I swear I won’t interfere with that. I’m not trying to steal him from you but he is just about the only bright spot I have in all of this and …”

“Hey! Whoa. Easy Del. Don’t hyperventilate on me. Put your head between your knees.”

Still unsatisfied that he understood I said, “I’m not hyperventilating. I’m serious!”

He put his hand over mine and held it on my knee, “I know you are. I didn’t mean to make it sound like Jessie and I were about to light out of here. If you want to know the truth, I can’t imagine us being any place else but here. It … it scares me to think we could have missed this … I could have missed this … and … and Jessie could be sick, hungry, or … or worse right now. I told you I would never forget what you did that night the raiders came ‘round.”

“Oh Mark. I … I’m not looking to hold something like that over your head. I just … I mean honestly I couldn’t have done all of this by myself either. Micah hasn’t been as bad as I was afraid, but it isn’t over yet. It isn’t his fault that he is has to deal with so much but …”

“But you are human and you are just as entitled to be going through it as he is but he doesn’t seem to see it that way. I don’t know how you are doing it. Cooking all the meals. Preserving all the food. Washing all the laundry … even mine and Jessie’s. Doing most of the cleaning. Being the liaison between the farm and the cabin. Trying to mother Micah and Jessie and … uh … I … I mean …,” he broke off sweating.

“Mark, I hope it doesn’t make you upset but … but I love Jessie. He’s turning into my little buddy. I know I have to be careful, not to confuse him. But it … it feels right … it feels like maybe God put Jessie in a position here so that I could take care of him and God knew that would help me too.”

Mark shook his head, “Here we are, started off talking about you and somehow you turned that around and are now talking about you needing to take care of my son. Don’t you ever act like a normal female?”

“Huh?” I said getting a little hurt.

“No. Seriously. I came out here to try and … take care of you for a change instead of you taking care of the rest of us and we still wind up talking about what you can do for someone else. Del, you are going to make yourself sick if you don’t … don’t let us … let me at least … help you somehow. I know the work is what it is and we all have more than a fair share of it but … but you need to be able to talk to someone, bleed off the hurt … I can see it in your eyes, in how you hold yourself. God help me but it reminds me of how Dee used to act.” He shook his head and continued. “You’re losing weight and you aren’t sleeping. You want me to go on?”

“I told I don’t need much sleep.”

“Not much sleep is still some sleep; you haven’t been getting any. Every time I roll over at night you are taking care of Jessie or your dad or you are up late doing something down in the sub-cellar or listening to the radio or working on your infernal inventories. Del if you don’t start taking better care of yourself there is going to be trouble … for you, for all of us, including your dad.”

I heard what he was saying but that was easier said than done. “Mark I’m afraid that if I … if I don’t keep going I’m going to miss it.”

“Miss what?”

“It. The opportunity to help Daddy. The opportunity to get that bit of extra food put aside. The opportunity to hear the news soon enough that I can constructively react to it. It … anything … everything.”

“Del …”

“I know it doesn’t make sense but that is what I’m feeling,” I said defensively.

“I do understand. I really do. But you can’t do it all by yourself. You … you reminded me of that back in the beginning. Remember? So now is a time that you need to be reminded of it. Micah can … needs … to pick up some of the slack. He’s been real good about working … lift that barge tote that bail sort of stuff. But he also needs to help with taking care of your dad … not just spending time sitting with him because he is scared but the real nuts and bolts of it; preparing special meals if he can’t eat what the rest of us are eating, changing his sheets, helping him to do whatever he can still do for himself. It isn’t going to get any easier and if … if God forbid … we do have to take shelter in the basement and sub-cellar for any length of time … you can’t keep going like this. And if something does happen to your dad …”

“God Mark, you don’t think I haven’t thought of that?! But what choice do I have? I’m losing Daddy. I have to face that. Micah is a mess even though he is less of a mess than I expected him to be at this point. I have to be here for him and strong because if I crack I have no idea what that will do to him. Daddy needs to … even said he needs to … see that I’m going to be able to deal with things. He says he has to be able to trust me. I see him when he thinks that I’m not looking … watching me to make sure that I’m handling things like I promised I would. I have to do what I have to do. It’s not fun. It’s not fair. But that’s … my … life.” And at that I started crying.

I got up to leave but he pulled me back down and I found out his shoulders really are pretty broad. I was so tired afterwards that all I wanted to do was crash and burn but that wasn’t in the cards.

“Del!! Mark!!” Micah screamed from the front door, nearly screaming. I thought it was Daddy. It wasn’t.

We listened for hours, trying to figure out the best course of action. Talk flew back and forth between the cabin and the farm. We were pretty sure we would be able to avoid fallout. Pretty sure. Fairly sure. But definitely not positive.

From the information we gathered on the radio the bombs were relatively small as such things went, but they were dirty. First, all across the US and then around the world, word came in of small, dirty payloads going off in major metropolitan areas. A lot of money blew up that day and the plans must have been years in the making and setting up. The ones of most immediate concern to us were one at the Nashville airport, two on the Mississippi River at Memphis, and one on the interstate system at Chattanooga.

We had no idea what prevailing winds would do, or topography, or anything else for that matter as far as was fall out related. There was no consensus on the radio. Actually the radio was strangely quiet. Many of those that had remained in urban areas had either been affected somewhat by localized EMP or had been impacted by the explosions themselves … or had finally made the right connections and were bugging out regardless of what officials were asking people to do.

There was lots of panic but that was a luxury too expensive for us. It was time … time to see if all of what we had been doing up to this point would work or not. There is no perfect solution, except in fictional stories, but we prayed we’d done enough.

We finalized our move into the sub-cellar. It wasn’t anywhere near the crypt that it used to be but it wasn’t like living above ground either. I kept damp sheets hung across the entrance as a sort of odd filter. The ceiling was irregular and Mark and Micah had to remember to duck in a couple of places that I did not. It was cool enough down that there we needed at least a flannel shirt on to prevent getting a chill. Daddy sat in a padded rocking chair with a quilt across his legs and monitored the radio. Mark wouldn’t let Micah curl up bedside him but kept him working; drawing water into a couple of barrels, helping him move the propane canisters that we had managed to save into a anteroom well away from the living quarters, double checking the dug tunnels to make sure they weren’t collapsing and then taking care of the animals and securing the doors to both the animal shed and the house from the inside.

That night Daddy showed Mark and I how to make a homemade “fallout detector” that had been invented by some guy named Kearney. It was complicated yet simple but using it reliably was another matter. It had to be calibrated and we had to calculate the protection factor of the shelter. This caused a huge, nearly hysterical, fight with Micah.

You see, to get a reading on the protection factor of the shelter meant going outside and measuring any fallout that we were already experiencing. Daddy absolutely, point blank, no back up in him at all, refused to let Mark or I do it.

His response was bald and brutal. “I’m already dying. If it is bad out there then what is the sense of you two being exposed? Those anti-nuclear and enviro freaks use unfounded scare tactics to spread bad information but there isn’t any sense in taking chances either. You’ve heard Esther and I. We’ve both made the decision that it is to be us.”

That was one that I still have trouble believing. Aunt Esther’s switch had been flipped and she’d come out of the nearly fugue state she had been in and was stubbornly refusing to let even Rudy or Aunt Lilah do the deed for the farm.

Micah, nearly in tears, “Aunt Esther?!! She’s acted crazier than I’ve ever known her to and you suddenly want to do something just like her?!”

“Watch your mouth boy when you speak to me. I might have one foot in the grave but by God I am still here and I’m still your father. I won’t be sassed and I won’t be treated like some toothless infant. You will sit your butt down in that chair, shut your mouth, and listen to me.”

I could understand Micah’s frustration … and Daddy’s too. I felt guilty about letting him be the one but I also understood the sense of it. It broke my heart to understand it. It made me feel like a traitor. But in war, as in love, sometimes life just isn’t fair.

While Daddy was out Micah either refused to talk to me or he was cussing me like I was some nasty tramp only out for my own preservation at all cost. Mark came close to clocking him a good one but I managed to stop that from happening but there were some hard feelings on both their sides that they hardly tried to conceal. Mark got over it first after a day or so but Micah carried his grudge around and nursed it like a baby even though as it so happens we were all worrying for nothing at the time.

After about an hour Daddy came back in. He was tired but triumphant. “Fallout, if you even want to call it that, is so low I can barely read it. Met Esther half way down the road to the farm and we compared readings. The old girl still has some pull in her after all. They might be getting a little more out in their open areas but not much, differences are miniscule so far. But that could indicate that we have higher readings coming. Remember the seven/ten rule applies. The decay of radioactive particles are front loaded, they lose effectiveness at a higher level in the first days and hours and less as time goes along. We might not be in danger at all but like my Momma used to say to me ‘better safe than sorry’ and I’d rather us take a two week vacation down here and then reevaluate the situation.”

That night Rudy and Daddy spoke at some length about what could be coming and shared their thoughts with some others out there in radio land that were also chiming in.

If they hadn’t already, people were going to start leaving the dense urban areas even if it meant walking. The government wasn’t going to like it because it would complicate any response they would try and make

The military would likely stay out of it as they had their hands full protecting the borders and the military bases that were still active.

Violence in the suburban and rural areas located along main travel routes was going to spike as people from the urban areas went in search of safety, food, and water … not necessarily in that order. We could expect more problems with organized raiding parties … and some might be our former friends and neighbors. All of this had been kept to relatively low levels thus far but the situation was finally beginning to unravel. By now you had both gotten into position and secured it or you hadn’t, there wasn’t much in between.

Any hope of putting “the grid” back together was irrevocably gone. Power production and consumption was going to reinvent itself as a local phenomena only, at least for a good long while.

We could expect that health care … both physical and mental … was going to be extremely important and nearly non-existent for a good, long while too. People were going to have a change in mindset and personal accountability that that required. No more unnecessary risks like riding a skateboard down a stair rail and other nonessential behavior that came with oversized consequences. There was too little access to doctors that could set broken bones, do surgery to repair internal bleeding, prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection. Shoes needed to be worn, hands needed to be washed, eyes and teeth needed daily tending, etc. or the results could be painful and catastrophic.

Charity would start at home and after that people would do what they could, not what they were forced to do by the government. There had already been plans put into effect that had large, nationalized food production sites being turned into what was being called “subsidized volunteer food production facilities.” In other words they were large poor farms where people would be put to work in the fields and production lines in exchange for food, clothing, and a relatively secure place to live.

I had no intention that my family would ever wind up in a place like that with all of its potential for abuse, not while there was still breath in my body. I also promised myself that if I had to work my fingers until they bled I’d protect them from the other things that had been discussed as well.

That two weeks we lived like moles was a challenge. The quarters were small and cramped. Personal space was hard to find. Each bed was surrounded by curtains and we had a separate chamber set aside for the toilet but everything else was done in a common area. Of course with the way my luck had been running the stress had my cycle all off and there was that indignity to deal with on top of everything else.

It was very difficult to curb my desire to rush things and come out of the hole too early. I had never thought of myself as claustrophobic but I started understanding how it must feel to be that way.

Every one of us seemed to sleep more than usual; I know I did. Our lighting was limited to wind up and solar powered lamps and played havoc with our sense of day and night. Jessie felt this keenly and Mark and I wound up passing him back and forth trying to keep him entertained. Or we would get worried because he would sleep for really long stretches, much longer than a child his age normally would. Towards the end of the two weeks we were all getting listless, depressed.

“Lack of sunlight Del,” Daddy told me after getting annoyed at my constantly checking on him.

“Huh?” I answered back not quite sure what we had been talking about.

“Lack of sunlight. I think we are all suffering from it. Remember that time you got sick when I was stationed in the NE? The pediatrician said to put a sunlamp in your room and after about a week you were back to yourself.”

“Oh … oh yeah. I kinda do now that you mention it. It was the year that Micah got chickenpox and gave them to me. I wanted to sell him to the gypsies.”

We both got a chuckle out of that. I was ten and he had just entered Kindergarten at the school on base. No lasting harm was done and I only had a few scars, most of them hidden in places I wasn’t exactly going to show the neighbors.

Finally the day came that two weeks were up. Daddy and Aunt Esther repeated their experiment and the all clear was given for us to come up out of the ground. I still wonder if what we did was necessary but since we were unable to measure the fallout during the two weeks I don’t suppose it did any harm.

The cabin and the ridge appeared to have fared better than the farm thought it didn’t do too badly. They only lost one cow and it happened so early on that Rudy couldn’t really tell what the COD was because of the decay. All of their cattle needed tended and wouldn’t be winning any state fair ribbons any time soon. Mark … and Micah on Daddy’s orders … went down to the farm and helped muck the barn and do what could be done for the animals. The foul were … foul. In only two weeks they had gotten shy of people and ornery when you tried to do anything with them or for them. The pigs were hysterically funny and loving being back out in the sun; they nearly knocked the fence down wallowing and scratchy their hairy hides.

While we were underground the radio had gotten progressively quieter. Some of the operators said they were signing off and taking cover. Some didn’t have any cover to take and described the effects they saw from their window … or in their bathroom mirror. We had been very careful to not give our locations away or what resources we had. We had no idea whether any locals were listening and knew who we were though “Big John” had been on the air for a long time before falling silent because of no more fuel to run his generator.

But the lack of communication did cause some problems and one of them was that we had no idea what state other people were in or what state the closest towns were in. After a week and still no communication with anyone close the decision was made that someone had to go look into it. Daddy couldn’t go though he had the most training for that kind of thing. Rudy couldn’t go because of his position (and didn’t that burn his biscuits). John was the only one that knew how to operate the bio-fuel set up (that would change but it was true at that time). Sam and Micah were too young and inexperienced for what was needed.

Mark was suggested but Rudy rejected the idea because of Jessie. Mark said Jessie would have me and everyone was shocked. He looked sheepishly around and said, “Well, who else? I trust Del and know Del would raise him like he was her own, same as she did for Micah.”

Rudy said, “Actually I was going to suggest that Del be one of the ones that go. She could claim to be foraging and she’s knowledgeable enough to pull it off.”

“What?!” No one liked that idea. I would accept the nomination only so long as I could get a promise from one of the other women to check up on my family and take care of them. In the end though I didn’t go because aside from Aunt Lilah I had the most medical knowledge and that wasn’t saying much.

With a lot of roundaboutation eventually it became pretty obvious that Mark had to be one of the ones to go. Unfortunately the one to go with him would be Calvin. Don’t get me wrong, Calvin wasn’t quite as useless as he appears at first glance. He’s definitely a pretty boy but the looks God gave him aren’t his fault. And he hadn’t had anyone to practice them on for a while because frankly I never bit the bait he tried to lure me with in the beginning. Rudy also didn’t put up with a lot of nonsense of that sort.

Again the problem was that Calvin - like Dee - wasn’t an independent thinker and no matter how much he was encouraged to practice the skill to stretch himself he just didn’t seem to get much further with it. When he was done with one job he’d simply stop until someone got him going on the next one. He was a willing worker and intelligent enough, he just didn’t have the gumption to create work for himself.

After the two accepted the task a date and time were picked. “Frankly I don’t know about Calvin but I don’t see any sense in delaying it. There’s been enough talking. The sooner we go, the sooner we come back. We’ve got a bright moon tonight and only a few clouds. What say we leave at dusk, go as far as the first gully bridge to make sure there isn’t any traffic and then go across the fields to Greenville since Kechum is going to be a complete loss and not worth the effort right now.”

Calvin shrugged and nodded and no one had any objection. We’d used some of the remaining fuel to drive down to the farm and haul up some of the remaining produce from the garden so Daddy came with us. Everyone was shocked at his appearance and Aunt Lilah, gripped my shoulder in sympathy.

We returned to the cabin and since it was already later in the day Mark started prepping his gear. He couldn’t look too good or people might get suspicious but he couldn’t look like a complete bum either. “Besides Del, people around here know me and they know that I shave everyday and try and dress decent because of Jessie. I’ll look a little worn from the hike one way or the other.”

“Can you trust Calvin? He used to be such a … such a weenie.” No, I still wasn’t sure that Calvin was the best choice to go on this trip.

That made Mark laugh, “Back in school … naw, never mind, not worth it to hash over ancient history. Look, come walk with me? Just out to the woodshed since Jessie is napping.”

So that’s where we walked. He drew in a deep breath, “I … I talked to your dad.”

That wasn’t exactly what I had thought he was going to say. “About?”

“About a lot of stuff but mostly you.”

“Uh huh,” I responded not exactly sure where this was going but getting my suspicions.

“We’ve been friends … more than friends. What I would like is a chance to be more than more than friends. I’m not asking you to make a choice right now. We don’t have a lot of privacy and … and your dad is …”

“Yeah,” I said quietly.

“Anyway, I know there have to be priorities right now and your dad and your time with him is one of them. And then there is Micah and … and I talked to your dad about that too and explained what had happened and that I’d work on getting things back to a better footing. He didn't condemn me but he did remind me that I'm nearly 10 years older than your brother. I’m … well, I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure that is a good excuse but I do promise that I’ll do what I can to make things better there.”

“Thank you. But, it isn’t all of your doing. If Micah is going to grow up, he has to accept when he makes a mistake and he has to be part of the solution.”

“Sure, but the thing is, see … everything is so … uncertain. I don’t plan on anything happening while I’m gone but it just doesn’t seem we’ve got much say in what other people are going to try and do to us. I’m not going to be stupid about it but … anyway, I wanted you to know how I feel and I … I wanted to know if what I said down at farm was … was OK. That if I didn’t come back for some reason that you would still take care of Jessie … like he was your own.” I could tell he’d really worked himself up to ask me this on top of the other.

Being just as serious as he was I said, “You hit the nail on the head. About Jessie. And … about the other too. I’d like to … see about being more than more than friends … that sounds so juvenile but what else do we call it? But that there is so much going on … can I count on you to wait … until I can … can get my head on straight?”

“Sure,” he answered in relief. “I told your Dad that I would wait … no … no pushing or stuff like that until … look, I’m no good at this Del. I’m just going to have to say it, but I don’t mean to upset you. I told your dad that I’d hold off on making any move on you until after he died and that even then I wouldn’t push you to respond, not until you decided you were ready. I just wanted you to know in advance that it isn’t so that Jessie and I can continue to have a place to live or to shut people up that are bound to talk if we continue living in the cabin together after your dad passes. And I want you to know that I’ll still be there for you no matter what your choice turns out to be. OK?”

Despite all of the problems we were facing and the grief I knew was coming my way in the not too distant future I was happy. And because of that some little imp must have gotten ahold of me because I said, “Sure, and I promise not to try and make a move on you and keep to the promises you made. I’ll just have to control my urges and …”

He shot up off of the long we were sitting on and said rather emphatically, “No. Uh uh. Don’t get cute Del. I’m trying to be a gentleman here and do what’s right. I’m going to have enough trouble dealing with my own urges without hearing about yours and having them to dream about. OK? No teasing, not about this. It’s not fair.”

I couldn’t help it, I smiled. He groaned, “That’s it. We’re done. Let’s go back in the house. I’m sure that Jessie is awake or almost and …” I had a really hard time not laughing.

My humor was short lived though as his leave-taking got closer. I left Mark alone to say goodbye to Jessie and went to see that Daddy needed anything.

“Mark say he talked to me?” he asked in the tired voice that was his normal tone these days.

“Yes. Are you OK with it?”

Daddy paused and then said, “I really hadn’t thought you would marry a farm boy. But then I don’t think Mark’s original idea was to stay a farm boy, he was going to college before he messed things up for himself.”

“Is … is that a problem? His past?”

Daddy paused again, “No. No I guess not at this point. He seems to have set himself on a different path from the one he was traveling that landed him where he was. He treat you right?”

“We’ve just been friends. Nothing … romantic or anything like that ever came up.”

“No?”

“No. There was no reason for it to.”

“And you think there might be now?”

I had to stop and think about that one, “I’m … I’m not sure what you mean but if you mean that I think Mark and I might could mean more to each other than friends then … then yes, I guess … I think we could.”

“You’re not just doing it not to be alone, not just because I’m going to die and leave you and Micah alone?”

“Daddy …”

“Don’t take this the wrong way Baby Girl but I know you. I know the sacrifices you’ve made, sacrifices that you’ll continue to make, for this family. If you thought marrying Mark was the right thing to do for the family you’d do it and hang your own personal feelings on the matter.”

I wanted to tell him the “M” word had never even come up but he was my father and not likely to think of it turning into anything other than that. “Daddy, we aren’t even there yet. And I may be crazy about our family but I’m not crazy, crazy. I’ve had my fill of cardboard cowboys. Mark is my friend and I trust him. We’ll just have to see where it goes from there … but not right now. Right now … right now is not the time to be making those kinds of decisions.”

That seemed to satisfy him and I was glad because I was getting uncomfortable. The idea may have been floating in my subconscious before that moment but it was still a shock to have Mark come right out and confront the situation out in the woodshed like he did. I also didn’t know how Micah would take it and as much as I had quickly come to terms with the potential change in my relationship with Mark, I had a prior responsibility to my brother.

I decided to walk down with Mark … Jessie in the carrier … while Micah stayed with Daddy. We were out of sight of the house when he asked, “Did your dad say something to you?”

“Uh huh, basically asking if you’d said anything to me.”

“Yeah. I actually talked to him before that two-week prison sentence,” he said referencing our time in the sub-cellar. “But then … well, it just didn’t seem like the time to bring it up.”

“You said something before …”

“Your dad kept asking me if I’d said anything yet and then he started asking if I’d changed my mind. I told him that I’d know when it felt right to bring it up and I did.” He was silent for a few more steps. “Did he sound like he … he objected … that he suspected my motivations?”

I shook my head, “It isn’t your motivation he was questioning, it was mine. He just doesn’t want me to feel like I have to do anything for the ‘sake of the family’ or whatever you want to call it.”

“Well, I don’t want you to do it for that reason either,” he mumbled.

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course I wouldn’t. If nothing else you are a good friend, maybe the best friend I’ve ever had, even when we were kids and I didn’t know it. I wouldn’t … wouldn’t trick you like that. You know, I could be insulted if I wanted to be.”

“Oh good grief, let’s not get you insulted. You can come all kinds of unglued when you get insulted,” Mark snorted.

The camaraderie was back and I was grateful. Life was complicated enough right now without the rest of it. But something must have showed because Ali winked at us both. I ignored her and walked with Mark over to the gate where Rudy was waiting on Calvin.

And then they were off … down the road … and out of sight.

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