Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 78

Chapter 78

The rest of that week and most of the next was cold, damp, and dreary out of doors; so much so that regardless of our desire it really didn’t make sense to try and do any more salvaging. It was challenging in other ways as well. His new reality of stationary life really hit Thor in the face like blunt force trauma. I tried to help but I knew for the most part I had to let him get through it in his own way. When he needed space I gave it to him. When he needed activity he would prowl the tunnels or chop wood or take short walks to better familiarize himself with the general lay out of the farm and I didn't complain. When he was growly I let him growl; he usually felt bad about it before bedtime and then was rougher on himself than I would have been. He was adjusting but it wasn't easy.

For me too being closed up indoors was a problem. I’d never liked the claustrophobic feeling but on the other hand I knew what to expect and how to head off the worst of the creepy crawlies I would get. Dad had reinforced the door jamb of my bedroom so that I could hang a bar and do pull ups if I couldn’t get out to the ones that we’d built outside. I also had a nice set of free weights down in the basement and Thor and I acted as spotters for each other. He was surprised by how much I could bench even after so many months being out of training. What really surprised him was how much I could dead lift. I told him it was all in the legs and that led to silly talk which led us to discovering that the basement floor was really too hard and cold for anything other than walking on.

Along with the trials and adjustments came successes. First off, replacing the whole panel and all of the breakers fixed whatever the problem had been and we were able to get the generator running. When we couldn’t figure out whyt we were pulling so much juice even though everything was turned off Thor realized that even some things that were “off” still pulled power to keep their memory up and running so I went around unplugging everything that was unpluggable that still tried to power up.

We took the frig out of the kitchen and put it with the freezer in what Mom always referred to as the “cold room.” It was one of the rooms that was built back into the hill and stayed cold even in the worst summer heat. In addition to that Dad had put in vents that made use of the cold air in the tunnels. The only time there was a problem in the room was when someone didn’t shut the door properly or the weather stripping around the door jamb failed; moisture could build up. There was a drain in the floor that made for easy clean up but the goal was still to keep it as cold and dry in there as possible.

Cleaning the freezer out had been disgusting but it could have been worse; Mom and I had canned the last of the meat before we left for San Francisco and about the only thing left had been lima beans and some frozen casseroles so Mom would have a couple of days of easy cooking when we came back. The gunk had drained away and dried long before we got back and just to be on the safe side I replaced the door gasket from parts we picked up at the supply house. We let the freezer run for a full twenty four hours to freeze containers of water and then we started leaving the generator off except for a few hours to keep things in working order.

“Thor, I just don’t get it. I thought the EMP would have killed everything … or at least everything with a circuit board. That would include all the appliances. But only some of the stuff got fried … like the TV and the big stereo and my tower computer.”

He shrugged. “They never were absolutely certain how bad an EMP attack would be. And if you notice all of the broken stuff is on the front size of the house. The washer, that TV and player in the basement, and that boom box in the storage room are OK.”

“But Mom’s sewing machines are working.”

“But they weren’t plugged up and were stored in that metal cabinet. The metal cabinet could have acted as a Faraday Cage. They were also in the back corner of the room which is earth-covered.”

“I guess. But geez, you’d think everything would either work or it wouldn’t,” I said grumpily.

“You’re just hacked that you couldn’t get the TV up and running to watch that DVD of that chick flick.”

“Resident Evil is not a chick flick.”

“It’s a cheesy film of by gone days. They made too many of them. They should have stopped after the second one.”

“Hah! So you did know what it was. You rat!” We wrestled a little in play.

He laughed and shook his head, “Look, if we ever do get around to agreeing to watch a movie let’s make it something that doesn’t remind me so much of those pitiful people we had to put out of their misery. Zombies just don’t do anything for me.”

“They aren’t supposed to. There like … you know … a metaphor and stuff.”

He just laughed and shook his head but I could guarantee I wasn’t watching a car chase show with brainless girls that had small waists, perfectly painted claws, and artificially enhanced jiggle-y parts.. I figured I would dig out Dad’s old John Waynes and we could work something out there. The original True Grit was a classic … and I thought if he didn’t do the Duke maybe we could watch Cowboys and Aliens. I won’t record his opinion of that particular movie when I brought it up.

While we never did get around to watching a movie we did finish weatherizing the house, something I should have thought to do as soon as we came back – put the last of the storm windows put back on, checked all of the weather stripping, and Thor said that since cost wasn’t an issue he wanted to see about putting some of that foam board insulation between the trusses up in the attic as soon as we could salvage it. All of the fireplaces were given a good once over as were the wood stoves but Mom was a real bear about that so I knew they’d be clean as a whistle except for the ones we’d already used. For the fireplaces in the rooms we weren’t using I showed him the covers that Dad had made and we put them in to keep the warmth in the house from escaping or the cold air from outside sneaking in. I also pulled out the little draft blockers that Mom had sewn years ago and when the rooms were closed I would lay them across the bottom of the door to keep the warm air from escaping into unused rooms.

On the clear but cold days I would take rugs outside and beat the living daylights out of them. I also made Thor a pair of house shoes that he could put on when he was inside (and pulled out my own from the back of my closet) to keep from dragging dirt and leaves all over the place and making my job of keeping the house clean just that much harder.

The biggest bonus for me was that I would wash clothes and everything else like a mad woman when the generator was on. I still hung things out to dry but just being able to put something to work and then walk away from it while it finished the job without supervision was a huge help. For hot water in the summer when I was growing up we used the solar tanks to save propane but during the winter I’d gotten used to hot water on demand … or at least warm water. On the road I had suffered through a cold bath when I had to … and on a couple of the hottest days it had even been welcome … but a cold bath during the winter is just plain torture. I had pulled the grandmothers' old galvanized hip bath in from the cabin so that we could bathe in the warm kitchen with water from the hot water reservoir on the stove and that took care of part of the problem but emptying the tub was a chore. Thor said in his grandparents’ old house there had been a wood boiler that had been used for hot water in the winter and he thought he could rig something up similar for here in the kitchen and put it in the corner that the frig had stood in. That was also the wall shared by the downstairs bathroom and he thought he could rig a valve to run hot water there in the winter and leave the upstairs bathroom for use during the summer.

After the generator was up and running the other main project that Thor worked on was setting up the radios. That proved to be as challenging as the generator but after a day of tinkering and then running antenna wire to the old radio antenna my grandfather had installed before I was even born we were able to receive more than just static.

“Hon, how old is that antenna?”

I laughed, “Older than I am is all I know but Dad always kept it up and taken care of because he meant to get around to having his own set up when the money became available … it just never did. One of the few times I ever remember my mother being really angry at me was one day when I climbed the thing playing King Kong with a Barbie doll. I got all the way to the top and was hollering and carrying on like I had seen on the afternoon creature feature and then I got mad when Dad came up and got me when I wouldn't come down. They wanted to know what I had been doing and why I had scared them so bad. I wanted to know why they had made me stop playing and having fun.”

After a moment Thor asked, “How many times did you get the I-hope-you-have-one-just-like-you speech growing up?”

That made me laugh harder, “A few times. How many times did you get it?”

“Often enough that now that I’m old enough to appreciate what they meant I pray that it was just wishful thinking on their part and not the real curse they hoped it to be,” he said laughing right along with me.

We weren’t the only ones adjusting. Lady was trying to figure out her place to. She was a much happier puppy than when we found her though she was turning out to be a little passing strange. She didn’t bark much and one time when she did bark real loud she scared herself so bad I had to go dig her out of the hay ‘cause she wouldn’t come out on her own. The cattle and chickens fascinated her though thank goodness she only wanted to smell them but the rooster terrified her. And she fell in love with Boots and Barney which might have been the weirdest thing of all, but maybe even weirder was that they seemed to like her too.

They couldn’t hide from her. Thor and I would watch them slink away and when she noticed they were gone she would panic for a moment then catch their scent and track them to where ever they had slunk off to. They seemed to do it on purpose. I had worried at first because Boots was a known dog terrorizer … he’d never met a dog he couldn’t whoop up on pretty fierce. But the only time Boots whapped Lady was the one time she tried to give him a tongue bath. He would tolerate her smelling him, even up at his ears, but no tongues. Barney on the other hand seemed to enjoy Lady’s attention even going so far as to purr and roll over on his side. And you should have seen them hunt together.

Lady would sniff out a mouse or rat and then stand back and let the two cats have at it. She’d just stand there and watch unless it tried to get away and then she’d chase it back into play. I’m not sure what Lady thought of the cats but the cats obviously thought we’d brought them a new hunting tool and would tolerate it since it was a gift to them. Cats are like that, the whole world seems to revolve around them.

Finally the weather cleared up, the snow melted back except up in the mountains and in the deepest shadows, and the mud firmed up enough that it wouldn’t be dangerous taking the horses out. I was worried about leaving Lady home alone so I made a pen for her in the barn where the cats could keep an eye on her and she wouldn’t be so lonely.

“Come on Rochelle, you’ve made her a nest, given her a bowl of water, lectured the cats to be good babysitters and threatened to put the rooster in a soup pot if he looks at her cross-eyed. She’s a dog and she needs to learn. And she’s too little to take with us. When she’s older maybe she’ll be OK but until we can be sure of that she’s safer here in the barn … unless you’ve changed your mind and are willing to leave her in the house.”

Well of course I knew that but it had been a long time since I’d had a dog and never a puppy like Lady. I was just worried she wouldn’t be here when we got back. I finally managed to shake myself out of it and saddle up. “No, she’ll do better with the animals to keep her company. I just hope she doesn’t suddenly find her voice and start howling.”

We rode out and we had in mind to go to the library first thing. When we got there I was a bit disappointed. Some of the windows had been broken and there was a leak in the ceiling that had done some damage to a couple of the shelves. Most of the sections I wanted to look in were fairly intact but it was hard to decide which ones to take and which ones to leave behind.

Thor was doing his own looking but gave up in disgust. “There are better ones in the library at the farm.”

“I know. But there might be some at the school … at least back in the shop area. Unless Coach or someone like that has already taken them. I wish we could have brought the wagon, there are a bunch of pattern books here that I’d like to save.”

He looked at what I was adding to the stack of books I wanted and asked, “You can do that?”

I looked at the book he was pointing at and said, “Yeah, I can crochet. Knit too. I never really learned to weave though and I haven’t got a clue how to make true fabric … or at least nothing that you could make decent clothes with.”

“It hasn’t come to that yet Hon,” he said with a chuckle.

I wished I thought it was as funny. “Thor, I don’t know about you but I’m hard on clothes when I’m working outside a lot. If nothing else I have to be able to mend what we’ve got. We’ve managed to find you some stuff but the clothes we have won’t last a lifetime. What if things never go back to normal? What if …?”

“Easy Hon,” he said brushing my cheek. “You’re getting wound up again.”

“Maybe so,” I agreed. “But I’ll kick myself if I wake up one day and realize I’ve been too short sighted. I never would have thought what has happened would have yet here we are. And sometimes I wonder if God hadn’t led me to you would I have even made it this far. I don’t want any kid we have to be in the same place I was a few months back … with nothing but barely the clothes on their back and afraid to even try and see more than a day ahead of themselves.”

That got me a hug for comfort and a kiss for distraction. “Let’s just focus on getting through the coming year first. Once we get that mostly squared away we can expand our plans. When your goal gets too overwhelming you build failure into it. Break it down into blocks small enough to deal with but still big enough that the result counts.”

We both knew that was easier said than done but I did put my worries aside for a while and went back to making stacks of books. Almost an hour later we both had several stacks – the ones we were taking with us and the ones we would come back for another day. The air was still brisk as we stepped outside and I shivered a bit.

“You cold?”

“Naw, just felt like a goose crossed my grave,” I told him.

“Not sure I’m too fond of that particular saying Hon.”

I shook my head, “I don’t think I meant anything in particular by it.”

“Think?” I wasn’t sure how to answer him. Sometimes I got feelings that meant something and sometimes they didn’t … and sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference. After a moment he asked, “You have any place else in mind? Serious salvage is out since we don’t have the means of transporting it back but …”

When he hesitated I said, “But …?”

Another hesitation and he pulled out Uncle Barkley’s map. “I know you're anxious about Lady but it might be time to check out a few of these marks … see if our guesses coordinate with them.”

I looked at the ones he was pointing at and just made a couple of corrections since he didn’t know the lay of the land. “To get to those we’ll have to take a different trail than these others. Better to add these two in and keep those three for another day.”

We took off and for me it was a little depressing. Houses that had once been well kept were everything but. Some showed what looked like intentional vandalism and some simply looked abandoned … to some extent they all looked and felt haunted.

Thor noticed the change in me. “You OK?”

Perturbed I snapped, “You keep asking that. Shouldn’t I be the one asking if you are OK? This can’t be what I led you to believe we would find when we got here.”

“Easy Hon,” he said more gently than I probably deserved. “You didn’t lead me to believe anything. Anything I thought I did on my own. You didn’t trick me or coerce me to come here. This simply wasn’t my home.” I tried to say something but he made me let him finish. “This wasn’t my home but it is now … not for what was here but because you and I are here together now. It’s not that these places don’t affect me … they just don’t affect me the same way they affect you.”

I tried to roll the stress out of my neck and shoulders. “OK … and sorry I bit your head off. It’s like I’m seeing two pictures at the same time, one laid over the top of the other. The way things used to be and the way they are now. It's like having double vision. I’m … I’m having trouble dealing with the differences.”

“You wouldn’t be human otherwise Rochelle, just don’t lose your situational awareness in your sadness. We don’t know what or who is out here. We don’t know if any of these places are still occupied or not.”

And his words were like a signal. We heard the report of a rifle coming from up one of the long driveways that ran up and away from the main road.

“That wasn’t directed at us,” I hissed as we got off the road and into the bushes for cover.

“No. The echo around here is ba …” another volley of shots interrupted what he was about to say. When we heard a woman scream hysterically we tied off our horses in the bushes and hurried up towards the house staying in the bushes and trees for cover.

The closer we came to our destination the slower we had to go to avoid making a lot of noise. When more shots came we were able to pinpoint three men, one of whom was injured and two women in the bushes firing at the house that had recently had a fire on one end which laid it open and bare from the garage into what I remembered had been the kitchen and breakfast nook.

A voice from the house full of hate shouted, “You can tell Kemper and my Mom to shove their deal. You killed my daddy and now it looks like you did the same thing to my step-Mom! You come one step closer and I’ll put some more holes in you!!”

I knew that voice and I looked at Thor and pointed to the five intruders and mouthed the words, “Extreme prejudice.”

Thor nodded in return and no, I don’t regret shooting Kemper’s people in the back. That’s all those cowards deserved. It only took five rounds ‘cause we didn’t hesitate.

I shouted towards the house, “Tina! It’s Rocky!”

After a few moments she called back out, “How … how do I know it is you? And how do I know I can trust you if it is you?”

I thought for a second, but only that. “Did I ever tell who put the leeches in Marcie’s underwear during gym class?”

A nearly hysterical giggle turned into heart breaking sobs and I eased up to the porch. “Tina? You in there? Can I come in?”

She came out wiping her eyes, “The house … it’s not fit for company …” When she caught sight of Thor I had to calm her down.

“Easy, this is my husband.”

“Your … oh … I’d … yeah.” She stopped and wiped her eyes. “I beg your pardon. Stro … he said that you … I … well I just wasn’t sure what to make of it.”

Thor looked at me and then made one of the signs he'd taught me months ago. When he went off into the woods Tina stiffened up again.

“Relax,” I told her. “It’s all right. He’s just is making sure there aren’t any more around.”

“There’re two dead in the gully behind the house. I caught them trying to sneak up when I was coming back from feeding the horses. Oh … oh Rocky … the Littles … I have to …”

She was about to shake apart but I knew she meant her twin half siblings. “How old are they now?” I asked trying to focus her.

“Three. Oh my God, how am I going to ever … ? And winter isn’t even here yet and …”

“You can’t stay here, that’s for sure. And don’t get all bowed up, you know what I mean. I hate to ask, there isn’t much time, but what happened exactly?”

Thor whistled to let me know he was about to step up to the porch so we both listened. The story was simple but no less tragic because of it.

“They were here yesterday with their so-called deal which was really just an ultimatum. Give them what they wanted or they were going to burn us the rest of the way out. You can see they’d already tried once right before the last storm. There were only two of them but they still managed to hurt Daddy pretty bad … broke his arm, nose, a couple of teeth; I’m pretty sure he had a concussion and a bruised kidney as he had blood in his urine. I was supposed to go with them but I wasn't about to go off with two strange men even if my mother had sent a letter telling me to. I still can't believe ..." She faded off then shook herself before restarting. "I had to feed the horses and that was the only reason Daddy let me out of the house without a fuss. My step mom couldn’t because she just miscarried again and was still bleeding. Daddy couldn’t; in truth he could barely move at all. I was out there when I heard the first shot. They didn’t even give a warning, just came in shooting. Dad took one …” she pointed towards a tablecloth covered body by the window. There was more than just blood on the fabric so I suspected he’d been hit in the head. “My step mom … she tried, she really did but they shot her in the stomach a little while ago. There’s nothing I could do for her or Daddy. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do and then you two showed up.”

She wandered away and down to their rumpus room and I saw two sets of little eyes staring up from below. She went down and brought them up. The kids – a girl and a boy - didn’t look bad, just shocky. “They’re growing out of their clothes. Daddy wouldn’t let me go looking for bigger ones. He said it was indecent to paw through other people’s belongings like that. I’m not sure he really grasped what was going on and just how bad it was. My step mom and I spent a lot of time trying to … not upset him.”

“Nothing against your Dad Tina, especially now, but we can’t let them kids go around without clothes.”

“Those kids,” she corrected automatically. “And I know. I just …”

I looked at Thor and he was letting me make the decision again. It made me want to throw something at him but it also made me think. I wasn’t prepared to just drag someone back to the farm. Tina was OK but she and I weren’t real close … her father had made sure of that. On the other hand I wouldn’t walk away and leave her and the little kids stranded, I just wasn’t ready to turn the farm into a hotel. Then a potential solution came to me. “Tina? Will you let me take you to Granny C’s place?”

When she stiffened I told her, “Look, pride is one thing but this is something else all together. Besides, you could trade some of your training you were getting in school for a place to stay. Granny C would likely be grateful for the help and grateful for the female company. All’s she got as far as I know are Mr. Hefling and the boys.”

I thought she was going to fight more but she just looked around and then relaxed like she realized she didn't really have a choice. “I won’t be a charity case. I can work for my keep … and the twins’ too. I can help Granny C and Doc. I can be useful.”

“Of course you can.”

She stiffened her spine again but this time in resolution. “I’ll ride one of the horses and put the twins on the pony; Daddy had already been teaching them to ride. Let me grab some laundry bags and I’ll put them on the other two horses. Stro …” Even in her pallor I saw a brief crimson tinge touch the tips of her ears. “Stro can give me a hand with the rest of it later today … or tomorrow if there is anything left or a place to put it.”

Since most of their food had been moved down into the rumpus room for safe keeping I went down there with my wind up light and started loading some of the easier stuff to transport into one of the laundry bags while she started gathering clothes and whatever else from upstairs. I heard Thor’s boots on the stairs. “Fill me in?”

Since I’d figure he’d ask sooner or later the story was already organized in my head. “Tina was a year ahead of me in school. She and Stro were hot and heavy until her dad found out about it. He sometimes substituted up at the highschool and was kind of prejudiced against Stro because he thought he was just a dumb jock, didn’t want to listen to any other possibility, Stro Hefling just wasn’t good enough for his daughter that was going to be a doctor. He made them break up and then Janie came back to town … Stro had dated Janie before Tina … and you know about all that. Tina though … she never started dating anyone else. She never said that she was still hung up on Stro but …”

I heard Thor mutter, “God I am so glad I am past that stage in life.”

“Excuse me?” I asked huffily.

He snorted, “You know what I mean and if you don’t I’ll show you tonight. Just you couldn’t pay me to go back to that kind of drama.”

“No, you just lived to be shot at in foreign countries. You were an adrenaline junkie,” I sniffed.

“Now Hon …”

He almost missed my lips twitching.

“Hey! You were yanking my chain!”

“Of course I was you big goof. I’ve always hated the drama a lot of people seem to thrive on creating for themselves. I had enough foisted on me by real life … I didn’t need to go creating more of it just for kicks.”

A teasing headlock and a kiss were my reward and then we headed back upstairs to find Tina putting the twins in their snowsuits. Thor went out to saddle the horses. “Sorry,” I muttered a little embarrassed at getting caught at gossiping.

“Don’t be. You’re right. It was always something with someone all around us. It’s like we took turns. Only you stayed out of it … or at least you did when we let you.”

She was nervous, talking to avoid thinking. I told her, “You’ll be OK. It won’t be easy but you will be OK you know.”

“You say it like you’re sure.”

“I am … assuming you want to believe it too.”

She nodded absent mindedly and then with more assurance. “I’m not going to give up. The eco-freaks couldn’t make me. The sickness couldn’t make me. All the troubles couldn’t make me. And Kemper and his creeps sure can’t make me. I won't even let Mother do it. Give me a hand with the Littles and then let’s go. I don’t want to show up in the middle of a meal and it will be close enough to lunch when we get there as it is.”

We got on the road and Tina told me about the empty houses we passed and which driveways to avoid because of who was living where. “People are jumpy. I have a feeling that my family isn’t the only one that has been visited by Kemper.”

She was too right. We caught sight of a man running down the road toward us. “Rocky?! Thor?!”

It was Lawson. “What?!” He was a bloody mess. His eyebrow was split and so was his lip and a cut above his ear had run blood all down onto his clothes.

“They’ve got Granny’s surrounded. We’re holding them off but I came around and down to see if I could get some help. They said they’d burn us out in an hour. We can handle a siege but not a fire.”

I looked at Thor who had a cold, mean look on his face. He said, “I’ve had all I’m taking from these people. They’re starting to irritate me.”

Tina could only stare at him and breathe a weak, “Geez.”

I turned to her and asked, “Remember the rock all the kids called the playhouse … the one by the old water wheel?” At her nod I said, “Lawson take her there and protect them until you hear my half time whistle.” I looked at Tina. “Try and patch him up please. We may need him back in the game before the last quarter.”

Thor and I handed the horses off to Lawson and after a few minor questions Thor and I took off for yet another fight. I had a feeling though this time Thor was done being a gentleman. And I was plumb tired of nothing but defensive plays; time for the offense to hit the field.

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