Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 50

Chapter 50

It was a disappointing end to a long day but we had no choice. Barkley suggested trying to overnight at the Fort Defiance park. While we looked around trying to figure out the best defensive location to set up Barkley said, “This used to be a pretty state park and then it was transferred to the city of Cairo. You can guess what happened to it then. And the floods that came through afterwards just finished the demise of the place. Hopefully these bushes will hide any fire we make but I hope the women can finish up and get them out quickly. Being right here on the peninsula, a light would be as good as a beacon and bring attention, something we don’t need on top of everything else.”

As I unpacked and set up camp I resentfully looked in the direction of the object that had brought us to another standstill. Lately it seemed for every step forward we took, somewhere we were sure to slide back a few more. The bridge wasn’t destroyed though I guess for some it would sure seem to be just as out of reach. It was still there, and in fairly good condition I suppose as such things went, but it was wall to wall, end to end cars and trucks. The only traffic the bridge had seen since the EMP had shut everything down was foot traffic. From the looks of things it would have been easier to walk on the cars than around them. And from what little we could see in the rapidly fading light a large number of people had been fleeing Illinois for some reason; all lanes on the bridge were outbound traffic from Cairo, none at all coming in.

Even with very few major pile ups on the spans there was no way to clear a lane in a single day, it just wasn’t happening. There was some debate about whether to head out to the next closet bridge but since there was no guarantee that we’d find anything different there, and it would require more time to re-route, we decided to give it a try at this location first. It couldn’t have happened at a less convenient time for us as a group; we were down a significant amount of manpower even with Hal being added to our number.

We slept that night despite the bug population making its best attempt yet to keep us from it. The kids were really cranky at breakfast the next day which eventually made most of the women grouchy. It was with no small amount of relief that I personally got to escape and go work on moving cars. I’ll be honest, I have always liked kids but I’m no saint and some of them were twanging my last nerve. Had I been forced to stay and “help the women” I would have probably wound up scaring the kids just to get them to knock it off.

On the other hand I had my own unfair share of crankiness to deal with. Montgomery and Thor insisted on coming to “help” those of us that were trying to clear the cars and, as my grandmother would have said, it gave me the palpitations. It didn’t take me long though to get so busy I ignored them being under foot … because they weren’t under my feet. Bless Uncle Bedros for knowing how to handle them without hurting their pride.

We pretty much developed our strategy as we went because any kind of organization had to be changed as we ran into unique problem after unique problem. Right from the beginning it was easier for Pilbos and I to team up by ourselves. We had the same reach and spoke the same language as far as strategy went and the strength of one didn’t overshadow the strength of the other. The primary advantage I had was all of the practice from months earlier but Pilbos caught on quickly.

At first I was concerned about dumping all of those cars into the Mississippi, thinking about all the problems we could be causing farmers up and down the river. However as we checked, all of the fluids had already been drained from most of them, I supposed to fuel the few motorized vehicles and equipment that remained. Either way, if we didn’t have to dump them, we didn’t.

“Oh man!” I said, suddenly remembering.

“What?” Pilbos asked, concerned that something was wrong.

“Sorry. Just thinking that I hope all that wood Dad and I cut and split in the spring to season is still there. Our chainsaws are gas operated. We heat with wood and I can tell you there wasn’t enough for that. We had a couple of trees that were growing too close to the road and we had girdled them … but … but we didn’t get around to them.” I stopped to give my chest time to stop hurting from the memories. “If I have to start cooking with it too … ugh … I don’t wanna have to go back to doing everything by hand,” I sighed. “Honestly, wood for the smokehouse, wood for the cook stove, wood for heating, wood for wash water, wood for … Well, I’m just not going to like it at all.”

“Yeah, you ain’t kidding,” he grunted as we lifted a car so we could unhook it from the bumper of another. “Lud and Uncle Bedros are trying to figure out how to fabricate a plow. Who could actually fit behind the wheel of one of these stupid little mini coopers?”

“Oh, that should be pretty easy … relatively speaking.”

“What? You could fit in one of these?!” he laughed.

“Not the car you knot head, fabricating a plow,” I told him in exasperation.

“Oh really?” he asked sarcastically.

“Sure. Talk to Alfonso about a steam powdered tractor,” I said shrugging.

He looked at me and a smile split his face. “Hang on a sec.” He ran off, said something to his uncle and then jogged back. “You sure you and Thor don’t want to hang with us?”

Since Pilbos and I had discussed this several times before I treated his question as a rhetorical one and we got back to work. We were clearing two lanes on one span to give us plenty of room to maneuver wagons, animals, and people across the bridge safely. Pilbos and I were working the outside lane because sometimes there just wasn’t any choice but to send a car over the side. It was like trying to undo a jigsaw puzzle forced together the wrong way. One of the few bright spots was that traffic had been so thick that major pile ups were rare; it was more thick than truly snarled.

Our preferred method of clearing the lane was to put the vehicle in neutral and simply pull it backwards off the bridge and then leave it for a group of the younger teens to put it into a makeshift parking lot we were creating. There the women and children would go over them with a fine tooth comb and salvage anything practical for our purpose. There wasn’t much but every little bit helped and that night around the fire Alfonso outlined an idea that was met with universal approval.

Alfonso was one of those naturally mechanically inclined individuals. When he was younger he and his friends were the type of mech geeks that spent their spare time building full sized catapults, jet propelled dragsters, and flame throwing robots. In other words, so nerdy they were cool when what they built actually worked and the VFD didn’t get called out on them. His idea, after seeing how vulnerable the animals and the younger children were that took care of them, was to build weapons that the children could handle with practice.

I enjoyed bow hunting with my dad. I had always used a man’s bow and at first doubted Alfonso’s idea but when he demonstration a mock up of the cross bow he designed from some of the leaf springs from the smaller cars I became more convinced, and I wasn’t the only one. The next day Alfonso spent the day dismantling some of the cars for parts.

It took four days to clear the bridge and the on ramps on both sides enough that we could maneuver across safely. Well, actually it took three and a half but Uncle Bedros convinced everyone that some time for rest and meditation was necessary and I can tell you Pilbos and I weren’t exactly complaining about a little rest. Uncle B wanted another full day but with all of the delays we had experienced we simply could not afford it. Thor was particularly cranky and I had a hard time not being cranky right back at him.

You know, Mom had warned me time and again that men just aren’t built to withstand being ill the way women are. They really don’t tolerate it at all. Women have their monthlies that teach them all about that sort of thing early on. Then we are the ones that get to have the babies and from what Mom told me that is quite a few months of discomfort that takes one form or another; let’s not even talk about birth and all the stuff that comes after it. I mean, if there wasn’t all that emotional stuff to balance it I can tell you most women would just say no thank you, uh uh. And then when women are through with their monthlies they go through menopause and that seems to me to be an unnecessary curse on top of a curse. One of the ladies at our church said that it happens when it happens so that we were tested and tried and come out the other side strong enough to put up with our men when they go through the joys of retirement ‘cause otherwise there might just be a lot of death and mayhem.

Either way, all I can say for sure is that Thor may have been good at a lot of stuff but being sick wasn’t one of them. By the time we were getting on the road he was getting better but he was so heck bent on proving he was getting better than he did himself more harm than good. Didn’t make much sense to me though I wasn’t going to complain about it too much as I thought that might come real close to the pot calling the kettle black.

We didn’t go far that day, stopping as soon as we found a place to camp in Wickliffe, Kentucky. There was a very small contingent of people outside of the town and they couldn’t believe that we’d come across the bridge. That night I just had to shake my head over it.

“Thor, you’d think that someone living this close would have gotten up the gumption to do what we did months ago. I just don’t get it.”

Thor, who seemed to be a little better mood … maybe because I wasn’t too tired for some cuddle time … said, “Hon, it takes all kinds to make the world go round, but it takes leadership to get it spinning in the right direction. If all the leadership left or was killed off in this area then all you are going to have is a bunch of sheep waiting for someone to tell them what to do.”

“But how have they lived this long then? No one that I’ve met yet has had it easy.”

He shrugged. “Luck? Instinct? Maybe a little bit of criminal element thrown in there? Who knows? Think of it like the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant was a forward thinker, the grasshopper could only live in the here and now. Come winter, a lot of groups like this who have been living off salvage or waiting around for someone to fix things so their lives can get back to normal are going to be in for a real surprise.”

I sighed, “And not a very nice one either.” I just couldn’t believe how blind the average human seemed to be. “I just don’t get it. I got over my adjustment reaction weeks … months … ago. I mean I still go through them but I’m a heck of a lot further down that stream of consciousness than a lot of people seem to be. I don’t consider myself necessarily any stronger than the average person is capable of being. Seriously, don’t laugh,” I told Thor as he made a rather rude snort. “I’ve given this some thought over the years.”

“Yeah, you’re ancient all right.”

“Don’t go there Thor. You know it’ll just give you indigestion. Besides, I’m serious. I have thought about it. None of us GWBs were the same physically. I’ve already told you that. Well, not all of us were the same economically, spiritually, worldview … anything … we were just all different the same as the rest of the population. Being a GWB did affect us and affect our outlook but it didn’t exempt us from the influences in our families and the world, the same as normal kids.”

“You are normal.”

I sighed, “I know, but I’m no surer exactly what kind of normal I am than other people were … are. Maybe I am nothing more than the exception that proves the rule. Anyway … stop distracting me. And button your shirt.”

“But it’s hot,” he mock complained.

“Thor, will you for once just let me be serious about this instead of trying to tease me out of a depression I’m not in? I accepted what I was a long time ago … I wish you would accept that and not feel like you have to defend me all the time.”

Thor sat up, still not as strong as he normally was but with the bruising only making his body look even more defined and I said a quick prayer that God would give me some kind of answer soon or I was really worried that I would fall to a temptation that might lead to trouble for both of us down the road. “Rochelle … Hon … asking me not to protect you is like asking me to stop breathing. However, I suppose … if you trust me enough to talk to me about this then …”

I could see he was struggling to find the right words. “Tell you what … you want to protect me from other people you go right on ahead so long as I get to do it for you too. But you don’t need to protect me from myself. I got over that problem about the time my dad threatened to take football away from me if I couldn’t stand up to peer pressure. But I need someone to talk to and I want it to be you. And to be able to talk to you about personal stuff I have to be honest about who … and what … I am. You don’t need to protect me from the truth because that is what is supposed to set you free.”

He nodded and I figured that was as close to an answer as I was going to get so I continued on as I had before.

“So look, being a GWB doesn’t make me special. It makes me different from the norm but it’s not like some get out of jail free card on the game board of life.”

“Aren’t you mixing your metaphors?” Thor asked with a twinkle.

I rolled my eyes and said, “Maybe. But that doesn’t change it from being a fact. As much as the GWB affected me, it didn’t make me what I am today … didn’t make me who I am today … because at some point I chose not to let it define me. It is part of the big picture but it isn’t everything. I’m my parents’ daughter and always will be even though they aren’t … aren’t around anymore. I’m the girl that beat the odds and went to the championships with some podunk little team from the backside of nowhere. Part of me will always be that little girl that went down the aisle at the tent revival with my daddy holding my hand ready to tell the world that I wanted Jesus in my heart forever. And now, I’m … I’m Thor’s woman I guess.”

“No guessing. You are.”

I smiled a little bit at how fierce about it he was. “OK, it appears we both agree on that.” I bent over and brushed the tangle of hair out of his eyes; he was needing another trim. Then I sat back and said, “If we’ve established that mostly I am what I’ve chosen to be then how come other people … or at least more people than what I’ve seen … haven’t chosen to be … I don’t know … more … more grasshoppery.”

Thor laughed out loud. “Grasshoppery?”

“Shhhh. You’re gonna have people lookin’.”

“Then let ‘em. We aren’t doing anything but talking. Besides, I like that word.” He laid back down and threaded his fingers together behind his head. “Something Bedros said might be the answer to your question.”

“Uncle Bedros again?”

“Yeah. Something tells me that man is trying to work on this heathen.”

“Well then I hope you let him.”

Suddenly serious Thor asks, “Trying to change me?”

“Not particularly. I love you the way you are. I just wish …”

“Wish what?” he asked warily.

“I want for you the kind of … peace … about things that I have. I love you enough to want that for you with all my heart. But it isn’t something that can be forced on a person. I just don’t know if I’ve got what it takes to … to show you … I don’t know …” I stopped, worried that I was going to send him running in the opposite direction.

With his elbow he patted my ball of stuff that I used as a pillow. “Lay down, you’re tired the same as everyone else. Let me tell you what Bedros said.”

I laid down thinking he had simply chosen to ignore what I had said. When I eased back down he said, “Tomorrow you need to help me get the last of that tape off. I’ll probably scream like a little girl when you tear my chest hair out but I can’t stand the itching no more. If I had wanted a wax job I would have …” He stopped abruptly which made me suspicious.

“Would have what? And why on earth would you get a … a wax job? I know some athletes get them for aerodynamics but … uh … exactly where …”

“Never … mind. And don’t go bringing it up again ‘cause it isn’t something you need to hear about. And no, don’t go asking the guys either because that particular bit of foolishness happened one time when I was on leave … and if you do … I’ll …”

I started to laugh. He growled a bit and asked, “You want to hear what Bedros said or not?” All I could do was nod because I was in the middle of trying to choke off the pictures in my head.

“Humph. Anyway Bedros said that … well … that God plants … I guess seeds would be what he called them … in people. Sometimes he does it directly and sometimes he does it through other people. But it can go two ways. Either the person can pay some attention to the seed and let it grow … whether doing it themselves or letting other people help them along … or … or they choose not to pay attention to the seed and … and it … well, it never gets a chance to do whatever it is supposed to do.”

He had my attention hard by that point.

“It seems to me it would be the same thing as far as personal responsibility goes … and that’s all we are really talking about here. You don’t have to be a leader to be personally responsible for your actions, to think ahead, to … to plan ahead and actually do something about it. There’s a seed in all people, to take personal responsibility for themselves and those people in their care,” and here he turned over slowly so not to bang his ribs around before sliding his hand down my arm. “Seems most people … they just ignore that seed, let it die, because it is too much like work to cultivate it and get the real rewards in life that it offers. We’re … just not that kind of people. We chose … for whatever reason … to hold onto that piece of our humanity rather than turning into some ruddy sheep.”

I couldn’t disagree with him. “Sure hasn’t made my life particularly easier.”

“I think that’s the point. Easy makes you weak. Weak makes you sloppy. Sloppy eventually makes you stupid. And sooner or later stupid gets you dead. As for me,” he said with a wicked twinkle. “Sure, life is hard, but I’ve recently found that I’ve rediscovered how much fun it can be too. So I intend on hanging around a good while longer … to … enjoy … it.” Each of his last four words were punctuated with a kiss. “Now get some sleep.”

“Sleep?!” And the dirty rat just rolled over and was snoring in under a minute. I didn’t know whether to beat him with a pillow or laugh myself sick at God’s sense of humor. Dad always said it took the hottest fire to make the strongest sword but I swear sometimes I felt like I was being pounded into putty.

The next morning Thor didn’t scream like a little girl as he’d joked but he did squeak a few times as I snatched the tape off of him. Richards made himself scarce for the first part of the day. Wasn’t really the poor guy’s fault. He’d tried to save all of his skin-friendly surgical type tape and gauze for open wounds and had been forced to use … um … some ingenuity when taping up other types of things. Thor wasn’t the only one with funny bare patches where hair should have been growing.

We left Wickliffe and headed south to Bardwell and then a little further still to this place called Arlington, Kentucky. Or at least it was supposed to be a town. There was a sign outside of the city limits that claimed a population of 395 people, but there were no souls left in that little crossroads. There was nothing left in that little crossroads. To this day I’m not sure what happened to the place but it looked like it had simply been dismantled and moved, right down to the foundations. Not a scrap was left of the few things that were there to begin with.

I heard one of the kids ask, “Was it a storm? A … a tornado maybe?”

Alfonso shook his head. “No, there’d be more damage to the trees and such that are here. I’d only be speculating but … salvagers.”

“Salvagers?” someone else asked.

“There’s stuff they ain’t making more of right now. You come to a place that is empty and just sitting here going to waste? I can see some enterprising group stripping the place of anything potentially marketable and … well … if they were efficient I figure it would look something very like what we are seeing here.”

It gave me the wooly boogers to think people could just move in like locusts and pick a place so clean that there’d barely be a foundation left for archaeologists to wonder at. It gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I worried about the plans I had for the future. It took lying next to Thor for a good while that night before I could let it go enough to get to sleep.

At Arlington we turned due east towards this place called Fancy Farm. About the only thing left there was the railroad tracks and the water tower. The water tower was particularly useful as someone had set up a trough beneath one of the spigots and we decided to let the animals rest since Mayfield, the next city of any size was such a question.

“If you’ve come for the picnic you just missed it.”

You just do not startle a bunch of men with guns and the boy that had spoken dived into a clump of weeds when just about everyone with a gun in the caravan had it cocked and heading in his direction.

“Whoa will ya? Dang, a little quick on the draw ain’t ya?” the boy called from his hiding place.

Recognizing a bit of a kindred spirit in the small smart aleck I got off my horse and went towards him. “Teach you though won’t it?”

“Yeah, Gram’s said it would get me in trouble one day. Geez though … ain’t you a one. Whata you do? Go to bed in fertilizer every night?”

I laughed, “Something like that. Come on out. Now that we know you are more noise than sound it’s cool.”

“Ha ha. Too funny. Seriously though. If you come for the picnic …”

“We’re too late. Got that. What picnic?”

“You ain’t from around here are ya?”

When introductions were out of the way he went on to tell us that Fancy Farm was in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the world’s biggest picnic and that it was an annual affair over a hundred years old where a bunch of politicians got together and yacked at people. “Everything was fun … except having to listen to them people talk so much. We had it again this year … tradition and stuff … and we even had some of them politicians show up but mostly people were just exchanging information and making barters.”

Knowing the kind of kid he was likely to be I looked at Thor who winked and then asked the kid, “Actually bartering is something I was wondering if you would do?”

“Well, ain’t got much and Gram says what we’ve got we need to see us through,” he said, disappointed.

“Oh, we aren’t after stuff.”

He looked at me suddenly suspicious. “What then?”

“Information. Seems you would be the kind that would have his ear to the ground. We are doing some traveling and was wondering if you have any info about Mayfield.”

He looked at me concerned and said, “I’ll give this away for free. You don’t want to go there. It’s full of dead people. Gram … she was a nurse … she said that there’s no telling what kind of germs are percolating in there right now. A lot of people have gone, said they were going to scavenge what they could … but they don’t come back. My dad … he went looking for … for my mom and sister who were at the highschool … he never came back. You go … you’ll never come back either.”

That somber bit of news chilled us all. I’d played the Mayfield Cardinals a few times and they were a heck of a team with lots of heart. It hurt to think of the place being little more than a mausoleum.

I choked back the pain and said, “Well, we don’t take charity. So, what’ll you take for your information since you’ve saved us some serious hurt.”

He looked at my gun and I thought he was going to ask the impossible then he up and surprised us again. “You any good with that thing?”

“I’ve had practice,” I admitted.

He seemed to debate something and then nodded. “There’s a mean ol’ boar and his sows down the west side of town. In the last two days they’ve done more damage than I thought a dumb ol’ pig could do and that doesn’t include me getting treed three times. They keep trying to get into our gardens and they’ve already destroyed two of ‘em. You blow a hole in their heads about so big we’ll call it even.”

A deal is a deal and that’s exactly what we did, saving the younger of the pigs for the locals to re-tame to have pork for next year. We also spent a pleasant evening with several of the families that remained in the area that had congregated together for protection. That was one heck of a pig roast I’ll tell you that much. And it was also good because they gave us some back roads to get us around Mayfield and off to Brewer which is where we wanted to get by the next day.

We were finally making up time. Well not making it up exactly but things were running smooth and we wanted to keep it that way. None of us wanted any of the trouble that Mayfield was supposed to offer.

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