I looked at Dart in disbelief, unsure whether my aunt was telling a story or not. “There wasn’t time to … to … and … who would have …” I was stuttering, still trying to process it.
The answer was just as mystifying as the question. Thor asked, “Who’s Bentley Griffey?”
“Dad’s best friend. He’s one of the few people that never … never treated me like I was particularly different from any other kid.” Then I asked, “But how? Did he say?”
Aunt Belle interrupted and said, “First I want to know who that man is.” She pointed at Thor but she wasn’t being malicious, only wickedly intrigued. Aunt Belle read some of the worst bodice ripper romances. The covers alone made me blush.
“Aw Aunt Belle, don’t start,” I begged. “I need …”
“And you’ll get your answers as soon as you introduce … your gentleman friend?”
Dart was standing there trying to look sympathetic but he missed the mark when I saw he was just happy that his mother had someone new to pick at. Then I glanced at Thor, worried, but he looked more amused than anything else and introduced himself calling himself my husband again. He’d said it before and I liked even though it wasn’t quite true in the strictest of physical senses but Aunt Belle acted like she was going to swoon in delight and started to practically pull Thor into the house to eat him up.
Thor was more than a match for Aunt Belle though and patted her hand, “I promise to tell you everything but we need to get the wagon and horses put someplace first.”
Dart grinned at his mother's disappointment leading us to the garage which was actually an old carriage house. “I’ll bring ‘em back fast Momma, I promise.”
"See you do!" she huffed.
As soon as we were out of earshot I said, “Thanks Dart. Thanks a lot.”
“You’re more than welcome.”
Then I lost my smile. “Seriously? Uncle Bentley?”
When Thor raised his eyebrow I told him, “That’s what I grew up calling him but we aren’t blood kin. He and Dad were friends since before they started grade school. Family story goes that the Griffey’s and the original Charbonneau, the one that saved the farmer's daughter, knew each other back in New Orleans somehow. It’s in one of the family Bibles but I can’t remember the full story right now.”
I turned to Dart and said, “I still don’t understand …”
“Let Mom tell it. She does a better job of it and she’ll have everyone else in there by the time we get back. They’ll all want to hear it and your story too.”
So we finished tucking the horses up for the night and securing the wagon and then went back inside to sit in the room being used as the parlor. It took a few moments for everyone to greet everyone and the momentarily blank look on Edgard’s face chilled me. But then he said, “Oh! Football!!”
I laughed brightly even though I felt like crying and said, “That’s right. You showed me a few moves.”
“I sure did! And didn’t you use them! Went to the play offs and everything. I remember that!” He seemed to be as thrilled about a returned memory as anything else. Thor squeezed my hand and the girl that was putting a lap robe over Edgard smiled at me, grateful about me not making a fuss.
Finally the story was to be told with Aunt Belle starting, “Well, I can tell you that everyone was just horrified and barely hanging on from the madness that seemed to be striking every one. The power hadn’t been off but two days and everyone was already losing their ever loving minds.” I saw Dart roll his eyes but whether it was a reference to his first wife Darlene or a general exaggeration I wasn’t sure.
I listened to everyone fill in the bits and pieces, and we shared our story although not everything. The afternoon grew cool and Ilene tried to sneak off to the kitchen to see about dinner but Aunt Belle spotted her and declared it was time for chores. Thor slipped out after a look from me and later met me at the back door and handed me some rice and the pinto beans I had had soaking.
“Um … Ilene?”
“If it was from before I’d say you didn’t have to do this but … well … no sense in lying. This will help piece things out.” We were joined by Edgard’s girlfriend, a sweet young thing named Denise, and got the last bit of dinner going. I felt like a giant in the small kitchen, especially with the two of them standing so close.
“Dart’s going to close in the back porch and make it a summer kitchen as soon as he scavenges up all the parts he needs from Miz Belle's old place. He found another wood stove that he plans on putting out there that will help with the canning. It was murder trying to do it all in here this past season.”
I looked out the window to see Dart and Thor chopping wood while Dart’s two boys stacked it. “Are … are you all … are things going OK around here?”
Denise answered while Ilene sliced a large onion. “Things are a lot better now. The town got a good co-op going using the city park land and while we are short some things, they aren’t things we can’t live without. You and Thor look like you’ve done OK.” Her last sentence was more of a question than a statement.
“We’ve had some rough patches but we’ve been able to hunt and do a little fishing which has lightened the load on our supplies. Trading has taken care of the rest.”
Ilene said, “It got hunted over around here pretty quick when the supplies started running low. If you want to find anything these days you have to go way up in the mountains and that’s so dangerous it almost doesn’t make it worth it.”
“What about all the domestic cattle and stock?” I asked.
“That was the first bit of trouble we had. People saying they were with the government came in and started taking all of the livestock before most thought to question who they really were. People started fighting back and killed off most of those people but by then it was too late. A lot of the stock had been shipped someplace else.”
“They had trucks to do the shipping?!” I asked amazed. “Even after the EMP.”
“Yeah, that’s what shook people up so much. No one knows for sure but they might have been working for the UN based on some paperwork that was found after one of the big fire fights. But I don’t think even the UN survived for long once things got really bad.”
I reminded myself to mention it to Thor and then we were setting the table while Aunt Belle took her supper in her room. I looked at Dart to explain. “Like I said, Mom has her good days and her bad. Sometimes it is all just a little too much for her and she retreats to her room; when she does that we’ve all just learned to leave her be. Her health ain’t what it was either Rocky. You gotta remember she’s older than Uncle Buck is … was … by almost twelve years. All this mess has been hard on her.”
It was Thor that asked Dart to go over it again. “Yeah. Rocky, remember how Dad used to call it?”
I snickered a little remembering Dart’s father, a highschool Language Arts teacher. He and Aunt Belle had been like Mutt and Jeff but he had honestly loved her for as long as she had let him and then he'd run off with that secretary. “Yeah. He’d say Aunt Belle could bury the facts beneath the story.”
Edgard said, “I remembered that! Your Dad was pretty cool Dart.”
Dart, Cellie, and Edgard were all half siblings. Aunt Belle said she gave each of her husbands a child and when she was done have kids she was done having husbands as well.
Dart gave Edgard a nod and then told us, “Things didn’t fall apart quite as fast as Mom made it out. People that canned still had plenty left from the previous harvest and most folks had already bought their seeds or even started getting things in the ground. Our little stores still had things on the shelves but they weren’t taking anything but cash and refused to sell anything to out of towners. Things were deteriorating but they hadn’t fallen apart yet. It was only a couple of days after the EMP that Griffey showed up.”
“And you heard him say the same thing as Aunt Belle?”
He nodded. “Yeah, sounded like something he would do anyway. You know how he is. The thing is he was still so broke up over your dad that he was hard to pin down on a few things. Frustrated Mom real bad. She wanted to know why he hadn’t stayed and looked for you and he’d start crying every time she brought it up. He said going out there had been a spur of the moment thing, was doing it as a surprise; flew out there in that ol’ plane of his dad’s. He got to the hotel just moments after it happened. He was helping trying to sort things out – and you know that’s like him too, plus the badge didn’t hurt – when he looks over to where the local cops were reviewing the security footage and he saw you and that boy running from the building on one of the clips.”
Thor said, “Getting the … uh, bodies released would have taken time. The EMP wasn’t that long afterwards. How did he get home?”
“Griffey is resourceful, ask Rocky about it. Knowing him he probably just walked away with the bodies without getting permission. He might have worked for the government but he didn’t always play by the rules.”
At Thor’s looked I explained, “Uncle Bentley was up the food chain in the NPS … the National Park Service. He still did ranger work but his title was something different. His main job was to take people on extended backcountry hiking trips and stuff like that.”
Dart continued, “From what I understood he’d landed at Middlesboro to refuel right before the EMP. From there he gathered some pack horses and … he was … they were all wrapped up …”
I couldn’t even handle the picture of that in my head and leaned into Thor. He was the lifeline God had thrown to me and I held on until the storm of my emotions were more manageable.
“I’m sorry Rocky girl.”
“It’s all right Dart. There’s no sense in hiding from the truth. I feel bad for Uncle Bentley, all alone like that …”
“Oh he wasn’t alone, had a couple of people with him. They looked real nervous, like they weren’t used to roughing it, but I think one of them was that woman he’d been seeing that your dad told mom about, the one that your mom didn’t care for.”
I wasn’t surprised but then again I was. Uncle Bentley could be a kind man but he was not one to have a lot of patience for people either. Dad said that’s why his job had been perfect for him. An office job would have suffocated the life out of him. As for the woman, I’d never met her. Mom rarely took dislikes to people so I’d been surprised when I’d overheard her telling Dad that she thought the woman was just after Uncle Bentley because she thought he had money.
“You know everyone always thinks he has money because he flies planes and drives those antique cars. And I swear, she’s only a couple of years older than Rocky. What’s he doing messing around with a girl young enough to be his daughter?”
“That’s what really has you upset,” my dad had told her.
“No. Well, alright that is some of it … but I just can’t help but feel she’s going to hurt him. And hasn’t he been hurt enough? I mean I’m glad he’s finally dating again … it’s been ten years since Bettie Sue and the baby died … but couldn’t he have picked someone less … strange?”
I never had bothered to ask Mom what she meant, not that it had mattered. Uncle Bentley always went his own way. Always.
The supper dishes were washed and put away and we’d finally convinced everyone we were fine sleeping out in the wagon. I stuck my head in Aunt Belle’s room to find she’d already fallen asleep. I turned and nearly ran into Edgard.
“Mom … mom won’t wake up until … until after … after … after … breakfast is half through.”
I’d already noticed that Edgard had started to stutter when he got tired. “I haven’t wanted to ask in front of the others in case you told me to go to the devil but … how are you really doing?”
He smiled sadly. “I’m sorry I forgot this. How you knew the right questions to ask when no one else would.” I waited, giving him time. “There used to be days when I wanted to give up. Denise … well, I couldn’t leave her alone. I’m better now but … but … but … I still worry that she picked the wrong guy.”
I told him, “I don’t think so. You may have wanted to give up but you didn’t … and you didn’t because of her. That means something to a girl.”
“I hope,” he muttered. “One … one … one … d d d day it won’t be so bad. I just have to make it through the winter with … with … without getting sick again.”
I hugged him and joined Thor where he waited for me on the porch and then we went out to the wagon. When we had finally settled for the night after checking everything over I asked him, “Did Dart say anything?”
“You know what,” I told him.
“Hon, they don’t blame you. If anything I think they … or at least Dart … feels guilty for underestimating what you had faced over the years. But don’t take this the wrong way; I think … I think they’ve just had so much on their plate they haven’t given it that much thought either.”
“So I was making a mountain out of a mole hill,” I replied quietly.
“Not exactly. It’s an awful thing that has happened but in the scheme of things it is one awful thing in a sea of them.”
I nodded, pretty much having come to that conclusion myself. “Makes me seem like I had a big head about it all.”
“No, not that either. They just had a chance to come to terms with it more than you have. Give it time … please don’t put your elbow in my ribs like that, it don’t feel good. I know that sounds like I don’t care but time is all there is. And me. You’ve got me too. And God, are you forgetting about Him?”
“No,” I said a little embarrassed for it to be Thor reminding me of that.
“Good. Now let’s get some rest. Dart said his sister will be over tomorrow and her husband is some kind of something on the town council and will probably ask a million questions about what we’ve seen as we crossed the country.”
And that is what we spent most of the next day doing … answering all sorts of questions to the best of our ability. Cellie and I never had much in common and that was still true but we were family and treated each other accordingly, some different from the way things had been in the past. The only thing she did say that bothered me was say that I didn’t seem to have suffered very much compared to other folks.
I nearly said, “Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying that’s for sure.” But I kept my mouth shut since it wouldn’t have done any good anyway. For some people the world is only ever about them and their pains and ills.
Thor and I were both mentally exhausted and turned in early that night to get away from it all. Plus we were leaving early in the morning with a promised escort out of town. You could take it one of two ways. I don’t think most of them meant it to be as unwelcoming as it seemed on the surface but on the other hand if they had known how eager we were to get back on the road they might have been a little on the affronted side of things themselves.