Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 70

Chapter 70

The weather had the screen door sticking. Uncle Bentley never seemed to get around to fixing that in life and in death I’m sure he cared about it even less. He had always excused it by saying the sound let him know that someone was about to bother him. Mom always thought he left it that way because he knew it annoyed people. I decided then and there it was no longer important for me to worry about what Uncle Bentley would no longer get around to doing. He’d made his choice and though it had brought me pain I couldn’t go back and fix whatever had been wrong. I absolved myself of any blame for what had happened and the choices the man had made and did what I had to do without feeling guilty about it.

In the rush to get Thor and Uncle Bentley some place I could care for them I hadn’t bothered to lock the place as I left but was more cautious now that I had returned. The blinds and curtains on all of the window were closed so I couldn’t simply look in and see if there was someone inside. However since the bodies had never been removed from the graveyard … at least not by human hands which meant they had been scattered about in a rather nasty but natural process … I was pretty sure no one was about. It would have been just too hard for most people to ignore the mess that was spread across the highway where the animals had done what animals tend to. But just to be on the safe side since Dad didn’t raise no fool I didn’t go barging into the house. After checking all around outside I slowly entered by way of the front door and then stopped to get my bearings and the “feel” of the interior.

It was quiet except for the frenetic skittering of a mouse or two in the walls. I’m not afraid of mice but the idea of having vermin in the house made me itch all over and only made me want to get out of there as soon as possible. And the house smelled dirty too, like how an old public bathroom will sometimes smell or dirty laundry that has been left lying about too long. There was also a sour undertone of unwashed bodies that caused me to pull my bandana down from my head and across my nose and mouth. I decided to make it as easy on myself as possible by starting at the top and then work my way down.

Being in the house was depressing. In each room I found evidence of the process of spiritual and emotional decay the people living there had gone through. What was once a nice, well-kept home was more like a dumping ground for their bad habits and personal problems. I’d already noticed it the first time I’d been in the house but this time it was really re-enforced. I know that Uncle Bentley had had problems but the way his “guests” had chosen to live had to have irritated the heck out of the fastidious man he had been. I closed the door to each room as I left it to try and control the odors but only helped so much. It wasn’t the secondary bedrooms that I was most serious about investigating anyway.

I moved into Uncle Bentley’s room on the ground floor and it surprised me with the same smell of ripe neglect, most of it emanating from a small pail in the corner of the room. Looking over inside I saw a pile of dirty bandages. Not wanting to, but knowing the man’s tendencies, I forced myself to go over to the pail then backed away long enough to find something to lift the pail with besides my hands. Sure enough under the plastic pail were a set of keys mixed in with a pile of broken glass. I recognized them right off as the old-fashioned ones for the heavy and bolted door down in the basement.

I was leaving the room when an old photo album caught my eye. It only took turning two of its pages before it became the first item I decided to take. I slid it into the bag on my shoulder and then I carefully made my way down to the basement area using a flashlight I had taken from the fussily organized nightstand drawer beside the bed. Not even the bandana across my face could prevent me from realizing something had clogged the exhaust for the generator. I was forced to air the room out and go outside to break the glass block that gave the only exterior light to the basement to speed the process up. By the time I got back in the house and propped open the basement door things smelled much less like a garage.

It was pretty easy, even for me, to figure out what had been Uncle Bentley’s “secret.” Radios. He must have confiscated them from those that had been brought in and secured by the greenies but run out of fuel to run the generator to power them. There were also maps showing resources all over the mountains – springs, trails, vacation cabins, ruins of old farms, caches that he’d buried over the years, mineral deposits, any number of things. When I forced the lock open on the filing cabinet I found a whole drawer of paper files on the greenies and Twelvers. I almost left that behind but figured that knowing my enemy was just as important as confronting them. There were also some reloading supplies that I couldn’t ignore. Some secret. The radios could come in handy as would the maps and other stuff, but it was nothing worth hiding it away behind a thick metal door, nothing worth dying for the way Uncle Bentley had made it seem.

The only thing I took from the yard were the stretched hides and furs I found in the work shed. I would be able to use some of them to patch Thor’s jacket and line it better for more warmth. I could have taken more from around the place but nothing that wouldn’t duplicate what we already had at the farm and on this trip I wanted to focus on filling holes, not on redundancies.

I really missed Thor’s company. It had been so long since I had spent any time truly alone that I kept glancing over my shoulder. If it wasn’t that it was going to tell him something only to realize he wasn’t there. In addition to Thor’s company I missed his back up and his experience. I’d spent months on the road and even time travelling by myself but not since Thor and I had pledged ourselves to one another. I knew what I was doing was necessary but it didn’t stop me from wishing he was with me.

I decided to hit the major businesses and offices in town before trying to go through private residences. The Cowboy General Store had very little; it had obviously really taken a beating during the rioting. I still managed to grab some office supplies, a box of those large, disposable aprons worn by the butcher in the meat department, and the first aid kit out of the office in the back. The Country Corner gas station had been damaged the same as the Cowboy but apparently no one thought to look behind the coolers and I grabbed several cases of various drinks.

Time was a wasting and I told myself to hurry up. Pizza Plus, The Creeper Trail Café, Subway, Fattie’s Diner, and the Whistle Pig Bistro all yielded up what had been passed over like more paper products and some food items that were too large or unusual to haul away like #10 sized cans of pizza sauce and large bags of flour. The flour that hadn’t been stored in coolers had been infested with weevils and mice or rat droppings but several of the restaurants did keep those types of things in more secure locations and it reminded me to also look for large, airtight containers so that I could do the same.

Damascus had several thriving Bed and Breakfasts and I was happy to salvage more sheets and towels, extra pillows, cleaning products, and more moderately sized shelf stable foods from the Montgomery Homestead, the Apple Tree, the Mountain Laurel Inn, Victoria Inn, and Dot’s Inn. The amount of toilet paper and Kleenex alone made it worth all of those stops but all of the itty bitty bars of soaps didn’t hurt either. The Victorian Inn Tea Parlor had been completely missed by the crowds despite the fact that they didn’t just serve tea but cookies and sandwiches as well. Oh sure, the plate glass windows had been busted but no one seemed to see pass the doilies and poofy chairs and antique pictures on the wall. I got a lot of stuff there.

Unlike Jen and her friends I wasn’t choosey when it came to my hair care products; I was just happy to have a chance to bathe regularly again much less with real soap and shampoo. I found some plastic storage tubs and just started emptying the personal hygiene products. I also did the same for Thor at the barber shop. Got some nice clippers as well hoping he’d let me do something with that mane he had developed. Not that I didn’t find it attractive but sometimes it just plain got in the way, like when I was trying to change his bandages. I hit the vet, the garden shop, the trail outfitters, and then the only dental and doctor offices in town. Each one yielded up several useful items. The dental office had been ransacked and all of their oxygen and gas tanks were gone but they hadn’t really been paying too much attention when they knocked over the supply cabinets. One hadn’t popped open on impact and lay nearly undisturbed until I turned it over; I was able to get several ampoules of painkillers and sterile needles, swabs, that junk they stick in your mouth to soak up the spit and that awful tasting topical painkiller that makes you feel like you got a partial tongue-ectomy when you try and talk afterwards.

A quick glance at my watch told me that it was lunch time and I knew I had to start back if I wanted to go by the orchard to get home. It was frustrating but I’d made a bargain with Thor and if I wanted to keep his trust I knew I couldn’t take that sort of thing lightly.

When I got to the orchard, in addition to several bushels of apples I hastily picked, I got a nice fat buck. I’d never seen deer so bold as the ones that were eating the remaining fruit on the branches that they could reach. They went so far as to stand on their hind legs like dogs who were begging. After that I made a dash for home. I was a full ten minutes early but still found Thor sitting on the porch chewing his nails.

I jumped down, ran over to him, and gave him a kiss before telling him, “I missed you and you’re going to love what climbed up in the wagon while I was gone.”

My playfulness was met with silence. He was quiet the rest of the afternoon, so quiet I thought his wound was bothering him. I was busy prepping the venison and hanging it in the butchering shed so that no animal could get it and then in emptying the wagon. It was dinner – fresh venison steak and fried apples – before I found out what was on his mind.

“Do you plan on going back tomorrow?” he asked too casually.

I answered cautiously, put on edge by his strange mood. “I’d like to if the weather permits.”

“Fine. But I’m coming with you.”

I put my fork down. “Thor …”

“No. You won’t talk me out of it this time. It nearly killed me to sit here all day wondering, praying. I know I’d make you do it and it’s unfair for me not to be willing to put up with the same thing but I don’t care. I know I’ll slow you down and be underfoot because I’ll tire more quickly than you. I don’t care. I know I’m not really going to be able to help load stuff. I don’t care about that either. I …”

I put my hand over his forestalling any more. “I get it. You care … and you missed me as much as I missed you. We’ll figure something out.”

Surprised, Thor asked, “No fighting me on this?”

“No, but you’ll have to compromise and be honest. If you get tired and start hurting you can’t go all he-man on me, I need to know. If you start running a fever we’re calling the whole thing off.”

After looking at me a moment he said, “Deal.”

It wasn’t as difficult the next day as either of us had worried about; just being together seemed to make things better. I did get frustrated in town however. The only place in town that I got anything fruitful out of was the quilt shop and there was no way I was getting everything from that place in one trip. I took the most important items like denim, muslin, needles, threads and some patterns but the rest I had to leave for another day.

The few offices I hit were either completely trashed or empty of anything obviously useful. They would have to wait to investigate when time wasn’t so short and precious and when we had exhausted the more obvious places to salvage from. Even though Thor wasn’t able to do much more than observe, he and I were on the same page and he actually made some good suggestions that helped out. When I became frustrated after bogging down in the town’s small business district he suggested that instead of working through the town which would have been more likely to have been searched first by the rioters and then by the greenies, that we go to the outlying houses. After giving it a quick thought I picked an easy route to the orchard and then home which would pass by the most houses and cabins.

Easier said than done but it was still better than what we had been doing in town. All of the houses showed signs of trouble … lack of power for a prolonged period, vermin infestation, neglect, violence … as well as a lack of food but I refused to leave any of the properties until I had found at least one useful thing. Not a single one showed signs of recent habitation. I got lots of quilts and blankets, empty canning jars and lids of all sizes, and some hand powered kitchen tools as well as pressure canners and water bath canners. Thor started a running list of any of the properties that had any amount of wood stacked and we decided to come back for those when it got cold enough again that snakes wouldn’t be a problem.

We did make a few discoveries that made all of the frustration worthwhile. In a few of the house we found that some families had been holding out. At one farm we found a smokehouse full of hams and shoulders as well as a lot of dry smoked sausages and curing supplies. I figured they had run short on feed and been forced to slaughter their animals rather than watch them starve to death. That same house had canning jars full of meat as well. They’d had a lot of jerky but it had gone over in the heat of summer without proper storage.

In some locations I found where livestock had busted out and gone feral. Pigs and hogs for the most part but I also managed to lasso two cows that were in the trees above the dairy. Neither one was in milk mode but if I could find a bull between now and spring we’d fix that problem easy enough. I also saw a lot of animal carcasses … or what remained of them. Some animals were better suited to surviving on their own than others.

“Thor?”

“Yeah Hon.”

“You feeling OK? The rifle butt hit anything tender?”

“No … well yeah; I guess you’ll twist my tail if I lie about it and send me to my room.” He was trying to joke his way out of what he thought was a bit of female fuss.

After tying the cows to the back of the wagon I walked over to the side of the wagon to look at and then check Thor’s bandages. “I’ll give you a pass this time. And thanks. I should have wondered why the cows were so balky.”

“Don’t be too easy on me. I only noticed because the horses were getting agitated. All I could think of when I saw them was you getting attacked again like last time. You sure you’re OK?”

I assured Thor that I was fine, that the dogs hadn’t come anywhere close to me or the cows despite their intent. Thor’s ambidextrousness was a real plus when it came to shooting from odd angles or, as in this case, when he had an injury. There were four large dogs and two smaller one in the hunting pack that tried to slink up on the cows. Obviously they had gotten used to easy meals and that did a lot to explain all of the bones that showed through the tall grass in the pasture.

I was hoping to get feed from the dairy as well but the rats had pretty much taken over the house and barn destroying what hadn’t already been used up. It was going to take a very cold and long winter to cut their numbers or a sudden upswing in the feral cat population. Neither one was a very good scenario for us humans stuck in the middle.

Thor was tiring and so was I and I still had the orchard to pick. I noticed gray clouds up on the ridge of Clark Mountain and knew that a change in weather was on the way.

“Hon?”

“Just one more stop. As soon as I’m done in the orchard we’ll head home,” I told him.

Thor gave a tired sigh. “Actually that isn’t what I meant. I want to stop by that … by Griffey’s place and take a look around.”

I hadn’t expected that. “I looked all over the place Thor. And it smells in there and is pretty nasty. I’m not sure it is a good idea for you to go in there with your shoulder like it is.” Then I said, “You think I missed something don’t you.”

“Not necessarily. Those radios were a good find and could be what he meant.”

But I said again, “But you don’t think so.”

“Are you going to get offended if I want to look for myself?”

I gave it an honest thought because I had been a little at first. “Naw. Besides the sooner that place can be permanently X’d out on our salvage map the sooner I can put that part of my life behind me.”

Thor didn’t like that part of my answer. “Hon, I’m the last personal qualified to give advice on family issues but …”

“There’s always a but.”

“Yeah there is,” he agreed with a slight smile. “Seriously though, burying that stuff before you deal with it could be a mistake.”

I thought about it a few moments before saying, “I think I have dealt with it. I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt if I pick at it but I’m not going to be permanently damaged by how things turned out. I still can love the memory of the man I knew as my uncle. I can even love the broken man he was at the end … with God’s help anyway … because we are supposed to love the sinner even while we hate the sin. Vengeance belongs to God. This time I was smart enough to turn it over to Him. I just want to avoid the temptation of picking that burden back up from the foot of the Cross.”

With a small shake of his head he told me, “You sound like Bedros.”

Smiling I said, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Serious once again Thor asked, “You don’t see what I did as an act of revenge?”

“No,” I replied emphatically. “You were protecting me … from Uncle Bentley’s madness and from me having to be the one to put him out of the misery of it. He wouldn’t have stopped trying to seek his own vengeance until he was too physically frail to do it and even then he would have spilled a lot of verbal poison. Better for me – for both of us – to move on and be done with it rather than pretend I could have saved him somehow.”

He didn’t say any more about it and only a few minutes later we had arrived at our destination. I noticed the corpses had been disturbed even more but that could have been by any animal at this stage of their decay. I helped Thor down from the back of the wagon and after another cautious look around we entered the house. The smell was worse than before even though the interior was cold. I worried about Thor catching something but his determination prevented me from saying anything more about it.

“I doubt there is anything in any area his house guests would have used regularly. Is there an attic?” Thor asked.

I shook my head. “No. Uncle Bentley considered them a waste of space and only for sentimental people.”

“I take it he wasn’t one.”

I shrugged, “Not in the traditional sense. He’d go all dreamy about local history but nothing from his personal past. He was more sentimental about Dad’s family and he and Dad’s exploits together as kids than anything that happened to him before that. I showed you that photo album I found.”

He nodded, knowing I was talking about the album full of pictures of Dad and Uncle Bentley at all different ages as well as of beautiful and unusual places in the mountains around here, most of which I didn’t recognize by sight but from the detailed description painstakingly included with each one. “Then let’s start in his bedroom. If there’s nothing there then we’ll go down to the basement. Should hit both regardless.”

Beginning to feel intrigued I asked, “What do you expect to find?”

“Not sure. Don’t know that I expect to find anything. Just commonsense that two sets of eyes are better than one.” At my look he added, “OK, that could have come out better but you know what I mean.” I smiled letting him know I was joshing him just a little and we started the job in relative harmony.

Seen through Thor’s eyes I got a different feel for Uncle Bentley. “At some point recently he lost control or began to deconstruct his life. Look at how repressed this guy was most of the time. His casual clothes were just a variation of his ranger uniform – same colors, same styles, same materials. Two closets – one for his uniforms, one for non-work but you can barely tell the difference between them. And look how they are arranged, major OCD factor going on. Shoes as well. Check out these dresser drawers, the pictures on the wall, everything.”

I nodded, “Yeah, Mom would try and get him to change his ties if nothing else, add some color, but he never would. The only time was at his brother’s funeral and even as a little kid I noticed it because it was fire engine red with these big yellow dots all over. He was a clean freak too, but so was Aunt Bettie Sue. I couldn’t believe how bad the house was when I first saw it the day you were shot. I put it down to his amputation but you’re saying maybe not?”

“Absolutely that was part of it but I think it’s more than that. A guy that controlled … ah forget it. That psychobabble always drove me crazy.”

“Maybe, but it’s bringing stuff into focus for me.” I pushed the bed back against the wall. “Either way I still don’t see anything here except rabid dust bunnies.”

“I agree. Let’s go down to the basement.”

Thor was even more thorough than I was down there and came up with nothing … at least until he asked me to move the filing cabinet. There was a large hole in the wall behind it that turned out to be a tunnel. It was too small for Thor in his condition – he would have banged himself up all over again – and it wasn’t much better for me; the inside was as dark as the inside a black cat. I also had to watch where I put my feet to keep from tripping as there were wires run in conduit on the floor. The wires led from the house breaker box to a series of switches on the inside of what felt like a concrete block room.

“Thor, I’m coming out, I need a bigger light source!”

He asked, “What’s in there?”

“I don’t know. It … it kind of reminds me of our well house. You saw it. It’s buried but has this roof that you can open up to get to the equipment for maintenance purposes.”

“Yeah. What reminds you of that?”

“It’s a square room, concrete block floor and walls. Ceiling is poured concrete. I … I don’t know what it is.”

Thor laughed. “Hon, I think it is an old nuclear bunker, the kind people were building during the early days of the Cold War.”

“Like that scene in the movie Grease 2?”

He gave me a look that said he hadn’t a clue to what I was talking about. “Whatever,” I said, rolling my eyes. “But it doesn’t have beds or anything like that in it, it’s just a square. There are some boxes in there, but they’re funny.”

“Funny how?” he asked cautiously.

“Skinny drawers. Lots of skinny drawers about so wide and an inch or three deep,” I told him, using my hands to describe what I was seeing before I headed back in with a flashlight so big it looked like a spot light.

He called after me, “Be careful what you are opening.”

It was a few minutes but before Thor could lose patience and ask me what I was seeing I said, “This is just plain messed up Dude.”

“Hon? Rochelle?! Do I need to …”

“Hang on.” I came out with a couple of the drawers. “Will you look at this stuff?! Every few drawers it is something different. But you aren’t going to believe what I’m bringing out next.”

When I came back out again bringing the big box I found Thor staring at the drawers. “Griffey was … er … quite the collector.”

“Yeah, I bet he found most of that stuff up in the mountains. But check this out.”

Thor left off looking at glass covered specimen trays that had human and animal teeth, arrow heads, old bullet casings, and other pieces of evidence of human habitation in the mountains from who knows how long ago when I lifted a heavy metal box up onto the desk.

“It wasn’t even locked. If the other stuff came from the mountains I have no clue where this came from.”

When Thor finally got a look inside he whistled, “Whoa nelly. Hon, did you …”

“Have any idea that Uncle Bentley was rich as Midas? No. No way. He sure didn’t live like he was. He was more of a penny pincher than Mom was and that’s saying something.”

Thor picked up the tubes of coins and said, “These are old.” That was followed by a, “Geez, some of these are real old. They … you know, I wouldn’t swear to it but some of these look like French and Spanish gold coins … doubloons and … heck these look like Louis and Napoleons.”

Something niggled at my memory and then slipped away as the sound of rumbling reached my ears. “Thor, we need to get. Hopefully that stuff will stay up in the mountains long enough for us to load up, go by the orchard, and get home and unload but better not to be foolish about it.”

I needn’t have bothered saying anything. Thor was already standing and trying to carry the box of coins up the stairs. I told him, “Let me have that. I’ve got one more load and this one is as crazy as this other. I don’t know if it is colored glass or real cut stones. And some really old, ugly jewelry too.”

We got everything to the wagon and then Thor climbed up in the wagon seat beside me instead of sitting in the wagon bed. “Don’t blame me if you get bounced around worse up here than back there.”

“I won’t,” he smiled, more than a little tired. “I’m just done with looking where we’ve been instead of where we’re going.”

The orchard wasn’t much further off and instead of going back to the road after I’d filled every bushel basket that I had brought I cut across and took a short cut since I didn’t have to be polite to other landowners. The first big, fat drops decided to come down as I was shutting the gate.

“Crud, crud, and double crud,” I grumbled under my breath. When I got back in the seat, “I’ll take care of the horses if you’ll go inside and get the fire going and put something warm on to drink.”

“We’ll do it together. If you are going to get wet …”

I interrupted, “Who said anything about getting wet?”

“What are you going to do? Run between the rain drops?”

I smiled knowing I had a secret. “Nope. There’s a tunnel between the barn and the storage shed and then from the storage shed there is a tunnel to the house. Dad and I spent two blasted summers digging those things and then another installing steel braces and beams that he bartered off of a construction project that fell through. I’m going to get some enjoyment out of them since I put the work into them.”

Giving me a disgruntled but resigned look he said, “And tomorrow you are going to show me these tunnels. Any more secrets you’ve been holding back on?”

“I haven’t been holding anything back … just have had you on my mind more than other stuff. Now that you are feeling better you can see anything you want to,” I told him not being very careful with my words.

“Anything huh?”

When I turned to see the look on his face I could tell he was waiting for me to jump to the bait but I decided to turn the tables on him and said, “Sure. Why not? We are married after all.”

I shut the barn door in his face leaving him spluttering for air and then laughed, feeling tired but happy in spite of all of the hard ships we had face to get here and those we were likely to face in the future.

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