Brownies. If I had known what they wanted I might not have given them any. Oh but they were smart; they grabbed them and skedaddled fast leaving Thor to peg me between the eyes with their “idea.”
“They want me to what?!” My voice was loud in the kitchen. I didn’t rattle the windows – Dad had built the house too tight for that – but the coffee cups sitting on the table tried to dance.
“Organize something called a winter meet,” Thor answered mildly, amused at my overheated response.
“Are … they … out of their cotton pickin’ minds?!!”
Thor chuckled, “I’m beginning to think those boys might be smarter than I gave them credit for being.” At my impatient look he said, “They ran while they had the chance and left me to do the dirty work.”
I snorted. “Every one of them was a Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn growing up. When they look innocent or start the ‘aw shucks’ routine that’s your signal to watch out.”
“And were you Becky Thatcher?”
“Hardly,” I said shrugging off thefact that most people considered me to be more Tarzan than Jane. “Seriously though, why ask me? Sarah or Granny C would know what’s needed better than me. They were with Mom on the planning committee every year, not me.”
“Sand said to remind you that Sarah is pregnant and Strother said to remind you that Ms. Hefling is old though all of them yelped when he said it and claimed they deny it if you said anything to her.”
I rolled my eyes and then bent to take the skillet of cornbread out of the oven. As I plated up the cornbread, stewed potatoes, and white beans with ham I asked him, “What’s their purpose? Don’t we have enough to do to be going on with? And what about security issues? After today I’m wondering if we aren’t to catch a break at all this winter.”
We sat and said the blessing over the food then took a few bites before Thor answered me. “From what I understand they want to set up a barter system and give people a chance to stock up for winter.”
I shook my head. “Too late for that. If they haven’t done it by now it ain’t going to happen. For those that have they won’t trade food, or at least any with sense won’t. No one with any kind of abundance is going to ruin their … what you would call opsec … by showing it off. Mountain folk don’t always look like they have sense to the outsider … I mean look how people underestimate Mr. Dink … but the instinct to survive runs strong in most.”
Thor said consideringly, “I’d like to know what others have so I could measure what we have.”
I shrugged, ‘Why measure it against what others have? Why not just measure it by asking do we have enough for us?”
Thor’s eyebrows jumped and then he smiled, “Don’t believe in competing with the Joneses?”
“No,” I said in finality trying not to give away that he’d poked at a sore point for me. “If I measured myself against I would have died in a loony bin before I hit puberty.” Mentally shaking off some bad memories I added, “There’s no profit in living your life in fear or envy of what other people have. What others have doesn’t make what we have any more or less valuable for us. The only exception to that is if you consider it barter and for now I just don’t want to barter food on the off chance we need it in the future. We might have a late frost and lose the garden. The animals might not come back for several seasons after getting hunted over. Too frequent rains or drought; the trees might not make if their buds get bit or they get a disease; we could get varmints or bugs in the garden; hail storm … geez just any number of things and it isn’t like we can simply import stuff for the local grocery store, at least not for a while.”
He leaned over and kissed me. “Knew I got the best thing going when I got you.”
I snorted at his tomfoolery but felt myself blushing at the same time. “Some folks would say that makes you blind as a bat and dumb as a stump too.”
“Thought we didn’t care what other folks thought or said,” he smirked with a wicked twinkle.
Thinking about it for a moment I admitted, “It’s not that I don’t care. I care about the things I can control – like my actions and my reputation – but if it’s out of my control I try not to let it get to me too much.” Reaching for his hand I added, “And some folks I care about what they think and say a whole lot more than others.”
Thor was my first consideration but I also cared about the guys. I hated that I just couldn’t get on board with their idea for a winter meet. “Thor?”
“Hmm?” he asked raking up the last few bites from his plate.
“You haven’t really given me your opinion on this idea of theirs.”
He shrugged, “I want it to be your decision.”
“Thanks for the confidence but any decision I make affects both of us. Here, give me that plate before you like the pattern off of it.”
He passed his plate and I put another piece of cornbread on it and put my bear of honey within his reach as well. While he watched with appreciation as I added the last of the contents of the pans he said, “Hon, as I see it there’s pros and cons to the idea. You and I could pull it off … I wouldn’t leave you with all the work … and I’d like the intel it could bring in as well as it giving me the opportunity to meet the other people left around here and see how they interact.” When I opened my mouth he forestalled me by raising his hand and continuing, “But … the points you’ve raised are even more important right now. And I’m pretty sure they asked you before any of them thought to run it by anyone else, especially Hefling or Coach. Does everyone call him that?”
I laughed, “Yeah, pretty much. When you’ve been doing something nearly thirty years in the same location you’re known more by what you do than who you were born as. That’s how surnames got started … place names or job descriptions. Take Charbonneau for example it means kind of like charcoal or someone with dark hair or a swarthy complexion. Coach’s real name is Julius Milligan but no one has called him anything but ‘Coach’ since way before I was born.” Sobering and getting back on track I asked, “You sure about them not asking their dads? If that’s true I’d like some input from them.”
“Will that change how you feel about it?”
“No … unless they come up with good reasons I don’t know about.”
“OK, if you feel up to it, I’ll mention it tonight on the radio check. If you do feel up to it you might want to come on the salvaging run tomorrow. You can get a feel for things and talk to them.”
Startled I asked, “You feel safe leaving the farm unattended?”
He nodded cautiously. “Strother and Lawson were going to back track and will let me know if they see anything that doesn’t fit.”
“Hon, I’ve been doing this a while. You get a feel for when someone is telling the truth and when they’re not. Like I did with you … I knew you weren’t being truthful about something but I didn’t feel any real threat or intent to be threatening from you which is why I let you ride as long as I did. That guy, he wasn’t a professional. He wasn’t really a professional anything except a jack … er, he wasn’t a professional anything from what I could detect. He sure didn’t have the beans to be able to lie to me and not have it mess with my BS meter.”
Smiling at the understatement he was making about his “BS meter” I watched him eat with pleasure. Then thinking about it for only a moment I said, “I want to go.”
“I hear a but in there.”
“I’m trying to be honest. I’m not sure I’m up for being on horseback all day if it’s going to be as cold as it was today.”
“I had planned on taking the wagon,” he told me.
“Yeah? OK then, that’s better.”
And it was. After another good night’s sleep we woke up to a beautiful day that was cool but not windy or damp. While Thor took care of all the morning chores I cooked breakfast and fixed a picnic lunch to go. When Thor came in to finish getting ready I harnessed the mules and brought the wagon around. I also saddled Thor’s horse and told mine he had the day off which he seemed to appreciate. For just a moment I worried about leaving the animals but Thor and I were only two people and there were just time we were going to have to trust God that stuff would be there when we got back to them.
“Look who wants to come.”
At Thor’s comment I turned to see him holding Lady but it was what she had on that made me laugh. “Where did you find that? I can’t believe she let you put that on her.”
“It was in one of those tourist shops. I don’t know how long the jacket and hat will last but the harness and leash will at least let you keep hold of her and keep her from running off.”
I took Lady from him and walked her. She looked like a puppy sized hiker in her canvas jacket with pockets and her knitted cap that had slots for her ears to hold it on her head. The chain of the leash didn’t thrill her but she was agreeable to the latest new thing the humans wanted her to do. Boots and Barney were staring down with their usual morning disdain from the porch roof like they were some kind of wild panther. I looked at Thor and said, “The cats will miss her.”
Rolling his eyes in the direction of the cats he said, “The cats can hunt up their own meals for the day. They’re growing fat and getting out of practice. Let’s get, the daylights a wasting.”
Despite what Thor had said it was still very early in the day and we were one of the first to make it to town. “Wow. Things look even more picked over than before,” I muttered while surveying the mess that people were making near store fronts and along the main roads. At least they had the courtesy to keep the mess out of the actual roads or driving the wagon would have been like trying to drive in that mess that Jonathon and I had gone through trying to get to his grandmother’s place.
“Yeah, it’s getting that way. I’ve been leaving the stores on the main drag to people and trying to stick to the supply houses – plumbing and electrical – and then trying to hit up the warehouses as well. That’s where those extra batteries have come from. Hefling, his sons, and I also hit up those ranger stations and took out the solar panels and inverters from there. It would have been a pretty decent haul if we hadn’t had to split them between us.”
Looking around for just a moment since where I wanted to start had pretty much been trashed already we discussed the fact that the guys didn’t seem to have noticed we had access to power. “The equipment has always been there and Dad made sure it didn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Sand knows they’re there and what they’re for but I think he assumed that the EMP got to the electronic stuff that was hooked up to that stuff.”
Shaking his head Thor said, “This is getting us nowhere. Let’s head over to the library. You can see if there are any more books you want.”
It was a whole lot worse than last time I saw the inside of it. “I’m glad you brought the other ones home that I had already stacked up,” I told him after one look around. “I bet the school is even worse than this.”
Thor gave me an odd look. “Everyone avoids the place.”
“Would you believe I heard some people say it’s cursed and others say it’s haunted.”
I rolled my eyes. “Actually I don’t doubt it for a minute. Dad always said mountain folk could be touched about things like that. My grandmothers were wonderful, God-fearing women but they were superstitious as all get out. Every time they heard me whistle one of them would say, ‘A whistling woman and a crowing hen always comes to some bad end.’ And that was mild compared to some stuff they went on about.”
“My mom used to say … never mind,” Thor said abruptly clamming up.
I stepped over and Lady and I gave him a kiss that had him smiling again. He pushed up both back with a chuckle and said, “Ok, ok … let’s go see what we can find at the school before anyone else gets desperate enough to ignore their fears. I don’t know that I expect to find much. From what I’ve heard the greenies cleaned it out when they put together that meal that poisoned all those people.” We were the only ones on the end of town the library was on. We saw a few working towards the other end but no one waived and it wasn’t anyone I recognized from such a distance no matter how hard I stared.
As I drove the wagon along the road that went to the school I could tell that no one had been that way in a while. The weeds and grass had grown very tall despite the weight of the snow bending and packing it down a bit. There was tree trash down all over the place as well and there were old vehicles where the school grounds had been used as some kind of staging facility. None of that was the worst though.
“Oh geez,” I breathed as I drove passed the months old remains of several bodies. I wouldn’t have recognized what they were if I hadn’t seen it all before. The difference was that I had seen it in abandoned towns and cities … Damascus wasn’t abandoned, or at least not totally. It was like someone’s bad joke of a Halloween prank only it was more real than my brain wanted to take in.
I drove the wagon right into the courtyard between the elementary and middle school and then around to the loading dock at the back of the cafeteria that served the two lunch rooms – one that served the elementary and middle school and the one with the bigger tables and chairs for the highschool kids. I complained to Thor that the blasted doors were all electronic roll downs but that I knew how to get around that.
“Hang on. I’d rather not bust a window.” I climbed up to the roof using the attached maintenance ladder with a crow bar in my hand. When I got up there I had to stop and catch my breath but soon busted the lock off the roof hatch. I went down into the electrical crawl space where all the duct work was and then removed a section of the drop ceiling that led down into the head cafeteria lady’s office. I refused to reveal how I knew this was possible but will merely admit that while helping to put in some Christmas decorations Stro and I discovered certain material was not designed to support our weight.
Thor was howling when I told him about our misadventure and the resulting mess. He gave me a one armed hug and admitted, “I’ve had a few of those life lessons myself. Remind me to tell you about a certain thatched roof in Thailand and a very upset honeymooning couple that I … er … interrupted.”
Using my wind up flashlight we started looking around. I knew immediately it had been a long, long time since anyone had been in there due mostly to the undisturbed nature of the dust. I didn’t even see any mice trails like I expected to see. Going to work I laid several large pots, pitchers, and other cookware near the door going out. Thor handily knocked the door knob off of a locked storage room causing Lady to cling to my leg for a few moments before deciding the doorknob made a good toy to push around with her nose.
Thor hissed scaring us both and I ran over to see what the problem was and then stood there flabbergasted at what we found.
“Why would they overlook something like this?” Thor asked irritated.
I shook my head, so surprised I’d completely lost my voice. The metal shelves were not completely full but there were still quite a large number of #10 cans, rounds of salt, large containers of basic spices, and several undisturbed large bags of mixes, flour, and sugar.
I don’t know why finding it bothered me like it did. We should have been jumping around like we’d found gold … or another stash of Uncle Bentley’s, but I wasn’t. In fact if Stro or even Coach and Mr. Hefling had been there with us I probably would have given them an attitude with both barrels. Finally I muttered angrily, “This goes beyond superstitious right into stupid. But ask me if I care. Their loss is our gain.”
Looking at me in a little surprise he asked, “You’re not going to share this with your friends?”
I paused and then answered, “Ask me again when I’m over being mad at what was nearly wasted. For now … for now I just want to get this stuff home with as few people knowing about it as possible.”
I tied Lady to a post on the loading dock and was able to manually raise the bay doors just enough to let the cans go under it without breaking the wheel mechanism that would have jammed it permanently open or closed. The principal – who’d been around nearly as long as Coach – tended to use the football team as free manual labor. We’d learned early on that even though it was nice to have a remodeled school, some things that the school district had “upgraded” did not work as intended. For instance making everything electric, including locks, without the prerequisite manual backup systems could cause a righteous amount of problems. The school district kept promising to upgrade the upgrades but the property tax revenues had decreased and it fell off of the priority list.
We put the cans in a single layer on the bottom of the wagon bed, then filled the spaces between the cans with smaller items and finally laid the soft packages on top of that. To hide everything from view we laid plywood sheets on top and then put a tarp down. Around the edges of the tarp where the gaps were we pushed some hay that we had brought to cushion fragile items that we found. It wouldn’t hide things from a physical search but it was out of sight from a visual one.
After we finished loading the last couple of things from the kitchen we moved the wagon closer to the library. When I went to step down I saw Stro slowly coming up the main drive to the school on foot. He saw us but didn’t go any faster and only gave a half-hearted wave. I looked at Thor who shrugged.
Impatient at his slow pace, I finally walked down to meet him. “Drag your feet anymore and you’ll leave skid marks.”
“It’s this place,” he shuddered.
I huffed and rolled my eyes. I wanted to tell him what we’d found but on the other hand I was still angry at what I viewed as unnecessary drama that cost people an opportunity. “Then don’t stay if it bothers you that much.”
Quietly he reminded me, “My mom died here Rocky.”
Taking a calming breath I nodded. “I know. And I know I wasn’t here and let me guess … some people down there are saying I have no respect for the dead or that I’m stirring up trouble. A couple of them have probably said they aren’t going to have anything to do with me until the ghosts are done having their revenge.”
Slowly he straightened up and gave me a small smile. “It sounds dumb when you say it.”
“That’s because it is dumb … and you aren’t which is what has me confused. Come on Stro you’re twenty-one, a grown man, there is no room for stuff like that in our lives anymore.”
“Now you’re making me feel really dumb,” he said with a cringe.
“Well I’m not saying you’re dumb, I’d never … well practically never … call you that. What I am saying is that this is just a place. Sure it is a place where bad things happened but I haven’t seen that stop anyone from going into the abandoned houses around town or in the businesses either. You want to see bad you should see some of the places and things that Thor and I saw on our way here.”
We had reached Thor and he heard my last sentence and he and Stro clasped hands in hello. Stro eventually said, “So, didja find anything?”
Thor just rumbled but I answered his question with a question, “After all the stuff that people have said did you really expect us to find anything? Where’s your dad and brother?”
“Dad won’t come up here, bothers him too much. You know him and Mom were fighting again because she had gotten together with … it doesn’t matter now but he just feels bad that the last words they said to each other were pretty harsh. He still pretty much loved her though he was trying to let go.”
I nodded, understanding. “Yeah and Lawson feeds off your dad. Let me guess, he and your mom had brangled before she died too.”
“Pretty much,” Stro said. “Look, I … I ain’t gonna let this place win but I’d … uh … rather not go over to …”
Thor interrupted realizing that Stro was trying to say, “Not a problem. Let’s hit the teacher’s lounge first.”
Lady was eager to explore and led the way into several rooms. From the lounge we hit the copy room, the office, and the janitorial storage area where we picked up a pile of things worth taking … office supplies; goodies left behind in desks; a pile of batteries of different sizes from AA or the way up to the big square ones that were used for the heavy duty flashlights in the school storm kits; and cleaning supplies and a boatload of paper products including some feminine hygiene products that Stro just shoved into the oversized pockets of his hunting jacket trying to look nonchalant.
When he saw I was looking at him he squentched up his face and said, “Please don’t ask. Granny C and Tina gave me a whole long list of things to be on the lookout for and some of them are embarrassing.”
I was opening my mouth to jab at him a little when Thor yelled, “Pay dirt!”
The nurse’s station hadn’t been touched. “OK, this takes the cake,” I said in a huff and then turned and punched Stro in the arm.
“Ow! What was that for?” he complained.
“How many sheets has Granny C had to tear up because she was out of bandages and bandaids? How many other make do things has she had to put up with because …”
“Ok … all right … I get it, just lay off the punching. Geez between you and Tina I’m an abused man.”
I lifted an eye brow and nudged Thor, “Tina huh?”
“Oh stuff it,” he grumbled under his breath. “Don’t push Rocky. I thought I knew what I was doing with … well and I have … you know, Lulu to take care of and Tina has the twins. Neither one of us wants to make a mistake.”
“Has she said anything about it? And you know what I’m talking about. About what her dad did to you two?”
“Yeah. Yeah we talked about that.” He shrugged. “It’s over and done with. Neither one of us is really interested in going back to the way things used to be, we just want to try and figure out which way to go from here.”
“Good enough,” I said with a grin that made his ears turn red.
Suddenly Lady got real still and her hackles came up and she started pulling silently at the leash. We all got quiet and I picked her up to keep her quiet and we heard voices.
They walked right by our position in the dark and I nearly let them keep going. “Watch that first step going down to the kindergarten rooms; it’s awful dark.”
I wound up leaning on Thor to muffle my laughter at how high they had all jumped. Thor pushed me behind him and then growled when some of the guys made to come at me with some anger showing. They backed off real quick and then Stro started snorting in laughter too.
“Yeah, you go on ahead and think it’s funny. You just wait.” Johnson and Lawson were the worst bent out of shape but eventually all of them lightened back up. Thor said mildly but seriously, “You deserved it. You can’t go around like that; you never know who could be lurking in the dark or around a corner.”
Sand nodded, “I been out of the game too long. Our Sarge would have had me … just never mind, but it would have been painful. Thanks for the reminder. We saw the wagon and mules tied up and just assumed you three were the only ones in here. We could have walked into trouble.”
It was just about that time that I started feeling that I hadn’t been out of the house since I’d gotten sick. Lawson said, “Hey, Dad and Coach are outside and said that Rocky wanted to talk to them about something.”
I looked at Thor and said, “I’m gonna go back to the wagon for a while.”
“You OK?” he asked concerned at my sudden listless voice.
“Yeah. But sitting down will do me fine for a while if you don’t mind.”
“No,” he told me. “Take all the time you want.”
I led Lady back to the wagon and then had to unwind her from my leg when she couldn’t decide whether she was my protector or she was going to run from the two men in front of me.
Mr. Hefling smiled slightly at the sight. He leaned over and said, “I’ve heard about you. You are a pretty little thing.”
Lady finally realized these two men weren’t a threat to her human but she was standoffish as they smelled like too many other people and things that she didn’t know. In turn I realized that because of the kind of dog she was Lady would need to be exposed to more of the world and allowed to investigate to identify scents and match them up in her head in order to be truly what she was.
Coach said, “You still ain’t one hundred percent Rocky.”
“No sir, but I’m getting there. You mind if we sit at the picnic table for a bit? I need to run some stuff by you.”
The two men looked at each other then back at me. “The guys say something to you?” I asked correctly interpreting the look.
“Let’s hear what you have to say before we add our two cents.”
After we sat down I took a deep breath and just laid it on the table. “Look, I don’t want to disappoint anyone but I don’t think this is going to produce the results the guys are hoping for. I mean, it’s a nice idea but too … too idealistic in my opinion.”
Mr. Hefling wanted to know, “Why do you say that?”
Being brutally honest I told them both, “Because if people aren’t ready by now they aren’t going to get ready with a little bit of bartering. Plus I don’t think it would do them any good morale-wise. If they aren’t ready now they can at least pretend that everyone else is just as unready as they are. If we start showing off who has what then some anger and envy is going to develop … or maybe something worse. People that might be on the edge of turning into whatever Kemper’s people turned into may well just jump over the edge and justify it however it takes them to sleep at night.”
When Coach started to say something I said, “But … I might have another idea. Two really but they’re separate from each other. The one for the town will just have to wait until the other side of the new year.”
Coach said, “We’re listening.”
“First, assuming any of us make it to the spring, I’d be willing to organize an early spring swap meet or something similar. Thor and I saw something on the way out here … it was like the Highland Games. The suttlers had a section set up, there was a doctoring area, and then there were games of skill and strength. The prizes for the games were things that made sense like new blades, a pig, some chicks or chickens, coveralls, stuff like that. People could barter for things or spend coin in the suttler area. There were skilled people like black smiths, ferriers, mechanics, women with treadle sewing machines and I don’t know what all since I didn’t have that much time to look.”
I looked at the men to try and judge their reactions and when they didn’t give me one I continued on. “I’m going to be brutal and I know … look I know how it is going to make me sound but I don’t see any profit in beating around the bush about it. Not everyone around here is going to make it through the winter. Thor and I plan to but it’s going to take work and all our focus. We only have the two of us to put food on our table and do all our chores. I’ve already been bad sick and I’ll have to be careful not to relapse; that will leave a lot of Thor’s plate and I’m not real happy about that. Once spring planting season gets under way our time is going to be even more precious. But there is the in between time … when the last of the worst snow is gone and before the first seed has to be parked in the garden … that might work for this. It would also let us see who has made it through the starving time … and who hasn’t. Fewer people would mean that any help that the strong of us can offer would go further and … and not be wasted.”
Coach pursed his lips but Mr. Hefling nodded. “Don’t feel bad Rocky. We’ve talked over this same problem. We’ve been trying to move people into work groups but it only works about half the time. People may change their minds once they get into winter and start getting cut off but I have to tell you from what I’ve seen people getting out and salvaging the town is about the most constructive thing I’ve seen since the last garden was put in over the summer.”
“I’m not sure I like the idea of simply leaving people to die or survive. It feels like it goes against all of my Christian upbringing,” Coach put in for his part. “On the other hand, as has also been discussed, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. Too many are waiting for things to be given to them rather than working for them. I always thought the people of Damascus were more self-reliant but it looks like most of it has been bred out of the younger generations. I hear too many people that still think someone is going to come along and save them before it is too late. They are waiting for a leader to tell them what to do but seem to want to be bribed into using the brain God gave them. They think a strong man is going to come along and fix things and put the country back together the way it was before. I just don’t believe it myself and have a hard time understanding anyone that still does.”
“If you don’t, imagine how Thor and I feel. We’ve seen … awful things.” I stopped, unwilling to relive some of the awful things we’d been witness to. “I … I had some crazy ideas that Thor and I’d get to Damascus and the town would be pulling together and it would be like a port in the storm, a haven or something extraordinary like that. We saw a few places like that on our way here. But it isn’t and not all of it is because of the greenies or the disease or whatever else has befallen this town. The weakness and rot was already here, I just didn’t want to see it, and those other things just took advantage of it. I had a hard time accepting that, but I’ve realized I don’t have much choice but to accept it. Now, the rest of this is going to sound pretty … pretty self serving.”
I gathered my thoughts and then said, “There are some of us that are stronger. I don’t know if it is physically, mentally, or maybe like Granny C and Mr. Dink, it is spiritually. Maybe it is a little of all three. Maybe God has been looking after us particularly for some reason and has His hand on us. Maybe I am trying too hard and making it into something that it isn’t. Whatever it is I’m just not the type to lie down and give up. I’ll help those unable to help themselves but I can’t see giving anything away to people who are just sitting around unwilling to help themselves in some constructive way.”
Mr. Hefling said, “Yeah, you’re right it sounds bad.”
I gritted my teeth and it is a good thing I did or my mouth would have fallen open at what he said next. “It sounded just as bad when we said it out loud weeks back too, but that don’t stop it from being the truth. We’ve been quietly putting back what we can to help those that like you say ‘can’t help themselves’ but it won’t be enough.”