The strangers. I never thought much about the people that used the road through town very much. They were locals, tourists, or strangers and that was the sum total of it. However, since forced to be a traveler for most of a year I had a completely different outlook. I knew how diverse the migrating population here in the country really was. And because of security reasons it was especially important that we all keep an eye on who the travelers were that used what we considered to be “ours” in a much more real and basic way that we ever had before.
The roads no longer belonged to the feds, the state, or the local government … they were “ours” to use and maintain and protect. The buildings – rundown and picked clean or not – didn’t belong to the county or some unseen landlord … they were ours, our resource, our shelter, our source of raw materials as need be. Also, the wild edibles surrounding the roads and buildings and off into the woods were just as much ours as the gardens that were intentionally planted. And what was “ours” we would protect.
Locals used the roads certainly, and the buildings in town. Some locals had even moved back into town, turning small office complexes into new businesses or into housing for them and their extended family. No one said anything, nowhere was it written down, but there was an agreement that if someone moved into a building in town then that building was no longer thought of as salvage; however, it was also an unwritten rule that you couldn’t claim more than you could physically live in. For instance, a family couldn’t move in and suddenly say that they “owned” and whole block so no one else could salvage from it.
For the most part it was a peaceful arrangement though there were a few dust ups, but somehow authority figures began to grow out what was once all haphazard and disorganized. And what grew out of the new organization and efficiency was a realization that what was “ours” was being chipped away by the people using the road through our town.
If you weren’t a local you were automatically a stranger, at least in the beginning. As we began to be more observant and traffic on the roads increased the strangers started falling into different categories. Some were legitimate business people that were setting up trade routes or looking to create trade partners. Some were military and civilian security forces; they had their own followers that were like the suttlers of old.
Some were nothing more than opportunists or criminals looking to escape justice in one place, taking what they could as they made their way to a new base of operations to continue their chosen activity. We had a couple of groups like that try and set up shop in Damascas and we were forced to burn them out … literally … after they had victimized some of the weakest in our community. Thor organized those war parties and in the process became the unofficial head of security for our outlying areas.
The worst group by far in my opinion were what I dubbed the pathetic ones. On the one hand they broke your heart, especially the children, but at the same time they didn’t seem to want to learn how to take care of themselves. It was like the drive and initiative had been beat out of them. Thor and I had long discussions about this category of people; how they had come to be what they were and if there was any hope for them.
“Hon, save your sympathy. Most of these people spent a lifetime being supported by other people’s tax dollars. Their drive to succeed hasn’t been beat out of them, it’s been bred out of them. They are the result of multi-generational dependency on the government.”
Call it being pregnant and hormonal or whatever you want, I didn’t want to believe that people couldn’t be saved. “It’s been over a year since things fell apart. Surely they would have learned by now that no one is going to come along and save them; that they’re going to have to save themselves or whatever you want to call it. They have to feed their kids. No one would choose to be a beggar their whole life … would they?”
Thor stooped and kissed my bandana covered head where I was sitting and weeding the garden. “How do you think they’ve gotten along this far? They take whatever people will give them and then when nothing is left they move on. Some end up joining the highway gangs if they’ve got any gumption at all, and those are usually the kids, but not even the gangs seem to want these people for much beyond cannon fodder. These are the dregs, former drug addicts, the sick and dying, the women to skanky to even prostitute themselves anymore, and the ones that have given up and chosen to go where ever the tides of life send them.”
I shook my head in denial, “Not all of them are like that. Some just look like they’ve hit a really bad patch in life. All they need is … I don’t know … a little help, a little guidance to teach them how to make it in this world because what they came from before was so different they’ve lost their way.”
Thor leaned on the hoe and looked me square in the eye. “You’re more tenderhearted that you’ve ever wanted to let on. I should have known after you picked up those two kids and then just let Chuckri and that woman have them without a by your leave. And don’t tell me that didn’t hurt because I was there and saw it whether you want to admit it or not.”
“It was what was best. Besides, we’ve got one of our own coming now.”
He nodded and said, “And that’s why I’m asking you not to go into town anymore if it can be avoided, at least for a while.”
When I have him a look … not angry, just suspicious but reserving judgment … he grimaced. “I know. And I know I’m asking a lot but I have my reasons.” And he did and I agreed to the restraints on my freedom after hearing him out.
The locals – our people – weren’t completely heartless. We had tried to help the strangers as they came through but they didn’t make it easy. Eventually at all entrances into town and the backcountry we hung signs that read, “Give a man a fish and you have fed him for today; teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a life time. Welcome to Damascus, all visitors are required to have their own fishing gear.” Some signs weren’t quite that nice or philosophical. Some simply read, “No Handouts” or “No Beggars” or even more brutally “No warning given! Looters shot on sight!”
Not everyone appreciated the signs. The security forces politely asked that we refrain from intimidating outsiders. We just as politely told them that we’d do what was necessary to protect our own citizens thank you very much for your concern. A few of the migrating groups tried to push their luck and then found out just how serious we were when the town’s own security forces – led by a good man by the name of Martin Kildare – started arranging barricades that funneled travelers along the highway with only one or two tightly controlled places to turn around at. You didn’t stop except at designated areas outside of the areas of town that were secured. The wall was mostly made up of wrecked cars stacked on top of one another but other debris was used when we ran out of autos.
We weren’t unfriendly, just wary. You see the pathetic ones weren’t always healthy and often seemed to practice a very lackadaisical hygiene. Our wariness paid off in early June when a group came him that had some members suffering from what the military eventually told us was measles. Seems most of the kids in the group had their vaccinations but the adults had let their booster shots lapse. When we still had access to a fully functional modern hospital the likelihood of death from measles was less than one percent but between one thing and another the military docs told us that measles outbreaks were generally causing a 30% mortality rate in addition to the other complications from measles … ten percent with permanent hearing loss, two or three percent of cases turning into encephalitis usually fatal, five to ten percent of survivors have some permanent loss of sight due to the associated conjunctivitis, and then some kind of degenerative nerve condition that was more common than it should have been.
All in all I agreed – at least for the sake of the baby’s safety – to stay on the farm. At first I thought I’d be resentful of staying put on the days Thor went off to meet up with other people whether in town or on one of the outlying farms. While I was on occasion, it was not nearly as often as I thought I would be. For the most part I didn’t feel left behind or left out. Strangely enough for a while I was simply content to be left alone. It gave me time to work … and think.
My place in the old gang was changing. I was always part, yet set apart, from my real friends. No matter how accepting they were of me there was always just a little disconnect between their view and my reality. Once I finally made my way in and settled in I was just “one of the guys.” But I wasn’t, not really, and now my reality was forcing them to change their view. Or maybe it was more true to say that I didn’t view myself that way anymore and they were being forced to change because of that.
Not only was I not that young girl anymore, the one whose only goal was to find satisfaction and recognition for being part of the team of young men in all the many guises we grouped in – football, venturing, friendship – I wasn’t even a girl anymore but a woman fully grown. I knew my biology would have always set me apart from them no matter what. I knew I was what I was because God had allowed it to be so; and like the Bible tells us had known me from the womb. I didn’t resent being a girl. What I had resented for so long was that being a girl had hindered me from doing what I was best at. But my feelings were changing.
I had started to feel that in being Thor’s bride, and raising this baby, I was even closer to being what I was created to be. I still wondered what would happen if for some reason my body was set up to make babies that lived beyond my body or that my genes were any good at growing babies at all. I couldn’t take that for granted even if I had felt the baby move. And Thor and I had talked about adopting and we might still; given how the world was it wasn’t outside of the realm of possibility. I thought about winding up like Granny C and realized that wasn’t such a terrible fate if it was the one that God had designed for me.
The day I finally accepted that, accepted that I was no longer the girl I had been but was a woman fully grown I nearly sat down in the middle of the potato patch and laughed at myself and all the silly philosophizing that I had been doing when the answers, in the end, had been so simple and so inevitable. I turned to Lady who was ecstatically smelling the freshly turned dirt of the new hills and said, “’Bout time don’t ya think?”
A quiet woof was my reply. Lady was still more quiet than most dogs. Thor and Jimmy Ray had had some luck encouraging her to call for hunting which drew her out of her shell with each success, but she was still pretty quiet for a hound. She did how on occasion and she was eloquent when she did it. She had a call that was particular to Thor but she would only do it when he’d been gone all day and didn’t come home until we’d come inside for the night. She had another that was for either Stro, Sand, or one of the few others we’d taught her was friend. Thor and I could also tell the difference if she smell someone she knew but wasn’t a “friend” and when she smelled a stranger. Her hunting calls were different from her announcement of human presence.
Jimmy Ray had found the carcasses of what he suspected where her mother and litter mates. They were in a fancy dog run and kennel behind a house that had obviously been broken into by a bear from all the claw marks. Something had gotten to the mom and some of the pups, the others look like they had starved to death. Whether Lady was the only one to escape through the open gate was uncertain but she was the only loose hound pup that anyone had admitted to finding. Luckily he was able to salvage the breeding records from the kennel’s office and used those to trace to another breeder that was happy to get rid of his remaining dogs so he could migrate to his son’s place in good conscience and unencumbered.
Jimmy Ray was like a kid at Christmas and was soon to bring a good income to his family raising and training dogs. In the process he met a woman that was a dog handler for a private security company. She was about seven years older than him but apparently everyone was pleased at the attachment they were developing, especially Jimmy Ray’s family. Her name was Gloria and when her company disbanded after several communities could no longer employee them she decided that Damascus looked like a good place to settle down and she and Jimmy Ray were often seen together … with a dog or three between them.
The lives of all my old gang were changing. Stro was married with three children to raise, Sand had his hands full at home too between Sarah and their new baby. Johnson and Lawson were learning to be uncles and were looking over the crop of young women that lived in the area … most of whom were guarded by very careful male relatives leaving them to do most of their romantic shopping amongst the sisters and daughters in families that already knew them well, though that had its down side as well. The other guys were just as busy looking or courting their prospects, at least when they had a spare moment. There was so much work to be done that no one had much time to play.
May gave way to June and my lettuce was giving me enough greenery that I could send some to town with Thor to trade to those that hadn’t been able to grow their own. The alliums were also making a good crop – chives, scallions, pearl onions, and the larger onions; I dried some, canned some, braided a bunch of them together and hung them up, and still had a few to trade, though not many were left over once I’d taken what I thought we’d need. My one great pregnancy mistake was when I first had to thin them out. Instead of putting the thinned out ones in for the chickens – you never give alliums to pigs – I wound up eating them myself in some strange craving. Oh glory did I pay for that for two days … and Thor did too because my belches would have made Sasquatch’s eyes water.
The cabbage I horded jealously. The heads were huge and beautiful and I decided to keep them all and trade only if my fall crop, the plants that I had just started in the green house, did as well as my summer crop was doing. I was just setting my first celery seedlings out of doors, the same as a lot of my later crops like sweet potato, tomatoes, pepper plants, winter squash, and melons. Everything was growing by leaps and bounds … except my belly. I could still see my toes despite being six months along. The baby was growing however because Miz Louise showed me how to measure where the top of my uterus was and she said I was “on track” whatever that meant.
I’d get the most awful backaches though, worse than I ever did when I played football. “Well Sugar, I reckon it’s because you’re all muscle compared to most women. Your abdominal muscles are keeping you all held in, like a girdle. That means the baby is growing up inside you instead of out. You’re jus lucky you’re as long as you are or I reckon you’d be having a lot of trouble breathing in the coming months. But after hearing you let in to that boy Lawson letting his horse wander into your seed bed,” she laughed. “It doesn’t sound atal’ like you’ve got that problem right yet.”
Nope. I could still give a royal what for when called upon. Lawson swore that had to have been the mules that untied his horse from the corral fence but I wasn’t having none of it. Even if it was the mules – and I didn’t necessarily doubt that they hadn’t gotten up to mischief and done exactly what he claimed that must have – the fact of the matter he should have known better. Thor put a hitching post right there in plain sight and he would have only had to walk another five steps to have done the thing properly.
Poor Lawson, but he wasn’t the only one that got the rough side of my temper when they came around and caused me extra work because they didn’t use commonsense. I nearly through a skillet at Johnson when he let the kitchen door slam and a cake I was baking fell flat as a flitter as a result. Earl Lee, one of Coach’s grandsons, caught heck when he didn’t latch the chicken yard gate the right way and the wind yanked it open.
Still, the lot of ‘em would still slink around if Thor was home. They’d make out some excuse that they’d come to see him about something but somehow or other they all left with some cookies, doughnuts or a slice a cake in their belly. They knew better than to come if Thor wasn’t home because I usually had a to do list as long as my leg of things they could help me with and since it is not secret how tall I am that was some long list.
That list in June included helping me to pick all of the cherries and mulberries that were coming in. Thor nearly had a coronary when he caught me up in the cherry tree; sometimes I kind of forgot I was pregnant. Rather than have him glowering and stomping around I promised I would stay out of the trees if he would wrangle Stro or Jimmy Ray to come help pick them. Since I knew both of them could eat cherry or mulberry pie all day long and still have room for more paying them in a good meal and a pie to take home was a lot easier than having Thor hover.
I wasn’t unhappy with the way life was changing for me but it sure did take getting used to. And I swore to Thor that if Stro or Sand called me “Mawmaw” one more time … as in “Yes, Mawmaw, we uns will get right on that right now so we don’t get a whoopin’” or “Yes Mawmaw, we won’t play over thar ‘cause it might be get something broken” or something equally as provoking … that I would not be answerable for the damage I would do to them.
“They’re just joking Hon,” Thor chuckled.
“Yeah, well the joke’s gonna be on them. See if there’s any more sweets for them anymore if they’re gonna act like buncha escapees from the local asylum. And it isn’t funny so stop laughing,” I grumped at seeing his big, toothy grin.
He got up from the chair and came over to where I was canning pickled beets and pulling jars of cherry preserves out of my stoneware cooker to sit on the counter to cool. He started trying to sweeten me up and a nearly dropped a jar. “Stop it … and behave,” I told him, smiling despite myself.
“Nope. I like it too much. And as for that pack of wild things you call friends, they’re just being boys.”
“Boys?!” I squawked. “Most of them are older than I am. I swear, sometimes I wonder if you aren’t the only one of them that has any sense at all. Even Sand has been acting reckless lately.”
He kissed my neck and made me squeal and then ran backwards a few feet when I threatened to whap him with the flyswatter I always kept handy. He may have moved back fast but he was still smiling. Then he sat back down at the table where he had a stack of papers he was staring at and sighed, “Yeah, I’ve noticed it too. Must be Spring in the air or something. That’s why, even though I tell them it’s so I don’t take too many out of any one family at a time when I’m working up the rosters for the security details, I’m really trying to separate some of them. I’m surprised they have the energy to fool around with all the work there is to do these days.”
When I mentioned it to Mr. Dink he explained, “More likely they’re just happy to be alive. Last year this time was a lot worse. Depressing. Hard. Now they can see the fruits of their labor have paid off. They’ve got hope. That’s all it is … youthful energy and hope.”
Yeah well, according to my grandmothers youthful energy and reckless hope lead to shenanigans that can put you in an early grave if you aren’t careful. And that’s what nearly happened to Jimmy Ray’s cousin one night. We hadn’t seen a raider in a long time. A lone stranger might slip through here and there. Someone would report a shirt missing off the clothesline, or the day’s eggs gone before the farmer’s wife could get to them, but it had been a while since anything major had occurred.
I heard about it second hand from Thor and it gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. The boy lost his pinkie and ring finger on his left hand, they were so broken there was no way to say them. A raiding party had been using the AT to make their way out of the North heading for who knows what who knows where. They had heard that the military and civilian security forces were retaking the roads and hoped to continue their ways while avoiding confrontations by using the US trail system. They picked it up outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I guess for a while there were enough small towns for them to steal from that they did fairly well. But the further south they went the leaner the pickings became and the fewer their numbers wound up being because it seems people had hardened and were more likely to shoot a dicey looking stranger rather than just stand there and give themselves a chance to be robbed.
Sickness had hit the group and halved their number right before they got to Damascus so they did the first smart thing they had done in a while. They went to ground and watched and waited instead of immediately attacking whatever moved. They were in the process of planning an attack on an outlying homestead when the security team and the raiders surprised each other on a path where the only light was from the moon dappling the ground from between the thick forest canopy above.
It was a fight to the death, thankful none of our people’s though there were some serious injuries and trust me when I say Thor used it as a teaching opportunity for everyone else. When someone is drawing a gun on you is not the time to give them an optimistic benefit of the doubt. And yakking and having a good time is not what security patrols are supposed to be about. Keeping people from being dead is what security patrols are about and that’s serious business and if you can’t handle that then stay home so we don’t have to bury you instead.
Jimmy Ray, whose lady friend had been on that patrol, was particularly incensed at his cousin’s casual disregard for the rules and threatened to pound him into the ground if he consented to living. His uncle told him to knock it off or likely his cousin might just decide he preferred death over what was likely to be waiting on him when he woke up good.
“I don’t want him dead, I just want him hurtin’,” Jimmy Ray fussed.
Thor told him with a slap on his shoulder in understanding, “He’s already hurting and my guess his pride is going to keep him that way for a while. Gloria is going to be fine so why don’t you give yourself some breathing room and go sit with her for a bit.”
Gloria would be fine, but she limped for nearly a month. She tried to use it as an excuse to give Jimmy Ray a change to change his mind about wanting to marry her. Jimmy Ray for his part told her if she didn’t want to walk down the aisle he’d just tote her to the minister’s house instead but come heck or high water they were getting hitched before he went plumb crazy. Good thing Gloria was the tolerant type. Of course she was a woman that could give as good as she got and seemed to think that Jimmy Ray was just her type of all the crazy things.
That put June into July and I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. Every day something came out of the garden or out of the fruit trees. Apricots, the last of the cherries which I dried rather than canned, more figs than I could tend to before they got too ripe so a bunch of them went to market with Thor. More mulberries and then the blackberries and raspberries had me out in the hedge rows every morning before it got too hot and buggy. I was also drowning in peaches, nectarines, and plums. I needed help but there wasn’t really anyone to call except Mr. Dink and Miz Louise and they were “traipsing about” while the weather was warm enough to enjoy it. Sarah, who my mother had always depended on, had her own work cut out for her with the baby and her own garden.
There were a few days I nearly cried in fatigue and would have if I hadn’t been afraid of Thor seeing me. I didn’t get many visitors in July either because Thor was running extra patrols after hearing from the military that a lot of the less affected areas of the northeast were starting to farm out their less desirables to the “badlands” to get rid of them. That meant more work for us at a minimum and trouble more than likely.
July turned into August but that only meant the changing of the kind of work, certainly not the lessening of it. In the garden I was dealing with celery, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers. Add winter and summer squashes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, corn, and beans as well as pears and clearing the tail end of the trees that had nearly finished fruiting so absolutely nothing went to waste and it was no wonder I was snappish on occasion when Thor came in a little too loud and happy.
After one particularly nasty outburst I slapped my hand over my mouth and ran out of the house. I wanted to be any place but where I had just made a fool of myself. Thor caught me easy enough because although I didn’t pooch out much my waist had disappeared and as had been predicted my lungs couldn’t always draw a deep breath because junior was standing up in them.
“Hey …. Hey,” he said as he caught me and gently swung me around and into his arms.
“I’m so sorry. You didn’t sign up for this. You sure don’t deserve me screeching at you like an old hag,” I snuffled into his shirt.
“Let’s go back inside. The mosquitoes are getting a referendum together whether to carry us both off at the same time or just one at a time.”
Once we were back inside I apologized again, “I am sorry. I don’t know what comes over me sometimes.”
“You’re feeling cooped up.”
I glanced up in surprise. “Well … no, not really. I like staying on the farm. I mean I miss riding with you and being with you all the time but … you always come home, every day, even when it would just be easier to sack out in someone’s spare room for the night.”
“Oh … uh … I was wondering if you’d noticed.”
“Yeah,” I sighed. “And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before that I’ve appreciated it.”
“Stop apologizing woman. I didn’t realize how tired you’ve gotten until just now. You’ve been hiding things from me. But I should have known. It’s not like I don’t know those jars don’t just automatically refill themselves by magic. If I’m tired after a day of helping you you’ve got to be doubly tired on the days you do it by yourself.”
“I’m fine,” I shook my head and then had to laugh. “Listen to us. We must be nuts. There’s not a jot or tittle that either one of us can do about how much work living is. If we want to eat this winter then we work this summer. That’s all there is to it. I’ve just never had to do this on my own before. Mom and Dad were always here to tell me what to do. There was always a book or the Internet to look things up if I didn’t know about something. Now I have to remember things I didn’t even realize I’d forgotten. I’m so scared I’m going to make a mistake I just …”
I shuddered to a stop and as I leaned back in Thor’s embrace. “And the baby’s coming.” At Thor’s alarmed look I laughed, “Not right this second. Geez. I just mean … I’m … I want to do it right. I’ve only got one month left to prepare for Junior and it feels like I’ve barely got anything done. Even sewing all day on Sundays I don’t have much for him. I haven’t even finished moving my stuff out of my old room and setting up his nursery.”
“Her nursery and that is something we are supposed to do together.” He sighed. “Rochelle …”
“Don’t,” I told him quietly. “Some of this is just hormones. I know it. You know it. There’s not a thing you can do about it. And you can’t change the amount of work I’ve got either. It just is. I’m OK with that. But … but maybe … if you wouldn’t mind …”
“Anything,” he said.
I shook my head and told him, “You know better than to volunteer something like that.”
“For you I would do anything.”
We kissed and cuddled for a while, “Just listen to me if I need to talk. Sometimes I just need to even when I don’t want to. Jonathon was good at reading me when I got like that. It’s not fair I should expect the same thing with you and I’m sorry but if you could … just …”
“Hon, I’m not mad. That boy was your friend your whole life but you picked me. I want to believe you would have picked me even if he hadn’t died. And since he was such a good friend to you and nothing else I’m not going to go idiot jealous over his memory. But you’re going to have to clue me in … and I’m going to have to look closer.”
“Don’t, you’re making me feel even worse,” I said after blowing my nose. “I know you’re tired too. I see it in you and in the horses … the miles you’ve covered, the things you’ve seen. Maybe I do miss that freedom a little but right now my world is the farm. I know it’s small for it to be my whole world but that is about all I can handle right now. Someone has to go further out, keep us connected. Everything is just … I don’t know … some days I feel like I can hardly breathe for all that is going on. For both of us.” I blew my nose again and stiffened my spine and stood up. “Now how does venison stew over ramen noodles and peach pie for dessert sound?”
“Like a slice of Heaven,” Thor said getting up to wash up.
Fatigue really was a problem for both of us. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I had been a regular type of female and unprepared for the kind of heavy labor I was doing. I’d heard by the grapevine that some extended families moved in together just so the women could share the workload, or they would at least move closer together so they could meet in the middle and help each other out. I was hoping next year that I’d have figured something else out as there was no way I was just going to have kids to lighten the workload around the farm.
As the days continued to roll by I still had my moments but talking the feelings out did help. Thor and I continued to learn about each other and our pasts and it brought more understanding. The one thing I couldn’t tell him because I knew he already worried at it, was how scared I was starting to get about the baby. Everything felt “normal” although with me that wasn’t a definition that I used regularly. But we wouldn’t know for sure until our little him or her was born. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it for one and the thought of what they might do to Thor kept me praying for his sake as much as mine and the baby’s. I personally didn’t know what I’d do if the baby was born with the same kind of problems I’d been born with. How could I not feel responsible for that?
And I was scared to death to tell anyone I was pregnant. I was hiding it, hiding from it or at least other people’s reaction to it, and Thor and I both knew it. He humored me though he admitted he’d nearly slipped a few times. I was scared what would people say? How would they treat our baby? Would they consider it a mutant just like I’d grown up being made to feel? What if our baby was different? Would Thor and I face the same type of things my parents faced? And I just didn’t trust word not to get out either. I didn’t know if all of the greenies were gone or if there were remnants of them someplace. Rarely was it mentioned, in fact hadn’t been mentioned for months that I knew of, about my connections to the greenies. But there were new settlers in town and I wasn’t sure I wanted that part of my past shared, certainly didn’t want to dump that kind of thing on my baby.
Little did I know that my worries were far from groundless and that there things in my near future that I could certainly have gone a lifetime without living and been perfectly content without experiencing.