I felt awkward the next day though there was little enough time for it and apparently even less reason for it, or so it appeared early in the day. First thing after wake up were regular getting-the-day-started chores … milking, filling the wood box, feeding the animals, checking to make sure no varmints (human or otherwise) had been into anything over night. Micah and Mark took care of that while I let Daddy wake up slow and take as long getting dressed and using the bathroom as he needed while I fixed everyone breakfast.
That morning it was banana nut oatmeal. Not having any fresh bananas I started by rehydrating enough dried banana chips to mash into a cupful. Then I took three cups of the preceding day’s milk that had already had the cream skimmed off of it, three tablespoons of firmly packed brown sugar, three-quarter teaspoon of cinnamon, a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg, and a quarter teaspoon of salt and brought all of it to a gentle boil. Once it boiled I added two cups of quick cook oats, stirred it down, let it come back to a boil and then turned it to medium and cooked it for another minute. After I took it off the heat I stirred in the mashed bananas and a couple of tablespoons of coarsely chopped toasted pecans from the supply that I had foraged earlier in the week. That was a typical serving for four but since we did so much work I also made muffins and a little yogurt for Daddy since it seemed to do him so much good.
After breakfast Micah and I helped Mark unload the truck. It was overcast so we put everything up on the porch and covered it with a tarp while Mark took the truck down to the farm as he’d promised … though he siphoned out the gas from the spare tank before doing so. He also took down a box of odds and ends that Calvin had collected.
I was curious as a cat about what was in all of the boxes and bags that Mark had brought back. Of course I could tell what some of it was … the screening was pretty obvious as was the lawn mower and a few other things … but by and large old boxes that were picked up from the grocery store just don’t say much about their contents when nothing is written on the side to give it away.
But my curiosity would have to wait to be satisfied. The day was a fair one but I knew the “Indian Summer” couldn’t last forever and as much as I hated to admit it to myself I knew that I would soon have even less time to do the work that needed doing as I had to start staying closer to home and tending to Daddy. The weather would soon change as well. We’d had one light frost and then the daily highs went back up into the 70s. The leaves quickly changed and it didn’t take a meteorologist to see that autumn was here and the more difficult winter would soon follow. That particular day was a good one however so I left on my own for once – Mark had Jessie – and I went foraging … and thinking.
Foraging was a constant activity for me but even with all of the energy I put into it, it couldn’t provide all of the nutrition we needed and come the first hard frost and the first snow foraging would be at an end until spring brought. My concern was not just surviving the winter however but how to make it through the spring until I could plant a garden that would survive and produce.
The rocky soil of the ridge wasn’t real conducive to gardening like down on the farm. That was one of the main reasons the ridge had never been developed. As I picked up bushel baskets of nuts I considered a few ideas but I wasn’t sure how feasible they were; they would definitely require a lot of work to set up. The gist of the main ideas were that first I wanted a few raised garden beds near the house for the more fragile plants like tomatoes or root crops that require deep soil. But that wouldn’t be enough to truly sustain us. The next idea was to utilize a steep grade on the east side of the cabin area. It was so bad that only scrub and wild flowers grew on most of it preventing erosion. My imagination went into overtime as I remembered a book I had read in highschool on terrace gardening.
That steep area would be perfect for a real life experiment in terrace gardening. But if the work involved had been a consideration before the world went crazy, it was really a problem afterwards.
The pull of the bag of walnuts on my shoulder brought my thoughts back to the present. I almost wish it hadn’t. I usually didn’t let myself get off task but in no time I had started to get anxious and had to sit down. Daddy was looking worse every day. The situation with Micah was no worse but didn’t feel particularly better either and I wondered how to push the healing along faster. I also wanted a working relationship with the farm but I was concerned about over dependence and being able to hold our own. The only way I saw being able to do that was if Mark stayed, which I wanted but I also wondered if I wanted him to for the right reasons.
“Whooooweeeee, all I had to do to find you was follow the smoke.”
I nearly came out of my skin. I threw a handful of walnuts at his shins. “Mark Griffey!! You nearly scared me out of a year’s growth.”
He snickered, “That’s not saying much.”
Same old Mark. Then I realized a certain little boy wasn’t with his father. “Where’s Jessie?”
“Down for a nap so stop your fretting. One of Rudy’s girls came up with him and said she’d keep an ear out for Jessie while your Dad sent me to look for you.”
I sighed, “What’s wrong now?” I started to keep up but Mark shook his head.
“You don’t need to go running home. Nothing is wrong; he just doesn’t want you out here on your own.”
Trying not to sound churlish I told him, “I don’t need a babysitter. I swear, he gave me less grief when I was working nights at the convenience store.”
“You worked where?!” he asked startled. “You’ve got … no … no way would your dad be OK with that.”
“I needed the money Mark and jobs were getting scarce as hen’s teeth. It was either there or at one of those clubs that catered to dirty old men that wanted some talk time with a young thang.”
Mark shook his head and made a disgusted face. “I don’t think I even want to know. Let’s … uh … skip that part of memory lane.”
“Suits me just fine. But Mark … ,” I hesitated needing to let him see a part of me maybe he’d forgotten. “I’ve always done what I had to. I tried to … to … to not be an embarrassment to my family or break my personal moral code but not everyone would likely see it that way. I needed a job. I preferred the convenience store over the … er … gentleman’s candy store approach.”
He just looked at me, gave a surprised snort, and then shook his head and decided to ignore what was obviously making him uncomfortable. “Look, I’m not here to be your babysitter and … well I admit it appears that a lot of people might just be underestimating you. You might look like a pint-sized princess but,” he looked me up and down and then finished “but you’ve got some real Amazon in there apparently.”
This time it was my turn to chuckle unwillingly and shake my head. “OK, if you aren’t here to babysit me then what?”
He sighed and eased his way down beside me to share the tree I was still leaning against. “You tired?”
“I’ve got too much work to do to be tired.”
His arm went around me, “Yeah, I’m tired too.”
All I could do was look at him. It was like we weren’t having the same conversation. I cocked my eyebrow at him to let him know I knew he’d just ignored what I’d said. He went on his own way anyway. “Del, you know you can talk to me right? Be honest with me?”
I began to wonder if I’d let too much of my former life out or if he was beginning to wonder if he’d spoken too soon. Instead of voicing my question I said, “I will so long as you extend the same courtesy to me.”
“Good. ‘Cause I want to talk to you.”
Uh, oh I thought, thinking he’d just confirmed my suspicions.
“I know I promised to behave myself but …”
See, told you so.
“…But the thing is, I always behave … I’m just not always well behaved.”
“Wha …?” I didn’t even get to finish the word before he was kissing me. After a long moment he broke away, acted like he’d put a spoon of too-hot soup in his mouth and said, “I missed you. Just thought you should know.”
I cleared my throat and tried to uncross my eyes. I wasn’t having much luck until I shook my head.
“Is that a head shake no, yes, or just what?” Mark asked warily.
After a false start I finally managed, “Just trying to catch my breath. You have a way with … words.”
He relaxed and got a distinct look of male satisfaction on his face before leaning back against the tree again. The goofiness of the male species kept me smiling for almost a whole minute before my cares came back to weigh me down.
Mark must have felt the tension return to my shoulders. “Hey, you OK?”
“I have to be.”
“That’s not what I asked,” he said.
“It’s the only answer I can allow myself. I should get back to work,” I told him as I tried to stand up.
He pulled me back down. “I think you and I need to talk instead.”
“About the kiss?” I asked fairly certain he was going to make another move on me but I got a surprise.
“As much as I’d like to I’m going to steer clear of that for a while. I may misbehave on occasion but I’ve learned not to let it get in the way of my commonsense,” he said with a wicked grin.
And his grin caused me to get one of my own because I knew exactly what he was talking about. “So ok, if we are steering clear of that particular subject what is it you want to talk about.”
The grin slid from his face leaving a very serious look behind. “I really hate to bring this up again but bare with me. I am going someplace with the questions. Del … do you … do you trust Rudy? Don’t just give me the first answer that comes to mind,” he said in a rush. “I mean do you really trust him?”
Trying to be as serious as he apparently was I said, “I know you and Rudy have had your run ins and I know that he gave you a bad time when he was in that brangle with your brother in law over those guns that got stolen from his farm and wound up in the pawn shop. Don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t agree with the way Rudy acted then but I think, right now, that he can be … be trusted.” I stopped for a second to straighten my thoughts and then admitted, “But … he does get on my nerves occasionally and sometimes I wonder where the cabin stands as far as his priorities. I want us to be able to stand on our own but I know right now that isn’t feasible and … and it worries me because sometimes I worry that he might hold that over our heads. I want to be allies with the farm, we always have been, but I want to retain our autonomy too.” I shrugged. It was hard to explain. I trusted him but I was a little leery of his authority too.
“Fair enough. And for the record it wasn’t all Rudy’s fault. I gave him a hard time but I was a kid and all I saw was that he made my sister cry and get upset. I really didn’t understand what was going on at the time. Ok, here’s the next one and it is going to be harder and I’d like you to be really honest Del even if I am risking getting you mad at me.” I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like the question and I was right … but he had a point. “Del, do you trust Micah?”
I didn’t want to answer him. I was angry that he asked me at all and wondered for a moment if he was trying to ask me to choose between him and my brother. “He’s my brother and I trust him.”
“I did make you mad. I don’t mean it like that Del. Just … give me the benefit of the doubt and think about Micah outside of him being your brother.”
He was earnest so I gave him the benefit of the doubt as he’d asked. It wasn’t easy to separate Micah from being my brother, in fact I never really was able to so I gave Mark the most honest answer I could. “I trust him, he’s my brother. I know he loves me. But … but he’s not going to be seventeen for a couple of weeks and he’s hurting and having a tough time growing up. I trust him as my brother but … but his decision making skills … uh … they … might … probably need some work.”
Mark looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Look Mark, you wanted an honest answer and that’s what I’ve given you. I love him, I trust him, but he doesn’t have enough experience and he’s under a lot of emotional stress right now so I’d probably second guess anything decisions he’d make.”
After a sigh Mark said, “I guess I can’t fault you for that. Micah is a good kid but I’ll have to be honest, I don’t know as I would turn my back on him personally, not the way he says he feels about me.”
“He’ll … he’ll get over it Mark. Give him some time.”
“I plan to, but not if it puts Jessie at risk. Del, look at me … please hear what I’m saying … if your brother …” he was upset enough to risk me really turning on him and that is actually what made me understand why he was saying what he was saying.
“Mark, he won’t. Besides … I …,” I felt a little ashamed admitting it. “I already told him I wouldn’t let any harm come to Jessie, however or whoever tries to cause it.” I hung my head.
“Del?” Mark sounded shell shocked.
I looked back up and him, square in the eyes. “Whatever you may think of me Mark I’d never let anyone … anyone … hurt a defenseless little kid. Certainly not one that someone … that someone trusted … trusted me enough to … to … to … trust me enough that they’d say that they’d know I would raise like my own if need be.”
I could hear the click in Mark’s throat as he swallowed. “Ok. Ok then.” Then he cleared his voice. “Last one Del. What about me? Do you trust me?”
After a moment I said, “I guess I must. But please … please don’t make me choose between you and my family if this is where this is going. I think we can work things out. It might take a little time but … but I think we can work things out … for all of us.”
His arm across my shoulders became a hug. “I’d never asked that Del, not as long as I can help it. But I’m not going to stand by and watch you get hurt again. Not on my watch. Not even with your dad now wondering if maybe he was wrong to give me his permission to …”
I stopped him surprised, “Don’t think like that Mark. Daddy likes you just fine. Whatever problems you have with Micah is outside of that.”
“Sure he likes me well enough. He’s just not sure that I’m the man for his daughter after all.”
Surprised I asked, “Did … did he say as much?”
Trying to figure out why he felt like he did I asked, “Did he say something … when the three of you had that talk at the breakfast table?”
“Not … not in so many words. He just wanted Micah and I to … to have an understanding. Micah wouldn’t lay another hand on you and I wouldn’t beat the crap out of Micah for something that was your business and not mine.”
That was a heck of a way to put it and I could understand a little better but I still needed to see if anything specific had occurred besides Daddy’s weird way of handling the situation. “Then why do you think …?”
“Rudy,” he answered before I could finish.
“Rudy said something?” I was confused again.
“No. Your dad asked Rudy to come up. I’m sure, at least in part, that he asked me to go find you to get me out of the house. Micah wasn’t asked to leave. Your dad basically asked me to keep you out of the house for a while until he could talk to Rudy.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of it and then a possibility did come to mind. “Why would Daddy need to … to … Oh … absolutely not …”
“There’s … there’s a clause in my grandfather’s will. Technically when I turned 21 I took over the trust that held the cabin for Micah and I but … it doesn’t take full effect until I’m 22 … sort of like a probation period … and if during that time Daddy thinks that I … that I might not be ready for full authority over the trust he can ask that another executor or guardian be assigned.” I shook my head in denial. “He wouldn’t do this to me. He … he wouldn’t.”
Mark could see how upset I was. “Del … I’m … I’m sorry I brought it up. Maybe it is nothing. Maybe I’m imaging things.”
“Don’t Mark. If he is doing something like this I need to know.”
“So you can do what?” he asked quietly.
“I … I don’t know. But I need to know if … if he has so little faith in me that …”
“Not you Del … me. I don’t think he trusts me.”
“Trusts you to do what? Does he think you are going to somehow steal the cabin from Micah and I? That’s absurd.”
“Not … not so much you but … I’m not so sure he doesn’t trust me not to … to disenfranchise Micah or something like that. Maybe to somehow set my kid up above Micah.”
I wanted to say he was being ridiculous but I could see in his face that he truly believed it. All I could do was shake my head. Then I got angry. “This is my home and I’ll invite to live with me anyone that I so choose. Not Daddy, nor Micah, is going to tell me what to do.”
Mark shook his head. “But I won’t create that situation Del. That’s … that’s what I’m trying to say and what I needed to talk to you about. If it comes down to that … if … look I want your word that if I say I need to leave for a while until things cool off, you’ll take care of Jessie until I think things are where I can come back.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “No … no … you … you wouldn’t do that. You wouldn’t just leave … you couldn’t … you …”
“Listen to me Del,” he said as he turned to me. “It would be a choice of last resort but I have to know that Jessie is going to have a safe place. If I’m the one causing the problems …”
“No. The only problem right now is everyone is apparently losing their minds. We have more than enough to worry about trying to put food on the table and prepare for winter. We do not need to turn this into some outrageous hillbilly soap opera. There is not going to be that kind of drama in this house, absolutely not,” I said emphatically.
“And that’s what I told your dad.”
Mark and I both jumped worse than when Mark had snuck up on me. “Rudy,” I ground out while Mark put the rifle back on safety.
“Pretty quick with that firearm son,” Rudy said with a grimace.
“If you’d seen what I saw …” Mark let it hang since he’d already told us what he and Calvin had witnessed.
“Dellie, we need to talk. You too Mark.” Rudy sat down in front of us and then said, “I’m going to say this plain and I know you aren’t going to like it Del but you need to hear it and you need to prepare yourself.”
Rudy shook his head and messed with his hat a little bit, looked around and then sighed. “Don’t get mad at me Dellie, we don’t need that kind of crap right now. Your dad is sick Del. I know you know that but … I don’t think you realize just how sick he really is. You see him every day so it looks like a slow decline. I don’t see him every day so I see just how fast he is getting worse. I overheard you two talking … don’t get het up at me son, it wasn’t intentional to start with, I just didn’t want to walk in on you two in case … er, you was doing something you’d be better off having some privacy for.”
Mark and I both must have blushed which made Rudy laugh, “Hah, young people these days. You’re either randier than Old Jakob’s bull or you’re more uptight than Snow White’s corset. Look, what’s between you two is between you two so long as it don’t cause me any problems so don’t think I’m trying to tell you what to do or how to live your life.”
I was more than a little bent out of shape, “And what has that got to do with anything?”
“Well, for one, Mark here is right. Your dad was talking to me about acting as some kind of guardian for you and Micah. Now, Dellie, get that chip off your shoulder. I said he talked to me about it, I didn’t say I agreed to it. I’d like to see the man that can get away with trying to tell you what to do. I’m still not sure if Mark here is up for it.” Rudy chuckled again. “Oh calm your ruff boy. All I’m saying is that you two sure did come together quick and I still ain’t seen that you are anything too much more than friends. But who am I to tell you how to go about your business? It’s not like my marriage turned out to be fairy tale material.”
I’d about had enough. “Just cut to the chase Rudy. If you didn’t agree to this plan of Daddy’s what is going on and why does it worry you enough to hunt us up in the woods to talk to us about it.”
Rudy looked at Mark, “Smart girl.” Then he went back to including me in his gaze. He sighed, “Dellie, I think the cancer is beginning to eat your dad up. Hy and I have known each other since before he married your momma and … something is going wrong upstairs. You know Esther’s husband died of cancer. Towards the end … well, he wasn’t making real good decisions. Esther had to watch him like a hawk every once in a while. And he’d get … paranoid I’d guess you’d call it, like he was thinking people were out to get him.”
“Are you saying … are you …” I couldn’t finish the thought, Mark had to for me. “Rudy, you think his mind is going?”
“If he isn’t he’s on the brink of it. He was telling me stories I know couldn’t have been true. Micah was sitting there and I could see his eyes getting real big. I’ve talked to the boy Dellie, tried to explain things to him but I don’t know how much of it stuck. Hy was getting you and your momma mixed up and then sometimes he acted like you’re still a little kid instead of a woman full grown and Mark here was messing with you anyway.”
I didn’t want to believe it. “I’ve never seen that Rudy. He’s never acted like that with me.”
“He hasn’t yet. I think, from the look on Micah’s face when I was trying to talk to him Hy may have acted that way with your brother though. And that might be where Micah is getting ideas about Mark here. And you can get that look off your face, yeah I knew about that. It has been building up and Micah had done some talking to Sam and Sam had come to me about it because he was worried. I put it down to Micah’s age and being jealous of his sister’s new friend. I wisht I’d a said something now, might have saved you some pain Dellie. I think Micah understands now that what his daddy is saying needs to be double checked first from here on out. I got him to agree to come ask you first, or talk to Mark here about what gets said if it worries him. “
I was completely shaken. I hadn’t really thought of anything like this occurring. I thought it would be a physical decline; I hadn’t given a mental decline hardly any thought except that it might come at the very end as a blessing when the pain got too bad.
“I know this isn’t what you want to hear Dellie but you need to think on this. I’ve seen the signs before. In my own father and in Esther’s husband … and in some good friends I’ve known over the years. If there was a doctor to take him to I’d help you but … let’s be honest here, there isn’t anything some doctor can do. The bad part is coming Dellie. If you need anything … if you need me to come up here and sit with him so’s you can get some air and hold yourself together … you know to call. Right?”
Still in shock I just nodded.
“Mark … Hy might turn nasty towards you but I’m asking you not to hold that against him. When he was in his right mind he never had a bad word to say about you, even said he was surprised that Dellie here hadn’t taken more notice of you beforehand. I hope that tells you something. Hy wasn’t real keen on Del’s other boyfriends and was pretty happy when she gave it all up after that last ‘un. So for him to say … well, you think on that in case he starts acting like he don’t care for you too much.”
Mark didn’t know what to say either so like me could only nod. Rudy stood up and so did we with Rudy clapping Mark on the shoulder. “I need to get back to the farm. I mean it you two … call for help if you need it. And Dellie, why don’t you let Micah come down to the farm a bit each day. He can spend some time with Sam and the girls. Last time he was down he seemed to take a real interest in John’s contraptions. Sam and Calvin only help because they have to but Micah seemed to really want to hear what John was saying. Might be good for him to have something to occupy his mind as well as his time.”
I told him that I’d talk to Micah about it. Rudy went the long way around to get down the road and waited for his daughter while we walked straight back to the cabin. Jessie was just getting fussy so I sent the girl to her daddy and went inside to find that Micah had put the stew on while Mark took his son to check on the animals.
“Thanks,” I told Micah, trying to sound like nothing was going on.
Micah might have acted foolish on occasion but he was no fool so I wasn’t surprised when he said, “Rudy talked to you didn’t he?”
I nodded and asked, “Where’s Daddy?”
“Asleep. Del …”
“Yes, he told me that Daddy wasn’t … thinking too clearly when he was here.”
Micah slumped in a chair. “It was awful Del. After Rudy let Dad talk himself out Dad all of a sudden just acted like nothing had happened at all and was himself the way he always is; like Rudy had just gotten here and that he hadn’t just said …”
Micah’s face got pensive so I felt compelled to ask, “Was he talking about Mark?”
Micah wouldn’t look at me. “Sort of. I think he was getting him mixed up with the guy that … you know … the married one.”
I closed my eyes and said, “Oh Lord.”
“But then he changed. I mean it was weird Del … scary weird. I didn’t know … I mean Dad said … I think … I think maybe I’ve been … I thought Mark …”
“Take it easy Micah, Mark has already figured that out some, just he didn’t know the reason for it. He was planning on staying as long as he could but he said he wouldn’t if it really caused problems with Daddy and you and …”
“Oh … oh man … I’m sorry Del … I … I didn’t know.”
Deciding to lay it all out again I told him, “Micah, I don’t want Mark to leave Micah. For a lot of reasons that have just as much to do with our needing some help as it does with Mark and I … having anything else. And now Rudy shows up and tells me … Micah, I want a straight answer, has he been like this for long? Have you … been hiding it from me?”
Micah shook his head emphatically. “No. No I thought Dad was just being Dad. I mean he was forgetting things but I thought it was just because he wasn’t feeling good or was tired or something. I mean every once in a while he’d say something about Mark that didn’t seem the same as the other things he would say but it was … was you too.”
I turned from the stove and said, “It was me too what?”
“Dad was like … I don’t know … acting like you were holding something back from us or were thinking about … you know … other things. Dad would say that we had to keep an eye on you because you weren’t yourself.”
I was really flummoxed. I hadn’t seen it, it had been right there in my face and I hadn’t seen it. “Micah …”
“No Del … I mean … I know better now but I was … I’m not making excuses … I didn’t … it was confusing Del. I didn’t know what to think and then I thought I did but that turned out to be wrong too. Man … this is just … just too …”
I patted my brother on the shoulder and we both lapsed into silence. I stirred the stew and added the dumplings I’d just made up. Mark walked into the kitchen and then stopped short. I don’t know how long we would have stood like that if Jessie hadn’t reached out to me and said, “Hungrin Dewwie, hungrin. Kee-kee … kee-kee!”
“Well little buck, you aren’t getting a cookie this close to dinner but you may a cracker to tide you over while everyone else gets washed up for dinner.”
I put Jessie in his highchair while Micah and Mark stepped onto the porch to wash their hands. I heard Micah say something to Mark but not what he said and then Mark replied, “Consider it forgotten. Everything is just messed up. We’ll work on it, try and make it as easy on your dad as we can. Maybe he won’t worry so much that way.”
Micah mumbled something back and in the quiet of the kitchen I heard Mark’s hand pat Micah on the shoulder or back. “Let’s get something to eat before your sister decides we aren’t hungry enough holds back dinner until the pie she is baking is finished.”
The meal was a quiet one but it was … companionable I guess you would say. We were back to having a common cause and some mutual understanding to go along with it. I hated it to be over what it was but I was thankful nevertheless. Daddy only woke up for a little while and he was so drained that all he did was drink a draught of one of my herbal remedies and then go back to sleep. I worried about him missing two meals but half the time he couldn’t keep what little he ate down anyway. I was using the last of the liquid vitamins I had in the soothing drinks I would fix Daddy and that was about all I could do.
After seeing to Daddy’s needs and getting him bedded down in his main floor bedroom I was so shook up I tried to hide out in the woodshed … but Micah was there before me. And when I went to the barn I saw Mark deep in thought. I gave up and went into the Butler’s pantry and tried to get the gardening ideas down on paper, but without much real success beyond a basic outline.
That evening there was a real chill in the air that hadn’t been there before. We decided to move our bedding back upstairs since I wasn’t going to wake Daddy up to make him move to the basement and because the stairs were getting too much for him anyway. It was almost chilly enough to light a fire but I asked the guys to hold off and save the wood since it wasn’t really something we had to have.
We pulled the rockers in off of the porch and drank hot chocolate while we contemplated the mess of boxes that were now in the great room. Mark had been dragging the boxes and packages in throughout the day.
I said, “Those boxes aren’t going to unpack themselves Mark. You want help or privacy?”
After a sigh he said, “Nothing private about any of this.” So by the light of a couple of solar lamps we helped him to unpack.
A lot of the stuff had belonged to his parents but he was detached from it. When I asked him about it he said, “I learned that getting attached to stuff wasn’t always smart. If Dee’s ex thought you were attached to something he used it as collateral to get what he wanted out of you, sometimes holding it hostage like this stuff here. I forget what Dee did to make him mad but he took it all out of the attic and locked it away from her.” He shook his head at the unpleasant memory. “I’m glad I was able to find some of these things … the pictures mostly … but it wouldn’t have hurt me if they’d been lost forever. I had thought they were to be honest since I hadn’t seen it in years. The rest of this stuff came from the pawnshop or were gifts from people that owed the old ******* favors.”
I gave Mark a look that told him while I understood his contempt for his former brother in law I would appreciate in the future that he use another descriptive word. Micah kept picking things up and putting them down. He asked, “Why would he have brand new fishing gear just sitting in storage? And look at this other stuff, a lot of this stuff is still in the packaging. I don’t get it.”
“Probably came into the pawn shop. Might have been something he bought to look a certain way. Could have been part of a bribe or even stolen goods. Who knows? Half the stuff he did never made sense to me. For instance, why have all of these collectors’ knives … I know some of these probably could have fetched a pretty penny a couple of years ago … but just throw them all willy nilly in this plastic tub where they’re getting all scratched up? And you should have seen the paintings I didn’t bring. Who knows where they came from and why he stored them like he did without any kind of protection.”
Considering the disintegrating garbage bags I asked, “Mark, what do you want me to do with all of these clothes? Most of it … well, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings but …”
“I figured you could use them to make them quilts you were talking about for this winter. And speaking of … Micah, give me a hand please.”
He and Micah took packing material off and out popped a treadle sewing machine. “The belt is gone but I think I can fix that. You were complaining at one point that you missed your electric sewing machine … will this one work?”
I had a hard time not squealing like a kid on Christmas morning. “If the needles from my Singer will fit on this I might actually be able to catch up on all of that sewing in that basket over there,” I said pointing to a large laundry basket full of under clothes, pants and shirts needing repair.
Eventually, after he got bored with the ordinariness of it all, Micah decided to go to bed. I told him, “I’ll sleep with Daddy …”
“No, s’ok. If we change things he’ll think something is wrong.” So he trudged down the hall but I could see his face get sadder when he didn’t think I could see him anymore.
“You ok?” Mark’s question brought my attention back to him.
“Mostly. I just feel bad … he’s my kid brother. I’d do most anything to save him from this.” I shook off the melancholy that was threatening and asked, “How much more of this do you want to do tonight? I’ve got to do some baking tomorrow and I still haven’t dealt with any of the forage that came in today. And the cream needs to be churned too.”
Instead of answering me directly Mark said, “Come here.”
Suspecting ulterior motives I moved slowly, but when I was on the floor beside him Mark removed a packing blanket from a bulky object. It looked like an old apothecary chest; a smallish cabinet with lots of drawers. “What’s that?”
“Ali Baba’s cave.”
Knowing Mark wasn’t exactly prone to that kind of whimsy I just gave him a look. He smiled grimly and said, “Seriously. This,” he said pointing to the cabinet, “was always locked up at the pawn shop until he sold it and then it was moved to the basement storage room with all of this other stuff. This is where he kept the best of the best.”
“How do you know that?”
“It was an unwritten law that if Dee or I came anywhere near this our life was forfeit. Worse beating I ever got was when I was in his office and accidentally banged into the thing and made one of the draw knobs come off. The drawer didn’t even open but he went off on me like I had been trying to break into it. I actually had to go to the hospital that time. They told the emergency room that I’d been riding a motorcycle without permission and had had an accident. I was …”
“Fourteen right? I remember that. It was the only time we visited that you didn’t come around to bug the tar out of me. I wanted to go to town to visit you so I could tell you what a dope you had been for riding without a helmet. No one would … no one would take me,” I finished quietly. I was horrified. Was it possible my own family was turning a blind eye to that kind of abuse?
“Del that was a long time ago so let it go. Somebody … I don’t know who … paid a visit to the pastor where we went to church. Something got said anyway. He slapped me around a couple of times after that but never enough to mark me. It was also around then that I grew into my feet and he only tried to get to me through Dee after that … and then they separated and then …” He paused. “With them both gone there just doesn’t seem to be any point to holding on to what bad feelings are left. I’d give a lot if I could have had a different childhood but I honestly regret the way Jessie came into the world more. You understand?”
“Sort of. I … I won’t bug you about it. I guess we all … deal with things different. I just keep finding these things out and it makes me feel so bad for the way I acted and … on top of everything else …”
“Hey … hey, hey, hey … I didn’t tell you to make you start leaking around the eyes,” he said while he scooted over next to me. “It just … it isn’t worth covering up or lying about it. I’d forget the lie I made up and something would slip and then you’d be hurt because I lied. Let’s just drop it. OK? All I want to concentrate on from here on out is making our lives better and not making the same mistakes that were made in the past.”
I sighed and nodded my head. “I’m sorry Mark. I guess it is just … just all of it … all of the things that have happened, all of the revelations, all of the changes. I had accepted that things were going to get tough but I thought it would be one thing at a time. All of this stuff … happening at once …” I couldn’t even finish. I just leaned my head on his shoulder and after a moment’s hesitation he reached around and held me.
“Yeah, it’s OK, I’m not normally this weepy. I’m probably just tired or goofy or something. Forget about it. Let’s get the rest of your stuff taken care of.”
“Really. I’m OK,” I said as I tried to back out of the situation I had created. His hesitation … well, I don’t know precisely what I was thinking about it but I felt it and it sent up neon bright warning flares. The fact that Mark didn’t exactly delay in getting back to business pretty much told me that I’d made the right call for him … I just wasn’t sure whether I’d made the right call for me. Despite knowing I was strong I still had the occasional normal female fantasy about some Prince Charming being around to hold me when I felt weepy. I was beginning to wonder if such a guy existed that was able to handle me both being strong and being weak.
Wiping my eyes on my sleeve I asked, “So, what do you expect to find in the cabinet these days? It’s been a while since the sale of the pawn shop. And how do you plan on getting these drawers unlocked without tearing the whole thing apart?”
“I already know what’s in the cabinet. The keys were on a hook inside the storage room. A lot of it is jewelry, the kind he held back for special customers. He’s got rolls of collector coins in there too. There’s a whole draw of loose precious stones and another draw of nuggets that look like melted jewelry. A few stamps that probably used to be worth something or he wouldn’t have kept them. Here, I still owe you for the fuel for the truck and …”
I was tired but not that tired. I reached behind me and grabbed a sofa cushion and was just missed being quick enough to slam him with it. As he grabbed my wrist he said, “Del … I’m nobody’s kept man. I will pay my way.”
“Pay your way? Look you knuckle dragger, I already owe you more than I’ll ever be able to repay. I owe you so much I’m scared to death I’ve got feelings for you because I wouldn’t know how to repay you any other way. So don’t give me any crap … ack!”
I ended on a squawk as Mark yanked the pillow out of my hand and pulled me over to him again. “So … you’ve got feelings for me huh?”
“You … are … deranged,” I ground out.
“No … too late … you already let the cat out of the bag.”
“Mark, I swear you are gonna make me crazy. Yes, I have feelings for you. Maybe I always have. I’m not the one that set the stupid rules you are determined to live by. I like having somebody I can depend on, someone I can talk to. It’s not that I didn’t before but whatever is between us is different than anything I’ve experienced before. So stop confusing the heck out of me already. You make me think everything is OK and going along well and then out of the blue you do something insulting like offer me money.”
I gave him the evil eye. “Unless you want me to swing a chair instead of a pillow you will consign that god-awful knick name to the ashes of the past where it belongs.”
“Ooooooo,” he snickered. “Getting feisty huh?”
“Mark, you really are driving me insane. You were all solemn and stuff and now you are acting like a lunatic. What’s up with that?”
Mark leaned back and grinned like an idiot and sighed like he was completely content. “You wouldn’t take it.”
“Uh … say again.”
“The coins … and you didn’t ask to see the jewelry or the ingots or anything. Actually you got insulted and threatened to beat me with a pillow.”
“Yeah, and your point is?”
“Kelly … most females … even Dee and Cici would have gone for the sparklies right away even if it was just out of curiosity.”
“And I repeat, your point is?”
Mark just chuckled quietly, “You’re something else Del. That’s all. You’re just something else.”
I felt the insulted feeling coming back as I asked, “So, this was some kind of test?”
He knew he’d stepped in it right away, I could tell by the arrested look on his face. “Er … no … no I just …”
“It was wasn’t it?” I demanded.
Of course he gets the puppy dog look on his face, “Not really … you just surprised me is all when I was expecting you to …”
“Don’t even boy. Next time you want to know whether I’m after you for something, just ask. Sure, I’d like to see what is in those drawers … I can be as curious as a cat and you know it … but I hope I’ve got manners enough to wait until you show me. I’ve been wondering all day what has been in these boxes … like it was a mystery and stuff … but I didn’t sneak a peek even though I was tempted to. This is your stuff. Thanks for thinking that I’d …”
“Aw Del, now you make me feel bad,” he said trying to look contrite and failing miserably.
“I hope so. Just ask if you have a question next time. It’ll save both of us some grief.”
I got up and started folding up the mess we had made. I knew from experience the lamps would start getting dim soon anyway. Eventually Mark got up and started helping me. About half way through the clean up Mark said, “I didn’t really mean anything bad by it.”
“I know. You’re just a guy. You have your way of measuring things and I have my way of measuring things.”
“Just a guy huh?” he said with a grin, realizing I was willing to let it go.
“Yeah. The right amount of testosterone is required for the continuance of the human species. Just remember too much could wipe us all out just as easily. Got it?”
He smiled, “Got it.” After another break while we finished up Mark sighed, “We need a plan.”
And everyone thought I had a problem with non sequiturs. I shook my head and looked the question at him.
“A plan. You know … that answers the questions where do we go from here and how do we get there.”
“Oh … a plan,” I said in a deadpan. Now it was his turn to look like he wanted to throw a pillow.
“So, you’ve been thinking have you?” he asked suspecting that I’d been doing just that.
“Some. I mean you’re right of course, we need a plan. I kind of have general ideas but I’m stuck,” then I revealed how serious the problems I was having formulating a plan. “I can’t … I mean … I can but … it used to be so straight forward for me. There was Daddy and there was Micah and there was school. After school came the jobs I used to fill up the rest of my time, but both Daddy and Micah were a constant. I had friends but no one I couldn’t leave behind and the friends never got in the way of my commitments. Now everything feels like it is falling apart. No more jobs, only the cabin. No more school, probably ever at this point with the way things are going. Friends … well, even that is changing,” I said while I half heartedly brushed his arm in passing. “And soon … no more Daddy.” I turned away so Mark couldn’t see my face when I said it; I wasn’t going to wonder about any more micro hesitations, I couldn’t handle that on top of everything else. “This mess with Micah though, maybe it is getting better. I can’t fool myself however that things might not get bad all over again.”
“And then let’s add into that the oh so wonderful news you bring back that we have what amounts to pathetic, barely ambulatory zombies wandering around and some raiders that are Mad Max wannabees. The town sounds like it is toast. People that I’ve known my whole life are going hungry with no prospects of things looking up any time soon. Shall I continue? I’m having a ball at spelling it all out.”
“Del …” Mark said quietly.
“What?” I responded surlier than I had intended.
“You can only do so much for only so many. Let’s start with what we can do here for the cabin. Once we get some of that nailed down we can plug into whatever Rudy’s plans are for the farm. Beyond that, I know it sounds harsh, but people are going to have to learn to do for themselves. This of this winter as a … a reprieve of sorts. I think it is going to … to take out a lot of the competition for resources so to speak. Unfortunately the weak are going to die.”
I blanched at his brutal honesty and I know I was going to have to accept that Daddy would likely be in that number.
“We also have to figure out how we are going to make it through this winter. You and your brother are going to be a mess. Don’t shake your head Del … it isn’t just Micah that is going to be strung out though I think you’ll try and hold it together as much as you can. Rudy was saying that there is no way he has enough feed to get all the animals through the winter even after the big cull we’ve already done. He wants to halve the hog numbers and cull around a dozen of the beef cows so that he can let the milk cows freshen in the spring.”
“What? That … good Lord Mark … that isn’t going to leave much stock for the new year. And what are we going to do with all of that meat?”
“Well for one I’m … well Micah and I … are going to build a smokehouse up here. Your dad mentioned there used to be one over beside where the woodshed is and I think I found the old foundation for it. Two, after Rudy found out that Big John and Miz Lou are still relatively hail and hardy he’s going to see about giving them a quarter steer and a whole pig to get through the winter with. Big John’s place would be a good place to start a barter store and Big John has the experience and the toughness to pull it off. If we could find a young couple to maybe apprentice to them and help them out so that Big John wasn’t the only one defending the place …”
“What about Big John’s sons?”
“One is in the military and he hasn’t heard from him in months. He was deployed overseas. Big John told me he expects to see his son again one day, but not on this earth so I expect that means he thinks he’s dead. The other one … I didn’t know him too well … last I heard he lived with his mother in Elizabethtown. Big John hasn’t heard from him in a while either. Maybe someone from town; Rudy said he was going to think about it.”
I thought about it for a moment and then said, “Alright, I think that covers the animals … and before you ask, no I’m not culling any of my layers although there is one old cantankerous biddy in there that I might if she doesn’t knock off trying to spur me. Has Rudy said how the farm is set up for food? Besides the meat he wants to cull I mean.”
“He keeps side stepping me every time it comes up. That can mean one of two things. He’s either leery of giving away too much information in case we come asking for something that he’s not too sure he can say yes about or he’s got a secret stash and is leery about giving away information on for the same reason. I’m honestly not sure which one.”
“What about everything else? Paper products, medicines, clothes, cleaning products … you know, the basic necessities. Oh, and have they managed to do something about the water?”
“John fixed the hand pump, apparently the piping was decaying. The water has a lot of iron in it but it is cold and clear and a heck of a lot better than it was before. He’s also going to build a pump out around it to secure it and to try and keep it from freezing up in the cold weather. That’s something we should consider doing too, reinforcing the protection for the well. And I haven’t got a clue what the cold does to those solar panels, do you?”
“Not much so long as you take care of them and keep the snow off. What you have to keep in mind is that the PV panels will collect less energy during the winter because of cloud cover and that sort of thing. The problem with that is that with the days being shorter the nights are longer which means our power needs go up, not down. We’re going to have to be careful.”
Mark sighed and I looked at him closely. “Mark, you’re exhausted. You still aren’t over going to town. We aren’t going to accomplish anything tonight. Why don’t you go on to bed. I’ll move Jessie back in with me that way you don’t have to get up and …”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve been worse off than this and he has started sleeping better when we moved up here to the cabin. But I think I will go to bed. Let me help finish helping you …”
“Go to bed Mark.”
“What about you?”
I thought about pacifying him by telling him what he wanted to hear but that’s not the kind of relationship I wanted so I told him the truth. “Mark, when I said I didn’t sleep much I meant it. Three or four hours and I can make it the next day and I don’t think I’ve ever slept much more than five hours at a stroke unless I’ve been sick.”
“You’re going to make yourself sick doing that is what you’re going to do Del.”
“Nah, I’ll be fine … honest … ask Micah or Daddy.”
With a straight face he said, “That’s not exactly a ringing recommendation Del. Just … look … I can’t tell you what to do but I’m asking … get some rest Del. Get it while you can because you’ll be stressed out enough soon enough. OK?”
I shrugged which meant that I would think about it and he knew he’d have to be satisfied with that for now. I knew then if we did ever turn ourl relationship into a real one instead of the touch-and-tease one we had at that momet I'd have to do a lot more compromising and I wasn't sure I even knew how to do that.
Finally he sighed and went off to his bed and I went off to mine … but my plan wasn't to sleep, I really did have too much thinking to do.