It was closer to three than two hours but Jeff did come back. “House is a mess Dacey. They took everything that wasn’t nailed down, even out in the barn. The gate has a big padlock on it and there are signs tacked up on the doors and windows that practically dare people to cross their stupid barriers.”
“Oh,” I said, shocked and upset despite knowing it could be that way. “Everything?”
“Yeah, which says more than it doesn’t.”
I didn’t get what he was saying. Obviously he meant that they were being mean on purpose but he seemed to mean more than that.
“I know it was the Blue Hats that took everything. I had to cut the blue-colored label tape they had sealed the doors with to get into things. If it was only about the food and crops then there wasn’t any reason to take everything else. There was no reason to strip everything out of the house. What purpose would that serve except to … to … demoralize … that’s a good word for it. What purpose did it serve except to demoralize the enemy and set an example in the community?” Jeff looked pretty pleased that he’d come up with the explanation on his own then he said, “Good thing your folks had us move nearly all the other stuff down here or we’d be in some bad shape.”
I wanted to say “yeah, good thing” but I couldn’t forget I had still lost several sets of clothes including my best Sunday dress … though I suppose that sounds selfish. It was just that I had made that dress all by myself for a home ec project and it had won a blue ribbon at the fair.
After thinking it over I asked, “Are you saying it isn’t worth it for us to go back to the house? You haven’t even said anything about … about … whether or not …”
“Uh, not exactly, it is your house and I mean … even if you are just a kid you have rights. And you don’t have to imagine the worst. It looks like … look, everything was … was cleaned up. I just think you are going to get your feelings hurt going back to the house and I’m not sure how Daniel is going to react. On the other hand, I know that for me … well … it … Dacey, I don’t know how to say this exactly right but going back to the house made me mad enough to know that we are doing the right thing. And it also made me know … know that it is the right thing for me to try and hook up with people that are fighting the Blue Hats … and the Chinese that have no business being here either, no matter that they are supposed to be protecting their financial investments.”
I didn’t know how Daniel would react either so I asked, “Would you get bent out of shape if I wanted to go back to the house by myself while you watched Daniel for a while? Wait,” I said as soon as he got the older cousin face on. “I’d be really careful. I’d have one of the hand helds … they will be charged by then … and besides if you are leaving I’ll have to do this sort of stuff by myself anyway.” Seeing something , a realization maybe, in his eyes I asked him, “You really didn’t think we’d be able to be locked up in the cave for however many weeks, months, or years you’ll be gone did you?”
This time it was Jeff who shrugged. “I … I guess you can go look. I won’t stop you. Let me get the radio set up first though and see what kind of traffic we can expect to go by the house.” We were both tired and it was probably the best compromise I would get so we went to bed.
It took a couple of days to get the radio set up and figure out what was going on. Not all of the broadcasts were in English. We also found out that the satellite link up that we had always had for the internet was down or off or whatever. Dad paid for the service in advance so it shouldn’t have been OK but maybe someone had told the company … well, it doesn’t matter why, it only matters that the Internet went away as a source of information. No Facebook, no MySpace, no forums, no email, no ICQ, no Skype, no nothing. From what we heard on the radio even the normal telephone service was spotty and undependable if not completely gone.
After we managed to piece a timeline of events together – that was my idea by the way – it looked like maybe in hindsight being in the re-education camp wasn’t such a bad thing. It kept us out of those first weeks of chaos and rioting when the people from the cities started rolling into the countryside looking for food. The people were stupid about that because it wasn’t even spring planting season and the winter grains didn’t make seed heads. The US government, Blue Hats, and Chinese controlled the silos in the area and people that did have food stocked were going to simply let strangers walk into their homes and take their food without a fight of some kind. On the other hand, look at what had happened to my family.
We still weren’t sure, even after listening to the radio for hours on end, just how bad things were but after a while “bad” just becomes relative. At the very least Dad had been right; as soon as the groceries stopped magically showing up on the shelves at the store people went crazy … from a little to a lot.
The descriptions we heard made it seem people behaved the same way they did twenty-four hours before a hurricane only it happened all over the country at the same time. People got more vicious though because they knew that there probably wouldn’t be any more where that came from … no resupply and even if there was there would be a lot of rationing like there was in other countries. But other countries had been getting their food from us. There wouldn’t be anyone for us to get our food from.
On top of local and regional issues, Heart Rot being found in the US set off riots all over the world; lots of death and destruction, too much to really get your head around. How do you really compute millions of people dying every day from violence on top of those dying of starvation? And there we sat, well-fed and sheltered in our hole in the ground.
“Dacey, maybe I’m imagining things but … did it seem to you like some of those broadcasts were coming from awful close? What that one man was describing sure sounded a lot like the backcountry campsites out in the BLM.”
“Yeah, especially last night when he was talking about the campground along the three-stream fork. That sounds like the youth camp the churches and scout troops around here use.”
“That’s what I thought. I’ve been over that way with Uncle John but never camped there. What’s it like?”
“The bathrooms are really gross. There used to be outhouses but a lot of kids got sick a few years ago and they changed the outhouses out for port-o-johns. Those are worse in some ways, especially when they fill up or get clogged up. Thank goodness Dad built that composting toilet here. We’ll have to empty it eventually but maybe not for a year or so which totally cool with me,” I said nearly sick to my stomach just at the memory of how bad the facilities at the Youth Camp smelled at the end of a week of hard use by over a hundred kids. “The drinking water has to be trucked in but they do have a couple of hand pumps where you can get cleaning water that is OK. I suppose you could use it for drinking if you boiled it but with the bathrooms like they are that is too disgusting to even think about.”
Jeff and I both curled our lips at the idea. “The guy said things were real crowded and that they’d already had some Blue Hats come by telling them to evacuate to a refugee camp that was being set up further on down the highway.”
“Nine will get you ten that that is just a story to get people to leave. The Blue Hats haven’t told the truth yet so I ain’t likely to believe anything that comes out of their mouths.”
“Girl, you’ve got a real hard case against the Blue Hats.”
“And then some. I don’t want to talk about it again … but I doubt I’ll ever have anything good to say about any of them.”
“OK, it’s not like I don’t feel the same, but you watch that and don’t let it eat you up. You go after revenge you better dig two graves. Any place else sound familiar to you?”
I thought about it, “I … don’t know … the rest stops maybe?”
“Maybe. What’s worrying me a little is if some people let slip that much, what about the people that are smart and don’t let slip anything. Or maybe they are like us and they don’t say anything at all, are just listening?”
“So? I’m sure there are some people like that.”
“But where are they at? Could they be near here? Maybe watching as we …,” Jeff stopped and started thinking. “From here on out we need to be careful; not use the same trail too much so that it beats a bath to the door here. We already know that the adults will take what they want. We also know the Blue Hats … and let’s assume the Chinese too … will throw us in one of their “camps.” We know that the friends we used to think we have will likely do whatever is in their best interest and not ours. If they see where we are coming from they could just come and take it. I might be able to shoot some people Dacey but … even if you helped … but it really wouldn’t take all that many to destroy what we’ve got here.”
“You mean treat everyone like the enemy.”
Shocked to hear me say it right out loud like that so quickly he said, “Well … yeah. But you sound awful calm about it.”
“Don’t expect me to go all girly on you Jeff. Dad raised me for this, almost like a promise that it was bound to happen. It had to be me because … well, because Daniel isn’t going to be able to take care of himself any time soon. Momma hated that part of it. She didn’t mind doing things to save money which is what a lot of this stuff helped us do. But the violence stuff … she wanted to believe things would get better, not worse, especially because of Daniel.”
“But Uncle John didn’t?”
“No, Dad wanted things to get better; he just didn’t believe people were smart enough to pull it off. I thought he explained all of that to you.”
“He did, I just didn’t put it together that he raised you your whole life to think like that. I mean, you’re a girl and a kid girl at that. I was worried that maybe I was … I don’t know … gonna have to make you grow up too fast or something and hurt you … uh … psychologically. It’ll make things easier knowing that I don’t have to fight with you over it.”
“We might get in fights Jeff but not over that. Even if I had still been stupid enough to think that someone else would help, the way our so-called friends did us would have taught me better.”
Jeff, concerned said, “Don’t get bitter Dacey. You don’t really know that they thought it would come to what it did.”
“Now who is wearing rose-colored glasses? Mr. Baker is a cop. He came in the house acting like a cop, like he had to protect himself or had something to fear from us … telling us to get on the ground and then letting those people hold us at gun point like we were criminals.”
“He did get shot and that other cop was killed.”
“Dacey! A man died.”
“Killed by a Blue Hat, not by me. Maybe if the local grownups had stood up to them to begin with instead of clucking like a bunch of old biddy hens none of this had to happen and my parents would still be alive. And … I don’t know about you Jeff … but did you see anyone try and come to see us at that camp? Did anyone say to you that they were sorry things happened the way they did? Did you see anyone but the Blue Hats there? It’s not like we were very far off the highway.”
“You really are mad. You haven’t said anything like that ‘til now.”
“What am I supposed to be?! They killed my parents. If I could do something to hurt them right back I would … I will if I get the chance … but I’m not stupid. I’ve got Daniel to look after. And, no offense, you can do a lot of stuff but cooking ain’t one of ‘em. I like eating just as much as the next person but we’d end up starving if I let you take over the kitchen.”
For some reason Jeff thought that was hilarious. I wasn’t joking. Jeff could fry eggs but that was about it and they still needed doctoring after he was through with them to get rid of the burnt edges.
“Tell you what, I’ll take Daniel for a walk in the woodlot this evening and you can go look at the house. It will get Daniel outside and get him some exercise … he’s doing that falling out of chairs thing again.”
“I’ve only seen him do that once since he started talking again.”
“I’ve seen him do it three times in the last two days.”
“You sure he isn’t doing it on purpose? To get attention or a reaction out of you?”
“I don’t think so because he was in the middle of playing at his table with his rescue heroes and Thomas the Train toys when it happened and I don’t think he noticed that I was watching him.”
“Great,” I said, now worried about one more thing. “How am I supposed to do this all on my own? I didn’t even notice he was falling out of chairs again.”
“Relax. It may be a while before I leave … that’s assuming I do leave. I’m not walking into town just to get arrested or shot. And I already told you I won’t leave unless I think that you and Daniel are going to be OK.”
Sure, he said that then, and I think he really meant it at them time too.
Late that afternoon all three of us carefully crawled up out of the sink and made a dash for the trees. To keep Daniel from realizing what we were doing we walked in a lot of circles while we foraged. It was too late for me to “save” any of the wild plants by digging them up and replanting them in the grow rooms, Hear Rot had arrived and I didn’t want to contaminate stuff. However, Momma had gathered a lot seeds year before last and had canoodled Dad into turning on of the bigger grow rooms into a kind of mini-garden path that had herbs, wild forage, and edible flowers growing from all over the place.
Then I dropped the basket and looked at Jeff. “I can’t bring this stuff back. What if it is already contaminated?! I could ruin everything!”
Jeff for his part looked surprised and then understood what I meant, but he had a better idea. “I’ll set up one of Uncle John’s little outdoor stoves on … let’s see … in that little alcove that is down and to the left of the entrance. I think you could cook it there and that would kill any contamination. Remember, if it progresses like it did in other places Heart Rot starts with grains but it won’t have affected everything else until next growing season.”
“But it could still …”
“Yeah, maybe, and this is why we’ll cook stuff outside. Remember, Uncle John said that we needed to take advantage of any and all forage this year so that we could supplement what we have in storage. And since you know all that weird stuff that we can eat that most people just thinks is weeds …”
“It is not weird!”
“Most people think it is … if they think about it at all. I remember telling Monica about some of the stuff we ate and she totally freaked out until her grandmother … the one that is a Turkish immigrant …told her to stop it, that she had eaten stranger things growing up and been very thankful for it.”
“Her grandmother sounds cool.”
“She is. You can’t understand her if she doesn’t have her dentures in but sometimes she does that on purpose just to irritate her kids.”
“Definitely cool,” I said thinking I would have loved to have had a grandmother like that. So I picked the basket up and headed off in the direction of the house stopping every once in a while to pick something to add it to my basket. When I was far enough away that Daniel had lost interest I simply took off walking. I keyed the mic of my radio once and Jeff keyed his twice in response, one short and one long, to let me know he knew that I was on my way without having to explain things to Daniel.
Since we had been circling to bring me closer to the property line it didn’t take me long to get there and cut through the area that separated the woodlot from the back fields of our property. I didn’t go through the wheat field since that would have been too much like walking out in the open. Instead I cut through the fallow field that had grass and plants in it taller than me with lots of dried out cornstalks to mark where the rows had been. Sometimes Dad would plant the field in sugar beets but not this past year, couldn’t get the approval even if we had had the money for the seed.
And then, there I was behind the barn. I didn’t remember ever seeing the grass so high in the yard and orchard. I went into the barn as quietly as I could but it was empty. Everything was just gone … the tractor and implements, the wagon and trailer, the animals, the hay and feed. About the only thing left was the old horseshoe that the previous owner had nailed above each stall. The barn felt … sad. I know a barn can’t really feel anything but that is how it seemed to me at the time. Next came the house.
I noticed as I crept across the backyard that they’d even cut the swing down. That made me mad, it was such a cruel thing to do. The back door was open just like Jeff had told me. I spent about ten minutes just walking from empty room to empty room. It was like I didn’t recognize the house and it didn’t recognize me. Something had come along and wiped its memory clean. There was no imprint for either one of us. Whatever my family impression my family had made on the little house was just gone, like it had never existed.
The broken window upstairs hadn’t even been boarded over and you could tell from the warped floor boards that the weather had come in more than once. I looked in my room and they’d even torn up the baseboards to find my old treasure hidey hole but I’d emptied before they got to it. My parents’ bedroom felt dead except for one last whiff of my mom’s perfume. Jeff was right, this didn’t help. It only made me mad again. It also made me glad that I hadn’t brought Daniel; the place would have just made him freak out.
Just to be thorough I checked the basement and sure enough that had been ransacked as well. They had even taken the rag rugs off of the cracked linoleum floor. I had to get out. I was suffocating from anger … from grief. There wasn’t anything left. My old life was gone. And it wasn’t ever coming back.
I started to go back when I realized that there was something that they hadn’t thought to take. I walked passed nearly twenty cords of wood. Dad sometimes traded firewood for things during winter. People really liked it, especially if the wood was already split. Almost half the cords were Ash. Most of the rest of it was oak and maple. There were some small face cords of fruit woods like apple and cherry and a couple face cords of birch. There were some unstacked cedar pieces but those were seasoning not for fire wood but so that Dad could plane them down for furniture and paneling. Dad had blocks of walnut that he made gunstocks with but those were in the cave room that he had planned to use as his shop.
I thought to myself, “You took all the rest, the leavings, yet you didn’t think to take the best. That wood will keep the stove going and the fireplace full for a long, long time. That means you aren’t anywhere near as smart as you think you are. This gives us something you tried to take from us … time. And with enough time on our side we’ll out live you. You won’t win and it will be your own fault.”
I keyed the mic to let Jeff know I was on my way back. It was almost dark by the time I saw them. “Good, let’s get out of these woods. The skeeters are really bad.”
“The first warm spell always makes them bad. Guess what?”
When he asked I told him about the wood. When we got back to the sink, instead of cooking the forage like I had intended I just threw it to the chickens. They had a high old time of it and I had too many other things on my mind.
It took us almost two weeks to move the wood by hand. I thought Jeff would get antsy about leaving but he never said anything. I could tell something was up but when he’d get moody he’d go listen to the radio for a while and he’d be OK, or at least that is what I thought. Then as soon as the wood had been moved he said we needed to talk.
“Dacey, listening to the radio is fine and all that but I want to try and get closer to town and … and see for myself what is going on. It seems like the violence and all that has tapered off and that the Blue Hats have been redeployed someplace else to fight the Chinese. I want to go see how things are. I want to try and hook up with some people from school, to see …”
“Monica on that list of people you want to see by any chance?” I asked to needle him.
He looked at me and then was honest when I hadn’t expected him to be. “Yeah. I want to see if Monica and Jackson made it back and … and you know why. Her father nixed us dating but we were … more than friends. If nothing else I’d like to know that she is OK, especially after the way I just let her and Jackson …”
“As I recall it there was no ‘letting.’ Jackson is older than you and is Monica’s brother. They also were trying to meet up with their younger half-sister and –brother.”
“Jeff, I know I’m just a kid but I’m not stupid OK? I figured you’d need to leave someday. This is just to test the waters right? You can’t stay around here babysitting us. I’m surprised you’ve stayed as long as you have. Besides, if it wasn’t for Daniel you’d have some company going to town. I’d like to know what is going on too.”
“Yeah well you aren’t coming with me. It’s too dangerous.”
“If it is too dangerous why are you going? I thought you said …”
Frustrated Jeff nearly shouted, “Geez, enough already. Don’t give me grief over this. You can’t come and that’s all there is to it.”
“Fine. Whatever.” I went to the pantry feeling like all he thought all I was good for was to cook and clean his drawers. I wondered if this was how grown up women felt.
After a minute Jeff followed me, “Aw Dacey, don’t be like that. I don’t want to fight.”
I looked at my cousin and realized he was just a kid like me. Maybe he was older and a little closer to being a real grown up but he was still just a kid. It made me feel bad.
“I’m sorry. I know you are just trying to do what you think is best. I just … things … you know? Nothing is the same way it was and it is never going to be the same. I know that and I guess I’ve accepted it but it doesn’t make it any better. But I don’t want to fight either.”
“It’s OK Dacey. Guess we both have to deal with things being different. I thought I had my whole life planned and now look at this mess I’m in. I need to go Dacey, to check things out but part of me wants to go too. I want to know what has happened to my friends and what is going on out there. Yeah, I know we’ve got a sweet set up here but what if there is something more, something better?”
I didn’t believe there could be anything better; all of the better things stopped when my parents were killed. All I could see was the cave and looking after Daniel, maybe for the rest of my life. It was depressing.