I didn’t think that Jackson was going to answer me at first. Then he said, “Are you sure you want to know Dacey? I mean really know? Because right now you can imagine it any way you want to. But once you really know, you’ll have to live with the way it really happened.”
Abel grumbled, “Tell it or don’t but do not torment her.”
Jackson looked at him and said, “Testy puppy.”
I’d forgotten how irritating that Jeff said Jackson could be, how supercilious and irritating that I’d found him the few times I’d met him. Apparently he was also a little slow and stupid because he was baiting the wrong person. “Like he said Jackson, tell it or don’t. I’m in no mood for dumb people games.”
Jackson looked at me hard and then sadly but I was getting the feeling that a lot of what you saw from Jackson was just for show. “Jeff lasted as long as he could Dacey. It tore him up thinking that you would believe he just walked away and left you and your brother to fend for yourselves. I think that’s why he stayed alive as long as he did and never stopped thinking about ways to escape.”
Abel sat quietly side me, too quietly. I think he must have known at least some of what was coming. I had heard rumors on the radio but my conscious mind didn’t want to make the connections too soon. Jackson had to explain it.
“Monica and I got the juniors home but just barely. Charlene and Duncan were messed up and we practically had to carry them the last mile. Dad … as mayor he was taken into custody and we never found out how he died but a lot of the most influential men in town all went missing at about the same time and most of them have stayed that way. Julie was completely batty by the time we showed up but she pulled herself together as soon as she saw her two kids needed her. I’ll give her points for that … Charlene and Duncan mean everything to her and she’s pretty ruthless when she has to be.” A little admiration crept into his voice which made me uneasy for anyone to have those kinds of feelings for someone that was ruthless. “She and Monica get into it every once in a while but it’s never been as bad as it got over the guy she tried to line up to be Monica’s … er … keeper.”
I just looked at him. I supposed I needed to know how things stood. Understanding the other players in the story lived would give me some insight but I was impatient to hear about Jeff.
“Look, when the Chinese came through the town got caught between the factions that started fighting. It wasn’t subtle either. Jeff walked right into the middle of the worst of it. They threw him in with a lot of so-called ‘enemy combatants’. Those people got worked long and hard and they were fed them next to nothing to make them weak and keep them that way. They used the same tricks on them that they tried to use on us in the children’s camp.”
“Did it work?” I asked.
He nodded. “On some of them. It was more the control of food though than the indoctrination. You get to where all you can think about is food and how you can get some and as soon as you’ve eaten that you think about how to get some more. I’d say that you knew how it was but it doesn’t really look like it.”
He was looking for answers and I decided to give him lies instead. “People used to feel sorry for Daniel and I. They’d let us stay with them for a little while. Then they’d let us stay in their barn or shed and work for a little food. Then the people started disappearing or dying and we scavenged for a while. Then we were stuck on our own and people wouldn’t have anything to do with us. That’s when we learned to hide from the people eaters and we stuck to the forest.”
“Is that when you hooked up with your friend here?” he asked slyly.
“No, I’ve known Abel for a long time.”
I was either a really good liar or Jackson was as dumb as a stump … or a little of both. I could tell that Jackson assumed that Abel was one of the migrant workers that would occasionally go through the area during apple season and that he thought that my dad had hired him on or something. Wrong, my dad never used migrant workers for several different reasons but mostly because it was an expense he didn’t want.
Having pigeon holed Abel and thinking he’d gotten most of my story out of me Jackson continued. “Then the Chinese pulled out and Almanzor’s predecessor showed up. The guy – his name was Sevmire – was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He ‘recruited’ most of the young men – early teens to twenties – to do work so that their families would receive food allotments. Pretty clever really. He started off the nice guy; cleaning up the mess the Chinese left behind, making sure everyone got something to eat, organizing things … he even reopened the school. But it was all done his way and the school was just a propaganda machine, a way to get into people’s homes. Every kid was a like a spy because they were encouraged to recount their home life every day to the ‘counselors’ that were assigned for each grade level. Real sneaky stuff. Too bad we weren’t paying more attention to the things he wasn’t doing. He didn’t give people back their guns. He didn’t reinstall the leaders in the community but put his own instead. He didn’t open the clinic back up so you had to go to his people for rationed care. Most telling of all was that the enemy combatants continued to be worked like dogs and fed like fleas. Everyone was so busy trying to pretend things were normal that we ignored what was right under our noses.”
I heard Monica grumble that not everyone had been a blind idiot but no one came to her defense when Jackson told her to shut up, that if she’d really been as all-knowing as she acted that she was even more guilty for not doing anything about it. That shut her up.
“Then they started treating us recruits the same way they treated their prisoners. For every infraction they would take away from the food our families were supposed to receive. As a group if one person acted out we all suffered the consequences, and eventually so did our families.”
He stretched his shoulders and I could tell he was uncomfortable. “It wasn’t until they started the beat downs on the recruits that most of us realized what the people like Jeff had really been suffering. Most of us had tried to believe that they must have done something to get where they were and if we could avoid doing whatever that was we’d never be in that position.”
I said, “How ignorant. Anyone with sense knows that appeasement never works.”
I saw a bitter twist to his lips in the moonlight. “Yeah, that’s what a couple of people around town eventually started saying. They lost their tongues for it.”
I thought he was talking metaphorically at first but when I turned to look at Abel he only added to the bitterness. “The UN’s control broke down quickly. Troop commanders began to do whatever they felt necessary or setting up their own power bases. Men went rogue, only out for their group’s survival or they were lone wolves accountable only to themselves. Hakim was always ambitious; the breakdown in order only gave him more scope for his ambition. He started as an underling of Sevmire in the early days. This must have been right before he claimed to have heard God tell him things and changed his name to Almanzor. He decided the old ways were best and that everyone would return to them … whether they desired to or not.”
Stopping them both I said, “Wait. Are you telling me that cutting out people’s tongues … that was real?”
Jackson said, “It was called making people into Examples.”
“But what happened to the cops and … and our military?! You make it sound like they just walked in and took over without no opposition.”
Abel tried to comfort me but I didn’t want comfort, I wanted answers. For his part Jackson shook his head. “Where have you been this whole time? Under a rock? Come on … the cops are people just like everyone else and are subject to the same threats and fears … and hunger, let’s not forget hunger. They’d already started that program of confiscation and redistribution while we were all in that stupid camp and most people were already low on supplies and willing to believe anyone that claimed they were going to help. Besides, most of the cops were taken into ‘custody’ as soon as they’d helped to round up the kids and were the first to disappear. It took us a while to realize that not all of them had run for the hills … maybe none of them did. As for the US military, a good many of them were co-opted by the UN in the beginning with our government’s blessing and when they weren’t scurrying for the UN they were being used to battle it out with the Chinese who apparently started making themselves a little too at home if you catch my drift.”
I asked, “Where are the Chinese now?”
Jackson shrugged, “Around. We don’t see ‘em much because of Almanzor’s fighters but not all of them were recalled when the Muslims of China decided to try for their own political independence back in their country.”
Abel and Jackson started talking about commanders and numbers of men and stuff I had no interest in. I knew it was important but I wanted what I wanted at that moment. I told them both, “I’m glad you two can sit around and exchange stories but would you mind finishing mine first?”
Abel stiffened for a moment and then settled himself a little closer to me. I knew I was being witchy but didn’t care. He didn’t care I was being witchy either but cared about why I was feeling like I was. Understanding that helped me to calm my own jets. It’s nice when you know a person so well you don’t have to use a lot of words.
Jackson shook his head and said, “You can be a nasty little piece all right. I’m surprised you’re still alive. With that mouth you’ll have hacked someone off by now.”
“I’ll leave you alone as soon as you finish telling me about Jeff,” I snapped at him, already forgetting I was supposed to be using my self-control.
“Fine. Don’t say I haven’t warned you more than once.” I glared at him until he continued. “Sevmire and then Almanzor did a pretty good job controlling us. They kept us at each other’s throats … jealous, angry, ratting each other out, you name it. They also did the same thing between any allegiance groups that started … one group was favored then another group was favored, one group would get punished for something the other group did, it was a mess and nobody figured we were just being manipulated. The group Jeff was in was always at the bottom of the pecking order so they took the brunt of the worst of it. But after a while we all realized there wasn’t really any difference between any of us … we were all prisoners. Then Sevmire goes and gets himself killed … assassinated really … and that’s when Almanzor takes over completely. That guy is pure evil. You won’t believe the horrible things he does to people. It started out just with the lowliest of the prisoners but it eventually included anyone that disobeyed him or got in his way. The only guy I know that escaped him for long was one of his own men … guy named Montoya … but even he was eventually captured and tortured to death. He has the guy’s head nailed to a post outside of his office so no one forgets.”
Abel’s hand around my waist began to squeeze so tight it was hard to breath. I moved and then acted like I’d bumped my wound and Abel immediately released me. Jackson didn’t notice anything and finished his story. “Jeff was always on about what we should do and how if we all just rose up together we could take the enemy out. He refused to see that if we did that half our families would have been killed in retribution. His mouth got him into so much trouble but he didn’t seem to care. He used to tell stories to keep our spirits up … a lot of them were about you Dacey, that’s how I learned so much about you.”
From the dark someone asked, “Did you really put spoiled meat in the pot to make everyone at the children’s camp sick?”
I sighed, “That was a long time ago … but yeah; it was only the camp counselors though, not everyone.”
Another voice asked, “And you stopped up the sewer lines?”
Uncomfortable and irritated to find out Jeff had let so much of the cat out of the bag I said, “Yeah . What of it? I didn’t see any adults coming to the rescue.”
I recognized Josef’s voice this time. “And you would do anything to protect Daniel.”
“Of course, he’s my brother and my responsibility to take care of and protect. Geez, what’s the big deal? Aren’t you guys out here stirring up trouble for the same reason? To protect your families?”
There was uncomfortable rustling around us. Monica said, “No. We’re out here making fools of ourselves because they’ve cut off our food rations and moved the supplies to some secret strong hold. We were looking for it but haven’t found it so we decided to whittle down their numbers before we become too weak to do anything but lie down and die … which is just what Jeff did. He finally just laid down and died Dacey. Even he gave up in the end.”
Jackson told his sister quietly, “Shut up Monica, that’s not true and you know it. You’re just angry that he didn’t hold on for you. You’re just mad because you think that if he had just held on for another week he’d probably be alive today.”
Jackson turned to me and finished it. “He just starved to death Dacey. A lot of people did … they’re still starving to death. There’s not enough food to go around.”
“But why does Monica think that … that … well, what she thinks.”
He said, “Because a week after Jeff died that Montoya guy somehow snuck into the main base and blew a bunch of crap up and that’s how a lot of us escaped. Almanzor was so distracted for a while that he didn’t seem to care that a lot of his political prisoners were on the run. Most didn’t stick around anyway but a few of us have stayed hidden in and around the old logging and forestry camps. I’ve told her over and over but she just won’t believe me. Even if he was still alive at the break out Jeff wouldn’t have made it. He would have died free but he still would have died … he was too far gone by that point. He died thinking you and Daniel must hate him and then they took his body and threw it in a pit and burned it along with all the other prisoners that died that week. There isn’t even a grave for you to put flowers on. You happy you know now?”
I saw it clearly that time; that nasty gleam behind the charming boy act. I told him, “Happy? No. Worried that Jeff is still in pain? No. Worried that he doesn’t know the truth? That Daniel I ever hated him for leaving? No. Because where Jeff is at he knows all he needs to know and is being fed at a banquet table. So just shut your mouth Jackson, shut it real good. You did your part to tell me the story now do the rest of it and go away.”
He smirked in the dark and said, “I told you you wouldn’t like it.” He did however go away after his parting shot. I could tell that Abel was thinking evil thoughts about maybe making Jackson go away permanently but I didn’t want him going back to that life, certainly not for me. I refused to cry or make a fuss, especially not in front of the strangers. I might do it later but not then.
We settled down for the rest of the night. Abel never said a word but he never left my side, at least not until I fell asleep and when I woke up in the morning he wasn’t far away from it. He was washing Daniel up and trying to keep him occupied to keep him from waking me up wanting me to cook him breakfast.
I was just about as stiff and sore as I’d ever been except for that time I fell out of a hickory tree I’d climbed on a dare. I remember Dad asking me if I’d be accepting any more dares in the future because if I planned on it he’d go ahead and just order my tombstone for me. Needless to say that while I still got into scrapes on occasion, not one of them was because of a dare.
“It’s OK,” I croaked.
I was dry as a bone and Abel handed me a canteen and then whispered in my ear. After making sure I was OK and letting Josef look at my wound to make sure it wasn’t getting infected he whispered to me, “Be careful. Some of the men want you.”
“Want me for what?” I whispered back.
Abel gave me such a look until I finally figured it out. “Nooo way. Except for Jackson they’re all old enough to be … well … a lot older than me. That’s gross.”
“Are you sure they are so much older? Look at them closely Querida.”
Rather than stare at a bunch strange guys and giving them ideas I thought about it and I said, “Josef … ok … I know he’s in his twenties and sure he looks … well … older than he should. OK, all right. I get it, you’re saying these guys are probably not as old as they look.”
Looking at me with approval he said, “Yes, you see it.”
I tossed my head and would have made more of a spectacle except I did notice that a few of the men had stopped to watch us … me. I whispered so that only Abel could hear me, “Well, I don’t care. It is still grossing me out. Just because I don’t know much doesn’t mean I don’t know anything. Why aren’t they after Monica the same way?”
He rolled his eyes, “Because she is like a cat … quiet and still when it suits her and clawing and hissing the rest of the time. And because she cannot cook … or find food. That more than the other is why they want you.”
I didn’t know which offended me more; guys old enough they should have known better thinking about making up to me or no one caring about me one way or the other but only wanting what I could do for them. Of course if I was honest, both sides amounted to the same thing. Shaking my head I asked quietly, “What? Are they blind? All they need to do is look around. They could stuff themselves silly up here.”
Whatever Abel was going to say was interrupted by Jackson coming over and asking if I had any ideas for breakfast. “Uh … like fish.” I was still not ready to just let the way Jackson had told Jeff’s story go.
“Tried that; they’re not biting.”
“Ate them already. The men want something more.”
Disbelieving I said, “No way did you eat all those puffballs during the night.”
Jackson smirked, “Must have, they aren’t there now.”
I got the picture; it made me mad that they’d lie about it but I got the picture. They’d grabbed them and decided not to share. Or maybe take them back to their families. Good luck with that, I thought. In the heat of the lower elevations the mushrooms wouldn’t last too long and someone was going to get sick. Then I thought, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. I made a big deal of it. “Hey! Those were supposed to be shared rations. I can’t believe you guys ate them all. Now what are we supposed to eat? We came up here to get away from having to eat grass and now look what you’ve done!”
I don’t know where it would have gone from there. A lot of things were going through my head at one time. The doofuses would strip every puffball they could find for miles in every direction once word got out that they were edible. Then that sparked the idea that I shouldn’t say anything else about the other edibles I knew were underfoot. Which made me think that if they were half as smart as they thought they were they’d soon have the upper elevations completely stripped and the land would never have a chance to come back if that is what it was trying to do. I never got to test Jackson or the other to see if I was right because a sudden explosion threw mast and dirt overall of us. I screamed, “Daniel!!”
It was nothing but chaos and confusion after that. One of Hakim/Almanzor’s other groups must have tracked us to the lake or maybe they just got lucky and stumbled across us. I learned later that Abel thought it was a third option.
Abel used the confusion to gather Daniel, Dog, and our gear and we separated off from Jackson and his men and went to ground in a small crevice in the ground about a half mile from the mountain lake. Daniel was shaking like a leaf before the noise and ruckus was over with. Several times we had people practically on top of us. Abel stepped out a couple of times to remove a threat and dispose of the body away from our position. It took most of the morning but finally it was all over as they fighters chased Jackson’s group back down the mountain. We remained in the crevice for a bit to make sure that no one was lurking about and Daniel and I were stuck there even longer until Abel had scouted around to make double sure.
“No more people,” I muttered to myself.
In a rare display of sarcasm Abel asked, “What? Did you not enjoy meeting old friends?”
I turned to look at him and said, “Ha. Ha. Very funny.” Then I pulled a face and asked plaintively, “What is wrong with everybody? Wouldn’t it be better if we worked together instead of at cross purposes?”
Taking a moment to translate my words he became the gentle Abel I knew him to be most of the time. “Querida … perhaps it is as your Jackson said; Heart Rot has not just changed the land, it has changed the people.”
I snapped, “He’s not my Jackson thank you very much. And I’m beginning to wonder if it changed the people or if it just revealed who they really were underneath the face they used to show the world.”
Abel shook his head, “You are too young to be so cynical.”
I threw a handful of dried pine needles at him from where I sat with Daniel leaning against me while he rested. “Stop with the ‘you’re too young’ stuff. You said yourself that some of those guys … uh … wanted me. I get that they wanted my cooking but I betcha that isn’t all they’d been thinking about if they were as icky as it felt.”
I’d managed to ruffle Abel’s feathers. “You are too young,” he ground out. “No more such talk. I only told you to warn you not to get too friendly with them. And we will avoid such groups in the future.”
Rolling my eyes I told him, “I’m pretty sure it would have been a much nicer if we had avoided this group too but it didn’t wind up that way. Daniel and I will be better prepared if it happens again. As it is, now I have to worry that people are going to move into the upper elevations hunting for food and they’ll strip it as bare as they’ve stripped down below.”
Abel was silent for a while and I had begun to think he’d dropped the matter but then he said, “I do not think so Day-cee. Hakim will not like the people to spread out too much; it will make them too hard to control. It will give them hiding places to talk and plan from and give them time to stop fearing him. No, he will not risk a rebel group using the area for a base.”
“What can he do about it? There are already people crawling around our old farm and all along those old roads. And look at Jackson’s group.”
Abel snorted. “Yes, let us look at this group that Jackson belongs to. They are old for their age but no wiser for it. They are hungry and coming to you like nestlings yet there is food all around if they would but look. They have no … no … organizacion … it is like a mob that just happens to be working together for one thing at a time. I heard of no long range plan to throw off Hakim and the other oppressors. I heard not one mention trying to work with others outside of the area to cause Hakim indigestion. What leadership they started out with was easy to distract and destroy by petty means and infighting. They seem to have no goals. All this is why Hakim has stayed in power as long as he has; he is no great leader as he believes himself to be, he merely has no one who is really willing to fight him.”
A little wickedly I said, “At least not since that Montoya dude. He freaked little Hakim out enough they he had to nail his boogie man’s head outside his office to remind himself his greatest enemy is gone.”
I thought Abel would laugh since we both know Hakim believed in a lie but he didn’t even crack a smile. So I asked, “Do you miss it? The fight and getting the better of Hakim? Being his nightmare?”
Rather than answer me he said, “Let us find another place to hunt and gather and then return to your cave.”
Not liking the vibe I was getting from him I told him, “It is your cave too. We’ve been over this before so you know it is.”
He shook his head. “It is your dower, your inheritance from your father.”
“Which means that I can do with it what I wish and I’m saying the cave and all in it is yours too so don’t start … start … pulling away and making excuses. If you want to go back to fighting then just say it. I’m not a child. I’ll understand.”
He stopped on the path and turned to look at me. “I am not pulling away and I do not wish to go. I am stating truth. I do not deserve your giving and I have nothing to give in return.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “We are definitely going to avoid people from here on out if it makes you feel like you used to.” It wasn’t the answer he’d expected. I stepped close and hugged him and Daniel did as well. “You gave us you Abel. That’s better than anything else.” Slowly his arms came up and we had a group hug for a moment before heading to another camp for the night. Daniel understood even better why we didn’t want to lead strangers to the cave so he didn’t put up the slightest fuss.
We camped near a honey locust tree. Abel, finally out of his strange mood asked, “What is a … a locust?”
“It’s a type of bug but I’m not sure why they call this tree a honey locust. I can’t imagine locusts are all that sweet. Which reminds me … I’m surprised none of those men thought to eat grubs and stuff like that. They’d be protein. Sure beats starving to death by inches like they’re apparently doing. People can’t be that helpless. Their survival instincts should have kicked in by now.”
Abel shrugged, “People are strange Day-cee. Or perhaps this group has simply been helpless for too long. Or maybe they ate all of the bugs long ago and there are none left.”
I shook my head. “Maybe in town but up here there would be bugs a plenty yet none of those guys – or Monica – seemed to think to look for some. Now I admit, bugs wouldn’t be my first choice either but if it was between eating bugs and starving the bugs would be sautéed, fried, or grilled before the day was out.”
He smiled as he hung our mosquito net under a rock outcropping so that we would stay dry during the night when the fog rolled in and the due became so heavy it was like rain. For my part I looked around to get my bearings and think about what we could add to the supplies in our packs to make sure they lasted longer. Soberly Abel added, “That is another reason besides your father’s foresight that you have survived, why you and Daniel have survived. You have focus, a goal, and are willing to do the work to reach that goal. Even after your primo Jeff left you did not give up or wait for someone else to do the work for you.”
Hearing Jeff’s name again reminded me of what I had learned. I wasn’t sure I could trust Jackson’s version of the story completely, he seemed the type to only tell the part of the story that didn’t make him look too bad … and I’d started to wonder if maybe Jackson, as a “recruit,” hadn’t tolerated the pecking order more than he should have.
I felt Abel’s hand on my shoulder, “I am sorry for your loss Day-cee. Is the hurt so old you cannot cry for it? Is that why your eyes look like that?”
I sighed, “I did all my crying for Jeff after he left. I’m not angry at him either if that is what you are wondering. I never was, not even back then. He never lied, never said he wouldn’t leave because that is what he wanted to do all along. He wanted to go join up with someone and kick the Blue Hats back where they belong. Guess he didn’t get far.”
We were both silent with our thoughts and then I shook myself. The past was the past. All Jackson did was confirm that Jeff was dead and I’d already known that in my heart, I just hadn’t known how or when. It was time to deal with the present. I looked at Abel and said, “Dad told me another name for the Honey Locust tree was Confederate Pintree.”
Falling in with my changing of the subject Abel acted interested enough that I explained that during the American Civil War soldiers from the South were so poor that they would use the thorns off of the tree to pin their uniforms together. Of course then I had to explain to him what the Civil War was and by the time I had finished with that our camp was all set up and it was time to get out of my frump and do what we’d come up to the higher elevations to do in the first place.
Abel helped me to my feet and waited until I was steady before letting go. “Are you certain you are not in too much pain? That man … Josef … he said you need to rest and keep the wound clean.”
Shrugging as nonchalantly as I could I said, “I’ve gotten a little rest, now it is time for a little work.”
“But the injury, it is giving you pain. Yes?”
I nodded but refused to let him know how much. “Sure, some. But my pride will hurt worse if we don’t get something good accomplished after all of the energy we’ve spent. Let’s not let Jackson, his people, or Hakim’s people stop us from doing what we set out to do.”