Monday, July 21, 2014

Chapter 10

Unexpected Roundaboutation

"Truth is stranger than fiction, but that is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t."
- Mark Twain

“I would have had I known what was going on.  Why didn’t you go to my parents?  They would have helped you.”

I didn’t want to say anything against his parents but I really wasn’t sure they would have.  He’d already admitted that they hadn’t understood his feelings – not that I was too sure I understood them either – and it might have been too much to ask him to understand anything else.  All I would say is, “They had their own troubles with being shunned.  You know how things could get.”

“Yeah.  I guess I do.”  He sighed.  “I know it is a lot to ask you to believe me Bella but there hasn’t been a day gone by that I haven’t been working towards coming to get you.”

Feeling uncomfortable I cautiously asked, “Do … do you mean to ask me to come back with you now?”

He got a thoughtful look on his face.  “To be honest all I could think about when I found out what your uncle had done was coming to find you.”  He chewed the end of his mustache then said, “I’ve known in my heart all along that you were still up here some where.  I remember you telling me stories of your daddy’s hunting camp and how you all used to use it even after you moved to the city.  I just … well … I don’t think you ever told me exactly where it was, just the general area.  I knew I just needed to find you.  My plans … well my plans after that were kinda … kinda vague.  Not that my family wouldn’t welcome us if we needed a place to stay but they’re already stacked like cordwood at Gram’s place.  You know what it is like … you were there that time they had the revival meeting on the front twenty.  My parents would never say it but I think it was a relief to have me set out on my own, at least for a while.  I’m the youngest of ten after all.  And all my brothers and sisters and their kids are there and so are all my aunts and uncles and most of their kids and grandkids.”

My mouth fell open.  “Good brown gravey.  You must have to hang the littles from the barn rafters just so you can take turns to catch a breath.”

He chuckled and said, “Pretty close to it.  Anyway I’ve been … er … collecting stuff along the way as I came and well … I thought I could make us a place to stay for a while but … but you’ve already got this place.”

He sounded so hesitant that I didn’t know what to say so I said the first thing that fell out of my mouth.  “Like I’m gonna throw you back in the river after you got me out of it?  Think again.” More cautiously I added, “But … but we’re gonna have to … er … talk some more on … well … on all this stuff you’ve been thinking about.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on mine and I startled.  “Easy Bella.  I don’t mean to jump you like you don’t have any say in things.  No way do I want that kind of thing with you.  Mom talked to me about all that stuff, how hard it is for women and girls when they don’t have a choice about anything.  She explained what it was like after the brand new wore off between her and Dad and how hard things can get.”

My eyeballs wanted to fall back in my head.  “Your daddy is not like that.  He’s real sweet and easy going.”

Lee shrugged.  “Now that he has some age on him but my older brothers said he used to be alot … different … with Mom than he’s been since I was born.  She almost died with me and … and it kinda woke him up to what he’d lose if he lost her and what kinda trouble he’d be left with.  Kinda knocked all his hard edges off.  He and I still go at it some but not so bad as he and my brothers always went at it.  What was it like for your parents?”

“Different.  Daddy and Momma had been sweethearts since Momma was thirteen.  They were silly in love and just … well, playful and silly with each other.  It was awful,” I said meaning just the opposite.  “They’d chase each other all over the house and just about embarrass us kids until we crawled off under the porch.  Thing is Daddy could be hard but never with Momma.  To Daddy no one was worth as much as Momma was.  Same for her to him.  I don’t think either one of them knew how to live without the other.  I think that is why God took ‘em and the other littles at the same time to spare them the misery.”

I stopped, shocked that I’d let something like that out.  But then again that is always how it had been with Lee, why we’d been such good friends.  Then I realized he was staring at me.  “What?”

“I can’t get enough of looking at you.  Talking to you.  I swear I’ll go slow Bella but I’m just dying to hold you right now.”

I licked my lips and he groaned.  I told him, “Cut that out.  You ain’t gonna die.  And since you … you rescued me like some kinda hero I guess you deserve some kind of reward but don’t go letting it give you ideas.  You hear?”

He sighed, “I’ve already got ideas so I think maybe I’ll take a rain check on that reward.  Maybe we should talk some more.  Maybe you should tell me whether I get to stay.”

A little grateful and a little disappointed at the same time that he had put off his reward I said, “I already told you, you can stay.”  Mischief and Molly chose that moment to set up to cawing something fierce.  “Oh Glory, they can’t get in.  Hang on a sec.”

“Who can’t get in?”

Rather than explain I pulled the plywood back and they flew in but then did a loopty-loop when they noticed Lee.  “Easy you couple of loonies,” I told them.  “This is Lee.  He’s a new addition to our Ark.”

The birds were still unsure of Lee and Mischief had started to act territorial and I didn’t want Lee to get mobbed.  I said, “Hold on.  If you feed him he’ll likely calm down.”

“Feed him what?”

“I’ve got some seed for him back here.”

“Oh, well he’ll like this better than bird seed.”  He went over to one of his packs, careful not to startle the birds more than they already were, and pulled out an old butter tub and then took the lid off before sitting it down in the floor.  Molly was holding back but Mischief was firmly interested.  He’s got to be the nosiest bird that every lived.  Personally I thought the container was just full of dirt until Lee dug around and pulled out a wiggler.  He laid it over the edge of the tub and then stepped away.

Mischief was wary but no fool.  He knew food when he saw it and was fond of catching moths that accidentally flew into the cave on occasion.  He ate one and then called Molly down and they dined on live worms.  “Lee, they’re pigs, they’ll eat them all if you let them.”

He snorted.  “I’m not gonna take them away and risk that beak going through my hand.  Besides, there’s more where that tub came from.  If it gets your pets to like me then I’m fine with it.”

“They aren’t my pets exactly.  They sorta adopted me.”  I told him the story and he said, “Well … there’s that providential you were always talking about.”

I shrugged and said, “I thought so at the time and still do on most days when they aren’t driving me to distraction.”  Then we moved some of his gear out of the middle of the floor and kind of talked around where he would be sleeping when I finally just threw my hands up in the air.  “I’m not gonna be able to sleep thinking of you out here on this stone floor.”

“Well,” he said a little downcast.  “I can pitch a tent nearby and …”

“Not that you … you furry thing you.  It is so hard to get used to talking to you through all that mess you have all over your face.”  He just raised an eyebrow until I finished my thought.  “Look, I’ve got another fold up bed around here some place.  I don’t know what shape the mattress is in though.  We can pitch it in the tent and you can sleep along the wall … just no … no funny business.  I’m … I’m still not …”

He came over and stood in front of me closer than I was used to anyone standing and asked, “You sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.  I’m not ready for any … any funny business.”

He smiled, “Not that.  I mean me … sleeping so close.”

“Oh.  Well.  I … I … well something tells me I can trust you.  I always have you know.  And … and you didn’t take advantage of me when … well … when you could have.  Just … just don’t … don’t disappoint me about it.  OK?”

“Ok.  But if you wake up and I’m not … you know in there?  It’s because I’ve moved out here for a bit so I don’t disappoint you or the ones that raised me.  Understand?”

Quietly I said, “I’m not a tease.”

“I know.  But I’m a guy and … sometimes … let’s just say I’ve been wanting you a long time and it’s gonna be work to do the right thing and give you some time.”  He stepped back and sighed.  “This isn’t at all like I was thinking it was going to be.”

“How did you think it was gonna be?”

“I thought … I thought you just had to know how I felt and that … well … Mom said was I being silly and romantic and likely you’d show me the door if I acted like I felt.  I’m trying to …”  He stopped shrugging his own confusion.

Thinking that guys were both simpler and more complicated than I had always been led to believe I said, “I’m not purely against it Lee but I am purely surprised.  And you haven’t really had anything to do with me since you left to go to college.  How do you know I haven’t turned into someone that you can’t really feel those feelings for?  Maybe they’re just habit and the reality of things will be sort of blah or even bleck for you.”

“Dad said roughly the same thing but I couldn’t very well tell him that I’d been watching you.  He’d think his son was some kind of stalker pervert.”

“You just better hope I don’t think you are some stalker pervert.  I still don’t understand why you couldn’t at least have said hi or something.”

He shrugged.  “I didn’t want to deal with that kind of temptation.  I promised my folks that I would use common sense and I saw the way Dad was when my sisters started with some guy going after them serious.  Your uncle already didn’t like me and thought the worst of me; I wanted to be in the best place and do everything right so he’d have the least amount of reasons to tell me to get lost.  And like I said, Mom kept telling me you were too young.”

I just shook my head.  “You’re crazy.  And what would have happened if I had started to like some guy.”

He got an awful look on his face and then said, “You didn’t.”

“No I didn’t.  But that’s not answering the question of what if I had.”

He shrugged uncomfortably.  “I don’t know.  I just know you didn’t and that’s all I’m gonna think about.”

“Well, I suppose you’re right but in the future here’s a clue … when I’m part of your plan?  Let me in on it.  It’s the only way you’ll know whether I’ll go along with it or not.”

He looked at me peculiarly and asked, “Well, will you be a part of the one I’ve been talking to you about?”

Cautiously I gave his words serious consideration.  “Lee, I’m not saying I won’t.”  When his face fell I put my hand on his arm, “Just listen OK?”  At his nod I continued.  “I’m not saying I won’t but … but … it’s kinda got me freaked out.  I don’t know what to think.  This really nice guy I never dared to admit I wanted for more than a friend disappears from my life, I go through all this hard stuff, then blam I’m drowning and he shows up like some kind of romantic hero from one of those crazy movies, and then on top of that tells me he’s been thinking about me every day since he left and that he always meant to come for me like I’m some silly princess up in a tower some place.  It’s … you know … a lot to wrap my head around.  Heck, I’m still trying to figure out if this is all real or if I’m going to wake up and it was just a dream … or maybe this is what happens to your brain when you drown.”

“So you aren’t opposed or anything?”

I sighed.  “No, I’m … I’m not opposed.  It’s just … a lot to take in all of a sudden.”

Then he grinned and I remembered just why I recognized the seat of his jeans.  “OK, you can turn down the wattage Lee.  I don’t want to be dazzled and taken for a ride.”

That just made him grin more and suddenly he picked me up and spun me around.  “I’ve missed your sass, you know that?”

“Put me down or I’m gonna hurl.  And if you’ve missed my mouth you had to have been really hard up for company.”  When he put me down I said, “Well c’mon, I want to show you something.”

I took him back to the area I had marked off for a pantry and then stood back and let him look after turning on the wind up lantern I had hung in there.  He swallowed a couple of times and then swiped his hand across his mouth and I realized something.  “Lee,” I asked quietly.  “When … when was the last time you really had a decent meal?”

He turned to look at me and I could see it in his eyes before he answered.  “It’s been … a while.  I’ve been eating better on the road but back at Gram’s … there were just so many of us and so little at the stores.  And what was there was so expensive.  And we had to work so hard to get set for the winter … we just got all used up and the soup had to be thinned out so all the corners never got filled up.”

“Oh Lee.”

He sighed.  “For all that our family has had it better because Gram and Papa T never did modernize so everything was set up to work the way things are now.  The only reason I went to Gram’s is because they closed the university when they couldn’t keep things running for the students … that and they were starting to draft people to help.”

“Draft?  They were putting people in the military?”

“No … a civilian draft.  They cleared the colleges of medicine and nursing first and then grabbed people from the college of engineering for things.  They got people out of social and behavioral sciences to help at the clinics that were set up for those that got mentally traumatized by what all is going on.  Thing is, you just didn’t get a choice.  And they said if you didn’t go along that the IRS would fine your family.”

“Did … did they try and take you?”

“Hadn’t gotten around to it but I expect they would have eventually.  I expect they’ll need some architects to design and rebuild all the places that have gotten washed away; that is if the water ever goes down and they let people move back.”

Confidently I said, “The water will go down, just maybe not for a year or two.”

“You sound sure.”

“It’s already dropped from the high it was at and has stayed steady ever since.  All it would take to empty some areas would be to bust up all the debris that has packed into what should be the spill ways.

He shook his head.  “They won’t let that happen.”

I shrugged.  “They may not have a choice.  Weather gets cold.  Things freeze and expands.  Could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for some places.  And if the higher lakes suddenly dump into the lower elevation lakes, could break the dams … natural and artificial.”

“You may be right at that though I can guarantee there are some nuts that will fight it ‘til it happens.  They are trying to hold back the water so that other areas won’t get flooded.”

Grabbing a jar of venison stew I closed the curtain I had hung up as a “door” and then shooed him to the table while I heated it up.  He said, “You don’t have to do that.”

“Yes I do.  You saved my life, the least I can do is feed you.”

Quietly he said, “I don’t want your gratitude … I …” He stopped and shrugged.

I bumped him with my shoulder.  “Don’t you know an excuse when you hear one?  I’m really just testing my cooking out on someone unsuspecting.  Beau is not what you would call discriminating … that dog will eat anything, and what he won’t eat he’ll chew to pieces so keep your stuff picked up and put away.  He’s still mostly puppy.”

“I know what your cooking tastes like or maybe you didn’t figure out why all of us guys would hang out in the Home Ec room when you girls were working on projects.”

I snorted.  “Some of them guys you hung with weren’t exactly discriminating either.  One time I saw Boone Johnson eat a whole plate of burnt brownies and the only face he ever made was a happy one.  That boy was messed up.”

Lee laughed.  “Boone …”  Then he stopped and he sobered up real quick.  “I guess you didn’t hear.”

“Hear what?” I asked not too sure from the look on Lee’s face whether I wanted to or not.

“Uncle Virgil told me that Boone and his dad were killed by some looters that ransacked the gun shop where they were working.  Said it was like they got flashmobbed.  The whole block the store was on got hit and then in ten minutes the looters were just gone with the only evidence they’d ever been there the broken windows and doors, the empty store shelves in all the businesses, and the dead and injured they left behind.”

I moved the stew off the burner with shaking hands.  “I’ve heard things on the radio.  I … I guess I didn’t want to think about who it could be happening to. Puts things in perspective.”

“Yeah it does.  But I’m glad you’ve been out of it … I was kinda going crazy for a little bit not knowing where you were.  I know you don’t believe me …”

“I didn’t say I didn’t believe you.  I said it was hard to believe.”

I brought the stew over and ladled it into the mug we’d shared.  He asked, “Are you … are you sure about this?  I kinda expected to need to hunt to feed us.”

“Any excuse for you to go out and shoot things,” I told him with a grin.

He remained serious.  “I have my guns and I brought plenty of ammo and reloading supplies.  My brothers tried to give me a hard time but Dad reminded them that I had paid for it and they had their own.  Mom and Dad and Gram didn’t have a problem with me leaving but some of the others didn’t want me to leave with anything.”

“But they’re family,” I said, shocked.

He shrugged, “Some of my nieces and nephews are older than I am, you know that.  And you know how it was … some of them didn’t like that I’d had it easier growing up than they had.”

“But I thought you always said you got along with all of them.”

He shrugged again.  “I do but living with them is another matter.  Frank and Shirley were already married and out of the house before I came along.  And Shirley was always so embarrassed that she had a little brother younger than her oldest kids.  She hated explaining it to people; she said it made her feel like crazy trailer trash.”

I had never cared for Lee’s sister Shirley all that much.  She and her husband made good money – or had before her husband lost his job – and it had all gone to her head.  She wasn’t a bad person just snobby and too interested in knowing everyone’s business.  I liked her husband though.  He and Daddy had known each other growing up and he always made a point of saying something nice about my parents when we ran across each other.  That being said I wasn’t going to have a loose mouth about it to Lee.  My opinion of his sister was just that, my opinion, and I wasn’t going to share it.

I didn’t have to apparently because he grinned at me.  “I don’t think Shirley really meant to hurt your feelings over that skirt you sewed for the county fair.”

I rolled my eyes.  “Of course not.  She just didn’t think a quilted peacock was … how did she put it … age appropriate or very seemly.”

“Ouched a little?”

It was my turn to shrug.  “Did at the time but if I listened to all the words that said I wasn’t good enough or was off somehow I would still be curled up in a ball someplace waiting for the world to end.”

Lee put his spoon down and reached out for me as I passed by to put the pot back on the stove.  “Bella …”

“Oh don’t Lee.  Eat.”

“I will … and this is really good.  Gram and Mom would want the recipe.”  That was the highest praise he could have given me.  “Look … did … did I ever …”

“Of course not.  You were my best friend ever.  When I did something strange or off you laughed … but never at me.”

“Wanna keep being your best friend,” he mumbled around a hot mouthful stew.  “Just wanna be more than a friend too.”  I sighed but didn’t say anything.  When Lee got something in his head he could be like a scent hound.

I gave him the rest of the stew, cleaned up the pot and then cleaned up the mug and spoon he’d used.  It was dark outside and raining again and it was time to move the plywood for the night.  Lee was all but asleep at the table and it wasn’t like I hadn’t been doing it for months so I walked over then stopped as I noticed how cold the air outside was getting.

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