Thursday, March 25, 2010

Part Two: Broke But Not Broken

Part Two: Broke But Not Broken

This was the first time Nydia and I had been invited to a MOPS play date. MOPS stands for Mothers of Preschoolers. I was the closest thing to a mother that Nydia had and realizing that was a little earth shattering for me. I tried to keep my attachment to her in perspective but it was a losing battle every time I tried. I wanted desperately to make a good impression on the real mothers so I made a snack to take. For the moms I made Just Peachie Bars.

I took an eight ounce tub of refrigerated crescent rolls and separated the dough into two rectangles that I pressed into the bottom and a half-inch up the sides of an ungreased 13 x 9 inch baking pan. I set that to the side and blended together eight ounces of softened cream cheese, one quarter cup of sugar, three tablespoons of all-purpose flour, one tablespoon of lemon juice, and one egg until everything was light and fluffy. I spread the mixed over the dough and baked it at 375 degrees F for about twenty minutes. When I pulled it out of the oven I topped it with a little more than a half cup of peach preserves, the tail end of the last jar my mother had put up. I put the pan into the refrigerator to cool until I had finished feeding and dressing Nydia.

For the little ones I brought a grab bag of mixed animal crackers, Teddy Grahams, Cheerios, and mini rice cakes. I should have just left everything separate. One boy had milk allergies and could only eat the animal crackers. A couple of others had wheat allergies and could only eat the rice cakes. Another was on a reduced sugar diet and could only eat the Cheerios. And the rest fought over the number of Teddies they got in their handful. This was a totally different dynamic than I was used to but it was still kind of fun … not counting the squabbles over headless crackers. When it was time for Nydia and I to leave we were encouraged to come back and I was giving it serious consideration.

Nydia babbled and talked all the way home and we walked through the door the same time Mateo did with a bag from the local Chinese take-out restaurant.

“I thought you could use a break. We can eat out of the cartons on the lanai table.”

I love Chinese food, and was grateful not to have to cook, but I was nervous about our meeting and suspicious of his good mood coming as it did after a week of being shut up in his office all morose.

“Are we celebrating something?”

“Possibly. That’s what we need to talk about.”

That gave me a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t know what I was so upset about. I knew the only purpose to our partnership was Nydia’s custody. We’d received the final decree already and the adoption was on the fast track after Nydia’s biological father had hunted up Mateo’s lawyer out of the blue to sever his parental rights. It seems I had been correct; he hadn’t wanted anything to do with fatherhood and never had. He claimed to be a “free spirit” and the lawyer confidently said that he was “free of something all right, mostly intellect and commonsense.” She said he went on and on about hearing God tell him it was his job to sow the seeds but not his job to cultivate them; thus his total lack of cooperation in the custody battle his parents put up. Mateo said it sounded like he’d finally overdone the mushrooms or LSD or whatever it was he was last into.

“Have a seat,” Mateo said in his deep rumble that just barely hinted at his mother’s Hispanic heritage.

I turned from putting Nydia in her high chair to find Mateo holding my chair for me. He had never done that for me before. He was always a gentleman and had suave manners but he’d never gone that far in my memory. So I sat and settled only to find him passing me a can of pop and a carton of pork fried rice, both my favorites.

“Did I get the order right?”

It took me two tries before I could say, “Yes, thank you.”

I wanted to ask him how he knew but couldn’t seem to form the question well enough to set voice to it. I gave up when Mateo started eating. We both took turns feeding Lo Mein noodles to Nydia.

“Leah, I have some papers for you to sign.”

I stiffened my upper lip and took the pen and papers he’d passed my way. I gave it a cursory look and then picked them up to look more closely.

“These … this says …”

“You’re the only one she’s ever known. I’m not sure what my niece would think but I know my sister would approve. She had originally expected my niece to give the baby up for adoption but she and my brother in law supported her decision to keep the baby at the eleventh hour.”

“Mateo … are … are you sure?”

“Why? Have you changed your mind?” I heard concern creep into his voice.

“No! No, not at all. I … I just expected …” I stuttered then became too choked up to continue.

“Expected what?”

“Everything is going your way now. You … you don’t need me anymore. I … I thought you wanted me to sign papers that pertained to … severing our partnership.”

A brief pause from Mateo and then he asked, “Is that what you want?”

“I said that is what I expected.”

“But is that what you want? Haven’t things been going well? Aside from our argument last night that is. Leah?”

I wiped my mouth on my napkin and then put my hands, clinched tightly, under the table in my lap where he couldn’t see them. “I said that is what I expected. I didn’t … didn’t say that … that is what I wanted.”

“Oh. Well. Then … then after you’ve signed those papers I have … a … uh … proposition for you to consider.”

The papers were an addendum to the adoption packet adding me as a petitioner. Mateo was listed as father and I would legally become Nydia’s mother in my own right and not just because we were married. It gave me all the “rights and responsibilities thereof.” I was having a hard time believing he had thought to do this. I had gone from nanny to auntie to mommy all in the space of a month.

Nydia was falling asleep in her sippy cup so we washed her up and put her down for her nap and then we went to his office to finish our talk. Instead of sitting with his desk between us as we normally did Mateo guided us to the small leather sofa pushed against the opposite wall.

“Leah, I didn’t plan on things occurring in the sequence in which they did. It’s put my plans into a tailspin. I had hoped to be able to settle a larger amount on you but if you hear me out we … we might be able to come to a mutually satisfying arrangement.”

A little disappointed I said, “Mateo I’ve told you numerous times that I did not do this for any type of remuneration.”

“I’m aware of that Leah but you’re my wife and it is my responsibility to see to your welfare.”

He startled me by saying it that way and the words left my mouth before I’d given them full thought. “I’m not, not really, and we both know it.”

“Not what?”

“Your wife of course. This is a partnership, an … an arrangement to protect Nydia. You are under no obligation to me to …”

“Leah let me cover that in a moment. First things first.”

I had no idea what he meant by that but I let him continue. “I’ve spent the last week going over everything. This house was a foreclosure when I bought it at auction.” I had to smile. Mateo is as fond of auctions as some men are fond of football and puts at least as much energy into them. “I refinanced fifty percent of the asking price right afterwards with a ten year amortization on a five year note. The balloon payment is coming due in four months and I planned to cash in some of my investments to cover it but I’m going to cash out my stock in the firm instead. My contract guaranteed a minimum amount cash in value and that should cover most of the pay off if I do it this week. I’m well passed the pre-payment penalty restriction and what the stock doesn’t pay will be covered by a CD I set aside for emergencies.”

I wasn’t sure what response I was supposed to make to this. Mateo had never discussed anything of this particular magnitude with me that didn’t pertain directly with Nydia.

“Are you interested in what I’m saying at all?” he asked and I heard a little hurt in his voice.

“Mateo … do … do I have any right to be interested in this? I don’t want to say the wrong thing or ask an inappropriate question.”

He got an odd look on his face then a light seemed to go on. “Leah when we agreed to marry I was fully committing to the arrangement. I realize that you are young and unless I’m mistaken, inexperienced. I’ve obviously not handled this as was as I could have.”

I wasn’t sure if I resented his over simplified assessment of me or not. I did know I was embarrassed when he put his arm on the sofa behind me and moved closer.

“Leah, you are my wife by my offer and your acceptance. My offer included all that the position entails including knowledge of and access to my assets. I have nothing to hide from you. I would like you to share my interest in the financial success of this marriage. I had thought you would find it interesting considering your past participation in the housekeeping budget.”

“It’s not that I’m not interested. Not at all. I just … just …” His arm had shifted a little lower on the sofa and was now a light weight against my shoulders. “Um, I’m interested but I’m not sure exactly … um …” I couldn’t seem to think with him sitting that close, at least not about what I was supposed to be thinking about. Two years and some months suddenly seemed a long time since I’d broken up with Hank and it was hitting home that I was a married woman now.

“Then I don’t see a problem.” He sat back giving me some space and I’m not sure if I appreciated it or not. “We’ll work through this. I just want you to know I have the housing aspect of my plan covered.”

At that point I felt compelled to ask, “Housing aspect? Maybe you should explain about your plan so I can avoid stupid questions.”

“I don’t foresee you having a problem with that Leah. You are intelligent, thank God, and have always been intuitive to my instructions.”

Oh brother. I may have suddenly discovered that Mateo had the ability to curl my toes but there is no getting around he can be a piece of work sometimes. It wasn’t all that surprising that he was on the other side of thirty-five and still unmarried before we fell into things if that was the way he talked to all the females in his life. Carmen had called him spoiled by his mother and sister. I’m not sure I would go that far but he’d never had to moderate that extra bit of male arrogance he tended to cart around either.

“My plan on its face is a basic one. Shelter, food, transportation, and long term financial security. However my roadmap to the goals have developed some unexpected detours in the last few years. My advancement to the position of VP and my father’s death coincided at roughly the same time. I was going to have Mother move in with me. In fact I bought this place with her in mind because of the in-law suite that is now used as the nursery and your bedroom. I wanted her to have a better home than my Dad had been able to afford after all the sacrifices she had made over the years. He had worked forty-six years at sixty and seventy hours per week for the same company and then died just a year after retirement a miserable old curmudgeon because he didn’t know what to do with himself. Mom surprised me by preferring to live with my sister and brother in law. She got sick two years later and again I was going to move her in here so that she could have full time help but she never left the hospital. Then my niece … well, you know that story … and then Nydia, and our situation, and now I’ve been forced through no fault of my own to leave the firm I had expected to be made a partner at in the not too distant future. The changes have been quite daunting. I know you can commiserate with me there.”

His acknowledging my own unexpected life events made me realize that he might know more about me than I had thought.

“Be that as it may, I still have to deal with the way things are now rather than what I expected them to be by this time. And this is where I hope we can work together.” He got close again but I was starting to enjoy it.

“I’ve found your ideas for budgeting fascinating. The experiments have garnered more success than I could have imagined.” High praise indeed. “I was wondering if … well, if there were other ideas that you had that you haven’t mentioned.”

“What kind of ideas?”

“Hmmm. Actually I suppose I should apologize for invading your privacy but I was looking for Nydia’s sunbonnet last week and I noticed the books in your room. Rather unusual reading for a young, unmarried woman.”

“Books?” I squeaked. I was desperately trying to remember if I’d left any of the bodice-ripper type romances that occasionally tempted me out where he could see them.

“Yes. Gardening in Florida, Solar Power in the South, Homemade Mixes Made Easy, Cooking from Scratch, Food Storage Made Easy, Fortifying Your Castle and those are just a few of the titles I can remember off the top of my head.”

“Oh … oh those books,” I said relieved. “Mom and Dad were fond of giving me books as gifts once I got old enough to appreciate them. They were for my hope chest. Some of the older ones actually belonged to my parents and were well-used parts of their own library.”

“Hope chest?”

“Mmmm. A dowry chest? A place … mine was actually a cedar chest my father made for me, the big one you helped me shove into the corner of the storage locker … where girls save linens and household items to take with them when they start homes of their own.”

“Oh … I see.” But it was pretty obvious he didn’t.

I smiled at him and said, “Don’t worry about it. It isn’t much in fashion these days though it seems a shame. Young married couples wouldn’t have to be so dependent on gifts or credit cards to start their homes out with if things were saved up in advance.”

“See, that is precisely what I’m speaking of. You have a rather unusual way of looking at things that I find fascinating.” I nearly laughed again at the back handed way he always delivered what I’m sure he considered a compliment. “If you had funds, not unlimited but significant, to implement some of the ideas from those books, what would you do?”

“Hypothetically?”

“Yes … and no. Take this house for instance. It sits on a two and a half acre narrow rectangle with a half acre of that being lowlands with a pond that feeds into the swamp back there. What would be some of the first things you would do if you were to have your own way?”

I realized he was serious so I gave it some thought. “First I would do something about the fencing. The gate and fence at the road are in great shape but the fences that run on the east and west sides of the property are pretty sad. I’d leave the hedges at the front but maybe see if the neighbors want to split the cost of running a new post and nine gauge mesh fence that you could have professionally installed; those require stretching so that they hang and level properly. If they won’t split the cost then I say you put in concrete block pillars that you pour solid and stucco over and then hit up those auctions you are so fond of and buy up some old six or eight foot wrought iron fence pieces. Nothing fancy because of what I would do next. Regardless of the type of fence I would string an electric wire – or two – along the fence at the bottom and then about chest high of those big dogs next door and power them with a 12V solar fence charger. Then on top of that I would plant the whole length in fruiting brambleberries like blackberries or other native fruit species.”

“That’s just the first thing you would do? Leah, fencing is expensive. I’ve priced it since those two fence sections have bothered me as well, especially now that Nydia is walking … running … all over the place.”

“That’s where the auctions come in. It may take a while and the fence pieces may not all match but some of that can be disguised with a little welding here and there. The block pillars are no big deal … hit Home Depot or some other building supply place – there are actually cheaper supplies at the concrete plants if you know who to call – get a wheel barrow, shovel, some sand, a good level and some ready mix and you’re in business.”

He laughed, “In business with whom?”

I stood up and gave a bow. “Leah, surely you aren’t suggesting that you …”

“Mateo, my Dad did everything around our house … I mean everything. He even built the addition behind the garage and his workshop in the back corner of the lot. You saw them for yourself. Could you tell they weren’t hired out?” At his negative head shake I continued, “I didn’t have a brother and Dad had to have someone to help him. Besides, I was Daddy’s little girl and I lived for his approval. He taught me to use every tool in his shop and make lots of household repairs. About the only thing construction-wise I don’t like to do is change electrical breakers out but I can do it if I must. I can also change my own oil and brake pads on my car. I just take it over to Bea’s brother’s garage to do it so I don’t get oil on your drive way.”

The shoulder lifted away from me again and I was suddenly aware of how unfeminine all of that must sound. I felt like I had been a braggart and was trying to figure out how to undo the damage when he startled me by putting his finger under my chin and really looking at me for what seems like the first time. “I had no idea Leah. And you didn’t need to go to your friend’s place. Saving money is nothing to be ashamed of.”

I tilted my chin up a little further out of his reach and said, “I’m not ashamed of where I come from Mateo. And I’m not ashamed of what I do to save money. In fact, I make it a policy to avoid doing things that I would be ashamed of.”

“Until you married me.”

“It isn’t being your wife that I’m ashamed of Mateo, it is the lie that put us here. It was wrong and … but it’s over and I can’t go back and change it. I just don’t want to make it worse by pretending things are different from what they are. I made a fool of myself over a guy once before and do not want to do that again. We’re partners. That means … that means a lot to me Mateo. But you’ll have to forgive me as I’m still learning where the lines are drawn.”

“Then let’s avoid drawing any lines for the moment.” He was getting in my space again and ran his thumb across my bottom lip. Then he shook himself and sat up straighter and the moment passed like it had never happened.

“After the fence what would you tackle?”

I felt like smashing a pillow down on his head but I supposed it was for the best all things considered so I went on. “The barn would definitely be next. It could be sinfully useful. I’d follow that with raised garden beds.”

“That barn is a death trap Leah. It needs to be torn down.”

“No it doesn’t. Who told you that? That guy that was here last year that wanted to sell you that steel storage building that looked like an airplane hanger? What a shyster he was. The barn’s frame is perfectly sound, no termites, and the supporting posts are sunk deep in concrete. The metal roof doesn’t have a single leak. The walls and stalls on the other hand need work but most of that is just cosmetic. I assume from the … evidence … the people who owned this place before kept horses. That’s what all of the holes and wear and tear are from. Blasted beasties are more trouble than they are worth.”

“You don’t like horses?”

“I don’t dislike them either. I spent a summer in middle school working at a local boarding stable. For every smart, well-behaved horse there were five that were barely fit for dog food because their owners didn’t train them properly or give them the right attention they needed. They can be nasty … and not just to clean up after either. When one of those animals bites you, you know it, and you never forget it either. They are temperamental and require a great deal of doctoring due to parasites and physical ailments. And people don’t realize that horses are terribly expensive to maintain and feed properly. They are large animals and require the right feed in the correct balance and in the right amount. I saw too many skinny or bloated horses where the owners tried to hold down expenses by not feeding their animals correctly. I’m sure there are people out there that can raise and tend to horses the way they deserve but I didn’t meet too many of them. I guess it just left a bad taste in my mouth that continues to this day.”

“So I see,” he replied, heavy on the sarcasm.

“Let me guess, you’re a horse person.”

He snorted and shook his head, “No. But Rachel was so I suffered through attending races and riding her father’s thoroughbreds around their acreage in Pasco County just to keep the peace. You’re right though. I watched her go through an ungodly amount of money on those animals and on the tack she had for them.”

The mention of Rachel’s name was the last cold bucket of water I needed to leave fantasyland and return to reality. “For the new barn siding I would cut out any rotted wood and then re-side the whole thing using concrete board. Before I did that however I would dig out the old horse bedding that is rotting in the stalls and have a concrete floor poured.”

“Have it poured?”

“That much concrete you’ll get a better pour if you hire the concrete to be pumped into place. It’ll also be cheaper than making up a bag or two at a time. Have them add that fiberglass stuff to the mix and before it goes in I would form it up and lay a floor drain in each stall in case you want to be able to just hose the place out to clean it. My dad had a couple of floats and I know I put them in storage with his other tools; we could use them. You smooth the concrete out after it is poured and then you give it time to set up and then float the surface again a time or two depending on the finish you want it to have and … uh … I’m speaking Greek aren’t I?”

“No. My father started out in maintenance years ago and did most of the stuff my mother asked him to around the house, and some she wished he hadn’t. I … I just never learned how. He said I made him nervous and that it was just faster for him to do it himself.”

“Sounds like what my uncle used to say to my Dad when he would catch him teaching me to do something. All of my cousins are pretty but useless, even the guys. They’re all professionals and they consider it beneath them to do some of the things that my parents taught me to do for myself. Uh … I didn’t mean ...”

He laughed and said, “It’s all right Leah. I’m well aware that now that I’m not bringing in the salary I was before I’m going to need to make some changes.” Mateo was making notes as I spoke. He was typing one fingered on this little gizmo I knew was the latest incarnation of the electronic personal assistants on the market. He saw me looking and said, “I never gave you a wedding present. You’ll love this.”

He went over to his desk, opened the big bottom drawer, and pulled out this box and handed it to me. “I got them on sale. Open it.” When I did I found there was a twin of the one he was using. “Here’s the owner’s manual,” he said handing me a CDrom. “And I had them set it all up for you. All you need to do is name it. Look, we can even synch them together and share our notes. It comes with free and unlimited texting so we can reach each other at any time without using our cell minutes. And here is a case for it. They only had black. I asked if they had pink but they don’t carry it in that color.”

I was already a little overwhelmed at the gift as I knew those things were not cheap, on sale or not, but the issue of color caught me off guard. “Why would you want pink?”

“Not for me, for you. Women like pink.”

I laughed, “This woman doesn’t, not particularly anyway. Black is definitely more appropriate. It won’t show dirt as much.”

“That’s what I told the salesman. I told you you were intuitive.”

I was something all right but I hadn’t figured out what. Crazy more than likely. Mateo continued on for a while on how we could make notes on the gizmo and then synch them to the computer where he could copy and paste the notes into an Excel spreadsheet he had created. Before he completely lost me in the intricacies of excel formulas and graphing capabilities we returned to the original topic.

“Leah, this is going to be great. I was worried at first but I believe that if I invest in our partnership we can easily turn a profit that I can then reinvest in options that will still meet my goal of financial security before retirement. Of course I’ll continue to look for income potential now but my severance package is adequate if not extravagant despite me being vested at the firm and that should, combined with the current assets, give me some flexibility.”

Nydia decided that she’d had enough nap at that point and we left to get the princess up. He walked into the small sitting area on one end of my bedroom that connects to the nursery and asked if he could borrow some of the books. I said of course and he returned to his office with a seemingly new lease on life.

After he left and I had pulled out Nydia’s blocks for her to play with – her favorite game of the moment was to stack them as high as they’d go and then squeal with glee as she knocked them over – I sat down and looked at the gizmo that I decided to name Spot. It was making some odd noise that turned out to be a text … one of many I received that day … asking me if I knew this or could I really do that or if I had started on something called a “food storage plan.”

By dinner time I was ready to put both Spot and Mateo in the doghouse but he was so enthusiastic as we ate the leftovers from lunch that I just couldn’t make a big deal out of the constant interruptions to my own work schedule.

“Leah, have you read these books? They’re so full of ideas I can’t decide what to start with first.”

“Whoa. Trying to do too many things at once is a bad idea, you’ll get overwhelmed and …”

“Don’t worry. Multi-tasking is my middle name.”

“I’m not worried about your capacity Mateo, it’s that it makes more sense to try and figure out what you want to do and then the best order to do it in relation and correlation to other projects that you want to do.”

“Of course.” I’d managed to offend his sensibilities. “I know that … hmm, what did that food storage book call it …Prepping appears to be very similar to investing and buying insurance. I’m well versed in both. I’m not a complete ignoramus on the subject you know.”

“I know you aren’t and that’s not what I was inferring but wouldn’t you rather do things once than have to redo them when you have to go back and change something because you found your plans keep changing?”

I’d finally managed to pique his interest. “For example?”

“All right, take the food storage plan you wanted to know about. First, how long do you want to prepare for? Two weeks, two months, six months, a year, or even longer? Once you’ve decided that then you sit down and figure out how much food that actually means … and it isn’t just food. You have cleaning supplies, paper goods, the list can seem endless. Next, you have to decide what food you want to store. My mother was of the opinion that you store what you eat and eat what you store and she went from growing season to growing season. On the other hand I’ve met people that believe that long term storage foods are best to serve as a long term fix-it-and-forget-it option. I’m a middle of the roader on it; rotate everyday items for the bulk of your short term storage, call that the three to six month mark. Then add mid-range items like large supplies of staple goods like rice, flour, dried beans and cornmeal to piece out the foods with a shorter shelf life to meet something approaching a six to nine months goal. And finally top off with truly long term food items like freeze dried foods in number ten cans or super pails which could bring you to a year or longer goal. But even after you find out the how much and the what you have to figure out the financial end of things. I’m not sure that even you could afford to buy a full year of food storage for a … a family … of, um, the three of us … all in one fell swoop once you add in all of the non-food items that would be necessary to have. So you would need to figure a plan of when, what, and how much to buy that would fit the budget … fit the budget that is also supposed to include all of those other big plans you are talking about implementing.”

He was getting an odd look on his face but he was definitely listening. “And we aren’t even done there. Having all of that stuff is well and good … there isn’t too much that I can’t figure out how to turn into a decent meal … but you need to figure out what you expect me to cook it with – wood, gas, electric, solar, what fuel to use with each, how much of that to store, and spare parts in case of any break downs – and you need to have a place to actually put what you are storing.”

I am now firmly convinced I know absolutely nothing about men. By the time I was finished he had this predatory smile on his face and I had a feeling it was either run or face the consequences real fast. “Have you ever been dancing?”

“Excuse me?”

“Did what’s-his-name ever take you dancing?”

“Hank and I went swing dancing a few times. What has that got to do with anything?”

“Leave the dishes for a few minutes. Nydia is half asleep already. Let’s put her down for the night and then I’ll show you.”

I’d already given Nydia her bath and fed her earlier. If I waited to feed her on the European hours that Mateo often kept she’d be cranky and starving by our dinner time and no fun at all. She was satisfied with one reading of “There’s a Monster at the End of this Book” and lights out was easier than it normally was. Mateo guided me back to the family room and he put some music on that sounded familiar but that I couldn’t quite place.

“My Mom and Dad were introduced at the old Cuban Club in Ybor. Every anniversary for as long as I can remember he would take her to the original Columbia Restaurant for dinner and then out dancing afterwards. Relax, you’ll like this.”

OK, so maybe Mateo isn’t quite as clumsy with women as he sometimes appears. We danced for a good twenty minutes looking like something out of an old 40s movie when his cell phone rang. Very few people have his cell number and he answered it without checking to see who it was since it could only have been an emergency. His demeanor changed in a flash.

“Rachel. Stop talking so loudly, I can’t understand a word you are saying.”

Then I was left listening to a one sided conversation as he sat on the sofa and I went into the kitchen to put the dishes in the dishwasher.

“You’re where? … (dead silence) … Yes, yes I’m still here. … What do you want me to say? I’m sorry? … No, no I’m not dancing with glee … No, not that either. Where’s your fiancé? … Oh, well, you’re better off without him if this is how he is going to act … That really isn’t possible Rachel … No. … Circumstances have changed Rachel, you know that …” and then he stepped into his office and quietly closed the door. He was still on the phone an hour later so I turned off the stereo, set the alarm since it was quite late, turned off the lights, and went to get ready for bed.

I was trying very hard not to think about anything by working on next month’s menu and doing an arithmetic exercise where I took the current month’s and the next months menus and then worked out the grocery list and multiplied that by various times to try and get an idea of what a short term food storage plan would cost using today’s prices. I was finally growing too tired to worry about it when there was a knock on my door.

“I saw your light on. I’m … I’m sorry for the interruption.”

“That’s all right. You and Rachel … you have … there’s a lot of history there.”

He leaned against the doorframe but only “Humphed” and I had no clue what it was supposed to mean.

“Is … it sounded like she … If you don’t want me to ask just say so.”

“No. It’s all right. Mr. Lazaro was arrested this afternoon. Rachel’s nice safe cocoon is coming all unraveled. Her fiancé broke it off in a text message and asked her to keep her distance until after the furor dies down. Her mother has basically left the planet for a while and it looks like her brother might have been involved as well though he hasn’t been arrested yet. She wanted me to come down and help her figure out how to bail her father out.”

“Isn’t that what lawyers are for?”

“Their family lawyer has ‘strongly suggested’ they find another lawyer which is just another way of saying find one or I’ll quit and leave you high and dry.” This time he ended the statement with a snort.

“Are you … are you going down there?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

I realized suddenly that I was standing there in my night gown and housecoat. The reason I realized it is because Mateo said, “We never finished our dance.”

“Uh …”

“I meant it Leah. I agreed to this being a real marriage. And we never got around to discussing my proposition.” And then his cell phone went off again. But this time he hit the ignore button and turned the volume to silent as he took my hand and pulled me back down the hall to the family room. He gently pushed me onto the sofa and then pulled an ottoman over to sit in front of me.

“How would you feel about me courting you?”

“What?!”

“Courting you. How would you feel about that?”

“Courting … um … that’s … that dating. I think we’ve … that is I mean …”

He got that predatory smile on his face again and then said, “I said courting and I meant courting. I’m well aware that it is going to take some convincing to get you to realize we have a good thing here Leah. Look what we’ve already accomplished just talking today? All of these plans. All of these goals.” He was getting in my personal space again and breathing wasn’t any easier than it had been last time. “I think I’ll enjoy the challenge of convincing you how much … further … we can go. It’s going to take a little … cooperation … on your part however.”

The temperature in the room was definitely going up. I was all set to fall for it hook, line, and sinker when there came a banging on the front door that made us both jump.

Mateo growled, “What the?!” before leaving me to go find out who it was.

I followed him and then heard him curse before opening the door. Rachel practically fell in completely hysterical. “You didn’t answer your phone. No one is answering their phone. Not now. I told you I needed help. I can’t do this.” And on and on. She never even saw me.

I took one look at Mateo’s horrified expression as Rachel tried to climb all over him and knew I was going to have to get involved. I grabbed her arm and turned her around. “When’s the last time you ate?”

“What?! What are you doing here?!”

Oh boy, she’d been drowning her troubles and when she breathed in my direction my eyes watered. “On second thought, I think a pot of coffee would be more the thing. Come on. Mateo, make sure she didn’t crash the gates.” That brought his head around and sent him out into the night in a hurry as I got Rachel poured into a kitchen chair.

Two pots of coffee later, the arrival of a taxi, and a call to the Lazaro’s house staff to let them know she was on her way and Mateo and I were exhausted by all of the drama. I washed out the coffee pot and the mugs and turned to find Mateo still sitting at the table with his head on his arms. He groaned, “This is most definitely not how I planned this to go.”

“The key to success if flexibility.”

“What?” he groaned.

“One of the things my Dad used to say. He had a few that I heard so much as a kid that I swore I’d never say them to mine … but I find myself repeating them all the time lately. ‘Any job worth doing is worth doing well. In for a penny, in for a pound. Good fences make good neighbors. Anything worth having is worth working for.’ And if you add the stuff my Mom used to say that list gets pretty long.” As tired as I was thinking of my parents still managed to bring a smile.

“I like that last one.”

“Huh?” I asked right before he stepped up to me and kissed me full on the lips.

“Thank you for not having hysterics over Rachel. I’ve never seen her like this. I … I owe her a bit of … something. I’m not sure what but … I don’t mean for it to interfere with what we are building.”

“Um. OK.” I mean, what was I supposed to say?

Neither one of us got much sleep, he in his room and me in mine. I had learned that he could make my toes curl all the way up to my knee caps but I don’t think either one of us was in the mood to go “courting” after those hours trying to sober Rachel up enough to get her home in one piece.

Nydia’s alarm went off early which meant I had even less sleep and I stumbled through the morning after checking to make sure someone had come to pick up Rachel’s expensive little sports car. Mateo lurched into the kitchen about ten AM in search of coffee and told me, “You shouldn’t have let me sleep. I could have helped with Nydia or something.”

“Just … could you watch her long enough for me to grab a shower? I can still smell Rachel’s … perfume.”

“Sure. Take your time. I’m going out to the barn to measure things up.”

I showered and took him at his word and took the time to wash my hair. I combed it out and put it in a long braid and then went outside to see if they were ready for me to fix lunch. I found Mateo sitting with Nydia on the steps of the pool and neither one was the least bit happy about it.

“What happened?!”

“Fleas! The barn is infested with them. I didn’t notice until Nydia started crying about ‘itchies’ and by the time I got to her she was covered with them. I looked at my own legs and it was nearly as bad. @#$% …” he stopped, embarrassed when I gave him the eye for cursing, especially in front of Nydia. “They’re that bad Leah. I’m going to have to call out an exterminator. Lord knows how much that is going to cost.”

It was mostly frustration and being upset that Nydia was covered in bites that made him come off like a miser. “Don’t call an exterminator. I’ll try borax first and if that doesn’t help I’ll run over to the Do-It-Yourself-Pest-Control store on Armenia Ave and Busch Blvd.”

“How much is that going to cost?”

“Borax is three or four dollars a box unless I have a coupon for it. It’ll take five or so boxes to treat the first time. If that doesn’t work Dad used to buy this stuff called Demize; a small bottle cost about fifty dollars and covered about fifteen thousand square feet if I remember correctly.”

“Oh. That is cheaper than an exterminator. Does it really work?”

“Dad put it on the yard once a year to keep the sand fleas under control. The people on either side of us had animals and it could get pretty bad. Mom used the borax inside for silverfish and all kinds of pests. It’s better than using unnecessary chemicals, especially with Nydia poking into everything. I’ve got three boxes here we can start with since I use it for the laundry detergent. Let me go put on some long pants and go out there and do it.”

“I should …”

“Mateo, look at you. You’re already covered in bites and Nydia wouldn’t let you go even if you wanted to. Let me do this while you take her in and put some calamine lotion on her. You’ll have to pretend it’s finger paint or she won’t stand still for it. And change in the utility room please and toss your clothes straight into the washing machine. The last thing we need is to get fleas in the house.”

While Mateo did that I put on my lightest colored pair of jeans, used duct tape to tape the bottom of my pants to my socks and then sprayed my shoes, pants, and the rest of me with insect repellent. I took a chipped mason jar and an old ring and used seal to the kitchen, grabbed the ice pick and made a homemade flea powder dispenser by popping holes in the lid and screwing it onto the jar after I had filled it with borax.

What a mess. The fleas didn’t jump on me because of the repellent but I could actually see them jumping around in the sunlight as it came through the barn doors. The three boxes of borax just barely covered everything and I itched like crazy from the imaginary varmints I could feel crawling all over me. Ugh.

I didn’t see Mateo yet so I measured the barn walls and entered them on Spot to test out the “synch” thing that he had been so gaga over the previous day. It was pretty nifty I have to admit. I’d finished measuring and still didn’t seem Mateo so I went inside via the garage door and then into the utility room. I was only halfway dressed into a clean work outfit when the door suddenly pulled open and there stood Mateo. I made this stupid “yip” sound.

Macho Mateo was in evidence again and he smiled but turned his back so I could finish dressing. Notice I didn’t say he closed the door.

“I got your text. You didn’t need to measure the barn Leah. I was going to do it when you came back in.”

“I was already out there. Besides I want you to teach me to do that thing with Spot.”

“Uh …”

“The synch thing. Spot is what I’m calling the gizmo you gave me to use.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “Mmmm. Nice legs by the way.”

I stuck my nose in the air and stepped around him and headed to the kitchen after I finished dressing in record time. “You want lunch or not?” I got another decidedly male chuckle out of him and then he said, “Sure, Nydia has already been rattling through the refrigerator looking for her carrot sticks.”

“We need a lock or something for that frig. I catch her trying to get in there all the time now. She’d graze all day long if I let her.”

“Tell Spot.”

That’s what we started calling it. Or “tell Felix” which is what I named Mateo’s little gizmo. If I needed something he would say “tell Spot” and if he wanted to remind me of something he’d “tell Felix.” We said it so often that Nydia picked it up and I had the hardest time explaining to the people at church that Spot and Felix weren’t our pets. They all knew Mateo from where he had started showing up for church services a couple of times a month and the Felix name fitted rather well by some people’s opinions.

We had nearly completed four projects when the trouble started. First was the fence. The neighbors were the live and let live types. They didn’t care what we did but they weren’t exactly up for sharing the expense of something mutually beneficial either. The one thing we wound up having to do was ask the neighbor with the five ferocious English bulldogs to keep them penned so that we could install the iron fence pieces after Mateo had finally bought enough of them. I’d built the concrete block columns a few weeks before, after completing the frames for the raised garden beds, and they were nice and cured and had even gone through some rain storms. Mateo was getting frustrated because it seemed a lot of old iron fencing was bypassing the auctions and going straight to the scrap metal yards but he got lucky when a private school went belly up. It wasn’t fun dismantling the fence on-site but we got a better deal that way. I had to get a couple of Bea’s brothers to help but they were happy for the extra work and since it was strictly day-labor type stuff we just paid them as independent contractors and let them worry about taxes and such.

The next project was the barn. Mateo and I did it ourselves. We again paid Bea’s brothers to dig out and haul the old animal bedding to a weird little piece of the property that juts out into the lowlands but which isn’t useful for anything else. That is the compost area. Turns out there was a good clay floor underneath that mess in the barn and I didn’t have to level it out or anything. All I had to do was form it up, put the drains in, and have the concrete poured and the new solid floor was ready to use in under a work week. That’s when I started the much more expensive and time consuming project of residing the barn. I could only work at it a couple of hours a day because of all of my other responsibilities.

Mateo helped but he was trying to make money to replace what was going out so he’d gotten involved in a couple of different enterprises. He was doing a little day trading which made my stomach hurt. I could always tell when he’d had a good day … and when he’d had a bad one. He was messing with precious metals a little although that had its own problems as the government had upped the capital gains specifically on PMs so that it almost wasn’t worth getting into any more. He had also gotten involved in a couple of the auction places as a middle investor after talking with one of my Dad’s old buddies that still did the gun shows. I don’t know what they talked about but Mateo asked me what I had done with all of Dad’s guns and I told him they were in storage with everything else. His eyes got real wide and he gave himself a dope slap and that’s when we emptied the big storage locker and moved all of my parents’ stuff into the garage temporarily until we found places for it around the house.

“Are you sure you want to do this Mateo? I’m not sure it exactly fits in with your … decor.”

“This is our house, not just mine so this is your décor too. I never cared much one way or the other, some of this stuff was left in the house when I bought it and my sister did the rest of it.”

It would startle me for a while to go around a corner and suddenly find myself faced with something that had been in my parents’ house before I was even born but at the same time melding the two households turned out to be a lot easier than I had expected. The antiques my parents had kept from stuff they had inherited had a timeless quality and they found their own niche amongst the more modern stuff that had formerly been the only thing decorating Mateo’s house.

I actually liked Mateo’s house and only had a few things I would have changed about it. My main issue was that it had such clean, modern lines in the rooms that storage was a problem except for the kitchen. The kitchen was great with floor to ceiling cabinets on all four walls except where the appliances were but the rest of the house needed something but I wasn’t sure what. The house was actually huge. It was built in the 90s when oversized was what was popular. It had five good sized bedrooms, three and a half baths, an enormous family room with a real wood burning fireplace, a formal living room, a formal dining room, and a breakfast nook plus a room that was built to be a library and finally Mateo’s office. But, the only bedroom with a decent closet was the master bedroom that had not one but two walk ins. There were three bedrooms downstairs and two completely empty bedrooms upstairs that no one entered except me once a week to dust mop the floors. There was also an odd unfinished bonus room upstairs that hardly anyone knew about. In fact I frequently forgot it was there because the door into it was boarded over and a book case stood in front of it.

I’d first learned of that room when the air conditioner had gone out. I was working for Mateo about a nine months when that happened and he literally had to walk me through so I could show the repairman where the inside units were located. They sit inside that room but there aren’t any vents in there. The room gets roasting hot during the summer which is why Mateo kept it boarded up. I had ideas for that space but that would have to wait until I had more time. For now we simply stacked stuff in one of those upstairs bedrooms. The air conditioning unit that cooled the upstairs wasn’t used often either to try and cut down on the electric bill which seemed to go up on a monthly basis no matter what we did. The pool was on solar power thank goodness since it had to be filtered up to seven hours a day to keep it clear; it was our main form of recreation and Mateo used the propane-heated spa almost every evening to relax. I was doing everything in my power to save money so that he wouldn’t have to give that up too, one of the few extravagances that Mateo had managed to hold onto.

I was well into the food storage plan without even trying because of all of the home preserved foods I had. The freezer was full and I took the time to start rotating some of the older meats out by turning them into soups that I pressured canned. Beef had bottomed out in price and actually had started to go up so I stocked up at every sale I could. Chicken was also bottoming out but eggs were now much more expensive so I learned to use powdered eggs and eggless recipes as much as possible. Pork was going down in price because there was some scare over another swine flu outbreak in the Midwest; it wasn’t the one that had caused the pandemic and the panic was overblown so I took advantage of those sales as much as possible. I ran the canners at least one load a day and I’m sure that was adding to the electric bill but I prayed that the eventual savings at the grocery would offset that in the mid term.

The project that overlaid all of the others was really Mateo’s. When he said he was going to court me I wish I had taken more head. We didn’t “date” precisely as we had Nydia to consider, not to mention the fact that we were economizing nearly every penny at this point. We used the public library to get DVDs from or Mateo didn’t mind if we watched the many different history documentaries available through NetFlix and he even set it up so that they would stream to the television in the family room so we could watch them on something besides his laptop. Popcorn is about the cheapest snack there is and we ate a lot of it, so much in fact that we went ahead and bought a fifty pound bag of kernels from the warehouse club we belonged to.

We’d be sitting on the sofa with Nydia between us to watch a documentary of something like the life and times of John Adams and she would fall asleep in our laps. He’d volunteer to take her to her bed while I freshened our glasses of homemade sweet iced tea or to pop another bowl of popcorn. I’d sit back down and he’d come back and suddenly he was a whole lot closer and his arm went across the back of the sofa. One thing would lead to another and half the time I couldn’t remember the end of the show we had been watching. We hadn’t taken that final step; I think we were both having too much fun getting there. He’d kiss me goodnight at my bedroom door and he’d go off to his. I’ll admit to some frustration on occasion but at the same time I was very grateful for the way Mateo was handling things.

We almost made a terrible hash of it however when we went to a local festival. I’m not really one for crowds and neither is Mateo but one of his business contacts had given him free tickets and it was a good chance to take Nydia for a little kiddie fun without breaking the bank. I had only gone back to the MOPS meeting a couple of times because all that seemed to get discussed was the economy. I got enough of that at home and the time I saved by not going to the meetings wound up being better utilized working on projects around the house. The ladies were nice, I just needed a break from discussing everyone’s economic woes, not more of it from other sources. Besides, gas was getting more expensive and Mateo and I tried to do as much of our running around during one trip as possible. I’d used my bike to ride to the grocery store once and it had been impossible to really take advantage of any of the sales. It was also harder to do that because it meant putting Nydia in a bike seat which gave me even less room to bring stuff home that way.

The day of the festival was beautiful. We’d been at the fairgrounds barely an hour and Nydia was already so overwhelmed and over excited that it took both Mateo and I to keep up with our little bumble bee. She was pitching an “I want” fit that Mateo was trying to deal with when I was goosed from behind. I jumped, swinging the back pack I used as a diaper bag only to have the scumbag be experienced in the move and duck.

“I knew I knew that pretty backside from some place! Leah … Honey … how ya been?”

I couldn’t say a word. It was Hank and he was rocketing on an empty stomach and beer from the adult beverage tent.

“Leah?”

Mateo had come up behind me making me jump again. He handed me Nydia and then got between me and the drunk man I used to consider my Prince Charming. “I think you’ve had more than sufficient to drink. Perhaps your friends could find you some coffee someplace. I’ll buy.”

Hank and Mateo were of a size. At one time Hank could have taken him easily but not anymore. Mateo’s “executive soft” had gone the same direction as his days of just sitting behind a desk. He wasn’t built like a rock star but he was sure as heck a lot harder and leaner for all the manual labor we’d been doing around the property. He was also deceptively strong for his build. Hank for his part was going to pot. His once lean and mean physique from playing sports and working in his family’s warehouse was being replaced by a haggard face and a beer gut.

“Oh you bought it all right. She finally put out? Was she worth the price?”

Mateo swears I growled and not a small cat growl either. Hank’s brothers grabbed him by the arms and dragged him off. His youngest brother Ronnie found us later and said, “Look Leah, we’re … sorry for what Hank said. He and Sheryl just separated and she’s taking him to the cleaners and Dad is just about ready to fire him over it since it means that Hank may have to sell his shares of the business to give her what her lawyer’s asking for.”

“Fine Ronnie. Tell your family I said hello … and … no hard feelings against them if they were concerned about it. Hank is just history for me and I want to keep it like that.”

“Sure, Leah, sure. Mom will be glad you remembered them.”

“You’re Dad not so much huh?”

“You know how it hurt him that his friendship with your Dad took a nose dive after all the stuff with Hank came out. He was bad hurt you didn’t call them about your folks passing away too.”

“But I did. I talked to Michelle personally.”

“Oh … I guess … that was about the time that Dad fired her. He caught her cooking the books.”

“Oh. Do … do you think I should call them?”

“Nah, not right now. I’ll talk to them. Everything is a mess. If Hank sells the shares outside of the family we could lose control of it and … anyway, it’s just a mess right now.”

I was relieved when Ronnie walked away. I was a little depressed but trying not to let my old life mess with my new but Mateo sensed it. “Do you wish to leave?”

“Hmm? No, what for? That’s the past. This is our present.”

“And future?” he asked as he pulled a curl that had gotten hung up in my sunglasses.

“And our future,” I said, finally smiling.

The day went up from there. Whatever had been eating at Nydia was finally over and she was just happy to look around whether she was treated to something or not. It was like her head was on a swizzle stick and it wasn’t still for more than a second or two at a time. Her mouth ran ninety to nothing too, “Ook Nonny, ook ook at the pitty lights.” She finally fell asleep in the middle of the animal act of the little circus show we had gone to and she stayed that way while Mateo and I shared an overpriced Italian sausage smothered with all the onions and peppers we could handle. Mateo was juggling Nydia trying to eat when we realized the water bottle we’d been sharing was empty.

“I’ll get it if you’ll finish eating and hold Nydia.”

He nodded since his mouth was full. I went to a vendor that was giving away free bottles of water to advertise some purification system and was on my way back to the table when a hand grabbed me from behind. I swung around, he ducked. “That always was your favorite move.”

Hank, only this time he appeared to be sober. He stumbled, “Uh, cute kid. Richie … is about the same age.”

“Almost exactly if what I heard was true.”

“Yeah, about that. Uh, I … I guess I owe you an … an apology.”

“Let it go Hank. I …”

And without warning he grabbed me in a hug and started crying. I had no clue what to do. I tried to push him off but it wasn’t until Ronnie showed up again to drag him away that I got untangled. I was rushing back to the table when I nearly barreled into Mateo.

“Was he hugging you?!”

“I haven’t got a clue what he thought he was doing. Can we just … I don’t know … go someplace so I can visit the ladies room. I smell like beer.”

I guess we both noticed the other’s reaction at the same time. He was furious and I was disgusted. I went from disgusted to upset that he’d been suspicious and he went from mad to chagrined when he realized I hadn’t encouraged Hank in the least.

I still can’t tell you why I was so angry except that it was just one more reminder of how things had been between Hank and I at one point. I tried everything I could but I couldn’t relax and just let it go even though Mateo was obviously trying to soothe my upset by touching me and asking if I wanted different things.

Our walk had taken us to the back of the fairgrounds where the equestrian center and stables were. And who should we run into but Rachel and a bunch of her friends. We’d heard that her father had made bail and that it might never come to trial because there were some pretty high flyers involved. He’d had to sell a lot of his personal assets to make restitution but he still hadn’t suffered as much nor lost as much as Mateo had. At least that is how it looked at the time.

“Matt, darling! How good of you to come see me ride! You always did know when all of my shows were.”

It was like fingernails across a blackboard and it started wedging out the good sense I claimed to possess. The sound whispered sour notes that said, “He knew about the horse show, you heard him say we could bring Nydia to see the animals back there to calm her down. He knew that Rachel loves horses and you know he still talks to her because when she calls he goes into his office. What did you think this was all about? Look at her, look what you’re competing with. They’re ‘old friends’ don’t forget.”

I knew I had to get out of there and Nydia needed a bathroom break so I took her while Mateo continued to talk to Rachel, her friends, and even the woman I recognized as her mother that had wandered over, frail but still beautiful and looking a good ten years younger than she had any business looking. It took a while since we had to wait in a line and then it took longer still because Nydia had eaten something that didn’t agree with her. By the time I got back outside there was quite a crowd socializing over there and I realized what a truly stunning couple that Rachel and Mateo made.

That awful voice started whispering again, “He loves her you idiot. You’ll never be anything other than second best even though you are Nydia’s mother now. No matter what you do or how long you’re together he’ll always love her best if he ever loves you at all.” The I remembered the one advantage over Rachel I had and I intended to exploit it. I was and always will be my parents’ daughter.

I stiffened my spine, accepted my fate and went back to insinuate myself into the mass of bodies that seemed to press Mateo and Rachel ever closer together. “Sorry it took so long,” when he looked over with some concern. “There was a line in the ladies’ room.” And I managed to say it with a calm and serene smile.

“Oh,” said a twittering voice, “I’m so not ready for motherhood. I have enough responsibilities on my plate right now thank you very much. The idea of dealing with someone else’s pooh on top of all of it that I have to deal with at work is just too much.” Well, what do you say to something like that? The whole group laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard, even Rachel.

Mateo looked down at her and said, “Then I guess it’s a good thing I never asked any of you to help me raise Nydia isn’t it.”

Rachel, miffed at the implied insult said, “Oh don’t be ridiculous Matt. You know we are only joking. By the way, what are you doing these days? No one seems to have heard that you’re part of a firm or that you’ve started your own business.”

Meow, meow. Mateo’s polite mask was slipping and I could see that he was dying to say something about Rachel’s old man so I stepped in and said, “I’m sure when or if you need to know Rachel, he’ll tell you. Suffice it to say Mateo is putting his time to good use.” I made it sound exotic and mysterious and caught Mateo so off guard that he barked a laugh, something that obviously caught everyone else by surprise. The crowd parted as he made his way to my side and began to make our excuses.

“Oh dear, must you? But we haven’t seen you in over a week Matt.”

Mateo responded to the woman’s feathery, helpless sounding complaint by saying, “My apologies Mrs. Lazaro but we really must be going.”

We’d been walking for nearly ten minutes, both of us tense with unsaid words when Mateo said, “Aren’t you going to ask?”

“About what?”

“About Mrs. Lozaro’s statement.”

“No. You said that you owed Rachel and I have to be satisfied with that. If there is something you want me to know, then I have to … have to trust that you’ll tell me.”

“Bull.”

I looked up and gave him the eye and looked at Nydia and then back at him. “I didn’t curse and besides she’s asleep again. Now why won’t you ask?”

“You want me to ask? You want me to act like a suspicious harridan?”

“Well, no.”

“Then there’s your answer.”

“No it’s not. You have some reason for not asking. Rachel would have been all over it before we’d gotten two steps away from that group.”

I gave him a little elbow in the ribs, not much of one since he was holding Nydia, and said, “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not Rachel.”

“Oh I’ve noticed.”

That did it. I went from holding my own to being real close to crying. “Hey! Are you … come on.” He put his free hand on the small of my back, steered us out of people traffic and over to a surprisingly empty bench near the llama area. Once we were seated he asked in a quietly fierce voice, “Now will you please explain to me what this display is all about?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“You aren’t embarrassing me. Driving me slightly insane yes, embarrassing me no. I’m asking you again to please explain yourself.”

Most of the time I can ignore the way he phrases things but this was just a little too much and a tear spilled over and slid from behind my sun glasses. “Here,” he said putting his handkerchief in my hand when I wouldn’t look at him.

“It’s an old story Matt and it just caught up with me is all.”

“What on earth are you talking about? And why are you suddenly calling me Matt instead of Mateo?”

“Please …don’t make a scene.”

“I’ll make a scene if I bloody well feel like it,” he said but he moderated his voice anyway when Nydia started acting like she wanted to wake up. “Now are you going to explain this or are we going to go back to the car and go home?”

For some reason that struck me as funny, very sad funny, and I chuckled wearily as I wiped my eyes with the oversized square of linen. “You sounded just like Hank … oh not the words but the tone … when I wouldn’t tell him something. His dad is the same way.”

“I don’t appreciate being compared to that drunken slob. Where did your common sense go when it came to him anyway?” Mateo asked obviously disgusted by the idea of me being with Hank.

The question took me down memory lane. “He wasn’t like this in highschool; at least not the drinking part. He was on the baseball team, popular, and actually pretty fun to be with if you didn’t mind the sports-on-the-brain crowd he hung with. Even Dad tolerated him at first. It wasn’t until we graduated …” That part of memory lane was rockier and full of potholes.

Mateo looked at me just waiting. “He wanted something from me I wasn’t ready … and later willing … to give. I always ignored his threats to find it someplace else because that’s all I thought they were, empty threats. The first time I caught him cheating …”

“Cheating?!”

“You want to know the whole ridiculous sob story or not?” He didn’t interrupt again as I continued. “The first time I caught him cheating had been after another fight on the same old subject. I wasn’t ready and he was ready and raring. He went to a party I asked him not to go to, he called me judgmental of his friends and arrogant just because I was going to college and many of them couldn’t afford to. After I calmed down I felt bad and decided to catch up with him. The place was crowded and I wanted to leave almost as soon as I got there but I was determined to find Hank. I kept asking and people kept pointing me along. Eventually I got pointed to a gazebo out in the corner of the yard and I went out there to find them … in progress so to speak and I ran to Bea’s house for the night since I couldn’t exactly go home looking as devastated as I felt. Dad would have hunted him down and filled him full of buckshot. The next day he claimed not to remember half of it and what he did remember he blamed on the girl getting him drunk and seducing him; her reputation wasn’t exactly the best. He claimed that he didn’t care what happened to him at that point because he thought he had lost me.”

Mateo didn’t interrupt but I could tell he was obviously dying to say something. “Yeah, I know. I was young and gullible and thought I was in love. I was also a grade A idiot that thought I could make it all better. But I still refused to sleep with him. The second time I caught him out we were older, if not wiser, and this time he blamed me for his walk on the wild side. He said that men had needs and I wasn’t meeting his. He questioned my feelings for him and said if I loved him I wouldn’t be so stubborn on the subject. The joke was on him this time however because he found out the girl had an STD. His father also found out about it when the doctor’s office called asking to speak to Hank Jr. and they got Hank Sr instead. Hank’s Dad tried to make it out to be my fault as well that his precious boy caught an STD and our relationship was never the same though he did try to keep things quiet from my Dad whom he was close friends with. I was convinced by then that I held some of the blame even though Bea told me I was nuts. I was too afraid of my parents finding out about my shame to go to them and talk about it which was a complete mistake. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache. The last time was during the year I taught … it was with that woman who is divorcing him. I had gotten out in the world and was beginning to wonder if Hank really was the right guy for me after all. My parents were just happy I wasn’t rushing things and did everything they could to block Hank from moving any faster. Sheryl … that’s her name … found out she was pregnant, her brothers beat Hank up really badly, and it all came out; my parents found out and it was a complete soap opera.”

Finally Mateo spoke up, “And this came up because you saw him again? You still have feelings for him?”

“Hank?! Lord no. No, it just brought back some of my insecurities and the fact that I can be as bad as stupid on wheels when it comes to men.”

Mateo opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again only to close it again. Nydia chose that moment to finally wake up and come unglued at the sound of the merry-go-round that she could hear in the distance. How on earth she heard it over all the other noise I’ll never understand. We’d promised her that she could ride it and you just don’t break a promise to a child. We stood up and headed to the kiddie ride area and let her ride it to her heart’s content since Mateo had bought her an armband that let her ride all day for one price.

Watching her squeal in delight put us both in a better mood and we spent the rest of our time at the festival going from kiddie ride to kiddie ride until even Nydia didn’t want to get on another one. We left through the gate and when we got back to my car found that someone had dinged the door and spilled some kind of syrupy drink on the hood. I looked at Mateo and said, “Now aren’t you glad I convinced you to leave the Jag at home?”

“Most definitely. Though we really do need to consider getting you a …”

“We’ve already had this discussion. There is nothing wrong with my car. It may not be beauty pageant material but I can carry anything in it that I want and not have to worry about the upholstery and it runs great and gets good gas mileage.”

I got a grunt that told me I’d probably have to listen to the argument sometime in the near future again whether I wanted to or not.

We went home, ate the meal I had left cooking in the crock-pot that morning, bathed and soothed Nydia with yet another reading of the Monster book, and then watched as she curled up with the wretched looking stuffed dog that Mateo had won for her.

“Are you sure that thing is sanitary?”

“It wasn’t made in China and I sprayed it down with Lysol several times. Do you want to try and take it from her?” He shuddered in response and we crept out of her room to go to our separate rooms and clean up ourselves.

Mateo caught my wrist, “Look at you. You slathered 50 SPF sunscreen on Nydia and I but forgot to put it on yourself. Look how red your face is getting.” He ran a finger down my check. “Does it hurt?”

“No. It’s just a little tight like I’ve been in the wind too long.”

“What about your lips? Do they hurt?”

Right in the middle of me pursing my lips to say no he kissed me and this wasn’t the charming peck that he would sometimes give me. No, this was more like he definitely had something on his mind.

When we finally came up for air he said, “I went over to the Lazaro’s home with a buyer I was introducing them to. They have several pieces of artwork that they need to unload to raise cash to meet other obligations. And just so you know, I won’t ever cheat on you Leah. What’s his name’s loss will forever be my gain. Just remember that.” And then the rat just walked away leaving me not knowing which end was up.

The next couple of days were productive ones in all areas including between Mateo and I. I think we had mutually decided that the time was right but we were stretching things out enjoying the anticipation when the blasted phone rang again. Mateo had learned to look at the caller ID before answering it but this time he did sit up and take the call.

“Dan, what’s up? … no, I was still awake … You heard what?! … How reliable is this information? … Sure, sure … No, I’ll meet you at the office first thing … Yeah, have the forms filled out and ready to go … Everything … Yeah, I’m sure.”

When he hung up I could tell the mood wasn’t coming back. “What’s wrong?”

“That was a friend, you might have met him at the wedding. He has some contacts … where he shouldn’t have contacts. On the news tomorrow they’re going to announce that the government is going to take over all of the retirement accounts including 401Ks and IRAs to “protect” them from any more investment scandals. Dan says it is actually a ploy to prop up social security and some of the other federally financed programs. They are also going to extend unemployment benefits again but payment will be made using EBT cards and can only be used on government approved commodities. He says there is a lot more but that he’ll have to explain them in the morning.”

“Should he even know this stuff?”

“No. Not this far in advance and he’s taking a major risk sharing it with me.”

“Mateo, I hate … hate to ask, but do you trust this man? Could he be setting you up?”

He looked at me and spoke gently, “I trust him, but I’m not foolish either. I’ve been moving money around so that Dan doesn’t know about everything. In fact, he thinks I’ve lost most of everything I had but … look, I need to get in the office and start doing some things. Can you fix me a big pot of coffee?”

“Of course, is there anything else I can do?”

He grabbed my arm looked me in the eye and said, “Trust me for one. It may take a week or longer for me to move what I have to move, if I have that long, but … we’ll be OK. If you do want to do something however, could you get on the other computer and place orders to Honeyville and the LDS store you told me about? And in the morning, I want you to go to the grocery store and the warehouse club and spend the money I give you as wisely as possible. If anyone asks just say we’re having a party or picking up a commercial order or something. If you see someone you know, try and avoid … just act natural. I should know by lunch time if I’m over reacting or not.”

After I’d brought him the coffee and started keying in the online orders that we’d planned on, just not this soon, he said, “Leah, pay for expedited shipping. I want it to get here sooner rather than later and I want to be at the head of the line when the orders go out.”

As odd as it sounds, Mateo wanting to pay extra to get something shipped faster is what really scared me. He used a Paypal account he’d created and we ran the online purchases through that. The next day as soon as we received confirmation of shipments and the account was emptied we closed it.

The morning found us both out the door before the sun was completely up; he to his errands and me to mine. I headed to the Produce Station that opened in the wee hours of the morning and bought everything that I could preserve in a week and some for the freezer too. As I was driving back home trying to avoid the inevitable traffic jams I got a text on Spot that said to drive into the garage and empty the car in there rather than from the driveway. I did as instructed and then grabbed my long grocery list and my coupons. First was the warehouse club where I loaded up on more than food; paper products filled up most of my car except where the carseat was and the driver’s seat. That meant another drive home to unload in the garage. It also meant another stop at the gas station. Next I hit Aldi and then a couple of other grocery stores. My poor little Chevy was riding low as I pulled into the garage for the third time to find Mateo’s Jag there ahead of me. I took Nydia inside and put her in her highchair and then went looking in the strangely silent house.

I found him in his office with a bloody rag pressed to the side of his face. “Oh no! What happened?!”

He looked at me with world weary eyes and said, “You got me thinking last night. I moved the money myself to speed the process up, there wasn’t that much left anyway. I was just going to stop in to see Dan and tell him not to worry about it but I came in the back way and when something didn’t look right I drove into a parking garage for the bank and then walked up to the top tier that overlooks the back of Dan’s office. There were several cars at the front of the building all ready which was strange because his office wasn’t supposed to be open yet. And then I saw them bringing some guy in a suit out the back in handcuffs. I must have watched this happen three times – they go in the front only to leave in cuffs from the back – before I had the sense to get out of there. Either Dan set me up or Dan was set up, I’m not sure which.”

“That still doesn’t explain the cut on your face.”

“It happened at the bank. I was in there to close an account I had but apparently the bank is now requiring you to leave a minimum fee in there for thirty days before they will completely close it. The minimum amount just so happens to match the monthly fee they charge on all accounts below a certain dollar amount per new federal regulations. They also got bent out of shape that I wanted it in cash. It wasn’t a lot of money but that wasn’t the point, they weren’t happy I wouldn’t accept a cashier’s check nor tell them where I was moving the money to.”

“Mateo … how … did … your … face …” I ground out.

“I’m getting to that. Apparently they’ve already started issuing those EBT cards in place of the unemployment checks. This guy comes in to try and make a payment on his car or house or … I don’t know something the bank held a lien on … and the bank wouldn’t accept the EBT card. He said they have to accept the EBT card since it was from the federal government and the manager eventually came out and said that they were no more required to accept the EBT cards than businesses out in California were required to accept the IOUs the government out there was issuing before the feds went in and took over the governorship and the state legislature. That’s when I noticed a lot of people where beginning to listen in. More than a few people are on unemployment these days and use their unemployment checks to stay current on their mortgages and such. There was almost a riot in the bank lobby and the idiot teller hands me all of this cash within plain sight of all of the other angry customers in line. Then someone took it in their head to try and close their account, discovered the same thing I had, and there was a mini run on the bank. Trying to get out someone slammed me into the door. The metal frame caught me on the cheek.”

He’d finally moved the rag and the gash was still seeping after I don’t know how long of direct pressure. I ran to check on Nydia who had fallen asleep in her high chair waiting on me, Bless her little heart, and grabbed up the big first aid kit I keep in the laundry room. It took me a while to clean it up and then use butterfly bandages to close it up the best I could but finally it stopped bleeding.

“Mateo you need to go to the emergency room. This is bad.”

“That’s the other thing that I’ve heard. There are a couple of new Executive Orders regarding health care and they’ve frozen a lot of private insurance policies. I went on line to check it out and something is going on. I hate to ask Leah, but I can’t go out looking like this it would draw too much attention in those places. I’ve added to the list of things we need to get and I have a couple of … packages … that need to be picked up. I’ll watch Nydia and keep an eye on things here. Could you …?”

“Of course. But … why are all these things happening at once?! What is going on?!”

“Easy Leah,” he said gently, trying to calm my nerves. “It’s all political as far as I can tell. They lost a lot in the last election, not enough to cut the head of the snake off but they were injured. Injured animals are dangerous animals. We’re almost to election time again and just in case their prince isn’t re-elected they want to accomplish as much of their agenda as possible. Some of this has been in motion for a while, just no one knew for sure when it would be enacted. Some precursor event must have occurred to rush their plans like this … or they’re all idiots … either one is possible. The anger at the bank is only the start and I want to get as much locked down as I can. We’ll take losses, they are already shutting down my direct access to some of my accounts, but they won’t get near as much as they thought they would but we need to hurry.”

The remainder of the day passed in a blur. It felt like I was running on high octane. A few people had noticed the banking restrictions but it was strangely not making it to the airwaves yet. Other people had noticed the new EBTs for unemployment. There was confusion every place I stopped as people were facing a new market dynamic. The EBTs worked some places but not others, sometimes for things they were only restricted to and sometimes you could slip things into your purchase under the radar. Regular debit cards from bank accounts started limiting number of transactions and transaction amounts and the reasoning seemed arbitrary and illogical; it didn’t matter how much money you had in the bank. People would call up and find that creditors or the IRS had placed liens or holds on a portion of the account balance, sometimes people called to find out that the IRS had emptied their account completely.

Mateo gave me his debit cards for several small, local banks and had me use them until they melted. I made his mysterious stops, one where I met a man at a sandwich shop and he asked if he could help me out with my bags … only I didn’t have bags, he did but they wound up in my car. When he put them in the trunk of my car, my back end went down a lot further than the size of the bags would have suggested. I pulled into Bea’s brother’s garage and he told me to give him the keys and he pulled it in. I was there almost an hour and was getting frantic but Mateo kept texting me that it was OK, we’d get done what we could get done. When I finally left … it was about one-thirty … I had a trailer hitch and small trailer attached.

“Leah, you’re gonna have to be careful. Matt purchased the tag and everything last week but it’s still a little heavier than that old rattle trap of yours should be pulling and you haven’t got anything in it yet. And people are getting crazy, we’ve had three people call saying that someone hit them in a parking lot and wanting to know how much it would be to fix it. Momma will skin us if anything happens to you and you don’t even want to know what Bea will do to us.”

From the garage I went to meet this man at a storage facility in a not so good part of town. He told me to roll the windows up and not leave the car. I could fill him loading something into the trailer. When he was finished he came to the window and knocked so that I rolled it down. “Ma’am, you need to go straight home with this. Don’t get pulled over. If something happens … I won’t be here, there’ll be no evidence that I was ever here so’s there’s no use saying anything about me.”

The cloak and dagger stuff was a bit more than I had been prepared for but I did as he suggested. When I backed the trailer into the garage Mateo opened the back and it was full of boxes of various sizes. As we carried them into the house I noticed some of them were heavy and some didn’t feel like they had anything in them at all. My nerves weren’t real steady and I snapped, “You could have warned me Mateo. I was scared to death the whole way home.”

Mateo looked at me and saw I had my arms wrapped around myself like I was cold. I was shaking but it wasn’t from the temperature. “What? “ he asked and that’s when I laid into him a little about the man from the storage facility.

“He said what? Oh Leah, nothing in here is illegal … at least not yet. Greg is just … eccentric. He’s a conspiracy theorist extraordinaire and has been planning for the end of civilized society for as long as I’ve known him. He’s probably enjoying this and is wringing it for all it’s worth. I had no idea he would scare you like that.”

“If it isn’t illegal, why all the subterfuge?”

“It isn’t illegal but it could be considered unusual enough to question me and delay our plans. They’ve changed the federal gun laws in direct opposition to the states that have been relaxing their gun laws. Everything is a mess in the courts right now but with the IRS having direct access to bank accounts the fees and fines get taken out pre-trial and people aren’t getting them back … their money or their weapons. This is ammo and magazines for your father’s guns … now yours.”

“And when did guns come into the plan? We never discussed that?!”

“Leak … Leah …,” he put the last box down and startled me by wrapping me in a hug. “It’s not the end of the world but things are changing. I’m bringing a lot of assets into the house to keep them out of government control as much as possible. That’s a security issue. I have you and Nydia to think of. The security doors, Schlage dead bolts, and hurricane shutters on the house go a long way towards making the house safer but there is no sense hiding our heads in the sand. We have no idea what kind of violence these sudden changes could cause. People might simply accept it and readjust or it could be the match that lights the tender for something much worse. We have to be prepared either way.”

I hadn’t thought in those terms. To me prepping simply made good sense but I hadn’t really followed the thought all the way through. What exactly were we preparing for? Apparently Mateo and I had been preparing for different levels of threats, different kinds of threats. When I thought of security I was thinking in terms of being able to put food on the table and gas in the tank. When Mateo thought of security he was thinking of physical threats to our safety. We both thought of security in financial terms but I had a micro outlook and his was macro and much larger in scale and scope.

“You don’t have to go back out anymore, this is the last …”

“Maybe on your list but not on mine. I want to hit another Aldi since the other grocery stores’ shelves were so under-stocked. I also need to go to the office supply place and I have to go to the shoe store for Nydia. I got a call while I was out that that bulk fabric order we placed is ready for pick up and I only have until the close of business today to get it for some reason. I need to pick up our pre-orders at the bookstore too. And …”

His cell phone went off and I could see him grinding his teeth, he held up his hand to stop me from talking and then answered, “Hey Dan … sorry about this morning. Did you get my message? … No? … Man, you don’t know what my day has been like. … Your’s too? … No, actually I changed my mind, I just can’t afford to panic even if you did hear some rumors. The last few months have been hard. … I’m sure … What? … Actually I had come over but got caught up at the bank trying to get a loan to get Leah a new car, her’s is just not acceptable …” He put his hand over my mouth and winked at me to take the sting out of his words and to let me know what he was saying wasn’t exactly what he meant. “Actually Dan you don’t know the half of it. I went to the bank and there was a mini riot over those EBT cards … yeah, they’re already issuing them … I was trying to get out of the place and had the corner of a door catch me on my face … No I’m not OK. My suit is ruined and there is blood in the Jag! And to add insult to injury something is up with my insurance policy. I’m not going to sit in the emergency room for hours when I should be able to see my primary care physician, but I can’t get an appointment. It looks like plastic surgery is in my future … What? … No, really I’m sure. It looks like I’m going to need the money where it is for a while to cover things if I can’t hurry up and find a job … I appreciate the offer Dan but I’ve learned to not mix business with friendship. Once burnt twice shy … Yeah, you too. … Yeah, maybe next week but not the golf course … Oh, well, in that case maybe. Yeah.”

He hung up and then leaned over and kissed where his hand had been. “Finish up. I want you home before dark. Nydia isn’t used to you being gone this much and has been throwing a fit because I don’t know where something called the knock ‘em downs are.”

“Those are her blocks; the big plastic ones in the tub in the top of her closet. She makes a mess but they’ll keep her entertained for at least an hour. She’s going through a destructive phase I think. Whatever you do, don’t get her the crayons when she is in this mood, I’ll be finding wall art for a week if you do. Speaking of that I better add more bleach, borax, and washing soda to my list.”

As he walked me out to the car he asked, “Have you eaten at all?”

“I’m fine.”

“That wasn’t what I asked.”

“I’m really not hungry Mateo I’ll …”

He interrupted, “You’ll go through the drive through at that awful fast food place that you like and you’ll get you something to eat and drink. I’ll cook rice to go with whatever it is you’ve got in the crockpot for dinner.”

“Make that egg noodles if you are serious about helping. The directions are taped to the canister on the shelf in the pantry.”

He nodded and I had my keys in my hand and was going into the garage when he pulled me back against him and whispered in my ear, “Be careful Leah. There is still a chance that I could be over reacting but …”

“But you really don’t think so,” I said as I turned in his embrace.

He sighed, “No. No I really don’t think so. But I do not like you having to do this all for the want of a little more caution on my part, I should have moved faster.”

I reached up and touched his face, “It looks really bad Mateo; all red and puffy. And it is starting to bruise. Can you see anything out of that eye?”

“It’s blurry but only from the swelling I think. You better go or I’m going to change my mind about letting you out of my sight. Text me to let me know where you are at but … be circumspect in your messages. I’m beginning to feel as paranoid as Greg. This morning at Dan’s must have shaken me up more than I thought. That call of his trying to pull me back in didn’t help.”

I paid cash for everything from that point forward and it was a good thing I had it to spend. More and more people were finding that their debit and credit cards weren’t working at the checkout stands. I’d never seen so many “cash-only” lines, not even at Christmas.

I had one police officer and two of those Volunteer Corp security details stop me in parking lots to ask me what was in the trailer … I was even forced to open it or risk a citation. I was smart enough to have loaded the fabric and a few other innocuous looking things into the trailer and was able to allay their curiosity by saying that I had a table at the Arts and Crafts Festival coming to the downtown area the following week. I then acted like I was trying to sell them something which turned them off even more quickly and they let me go.

That night when I was finished with everything I could do - not everything I had meant to do - and pulled into the garage for the last time I told Mateo about it and he was furious. “That’s an illegal search. They had no grounds other than intimidation to make you open that trailer,” he ground out.

“What was I supposed to do? If I had confronted them you’d likely had to come bail me out. Pulling the silly female card was simply easier.”

“Silly female card?”

“Yeah,” I smiled despite the seriousness of the situation. “Females have one huge advantage over males. We always have and we always will. Males as a rule have been raised to underestimate us in almost every situation. They perpetuate the myth through every succeeding generation. They forget that it was the wives left behind during war that defended the home and put food on the table. They ignore what they consider anachronisms where women rise to the top military positions and credit it to birth rather than on ability. They fail to understand the stamina that pregnancy and childbirth requires saying if it wasn’t for men leading the way to lower the maternal and baby mortality rates we’d be much worse off but fail to see how many women actually have survived the experience without their help.”

Mateo got the stereotypical deer in the headlights look that so many uninitiated men get before they realize the real abilities of women when they bother to nurture their God-given talents.

“Most men simply assume that unless proven otherwise a female is smaller, weaker, and dumber than they are. That is a very bad assumption to make. Strength doesn’t always lie in size and intellect has absolutely nothing to do with stature. So when a female finds herself in a situation where she is faced with an admittedly physically stronger male opponent and she could potentially lose more than she gained by a direct battle she uses her opponent’s inbred weakness against him. They turn on their kitten power.”

Mateo choked on his tea, “Their what?!”

“My Dad called it ‘kitten power,’” I smiled craftily. “See only a real ogre is going to kick a kitten or intentionally do it harm. And most people forget that kittens are born with exceptionally sharp claws that they instinctually use to try and climb to safety with. Ever had a kitten climb your pants leg?”

Mateo winced and I continued, “Exactly. They can also look at you with the most darling eyes … right before they swipe those claws across your face. As for the rest of it sometimes it is simply smarter to play dumb.”

I got a suspicious look, “Have you ever done that with me?”

“Only once … that stuff in the stir fry really was tofu,” I laughed.

He was momentarily outraged and then realized the joke and had a good laugh at himself and then laughed harder at what the three men that had hassled me had missed when it was sitting right in front of their faces for the whole world to see.

“No wonder the best deals at the auctions always seem to be found by the women,” he opined.

We finished dinner in a relatively better mood and it was good we did because it was the last bit of cheerfulness we were to have for a while. The president spoke during prime time and before he could even finish there was rioting outside of the White House and the Capitol building. Online servers went up and down all night as traffic increased to the point they were collapsing the networks; people trying to get more news beyond the canned output on most of the major news shows, people trying to access their financial accounts, people placing online orders trying to use their funds before they were locked down and unavailable, people trying to shift their funds to foreign markets, people trying to become members of forums devoted to different topics that might be considered useful during such a situation, Facebook temporarily shut down as did MySpace and all of the other online communities from everyone getting online and sharing their opinions. The list of complicating problems overnight seemed endless.

And that was just online. Local news reported that the twenty-four hour supercenters had been scavenged like they’d been attacked by locusts. There hadn’t been any looting but there had been a couple of near riots and some pawn shop had been firebombed for some reason. After we heard that Mateo muttered, “Covering his trail most likely.”

I was so tired I forgot to ask who he was talking about. I hadn’t been able to sit and listen to the news for long, I felt like I was going to fly apart. While Mateo watched and took notes … to the TV, radio, and two different computers all going at the same time in his office … I got down to work. We had emptied the trailer and disconnected it so that both cars and it could fit in the garage with the door down and Mateo had dropped all of the security doors and closed the interior shutters downstairs. The house was a mess … boxes and bags all over the place waiting to be put away who knew where. We had tried to organize things into piles as we went but I still itched to do something with it, but my magic wand and crystal ball were both in the shop and I had to prioritize things.

First thing I needed to deal with was the fresh produce from the morning. I filled the sink with water and set some of the more tender items that wouldn’t fit into the refrigerator to soak in cold water until the morning. I pulled out the spare Crockpot that I had pick up at a garage sale to go with the other two I already had and filled two of them with fruit to cook down to butter for canning first thing in the morning and the smaller one I started oatmeal for breakfast. I took frozen meat out to thaw on the counter that I would can tomorrow to make room for the bags of flour and pasta that I needed to freeze for freshness and to kill any potential weevils.

Spot was incredibly handy during this whole process as it gave me direct access to the inventory that I kept. I was in the middle of calculating how many jars I needed to put into the dishwasher for the next day when the house intercom system buzzed and it was Mateo’s signal that he needed me. I walked in on the tail end of a phone conversation.

“I realize that Mr. Lazaro but I have a wife and child to think of now. Surely the federal government is simply … Of course I understand the magnitude of … Yes, I understand the concerns that you and Dan have … Mr. Lazaro let me be frank. I simply don’t have the assets. I had to liquidate after leaving the firm and … yes, the firm’s stock as well … I know but I had no choice, you see how the economy is. … Mr. Lazaro, we may be over reacting. The government obviously has a plan, before getting hysterical we should wait and see what it is. Some of the best financial minds … Well I’m sorry you feel that way.” Even I could hear the click of the slamming phone.

“What was that about?” I asked not trusting any of the Lazaro family any further than I could throw them.

“An answer to a puzzle.”

I wasn’t in the mood for any of Mateo’s intellectual games and my face must have shown it. “Leah I think that in exchange for … something … Mr. Lazaro must have turned informant for the SEC. He either set Dan up or Dan is a willing participant. They are trying to make a case for who knows what … against individuals or possibly even against the firm in total. I must be on the list since I escaped the original net; but that doesn’t make sense, so perhaps a personal vendetta by Lazaro himself. Dan failed to pull me in so Lazaro stepped in to give it a try. But this makes no sense either! Why would they go to all of this trouble?!”

“Is there some reason … besides Rachel I mean … that Mr. Lazaro doesn’t like you?”

“Nothing worth this amount of effort. My portfolio always out-performed the ones he was responsible for. None of my personal clients ever took the magnitude of hits to their retirement accounts that nearly everyone else’s did; I dealt strictly in conservative investments. I did openly remonstrate him for encouraging risky behavior in the firm and finally took it before the Board when he started pushing me too hard and interfering with my clients.”

“And this was the man you wanted as a father-in-law? You must love Rachel …”

He was around the desk and in my face before I could finish my statement. “No, I wasn’t in love with Rachel though I had everyone else convinced that I was … including Rachel though she convinced herself more than I could. She had connections, she came from money, she knew all the places to be seen and all the people worth talking to. In other words she will one day make some man a good trophy wife; some man that doesn’t care that the looks will be maintained with surgery and botox and is willing to pay for her to go off and play so he doesn’t have to listen to her bleating at him when he is trying to relax and eat his dinner.”

To say I was shocked was an understatement but I was more shocked when he grabbed me around the waist and pulled me close. “I’m not that man any more Leah. I have no idea why God touched me and made me realize that what I wanted wasn’t what I needed. I still don’t understand how things changed so much that I’m more satisfied struggling today than I was when I had everything and money in the bank too. And I don’t know why you were crazy enough to marry despite it all, despite that ridiculous proposal in the courthouse hallway. But I know what I’ve got and I intend on keeping it and nothing … Lazaro’s treachery, the economy, or the government itself is going to take it away from me no matter what it takes. Are we clear on that?”

I tried to answer him but all I could do was nod. I just knew he was going to kiss me but I swear that God has a sense of humor and is driving me crazy on purpose. His face was barely an inch from mine when the emergency broadcast signal came blaring over the television and radio at the same time causing us to both to jump apart like guilty teenagers.

Martial law was declared in response to street violence and a riot that had started over in the College Hill area as well as one that set the public housing complex on Main Street on fire. Everyone was being told to stay indoors and anyone caught on the street would be detained.

The same scenario was being repeated in over two dozen major metropolitan areas across the continental US. Rather than smother the violence it set more cities aflame. The sun was coming up and I knew if we kept drinking coffee this way I’d be grateful I’d bought so much Café Bustelo and all of those dark coffee beans.

“Mateo, why are they doing this? What do they hope to gain? It’s like they are intentionally inciting people to rebel.”

“Possibly to break the system completely so that they can rebuild it the way they deem better. None of what they are doing makes historical sense; you said it yourself the other night. We’ll lose far more than is gained if they succeed.”

I shook my head and said,“It’s like in the movies when some lunatic realizes he is terminally ill, so he plans to take the rest of the world with him when he goes so that no one is left to outlive him.”

“Not quite. These lunatics really do believe that socialism is better, or at least the pawns of the movement do. Personally I think that the lunatics at the top know exactly what they are doing and it is all for their own personal gain … if not money then power. It’s like an aphrodisiac to them, a powerfully addictive drug. They are not happy unless they have the power to manipulate other people’s lives. It doesn’t matter what the result ultimately is.”

“Which do you consider the president?”

“My personal opinion? He’s a narcissist with a great deal less status in the movement than he believes. He’s being controlled by a movement and when they are through using him as their figurehead they’ll throw him under the bus just like they have done many that came before him. Only they’ll make it seem like it was done by the opposition and not even the conspiracy theorists will get it right in the end. Meathead or martyr, it won’t matter.”

Ugh. I couldn’t take any more. I left Mateo trying to pump espresso intravenously – figuratively not literally – and went to feed and dress Nydia. The world might be going to heck in a hand basket but two year olds still need attention, laundry still needs washing, and the food wasn’t going to jump into the pots and cook itself.

The rest of the day has passed in a blur. Rachel has called several times asking Mateo to meet with her father. After saying no for the third time he’s stopped taking calls from her number because he never knows who is going to be on the other end. Bea called me and said that her whole family has closed up shop and is heading to their fish camp deep in the swamps of south Florida. Mateo and I were given an open invitation but it hasn’t come to that yet.

Mateo finally burned out after we put Nydia down for the night. I fell asleep with Nydia for a couple of hours this afternoon and now I feel too wound up to really sleep. We’ve heard gunfire but not actually on our street but we are taking no chances. We closed and locked the storm doors we installed on the barn and disabled the tracks. To get in ourselves is going to be a trip but it has given me more piece of mind with all the equipment, lumber and tools we have stored out there.

I’ve got to sleep or I’m going to fall apart, but not until the two canners are finished processing. The kitchen is better than it was, the whole house is, but only because I know how bad it was before. Anyone seeing if for the first time would be horrified and disgusted more than likely.

I’m past tears. I’m past fear. What we are facing today is like something out of a dime-store novel. I’m almost … no I am ... terrified by what the dawn could bring.