Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chapter Twelve: The World Gets Bigger Once Again

Chapter 12: The World Gets Bigger Once Again

There’s a great difference between knowing that a thing is so, and knowing how to use that knowledge for the good of mankind. – Jimmy Sangster

“Mateo!” I called again. This time I pointed up which made him look up as he came over in a hurry. It was a small aircraft I could tell that much, but unlike the drones that had come through before. “That’s not what the military sent out,” I told him.

“No, those were drones,” he agreed. “This one is manned and it is most definitely did not start out as military. Please take the children and go inside.” When I opened my mouth to ask why he said, “Just for safety’s sake until we know who and what this is about.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine,” he told me as he cradled the rifle in his arm. “I just want you three out of the way in case something does happen.”

I ushered the suddenly tense and silent children into the house; they always picked up on when danger or perceived danger was near. Without me saying a word Nydia took Neeno and went to the “hiding place” that we still kept stocked just in case. No one had said the war was over but at the same time living like Neanderthal flavored hobbits was bad for morale so we’d made the decision to leave it for emergencies and extra storage rather than our regular sleeping or living quarters. Not every action can be driven by fear if you plan on having any sanity left in the long run.

The plane – it didn’t really qualify as one after we got a good look at it – was doing some kind of very haphazard grid search. Even as untrained as I was I could tell the difference between the precise the drone had “searched” compared to the much more haphazard way the little plane accomplished the same type of act. The pilot spotted our set up and then made a bee-line for the air above our home where it circled a couple of times. Buzzing very low, several somethings were thrown from the aircraft before it took off back the direction it had come from to the east. The somethings broke up and then fluttered to the ground making a royal mess.

I stuck my head out of the screen door and when Mateo was finished looking at what had come down he spotted me and walked over signaling me that it was safe, at least for the time being. Silently he handed one to me and I saw it was a piece of paper. There were three large blocks of writing on it.

Do not have fear, help is on the way! Liberation from your oppressors is imminent. You will be contacted soon. There is no reason for to have fear.

I looked at him and said sarcastically, “Love the new-style grammar. Remind me to add it to my curriculum.”

Mateo shook his head, “La Profesora is not happy?”

“Knock it off Mateo,” I huffed. “You know that kind of stuff irritates me. And just what is this supposed to be about? A little too much drama for my liking.”

He sighed, “Nothing good I’m afraid, or maybe Greg rubbed off on me too much.”

And did that little conversational tidbit open all sorts of mental doors or what? “Blue hats,” I said almost unwillingly.

Calmly Mateo asked, “Why would you pick them rather than say a Venezuela or a Cuba?”

Trying to organize my quick mental jumps into something that I could explain I looked again at the leaflet. “Since I was the one to mention the grammar I’ll start with that. That wasn’t written by someone that spoke English as their first language. ‘To have fear’ instead of ‘being afraid’ is just one of the more obvious mistakes made. Yes, one of the three languages is Spanish but they left out the proper exclamation point at the beginning of the first sentence which leads me to think that Spanish is the writer’s first language either. And last we have that third language used and correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t that Esperanto?”

Mateo gave me a funny look, “And how do you know this? Do not take this wrong mi Amor but as a linguist you make a good baker.”

I chuckled unwillingly, “Fine but just because I’m perfectly capable of butchering a language with my mouth doesn’t mean my eyes are blind. Besides I had to do a report in college on George Soros and it turns out that he spoke Esperanto from childhood because his father was an Esperantist.” At Mateo’s look I explained, “Someone who uses Esperanto as a way to communicate and is usually involved in the culture to make it a more widely used language here on Earth.”

“I’ll take your word on that. I certainly don’t recognize it as Spanish though it does appear to have some words … or forms of words … in common with the Latin language. And how does this play into your theory?”

I gave him a look. “And how did this suddenly become my theory? Oh never mind. It just doesn’t seem like something any of the Spanish men that I’ve met would do, you included. You are much more … more … just more, I guess. Dropping flyers isn’t your style, you’d be more likely to land cautiously or depending on the situation come back at a later time but you’d still do more than simply drop leaflets and fly away like you were afraid of something. Dropping flyers is the kind of thing they do during wars to create confusion in civilian populations. And all of that plus the plane itself and the fact that they didn’t act like they knew we were here is what tells me this isn’t our military.”

“I agree,” Mateo said.

“Then why did you …?”

“Because, I don’t want to be the only one thinking crazy thoughts woman. If I am turning into Greg’s shadow I want to at least be in good company.”

I turned up my nose at the backhanded compliment and started to walk away but he caught me around the waist and drew me back towards him. “I do not mean to tease you so much. This does mean trouble Leah. We need to sit and decide what we are going to do about it, if anything. I do not know how to measure their ‘soon’ but I think it best if I spend the rest of the day bringing in as much wood as I can and I will be more careful from here on out to stay closer to the house.”

I nodded, “If you really think it’s necessary I’ll try and harvest everything I can today and tomorrow and tonight we’ll move everything we can back into the hidden rooms.”

“I’m not sure what to think but as you are so fond of saying ‘better safe than sorry’.” He gave me a kiss and then went off with the wagon while I called Nydia and Neeno out to pick up the papers while I finished gathering the grapes and then continued to pick anything that even looked close to being ripe and ready.

That night after we’d put the children to bed we finally faced the situation head on. “Leah I don’t think I’ve ever asked you, did you have problems with the multi-national groups that came in to assist with the recovery?”

“Mateo, I saw so few people and got so little news after Greg stopped showing up that to be honest my world shrunk to our yard. I’m not even sure what you mean by multi-national groups.”

He shrugged, “Basically any country that thought they could get away with it came in and tried to make off with whatever assets and resources that they could.”

“What?! Exactly who was in charge of the store when this was going on? And how could they get away with something so obvious?”

“It only became obvious in hindsight though Greg and people like him had warned of such events being possible and even probable for years before it actually happened. The military units had antipathy for them immediately but could not forcibly eject them without federal approval which they didn’t get despite asking, then demanding it, several times. The groups first came under the guise of foreign aid workers, then in the guise of the UN itself. Supposedly they were helping to move supplies, fuel, and equipment to more efficient distribution points but in reality they were either setting up ethnic or cultural enclaves of their own people to give them a physical foothold on US soil or they were moving it all off shore, most to be sold on the black market back to the fools they stole it from in the first place.”

“But someone eventually figured it out?”

“Oh yes. That is one of the things that precipitated the … let’s call it the shuffle of power … in our government. The three branches still hold titular power per the Constitution but the military are the implementers while war is declared on our own soil. The military and Guardsmen as well as local militias – at least those that hadn’t been disarmed by that point – came down on the multinationals fast and hard but by then the damage was done and the groups didn’t necessarily want to go home where the fighting and economic climate was even worse. Then came the limited nuclear exchange. After that I haven’t heard. Bea and her family had more trouble from the urban dwellers evacuating places like Miami-Dade but it’s possible that some foreign nationals were in there as well.”

I shook my head, upset. “It seems I keep finding out how little I’ve known about what has gone on beyond our street. Even here I kept to myself so much … if it hadn’t been for the strange half warning the Trasks left me I don’t imagine the children and I would be here today. I …”

“Don’t!” Mateo snapped. Then he shook himself and apologized. “I should not have yelled like that. I just … let us not travel that road of might have beens. It was not and that’s all that needs to be said about it.”

Looking in his eyes I saw a bit of the mental chaos he had exhibited when he first returned so I let it go. “Fine. Even with that part of it put aside it still underscores how cut off I was and how cut off we are now. No TV, no radio, no Internet, no newspapers; even if the news was slanted it would still something to sift through for nuggets of truth. We haven’t made contact with anyone in months. Sometimes I feel half deaf for lack of news.”

“Oh Corazon,” he hugged me. It didn’t change the facts but having him understand how I felt made those facts more bearable.

“So,” he said after a moment. “We are still left to decide how serious a threat the man in the ultralight is. And if you will hear me out I’d like to say something first.” At my nod he repeated another of my father’s favorite phrases, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and pray either way.”

After a nostalgic moment I told him, “Agreed. It makes sense given our suspicions but what exactly can we do? Saying prepare is one thing, doing it is quite another.”

“First I want to make some caches and bury them in case we are forced out of our home for a time. It makes good sense anyway so they aren’t just for this event. You’ve saved all of the mylar bags you’ve opened. If I set up an inverter and battery in the kitchen could you refill them with your dehydrated fruits and vegetables and re-seal them?”

“I don’t have any O2 absorbers left but so long as we rotate them on a regular basis … say every six months or so maybe … it should work. Are you going to bury buckets?”

“No. I found a supply of large schedule forty PVC pipes and screw caps, I think whoever lived there was a plumber by trade and the PVC was simply missed by other salvagers because it was partially covered in the back yard by bags of oak leaves like it was nothing but trash. As long as we are careful where we bury them – and I already have a few places picked out – it should be OK. Each section of pipe will be able to stand on its own as a resupply point so take that into consideration when you are packing the food. I really do not want to split our ammo and weapons but in a worst case scenario we’ll need access to new ones if the ones we normally carry are taken away. We’ll still have a lot left so I want to go back to hiding things as we once did. In fact, if there is time and I can find the supplies, could you make more hidden storage?”

“I … well … yes, I suppose I can. I can build it in the bunker walls. I’ll just need better lighting to do the job right.” We hadn’t completely dismantled what had taken me so long to create though we had stopped using it on a regular basis. It wouldn’t take that much to re-secure it nor add to its usefulness.

“I’ll cache some tools as well since we have so many duplicates. I noticed that you still keep backpacks for you and the children. Will you make up one for me? Those are convenient.”

“Already done.” When he gave me a surprised look I shrugged. “Habit I suppose. While you are making a list, we should cache some camping gear. And some first aid stuff too though we don’t have much of that.”

We added a few more things to the growing list including one of the copies of our important papers and we also resolved to cache one of the electronic copies of all of our family media away from the house. This was all on top of our normal work schedule and we fell into bed exhausted each night. I asked, “Is it possible that they will come at night to catch us by surprise?”

“Possible,” Mateo agreed. “But unlikely. We just cannot mount a 24-hour watch and still get everything else done. Besides they will be as handicapped as we by the lack of power and light. And sound carries far on the wind these days. If they follow previous patterns that I heard they’ll probably want to make a show of their technological and firepower superiority and for that we’ll need to see and hear them. They want our gratitude and awe to overwhelm any suspicions we might have. They want to disarm us both figuratively and literally to avoid wasting their own ammo.”

“They’ll try the honey before the vinegar.”

He grinned. “Just so mi Amor. However if we have no other advantage of our own at least they’ve lost the advantage of surprise.” It wasn’t a lot to add to our side of the equation but we took it as any advantage was better than none at this point.

Day in and day out we continued with our plan. I made up meal packets that only needed water added to them for reconstituting – vegetable broth, pasta dishes, bean chowder, etc. – and this was the food to go into the PVC pipes. All totaled we planted a baker’s dozen of caches, added hidden wood piles in case we needed them, and even built a few fall back positions well hidden amongst the ruins around us. Days turned into a week and then the week into three before it happened. I almost missed it except for the clean up.

I was where I was most of the time, running between the garden and my outdoor kitchen. Mateo left before the children even had finished their breakfast; he worried that rain could be on the way. That morning I was canning peanuts and the ever present mist was thicker than usual. I could barely see to the edges of the yard and all sound was muffled and strange. The first clue I had that something was wrong was a series of rapid pops that I recognized at once as automatic gunfire; even if I hadn’t the yelling that accompanied them would have been a dead giveaway. I immediately stopped what I was doing and grabbed the children up and shooed them into the bunker. Nydia knew the drill but I could tell she was frightened. So was I for that matter but it couldn’t be helped. I ran back outside to the continued sounds of a gun battle. I took my pot off the Franklin stove and put the fire out, all the while praying to hear or see Mateo and know that he was well and safe.

I ran back in to check on the children and reassure them that Poppy was on his way home though it would have been more truthful to have said that I hoped it was on his way home. Before running back out I grabbed a 20-guage shotgun that wouldn’t dump me on my backside if I had to fire it. Back out I went, praying a hedge of protection around Mateo. I couldn’t conceive of losing him again yet I knew it was entirely possible. Life was too cruel, a fact I had already experienced, but at least that day I was not its intended target.

Eventually the battle petered to silence. Then two or three single shots followed interrupting the silence before everything fell quiet again. The silence stretched out and out and further out still. Part of me was screaming “enough already, bring it on, let me do something” while another part of me cried “just let it be over.” Then through the fog I heard the odd but distinctive squeak-drag-squeak that one of our wagon wheels had started to make when Mateo pulled home something heavy. From the front gate I heard the all clear question which was a cardinal call. If my response had been anything but a Bob White call he would have known something was wrong. He returned the cardinal call once again and I ran to open the gate.

I was shocked to see a man and young girl in the wagon. Both were filthy and injured. Then wasn’t the time for questions so I help Mateo who was obviously frazzled to pull the wagon around back.

“Leah, the girl she’s … been hurt. I don’t want to frighten her. Perhaps you can …?” It was his delicate way of asking if I could ascertain if she had been abused.

The man was barely holding on to consciousness. I admired his perseverance in the face of what must have been great pain as he helped Mateo to place him in a deck chair but I was puzzled by Mateo’s gentleness and solicitousness towards him. Since the man was all but helpless and the girl barely more than catatonic I asked Mateo if he would be the one to go inside and bring the first aid supplies after a quick stop to let the children, especially Nydia, know he was home and safe.

“I am certain this enemy is dead and that these two are no danger to us … but in case I am wrong …” I looked at him and nodded then surreptitiously brushed the pocket I kept my gun in to let him know I was armed and on guard.

The man’s injuries appeared to be of more immediate concern so I told the girl to sit tight and to let me look at him first. The man said in a quietly sad voice, “I doubt she’ll respond. I haven’t heard her make an intelligible sound since they kidnapped me, and … and I think … yes, full moon to full moon … it’s been a month. If God hadn’t sent your husband I most likely would not have seen another sunrise.”

I thought that seemed an odd way for a complete stranger to phrase it. I started cleaning his injuries and realized he’d been whipped on at least three different occasions plus he had sundry other wounds, some worse than others. “Mister …?

“Bouvier … Yger Bouvier … that’s Y-G-E-R … my parents’ idea of a bad joke. A lot of the times people see my name and pronounce it Eager Beaver.”

His blathering seemed to be his way of dealing with the pain I was inflicting on his already bruised flesh. “But I turned it to an advantage when I was called to the ministry. Seemed to work great with the kids as an ice breaker.”

I raised an eyebrow and gave him my best school marm expression I reserved for class clowns and said, “Seems you try to use it on adults as well.”

He gave me a grimace that was supposed to be a smile before admitting, “Guilty as charged.”

Before I could ask him another question he passed out. Mateo came out then and I told him what I thought needed doing. “I’m no doctor but I think he should be OK if there’s nothing wrong on the inside I can’t see. Aside from his wounds he’s suffering from exposure and dehydration. He seems a happy go lucky type, at least at first impression. I’m surprised he can still joke after what he’s been through. I’m not sure about the girl yet. We can clean them up out here and then make pallets for them in the family room.”

A little voice called, “I can help.”

I looked over to the lanai and saw Nydia peeping out. I turned to Mateo who answered my unspoken question with, “He’s napping.”

Looking back at Nydia and remembering she’d helped me with Mateo and Greg I instructed her, “Make the beds like we had them before in front of the fireplace please. Then get a cool pitcher of water and put it on the counter.”

“Yes ma’am Nonny,” and my little helper was off like a flash.

Mateo took care of the man called Yger and I did my best with the girl but eventually I had to say, “Mateo, take him in please and lay him down. I’m going to take her to the bathroom. This poor kid needs … they abused her and I’m going to try and get her cleaned up and comfortable if I can.”

I pray I never witness such human cruelty again in my life. They’d had at her like animals … they were worse than animals in my mind … and the girl needed real medical care, the kind that was far beyond my ability to give her. I wasn’t the innocent Nelly that Mateo often thought me, even now. When I was at the inner city school abuse of all kinds stared me in the face from the eyes of the kids I taught every day. My church had a ministry specifically for women that served those that had suffered through divorce or through abuse or both. I volunteered for a while at a pregnancy crisis center as well as a women’s shelter. My parents thought it was important that I appreciate the difference between our home and what was out in the world though I don’t think my father at least really knew what I was being exposed to. I knew what abuse looked like even if I had never experienced it to any great degree. Hank was a pussy cat compared to what had happened to the girl and I felt both guilty and angry at the same time. It is so hard to hold something so broken and not know how to even begin to put the pieces back together.

That night I learned that Mateo had been working on one of our evacuation points when he’d heard them coming. One look was all it took. They were a motley crew of misfits.

“It was obvious that they were going to try and charm us first. A small group of them were clean and well-dressed; four of them, very neat and militarily attired though in a piecemeal kind of way. Their insignia didn’t really match what it was attached to.”

Shaking my head I said, “I’m not sure I would have caught that.”

“That was the point Leah. Most civilians wouldn’t. Frankly the only reason I noticed was because we’d had a couple of people try the same stunt when I was on duty at my first assignment and a wiser, more experienced Sergeant was at the gate with me and spotted the discrepancy. They were trying to break in and get some supplies they thought we were hoarding. Anyway, back to this morning … I knew right away it was a scam. There were another ten men that would remain with the two main vehicles while those four would drive a nice looking jeep up to us.”

“Bait and switch,” I muttered.

“More like sleight of hand. Distract with the pretty while the real bandits took up their positions and cut off any chance of escape.” He sighed. “Leah, I just started shooting. It was an opportunity I was unlikely to get again in the face of such a superior number. They didn’t expect it. Then the prisoners - I had not realized there were any at first - added their weight to the battle. When it was done I … ended the misery of those too injured to be saved. Yger and the girl were two of the three survivors to escape with their lives.”

“There was a third survivor?!”

“Yes, but he took the jeep and ran in the middle of the battle. Yger said that he saw him get hit but didn’t know how badly, one of the prisoners but apparently one too afraid to stand and fight. Tomorrow I’ll scout the area a little more and make sure that he is indeed gone.”

Quietly so as not to disturb our injured guests I said, “I saw you bring back what I suppose is the weapons they were using but what was everything else you put out in the barn?”

He answered me just as quietly but with some excitement. “One of the trucks had some supplies in it. The packaged items were only generically labeled so I assume they originally came from non-civilian supplies; maybe they raided a convoy. There were also a few things in there – obviously stolen – such as jewelry which they were dismantling. Gold and silver was being melted into ingots. The precious stones were being removed and separated into small boxes by type and size. It looked like an ongoing operation. There were also a couple of rolled up paintings that had been cut from their frames and were in tubes; I assume they are authentic. And there is a radio! I’m not sure how to work it yet but we should be able to power it. The two trucks are toast; bullets tore through the engine compartment and a couple of the tires. If I have to burn them in place I will but they are under tree cover so I may be able to just throw moss and other tree debris on them and if the grass fills back in they should remain hidden from any but a determined searcher. I’ve already disposed of the bodies by dumping them into a couple of septic tanks.”

Worried I asked, “Are you sure that this is the group that belongs with that ultralight we saw?”

At that point the Yger whispered, “Don’t mean to be rude and interrupt but figure that’s better than eaves dropping and leaving you to worry.”

I jumped a little and the man again apologized before continuing. “Guy in the plane went missing two weeks ago. The group used to be twice the size as it was but they fought and split up when the plane didn’t come back. The other half took three of the trucks and went off to see if they could find the pilot or plane and salvage anything from it, this group refused to hand over the coordinates for occupied locations that the pilot had located for plundering. There was a fire fight resulting in a couple of dead and injured bad guys but they eventually agreed to go their separate ways leaving things exactly as they had been. You were the last location on the list and the cherry on the sundae if I was able to understand them. The other occupied locations had more people but they weren’t near so well set up as you two appear to be. If you don’t mind my saying so.”

Looking him coolly in the eyes I told him, “You may say so but I would appreciate some discretion if you talk to anyone else.”

He grinned, “No kidding. Look, I’m no threat … or at least I don’t mean to be one. You’ve treated me better than I’ve come to expect people in the Outland to.”

“The Outland?” Mateo asked.

“Outland, Red Zones, Hot Zones, No Mans’ Land, whatever you want to call the quarantined areas around the bomb site radiuses. The kids have code names for everything it seems but mostly I think it is their way of compartmentalizing and controlling their fears. If you name something then you have some control over a person, place, or object.”

Mateo looked at me when I said, “How very tribal.” I’d seen the same thing in the highschool where I had taught. You called the kids by their nicknames, their gang names. They didn’t like you to call them by their legally given names because they acted like it was a threat somehow. When I noticed the look on the two men’s faces I said wearily, “Sorry. A double major in history and education can leave you kind of cynical on occasion.”

“Ah,” said Yger. “I thought you must’ve been a teacher of some type. You’ve got the Spock eyebrow down perfect.”

I said, “Excuse me?” But Mateo chuckled in obvious agreement.

Shaking my head I got up and brought some broth for them to eat returning to find Mateo and Yger in deep conversation. As I walked in Mateo explained, “They have three other caches that Yger knows of.”

The man in question nodded, “They probably have more but I only know for sure of the three they made after the main group split up. Basically more of the same that they had in the truck. I’m not sure I can tell you where they are at but they had it marked on maps that were kept in the sun visor of the two trucks.” He took a sip of his soup and the face he made you would have thought I’d given him haute cuisine. “This … is … sooooo … good. Thank you. I haven’t had a square meal in … well, way too long. I really do appreciate this. You didn’t have to bring us to your home.”

Mateo said, “Oh yes we did. I’m no Lot and this isn’t Sodom but I know when hospitality is called for.” He turned to see me spooning brother into the girl’s mouth. She wasn’t eager to eat but she didn’t fight me either. Mateo asked Yger, “The girl?”

The man shook his head sadly. “She was already a captive when I was taken from a caravan that was travelling between refugee camps and was already pretty much in the condition you see her in.” He added quietly, “All of it. It was sickening to have to bear witness …” Yger shuddered. “As soon as I can get back on my feet I want to take her to the main processing camp. They have trauma specialists there on staff. Major Taglione …”

Surprised enough that I almost spilled the broth I yelped, “Major?! It wasn’t that long ago that she was a Captain and before that a Sergeant!”

“You know Major Tag? She’s something else isn’t she?” Yger smiled in just as great a surprise as mine. “Tough as an old boar but strong enough to be kind when it suits the circumstances better. She’s a good foil for Major Dunham who is the type of person that brings to mind chewing on aluminum foil and who wants to have as little to do with the civilians as possible … but contrary to most people’s understanding it is mostly because it kills him by inches to see all the suffering and not be able to do much to alleviate it. They both serve under Col. Kilpatrick who answers to who knows at the moment. I don’t have the security clearance for information that high up.” Yger stopped for a moment and then asked diffidently, as if he’d suddenly become suspicious but was trying not to show it, “How would you have met Major Tag way out here? She’s been desk bound for some time now.”

I simply said, “It has been a while and we aren’t personal friends or anything. How do you know her so well?” It was an answer but gave no details.

“I’m one of the camp chaplains. Mostly I work with the adolescent pods … war orphans, runaways, that sort of thing. I had gone to help another chaplain set up a sub-processing station to help move those that can be moved out of the camps. It’s like pushing fledglings out of the nest a little at a time. Too few people want to go once they find out that they’ll be on their own. It’s the kids and young adults that usually want out when given the opportunity … or that have to be moved out if we find they get credited with too many behavioral incidences … and the Major is trying to get people moved before they get too comfortable and too dependent and become a long term problem for the government.”

Mateo asked, “Is that a concern?”

“Dependency? Oh yeah. Too many still have the idea that when everything is over with they’ll simply be able to go back to buying what they need from the store, getting money from the bank, a paycheck from a job, that sort of thing. The Major likes to encourage the ones that show gumption first, get them started in a business, trade, that sort of thing. With some cooperation from the higher ups she’s been able to get the camp self-sufficient but just barely. They expect this winter to be worse than the last, not because of the weather so much as that people have run through most of the commercially processed foods that were left after the bombs dropped. We need people willing to plan and do the work for their individual families. The government just isn’t set up for providing mass support like it is trying to do right now. They are trying to provide support for some of the major manufacturing to restart but that’s hit or miss based on resources available. Power is also hit or miss depending on damage to the infrastructure and how much electricity was locally produced. Everything from here on out … well, it looks like you two see it and have a handle on it. It’s almost going to be every family for themselves. The main processing camp has three large ag field areas, the smaller processing camps have at least one each for their own needs. The Major, from my understanding of what is being discussed in the staff meetings, wants to set up trade between the camps so that no one camp has to be completely on its own. That way if say Camp 2 has access to blueberries while Camp 3 mainly produces tomatoes or strawberries in quantity, the two camps can come to a mutually beneficial trade agreement. After the camps are taken care of then they’ll be encouraged to trade with any locals that don’t belong to specific camps or enclaves.”

Extremely interested in the concept I asked, “What about grains?”

“That is one of the major problems. The weather change has disrupted food production in all of North America … around the world actually.” The girl had finished her broth and I decided to brush and braid her hair so it wouldn’t get so many tangles in it. She started to relax and droop as I listened to Yger continue. “A surprising number of countries were dependent on exports of food from the US but as of the first nuclear attack all exports were stopped by Congress even if there had been an agreement or contract. Despite that and taking into account the large population decline, the national food reserves are almost gone and what is left is solely reserved for military and for government continuity purposes. All refugee camps in the country were forced to become self-supporting or watch their people die of starvation. Long supply lines just aren’t possible because of the war, lawlessness, lack of fuel, and breakdowns of equipment. There are a lot of no-fly zones so air transport is restricted as well. Florida’s weather change hasn’t been as totally destructive as what has occurred north of the state line but we still can’t grow wheat in any abundance around here. Corn yes, but that was affected by the torrential rains and the late frosts.”

I could see he was beginning to tire and looked at Mateo who told him, “Rest now. There’s always tomorrow.”

“Maybe, maybe not … but if there isn’t at least I know today has been a good one.”

The girl was also asleep sitting up so I laid her down, covered her nearly emaciated body, and then took care of my own children and husband. For the next three days I rarely left the family room for more than a few minutes at a time. I even slept in there because the girl would sometimes wake clawing at her own face in terror though she never made a sound.

It was the third day and Yger had finally gotten Mateo to concede that he could use some help trimming the Confederate Jasmine that had started to grow into the surrounding trees and out into the yard. I was once again trying to encourage the girl – by this time I realized she was either a developed tweenager or a young teenager – to feed herself with only partial success but it was more than she had done the first two days. A knock on the front door startled me as we rarely used it. I had it open to let the house air out. After telling the girl and my own children to be quiet I cautiously walked towards it. What met my eye sparked a temper that could run as hot as Mateo’s.

“What … on … Earth … are … you … doing?!” I picked up the broom from the corner where I had put it after sweeping the front porch and swung it at the red head that squawked and stepped back. “If you do not turn him loose right this …”

A surprised Mateo said, “Leah!” But a hearty laugh from the side of the house stopped me in my tracks. “Well, that answers that.”

“Capt. Tag … I mean Major Tag … Taglione … I mean … Oh my goodness. I … oh dear … are these some more of your puppies?”

That only set the woman off again and I swung to look at the red head and recognized the young man named Decker that I hadn’t seen since I had been pregnant with Neeno. “Um … sorry Decker.”

Instead of being indignant he grinned and nearly shouted, “Hey, you remember me! Major she remembers me!”

“Yes Decker, you’re just that hard for the ladies to forget. Now fetch Ricker and let’s see if we can put Eager here back together enough to transport him back to base.” As Mateo was released from where he’d been held with several guns pointed at him Tag explained, “Sorry about that. This is the first time I’ve been here and seen a man about the place.”

“Speaking of,” I interrupted still a little shook and irritated at what had greeted me. “What happened to being chained to a desk?”

She grimaced. “I escaped. That’s my normal position. Actually I was on my way back from a meeting of other refugee camp commanders and thought I would swing by here to see how you were doing. Imagine my surprise first to see Eager Beaver who’s been listed as MIA and then to see a man in your yard claiming to be your husband.”

“Oh good grief, he doesn’t really go by that name does he?” I asked rolling my eyes.

“Oh yeah,” she laughed. “The kids love him. Speaking of …?”

I turned and called Nydia to come to the door but she surprised me by bringing not only Neeno but leading the nameless girl by the hand. “Nonny, the girl was scared.”

“Oh dear,” I muttered and went over.

Mateo and Yger must have explained the situation because Capt … no Major Tag now … came over and gently looked the girl over. We were all silent when Decker came over to ask Tag something only to stop and stare at the girl before saying, “Hey … I think I know that girl. I … I think she is from Camp 14.”

Tag looked at Decker, “How sure is your think?”

“Pretty sure ma’am. I can check the log of missing persons. Does she have any birthmarks or distinguishing features?”

I said, “She has a strawberry birthmark in the center of her back.”

He nodded and ran off. Major Tag said, “We lost nearly half of Camp 14 a couple of months back. They were raided … sucker punched really … by a group claiming to be from the UN. It doesn’t matter how many times you warn some people, they’ll believe whatever it is they want to believe.” She noticed my significant look at Mateo. “Uh huh and I’ve given my husband a look like that more than a time or two. Perhaps … Mateo was it? … perhaps you would care to talk to Lt. Jenkins … that tall, skinny bean pole over there that barely looks old enough to shave … and Sgt. Weatherstone … now there’s a real man for you … and apprise them of the local situation.” I could tell from Mateo’s carefully blank look that he was still reserving judgment on Maj. Tag though he did as she asked. I suspect however that it was more because he wanted to pump them for information rather than for getting on the lady’s good side.

After he walked away Tag asked me, “Everything OK?”

I looked at her a little surprised that she would need to ask. “Of course … well beyond the obvious I mean. Why, what’s up?”

She sighed and then leaned against the column on the front porch. I asked her if she wanted to sit but she said, “No thank you. Do way too much of that lately or so it feels. I asked because … when soldiers come back from war they sometimes have a challenging time reintegrating with their families. Your husband was away quite some time, you … you learned to live without him, do things without his help, a baby was born.”

Beginning to understand I told her honestly, “It was … challenging … at first but more because Mateo had lived so long just to get home that his health failed him for a bit. He had a hard time believing he had actually made it at first, made worse by the fact that when he first got here … well, it wasn’t obvious I was still home. It shook him up. Shook me up for my prayers to be answer to be honest. There was some adjusting to do but more for me than him. But he’s been a good sport about it all.”

“A good sport?!” she chuckled. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it described quite like that before.”

“Honestly Tag, we’re fine. We’re actually better than fine. I needed him home, it was obvious. I couldn’t keep going the way I was going without some help. And it was obvious he needed me as well. We rebuilt from there. With no undue influence from outside people who might try to lay their expectations on us we’ve managed with only a few bumps along the way.”

She smiled and muttered sotto voice, “Oh good grief, a couple of romantics.” With a larger smile to let me know she was kidding she then asked, “What about supplies? Your set up is even sweeter than it was before … like the covered rows by the way and I’ll likely steal the idea so there … but the weather hasn’t exactly cooperated.”

I thought and then said what the heck, “Grains and sweetenings is what we are the worst off with. We can make do or substitute for everything but that. We’ve seen a few deer – Mateo even brought one down – and we have some pigs that we’ll slaughter once it really turns cold again. We’ve got gator until they hibernate or whatever it is they do. For eggs we have geese and ducks – tell your puppies to watch out because they can be more vicious than watch dogs – though I would love some chickens. Milk is a problem but I suppose it is for everyone at this point since you can’t exactly go pick it up at the corner market. The pecan trees don’t look like they are going to produce this year so that’s out. But we’re managing. Like I said it is mostly grains and sweetenings that worry me long term. The only thing we’ve been able to replace in those two areas are corn … and you can see the challenges of that for a family of any size plus the issue of grinding it into meal … and we’ve found a few stands of sugar cane for the kids to suck on as a treat.”

She nodded, “We’ve got the same issues at the camp. Everyone wants wheat and most of the wheat crop in this country has been destroyed by the weather, compromised by radiation, or intentionally sabotaged by our enemies. What wheat remains is precious and they’ve set aside as much as they can as seed for next season’s crop with the remainder …”

The disgusted look on her face that I saw before she tried to hide it had me saying, “Or has been designated for the elite and the have nots will just have to make do.”

She sighed and said, “I’m not in a position where I can confirm that either way. Another fun fact is that the sugar cane crop down in south Florida has taken a beating. The change in weather patterns brought some pretty ferocious storms that flooding fields and other stuff I didn’t get into. We’ve been replacing it with beet sugar when we can get it from the north, honey, and something called sorghum but the days of white processed cane sugar are over for a while. I’m surprised you didn’t mention tea or coffee.”

“I never was much of a coffee drinker and Mateo doesn’t complain though I know he misses it. For tea I just grow mint and chamomile and things like that.”

She blinked at me. “You make your own tea.”

I rolled my eyes, “I grow it but it isn’t the caffeinated, high test stuff that you are referring to.”

“I’m not talking about that. Seriously, you can make your own teas.”

“Unless you’ve got a black thumb you can too,” I told her laughing a bit at her incredulous expression. “It’s not magic, you just need to know which herbs make the best tea. I like the mints and the lemony flavored ones or chai tea is pretty good when I really need something special. Or I’ll add some dried orange rind to …”

“No … no more. My head is going to explode. Do you know what people would give to be have that back at my office? Drinking hot water just isn’t cutting it for most of us. It keeps us warm and hydrated but that’s about it.”

Tag was called away by the men that Mateo was speaking with and I went over to where Ricker the medic and a woman were examining the no-name girl. “Is she … well all right is a stupid question but is she …?”

The man sighed and said, “Under the circumstances it looks like you’ve done everything for her that can be done for her until she gets to the base hospital. The Chaplain said that he wants to take her back with us. Do you object to that?”

“No. Decker said that he thought he recognized her and if she can be reunited with her family that would at least be something for the poor kid. Um … look … do you have a moment?”

He stepped away with me and I told him what I’d seen while I had bathed her. He nodded. “I suspected as much given what the Chaplain said. We have a pretty good team on base for trauma cases. Unfortunately they’ve been seeing way too much of this kind of thing.”

At loose ends once the medic went back to the girl I turned to find Nydia still sitting on the porch and I went over to her. “I’m sorry Baby Doll. Do you feel left out?”

“No. Poppy is doing business and you were just taking care of the girl. She’s bad hurt in her heart isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said choked up at the childish simplicity of those words.

“She’s worse than Poppy was. Will she go away like Uncle Greg?”

I sighed. “She’s going away but not like Uncle Greg. She’s going where there are some people that can help her deal with her hurts.”

Nydia look at me seriously and said, “Good. Maybe she can find someone like you and Poppy to take care of her.”

“Now that sounds like a good idea.” Tag had come up with Mateo and the other men he had been speaking with.

Mateo had a look on his face that drew my attention. “Leah, Major Taglione would like for you to explain your gardening methods to one or two of their civilian ag specialists.”

I looked around searching for the catch. “And where are these ag specialists?”

Mateo’s lips twitched. “They plan on being back in a week with a crew. They would stay five to seven days, plenty of time for you to play la profesora and teach them what they need to know.”

“Ooooo kay, who let that particular cat out of the bag?” I looked at Mateo with an arched eyebrow that had the group trying not to laugh but he just looked completely innocent yet unrepentant at the same time which made me roll my eyes and shake my head.

He came over and kissed the top of my bandana covered head and said, “I’ll leave you to discuss it with your Major Tag but it is still your decision. If you do not feel up to it …” His open ended statement let everyone know that he would abide by my choice and support it fully. In his eyes though I could see that he was wheeling and dealing and would like me to consider it.

I nodded so that he would know I understood and then turned to Tag and asked, “What all would this visit entail? Would I need to feed them?”

“No,” she assured me. “My goal is to make this a mutually beneficial meeting. An exchange of information and good will that could lead to a trade partnership down the road.”

“What about quartering?”

“They’ll have a hard-side trailer. Technically the Ag guys are civilians but since they’ll be traveling with a military unit we don’t want to get in trouble with the 3rd Amendment. I got enough of the Constitutionalists breathing down my neck without adding to it unnecessarily.” At my surprised look she snorted in a most unladylike manner. “I don’t blame them, agree with them to be honest, but they don’t make my job any easier. Most of them are OK but there are a few that are a pain in the backside and don’t know as much as they think they know; they interpret it to their benefit rather than to the intent of the Founders. They’ve caused as much trouble for their own people as they have for mine. But even the worst of that lot is better than some of the people who think they are the next generation of leaders. If I have to deal with one more so-called community activist I’m liable to forget and just nail all of those agitators to the outside wall.”

You could hear the real disgust and anger in her voice and I was thankful that I wasn’t walking in her boots. Managing my own household was enough of a challenge thank you very much. Fifteen minutes later they were heading out and both Mateo and I had a lot to plan and discuss.

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