As tired as I was I still didn’t sleep long. For some reason I kept imagining that I was hearing Daniel up and wandering around … and dreaming that he got into something that hurt him … or Jeff going outside and never coming back. Even at thirteen I knew it was all psychological because I was anxious but no way would those words have left my mouth exactly like that.
It was more tiring jumping up and down than it was just to go ahead and get up. Besides I knew it was time I let it out and cry in private or I was going to wind up doing something embarrassing in front of Jeff and scaring Daniel in the process. I wandered around the cave in my socks and scuffy slippers, noticing all the things that Dad had mentioned doing that he’d never get a chance to and seeing all the things Momma meant to put away and hadn’t had time to. I wanted to go into their bedroom but I just couldn’t do it; it was hard enough running across the family pictures that Momma had stacked in different places meaning to hang them up just as if we'd simply moved into a new house.
Every once in a while my eyes would get watery but that was about it. I missed them but at the same time it was kind of comforting to know that they were out of all of this and with each other. It felt like they were some place waiting for us and that someday I’d see them again. It was when I looked in on Daniel that I got upset.
I didn’t know how I was going to take care of him. I knew it was my place more than it was Jeff’s. I also knew that Jeff would leave … maybe not tomorrow but eventually he would leave. I think he needed to as much as I had needed to do those things at the re-education camp. But I was thirteen and Daniel could be a handful for Momma and Dad to manage and they were parents and grown adults. He only minded me when he felt like it. How was I supposed to suddenly become both parents to him when I still needed my parents myself?
Then I just switched it off. I didn’t stop thinking about it exactly but it was either box it up and put it on a shelf or lose it and make things even harder. I walked into the kitchen area and before I even realized what I was doing I was making one of Daniel’s favorite desserts.
When Daniel was really little they wondered if he was like he was because of allergies and one of the allergies they tested him for was dairy proteins. I remember that and when they tested to see if he was allergic to wheat and corn. It was awful. Momma thought that if Daniel had to suffer through it then the rest of us did too. About the only good thing that came out of those tests was some recipes that Momma kept making. One of them was a cake recipe this real old lady in our church gave us that she said came from back around the Civil War.
You start by putting a cup of brown sugar, a cup of cold water, one and a half cups of raisins, a third cup of shortening, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg, a half teaspoon of cloves, and a half teaspoon of salt in a big pan and heat it up and then boil it for three minutes solid. At the end of three minutes you take it off the burner and mix in a teaspoon of baking soda that you’ve dissolved in two tablespoons of water, two cups of flour, and a half teaspoon of baking powder.
Takes a pretty strong elbow to do this but once you’ve done it, you pour it into a prepared cake pan and bake it thirty-five to forty minutes in a 350 degree F oven … or if you don’t know exactly what your temp is like you are cooking in a cranky wood stove or fireplace, it is finished when a toothpick stuck in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
While the cake baked I made easy potato soup. First I brought eight cups of water to a boil and then I dumped in three cups of instant potato flakes, one cup powdered coffee creamer, one package of chicken gravy mix, two tablespoons of dried parsley flakes, a quarter cup of Parmesan cheese from the shaker, two tablespoons of Italian seasoning, one teaspoon of dried minced onion, and half a teaspoon of pepper. I stirred it a minute until it thickened and then took it off the heat.
I turned around and ran smack into Daniel. I don’t know how long he’d been standing there but he was soaked through, lucky for me it was just from sweat.
“I know, he’s tired. He helped us get home.”
“This is the cave.”
“This is the cave. The house is home.”
Uh oh. I wasn’t ready for this.
“Remember? We brought all our stuff here so this is home now.”
“This is the cave.”
I wasn’t going to argue with him, not when he was finally talking again so I decided just to get him dressed and try and get him to let me do something with his hair. Forget the scissors, as soon as he saw them out of the corner of his eye he jerked away from me.
“Oh all right Daniel but your hair is full of knots. It’s going to hurt for me to try and comb them out.”
“Daddy went to Heaven.”
I couldn’t even breathe so I ignored what he said.
“Mommy went to Heaven.”
He was waiting for me to say something. Finally I managed, “They’re up there together.”
“Yep. The man told me.”
Suspicious I asked, “What man?”
“The man with the red X on his purse.”
I figured he meant one of the red cross workers. Jeff, who’d woken up too stood in the bathroom door and said, “What did the man look like?”
“He had a red x on his purse.” I looked at Jeff and he shrugged like it had been worth a shot. Daniel didn’t really see people, he saw things and apparently the only thing about this man that he’d noticed was his red cross bag.
I’d done just about all I could with Daniel’s hair so I said, “Then come on. Let’s eat.”
Daniel nearly fell asleep in his plate again so Jeff carried him to bed and once he was down he didn’t move.
“Any more soup left?”
“About half a bowl. You want it?”
“You didn’t eat did you?” he asked. It was more a statement than a question.
“Almost a whole bowl so don’t be an old fuss budget.”
“Dacey, if we’re going to work together I wish you wouldn’t be so … so snarkey.”
Knowing he was right and admitting he was right wasn’t the same thing but I finally said, “I don’t really mean to be Jeff. Things are just … just …”
“God awful. Yeah, I get that. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that my own dad died. I wish I could tell you that it gets easier but it doesn’t, it just gets different kinds of hard. But it does stop … stop feeling like your brain is going to explode … eventually anyway. I miss Uncle John real bad too. He did more for me in less than a year than … than my dad did for most of my life. I loved my dad Dacey and Uncle John let me go on loving him even though I got dumped on him with no warning. Your dad was a good man. And your mom was cool too. They were good people and I know they never meant for you … for any of us … to wind up like we have.”
I shrugged. “I don’t blame them if that’s what you think. I blame the blue hats. And I blame our so-called friends that didn’t stop the Blue Hats even more. What happened isn’t fair but it isn’t my parents’ fault.”
“Ok. I was just wondering. I … well … I blamed my dad for stuff but your folks … you know?”
I shrugged again. I seemed to be doing it a lot. “Yeah, I know.”
He finished the soup and I did the dishes again. Momma and I had always done the kitchen clean up. Looks like it was going to be my job alone from here on out.
I turned around and looked at Jeff who was standing in front on the pantry. “You still hungry?” I asked.
No … well, yes but that’s not what I was asking about. Didn’t Uncle John have a big notebook around here with that inventory he kept up?”
“Probably in the file cabinet by his desk. Why?”
“Come on Dacey, you know why.”
I did know, I just didn’t want to think about it. “You think it is going to get bad here like it is every place else in the world and that we’re going to run out of food.”
“I don’t know about run out of food. Uncle John seemed to have a pretty good plan.”
“Over three years.”
“Momma said that there was enough grain and canned goods to last more than three years plus all that weird stuff Daddy bought online. But that was before y’all slaughtered the cows and pigs and we had to preserve all of that on top of everything else we already had. I heard her and Dad talking about it. Momma thought he was going a little over board and he was telling her … I don’t wanna talk about it.” I said turning away.
“Dacey, we gotta talk about it. Things have changed; Uncle John isn’t here to make the plans anymore. I know I’m the oldest and I’m supposed to do it since he isn’t here but I don’t think I can, not without … you know … you helping. Your parents raised you to do this stuff, I only know enough to barely get by.”
I looked at him and saw how it must have hurt his pride to say it so I figured it must really be true. “I guess neither one of us has a choice.”
“Sure we do. We can sit down and feel sorry for ourselves and let the bad stuff win.”
I rolled my eyes, “Forget it. You might be able to swing Daniel like that but that hasn’t worked on me since I got into middle school. I’m not stupid Jeff.”
“I didn’t say you was.”
“No … but maybe I was acting like it. And maybe you’re just trying to work me around so that when you leave you can do it with a clear conscious.”
I walked over and opened the filing cabinet and pulled the big D-ring binder out and then put it on the table before sitting down. “You are going to leave. We both know it. We just don’t know when you are going to leave. But maybe before you leave we could figure some stuff out.”
He sat down in one of the other chairs. “You’re mad.”
“I was. But I’m not right now. I might get mad again. Depends. So maybe you need to go. Maybe I need to let you go. Maybe that’s just the way things are … people have to leave. Some of them come back, some of them don’t. But I’ll be like really made if you leave and don’t come back sometimes at least.”
Jeff sighed and then said, “Dacey I swear you make my head hurt. How about this? I won’t leave until I’m sure you and Daniel will be OK, or at least as OK as things can be.”
Something made me say, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
“Now what’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I just … it just seems like after what happened to Dad and Momma … and Daniel … it is bad luck to just make promises like that.”
He didn’t say anything to that but instead started looking at the binder. “I wasn’t here when Uncle John started doing all of this but he showed it to me. I guess he wanted me to know that I was really family.”
“Yeah. That’s what he told me. He said you were going to be like our big brother and that’s the way we should think of you.”
Jeff got a funny look on his face, “He said that?”
“Sure. It’s not your fault that your dad made choices to … um … be wild and junk.”
He didn’t have anything to say about that either.
“Dacey, how come you can cook like you do? Monica can’t cook worth nothing. Jackson was always ribbing her about it.”
“Yeah, well Momma wasn’t our housekeeper, she was our Momma. And Momma was real nice about some stuff but you know she could be a real bear about things too. No mud in the house, everybody had to help with laundry, if you put food on your plate you were going to finish it or you wouldn’t get anything else until you did, and even Daniel could make his own bed … sorta.”
“Your mom was totally nice. I never ever heard her holler about anything.”
“Sure she was. But that’s because I wasn’t stupid enough to go around breaking the rules just because I could. See she …” and with no warning it hit me and I did what I said I wasn’t going to do; I started crying. I missed Momma. I missed her bad. I realized that she wouldn’t be around to tell me what to do anymore, that I’d have to figure out everything on my own. I’m not a big noisy crier like some girls are, my tears just kind of leak out … but the hurt settles in my chest and makes it hard to breathe.
I think I remember Jeff patting me on the back and telling me to go lay down for a while and that we’d talk later. All I know for sure is that I woke up in my bed with Daniel in there with me and something smelling like it was burning coming from the kitchen.
I jumped and ran down to where the kitchen was. Jeff was trying to cook some eggs and having a hard time of it.
“Stove’s too hot,” I told him as I took the skillet from him and moved it away from the heat.
“How the heck do you tell?! I only put a little bit of wood in it. There aren’t any knobs on this thing,” he said in obvious frustration.
“Practice. Lots and lots of practice. Just pretend you are cooking over a campfire and adjust from there. Where’d the eggs come from?” I asked thinking he’d gone out without telling me.
“The cooler. Everything in there looks OK except for a few pieces of sliced cheese that are hard on the corners.”
“Did you check to see if the warning light was on … the one Dad set up to come on if there was a power interruption?”
“Yes Granny,” he teased, relieved I think to see I was over crying for a while.
The eggs were a little crispy around the edges but they weren’t bad. I fried up some canned potatoes and made some pan biscuits to go with the eggs and even Daniel held out his plate for more. It was the first of many good signs. Instead of going back to sleep or acting like a zombie Daniel pulled out his blocks and started playing with them without even being encouraged to do so. He even put on the fleeze scuffy slippers that Momma made him wear around the house when it was cold outside. While he did that Jeff and I went over the cave and everything in it.
When we were through Jeff said, “I’ll finish putting the shelves together and nail up all of the molding your dad already cut, but not tonight. I need to check out the house and I think it is better that I do it at night.”
“Don’t you mean we need to check out the house?”
“Dacey, let me go the first time by myself. I promise that if everything is all right we’ll try and all go tomorrow or the next day.”
I wanted to argue but maybe I was starting to learn so I didn’t. It was real hard to let him do it his way but I did.
“I don’t plan on being there long. Figure half hour there and back, plus half hour or so at the house, so call it two hours more or less. You cool with that?” He acted like I was Daniel's age.
“Relax Jeff. Dad made sure I could spend the night in the cave by myself before you came to live with us. That’s one of the reasons Momma made him put the door on the cave before he got it all prettied up. When she wasn’t around he used to fuss about how much trouble it was getting wide stuff through the doorway.”
“Seriously. Dad is … I … I mean … he … Dad was really cool,” I finally managed to stutter out.
Jeff nodded solemnly and said, “Yeah, yeah he was.” After sighing sadly he hefted a lightweight backpack he had set aside earlier. He was walking towards the exit door when he did this weird kind of dance that made him look like he was having a seizure. “Rrrrr!” he growled while slamming his fist down on his thigh.
“Dang it. Dang it, dang it, dang it!! Stupid. Geez!!”
“Yo Jeff!! You’re kinda freaking me out. Enough being weird already.”
He was smushing his hat down over his ears. “The radios.”
As soon as he said it I felt pretty stupid too. “Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh. Look, while I’m gone put the radios to charge. I’ll run the antenna up the trees tomorrow. Maybe we can hear what is going on, get a better idea of how bad things are.”
Walking over to the cabinet where the little hand held radios were kept I said, “Uh huh, and find out if we can pick up stuff from the grocery store or if they are closed.”
Jeff shook his head. “Dacey I don’t think we could get to the grocery store even if it is still open. That would be a good way to get picked up by the Blue Hats all over again.”
“I know that, but we still need to find out if there is any food out there. Dad used to talk about that a lot. Remember he said that if the grocery stores closed it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“All bets would be off at that point. Yeah, he explained it to me. He said people in general will follow whoever has the food. Control the food, control the people.” I handed him a canteen of water and a Clif bar to still in his pack then he left making sure that I locked it behind him.
The situation we found ourselves in started feeling bigger. When it was just my parents it was just my world and I didn’t have to share my fear or sadness with anyone, it was mine and I could be selfish with my fear. It was mine and no one else could understand it. If the problem was more than just my parents being gone then I had to accept that other people scared and sad too and that maybe I couldn’t control things the way I wanted to.