So he left the next night and we waited … and waited … and waited. After two weeks you kind of have to admit to yourself that someone isn’t coming back. If I had been alone I would have tried to find out what happened to Jeff. But I wasn’t alone. My little brother needed me. If something happened to me he’d never be able to take care of himself. Every time I thought about going off to look … whether that looking included finding Jeff or just finding out what was going on … all I had to do was look at Daniel and I knew I couldn’t do it.
After a month I figured it was just like my parents. Jeff was gone and there was no real reason, it just happened whether I wanted it to or not. So I boxed up his stuff and put it into the back storage area with my parents’ clothes. It was hard but it was harder listening to Daniel ask where Jeff was over and over again, like he expected me to suddenly have a different answer to his question. I cried some, sometimes even in front of Daniel, but you can’t cry forever. God just didn’t put us humans together that way. Eventually even the worst kind of sore heart begins to heal … or at least it begins to callous over enough that you don’t feel like you are bleeding to death all the time.
Besides it was spring time and that’s went you start working the garden getting it ready to plant. I treated the grow rooms the same way Momma had treated the greenhouse and it was actually easier because there weren’t any bugs or animals to eat our growing things. Of course that meant that there weren’t any bugs or insects or birds to pollinate the plants so as they grew and bloomed I had to do the work those types of things would have. Sometimes I could just knock the heads together but usually I had to use a little paint brush to take the pollen off of the male flowers and dab it into the female flowers. Even when the flowers were both male and female I still had to make sure and cross pollinate as much as possible.
It was a lot of work and took a lot of patience but I didn’t have to do it alone. I was surprised. Daniel turned out to be really good at the close work. It fascinated him. He was so careful he never even bruised a stem or bloom.
We did most of the chores together except for cooking. Having Daniel near the stove nearly gave me a heart attack every time so I just gave up on it. We’d have dinner then I’d pop a bowl of popcorn for dessert if there wasn’t any cake or cookies or something like that. But Daniel wouldn’t eat plain popcorn, he had to have butter popcorn or sprinkles on it. Sometimes we would have Mexicali butter which was butter with taco seasoning and chives in it. Sometimes we would have Garlic butter which had a whole clove of garlic to three tablespoons of butter. Parmesan cheese butter was another good one as was something my parents called Simon and Garfunkel butter that had rosemary and thyme in it.
While Daniel at the popcorn or some other dessert I would read him stories. His favorite was the Daniel stories of course, especially Daniel in the lions’ den. I made sure he didn’t forget how to read or how to do his sums. Actually the gardening helped with that more than anything. Daniel’s memory had always been good and he was an incredible mimic but all the practice just made his memory that much better.
I taught him the same foraging skills that Momma had taught me and he taught me where Momma had started patches of herbs and let them run wild and where they used to pick mushrooms. While it was spring we foraged for fiddleheads, wild asparagus, burdock, chicory, dandelion, lamb’s quarter, all of the mints, mushrooms, wild mustard, poke, plantain leaves, wild ginger, sassafras, sorrel, and lots of other stuff.
To keep from stripping the land around the sink completely we began to wander into the BLM following the little stream that started as the runoff from our spring. There we found cattails and I fixed them in a lot of different ways. When the sprouts were young and tender we ate them in salads and in rice pilaf. When the flower heads were still tight I would boil them and make cat-on-the-cob, something Daniel really liked. I also pickled the tight flower heads and they kept for quite a while. When the pollen began to get fuzzy and shed I would collect it and make biscuits and pancakes by replacing some of the flour with the pollen.
We also gathered small wood branches to bring back to add to our wood pile. We sometimes picked wildflowers and carried them with us as we traipsed all over. When we returned to the sink we would give the flowers and seed heads to the chickens as a treat. Usually while we were out Daniel would take a jar and we’d catch a bunch of bugs or dig up some worms to take back to the chickens too. I would cook the foraged items outside or we’d eat the raw forage outside like we were having a picnic after I had cleaned it with boiled water. Nothing we picked outside ever came inside the cave, we couldn’t risk it.
Spring ended and summer began. Daniel turned nine years old and I noticed his pants and shirt sleeves were getting short but there wasn’t much I could do about it. Then his shoes got too small and that was worse. I eventually had to cut the toes out of his boots and he thought that was the best thing ever. “My toes can breathe Dacey!” It meant darning his socks over and over as he hung them up on things but I was too scared to let him run barefooted in case he got cut on something. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a tetanus shot.
I was having the same problem as Daniel. My pants didn’t get as short as his but I was still wearing high waters. I just pulled my socks up over my pants legs to keep the ticks out. When my shoes started pinching I started wearing Momma’s. I set mine aside thinking that maybe Daniel could grow into them but they were in pretty rough shape. We'd be pretty desperate if all we could come up for him was girl's hiking boots.
During the summer we picked bee balm, blackberry and raspberry, daylilies, ground cherries, huckleberries, may apples, mulberries, wild onions, wild garlic, wild grapes, pawpaws, the berries of spring beauty, wild plums and wild strawberries. As the sounds on the radio lessened and got fewer and farther between I risked returning to the farme orchard and picking what domestic fruit the trees produced. I even braved going near the road to get to the wild rose hips that grew there along the fence.
Every day we brought our bounty back to the sink and cooked it down and bottled it and then sterilized the containers again before taking them into the cave. But we got more wild forage than we did out of the orchard. The trees made less than a quarter of what they had done when my parents tended to them and I don’t think it was just because there hadn’t been any manure to throw on them. Something was wrong with the trees. I mean they grew and looked healthy, but they didn’t put off a lot of blooms and then what fruit there was had a bad habit of falling off and rotting before it was ripe enough to eat. It had to be Heart Rot settling in at the farm just like every place else.
On my birthday I made us a picnic and we went to the old house again, just for the memories though Daniel seemed to be forgetting more and more as the weeks, and then months, went by. He knew Dad and Momma’s pictures but it was distant, like they were a dream he was having a hard time remembering.
At the farm the grass grew so tall around the house that you couldn’t even see the porch. I had to break a trail with a machete just to keep the Johnson grass from slicing open our faces. We spent the day playing around as if I was still a kid and we both had a ton of fun. It went on for a long time. I wasn’t paying the attention I should have and we got caught in a thunderstorm late in the day. We didn’t have any choice but to stay in the old house overnight and lightening crashed and the thunder boomed even louder than the fireworks had at my last birthday.
I vowed to never get caught like that again just for lack of using some sense. Daniel was terrified and after months of having the sturdy cave walls between us and everything else the walls of the house felt paper thin and absolutely no protection. The shadows thrown on the walls by the light show kept me awake even more than the noise did. I would have moved us to the basement but it was like a science experiment down there as the hot water tank had rusted out and the damp caused mushrooms and mildew to start growing.
The biggest thing that that night convinced me of was that there was no going back, not even in pretend land. Dad and Momma were really and truly gone. Jeff was gone. It seemed like everyone was going in one way or another except for me and Daniel. It had been a long time since I’d heard a motor of any type and even longer since I’d heard people. I decided it was time for me to start forgetting a bit as well or at least stop picking at the sore so a scab could form even if it left a scar.
Summer turned to autumn and there were so few apples on the trees that after trying to make applesauce from one puny and pithy bushel basket full that took me most of the morning to gather I simply left the rest to Daniel to eat fresh. They didn't even taste that great, more like crab apples than table apples.
We did better with the wild forage but even that was a lot less than it had been the previous year. Amaranth heads were smaller and fewer. Black cherries and black haws were barely big enough to be worth doing anything with. The elderberry heads barely had any berries to get ripe. It was like something was sucking the life out of any fruits or seeds the trees and plants tried to make. The Jerusalem artichokes from the edge of the fallow field were OK but the ones we grew in the grow rooms were much bigger and better. I left the sumac and goldenrod to the birds who were looking hard up; everywhere you turned they were fussing and fighting with each other, like they knew this might be their last meal for a long time. I didn’t bother with the wild rice either knowing that the water birds would need everything they could find to make the trip south if they were ever to make it or come back. Hardly any hickory nuts made. I was lucky enough to get to a walnut tree when I did because when I went back the next day it had been stripped clean by all of the wild animals.
Dad had taught me to bow hunt and I took three good sized bucks. I also took two small boars that were tearing up the roots under some of the trees. You could tell they’d been fighting too as they had recent tusk marks along their sides. I figured I was doing a humane act as there sure didn’t look like there was going to be enough winter forage for all of the wild critters roaming around. I also snared some rabbits and squirrels.
The hides from all of those I stretched the best way I could, following the directions in some of the books that had belonged to my parents, and set them in the trees. I made the mistake of leaving one hide down on the ground and something found it and savaged it until it was useless, ruining all of the work I had done. I couldn’t afford for that to happen twice. Winter was coming and Daniel needed some new shoes and I was the only one around that was going to be able to make him some.
It was about a week after I took the third buck when Daniel started getting bored and teasing me so bad early one morning it was like to drive me crazy. I had a lot of work to do but I couldn’t get anything done so I decided to wear him out with a good hike into the BLM to see what we could see. I grabbed our packs and stuffed them with some snacks and drinks and I grabbed my bow just on the off chance I got lucky. I also had Daniel grab a fishing pole as I had in mind to hike all the way to one of the lakes if we could.
I guess all the work and constant hiking hadn’t hurt us none. We got all the way to the lake before lunch when before it would have been an all day hike with only enough daylight left to make camp for the night. But we didn’t get any fishing done. I hadn’t given any thought to the campsites that were up that way. You couldn’t drive to them so I didn’t figure there would be anyone there.
There wasn’t, but there had been. Daniel stiffening up and going all weird on me told me he felt something before I saw it. There were about a dozen tents set up in the process of being retaken by nature. Next to the tents were a few four-wheelers and a couple of trail bikes. No one was home and I wanted to go investigate but Daniel had me in a death grip.
I finally got him to switch his hold from my arm to my belt. Everything was so quiet. I went over to the machines first. I knew immediately something bad must have happened because there were bullet holes in the fuel tanks, seats, lights and wheels. Looking at the trees next to the machines I could see where they had been hit too; old tear drops of tree sap were still visible so it must have happened back in the spring.
Daniel started tugging at me so hard I nearly lost my breath. I turned and his head crashed into my chest to hide his face. I put my arms around him and he was shaking like a leaf. Looking over him I saw a body … or what used to be one from the looks of it. Animals had scattered or carried off parts of it but the rib bones showed through a tattered jacket.
“It’s OK, nothing here can hurt you. That’s in God’s hands now so we are going to not worry about it and leave it to Him.” I don’t know how much Daniel was listening to me but just saying it made me feel better.
“C’mon, let’s go Dacey. Let’s go away.”
“We will, just let me look around. There might be useful stuff here. Remember what we said? We need to keep our eyes out for useful stuff like Dad used to.”
Telling him that we would leave after we looked around let him know that we wouldn’t be here long. He wasn’t real good at telling time even on his best days but he understood that time passed. All he needed to know was that as soon as some time passed we’d leave and that satisfied him enough that he stopped fighting me so hard.
There’d been more people. I saw signs of at least six or seven, it was hard to tell as the bits and pieces of them were scattered about but none were in the tents. Most things in the tents were ruined by animals chewing in and then on. Down sleeping bag stuffing spread all over was a common sight whenever I opened a tent. The weather had gotten to a lot of other stuff but I went over to the pull behind trailers that had been brought in by the four wheelers, peeled back the rotting tarps, and finally found some things worth bothering about. Right on top I found a couple of those steel folding utility trolleys that hunters use sometimes to cart their game out with. One of the two was rusted at one of the bendy places but I used the oil dipstick from one of the machines to grease up the joint and after I kicked it, it opened right up the way it was supposed to. Since they had solid wheels I didn’t have to worry about flats.
It looked like someone had bought out a Campmor store. There were a couple of stoves and some of those little containers of white fuel. There was a lot of bug spray and I squirted Daniel and I down as soon as I found it. I was always careful to check us over for ticks every day but having bug spray with deet in it wasn’t going to hurt none at all. There were a couple of wind up and solar radios still in their boxes and quite a few LED flashlights, headlamps, and lanterns too. There were other nifty gadgets like compasses, a GPS (useless to me so I didn’t take it), walking sticks, emergency kits, waterproof matches, and just a lot of stuff that looked like someone would buy when they had more money than sense or experience.
I was dividing the stuff out between the two wagons when Daniel tapped my shoulder and pointed up. I’m sure my mouth must have fallen open. Hanging in the tree were two plastic barrels. I followed the ropes off into the bushes and saw that the heavy duty lines were tied off to some hooks driven into the ground. It wasn’t easy but we managed to get the two barrels down without dropping them even though the rope was rotted in a couple of spots.
The barrels weren’t real big but I recognized them for what they were. They were those fancy-schmancy bear proof containers like we used at summer camp. It took me a while to find something that I could use to open them up with since I didn’t have a quarter to fit in the slot of the flat, spring loaded lids. Finally found a flat head screwdriver in the camping junk. I couldn’t believe what was in there.
The first one was full of those freeze dried meals from Alpineaire, Mountain House, Natural High and Richmoor. They must have cost a small fortune. Dad had always said that the only reason he would buy stuff like that was if Momma couldn’t make something better. Since she could and then dry it so all we had to do was add boiling water at camp he would never give into my pleading to try just one. I did get to taste freeze dried ice cream like the astronauts ate one time when we went to Cape Canaveral on a family vacation but it was an expensive treat. The other container was full of powdered drinks like Gatorade and coffee, energy shots, and trail bars like Clif and Luna bars. I put the heavier of the two containers in the wagon that I was going to pull and the lighter one in the wagon I hoped Daniel would be able to pull.
When I turned back to the tarp covered trailers I realized I had gone through just about everything but one big box. I knew what was in it as soon as I tried to pick it up. It was an ammo box similar to the ones that Dad had stored at the cave. No guns. I assumed that they were buried and scattered in the woods just like the bodies were, it wasn’t worth hunting for them as I was sure the weather had ruined them. I would have left the ammo behind because it was so heavy but figured better safe than sorry. Even if I couldn’t use all of the types of ammo for Dad’s guns I didn’t want anyone else to have it either just in case they decided to use it against us. A year ago I wouldn’t have had such sophisticated thoughts but I was growing up the hard way and learning to think ahead.
It was dark by the time we made it back to the sink. Daniel was so tired he nearly fell down the steps. I left the wagons where they were, cleaned him up and then carried him to bed even though he was too big for me to be doing that anymore. He was asleep before I could even put him down. He hooted at me a bit which meant he was on the border of losing his speech again so I decided as soon as I got the stuff from the wagons in I’d clean up and just sleep in his room with him rather than worry about him getting up before me and wandering around.
For the next couple of days we were both sore and Daniel was a bit irritable. I fixed him a pineapple bread pudding for dessert and he finally forgave me and got rid of his sour mood.
In a large bowl I beat together one half cup of butter, one cup of sugar and a half teaspoon of cinnamon. Then I added four eggs from our chickens who were still laying and beat it all until it was light and fluffy. Then I folded in a fourteen ounce can of pineapple, two cups of bread cubes, and a quarter cup of chopped walnuts then poured the whole mess into a greased 1 1/2-quart casserole. I bake it in a preheated 350° oven for roughly forty minutes. The recipe doesn’t make a huge pudding but it was more than enough for Daniel and I.
About a week after we found the camp we had our first frost. It wasn’t a hard frost but the change in the weather was really noticeable. Other people were noticing it as well; they sounded like they were panicking when I listened to them on the radio. Rationing was really bad and people were starving right out in the open, no one tried to hide it anymore. And you could be arrested and all of your property confiscated just on the suspicion of hording. They didn’t have to prove anything and there was no appeal process. That really stunk and I was gladder every day that Daniel and I were well out of it.
Sometimes I would stop and wonder what had happened to the people I knew … my youth group at church, my aunts and their families, my friends at school, all of the adults I used to know like my Sunday School teacher who was also my 4H leader … but it was far away and a life time ago and the wondering didn’t last long since I usually had a lot to occupy my time. Daniel and I were only two people but it was still a lot of work to keep up with the grow rooms, the chickens, the laundry and cooking, the cleaning and everything else … and then there was trying to keep up with Daniel. He minded me pretty well most of the time but he wasn’t a very little boy anymore and sometimes I wondered if I had a hard time with him now how was I supposed to handle things when Daniel got big, maybe even bigger than me. I didn’t think about that long either, it was just too much and it hurt my head.
I had enough on my plate. We weren’t suffering like a lot of other people sounded like they were suffering but I knew things could get bad quick if I wasn’t careful.