I looked at AJ and thought have some patience indeed. He’s lucky I didn’t have a flyswatter near or I would have popped him the same way my grandmother used to take after the boys for slamming the screen door.
AJ cleared his throat and asked me, “Should you go up and … er … check … I mean … er …”
“Hannah needs some time to gather herself. I’ll check on her in a bit. She probably won’t talk to me until I’ve heard it all anyway,” I told him, not willing to be pushed in a direction that would bear no fruit. Hannah could be obstinate and she’d signaled, in her way, she’d only be willing to talk to me after I’d listened to the rest of the story.
He sighed but then continued. “We spent most of the night moving stuff from that tunnel and loading it into the suburban. I kept a supply of fuel secreted with my getaway stuff. Usually I kept more than I had there but the market had been so hot – you won’t believe what people are willing to pay or trade for a simple gallon of fuel – I wanted to make a profit and it ended up costing me instead; I didn’t know at the time how much.” He raked a hand through his hair and then said, “As we moved in and out of the tunnel you could feel the vibration of big trucks going by on the street above us. I had thought to empty the tunnel then rest but something told me not yet. We went back to the warehouse and starting on the third floor where sewing machines are …”
“Why are the sewing machines up stairs?” I asked, interrupting him despite myself.
“Less power loss, what they tell me is called voltage drop. At one time we had solar panels up there and the shorter the power cords the less power loss, hence the reason for the machinery being on the third floor. It was breezier up there too. With the windows open the lint blew outside rather than remaining inside for people to inhale like it did during the industrial revolution causing all of those lung ailments in the loom factories.”
“Solar panels?!” Dino and Alec asked excitedly completely ignoring everything else AJ had said.
He shook his head and opined, “They aren’t there anymore. The government sent out confiscation notices and came when I wasn’t around to do anything about it.”
I thought “why you awful liar.” I knew for a fact exactly where at least some of them panels were but that was his business and he had trusted me to keep my mouth shut. But I would never lie to Dino if he asked me or brought it up and AJ knew it, so he glossed over it and distracted the two men onto the next part of the tale.
“Hannah found some sewing supplies and must have taken every needle out of every machine that was left. She wouldn’t leave that floor until she had stripped every machine and supply cabinet. She’s as bad a pack rat as you are Riss,” he said. The words made it seem like a criticism but the tone made it sound like a compliment. I begin to have thoughts about Mr. AJ and Miss Hannah Banana that might very well come to something if either one of them could unbend their pride enough. “The second floor is – or was – normally full of final products awaiting shipment and a few office cubicles but most of the final products were gone. There were a few bags of scrap material and a couple of bundled clothing orders that had been missed so those we hauled down stairs along with all of the spare parts that were on hand. The offices were pretty cleaned out except for mine and I’ve never kept much there anyway. First floor had even less than the top two but we did grab the big fire extinguishers, the fire ax and a couple of other odds and ends. Hannah had agreed to leave the corpses alone in the corner but then said we needed to search them to see if they had anything worth salvaging. I don’t know if she was trying to prove something to me or herself but she stood right there as I rifled through their pockets and found a few things; it was like she needed to know they were going to stay dead. Occasionally I would hear some banging around outside like someone was checking to see if they could get in but no one tried to force their way in, at least not right then.”
“Last thing we did was haul the water cooler jugs over. Hannah had been a trooper and despite mostly showing commonsense I could see she wasn’t going to stop until I did no matter what condition she was in. My head was pounding by that point and I knew we both needed to eat. We availed ourselves of the lavatories and then headed over to spend the night with the suburban. I can’t even remember what we ate, I think it was dried fruit and ration bars that I had … er … requisitioned from this place I know. As soon as the food got into our system we crashed. The car was hidden behind a false wall in a locked location so I saw no sense in either one of us trying to post a guard.”
Dino shook his head, “AJ, you’d already had one run in with the enemy were you looking for another one?”
“Dino,” AJ groused. “I’ve never been a soldier and I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time so pardon me for not acting like Rambo. Thank God Hannah wasn’t the hysterical type or I would have lost it.”
“Admit it, you got lucky,” Dino said in disgust.
I said, “They were blessed. End of discussion. I cain’t abide arguing at the dinner table so both of you stop it right now. What kind of example are you setting for Kerry?” Kerry got a disgusted look on his face thinking that he was going to be sent out of the room but both men smoothed their ruffs. “What happened next AJ?” I asked.
Dino and AJ looked at each other and then Dino smiled and mimicked me by saying in a sing song voice, “Yeah, what happened next Cousin AJ?”
I gave Dino the evil eye and nearly kicked him under the table which made AJ smile despite himself. He looked at Dino and said, “You still happy?”
Dino said, “Yep.”
“That’s what I figured.”
I was ready to swat them both with a wet kitchen rag but Alec stepped in. “OK you two. AJ, I have to have a story to take to Mother and if I’m not back before dark she may talk Ajax to bringing her over.”
Now that loosened AJ’s tongue right up. “Well, I hadn’t meant to but we slept the day away. I woke up with a pounding head to see Hannah trying to get one of the cooler bottles open. She nearly jumped out of her skin when I told her to let me. She scooted off fast. I know she isn’t afraid of me but she’ll still react weird to someone getting in her space all of a sudden. That’s … well … just talk to her Riss.”
“I will AJ, don’t worry. But it can’t be pushed. She needs some real sleep first.”
He nodded, finally satisfied and then said, “I could tell she’d changed out of her clothes. She got worried when she tried to explain that she’d pulled some out of the clothing bundles but I finally got her to see it was fine that she did so. She relaxed a little after that and told me she’d gone into the tunnel because she needed to use the lavatory but had heard noise over in the warehouse. We were both in a bad way so we went into the parking garage and each found us a little private corner. The smoke had seeped down there as well and the smell was pretty bad. I used what cover there was and took a look at the warehouse and sure enough someone had broken into it during the night; doors were wide open, shutters torn off, and windows broken … but no one seemed to be doing any more than looking around inside. There were still too many people out and about and it looked and sounding like constant fighting or rioting or something came from different sectors of the city. I decided to wait it out another night and we used the time to repack the suburban with more care. One more day turned into two and then into three as rioters moved in and out of the area. On the night of the third day another fire started to move through and I knew that it was either leave then or possibly not leave at all if more debris began to fill the street. It was night but I didn’t need the headlights as the firelight helped just enough though it was still was an inch by inch escape. The soundproofing on the engine compartment and the driver sound control on the muffler kept the normally noisy monster quiet and we passed by several open areas without being seen. All eyes seemed to be focused towards the fires rather than in the direction we were going.”
Wiping a hand across his face he said, “I’ve been in some bad traffic but that was a nightmare. We were the only thing moving besides the fire and the occasional CSP truck. Smoke was so bad I worried about it clogging the air intake on the suburban. Even with all of the windows raised we had to wear covers over our noses and mouths again because the air coming through the vents was rancid. I finally got us out of the factory district but we weren’t home free. I hadn’t counted on the fact that so many people would be staying so close to the city. When you think of mass evacuation and panic you think people are just going to keep running away but a lot them don’t apparently. We lost one of the side windows to a crowd that tried to stop us. After that and with the clearing of the air the further away from the city we got I picked up speed and then hit the back roads along a path I had marked out previously. I was worried about all of the bridges we would need to cross.” A yawn from AJ told me he was beginning to wind down again.
“AJ do you need to lay down?”
He nodded, “Yeah, but not until I finish this. Alec, I’m not up for Mother right now. I hate to ask it but can you … ?”
He snorted, “Yeah but emphasis on the try. If she gets it into her head …”
“Yeah,” AJ said. “I know. You can only do so much.” Another yawn and he continued. “I never meant for it to take as long as it did. Within a day of leaving the city I noticed the engine sounded like it was struggling and kept losing power. I thought it was bad gas or being overloaded. Then one morning I couldn’t get it to crank up at all. Checking, I found the air filter was dirty – it was actually black – and I knocked what I could out and got the engine going again but the engine just continued to struggle. To make it worse we were forced to detour around a lot of the bridges and we were running low on fuel. Communities had their accesses blocked off intentionally or they were blocked off with stalled vehicles; it looked like scenes from the first mass urban exists at the beginning of the war. I cut across fields and through woods using back ways I’d checked out before, eating up more precious fuel. I didn’t want to get caught that far from home in the middle of nowhere so I decided to get back to the county roads and then about two miles from here the engine made this wheezing noise and nothing I did could get it going again. We were out of fuel as well. It took everything Hannah and I had to push the loaded suburban off the road, down an incline, and then hide it in a thicket. We were so close neither one of us wanted to stop so we hiked the rest of the way in. You know the rest.”
AJ had slowly sunk lower and lower in his chair. I looked at Alec and said quietly, “That’s going to have to be enough Alec. He’s not in any shape for a cross examination. And you are going to have to book it if you want to get home before dark.”
Alec helped AJ up and gave him another back pounding hug before helping his brother into the bedroom off the kitchen. I told Dino, “I’m going to check on Hannah. I … I may be a while. Can you deal with Kerry?”
“Aw Momma Riss,” Kerry complained from his seat at the table.
I looked at him and quietly said, “Don’t Kerry. Not this time. OK? This is serious business … serious family business. That means it stays in the family. We let you stay because we need to learn if we can trust you. Do you understand what that means?”
Well his little chest puffed out and his shoulders went back. “Yes ma’am.”
“Good. We’re counting on you. I need to check on Hannah and then feed Pita who has been good to sleep as long as she has. Mind your daddy and I’ll see if I can throw something together for supper in a bit.”
Dino said, “Don’t go to any trouble Riss. We have canned vegetable soup and there’s a pan of cornbread left over.”
Giving him a grateful hug I quietly made my way up the stairs while he headed out to do the evening chores and let Chester know what was up. Dino could handle his cousins I had more serious work to tend to. I’d given Hannah space to pull her story together but it was time … and I very much feared we were both going to wind up crying.