I scrounged through all of the hidden places in the rest area and there were a surprising number of them that the public didn’t realize was there. Offices for the welcome center, space for the security area, closets for the mechanical and janitorial supplies, a break room for the people that manned the place, etc. I piled everything that even looked useful by the roll down door of the women’s bathroom. I came back one time to find Paulie and Tiff pulling stuff in.
“I thought you guys would be sleeping.”
“We were but Baby pooped again and for somebody that doesn’t make much noise a poopy diaper can cause him to make the most noise he does and in the bathroom that is loud.”
“Tell me about it,” I said snorting. Making a sudden decision I told them both, “I think we’ll stay here another night after this one.”
Paulie asked, “Why?! Is something wrong with the car?”
“Easy Buddy,” I told him. “Nothing that I know of; it’s just that there is enough here that we can eat for another day and save the stuff we have in the trunk and still be able to cart some of it away with us, but I need time to clean out the Clunker and rearrange everything to get it to fit. Plus with the hand pump back there I want everyone to get a bath and see if maybe we can wash out some clothes and get them dry before we have to pack them up. I haven’t even popped open the vending machines yet because I gotta figure out which key in the guard room opens those security gates. I’m also gonna see if any of those cars in the parking lot have gas in them so we can top off and I don’t have to hunt up a town; I do not want to go through what we had to go through last time.”
They both shook their heads solemnly. I had killed a couple of men in that town and I don’t suppose I need to explain why. They said if I did what they wanted they would let us go. I was all prepared to go through with it and hang the consequences then I heard them snickering about Tiff and Mimi being next and how the boys might be interesting too. They were sadistic whack jobs and even though they had taken the gun they hadn’t taken my brain; a chunk out of a broken storefront window became my weapon. It wasn’t quick or clean or easy like they show in the movies but it was necessary and I don’t think my parents would hold it against me. I just don’t want to have to do it again if I don’t have to.
Paulie and Tiff didn’t really understand the nitty gritty of what the men had wanted but they had known whatever it was, it was bad and wrong. I knew one of these days they’d ask for an explanation and I dreaded it. What a sucky way to learn about sex.
And thinking of that sucky experience led me back to the beginning once again and I used it to occupy my mind while I rifled through the pockets and packs and cars of the DBs taking what I found that would be useful without weighing us down … anything was better than thinking about what I was doing. There were too many dead things these days, too many all over the place. That’s what war always turns into … dead things.
The first dead I had to learn to live with was my dad and both my big brothers. Dad had literally just completed his terminal leave and officially retired when they called him back to active duty because of his specialized training with some new high-tech, unmanned fighter drone. He didn’t fly them; he was an air traffic controller and monitored their interaction with manned aircraft.
My brothers were also in the military. Jack went into the Navy because he wanted to be a Seal. His twin, Jay, went into the Marines because he wanted to be a Green Beret. I bet they both would have reached their goals because they were determined and committed as all get out. That’s about all they had ever wanted to do. Instead neither one of them lived to be old enough to drink legal here in the States. Totally sick, and I don’t mean that in a good way.
I call Paulie my brother but he isn’t, at least not technically or legally if it comes down to it, even though he’s lived with me his whole life and always called my parents mom and dad. We were also born with the same last name and a lot of the same genes. Paulie is what is politely called a “whoops.” He is my paternal uncle’s “outside child” that was the result of a one night stand while he and my aunt were separated.
Uncle James was fifty-six when Paulie was born – almost twenty years older than Dad – and it was a huge mess back then but not worth explaining all over to a stranger. Suffice it to say that the woman that gave birth to Paulie wasn’t fit to scoop poop in a poodle factory and Uncle James sought and won custody of him before he was even born. But on that same day Uncle James had a heart attack so he asked our family to take Paulie in. Only when the time came that Uncle James had mostly gotten his health back and said he would take him back Mom and Dad didn’t want to give Paulie up.
In a way it was a relief for Uncle James, who though wanting to do the right thing, just wasn’t up for being the full time parent of an infant; especially with him and my aunt still in marriage counseling. So in the end while Uncle James was left on Paulie’s birth certificate as his biological father but he was never really more than an uncle, the same way he was to me. Aunt Lou – Uncle James’ wife – learned to love Paulie but it was a whole lot easier to love him as a nephew than it would have been to raise him as a son; at least that is the impression I always got when listening to adult conversations I wasn’t supposed to be listening to. This comes into play so keep it in mind.
My mother was a sweet woman and strong in her own way; you can’t really be a career military man’s wife without being strong because the life tends to chew some women and marriages up and spit them out in pieces. But losing Dad and both my brothers so close together in the first weeks of the war broker her; mentally and physically. It was hard for me to watch much less fully understand. It was also hard on Paulie who started having all sorts of issues with his beginnings that he’d never had before; issues that messed with his self-esteem. Personally I was confused about how I was supposed to feel.
Dad had raised me a certain way – with the real understanding of what it could mean being a soldier. I’d heard him have those same talks with Jack and Jay a bunch of times growing up trying to make sure they understood what the life they were choosing really meant. We were also raised in church so I wasn’t supposed to be afraid of death, knowing that it wasn’t the end but only a transition. I was supposed to understand that I’d see them all again and things would be even better when we reunited. I was being raised so that I was supposed to understand a lot of things but it didn’t change the fact that I wasn’t sure I did and that I missed them and couldn’t even pretend that they were TDY and would be back eventually. They were gone from this life forever and I had a fragile mother and messed up little brother on my hands to take care of instead of someone taking care of me.
Part of me was really angry and it might only have been that anger that got me through that first month of waiting for all three bodies to be returned, making arrangements for the memorial service in Tampa where we’d lived for so long then having them shipped to the family cemetery in Bear Springs for a grave side service for the family up there. That’s when Mom decided to drop the bombshell that we would be moving to Bear Springs permanently to live in the old house where Dad and Mom had intended to retire to after Paulie had finished school.
Well didn’t that just put a tear in everything I had planned for my immediate future but Uncle Roe – my mother’s brother that now owns my grandparents farm except for the acreage where the house Mom inherited sits on – explained that it was for the best, that Mom would have family around to help get her through the long rough patch she was going to go through. Back to Tampa we went where we sold off what we wouldn’t need, packed up what we would, decided what to do with Jack and Jay’s belongings most of which Mom couldn’t bear to part with, said our good byes and then drove back to Bear Springs. I was fifteen but had been driving on the sly for a couple of years. Mom was just oblivious so when our extra driver backed out at the last minute I drove the rented moving van with Jack’s truck attached to a pull along and loaded front to back with what wouldn’t fit in the van while Mom followed behind in her car that was loaded with Paulie and what all we would need until we could get unpacked. I was honestly worried more about Mom’s state of mind than I was about driving the van with the pull along. All I wanted to do was get to Bear Springs and try and make something of our new life.
And our new living arrangements would have all worked out well except for Uncle Roe’s wife who was a witch, except switch out the w for a b. She was his third wife and I swear he would have been better off to have stuck with all the trouble he got from the first two combined than take on this woman and her messed up kids. But not only did he marry her, he adopted her kids though I never quite learned to consider them cousins the way I should have.
Aunt Frankie (as in Frances but she thought Frankie was cuter) was a Drama Queen. The woman could have taught it as an Olympic sport and was teaching her daughters to live the same way. Two of the three already had children but weren’t married. Jude – her son from her first marriage – was halfway salvageable when he wasn’t with his friends getting drunk and cutting up. The third daughter, Faith, was my age and was mostly Ok except she had a chip on her shoulder as big as Gibraltar and lived by the one-up-manship rule; since I could live with her always having to be the best we for the most part got through the day without bickering. Uncle Roe and Aunt Frankie had one kid together to complete the his, hers, and theirs family; Reynolds was Paulie’s age and I could have kicked his tail every day and never hoped to make a dent. I swear Jude drunk and at his worst was easier to deal with than Reynolds at his best. Aunt Frankie claimed Reynolds had Asperger’s, ODD, OCD, ADHD and a whole slew of other things known by their alphabet name but I had worked with kids that had all those things and none of them were as butt head mean as that kid is.
None of that compared though to the fact that Aunt Frankie was jealous of Mom for some unfathomable reason. She just couldn’t get over the fact that people loved Mom and felt so bad for her for losing her husband and two sons in such tragic circumstances. Add into that the government was giving us the runaround about survivor’s benefits and such and oh my Lord you would have thought that Mom had broken Aunt Frankie’s favorite toy – which apparently was the pity and attention that people used to give her for how awful Reynolds was.
And when Aunt Frankie wouldn’t do anything about Reynolds picking on Paulie I finally had to take matters into my own hands. First I talked to Uncle Roe about it and all he flat out said was that what Paulie needed to do was knock Reynolds on his butt and teach him that he wouldn’t be a good candidate to be bullied. Well that was a whole lot of no help. Reynolds was easily twice Paulie’s size; heck, Reynolds was almost as tall as I was and weighed more and all of it bully mean. Then I took my pride in hand and went to Jude who surprisingly did make an effort to keep Reynolds in check– when he was around which wasn’t all the time as he was twenty-one and working the fields of whoever could pay him in cash or barter. That caused a flap between Jude and Aunt Frankie who then blamed my Mom for saying something.
“No Aunt Frankie, Mom didn’t say anything I did. It was either try and do something in the family or I was going to go talk to the Youth Pastor for some help.”
“You wouldn’t embarrass me like that!”
Feeling pressured I told her the unvarnished truth. “Yes ma’am I will if that’s what it takes.”
And didn’t that float like a sack of stones in the middle of the Atlantic. Mom was getting more and more depressed and everything was at sixes and sevens. I finally told Uncle Roe that it looked like it was going to take more time than we had expected for things to settle down and that if he didn’t mind I was going to call Uncle James and see if we could go for a visit to get Paulie out from under for a while.
Uncle Roe to his credit said, “Don’t sugar coat it Honey. I know the kids are giving you a hard time. If Paulie was like you they’d probably ease back but the way that boy is, it’s like blood in the water for sharks. I’m about to set my house in order here right quick and it might be best if you all took a vacation so I can get-er-done. Them girls is going to have to get their baby daddies to support ‘em … that’s the cost of a roll in the hay. I ain’t funding their freeloading no more. Jude is finally outgrowing his idiot years, same as I did at that age, and might be worth something if I take an interest. He seems to enjoy the work so I’m gonna see if he won’t settle down and help me more here at the farm since Butch and Clewis seem to prefer working the oil fields in North Dakota. Faith is all set to go off to school next year which should keep her busy and out of trouble less she messes up with some boy though I’m thinking not as she seems to … well, never mind about that as that is a worry for another time. That just leaves Reynolds and I just don’t know what to do with the boy. If I send him off to a military school, likely between his grades and his behavior he’d just get sent home again and I’d be out all that tuition money. There’s a new program opening up at the state hospital where we took him those two times he got out of hand. I talked to his psychiatrist and she seems to think he is a good candidate for it. Now it will be just a matter of talking his momma into it.” I wanted to say good luck with that but didn’t as he was probably already thinking it.
So I made the call to Uncle James and he said of course so we drove – actually I drove while Mom slept most of the way – out to Orofino, Idaho where Uncle James and his wife moved after he’d retired from his architecture firm that he’d been a partner in for a long time. We lived in this little guest cottage and Mom seemed to perk right up.
Aunt Lou was fine with it for about three weeks but when my adult cousins came to visit bringing their kids who then raised the old scandal she started getting stressed out. Mom was back with it enough to notice and played nice and asked her if she minded if that we cut our visit short because we needed to look for work and there wasn’t much to be found in a place like Orofino.
Mom had always been good with the diplomacy end of thing and the way she phrased it saved face for everyone. Uncle James was so grateful that he hooked us up with some people he knew back in Phoenix where they were all from and we had housing and interviews almost before we knew it. Dad hadn’t been gone half a year and we were already on our third move.