“Dovie? Dovie Killarney Doherty is that you?!”
I turned at the sound of my name and found they came from a familiar face. “Jude? Jude?!”
I whimpered without meaning to. Then Paulie saw him, “Jude!!”
“Good gawd,” the man whispered before bracing himself for Paulie’s leap and strangled cry of joy.
“Jude, they said we can’t …”
Jude turn to the gatekeepers and said, “I can vouch for them Hennisey. They’re my step-dad’s sister’s kids.”
“All of them?” the man asked suspiciously.
Jude, to his credit looked in the car and then at me and then turned to the man and told a bald faced lie. “Yeah, it’s been about a year since we’ve seen ‘em but they’re all ours all right.”
“You know what I’ll do to you if I find out you’re lying.”
Jude just stood there and looked at the man. Finally the one called Hennisey snorted and put a stamp on a piece of paper and told me to keep it on the dash. “And get a damn proper ID. You look like one of them friggin’ foreigners with your half slanty eyes. Someone will scoop you up and throw you in the holding pens no matter who you claim your people are.”
Jude stepped in front of me and with a look cautioned me to take what I could get and to get out of there. Paulie scrambled into the back and like he did it every day Jude handed his bag of stuff in and then climbed in after it. He whispered, “Pull out slow and easy. Act like you are doing your best to follow the rules, like you believe ol’ Buttface deserves your respect. Once we get about a hundred feet on the other side of that roundabout they’ll have forgotten and be on to the next person they can give a hard time to.”
“Jude … I … I …”
“You mind giving me a ride back?” he asked like it was something else he did every day.
“Do you even need to ask?!” I had to hiccup to hold back the tears. “Of course I’ll give you a ride. Heck, I’ll tie the whole family on and cart them wherever they want to go just to get a glimpse of home.”
He looked and me and then cautiously said, “You’ve had it bad.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yeah.” Then I drew my courage around me hoping for the best but trying to be prepared for the worst. “Jude? What about … about the family.”
“Everyone is alive if that’s what you’re asking. Butch and Clewis and their wives are back from Dakota too.”
My hands started shaking and I was having a hard time breathing. “Hey?” he asked concerned. “You sick or something?”
I shook my head. “I’ve been driving thousands and thousands of miles. Praying we could make it here. Wondering if there would be anyone left when we arrived. And now that … I mean … there you are … and we’re sitting here like … like nothing … and … everyone is …”
Quietly Jude told me, “Pull off under that maple up there.”
I did and then he asked me to get out and sit on the hood. “Paulie, nothing against you, but I need to talk to Dovie.”
“You don’t think Uncle Roe is going to let us stay?” Paulie asked fearfully.
“Naw. That ain’t it, I promise. It’s …”
“… grown up stuff?” Paulie finished.
“Yeah, Monkey … kinda sorta like that.”
I was still shaking when I got out and we both sat on the hood. “Go ahead and tell me Jude. How bad is it?”
“It … it isn’t bad exactly. At least I don’t think you makin’ it back is bad. And Dad’ll probably break down when he sees you and Paulie and want to go to church or somthin’ to spread the word since he’s had you on the prayer list since we got word about your momma and that you’d gotten taken to one of those quarantine camps. He tried to find you and has all sorts of inquiries with DHS but it’s like your paperwork got lost and you don’t really exist.”
Still shaking a bit in reaction to finally getting some place almost called home I said, “I can believe it. You don’t … I mean the things I’ve seen … I …” I stopped and just shook my head. If I got started on that I’d never hear what Jude had to say. “So what is the big ol’ but I keep hearing in your voice?”
“The farm is overrun with people. Dad tried to control it but Mom kept letting people come in while he and I were out working the fields. All three of the girls are there and they got their latests with them. Rochelle claims to be married to hers but I have my doubts. Butch and Clewis are there with their wives. Dad did manage to finally throw off Mom’s brothers but it was a near thing with guns drawn. Since then Mom hasn’t been speaking to Dad all that much and he’s told her if she don’t like it she can go find someplace else to live and whoever wants to follow her can live with the consequences. That shut the girls up, and those with them, which as you can guess has Mom’s tail feathers burning even more. You know Butch and Clewis and I don’t get along when we have to be together too much so … er … Dad told me to go stay in the Old House to keep people from tearing it up.”
That stopped me cold. “Is … is that gonna be a problem?”
“No, not for me. I’d like to keep on staying there if … if it’s ok. All I’ve done is been spending my nights out on the screened in sleeping porch since the nights have been so mild. And little kids don’t bother me none. But I gotta be honest Dovie … the winter is gonna be hard. Food ain’t exactly easy to come by and … and … with that car full behind us …”
I’d already been thinking along those lines. “What about game?”
“Scarce. Lot’s of people have turned to hunting to feed their families and what’s left is scrawny and underfed because fields and stuff have been left fallow because there wasn’t fuel to run the big tractors. What’s made it worse is that a lot of folks have had their city kin show up thinking things will be better in the country. That’s gone over poorly for some of them. Part of the reason I am staying at the Old House is to keep squatters out of it.”
“Oh Glory and it’s only October. What about the apple and pear trees?”
“The ones around the old house are still full but only ‘cause Dad ain’t been able to get the girls to get their butts out there and deal with them. They’re slow as molasses and are still working on the ones up at the main house.”
“So they haven’t gleaned anything in the acreage?”
He shook his head, “Not to my knowledge.”
“Ok, at least I’ve got someplace to start.”
“Speaking of starting, we better get going. I know you want to see Dad but it might be better off to just go to the Old House by way of the back roads and let me walk up and tell him. Uh …”
“Look. I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’ you don’t already know when it comes to how Reynolds is but you don’t know how bad he has gotten. You need to be careful. He runs loose in the woods a lot ‘cause Mom can’t or won’t control him. She’s got scared of him just like a lot of other people have.”
“What?! Reynolds was always a pain but … but only for those he could bully.”
“You’re right and I admit it even if he is my brother. But in the past Mom could control him because she could always give him an extra pill when he’d get out of hand. Ain’t no more pills though and trust me Dad has looked. The doctors say he is experiencing a kind of … of withdrawal. He goes all spacey for a couple of days, then he’ll be as normal as he ever got … scatterbrained but willing to listen and at least try to act like a normal kid without ever quite managing it … but then he’ll swing to the other side of the pendulum and he’ll run loose in the woods like an animal; act like an animal too, cunning like a predator. A couple of times he’s gotten violent and Dad’s been forced to lock him up. I mean he gets honest to God bat house crazy. His room is all tore up and Dad doesn’t bother trying to fix it anymore. He’s got a mattress in there now and that’s about all except for the bars on the window and the window ain’t nothing but Lexan to keep it from being broke out again. Plaster on the walls and ceiling is all cracked. Fixtures all tore out. He’s nearly took the door off more than once.”
I asked apprehensively, “You think it is going to be bad for Paulie?”
Then Paulie who had obviously been listening stuck his head out of the window and said, “He can try.”
Jude turned around and gave him a surprised look. “Well listen to you little man. You got it right, just don’t go starting anything. Reynolds ain’t right in the head … he ain’t going to react like you might think. The doc says that when he gets through this he might be better for it … but he also might be stuck in worse. You just watch your p’s and q’s … and your back.” Turning to face me he said, “We’d better get before Buttface changes his mind and sends a patrol this way. The guy used to be cool but now he’s let his position go to his head and he thinks he’s God or something.”
I asked him, “You want to drive?”
“You need a rest?”
“It’s not that … I’ve driven this far. It’s … I don’t know. You just seem … different … and to be taking things in stride. I didn’t know if maybe I’m supposed to let you drive or something.”
He snorted, “Oh I’m going off like Black Cats inside. I’ll drive if you need me to but you’d better if you don’t. I feel like my heads in a blender. Shock I guess you’d say. And right now I need to focus and letting that stuff out ain’t gonna help. I spent all day at the markets in Dover and only came back with a quarter of what I was sent to get and that cost twice what was expected. I run into someone I was just about expecting to be singing with the angelic choirs up on high and you got a car full of kids that I don’t know who they belong to. I think on it too hard and I’ll want a drink and I ain’t let myself have one in almost a year.”
“A whole year?”
“Almost,” he said and I heard a pride in his voice I’d never heard before. “Right after you left Dad offered me shares on the farm if I could prove I wasn’t going to throw it away by drinking it up. No way was I gonna pass on a chance to have my own piece of the business. I only get a taste for the hard stuff every once in a while these days … but I can feel it coming on.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him though I wasn’t sure exactly why I said it.
“Don’t be,” He told me. “It ain’t your fault. At least I ain’t as hard up as Clewis who is trying to give up cigarettes. He tried switching to snuff and chaw but his wife hates it and when she don’t like something she lets you know it.”
I snickered because the idea of Clewis being whipped was kinda funny considering how he was always such a he-man, women belong in the bedroom and the kitchen type. I looked at Jude and he must have been thinking the same thing because he was biting his lips … what I could see of them anyway. I asked, “When did you grow a beard?”
“When I got chewed out for trying to borrow one of Faith’s razors. The girls hoard them like they’re gold. It itched for a while, and sometimes it gets hot, but I just keep it trimmed up above my collar with scissors so it’s not too bad.”
I thought of my legs and pits and cringed. The kids didn’t notice things like that but I can bet Jude, Butch, and Clewis would … and likely not be shy about saying something. Oh well, life was hard but they had best not rag on me too much or they might find theirs harder as well.
“You … you really here and not some dream I’m having?”
I slowed down on a curve in the road and then looked at him. “I promise I’m not so long as you promise me the same thing.”
I heard Tiff ask Paulie, “They aren’t going crazy are they?”
“No,” he answered sounding awful old for a ten year old. “They’re just grown and sometimes grown people say weird things like that.”
Jude looked over at me with interest and asked, “So you’re all grown now?”
Shaking my head I said, “I don’t know about that but I feel old.”
Quietly he said, “You really have had it bad. You up to telling me or you want to wait for Dad?”
The rest of the way to the house was spent with him listening to the highlights of what had happened after we moved to Phoenix and then from the illness to Idaho to seeing him. I hadn’t quite finished when we pulled onto the gravel parking area by the Old House.
He was in the middle of climbing out when he said, “I’ll get you inside and settled and then run over and tell Dad.”
“Tell Dad what boy? I been worried sick. Gone all day when you should have been back before supper. And who the Sam Hill you drug home in that hot rod?”
“Dad … I brought you something. Hope you like it,” Jude said with a snicker in the dark.
“Now what the bloody blue blazes you up to boy? You know I’m done putting up with …”
I didn’t let him finish. Paulie and I were both scrambling out of the car and hollering, “Uncle Roe!”
The man nearly fell of the porch getting down to us. He was as long and lean as I remembered and his skin felt even more like old leather the way it would have after long summer in the sun. I think he was going to squeeze the breath right out of us if he hadn’t needed to sit and get his own breath back.
“Dovie … Paulie … aw kids …”
“Uncle Roe … I have some … some …” I stopped and started again. “Uncle Roe, I’ve got five other little kids with me … orphans … that … well, I guess you could say I adopted them because they don’t have anyone. I want to keep them and raise them here.”
I’d flummoxed him but he caught on quickly. “Jude, get the house open and let’s get these young’uns in before the bugs drink ‘em dry. Then I want you to run up to the house and let Butch and Clewis know what’s going on and if Rochelle wants to come back with you and bring her doctoring kit saddle her a horse but I doubt she will with it being dark. Dovie can fill me in until you get back.”
I got the kids out – Mimi and Corey could barely keep their eyes open though they whimpered when they got a look at Uncle Roe who could look scary even though he wasn’t – and since they started fussing about being separated Paulie said they could all sleep together in his room until we worked things out. Paulie said he’d stay with Tiff and the others so we could talk grown up but gave Uncle Roe a last hug that nearly had the man in tears before he picked up Corey and shepherded Tiff who was carrying Mimi followed by a nervous Lonnie and Bobby into his room then came back and dragged their stuff out of the car while Uncle Roe and I talked.
“Boy has done some growing,” Uncle Roe said with quiet approval from where he sat at the table in the dark kitchen.
“Yes sir. In more ways than one. Uncle Roe, please say it is all right that we’re here.”
A big hand reached out in the dark and gave me a pat. “Of course it is Honey. This is your home. I’m sorry about my sister … ain’t rightly been able to take that in even after all this time. But this place is yours through her and I’d like to see anyone say otherwise.”
It was a relief and I told him so. “That’s what I thought from you but … but there’s … there’s been so much … I just didn’t know who would still be here.”
“You mean who’d be alive and who’d be dead?”
“Don’t blame you. ‘Cause of the National Guard camp at Fort Donnelson and the military at Fort Campbell this area got the vaccine early so we wouldn’t be a danger to the troops. People still got sick but not in the numbers you see other places. Four counties around here got blanketed pretty good … Stewart and Montgomery here in Tennessee then Christian and Trigg across the state line in Kentucky. There were some deaths but mostly the people that you’d expect in a bad flu year and the ones that outright refused to be vaccinated for one reason or another. Reckon we need to get you kids vaccinated as soon as possible too.”
“We don’t need it,” I told him and that’s when my explanations started. I had just gotten to the part where I’d heard Jude call my name when we heard the same voice.“Don’t shoot Dad; it’s just me.”