While Lucia led the girls to one of the downstairs bedrooms I stepped back outside and listened to noise the guys were making. I still didn’t know who Thomas was and figured I’d have to find the answer myself. I grabbed a wind up lantern from the bookcase by the back door and walked to towards the barn. As I came forward Tony noticed and said, “Ragazza … in the nick of time as usual.”
I didn’t answer him because I was staring dumbfounded at what looked like a zoo. My mouth must have been hanging open because Tony put a finger under my chin and closed it. I looked at him and he chuckled. “Your eyes are as big as silver dollars Joey. Of course you should have seen my face when I stumbled across Bennie and …” He may have been making a joke but I could also here the choked up sound of too many emotions in his voice.
Shaking myself to try and gain some control I asked, “Should I fix anything to eat?”
A guy’s head popped around the door and I jumped when I realized I didn’t know him. Bennie said quietly, “Easy Joey, this is Thomas. If not for him we would have been toast. These animals come from his family’s place.”
“Uh … hi Thomas. You hungry?”
He looked like he was struggling to talk but then shook his head. “Better not since it is so late … but … but you mind if I … I heat up some of Rose’s milk? We drank most of her evening milk but there’s a little left in the thermos.”
I squinched my nose up imagining what it would taste like without refrigeration. “Honestly, do you really want to drink sour milk? Why don’t you let me put that to making bread and I’ll make you some butterscotch milk or a milk toddy or something like that?”
Thomas’ mouth was soon hanging open like mine had been and Bennie was going, “Mmmmm … butterscotch milk. You sure you can spare it Joey?”
“It’s no problem. Thomas what about your parents would they …” It took me half a second to realize I had made an awful mistake. “Geez, I’m sorry. I’m usually better at making sure I only put one foot in my mouth at a time.”
The young man was sad but not angry. “It’s ok. They had gone to visit my Granny who was in Nashville in a nursing home. They … they ….” He shrugged. “They never came home. Guess you know what I mean.” He turned to lead the two cows into the barn and Bennie and Tony followed him in, pulling a small farm wagon that held other caged animals. I saw rabbits and a few other things I couldn’t identify in the dark. Then I nearly screamed when I got goosed from behind.
“Joey?!” Tony called coming out of the barn at a near run. When he saw me berating a couple of goats for getting over familiar he had to lean against the door to stay upright while tears poured down his face as he tried not to laugh.
“Ha … ha …” I huffed.
Thomas came out and said, “That’s where you three got to. I can’t take you nowhere. Behave before the nice lady wants to BBQ you.”
“Humph. I wouldn’t get any of them near any BBQ of mine until they had a bath. I didn’t know goats could smell so … so … goat-y. They smell like my brother’s football laundry used to.”
That sent Tony off again. Bennie just sighed and shook his head but there was a small, tired smile on his face too. Thomas looked at me to see whether I was fooling or not. “The billy … the male goat … he is the one that smells. The girl goats – the does – just pick it up from him.”
I heard the back door open so I left the lantern with the guys and headed to the light of the kitchen. Lucia walked back inside with me. She was so silent I had to ask her, “Trouble getting the girls to give it up and go to bed?”
She sighed and shook her head. “I wish. I … they’ve … they’ve been like this ever since …” She shook her head again and I nudged her to sit down at the kitchen table.
I gathered what I needed. I grabbed the pitcher of milk from the frig and for every cup of milk I added one tablespoon of brown sugar, a half-teaspoon of butter extract, and a dollop of marshmallow crème that my mother seemed to have stocked in bulk. I brought everything to a near boil on the stove top, watching as Lucia tried to pull herself together. I was just ready to pour it into mugs when the three guys quietly walked into the house.
Bennie immediately went over to Lucia. “The girls OK?”
“Hopefully they’ll start getting that way now that we can stop running.”
I looked at Tony in alarm. Bennie caught the look and said, “It’s a long story but if we can have some of that it will make the telling easier.”
“Wash up at the sink,” I said automatically. For some reason out of everything that made Thomas chuckle.
I turned to look at him and realized he wasn’t as young as I had thought at first, maybe a year or two out of highschool. Seeing the question in my eyes he said, “Tony said you’d say that.”
I was going to be a smart aleck but then thought better of it and just looked at Tony and said, “Yeah, he knows me pretty well.”
Lucia raised her head at that and said, “So you and Tony are really together now? Calling yourself husband and wife even without benefit of a church?”
I looked at her and said, “Yeah.”
I was worried she’d make something of it but then the serious look left her face and she cracked a smile and said, “About time.”
As the guys washed up I filled the mugs and put them at the table. “Thomas, I really will fix you something if you are hungry.”
He sipped the frothy butterscotch milk but said, “No thank you. I’ll wait for morning. Tony said you fix breakfast and stuff.”
“Yeah, eggs and pancakes OK?”
He got a surprised look on his face and then grinned, “Yes’m, that’s about as OK as life gets these days.” He drained his mug despite its heat and then said, “If you don’t mind I need to go lay down. Didn’t get much sleep the last couple of nights and I need to be up early to take care of the animals. Is there a free sofa or somethin’ like that?”
I gave him a look and said, “Why sleep on a sofa when there’s a perfectly good bed to rest in?”
I started to get up to show him but Bennie waved me back and said, “I’ll show him. I’m beat myself.” He squeezed Lucia’s shoulder as he passed by her but that was it and it only added to all of my questions I was holding back.
Tony stood up and said, “I’ll see they both get settled and then head to bed myself. Don’t be up too late Ragazza.”
That left Lucia and I alone at the table. “Luce? Can you talk now?”
He sighed, “I hate reliving it Joey … I just hate it.” She shrugged. “But that’s stupid, you need to know.”
She ordered her thoughts and then took a sip of milk before finally starting to explain. “It was horrible after we left. Pop was … oh Joey, there aren’t really words good enough or bad enough to describe what Pop was. You remember that time Ol’ Mrs. Stenheim’s sister came to visit and had that weird fit right there in the store? Remember how she was afterward? All paranoid and stuff, seeing things that weren’t there, jumping at shadows? I think Pop …” She stopped and sighed. “Who am I fooling? Joey … Pop lost his mind. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was something organic in the brain or if he just went bonkers because of the stress. Either way there wasn’t anything we could do for him.”
I was trying to imagine what she was describing but all I could see was the horribly angry man that had attacked me. It was hard to remember I’d considered the man nearly a second father at one point in my life.
“Leo lost patience with him within an hour of him coming around being knocked out. I don’t know where it would have all been heading but Leo stopped the van, got out and drug Pop out and shoved a gun practically down his throat … he was even gagging on it. The girls nearly passed out they were so scared and Ma … her eyes seemed to swallow her whole face.”
I asked her as gently as I could, “Where were you and Bennie?”
A little belligerently she asked, “You think we could have stopped it?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean were you and Bennie OK?”
She relaxed back into her chair and covered her face with her hands. “Sorry Joey … sorry … it … I told you it’s hard to tell it again. Just let me get through it.”
I touched her shoulder and she looked over to see me nod. “Pop wasn’t exactly calm after that but he was quieter. He kept touching Ma and the girls but it was like Bennie and I didn’t exist so much. Every once in a while he’d look at us and then get startled like he’d forgotten we were there.”
“Leo wasn’t doing so good either. He was the kinda guy that is used to being the heavy but not really being the boss of anything; he could follow a plan but didn’t really know how to be … be flexible when things went wrong with the plan. Bennie and I could tell he was starting to get rattled and he was lost but wouldn’t admit it. After a day with the guy I had started to think of ways to … to get rid of him but he was always too close to some of the others, always waving that gun around. We’d stopped for a break and for Leo to look at some map he had for the hundredth time when Bennie found those guns you stashed in his bag. Geez Joey, it was like finding hope after having none. Bennie was armed and he made me take his switch blade but made me promise not to give it to Pop or the others in case Pop talked them out of it.”
“Then on the third day we ran out of gas. He started storming around and cursing but then just walked over to another car that was stuck in the same traffic jam and shot them point blank. I coulda died right there Joey. It is just a complete nightmare to even think about it. I don’t know why no one stopped him but no one did; not us, not no one. It was like everyone was in shock … or scared of losing their place in line,” she added a little cynically. “He made Bennie siphon the gas out of the car and put it in the van. It didn’t get us far. Leo killed for the gas in their tank again and by that time Leo had learned that if he wanted something he was just going to take it.”
“By the fourth day he’d also decided we were just a liability and the van used too much fuel. Angels must have been watching out for people crazy enough to be on the road because Leo got us lost again, and this time we winded up in the middle of nowhere when the gas ran out. He tried to order Bennie to help him beat up people on this farm we ran across but Bennie would have nothing to do with it. Then he tried to talk Bennie into it with promises of a cut of the take but still Bennie wouldn’t help. That’s when Leo threatened to attack me … and … and Bennie went nuts. He and Leo went at it but … but even though Bennie is younger and stronger he’s been out of the game a while; Leo sliced him across the chest with a boot knife that he’d had hidden. Leo could have finished Bennie right there but I got him a good one in the leg with the knife Bennie had given to me earlier – missed the artery that I’d been aiming for but still did some damage. He ran off in the dark and I was too busy screaming at Ma and the girls to give me a hand with Bennie to really give a flip where he was running to. Pop was … Pop was trying to act all tough and strutting around and saying weird things like God had run Leo off, that God had told him what would happen to Leo and that he wouldn’t want to be in Leo’s shoes and all sorts of stuff along those lines.”
“Ma was starting to come out of whatever funk she had been in but she was still shook up bad. The girls were doing better too but none of them were thinking real clear. They kept thinking the cops were going to arrive and take care of things. By then I’d finally admitted to myself that no one was coming to the rescue and that we’d all been as nuts as Pop to have left here, especially with Leo. And don’t look like that Joey, you couldn’t have known.”
Shaking my head and calling myself every kind of food I told her, “But I did know Leo was dangerous. I should have stopped you, warned you …”
“We wouldn’t have listened and you know it.” We both sighed like a couple of old women as Lucia continued her story. “I couldn’t wait for help that might never arrive. Bennie needed water and to get inside some place. Pop started raising a fuss when I told him I was going to the farmhouse. He tried to stop me and I … I slapped him Joey. I slapped my father. I did it because he was getting hysterical and needed to stop but I think it hurt me way more than it hurt him. And it did stop him but I swear I thought he was going to hit me back. I kept remembering what he did to you and I … I think that is when I stopped trusting him anymore.”
“I made Ma watch Bennie and not let Pop do anything to him and then told Pop it was up to him whether he came to help me or not but I was going. Pop finally followed me but in hindsight it might not have been the best thing. You see Leo had been to the farm house ahead of us and … and it was a bloody mess. They were just this old couple and he’d … well, the old man did for him too before he died right there in the doorway of their house but not before Leo had done … things … to the old woman. When he saw the mess and put the pieces of the puzzle together, Pop started getting … stranger. I didn’t mind when he spit on Leo’s body but when he started to stomp on it and kick it … I just couldn’t watch. I couldn’t stop him either. I grabbed what I’d come to ask for and ran back to where Ma had everyone waiting.”
“Ma and I managed to help Bennie to the house but the girls … they … they saw what Pop was doing. Lindsey puked and … and hasn’t been the same since. Ana, would you believe it … it was Ana that helped me to bury the old couple while Ma tried to sort Pop out. I got desperate or smart and ransacked the medicine cabinet and managed to come up with some prescription strength Sonata and dosed Pop’s soda that Ma gave him. It took longer than I’d hoped but eventually Pop was down and then out. Ma wouldn’t let me tie him up and now I wish I’d ignored her and done it anyway but I had to focus on Bennie who was in a lot of pain. Ana had her hands full with Lindsey who seemed to want to come unglued too. What was so weird was it was usually the other way around; Ana the one with all the drama going on and Lindsey just riding the wave.”
We were there two days and Bennie was just starting to be able to move without hurting real bad. I should have been paying better attention but I thought dosing Pop would buy me some time to figure some way to deal with things. I’m not sure how it happened or when but Pop must have figured out what I was doing and only played at drinking his tea. Or maybe Ma didn’t … she hadn’t liked drugging him … maybe she thought he’d be OK or something. I found out later he convinced Lindsey to sneak a gun to him … there were a lot in the house so it would have been easy to do it unnoticed … and then one night I guess he decided that ...”
The pain of it was etched in Lucia’s face. I no more wanted to hear the rest than she wanted to tell it but we both knew it was necessary. Lucia plowed on but her voice was barely above a whisper. “Pop would have killed us all if … if Ma hadn’t stopped him. He was going after the girls and they saw him and started screaming. Ma and I woke up ran to where they’d been sleeping and … and Pop was standing over them looking determined, trying to explain it was the only way because the Tribulation was upon us and some other religious stuff I didn’t understand. Ma kept crying and begging Pop to stop and think what he was doing but he only smiled at her and said that it would be all right, he’d take care of her too and then himself so we’d all be together. I … I could hear Bennie struggling up the stairs to try and get to us. I turned to look at him and in just that moment I heard an explosion. But it wasn’t Pop … Ma had … had … she’d tried to defend her children from a mad man. The girls had stopped screaming. Ma was just crying and dropped the gun and ran to Pop. I should have stopped her. I … I just didn’t think he would really … really do it. Ma had Pop in her arms and he sagged taking them both to the floor. Pop was done for; I knew it as soon as I saw how frothy the blood around the hole in his chest was, how fast he was losing blood. Then I saw him mumble something. I ran across the room but I was too late. There was a muffled sound and Ma’s whole body jumped and then she slumped across Pop.”
Silent tears streamed down her face. “If it hadn’t been for Bennie I don’t know if I would have made it through the next couple of days. The girls … the girls were in shock, still are even though it’s been several weeks. Ana tried to help bury Ma and Pop but … but she just couldn’t do it and I don’t blame her. If there had been anyone else I wouldn’t have done it either but there wasn’t. Bennie tried but every bit of lifting would open the slash back up and I worried about infection. I wound up having to put a couple of stitches in the deepest parts to keep the edged together long enough for the cut to start healing.”
She closed her eyes trying not to see the picture of what she’d been forced to do. When she opened them she said, “We almost stayed there … that farm I mean … but Bennie said that there was no way we could scrape by with what little was in the place and that relatives of the owners might come around any day. His worry became my reality. I knew it looked like we had a lot of supplies between what had been left in the van and what was in the farm house but Bennie was right, it wouldn’t last long enough for things to get better because things were never going to “get better” … at least not like they were before.”
“There was an old Lincoln in the barn. Bennie couldn’t lift but he could tinker and it didn’t take much to get the car up and running; the old couple took really good care of it. And the trunk on that thing was huge. Lucky for us the farm had one of those private gas pumps … I guess they had to have one since they lived out in the middle of nowhere … and we filled that car up and all the gas cans we had. The girls and I went through everything that had been in the van and divided it up into piles of keep and leave. It wasn’t easy; the girls had a fit any time they realized there wasn’t enough room for something. We also went over the farmhouse, taking stuff that might be useful like a blanket and pillow for everyone, all the guns and ammunition, the food, medicine and such. I don’t know how we fit what we did. I suppose we could have taken more if we had been willing to strap it to the roof but Bennie worried about being a target and I agreed with him over the girls’ half-hearted protests.”
“Leaving that farm was hard. We left a note telling what had happened in case anyone showed up after we put back out on the road; where the bodies were buried I’d guess you’d say, but I almost hope no one finds it. We left some of the cash Leo had taken from Tony but I don’t know that it is good for anything but toilet paper now. There were fewer cars on the road … fewer that were moving that is. It took us a couple of hours to figure out where we were at on the map and it was then that we realized Leo had been so turned around that he’d been headed southeast instead of northeast like he meant to. Later some of that cash bought us a couple of safe nights in a campground and another tank of gas and it was just enough to get us near Dot but then things got hinky again.”