Closed Door

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Part 53


Dear Diary, 

I woke up to the sound of the alarm on my phone.  I eased away from Feena who had snuggled into my back as I lay between her and the closet door.  I did not want to get up but that wasn’t the point.  I was the mom.  I was the adult.  And I was alone.  Who else but me? 

I crawled out of our hole and then stood up realizing that although I was nowhere near old, twenty-something was still too old for sleeping on bare hardwood floor.  Snap, crackle, pop.  If I had to do it again I told myself I was going to put a comforter on the floor first. 

Remaining quiet because two in the morning was too early to deal with Feena I tried to decide whether to look out the window first or hit the bathroom for a break and a quick ablution to wake me up.  The window won because although I needed to go to the bathroom, I wanted to see what was going on even more.  After peeking through the window I almost wished I’d hit the bathroom first because fear contracted my bladder. 

It was smoky.  I cat footed up to the attic and looked through the window up there and sure enough I hadn’t been seeing things.  The sky was relatively clear with a bright new moon and hugging the ground was a nasty looking soup of smog that was coming off the water.  It smelled funky too.  I flipped the light switch and realized the power was off.  I would have to throw a lever out in the shed where the batteries were stored to switch to drawing power from them but I couldn’t wait.  I had an idea … that I enacted after a quick trip to the bathroom. 

The ladder that we had used when the guys had done the bee repair and insulation had never gotten put back in the barn.  I pulled the flashlight from my pocket and winced at the tender spot where I had slept on it.  Sticking the little LED flashlight in my mouth and then opened the ladder under the “escape hatch” that exited onto the old widow’s walk on the roof. 

The widow’s walk wasn’t big – it looked faux and completely ornamental – and the wood around it used to be rotted beyond safety, but when I had the roof redone everything up there had been repaired or replaced.  There used to be stairs up to the walk but they had been taken out when Papa was a little boy because he had climbed up there and nearly fallen off the roof.  The hatch was locked and barred but a few deft turns and that was no longer in my way.  The hatch was also heavy and on a powerful spring that didn’t want to cooperate until I literally put my shoulder into it.  Finally I was climbing through but just managed to reach down and save the ladder from being knocked over making my return trip through the hatch way more interesting than it needed to be.   

I was kicking myself momentarily but then stopped dead in mid mental kick.  I had a perfect view across the river which is what the widow’s walk had been built for.   The other side of the river was on fire. 

It wasn’t leaping giant flames but it was scary enough.  I went back through the hatch, ran down to Cal’s room, and then grabbed the binoculars I knew that hung on the back of his bedroom door.  I didn’t think he would mind.  Then it was back up to the attic, back up the ladder, and back onto the widow’s walk.  There was barely enough light to see much at all but using what landmarks that I could I was pretty sure I was seeing the homes along Canal Street and Manatee Avenue burning.  I couldn’t tell if all of the agricultural areas behind the houses were burning because it was too dark. 

That’s when I realized I heard no sirens, no emergency vehicles, nothing.  That was more frightening than the flames themselves.  Then suddenly I heard a very fast boat … two or more of them.  Boats have sounds that are just as distinctive as cars.  I’m not one that can tell you what kind of boat makes what kind of sound but I can tell the difference between something that trawls along, a fast sports boat, and the larger fast boats like those that belong to the Coast Guard or Fish and Wildlife. 

I’d no sooner started wondering who would be out boating on a night like we were experiencing then I heard faint pops and a much louder series of pops.  Then into view, coming around the small islands that dot the mouth of the river, came two boats … a small one being chased by a bigger one and I figured out what the “pops” where when a fire ball blossomed from the rear of the small boat.   

The sound of shouting carried to me on the wind but not clearly enough to understand what was being said.  More shots rang out and the large boat circled the corpse of the smaller one briefly until another boat arrived on the scene to take over and the bigger boat then took off into the Bay again.  I watched the small boat pulling stuff out of the water and then it left as well.  The small boat drifted and looked like it was taking on water but a few minutes later, due to tidal action, it fetched up on one of the small islands and rested there.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Part 52


Dear Diary, 

Nothing like being woken up in the wee hours of morning by the phone. It's been almost a week since the Wally world incident and Cal really hasn't been home to do much more than shower and change clothes.   I asked him flat out if he was moonlighting again and all he gave me was a succinct “no” that didn’t invite further conversation.  He would let me shove a cooler of food in his hands but that was all before he was gone again.  But this morning was different. 

The phone rang and I looked at the caller ID and the clock as I was answering it.  "Cal?  Is everything ..." 

In a deadly serious voice Cal cut me off.  "Aria, I need you to listen.  There has been some kind of incident at the mouth of the Bay between Anna Maria and Ft. DeSoto.  It sounds like it involves something pretty big; they aren't releasing any details yet but I do know I can't get home. The military has everything locked down tight; absolutely no traffic on the roads.  The military Aria, do you understand what I’m trying to say?” 

“I think so,” I told him immediately remembering some of the conversations we had after the hurricane hit.  After the hurricane hit was a vulnerable time and as much misery as our own government has us experiencing, there are still plenty of foreign ones that would like to heap another helping of it on us. 

“Good.  I want you to stay sharp.  You have the go bags we put together in the closet.  I don’t want you running into the night – I don’t think you could anyway with as tight and as hard as they are slamming things into place – but if you have to you know what we agreed to.” 

“I know.”  I was to get to Dorrie’s place and hunker down with them; all pre-arranged at Dorrie’s father’s insistence. 

“Good.  I’ll …”  Then the line went dead. 

I stood paralyzed for just a moment, just staring at the phone like it had done it on purpose.  I was alone and on my own, and in a way truly for the first time.  Someone had always been there to prop me up.  Even if they hadn’t been there to hold my hand I knew that they weren’t far away; Daddy, Papa, social services, Daniel, Cal.  But Cal’s few words of warning was as good as I was going to get this time and I decided to use the time wisely in case something did happen. 

I turned the radio on only to be startled by an emergency broadcast announcement.  Instead of “this is a test, this is only a test, if this was blah, blah, blah” they were telling everyone to stay off the roads, to not leave their current shelter, that the public would be informed when the danger had passed.  Not very comforting and I wondered how many people were awake at 3 am to hear it. 

I turned on the lights and went downstairs to the coat closet and pulled out the back packs that Cal had insisted we put together after the burning of the porch.  He called them “go bags” that were in case we had to leave the house really fast for some reason … fire, storm, riot, or just whatever.  They were as complete as we could make them.  His was much larger and heavier than mine and though I could carry it, I wouldn’t make it far.  I had a smaller one, plus an extra baby sling to help carry Feena on my hip, as well as another bag that I could fit around the middle of my front that held a few items just for her.  I was already potty training her and she stayed pretty dry during the day but at night time or when she was particularly cranky she continued to need a diaper. 

I went to the kitchen and looked to see what would spoil if we lost power or I had to leave it for any length of time.  Most of it was fruit and a few things from the garden.  There was not much I could do about that but I vowed in the future not to put off any kind of food prep if I could help it.  I could make sure that the go canteens were filled and slid into the pocket they belonged in and I also packed a few things that didn’t require cooking that would serve for Feena and I … peanut butter sandwiches, crackers, dried fruit and a few canned meats.  And of course I packed two bags of “mushmells.” 

I wondered what to do next when I looked down and realized I was still in my night clothes.  Up the stairs I went.  I changed, grabbed Feena a couple of outfits, got our shoes and socks out and then sat the extra things in or by the go-bags as made the most sense. 

I went around the house doing small chores here and there … candles handy, checking to make sure matches and lighters were where they were supposed to be (and fire extinguishers too), checking the batteries on the flashlights, putting heirlooms and/or breakables back into the locking butler’s pantry where our family had always put such things when we went on vacation, trying not to think about everything I would have to leave behind if I had to run.  Then the first bit of dawn broke in the eastern sky and I looked out and realized that it was hazy.   

I wasn’t sure whether Cal would want me to but since Cal wasn’t here I had to think for myself.  I opened the door followed more cautiously by the shutter and stepped outside.  It didn’t take but a second to realize that the haze wasn’t haze but smoke; it smelled like a large wildfire but because of the winds were out of the south I wasn’t sure how far away it.  It was too coincidental not to have been connected to what Cal had called me about.  Then I spied my potted plants and trees. 

Feena wouldn’t wake up for another hour.  I had my cell phone and I had my little radio.  I doubted a wildfire would jump the river but embers could still hurt the tender greenery.  I decided to move what I could to the Florida room.  The dolly and wheelbarrow went a long way towards speeding up the process but it still took a while.  I finished just in time to get some oatmeal and fruit ready for breakfast.   Personally I didn’t feel like eating but I forced myself to since I didn’t know when, what, or if I’d be eating later. 

On the off chance that we would be without power again I filled all the available containers.  The storage batteries that Cal has been bringing home or trading for were fully charged; but to avoid drawing them down any I made sure to use the municipal electrical system that was mercifully still on.  I also filled the shower bags that were part of Cal’s camping gear – he’d used them in the travel trailer – and set the bags on the porch to warm. 

After I did that – and without any more information coming in about the situation – I tried to imagine what I would need if I were permanently on my own.  I was amazed that Cal had actually made it fairly easy on me, on us, and what I need isn’t necessarily anything that I can’t get for myself, at least for the next little while.   

It is early November, the weather has cooled off, but is not anywhere approaching cold.  That could change at the drop of a hat or go the other way and we could be roasting like it was summer once again.  I’ve got a lot of ways to deal with either of those temperature extremes but my primary one is propane.  The propane tank is almost eighty percent full because I’ve been drying more produce than canning it as I have been running out of jars.  If something happens to the propane – I’m not thinking what could happen just that something could – I can cook on the fireplace inside or on an open fire outside.  The multiple fireplaces would also be a way to warm the house.  To run the fireplaces I have wood from cleaning up after the hurricane.  God had some purpose for those trees after all.  Some of the wood is still kind of green but beggars can be choosers. 

Water comes from the well.  If the utilities go down my first line of defense would be the solar set up.  I would have to be careful not to draw any attention but I think I can build something around the well to deaden the noise the pump motor makes.  If for some reason the solar doesn’t work then I’ve got the river to pull from for everything but drinking water and even then I know Cal has a few books around the house that talk about how to filter water and then process it to make it potable.  I wrote that on my list and I need to make it a priority to figure that part out. 

Food I have in plenty for a while.  But what if someone tries to take it from us?  Or does take it from us?  Using an upstairs bedroom isn’t going to be sufficient protection.  I remember Papa telling me stories of how people used to hide valuables in their walls and floors or in pits out in the woods.  We already hide Cal’s fuel so maybe I could do something similar for some food.  I wrote down a note to try and dig a hole in the barn to see how hard it would be to make a little cellar.  It couldn’t be deep because of the high water table but if I could get it deep enough, and fix the bottom in some way to keep damp from seeping up, to hold at least a single layer of jars that would be something better than nothing just in case.  I need more ideas though, certainly I have to make sure whatever way I store food that it is animal proof. 

I continued to go through the list.  There were some areas I was weak in – hygiene for myself was a big one as I had been primarily focused on Feena – but if things got so bad as I was imagining personal hygiene might not be at the top of my priority list.  In fact, bad hygiene might make me look like every other miserable person out there or keep some types of people at bay.  Then again I need to weigh that against how important hygiene is to personal health.  It is a lot to think about. 

Midmorning the smoke was very heavy, so heavy it was uncomfortable to be outside.  And I could tell it wasn’t just greenery burning but also had that acrid back taste of burning tires.  By lunch it wasn’t quite as bad and by mid-day, though it was still pretty bad, it wasn’t the black to dark gray smoke, heavy and dirty, but closer to a light gray smoke to a heavy haze whose color is barely definable.  It did make dusk appear to come early and I was forced to use a lamp earlier than I had since the winter solstice. 

I still have not heard from Cal.  I try not to worry and be upset, instead I’m trying to use it as a lesson as to what to do if … more likely when … he isn’t around any longer.  Hard way to learn the lesson though. 

I wasn’t … and am not … really afraid.  I’m more frustrated.  There’s been no news and no explanation.  All of the radio stations are playing soothing music except when the emergency broadcast noise comes on with the same old message – stay off the street, stay inside, we’ll let you know something when we feel like it.  The TV stations are off … or perhaps I should say that satellite and cable TV is off and since it is off it has taken the local stations with it.  I have an old TV with “rabbit ears” but it doesn’t pick up anything.  I feel like I’m deaf … and alone except for my daughter who is completely dependent on me. 

And here it is dark once again.  I’m exhausted.  I’ve catnapped a few times but now that the light has completely gone from the day it is getting harder and harder to keep my eyes open.  Perhaps I’m being foolish but I’ve brought the go-bags up to my room and drug them into the closet.  I’ve also brought some water and food up here.  I’ve locked and bolted all I could on the house, even the shutters on the upstairs windows that I normally leave open to catch a breeze; I had to do it early in the day anyway to keep the worst of the smoke out of the house.  And I’ve also locked and bolted my bedroom door.  As soon as I finish this and tuck it away behind the loose floor board in my closet I’m going to join Feena in the closet where she is already asleep on the floor on the pile of blankets I made for her.  Then I’m going to close and bolt that door as well.  I just need a few hours of sleep then I’ll get up again … just a few hours, that’s all I need.

 

Part 51


Dear Diary, 

I am so selfish. I cannot believe how thoughtless I've been.  I know I didn’t mean to be but that is no excuse.   

After finishing up last night and getting in bed I was half way asleep when some noise caught my ear. It sounded like the baby gate at the top of the stairs. I was up in a flash because Feena occasionally climbs out of her crib though she’s never done it at night. Sure enough it was off its latch, something I didn’t think she was capable of yet.  I started down the stairs, trying to be quiet so as not to wake up Cal as he had gone to bed early ... I thought it was exhaustion catching up with him. 

The first floor was as dark as the inside of whale's belly and I couldn’t hear anything that told me where she could be. I almost flipped on the light switch but then the one in the kitchen came on, then was intentionally turned dim so I knew it wasn't Feena who couldn't even reach the switch.  My next thought was that Cal had gotten called into work. 

I walked in and I am glad I hadn't called out because what met my eyes when I rounded the corner took my breath away.  I found Cal with his head down on his arms at the kitchen table.  He wasn't making a sound yet his shoulders were shaking.  A picture of his and Lily's wedding day half crumpled was held in a fist.  I was caught flat footed.  I had no idea what to do.  Some men are extremely private about their misery and pain.  But then I thought, this is Cal, we've been through some horrible stuff together, if I don't try and share his pain then who will.  I owe him. 

Quietly I came over and hugged his shoulders. He jumped slightly, stiffened a bit, then relaxed enough that it wasn't like trying to hold a boulder, though it still came close.  I don't know how long we stayed like that. Eventually he sat up, but wouldn't look at me. 

I had to say something; the quiet was stretching into something terribly uncomfortable.  "I'm sorry for the circumstances," I told him solemnly.  "But I am blessed to be the one here and to give back some of what you've been giving to me for so long." 

He got up and went over to the sink and splashed his face. After a moment he cleared his throat and finally spoke.  “It isn't like this day hasn't been coming. Maybe for years. I know I didn’t want it at first but now I do so it isn’t that.  I don't know why it is hitting me like this.” 

Trying not to say the wrong thing I took a moment to answer him.  Drawing on my own experience I told him, "Because … because it is like a death. You're grieving the loss of what could have been." 

He seemed like he was thinking over what I’d said and then asked, "Was this how you felt with Daniel?" 

"I don't know. Some I guess. There's days I still don't know how I feel. Sometimes I think I have a handle on it and sometimes I know I don't.  I still don’t know why Daniel made the choices he made and I sure don’t know why Lily did what she did to you.  They were both wrong." 

After a sigh that sounded like it came from deep in his soul he said, "I know why.  She never loved me." 

Automatically I said, "Aw Cal, of course she did." 

For some reason at that moment I noticed that the bald spots on his head had finally grown back in but then that thought flitted away as he shook his head and said, "No Aria, she really didn't. She married me on the rebound to prove that she was over the guy that had dumped her mid-way through college. She married me to escape the life her parents kept trying to force on her. She married me because it was unexpected and she wanted to break out of what everyone kept telling her she would do. She married me because I was easy to get along with and I made her feel better.  She was in lust with me, we were good in bed, but she was never in love with me." 

"You can't know that Cal." 

He shrugged, but it had not energy to it.  "Sure I can. When we were really being honest with each other in counseling she said it and never changed her story." 

Confused I asked the first thing that popped into my head.  "But ... but if that's true, how did your marriage last this long?" 

Still not looking at me he said, "Because I was willing to settle. Divorce just wasn't an option I was willing to consider. I loved her; I made that good enough. I learned to accept that she didn't love me the same way but I convinced myself that in time she would.  I accepted she didn’t want kids.  I learned to accept what she could give and live with it.  And for a while things were good; they were never great, but they were good.  Some of the best times we had being together and working together were when things were so bad between you and Daniel. It is like we were seeing there but for the grace of God went the two of us and we made more of an effort each day to treat each other the right way." 

"But it's also when things went so bad." 

"Yeah. Because I think she saw it all and it was just ... she got tired of settling, pretending to herself that it was enough. She went back to her first love to try and recapture being in love. When that didn't work is when she got angry … angry and progressively nastier.  Mostly at me but the anger spread looking for a target.  You got caught in that, so did Trish and Amaris.  She was angry at what she started to think of as all the wasted years.  She just didn't want to waste any more time, anymore years.  See she’s finally decided she wants a kid." 

"Wait, I thought she didn't." 

He shrugged.  "Turns out she just didn't want a kid with me." 

I have to say, even with all the carp I have gone through, the stark cruelty of that sentence shocked me.  If it is honestly how Lily feels, why would she tell him that to make his pain all that much worse?  How could she possibly blame Cal for loving her?  How could she possibly blame Cal because she was unable to love him back?  It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.  It would have been better if she had left him years ago when the marriage was so young than to build his hopes up, make him believe that forever was possible. 

Cal pushed away from the sink and walked over to the back door and opened it but couldn’t go through.  He stared blindly at the shuttered opening, as if he’d opened a door only to find a brick wall behind it and was still computing the surprise.   

I stood looking at him trying to find the right words but they seemed out of my reach. I knew telling him he'd find someone new was useless because I didn't know for sure that he would … or if he even wanted to.  I sure didn't tell him what Lily had said didn't matter because it obviously did.  I walked over to stand beside him, not touching since it seemed that was that last thing he wanted but still near, silent proof that I was on his side if he wanted me there.  Hurting because I saw him hurting, frustrated I didn’t have the words to make it better, the only thing I could come up with was, "Lily is a fool in so many ways that there aren’t enough numbers in the world to cover them all." 

We stood that way for a while and then without saying another word he shut the door and we turned and went back upstairs, only separating as we each turned into our own rooms.  I hope he got more rest than I did because it was a long time before I could sleep. 

But it isn’t over.  In some respects it may never be over for him anymore than it may never be over for me.  I don’t know if he’ll dream of her, wake up and for just a moment forget she’s gone.  Maybe he’ll imagine he hears her voice in the middle of the night calling out to him.  Maybe he’ll change his mind and decide he made a mistake and try and win her back.  Maybe not, part of me hopes not unless that is what is going to make him truly happy like he deserves.  Mostly I pray he’ll handle things better than I have and find some peace. 

He rushed out of the house this morning. I don't know if it is because he was late for work or because he didn't want anything said about last night.  There were no friendly texts during the day, no slightly bossy texts checking on things.  The silence has deafening even though I understand it.  Then about five o’clock he did text but only to tell me he wouldn't be home tonight. 

I don't want to make him uncomfortable. I don't want to make him feel bad. I want to do something to help him feel better but I don't know what.  I do know that I can't continue taking him for granted.  I hope it isn’t already too late.

Part 50


Dear Diary, 

I have to record what happened today and it was all thanks to Percival “Pucker up” Perfect.  That guy has such a brown nose he’s practically one solid color from head to toe. 

Cal and I shop together in one vehicle for several reasons which should be obvious to anyone with half a brain, but more on that as I go along.  We locked everything down tight and left early this morning to try and get the shopping done quickly before the nasties rolled out of bed and hit the streets.  They stay up half the night making trouble despite the curfew and then like to sleep in late so they can do it again the next night. 

We took my car because compared to Cal’s truck it sips gas.  It is also easier to hide things in the trunk; no one goes around showing what they have these days, you never know who you are going to set off.    

Of course Cal has to use a shoe horn to get in and out of my car but that’s just the way it is and he doesn’t laugh at the situation too hard though the passenger seat of the car is practically in the back seat so his knees aren’t up in his chest.  We stopped at the produce market – a sad affair with so many of the booths gone or empty.  I got a little bit of everything that I could afford but it was mostly just the local tropicals as usual:  soursop, sweetsop, atemoya, velvet apple, pineapple guava, governor’s plum, acerola, mango, avocado, canistel, pomegranate, ambarella, jicama, pecan, calamondin, lemon, ambersweet oranges, cara cara navel oranges, navel oranges, and passion fruit.  Oranges were coming in which I was happy to see and even though I had a bunch of trees already, ours wouldn’t be ripe for another month and they’d need a cold spell to sweeten them up. 

Actually I shouldn’t say just tropicals as there were a few other things starting to show up.  I got a few avocados and eggplants.  Cal didn’t say anything but he wasn’t exactly jumping for joy either.  I’ll teach him, avocado sandwiches are to die for and I know how to bake eggplant so that it isn’t the least bit mushy or slimy.  They had cucumbers and I picked up a small bag of them in case my vines don’t bear.  Right now I have a lot of blooms but that is about it.  I could have gotten bell peppers too but I’ve already gotten the first few from the plants that I set; they are smaller than what was at the produce stands but beggars can’t be choosers.  What I got a bunch of was mushrooms and onions.  Cal loves onions anyway he can get them but even he looked a little scandalized at me buying a fifty pound bag of onions. 

“Are you sure Aria?” 

“Trust me.  If you want salsa, spaghetti sauce, chili, onion soup, fried onion rings …” 

“Ok, ok,” he finally laughed.  “Just so long as you’re sure.” 

“I’m sure, plus it is cheaper to buy them in bulk like this.”  Actually I wish I could have bought more onions but maybe the next time I go … if there is a next time. 

From there we went to the Barter Bizarre.  Cal stayed with the car – too many people appear to know he is a police officer – because he didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or cause trouble for the churches.  He was also willing to keep Feena but then Josh pulled up with Dorrie and her mother and I said it would be silly to try and have a guy talk with Feena doing her best to get their attention. 

There were a lot of artisans and craft people at the bizarre and I grabbed a few bars of homemade soap, some candles, and I also picked up some yarn and some needle and thread.  I found some more seeds but I had to be careful because not all of them looked like they had been stored very well … some of the packages were faded and some were obviously water damaged.  Dorrie and I didn’t talk much; we were both being treated differently as word got around that we had cops in the family.  She also seemed to have a lot on her mind.  It was actually a relief to leave. 

As we went back to the cars Dorrie’s mother said, “Well, I’ve never been insulted so completely.  People I’ve known my whole life act like I’m a stranger just because we rent space to a police officer.” 

It was upsetting but I wouldn’t tell Cal until we were back on the road heading to wally world. 

‘They did what?!” 

“Don’t snap Cal; there’s nothing you could have done.” 

“This is getting ridiculous.” 

I shrugged as I carefully crossed an intersection.  “It’s been ridiculous and is now heading into absurd.  People are just scared and they express it in stupid ways.  These same people are the ones that will call in the middle of the night that someone is trying to break in their house and expect you to be there before they’ve even hung up, and no apology or embarrassment when it turns out to be an old tom cat in the garbage cans.  I refuse to let that kind of idiocy get in my way.  Dorrie’s mom may not go back to the bizarre but no one is going to scare me off.  If they have something they want to sell that I’m willing to buy then we’ll work around their irrational prejudices.” 

“Irrational prejudices.  Is that what they call it these days?” 

I snorted a giggle at the look on his face.  “Actually they call it something much ruder but with Feena in the car and turning into a Class A mimic I’m being careful what she hears.”  Since we’d already had one such incident where she’d overheard a particular word Cal had used when he’d busted a couple of knuckles while he was under the hood of his truck changing the oil filter he knew exactly what I meant. 

We finally pulled into the parking lot of wally world.  There were a lot of people wandering the parking lot but most of them only had one or two bags in their hands as they came out.   

That’s when Cal says, “Aria, maybe we should split the list and shop separately.” 

“Why?  What if I can’t reach something on a shelf?” 

He snorted, “You aren’t that short.” 

“I know but they keep pushing things to the back of the top shelf like they don’t want anyone to reach them.” 

“Then we’ll hook up and I’ll go back around.  I just think it might be better if we don’t pile everything in the same cart.” 

That’s when I began to understand what he meant.  “Oh.  You want us to look like everyone else.” 

“See, I knew you were smart.” 

I gave him a look that would have burnt toast and told him, “You’ll find out just how smart I am if you miss a single item on your half of the list.  And don’t go picking up any junk either, especially not for Feena.  I cannot believe you have her hooked on marshmallows.  What happens when all the marshmallows run out?” 

From the back seat her majesty demanded, “I sum mushmells.  I sum mushmells. I sum mushmells.”

I glared at Cal but he just grinned.  “Don’t look at me; you’re the one that said the M word.” 

It just so happened I’d made the brilliant decision to stick a few miniature marshmallows in a Ziploc so I could give her a couple like a Scooby Snack and we finally grabbed a buggy and started to head into the store.  Started being the operative word. 

We walked through the first two double doors and as I was passing into the store and Cal was grabbing a buggy for himself we hear, “Deputy Lowery, what a surprise to see you here.” 

I turned and looked for who would be lame-brained enough to shout out like that.  I was right on the first guess … ol’ Percival Perfect, only he wasn’t alone.  A number of other DHS personnel stood with him.  In a voice full of sorrow he said, “I just wanted you to know that there are no hard feelings.” 

I looked at Cal who was looking at PP with a carefully blank expression.  I wanted to ask what it was about but Cal had gone granite and was holding himself very still.  PP noticed and said in a falsely contrite tone, “Oh … Oh I apologize, you … you obviously haven’t gotten the call from your lawyer yet.  I’m really surprised.  Lily couldn’t wait to call me; the judge signed the papers this morning, she’s finally free.” 

God help my mouth.  Out popped, “Yeah, she could have been free a lot sooner if she hadn’t kept irritating the judge trying to change the paperwork.” 

I don’t think he thought I was dumb enough to insert myself into the conversation.  He underestimated the fact that I as completely able to be stupid at the drop of a hat.   

He gave me superior look and said, “That was merely a misunderstanding.” 

Num num.  My foot tasted so good the first time I decided for another taste.  I said, “No.  That was the judge getting tired of her wasting the court’s time with supercilious motions.  Lily was an adulterous wife trying to take her husband to the cleaners and the judge saw through it.  The fact that you were the one she had her last affair with just has made it more complicated for Cal because of your father using his interdepartmental influence.” 

Cal said sharply, “That’s enough Aria.  Lily … Lily didn’t want to be married to me.  She made it obvious in a hundred different ways; I just fought the obvious for too many years.”   

One look at Cal’s face was enough to make me mentally cringe.  He hurriedly ushered me into the store.  I wanted to apologize but Cal separated from me as soon as we’d gotten passed the “hello – buy me” stuff they put right at the entrance.  I wasn’t feeling very good; in fact I was nauseous.  I’d blurted out instead of thought first.  I was too old to be acting that way. I wanted to find Cal but knew it was a bad idea.  I would have to hurry if I didn’t want to make things worse.  At the rate that Cal was moving he’d have everything on his list before I got half way through with mine. 

And in fact I was half way through with mine when a female DHS agent walked up beside me and said, “Mrs. Lowery, would you come with me please.” 

Since the please was actually just rhetorical I followed her lead but was scared, nearly as scared as I’d ever been.  I was wondering why I couldn’t have just kept my mouth closed.  I pushed my buggy to the old layaway area and was asked to sit down in a chair stationed in front of a table. 

“Mrs. Lowery …” 

“Can I ask how you know my name?” I asked hesitantly. 

She obviously didn’t appreciate questions but she arched an eyebrow.  Then it clicked.  “Oh … Percy.” 

She twitched her nose and then continued. “Now as I was saying, Mrs. Lowery that is quite an accusation you made against one of our agents.” 

I sighed.  “If you want me to apologize I will.  I’m … I’m a little hypersensitive where family is concerned.” 

“Family?” 

“Cal.  He’s been hurt enough.” 

With a carefully blank face she said, “I understand that you and Deputy Lowery have a relationship of long standing.” 

When the innuendo clicked I sat up straighter but determined that I wasn’t going to cause any more trouble than I already had.  Carefully I told her, “Our relationship is one of family and mutual support.” 

“Could you explain that please?”  Again, the please was only rhetorical. 

I sighed.  “Lily and Cal were a huge support to me when my husband … when he … look, I suppose you know what my husband did.”   

She said, “He was a drug addict and killed his parents.” 

I winced.  “He was a severally brain damaged drug addict.  And before he killed his parents he tried to … tried to kill me.  In addition to the … to the physical injuries I suffered, it caused me to go into premature labor with Feena.”  I nodded to my daughter who was chowing on the last of the mushmells to keep her quiet.  “Both she and I were in critical care for almost two months.  During that time Daniel – my husband – was confined by the state but he escaped and you know the rest from there.  Lily and Cal provided my primary emotional and mental support during that time.  They were also my primary contact with the outside world as the doctor’s didn’t deem it very good for my health to have a lot of visitors.” 

“Were you aware of the stress their marriage was under?” 

Quietly I said, “I knew something was going on because Lily was pulling away.  I thought maybe it was me or maybe Feena … she didn’t want kids and once upon a time the family had given her a hard time about it but she and Cal had worked things out between them.  He wanted her more than kids.” 

“When did you become aware of the storminess of the marriage?” 

“It wasn’t stormy; a couple of times Lily said that Cal just didn’t know how to fight and was boring.  I thought she was playing at the time but maybe not.  They were in counseling and I as well as my sister in laws thought things were getting better.  At least until Lily pulled out of their second honeymoon at the last second and told Cal to take someone else on the cruise.” 

“You’re very … free … with details Mrs. Lowery.” 

I shrugged, resigned to the interview and determined to tell the truth.  “It’s common knowledge.  Plus it is probably in Cal and Lily’s divorce papers to prove that the marriage was irretrievably broken or whatever you want to call it.  It isn’t rocket science to know you guys can look it up any time you want to and verify what I’m saying.” 

She didn’t say anything to that for a moment then looking at some notes she asked, “When did Deputy Lowery move in with you?” 

“Actually he didn’t really move in with me at first.  He’d lent me his travel trailer to live in while the house I live in now was under repair to bring it up to code.  When he came home and caught Lily in bed with yet another man everything just fell apart and Cal couldn’t take it one more time.  He packed up and moved out.” 

“Another man?” she asked like I’d caught her off guard. 

“Yeah.  When Cal caught your agent in bed with his wife that was the third time that I know of that Lily was unfaithful to Cal.” 

He … he caught them … in the act?” 

“Yeah.  That’s how your agent wound up buck naked on the lawn outside while Lily and Cal had a real verbal blow up that the whole neighborhood could hear.  You probably know that Lily’s dad is kinda rich – some hobnobber in the construction industry with some funky connections – and he sent a lawyer after Cal.  Your agent’s father is … well he has his own connections and I guess as a father he just wanted to protect his son so I’m guessing he called in some favors, or at least that is what was said.  Cal got stationed out here in Ruskin as a result.  It just made the only sense possible at the time for him to move into his trailer since it was already parked and set up out here.” 

She was silent for a moment like she was digesting something.  Then she asked, “But he now sleeps with you.” 

I made a face.  “Not the way you’re thinking.  It was a matter of economics.  The price of gas made it hard for Cal to keep the generator going in his trailer and it got to be like an oven in there.  When some guy was willing to buy it Cal jumped at the chance.  The only reason he didn’t go find an apartment some place is because … well … I guess you can see I’m occasionally still a pretty big mess.  He hangs around to help me keep up with things.  Not to mention with prices and stuff … aw, you know what I mean.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit it but if Cal wasn’t around I don’t know if I could afford to stay in the house I grew up in.  He and some of his buddies from work help with the heavy lifting when something gets broken … it was a mess after the hurricane … and all they ask is to have a dock to fish off of.  They haven’t been able to do much of that lately but … I don’t know … I feel safer too.  You know what it’s like for most women that are alone and I don’t know, some guys just don’t get that I’m not ready to … er … fish.  I don’t know if I ever will again.  Cal understands because of what he’s been going through with Lily.  We just kind of … protect each other, just in different ways.  Like brother and sister.” 

“You are very free with details Mrs. Lowery.” 

I nodded.  “You’ve already said that once.  And like I said, I’m not saying anything you couldn’t confirm through public records or just by asking around.  It is what it is, kinda stupid to try and make it something it isn’t.”  

She made some notes, occasionally stopping to look at me.  It made me so nervous I finally asked, “How much trouble am I in?  For mouthing off I mean?” 

She raised her eyebrows and said, “You aren’t in any trouble Mrs. Lowery that I’m aware of.  Of course if anything you’ve said doesn’t check out …” 

“Despite the way I acted back there, I’m not stupid.  I’ve got my daughter to think of and it would be a pretty poor payback to embarrass Cal any more than I already have.” 

“Wait here please.” 

So I waited.  She wasn’t gone five minutes before coming back with an envelope.  “Just sign here and you are good to go.” 

“Sign what?” 

“Sign for your additional ration cards.” 

I gave her a suspicious look.  “I didn’t ask for ration cards, I’ve already got one per the new rules.” 

“I’m well aware of that Mrs. Lowery.  These are additional ration cards.  You use them like gift cards.”  When I still didn’t seem to understand she seemed to think she was dealing with someone mentally deficient.  “Mrs. Lowery, we provide our community contacts with ration cards as a matter of policy.” 

“Why?  And when did I become a community contact?  Don’t take this the wrong way but this is the last contact I want to have on this.” 

She closed her eyes briefly like she was looking for patience.   “Mrs. Lowery it is policy.” 

“Policy for what?” 

“For our community contacts.” 

We looked at each other and then since she still wasn’t talking any language I understood I asked, “Can I go?  If Cal has noticed that I’m missing his going to get worried.” 

“After you sign for these ration cards.” 

“But I didn’t ask for any ration cards.” 

From behind me a voice said, “Take the cards Aria.” 

I jumped up and turned around.  “Cal!  I am sooo sorry that I put my big fat foot in my mouth and …” 

He cracked a small smile.  “It’s ok.” 

“No it’s not because I talked and answered questions but I swear I never asked for anything Cal … I didn’t … only I think she thinks I did because …” 

Cal said, “Aria, take the cards.  If you don’t they get in trouble.” 

“In trouble?  Why?” 

“Because it’s policy.” 

“Policy for what?” 

The female agent sighed and said to Cal, “This is where I lost her every time.” 

Cal looked at me and gave a small smile.  “That’s because she doesn’t get the routine.”  To me he said, “The agents have a policy and procedure they have to follow.  When they conduct an interview and the facts check, then they issue ration cards.” 

I made a face.  “For telling the truth?” 

“Essentially,” he answered. 

“That makes no sense.  Why pay someone for telling the truth?” 

“Don’t think of it as payment, think of it as a reward.” 

“You shouldn’t get a reward for doing what you’re supposed to do.  Doing what you are supposed to should be reward in and of itself.” 

The female agent and the male agent that had accompanied Cal looked at me like I was suffering some form of dementia. 

“Aria.” 

“What?” 

“Sign for the cards so the nice agents don’t lose their jobs.  The longer you stand there arguing the longer it is going to take us to get out of here.” 

“Oh.” 

So I signed for the cards not really looking at them.  I stuck them in my purse and then we went out, finished our shopping, and then left the store.” 

After we had loaded everything into the car and pulled out I looked at Cal and said, “That was sooo strange.” 

Cal burst out laughing and laughed nearly a whole mile before finally catching his breath.  “Oh Aria … you are something else.” 

“No I’m not, I’m me.  And I still don’t understand those ration cards.  I didn’t do anything but tell the truth.  And I’m not sure I like being called a community contact.” 

He continued to chortle.  “Don’t worry about it, it doesn’t mean anything; just a way for them to justify their screwy policies and procedures.  We’ll spend the ration cards and we’ll spend them on something we need.  How much did they give you?” 

I answered, “I don’t know; they’re in my purse.” 

When he pulled them out and told me how much I nearly punched the breaks.  “What?!  That’s almost a whole month’s worth of points!!  Oh my gosh, we have to go back, there’s been some kind of mistake or they are testing me or something!  Cal …” 

“Relax Aria before you get us in an accident; it’s the same amount they gave me.” 

“Same amount they gave you?  Oh no … I got you in trouble too.” 

Cal shook his head.  “Aria, why are you being such a ding bat over this?  Neither of us is in trouble.  It’s the same amount they give other people they interview.  It is supposed to build good will.” 

Not happy at being called a ding bat I grumped a little.  “I’m not being a ding bat.  I just don’t understand it.” 

“I’m sure you don’t … at least not the way your average person would.” 

“Well geez, thanks so much.” 

“Don’t get upset.  I just mean that you don’t expect things for doing what you are supposed to.  In this case you told the truth and likely confirmed some stuff that they were already looking into or were aware of.  For the most part those agents expect everyone to lie or that everyone is going to expect something for doing what they are supposed to.  You aren’t like that.” 

After a while even I get tired of going over the same old tracks so we agreed that it was silly for DHS to do what they did but that we’d have to disagree on why.  All I know is that we now have almost two months extra ration points to use and it is all because of Percival Perfect.