Closed Door

Monday, November 10, 2014

Part 59


Dear Diary, 

I just sat there after that trying to absorb what little I had learned.  I realized with a start that Cal was leaning on me awfully heavy and from there realized that he had fallen asleep.   

I got up but when I tried to ease him over so he could sleep on the sofa he startled awake and I barely had time to squawk before he had me in a headlock. 

“God Aria, are you OK?  I didn’t mean …” 

Trying not to give into the urge to rub my throat I told him, “Only part of my just desserts for shooting you.” 

Impatiently he said, “It was just a knick and I don’t want to hear anything else about it.” 

We walked upstairs together after Cal had satisfied himself once again that none of the doors or windows had magically become unlocked.  He followed me to my room and then checked the windows in there but instead of leaving he said, “I’ll be right back.  I’m gonna grab my gear.” 

“Why?” I asked thinking I was just being the kind of stupid you can only be when you are tired. 

“I’m sleeping in here tonight.” 

I froze.  “No … you’re not.  I’m … uh …” 

Cal slumped a bit but said, “Aria … on the floor.  You’ll be on the bed.  I’m too tired to fight about this on top of everything else.  I’m sleeping in here until we see how things go.” 

I still felt stupid.  “Cal … you aren’t making any sense.  At least not to me.” 

He sat on the end of the bed.  “Point taken.  Too bad.  I’m beat, you’re beat.  I’m sleeping here and that’s all there is to it.”  He slowly collapsed backwards.  “I’ve got to get some sleep.  I won’t sleep if I can’t keep an eye on you two.  Don’t give me a hassle about this.” 

I gave it a couple of seconds then opened my mouth to try again only there was a snore … not from me but from Cal.  I did not want to risk another headlock so I covered him up with an afghan crocheted by my mother and then literally turned in two circles like a dog chasing its tail trying to decide what to do.  I decided to sit down and think about it … I never got back up. 

I woke up after some of the best sleep I’d had in a long while.  I was warm, comfortable … and oh my goodness I wasn’t alone.  I nearly flew out of the bed.  Somehow during the night we’d managed to move from our respective ends of the bed, turn the right direction, and meet in the middle of the mattress.  I could see dawn coming in around the edges of the shutter on the window and tried to focus on that to gather my thoughts.   

I was a healthy, adult woman built with the desires of both the body and the heart that God gave me.  He also built in some commonsense … at least I hope he has … and my family instilled some morals.  I loved Daniel with all of my heart and part of me always would despite what he had done.  I believed that Daniel also loved me with all of his heart … it was his mind that seemed to lose that love in his illness.  For so long had I not expected nor wanted to ever feel anything like what I felt for Daniel ever again.  I was happy to have all of those needs and wants die. 

Only apparently they don’t die, they just go into hibernation for a while.  For some people only a short time and for others a much longer time.  And Cal was handy to have around and a good man … I told myself it was because he was “safe.”  I knew as sure as I was standing there that he would always have my best interests at heart, even when he was so bossy I couldn’t stand it.  I’ve been thinking of him like a brother for so long that I was blind to a lot of things.  And then for his divorce from Lily to be finalized … maybe that was the trigger, I don’t know.  What I did know at that moment was that I had no business enjoying waking up snuggled up to Cal.  I had no claim on him, none.  He’d made none on me, not that he would.  Part of me wanted to gag because I had been thinking of him as a brother/cousin for so long and to suddenly feel those kinds of feelings made me feel like a deviant. 

But most importantly there was no way I was going to let Cal know how I felt.  It would ruin everything.  I tried to take those suddenly awakened feelings and shove them back where they came from, in the box that was hidden at the bottom of my heart.   

I’d no sooner done that than Cal woke up and a groan was literally ripped from him as he rolled over on the arm that I had shot.  I let guilt replace the other feelings.  Guilt was more appropriate … for a lot of reasons. 

I did my best to make up for what I had done … and for what I was feeling.  I made a decent breakfast from the few fresh eggs I’d gotten the day before and despite myself enjoyed watching him inhale it like it was the first food he’d had in days; I later found out that was pretty close to true.  I washed his clothes; both uniform and civvies.  I explained why there were things missing from his room and where they were.  I even cooperated when he wanted me to walk him through all of the physical details of the situation with the three men. 

I stayed out from under foot as much as I could.  The only thing that drew me up short was when he told me that the entire department was off for the week, possibly longer but for now it was with pay. 

“What?!  The … the entire department?”  

He nodded then sighed.  “I think they are going through personnel files and double checking to make sure that no one had anything to do with giving information to the terrorist group.  They had inside intel, had to have had considering they hit in the middle of a shift change and knew just where to hit as well.” 

Outraged I said, “That’s a different county.  And even if there was inside information it didn’t have to be an officer, it could have been clerical staff or even someone’s spouse or girlfriend or something.  What is up with all the cop haters lately?!” 

He came over and stood beside me – too close – and said, “There have always been haters Aria.  Why they are choosing this particular time to come out of the woodwork?  To put it simply, just because they can.  We put our lives on the line every day for our community.  And it’s because we choose to, not because we are being forced to.  We aren’t drafted, we apply.  A lot of people don’t like the law … or at least they don’t like it when it is applied to them.  There are always those that think they are the exception to the rule.  And then when they do something that gets their butt kicked by the law they have to have someone to blame and it sure isn’t their own selves. For many cops are just the easiest target.” 

“Still … it doesn’t make sense.  Look at how things are.  I want the cops doing their job.  If you guys don’t we’ll wind up with worse things than a grocery store being burnt to the ground.” 

He bumped me nearly making me lose my breath.  “Don’t refuse to see the other side of the coin.  I wish I could say cops are always the good guys but you and I both know that there are bad cops out there and some people have reason to be wary and afraid.” 

“Percival Perfect.” 

Cal has always thought my name for PP was funny and this time was no exception.  He snorted a chuckle and said, “Good example.  There’s politicking and bureaucracy at all levels Aria. Some of it is good men that just get caught up in the system and in their ego but there are some legitimate asses that shouldn’t be wearing the uniform.  Percy is just one of them.” 

“So is that why people are treating you guys the way they are?  Because of the few bad apples?” 

He waited a moment and then said, “That’s some of it.” 

“But?” 

It was another moment before he said, “Would you think I was crazy if I said it was being engineered on purpose?” 

Thinking about it I answered, “Maybe not crazy but I guess it would depend on what you meant.” 

He gave me a small smile for being honest.  “You’ve heard of ‘the thin blue line’ right?”  At my node he continued.  “We do our job.  We serve a purpose.  It isn’t glamorous and sometimes the pay sucks.  We get kicked, spat on, and shot at.  The media bounces back and forth between treating us like we must know everything and like we know nothing at all; between us being heroes and being brainless robots with no soul and fewer morals.  We can’t win for losing.  But I’ve never in my whole life been able to imagine being anything else.” 

“You’re a good guy and a good LEO Cal.” 

He nodded and said, “I try to be Aria because it is important.  But think of it, what if no one did my job … what if we were … were replaced somehow … but the replacements weren’t there to do the same job as we do?” 

“Replaced?  What do you replace cops with?  The military?  Even in the Middle East with all of their ‘springing’ here and there all the time they still have a civilian police force that is separate from their military force.” 

“To a certain extent yes, but the line isn’t as clear and sharp as it used to be.  But I’m thinking more along the lines of say peacekeepers.” 

It took a moment for it to sink in.  “Peacekeepers?  You mean the UN?” 

“Yeah.  I know it sounds crazy but I think it is very possible that certain people are trying to lead things in that direction.  More and more they were trying to orient national policy to fall in line with policies coming out of the UN … you yourself have mentioned the educational issues several times.” 

“I know but …” 

“No buts … Think of this, in some cities – New Orleans springs to mind – police departments have been declared so corrupt that they’ve been dismantled and the FBI has gone in and run the law enforcement for a while.  What if they try the same thing here but instead of a state or national group going in, we get international oversight.” 

It was a huge thought.  A terrifying thought.  It only added to the turmoil I was in.  “So … were those men I saw shot … were they LEOs or not?  And who did the shooting?” 

“Sweetheart if I knew I would tell you.  I’d love to be able to tell you that the men that were shot were the bad guys and the shooters were the good guys … but I can’t tell you what I don’t know for certain.” 

Sweetheart?  It zinged through my bloodstream like elixir and I had to escape before I did or said something stupid.  As it was for a few moments I might as well not have heard any other word that he’d said. 

The next day I was absolutely determined to force my insides to behave.  I stayed as busy as I could and did it as far away from Cal as I could get.  I even mucked the animal shed intentionally getting disgusting to avoid all the talks that Cal tried to have.   

Dinner that night was cordial yet at the same time strained.  We both acted normal but I sure as heck wasn’t feeling normal.  I kept cleaning after dinner to the point that I was stumbling. 

After I put Feena to bed I tried to keep going.  I was carrying some towels up the stairs and missed a riser and nearly fell.  That was enough for Cal.  “Look, I don’t know what is going on but enough is enough Aria.  If I did something wrong then just spit it out.  You don’t have to make work for yourself to avoid me.” 

“That’s not it at all!” I told him, never intending my actions to make him feel bad.  Just the opposite. 

“Then what is it?!” 

“You don’t understand.” 

“Well duh woman, why do you think I’m asking?” 

I just shook my head.  “I am not dumping this on you on top of everything else.” 

“Dumping something on me?  I’m asking Aria.  Whatever it is it can’t be as bad as you think it is.” 

“You don’t understand.” 

“Yeah, you’ve said that already.” 

In frustration I started mumbling, “First you’re this … and then … and then I’m all … and you’re gone … only you’re not … then you’re here … and I realize … only I can’t ‘cause it’s so wrong … because you’re family right? … only you aren’t, not that kind of family I mean … I thought a brother only … then there’s the cousin business … which isn’t maybe as messed up as I’m making it but it really is … and then so maybe … only there is absolutely no way … and … you snore … only that’s OK too … and … Oh forget it.  Just … just forget it.  I’m losing my mind.” 

Cal opened his mouth then shut it then opened it again then gave up.  “You know, I don’t feel like playing games.  When you finally feel up to being honest with me you can come to me for a change.  I went through enough of this crap with Lily, I’m done with it.” 

I felt like knocking my head against something big and hard and painful.  I was trying to protect him; why was it so hard for him to understand that?  Of course he didn’t know what I was trying to protect him from … protect myself from … because there is no way he could feel the way I felt … not ever … at least not for a long time … but probably not ever.  And I didn’t want to lose what we did have because if I told him we certainly would.  And now I had something else to make up for.  Not only had I been a mooch on him … emotionally and every other way, not only had I taken him for granted, now I had shot him AND I had hurt his feelings … again.   

I went to bed that night and tossed and turned for a long time despite being so tired I could barely see straight.  I was ready to give up.  I kept thinking how Daniel would get like this and a hot toddy was sometimes the only thing that would let him get to sleep.  I knew part of his problems was the hot toddies – and everything else he used to self-medication with – but I also knew other people used them without problems.  Papa enjoyed a toddy every now and then when his arthritis was acting up though Daddy couldn’t go near the stuff because of his heart medication.  I was desperate enough to try anything. 

I slunk down the stairs being particularly careful near Cal’s room.  No way, on top of ever everything else, did I want to be why he wasn’t getting enough sleep.  I dragged myself over to the locking cabinet in what I still thought of as Papa’s study and leaned my head against it.  I mumbled, “Oh please let me sleep.  Please.  I know I shouldn’t but right now I just want to sleep and forget the big fool I am making of myself.  Please.” 

My eyes were still closed from my prayer and I had reached up to turn the decorative knob when something large and warm enveloped my hand.  “A cup of warm milk is better for that and doesn’t leave you with a headache the next morning.”   

“I’m sorry … I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to wake you up.” 

“I’m a light sleeper, you know that … and I do not snore.” 

I sighed and told him, “Like a freight train.  You sound like you are strangling on something sometimes.” 

“Do not.” 

“Do too.” 

“You really are tired.” 

“I’m so tired.” 

“Come on.” 

I don’t even remember going back up the stairs.  I don’t remember climbing in bed.  I do remember what almost happened a few hours later.  I do remember both of us waking up all of the way suddenly, realizing what we were almost doing.   

“Uh … Aria …?” he started to say as I scooted up and away from him. 

I told him, “I tried to warn you … I did.  I told you … well, I guess I didn’t … but I was trying to protect you.  Only now everything is all wrecked.” 

So saying it all I promptly burst into tears.

Part 58


Dear Diary, 

You never realize the weight you are under until you get to a place that it is lightened … not because the weight itself is gone but because someone has put their shoulder under the burden to carry it with you. 

It has been a difficult few days.  For all of us.   

I still can’t believe I shot Cal, that I could easily have killed him.  The reason why the knob on the closet turned was because Cal used his key to unlock it.  When I finally stopped fighting and realized it was Cal I jumped so strongly that I nearly lifted him off me.  When he saw I recognized him he turned loose of my hands and my hug nearly strangled him before I scrambled away and into the closet to grab a very hysterical Feena. 

I acted like an idiot dancing her around practically singing “Cal’s home!  Cal’s home!” – she loves spinning like a top – and she went from shrieking in fear to shrieking in laughter.  But my joy turned to horror when I saw something.  I grabbed the flashlight out of Josh’s hand making him yelp and focused it on Feena’s sleeper.  Then I looked at my shirt.  Then I focused the flashlight on Cal and caught him in the act of trying to hide his bloody sleeve. 

The sound of the ocean rushed into my ears.  I don’t remember but Cal swears I whimpered.  I do remember looking at Josh and realizing he was in no shape to do what I needed him to so I thrust Feena into Dorrie’s Uncle Darryl’s arms and fiercely warned him, “Don’t drop her.” 

Cal actually backed up when I approached him.  He said the look on my face would have made even Stonewall Jackson nervous.   

I spent the next hour or so patching Cal up … patching them all up.  Josh was a mess.  He got caught up in a looting incident at a grocery store.  The place eventually burned to the ground which gives people in that area one less option for trying to find food to feed their families.  Uncle Darryl (it just plain takes too many words to call him Dorrie’s Uncle Darryl) wasn’t in great shape either as he’d been helping his family keep the wildfire blazes away from their home and outbuildings. 

In addition to the “little knick” that I gave him Cal was suffering from the results of people trying to trample him as well when they realized the grocery store was on fire.  He and Josh had gotten separated when everyone had gone crazy at once. 

Uncle Darryl reluctantly gave Feena back to me as he and Josh left to return to Dorrie’s place.  Josh had insisted in providing Cal with back up since they didn’t know what they would find when they got here and Uncle Darryl decided that they might as well make it three as two that way Josh had a partner on the return trip. 

Before they left I did find out why Dorrie has been acting so strange.  Seems the state is requiring her to report on people that she comes into contact with in order to keep her job.  She wanted to refuse but she’s already seen several of her co-workers lose their jobs over the issue and she provides most of the little bit of cash the family has coming in.  So for her it became she couldn’t report on what she didn’t know.  I understood when it was explained – sounds just like Dorrie to make the sacrifice and take the chance rather than see anyone in her family hurt – but I wish the explanation would have come from her; I would have tried to help. 

“Better that you don’t,” Uncle Darryl said.  “Even that might get back to the wrong ears.  You’d be surprised at the number of people willing to turn on their neighbor to get a few extra voucher cards.”  Cal and I had agreed not to mention the ones that we received and now I’m glad that we didn’t.  No telling what people might have thought of us. 

After they left Cal was almost asleep at the table.  Hesitantly I asked, “Do … do you want something to eat?” 

A muffled, “Uh uh” issued from between his arms and the table. 

“Then you should go to bed,” I told him quietly. 

“Uh uh,” he said again.  “Not until you tell me what’s been going on around here.” 

“It can wait.  Go get some sleep.” 

He sat up and stretched gingerly.  “I will.  After.”  He shook himself like he was trying to wake up.  “Now, why were you in that closet?” 

“It felt safer.” 

Carefully he asked, “Why?  Did … did something happen?” 

“Cal, we can talk it about after …” 

“Stop avoiding the question Aria, I’m not going to be put off.” 

Pacing and agitated I told him, “For God’s sake Cal, I just shot you!  And I did shooo …”  I stopped and picked up Feena.  “I need to put her to bed.  It’s been …”  I stopped again.   

I was up the stairs and trying to decide whether to put Feena down on the blankets in the closet or on my bed when Cal followed me into the room.  “We’ll move her crib in here tomorrow if it bothers you that much.” 

“Things are just too crazy.  And I’ll take care of the crib.  You need to rest and you are going to be sore tomorrow anyway.” 

Quietly he told me, “Put her down Aria then come talk to me.  You may have learned to lie with a straight face to other people but you can’t do it worth a flip with me.  I want to know what has you so out of sorts.” 

I laid Feena down in her “dollhouse” and then turned and gave him an exasperated look.  “Out of sorts?” I hissed.  “I just shot you.” 

“It’s just a knick and like Darryl said, it’s my own fault.” 

“I don’t care what you think,”  I shuddered hard and had to hug myself.  “I could have killed you Cal.  You would have been gone in a single breath just like …” 

I shuddered again and tried to push passed Cal to get away but instead he put his arm around me.  Instead of running downstairs to the bathroom which had been my intention we walked down the stairs and to the family room.  He gently pushed me onto the sofa and sat on the ottoman in front of me.  I drew my legs up and crossed my arms; it was getting cold in the house. 

“Is this about Daniel?” 

His question caught me off guard and before I could stop and decide to use that as an excuse to avoid his probing I said, “What?  No!  Why would … uh …” 

I hate it when Cal knows how to lead me down a conversational path so that he can get the answers he’s looking for; half the time I wind up telling him something I had no intention of letting slip out.  “Ok, I didn’t think so but I had to ask.  You’ve never said anything about shooting Daniel.” 

Outraged I said, “Of course I never shot Daniel, I would have told you if I had!” 

“Then if it wasn’t Daniel, who was it that you shot?” 

I opened my mouth and then slammed it shut.  I had no intention of causing Cal any more trouble than I already had. 

“Aria, you might as well tell me … was it in the past or … or more recently?” 

“Stop it.  Just stop it,” I told him. 

“No.” 

“Yes, stop being such a cop … because if you don’t maybe they won’t let you be a cop anymore and you know that’s … oh, just leave me alone already.”  I stood up quickly to go back to my room and shut the door but Cal stood up just as fast and was a whole lot bigger.  It was like he surrounded me and I felt safe and guilty at the same time. 

“Aria, I’m not going to let this go.” 

I knew he wouldn’t; God help us both.  “Fine,” I snapped.  “Have it your way.  But you’ll be sorry.” 

Before he could reply I let it all spill out.  When I was finished he just looked at me.  Sorrowfully he reached for my hands and I kept expecting to feel the cold metal of handcuffs but then he did something that didn’t just surprise me but nearly sent me into catatonic shock.  He took my hands and he kissed each of my wrists.   

He moved from the ottoman and sat beside me and slowly and carefully put his arm around me and pulled me close to his side.  I had no idea how to react.  Part of me wanted to run but another part of me wanted to shout, “More … more … don’t stop there.” 

“You sure they came from the direction of the gated community?” 

I nodded. 

“How sure?” 

“There isn’t any place else over that way they could have talked to an ‘old man.’  I also found what I assume is their duffel bags near that strip of road that goes over there.” 

He nodded then had another thought.  “And you’re sure they had no ID on them.” 

“Positive.  I turned their pockets inside out and then put them back right just to make sure in case they were found.  I saw that in a detective movie and figured it made sense in case the bodies were found.” 

He arched an eye brow at that though I could barely see his expression in the light of the wind up lamp.  “What did you do with their guns and the duffle bags?” 

“The duffle bags are in the bench chest in the old tack room of the barn underneath some old junk that was out there.  I wrapped the guns and ammo I found for them in the tarp I used to drag the bodies to the canal with and then shoved them inside in that tree that split … the one that is a few trees over from where Josh put the bees.” 

He nodded thoughtfully again.  “Good thinking but we can go one better.  We’ll disburse whatever is in the duffle bags – bury it in several different locations if we have to – and we’ll cache those guns until they aren’t hot anymore.  I think I know where the guns and the men came from.  Worse comes to worse I’ll find a conveniently burning building and throw them in to be found that way.” 

I turned my neck and looked up at him in the dark.  “What you do you mean you know where the men came from?” 

“Long story,” he murmured still thinking. 

“You made me tell you mine,” I complained. 

He looked down at me and then snorted.  “You make it very hard to protect you from things you know that?”

“I don’t need to be protected that way.  It is way too late for me to play at the unknowing innocent.  Life has seen to that.” 

He gave me a look that said he wasn’t sure exactly how to take what I’d just said.  Either way he finally explained, “There was a prison break at the Hardee Correctional Institute” 

I shook my head, “But I thought that was a minimum security facility.” 

“Minimum and medium but there were still some bad dudes in there.  But I’m thinking that it was who did the breaking that you ran across.” 

Still confused I said, “Those guys weren’t from around here.  Their Spanish didn’t sound … sound right to me.” 

“That’s because they were probably Venezuelan.  You’ve been around many of them?” 

“Uh … no.  Most of the Venezuelans I knew in school were from wealthy families.” 

“I’m too tired to explain it fully but that’s because they were probably from the wealthy families that escaped the Chavez regime when they first got into power.  But do you remember us talking about how some terrorist organizations had gotten a toehold in South and Central America?”  At my nod he said, “Venezuela is one of those countries.  Seems like the current regime after ol’ Chavez kicked the bucket continued the relationship since it was a politically profitable one.  Someone decided to try and use our current circumstances to their advantage and it’s succeeded.  An entire prison’s population is back out on the streets and they are still counting the dead at the ruin of the prison.” 

I felt weak, “Oh God.” 

“Hey,” he said carefully putting his chin on the top of my head.  “I’m here now.” 

“It’s not that.” 

Rather deflated Cal said, “Uh … oh … er … then what is it?” 

I then explained about what I had seen; the men getting shot as they tried to jump from the deck.  “So they weren’t LEOs.” 

“Probably not.” 

“Probably?  What do you mean probably not?” 

He sighed deeply.  “Things are a mess.  There aren’t many that I trust right now.”

Part 57


Dear Diary, 

My feelings want to swallow me whole.  How am I supposed to deal with this?  I feel like such a traitor. 

Yet … yet …

 

Part 56


Dear Diary, 

I didn’t almost shoot Cal, I did shoot him.  He keeps saying it was barely a knick but I can hardly stand to be in the same room with him.  If I’m not doing something like cooking or cleaning or something that helps keep part of my attention, I just start shaking.  I can’t just sit and relax anywhere near him.  I feel so bad.  On top of all the other things I’m feeling the sheer enormity of what I did, what I almost did makes my chest feel like it is about to cave in. 

He keeps trying to talk to me about it but I can’t, not now, maybe not ever.  Maybe this is God’s way of warning me off, reminding me just what a disaster everything I have touched seems to eventually turn into.

 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Part 55


Dear Diary, 

Obviously didn’t finish last night but I just couldn’t.  The remembered terror of what I had seen brought back some pretty powerful memories.  I’m not feeling very well today either.  The wildfires all up and down our part of the coast have just built on each other and the air quality is very bad.  It makes you even more tired than you already have reason to be.  The almost daily shocks that I have been through are also weighing me down. 

So back to the story … 

When all three boats left I was sick with disbelief.  My mind didn’t want to process it.  I’ve thought a lot about what I saw and how it made me feel … or should I say made me recognize some of the things that had been building in me all along.  I’m not sure what to say.  Part of me is horrified.  Part of me is … is relieved to know I’m not completely broken.  The other parts I’m not sure what to do with except to box them up, appreciate them for what they are, but remind myself that feelings are only one part of how things work.  

I also needed to keep fear at bay as I read a book one time that said, “Fear is the mind killer.”  I think it was “Dune” but I can’t be sure since it was while Papa was still alive when I read it and that seems a long time ago.  But regardless of where the quote originated it is certainly true.  You let fear rule and you are paralyzed.  I’ve already been there done that once with the never ending hospital bills to prove it. 

Whatever was happening was no ordinary emergency.  I might have even been looking on what would become war if it wasn’t already.  Who were the good guys?  Who were the bad guys?  Why would our military turn on our law enforcement or vice versa?  Too many questions and not enough answers.  This wasn’t a novel; there were no cliff notes.  This wasn’t the movies; there was no screen play.  This was real life. 

I looked around more carefully than I had been doing up to that point to make sure while I was watching everything else, nothing was watching me.  Then I looked at the sky and wondered about drones.  I hadn’t seen any lately but then again I hadn’t been watching for them.  They had become like birds in my mind; I knew they flew by on most days but I couldn’t tell you always when or what type.  They were just part of the environment; annoying, but as unavoidable as palmetto bugs. 

Nothing was obvious so I scooted back inside.  I checked on Feena, saw her still playing well by herself, and then went down to the kitchen and started some dinner.  While the soup cooked I closed up what little bit of the house I had opened.  I also refilled all of the water containers.  When the soup was done I poured it into the thermos I had used for our lunch.  It was too early to put breakfast to soak so I put the water into the breakfast thermos. 

I decided as much as the animals would hate it I was going to have to put them up early.   I checked on Feena again and found she’d fallen asleep in the middle of her toys.  Before I left the house I stopped, went back to my room and took the pistol – a Ruger P95 – from my nightstand, and slipped it self-consciously into the pocket of the jacket I was wearing.  I also put a handful of 9mm bullets that went with it in my pocket. 

Then I stopped again, took out the gun and did the check that Cal had insisted I commit to memory … the last part was to check that my magazine was full and that the safety was back on.  The capacity of the magazine was 15 + 1 so I counted and then added a few to make 32 bullets in my pants pocket.  And something made me grab my keys and lock the door behind me when I stepped outside.  The idea of leaving Feena alone in the house truly bothered me but I didn’t have much of an alternative.   

As I expected, the animals were less than pleased about being forced to go in early so I gave them a little extra feed to sweeten their dispositions.  I figured once I closed the shed up that they lived in, it would be dark and they might think it was night time and go to sleep anyway.  I was feeling bad about the goats so I grabbed the machete from the tool rack and went over to the palmetto stand to cut some for them to chew on.  I was set to bring down the machete when I realized I heard noises off in the dense scrub between my property and the gated community. 

Listening harder I heard three men speaking in Spanish though with an accent that I wasn’t used to hearing.  They were native speakers, I could tell that, but from a country that I didn’t have much exposure to which was unusual. 

The first hombre said, “El anciano dice hay cabras aquí. Pollos demasiado. ¿Crees que él estaba mintiendo?”  (The old man said there were goats over here.  Chickens as well.  Do you think he was lying?) 

The second hombre answered him, “Temía por su vida demasiado. Dijo que también hubo una mujer allí. Tomaremos los pollos. Tomaremos las cabras. Y nosotros tomaremos a la mujer.”  (He feared for his life too much.  He said there was a woman there too.  We will take the chickens.  We will take the goats.  And we will take the woman as well.) 

A third hombre complained, “¿Por qué? La mujer hace demasiado ruido. Al menos con los pollos podemos exprimir sus cuellos.”  (Why? The woman will make too much noise. At least with the chickens can ring their necks.) 

The second hombre in a cold and unfeeling voice that drew coarse laughter from the other two asked, “¿Quien dice que no podemos hacer lo mismo a la mujer?”  (Who says we cannot do the same to the woman?) 

Over the years I have found that I am very flexible, the way my personality expresses itself is different with different people.  When I am around non-Hispanics that side of my heritage plays to the fore.  And when I am around Hispanics I tend to reveal that part of my heritage.  Now whether it is just an old wives tale or a stereotype I’m not really sure but when I am around Hispanics my temper seems quite a bit hotter; it will go from simmer to rolling boil almost too quick for me to catch it.  It doesn’t happen often but listening to those men did unleashed my fire.  It was not just their words, but the tone and way in which they spoke them. 

I had to stop them.  I was as sure of that as I was that to remain alive I had to continue breathing.  They were on my property with their machismo all hanging out and threatening my animals and me which meant they were also threatening my daughter.  My fear was gone.  My worry evaporated.  I was calm.  And the grip on the machete I held was strong.  “Zombies,” I thought.  “They are nothing but zombies.  Los muertos en espíritu really do walk.” 

My caution, and some confusion, reasserted itself when I saw them.  They wore the same type of clothing as the law enforcement officers that had been shot.  Was it possible that they weren’t LEOs?   These men obviously weren’t but the ones on the boat as well?  But what were they doing wearing such uniforms?  As they drew closer I saw that the uniforms didn’t fit very well.  They also weren’t wearing regulations shoes.  I couldn’t recall whether the same could be said of the men on the boat.  What they did have that the men on the boat had not were guns and they carried them like they knew how to use them. 

A stupid machete was not going to help me.  I considered just hiding and dealing with whatever the aftermath might be.  But then I changed my mind.  It was ridiculous to think that they’d pass by after specifically coming this way for food … and whatever else they wanted.  I carefully put the machete into the crook of the oak tree I was hiding behind and pulled the P95 from my pocket.  If I needed more than 16 bullets for three men I was in too much trouble for the gun to do me any good so I knew I would have to make it count. 

It was as I was watching them that something else bothered me; they were too familiar with walking in the type of landscape they were in.  Most people, when they walk through scrub, show that it isn’t something they normally do.  They’ll trip on the blackberry canes or saw brier vines.  They’ll lurch in the patches of loose sand.  They’ll kick leaves or crunch dried palmetto fronds that had fallen to the ground so that they make a lot of noise.  Not these three men.  I knew that meant something but I didn’t know what, so I filed it away in case the information became useful. 

I gave them one last chance but they weren’t changing their direction and were making a fast but cautious beeline for the house.  There was no more time.  They were not going to hurt my daughter or take my property that I needed to take care of her.   

It was too easy.  That is what bothers me the most I think; not the result but the doing.  It was just too easy.  There were three men and with a breath, breath, they no longer inhabited this earth.  Their bodies remained but they were no longer in need of them. 

I’d hunted and fished with Daddy and Papa for as long as I could remember.  Momma insisted.  She grew up poor, knew what it was like to be hungry in a time in this country when real hunger was something too few really understood much less experienced.  Daddy didn’t want to at first; he wanted a little lady.  Papa – being more worldly and experienced – asked Daddy why I couldn’t do and be both.  So I learned to hunt and fish … and clean my kills and cook them, eat them, and preserve what I couldn’t eat right away for later.  I fished from the dock but Daddy did refuse to allow me to learn to operate the small sail boat that used to be tied up there; memories of my brother’s loss caused him pain until the day he died. 

Daniel had thought having a girlfriend that could shoot was “cool.”  So much so that he sometimes embarrassed me and one time almost got me in trouble with one of my foster families who imagined I was some gangsta fem with guns on the brain.  Being able to talk guns kept me from being a victim in a couple of the homes they stuck me in.  And now, knowing guns was going to kept me from being a victim again … only I wouldn’t be talking about them but using one.  I set my stance and used the tree to steady my aim.   

Daddy and Papa always said to shoot to wound was inhumane; that a clean kill was the mark of an honorable hunter.  Cal had told me to always shoot to kill or not to pull the gun at all lest it be used against me.  I told me to shoot to kill because wounded men were dangerous men and the three in front of me were already dangerous enough. 

Remembering Cal’s instructions to aim and hit the center mass of the intended target I sighted and then caught all three by surprise with my ambush.  They walked right into it.  I don’t know if it was overconfidence on their part, luck on my part, or a combination of the two.  No matter how you cut it my first two shots were clean, making two men fall where they stood.  The third turned to the side before I could correct my aim and my bullet took him in the right side of his chest.  He stumbled, giving me time to re-set, and I placed a round between his shoulder blades knocking him to the ground where he finally lay still … I shot a man in the back. 

Four shots from me and three men were dead.  If I were a cop or a soldier then I would have done a good job and could say perhaps that I was proud of my actions.  But I’m neither of those things and in truth I’m merely disgusted that it was necessary. 

I quickly changed my position and waited for five minutes but nothing happened.  No sounds of anyone coming to investigate the gunfire.  No yells.  Nothing.  I wasn’t sure then that I wanted to know what those three men had left in their wake wherever they had come from.  The only “old man” that I could think of in the direction that they had come was a couple in the gated community.  I was not up to investigating. 

I ran back to the house and checked on Feena.  She was just waking up from her nap and I was in a quandary.  I needed to get rid of the bodies, and quickly, but how to manage it with my daughter? 

I had no choice; I put her in the sling and then left the house.  Soon enough she dozed again.  I pray she didn’t witness anything.  I’m hoping God heard my prayers.  She was used to riding my back or hip as I worked so all of the bouncing around she did didn’t faze her.  I remembered the ants of my last encounter with a corpse so I wore latex gloves under my rose gardening gloves.  I also brought a tarp … not to cover the men up with but drag them away on.  The canal near the gated community, the one that emptied into Hillsborough Bay, was going to be their burial site.  Even if they didn’t sink I knew the tide would carry them out and away overnight. 

It took two hours and the day was ending on a chill note before I was finished.  Nothing on their persons revealed their identities.  I did find where they had crossed as just on this side of the road next to the canal were three duffel bags filled with miscellaneous stuff, all of it looked stolen.  The first two bodies went in with no problem, the third I was nearly unable to do because what I found when I got back with the last one turned my stomach. 

Sharks.  It is November so they should have all gone out to the warmer waters of the Gulf but obviously not … or maybe all the fighting and fear lured them back.  Either way several had found the corpses of the first two men and were in the process of savaging them.  But then I thought, “Let their own kind have them back.”  I rolled the last corpse in, turned my back, and walked away. 

Feena woke while I was giving the goats the palmetto fronds I had promised them.  I had collected them at the same time I collected the machete.  Then it was back into the house and locking it down for the night.  Feena wanted her dinner badly and I sat and fed her to keep the mess to a minimum.  It was only after feeding her and cleaning things up that I had to rush to the bathroom and throw up.   But that was it, just the once. 

But it left me feeling washed out.  I knew that I needed rest.  I went around the house and picked up and cleaned what needed cleaning.  Still no power.  And I worried about draining the batteries from the solar system as it had been so hazy and overcast that I didn’t think much charging had occurred at all so all I did was fill water containers and took a shower using the shower bag.   

Feena and I were as clean as we were getting, her more so than me.  I let her play for a while longer and by ten o’clock she was tired again.  And I was exhausted.  I folded a comforter and laid it beside her nest of blankets.  I then laid my bedspread over everything.  The space had been a “water closet” back in my great grandparents’ day but had been turned into what it was now when the indoor bathroom was put in downstairs and the old chamber pot stand was no longer needed.  There area was deeper than wide which was fine for a hidey hole. 

I had told Feena we were camping in a dollhouse and she loved it.  I didn’t even have to tell her it was time for bed because she had been eagerly waiting for me to finish making things more comfortable.  She crawled in and laid right down.  I was suddenly edgy and decided to take a look from the widow’s walk.   

I needn’t have bothered, there was nothing to see.  Moonlight gave the haze from the fires that still smoldered on the far shore an eerie, opaque glow that was nauseating.  I climbed down and then my next stop, this one involuntary, was Cal’s room.   

That was where I almost cried … almost.  We had parted on less than good terms.  I knew he still cared enough to warn me when the whole mess started but I’d discovered something, something that I wasn’t sure what to do with, and “cared enough” wasn’t as hopeful and satisfying as it should have been.   

Then to bed.  I snuggled up to Feena, too tired and full of care to break down the way I likely needed to.  I didn’t even have time to wonder if I’d be able to fall asleep before the black curtain of exhaustion fell across my eyes. 

Something woke me.  I don’t know what even now.  I just knew that something was different and that something was in the house.  I heard nothing no matter how I strained my ears but despite the silence I became more and more certain that there was something in the house with us … someone … more than one someone.  The house seemed to breathe differently. 

My heart started to pound.  I tried to convince myself that it was nothing, that it was my imagination.  Then I heard something through the wall vent; a thump that nothing in the house could have made on its own.  I wondered when they would start tearing up the interior.  I thought if they made enough noise perhaps I could escape with Feena out of the window before they realized the house wasn’t empty.  

How did they get in?  Why I hadn’t heard anything before?  What was that noise?  The stairs? 

My heart was pounding.  I could barely breathe.  It … they … were getting closer … and closer.  I heard the door to my bedroom turn … it needed to be adjusted as it was loose.  I hadn’t locked it because of this; worried I would lock it and be unable to unlock it with Feena stuck on the other side. 

I heard a step … not a light one but not noisy either.  Male – definitely male – and definitely bigger than me.   

I sat up as carefully as I could, still barely breathing, took the P95 I had brought into the closet with me, and aimed it at the door.   

The knob turned gently.  A little harder like it was being tested.  Then, with me unable to compute it, there was a scrape and the knob turned all the way.  The door was pulled outward carefully. 

I was shaking so badly I could barely hold the gun.  This was different than the men in the wood lot’s scrub had been.  This was up close and personal and all I had was fear instead of anger.  Feena was asleep right behind me.  What if I made the wrong decision?  What could I give them that would make them just go away?  There was the obvious of course but then I was out of time to debate myself … the door opened wider and with the large shadow looming over me and the gun in my hands twitching wildly I pulled the trigger and simultaneously launched myself out of the closet knocking the person down and as away from the closet as I could manage. 

I was trying to bring the gun up again when two large hands grabbed mine and pushed my arms up and away towards the ceiling.  I didn’t have much time, it sounded like the cavalry – the man’s cavalry – was on their way up the stairs.  Feena was screaming in the closet, the loudness of the shot jerking her awake in fear. 

In desperation I continued to fight, for my daughter, for myself.  Then the man rolled me over on my back squashing the wind out of me and still I tried to fight.  If I could just loosen his grip.  

I tried to raise my knee but he seemed to be prepared for it.  His hip bore me into the hard wooden floor.  Then someone ripped the gun from my hands; not the man as his never moved from their hold. 

Strangely enough something – someone slapped the man above me on the side of the head.  “Damn it man … for a cop you got a bad case of the stupids.  Or maybe you want a scar like I got on my a** where my third wife took a shot at me when I came home late one night and scared her.” 

A bright light nearly blinded me but I still fought on.  I knew that voice but I couldn’t give up.  I couldn’t let them get to Feena. 

“Aria!  Aria!!  Stop it!  It’s me!!”