“Home?! You lived in a replica of Washington’s Monument.”
I was being facetious but he was serious and sad. He started reciting what sounded like a grade school report. “You’re looking at what is left of the Jeff Davis Monument. He was born very near this spot, and was the first and only president of the Confederacy. The monument is … was … 351 feet tall, an incredible feat of engineering for its time, and is … was the tallest unreinforced concrete obelisk in the world.” He looked at me and frowned. “You really aren’t impressed are you?”
“Donovan I’m cold and this is … weirding me out. I honestly thought we were in DC for a second. It was all Twilight Zoney and junk. I’ve never even heard of the Jeff Davis Monument and I’m from the south. Where are we anyway?”
“A placed called Fairview. You ever heard of Hopkinsville, KY?”
“Yeah, they had a big flour mill? And … a uh, a state mental health hospital too I think? I played a team from there back during my softball days.”
“You’ve never heard of the Monument but you knew about those two things? And what do you mean during your softball days? Girl you are strange.” He looked at me like I was a few clowns short of a circus and then said, “We’re not far from Hoptown. I went to highschool at Christian County High … home of the Colonels; colors were red, white, and blue. Made one of the biggest mistakes of my life there too.”
Part of me wanted to know what that “biggest” mistake was but I have a feeling he was just mentioning it so he could deny me the information. Instead I said, “Oh knock it off; I just have a kind of weird affinity for useless facts. Seriously though, you lived here? Do you want to like … look for your old house or something?”
Donovan sighed and said, “No. I doubt I could even find it even if it was still standing. A … a Mennonite bought the farm at auction and ripped down the old house to build one for his big family from what I heard. Besides, look around Emma. This place had houses all around the park and there isn’t anything as far as the eye can see. No trees. No houses. Nothing. Everything looks like it’s been washed completely clean and just covered up with snow.”
I could tell he was getting upset. “What do you want to do? We can … camp up against the monument or we can head on out. Or we could … Donovan!”
He’d stumbled and leaned against the half-track. He didn’t look good. “That settles it. We’re stopping here and I’m going to figure out some way to …”
“Emma I’m fine, just tired.”
“Bull honkey. You nearly died not all that long ago Superman and you’ve been playing hero keeping me warm at night and not getting any sleep yourself ‘cause I’m squashing you.”
“You’re not squashing me. Emma … Emma … what the heck are you doing girl?”
“I’m getting the tent. We’ll set up … let’s see … we’ll set up right inside the entrance to the monument. The top fell the other way. I’ll drive the half-track up there and block the entrance, disable it so the ghosts can’t drive it away and …”
I was mumbling to myself by that point trying to plan out what we would need when Donovan asked, “Anyone ever told you you’re more than a little fond of having your own way?” I treated it as a rhetorical question and got down to business.
By the time I was finished we had a relatively snug hole for the night. I could have wished for a place to hide the half-track better but we had to make do with what the Lord provided, not that I would have said it quite like that to Donovan. He was still giving me creeped out looks when I read my Bible each night. I was able to maneuver the vehicle so that it was wedged between two of the biggest fallen chunks in front of the entrance and you couldn’t even open the door on one side it was so close. The passenger door only opened into the entranceway of the obelisk and there was enough open steel framing inside that I could tie the tent to instead of having to worry about staking it down. I got our “cocoon” out of the cab and lined the small three-man tent and then when I noticed a few falling flakes I took panels from the destroyed elevator and made a lean-to to protect the tent in case the snow started coming down in earnest during the night.
Donovan had tried to help at first but he was looking bad and I didn’t have to beg him to just sit down and let me do things my way. “Emma, I’m …,” he sighed and shook his head.
“You’re what? Surprised that you aren’t every member of the League of Justice all rolled into one? Donovan, you’re there when I need you to be and I’m there when you need me to be. Let’s just call it even and … be friends. OK? You wouldn’t have this much trouble with the help if I was a guy would you?”
“You aren’t a guy. I’m not even going to pretend you are. I still don’t see what the …”
What he was going to say was lost in the sudden baying of a dog. I got excited and scrambled to go see where it was coming from when Donovan got the energy from some place to grab me around the waist and haul me backwards. “Grab those panels. Put them against the bottom of the door opening. See if you can move any of those chunks of concrete against them to hold them in place.”
“Keep … your … voice … down,” he gritted out between his teeth.
I whispered, “Why?!”
“Any dog … or what passes for a dog around here … that has survived this long is going to be dangerous Emma. Can’t you imagine what it has been feeding on all these months?”
My stomach did a flip flop when I put two and two together. “The baying got closer and was followed by a second and then third one from different animals.”
“Crap! They’ve caught our scent.”
Without warning a large dog of indeterminate breed jumped on the hood of the half-track and was snarling wildly trying to dig in to get us. Donovan pulled his hand gun and shot, the sound impossibly loud within the concrete walls. Two more snarling monsters replaced the first one and Donovan shot and killed those as well. It was over so fast that shock didn’t even have time to set in. But neither one of us even breathed loud for nearly an hour waiting to see if three was all there was.
Eventually Donovan let me climb on the hood to get the nearly frozen carcasses off and then drag them a goodly distance away. It started to snow for real by the time I was finished and despite it all I was starving. I crawled back into our temporary home to find that Donovan had picked a dinner for me and had it heating … spaghetti and meat sauce, not the worst but not the best either. He made me eat something called a Millennium Bar on top of it. Geez, nearly 2000 calories in one meal if you can believe that. I watched Donovan choke down his last few bites and then try to keep it down. He really wasn’t looking good at all and I told him to crawl in the tent.
“Gotta secure that …”
“Already on it Chief,” I said with a salute.
That didn’t even get a sigh out of him so I knew he was bad off. He wanted to keep his boots on but I told him to stuff it and just get in the tent and warm it up. “I’ll be waiting up dear so don’t take too long.” At least he had enough energy to be a smart aleck that time.
But forget the waiting up stuff; by the time I got something figured out to make the door way difficult to get through … I found the old-fashioned “cage” security doors that had been blown in … and crawled in the tent he was fast asleep. I wasn’t far behind him. Survival is hard work.
Waking up the next morning was difficult. The floor was hard despite the padding I had tried to work out and it had snowed overnight making it painfully cold again. Donovan was dead to the world and it was scary how unconscious he was as I climbed out of the tent trying not to disturb the covers too much. The cold hit me like a ton of bricks and I almost couldn’t wait to get to the corner I’d set up as a “latrine.” Layers of clothing may keep you warm but they hinder other activities.
The white stuff was still coming down but the lean-to was doing what it was supposed to which was probably why we stayed so warm in the night. It was like being a bear in a den. But I knew if it got any colder we were going to need a fire. I ate breakfast while I arranged a BBQ ring not too far from the lean to entrance. But rocks don’t burn and we needed wood or something similar and I didn’t want to wait too much longer.
I moved the cage doors and climbed over the hood and out into a world even whiter than normal. My feet were getting cold scuffing at the ground looking for wood so I grabbed a piece of metal scaffolding from inside some of the fallen obelisk and started dragging it through the snow hunting for something, anything that would burn. I stumbled into a pile of stuff not too far from the monument that I thought was a small hill. I eventually figured out it had been some type of building; from a broken plaque I guessed it was the visitor center or gift shop.
It was in splinters but it was still dangerous work pulling stuff out and not slicing my gloves – or my hands – up on glass shards and chunks of other things. I managed to find a couple of items of interest to bring back to Donovan but firewood came first. I turned a sheet of drywall into a little sled and managed to pull back quite a bit of wood at a time rather than many trips of a small handful. The drywall slid over the top of the snow and didn’t bog down in my footsteps. I was on my third load when …
Well, rather than actually writing what Donovan had to say allow me to translate: bark, growl, snarl, pant, spank your behind until you can’t sit for a month of Sundays, snap, snarl, had me worried sick, grumble, bluster, mutter, threaten, yada, yada, yada.
“Yes dear. I’m sorry I didn’t call. Got hung up at the office and lost track of time. Mmmmm, what’s that cooking? Smells simply delicious.”
For a second I thought he’d had a heart attack or swallowed his tongue or something. Then he grabbed me by my shoulders and shook the heck out of me. I was right at the point of getting scared when he did something totally unexpected; he … hugged me … tight … and close. “Don’t ever do that again Emma. Leave a note, something. Wake me up preferably. Just don’t …”
If my knees hadn’t been locked we would have fallen. His face was completely gray. I mean really gray. You read about that stuff in books and hear people say, “he was a gray as a ghost” but you never really expect to see that color on a human face except in death. It’s all I could do to get him over to a big chunk of concrete so he could sit down. I ran to get whatever it was that was heating and this time it was something called mocha java.
“You … you too. Did you eat breakfast? Emma it’s … it’s passed lunch. I … waited and you never …”
“I was getting wood. With the white stuff coming down I figured it couldn’t hurt to stay here another day to give us both time to recupe.”
“You mean give me time.”
“You, me, both of us. Does it matter? We’ll figure out which way to go from here. Get at least another good night of sleep in case we have to spend any more nights in the half-track. Get reorganized. Make a plan.”
He nodded and I started some meals heating and then started bringing in the wood that I’d found. Some of it was treated lumber and I set that to the side as a last resort but most of it was tree debris like you would find after a tornado. I was shoving in the last load when I brought in the two things that I had found for Donovan. “Look, I found a replacement for the crutch. I don’t know how useful these things are but at least you’ll have something until you leg is completely healed. One for you and maybe one for me if that one is too short for you.”
“Where did you find these?” Donovan asked running his hand over the lacquered, knobbledy wood of the walking sticks.
“Down in the debris of the place where I got the wood. It looks like there was a building out that way …”
“The gift shop or maybe the visitor center, I can’t remember; it’s been a long time since I was here. I guess they were selling these for souvenirs. Anything else in there?”
“Lots of stuff, I just couldn’t tell you what it is. Broken glass is all mixed in with everything and it’s a real mess. Oh, here’s the other things I found.” I took the little books and the buttons out of my coat pockets. Donovan nearly hypnotized himself turning those buttons over in his hand. They were brass buttons with CSA on them along with some other raised detail, and they looked good enough to be authentic.
“Wild Kentucky, Kentucky Home Cooking, and Confederate Cooking?” he asked when he finally looked at the books while I was starting a fire.
I shrugged. “We have the room and I figure, you know, maybe they’ll come in handy at some point.”
“Do you even know how to cook?”
“How do you think I survived on what little money I had in college? I sure as heck couldn’t afford to eat at the UC every day or at Burger King.”
“I got the idea that that family you lived with was well off.”
“Yeah, they were. They weren’t rich, rich if you know what I mean but they had enough to spoil their kids. But what do the Epsteins have to do with me?”
“I just figured ….” and he shrugged like I was supposed to understand his incomplete sentence.
“If you’re asking if my family was well off the answer is no. We did all right on Dad’s pay but he was an NCO. We got our groceries once a month from the commissary and they had to last until we went the next month. We drank powdered milk and Momma baked her own bread and would work part time every once in a while to have a little extra money for something.”
“So what … you went to college on loans?”
It was weird to have Donovan asking me questions about personal stuff which was a complete departure from the way things had been at the bunker but I figured whatever was up didn’t matter if it kept him looking more alive than he had been there for a while. “No. Scholarships and the sweat of my brow, at one time I was holding down four jobs at once just to pay for my room and board. I went over to the Epstein’s to eat with the family once a week and Mrs. Epstein always made sure that the leftovers went home with me.”
“Don’t do that again.”
“Don’t do what … oh. I didn’t mean to cause problems. I just didn’t want to wake you. Time did get away from me and I was worried that you were doing that thing that I did where I couldn’t get warm and …”
“I know. Just … don’t do it again. I …,” he stopped. “I didn’t …,” he stopped again. “Just don’t do it Emma, OK?”
“OK.” What was I supposed to say?
The snow really started to come down. It wasn’t a storm but at the same time it was. The fire was down to coals and it hissed as the snow hit it. I took a piece of sheet metal and, after putting a pot of tightly packed snow over the coals, covered the “BBQ pit” to keep the snow from completely drowning things in case we needed it in the morning.
We took care of our personal needs while giving each other what privacy we could and then crawled into the tent and eventually we both went to sleep. I woke up briefly and tried to move away so I wouldn’t hit his leg and he threw his arm over me and dragged me back. I guess he got cold or thought I was going to go and forget to leave him a note or something.
The snow had stopped falling during the night and there were enough coals left to get a fire going again in the morning. The water was a little icy but I shook it up and Donovan ran it through the filter and then we poured it into a clean pot and heated it to boiling before splitting it between a couple of thermoses.
We agreed that we would pack up and move along. “I want us to move westerly but not so far that we run into places like Russellville or Bowling Green; I want to avoid the city centers where traveling could be rough. Before we hit Russellville we’ll turn north. There were some old abandoned little tourist traps off the beaten track up in there that Uncle Shem used to take me to. It’s a place to start. How’s the fuel this morning?”
“We’ve used up all the extra cans and we are down to just below the half mark on the main spare tank. But the half-track is full and we shouldn’t have to refuel until tomorrow.”
I knew that Donovan was nervous. I would watch him like he was going to bite a nail and then remember he had his gloves on. “Emma …”
“If anything happens to me …”
“Nothing is going to happen to you.”
“Don’t be hard headed. We don’t know how long these super cold weather patterns are going to last. It could be months, years, or even a lifetime or three. If … if something does happen to me and you run across other people, you need to try and make it work. You won’t … you won’t be able to make it in this world on your own.”
“Well thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Emma, I’m trying to be practical here. You’re not a big woman. Just living in this cold burns up a lot of energy. Working in this cold is … I can see it in your face girl. You’re losing weight, getting pale, you’re dark under the eyes and at night … I can feel the weight you are losing Emma.”
“That … is none of your business Donovan. And you are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Sure, I’ve lost a little weight but so have you. We’re eating more and still not having to get into our main food supply yet. We’ve got plenty of food. We’ll find a place to hole up for the winter even if it isn’t the perfect place. Then went the worst of the weather is over, if we want to we can go looking some more. But I have a good feeling … a real good feeling … the place we find will be all we need it to be. I’ve prayed …,” I stopped, thinking I’d put my foot in it.
Donovan scraped his face with his hand and rubbed his eyes. “About that. Look, I was … out of line … about … that stuff and you. I have my reasons but it’s … look, organized religion … aw @#$%.”
“Donovan, I’m not asking you to cut me any slack. To be honest I’m embarrassed that you were so surprised when …”
“Don’t be. I … I didn’t really mean it like it came out. God this place … I’d put all that crap behind me.”
“Uh … is this one of those blaming me for something I’m not responsible for things?”
He looked at me and I got a small laugh. “Yeah. Pretty much. Come here, the half-track has to finish warming up and maybe telling you will … I don’t know, something. I’m tired of tripping over it every time I turn around.”
Not having a clue what he was talking about but willing to listen if it helped, I sat and waited for him to start.
“Aunt Rachel was my Mom’s sister and they were as different as night and day even though they shared the same parents. I never knew my grandparents but I was told that they were real strict; my grandfather was a Primitive Baptist lay preacher. They only had the two daughters and my mom ran away from home so much they finally threw her out when she caught pregnant with me. My dad wasn’t a bad guy, he married her, but neither one of them were what you could call mature or financially responsible. My mom took off right after I was born; she was home from the hospital only two days before taking off for good. I met her once, at Aunt Rachel’s funeral, and there was no connection. Aunt Rachel had been the closest thing to a mother I ever had. She’d been thrown out of the house too because she didn’t want to marry some guy her dad thought was just perfect for her. She and Uncle Shem were just friends but he married her to protect her. Grandad apparently blew a gasket when he found out his daughter married an excommunicated Mennonite that couldn’t even have grandkids for them to fight over instead of crawling on her hands and knees to beg for a second chance. He refused to have anything to do with them even though their farms adjoined. As for me, then never even acknowledged my existence.”
He stopped to take a swig of coffee and was looking at me like he expected me to laugh or something which only made me want to kick him instead of being sympathetic. But I just kept my mouth shut and waited for him to start again.
“Fast forward a few years. I was living with Aunt Rachel and Uncle Shem more than I wasn’t. Then Aunt Rachel got sick … and I got a little wild. Started running with a crowd of kids that … none of us made good choices very often. There was this girl, well, she said I got her pregnant and there was good reason for me to believe her. That time Uncle Shem did just about kick my tail and he wasn’t the violent type at all. I offered to marry her but her parents put the kibosh on it; they did make sure my life a misery for a while and took me to court; wanted to get me for statutory rape but the cops wouldn’t touch it. Uncle Shem backed me up and while they got child support I got the shared custody I demanded. They didn’t like that but the judge told them he wouldn’t give them one without the other and at the first sign that they were interfering with my parental rights he would charge them and reduce the amount I had to pay every month.”
“You … you have a child? Was … I mean … your wife … ex-wife … I heard there weren’t any kids.”
“I’m getting to it. Just let me tell it in order Emma, this is hard enough as it is.” So I shut my mouth again and heard the rest of it.
“I loved that little boy and I was determined that I was going to do better by him than my Dad had done by me. My grades went up even though I was working like a dog to keep up with what I owed. I was gonna make something of myself see. I graduated and started community college. I followed all the rules her parents set. They were real church-y kind of people and demanded that I come to church with them and take these life enrichment classes and eventually I even started liking it. The only thing I couldn’t stand was that in public they acted like everything was going just fine and dandy but in private they never let me forget what an embarrassment the whole situation was. The thing is they did it in such a way that I was the one that felt bad for embarrassing them. I just didn’t see how twisted that was until later.”
He swiped his mouth like it had a bad taste in it. “The baby’s mother started going around with a guy we had known in highschool and then they got married real quick. It shocked everyone but her parents adored the baby girl that she turned out to be pregnant with. Then that baby got sick and needed some kind of treatment that required a donor. They tested Bobby … that was … his name, the little boy. It came out that … Bobby wasn’t mine. He was actually the son of the guy she’d run off and married.”
“What?! That’s … that’s …”
“A hillbilly soap opera. I know. I didn’t know what to do. I was still little more than a kid myself but Bobby … I’d helped raise him, didn’t blame him for what his mother had done. I loved the kid. But her parents, the whole church, wanted to ‘fix things and make them right.’ Everyone thought I was being selfish to hang onto the boy rather than let his “real daddy” raise him. Before I knew it we were in court again and I was on the losing end this time. Then Uncle Shem died and … they took Bobby from me. The little kid was crying and calling me Daddy and that’s the last time I was allowed to see him. They got a court order that prevented me from being anywhere near the kid and I nearly went to jail once over it because I went to the hospital when they were doing the transplant. That’s when the judge took me into his chambers and gave me the best advice he felt he could. I wasn’t ever going to be Bobby’s father, it was never going to go back to the way it had been, I was only hurting everyone by holding on to the kid, and since I didn’t have anything else holding me to the area the best thing would be for me to leave and go make a life for myself someplace else; let the kid acclimate to his biological father. It just about killed me but that’s what I did because I didn’t know what else to do. But I wasn’t through making a fool out of myself. Deidra … you know her name? Guess the gossip really did make the rounds. You know what happened there. She was another one that claimed to be religious. That was her excuse for leaving me for John … she had to ‘fix things and make them right.’ She was ‘in love’ with John and he with her and she thought it was only right to ‘set me free’ so we could all find happiness. Only that time there wasn’t any way I could retreat and lick my wounds; we were stuck in the freaking bunker with the world ending around us. I threw what I could into my job and avoided those @#$% socials as often as they would let me.”
“Well, at least you could avoid them. Attendance was mandatory for us and I felt like I was on the auction block every time someone felt forced to ask me to dance. They took turns you know, so that no one would get stuck with me too often. Everyone knew that I was bad mojo since I was still on Level 1’s hit list. Some even acted like they were doing me a favor by taking the risk and expected … appreciation … in return.”
“Hey … I didn’t know … why the heck didn’t you ever say anything?!”
“Does it matter now? But basically I guess like you, I just wanted to be left some pride. What those people did to you was wrong. And I’m really sorry about the little boy. I … that couldn’t have done anything but hurt. You didn’t have to tell me. I still don’t know why you did.”
“Because … I’m finding out that … look, I just wanted you to know that it’s not personal and that I’ll try and … not be so … so … critical. I’ll try and stop blaming you for what someone else did. OK?”
“Sure. And … yeah, I guess it helps to know why you feel the way you do. But Donovan … they didn’t do what they did because of religion … they did it because they were self-centered, excuse-making jerks.”
His face was momentarily surprised and then I got a real smile for a brief moment before he turned thoughtful again, “One thing Emma.”
“Don’t hold me accountable for what that guy … that Moshe … did either. I may mess up from time to time but I won’t ever sell you out.”
Now it was my turn to be surprised but I held out my mitten covered hand and said, “Deal.”
It was a fairly quick getaway after we packed up the emotional baggage and stowed it and the remainder of the day was uneventful. We continued west to this little town called Elkton and now we are heading north and eventually we are supposed to turn northwest.
The sun is going down and that means it is going to get cold so I’d better get inside. We are camped by a concrete grain silo. Needless to say that is an empty concrete grain silo since most of it is laying on the ground like a big Tinker Toy. Donovan should be done with his personal hygiene. Keeping the BO at bay has been a challenge for both of us. About the only thing that gets clean these days are our teeth, pits, and feet. Lordy what I wouldn’t give for a hot shower … or even more for a long soak in a hot bubble bath. I haven’t been able to soak like that … my gosh, it’s been since before The Impact. How depressing.