"Del! Del! Wake up!"
"Aw Daddy. What time … ?" I said squinting at the blurry red numbers on the clock on my nightstand. "Oh no! I'm not on nights this week. Why are you waking me up at …?!"
"Shut your mouth and get up right now Delilah Bathsheba Jezebel Nash!"
Daddy never used all of my names, not even when he was angry at me. He hated them almost as much as I did. The fact that he had used them … all of them … woke me up faster than a bucket of ice cold water.
"Daddy?" I asked, scared despite the fact that I was twenty-one years old and well past the point where I should be acting like a scared little girl.
"Baby Girl I need you to pack everything up. Now. Grab all the food out of the kitchen; cold stuff in the coolers, everything else in the boxes and laundry baskets. Come on girl … hustle." His command ended on a grimace and he grabbed his stomach. That scared me more than the other had.
"Daddy, what's going on? Has … has it gotten worse? Or wait," I said, grabbing at a straw. "Did the insurance finally give the OK for …" I asked as I followed him into the kitchen, my scuffy slippers making swishing noises on the faded linoleum of the hallway between the bedrooms and the breakfast nook.
Turning to me he took my shoulders, not roughly but not gently either. "Enough. We've already been through that as many times as I care to. And now … now everything has changed."
Looking over my father's shoulder I saw Micah already in the kitchen emptying all of the cabinets willy nilly, making my teeth hurt at the mess he was making of my immaculate and organized kitchen.
My father, catching what I was looking at, drew me into his bedroom, the only room in the house he wouldn't let me touch when it came to cleaning; and it showed. "Listen Del and listen careful and quick because I don't have time for everything right now. I … I overheard something down at the plant tonight. I wasn't supposed to and a good thing that no one saw me; Kenneth and Harmon got caught listening and … and I'm not sure where they were taken to but they aren't my responsibility, you two kids are."
Daddy worked at the water treatment plant and had since he'd retired from the military three years ago. I turned 18 and Daddy had 20 in. I busted out of highschool and he went on terminal leave from the USAF on almost the same day. Since then we'd been living in a series three bedroom rentals while we waited for the housing market to stabilize. It might seem strange but I'd been "the woman of the house" since I was five years old, the year my brother was born. Momma's uterus had ruptured during labor with my brother and they hadn't been able to stop the bleeding. Daddy had been with her as she bled out and slowly lost consciousness. The doctors weren't at fault, they did everything humanly possible, though Daddy still hated anything having to do with hospitals and health care; it was just "one of those terrible things" that no one seemed to have a satisfactory explanation for that happened to good people. Daddy had never remarried and I'd had a … well, different kind of upbringing compared to most girls my age. I was both to forever be "Daddy's Little Girl" and at the same time his confidant and his "right hand man." It made for an unusual father/daughter relationship, but not one I've ever regretted.
All of this flashed through my mind as Daddy started talking again. "I'll explain things on the road … at least as well as I can explain them, I don't have all the facts. Usually I adhere to 'believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see' but … Del, you're going to have to trust your old man on this. I need you to just do what I say and keep everything else to yourself for a while, just like with … with my problems. Micah thinks … thinks I finally told Wilkinson off and we're going to go visit the Aunts and maybe look for some property up there. He's happy right now and I want to keep it that way until I'm forced to tell him otherwise."
Micah was sixteen but the way Daddy handled him drove me crazy at least every other day. Micah was a royal brat but it wasn't all own his fault. Daddy gave him his way as often as he could afford to, let him get away with things he never would have me just because he was a boy and was "sowing wild oats," and coddled him way too much. Micah didn't know how sick Daddy was, that was a secret. He didn't know how much Daddy had given up just so he could have a car and auto insurance on his birthday just a couple of months back; that was a secret too. And Daddy was doing it again, keeping the peace rather than dealing with it head on.
I tried to keep my opinion to myself, we'd already had too many "discussions" on the subject and I'd promised myself that I would make Daddy's time as easy as I could no matter what it cost me. But apparently something seeped through my eyes or in the tilt of my mouth.
"I know Girl, I know. And … and maybe you've been more right than wrong and I've just not wanted to … I hope that I have time enough left to set some things right. Just get a move on."
Having Daddy admit that nearly stole the breath from my lungs but I tried to stay on track because whatever it really was … and he'd promised to explain when we got on the road so the faster we got on the road the better. "Daddy? Where are we going?"
"To your grandfather's old hunting camp on the backside of the Aunt's property."
"Enough Del. There's no time. Just … listen girl. Anything you want to keep you better … you better pack it up after you get the food. We … we won't be coming back here. At least I don't think so. Just treat it like we aren't."
We were walking back into the kitchen at that point and Micah was bouncing off the walls in excitement. "Del! We're moving home! Dad said I could skip the rest of the school year and then catch my senior year back at County Consolidated! Finally we are getting out of this hell hole!"
"Micah! Dad … you aren't going to let Micah talk …"
"Enough Micah or I might just change my mind. And watch your language around your sister. We don't use that kind of language around ladies."
I could tell Micah wanted to make a comment about the likelihood of me being a lady pretty badly but there are one or two things that Daddy would rare up and let Micah have it over and one was letting him catch Micah treating me with anything less than respect. Again, that was if Daddy caught him. The only bad fight Daddy and Micah ever had was when he heard Micah call me a whore after … well, it wasn't my fault I fell for a guy that had failed to tell me he was married. Nineteen year old guys weren't normally married these days and those that were usually didn't attend college on a full ride scholarship.
Most of our keepsakes and mementos were already at the Aunts' place either in their attic or in the basement. We visited them at least once a year ever since Momma died; it was a stipulation of my grandfather's will, that and the fact that we had to attend church regularly which Daddy had already promised Momma he would do anyway. A couple of times when Daddy had to go on an extended TDY we even lived with them. Mostly we bounced around so much that Daddy just found it easier to let the Aunts store all the extras we'd accumulated which left us only having to pack and move the bare essentials.
Unfortunately the last two years we'd kept all of our newest "junk" with us which meant that there was more than the usual packing to do if we were going to take it all with us. Luckily our trailer was actually an old airstream that Daddy had been "gifted" by one of our previous landlords when the guy couldn't afford to give us back our security deposit. Daddy still laughed at how his fourteen year old daughter had wheeled and dealed that particular event into unfolding. He used to like to joke that I was a born skinflint and that I could pinch Old Copper Abe until he cried. Frankly I had to. It wasn't always easy to find the grocery money and the rent money on just Daddy's non-comm pay much less pay for clothes, school stuff and Little League and Daddy's fetish for yard sales and collectible knives. Sometimes I didn't know who was worse, Micah or Daddy.
We'd moved so many times over the years however that I had a system down pat and as soon as I got Micah settled down and had him loading boxes rather than packing them, things went smoother and faster. I had spent my own money on the large storage crates we'd used over and over throughout our many moves and each one was labeled with what was supposed to go inside it. We'd gutted the Airstream and converted it to an oversized junk hauler. We slept in the camper top on the back of Daddy's F350. The whole system was a gas hog but with the extra tanks Daddy had installed we could go a lot farther pulling the trailer before we had to stop for fuel. It was also cheaper than any U-Haul or moving company we could ever find.
Three hours later I was down to my bedroom and Daddy's bedroom. "Daddy, I've put your boxes …"
"Baby Girl, don't worry about my room."
"Daddy, please don't give up, not now, not when we are so close to getting the insurance company to approve that new treatment."
"I'm not giving up Sweet Girl, I'm being realistic. I told you not to argue …"
"Yes Sir. But I'm not arguing. You haven't told me what is going on yet. I'm having to do this all by blind faith." Thinking quickly I added, "Besides, if you don't want Micah to get suspicious we'll need to get your room packed up too."
That got me a look but he knew he'd been hoisted on his own petard so he sighed and turned to go into his room while calling, "Micah! Get in here and help me with this."
"Coming Dad! Dat burn Del, what was in that last box anyway?"
"My school books."
"Books?! You and your stupid books. What do you need them for anyway? We're moving home and there aren't any colleges there and besides you don't really think you'll be able to save up enough money to …" his voice faded as Dad started ordering him to shut up and start packing.
I can still remember how angry Micah used to make me, always acting like my dreams were forever out of reach or stupid or both. Who would have thought he'd be so right only for all the wrong reasons. Daddy made too much money for me to qualify for grants since I still lived at home, and since I wasn't too crazy about taking out a gazillion dollars in student loans only to have the government bleed me dry for the payments for the best of my working years, I was paying for school as I went. I'd been saving up for college ever since my grandfather had let me have a jar of old coins that I had dug up in his barn when I was about ten years old. Daddy used to tell me that I could be and do anything that I wanted to and I wanted to believe him very badly regardless of what anyone else thought.
I was thirteen before I realized how valuable those old coins were and by then my grandfather had died and left me the three other jars of coins that he'd found after digging the foundation out of the same corner of the barn when the old support post had rotted through and had to be replaced. When high school graduation came I still had those coins, now carefully cleaned, cataloged and sealed in tubes. My goal was to save those coins for graduate school. But before graduate school I'd need to get a bachelor's degree and those weren't cheap either.
I'd started babysitting by the time I was ten years old … you'd be amazed at how desperate some of the military wives on base were to just get a few minutes to run out by themselves even if it was just to the BX for milk and eggs, and by the time I was thirteen my resume had expanded to include dog walking, animal grooming, weeding, trimming, washing and folding clothes, ironing, dish washing, window cleaning, and catering. By the time I was sixteen I was actually able to apply for real jobs but I continued to prefer working "under the table" rather than paying all of the taxes that they took out in places like the Pizzeria where I worked two months as a waitress (a curse on all the families that let their kids make a horrible mess and didn't leave me a tip to make up for having to clean up behind them) or the Bait and Tackle shop where I worked the last time I lived with the Aunts when Daddy was sent to the Middle East. It was while he was over there that his stomach problems started up and when his tour was up they put him on light duty stateside right before he went on terminal leave.
But today's money isn't worth as much as those old coins, nor did it go near as far; still doesn't. I'd been forced to take the semester off when my main scholarship hadn't renewed; the Foundation sponsoring it had been forced to cut back. I wasn't a minority and I wasn't going to school for any government pet project so that was all she wrote. Grades didn't seem to matter even though mine were excellent. Only your flavor mattered and how it looked on someone's quarterly report. I'm stubborn, but I'm realistic as well. I could defer my other scholarships for one semester and that is what I did even though it put me behind the rest of my class.
Daddy had offered to foot the bill to help out but I knew that he'd already had to dip into his retirement account to pay his medical bills since the Health Care Bill had altered his retirement benefits from the military. I said thanks but no thanks, that I wanted to do it myself. He didn't argue which told me things were even worse than he had been letting on.
I was working three jobs trying to save up money and get ahead, one of the jobs was a nightshift at the local 24-hour Wallyworld, and I think this was partly why Micah was the way he was, on the other hand … well, I wasn't his mother, I was his sister and it got to the point that he didn't seem to want me to be either one.
I'd all but raised Micah as if he were my own. I was five when he was born and even wound up being held back a year before starting school because everything was such a mess after Momma died. Daddy did nothing but go to work and then come home and sit and cry for the rest of the day. Not even Granddaddy and the Aunts could snap him out of it and he eventually requested to be stationed someplace that took us out of the area just to get away from their nagging and meddling. For a while we had a succession of babysitters at the apartments we lived in but that was a nightmare with most of them sitting around on the sofa, watching TV, while I took care of Micah.
Eventually Daddy woke up enough to see how things were. He fired the baby sitters, signed me up for home schooling through an accredited correspondence school that transferred from state to state as we moved around, and requested and was granted a transfer out of the Air Traffic Control tower and into a position where he became a First Sergeant.
What that meant for our family was that I was home even when Micah started attending school at each of the bases we lived at and was there when he got home as well. It was an arrangement that suited the three of us but a lot of people, especially women that tried to catch Daddy's attention, found it shocking. I was happiest when people would just stay out of our business. Unfortunately Micah enjoyed the attention that women lavished on him thinking it would get them in good with our father. I hated to come home from the library to find some woman in "my" kitchen making dinner or washing clothes. Daddy wasn't too crazy about it either and finally told Micah that if he wanted us to continue living life as we chose it he'd better knock it off, especially if he didn't want to have to share his room with some step-sibling or a new little brother or sister. That finally put the kibosh on that and selfish or not I was relieved.
Whenever we had to go live with the Aunts they made me take classes at the local schools. Every couple of years I would pop into that school district and the teachers would always wonder what to do with me. When Daddy was stationed in Baghdad the Aunts forced me into high school even though it was my senior year and I stood out like a sore thumb since I'd already studied most of what was offered. I tested out of nearly everything but P.E. and Shop Class so that is what I took in addition to signing up for Work Experience (the job at the Bait and Tackle shop) and an Ag Business elective that was offered through the FFA program.
Strangely enough while I hated the whole high school experience I enjoyed my classes, even Shop though I could have done without some of the heckling I got from most of the girls in my year. Again Micah was my opposite. He loved going to school … not because of the learning opportunities naturally but for the social ones. He'd never been satisfied with small playgroups or one or two good friends. He was all about quantity rather than quality and he'd been led astray more than one time because of it. Apparently my father's big brother had been the same way before his death and Daddy used to excuse it because "it ran in the family" and because "he'll eventually outgrow it."
Even though Daddy had retired he still needed to work to support us. The job market was bad and he had been forced to move out of the area to find a job. Micah had been devastated. He spent the next three years getting into just about as much trouble as he could without winding up a juvenile delinquent … and he'd come close to that a time or two as well. He was bound and determined to move back to the Aunts and talked of little else when asked about his future plans.
As soon as we moved Micah began testing me and being just as obnoxious as any teenage boy could get. The problem was he'd suddenly become bigger, taller, and physically stronger than me and I was no longer the "big" sister. I couldn't even intimidate him into behaving any more. He was bound and determined to make my life a misery, blaming me at least in part because we just happened to move to one of the cities where I'd always dreamed of attending college. He said some really nasty things and I'd finally had all I could take of being "the responsible one" and Daddy knew it. He'd stepped in, laid down the law at home, and helped me start college with a clear conscience. I also continued my habit of finding work where I could which meant that I wasn't my brother's keeper nearly as much as before.
That left Micah to get into some of the trouble he got into because Daddy couldn't be around all the time either. Work at the plant was demanding and sometimes he had to work swing shifts. And when he got sick again, the work just seemed to take everything out of him by the end of his day. In hindsight I wish things had been different for those last couple of years but … hindsight is 20/20 and wishing won't ever make it so.
I did a few stupid things when I experienced so much freedom all of a sudden and really messed up when I "fell in love" for the first time. Thankfully I found out the guy was a jerk before I gave him something I would regret but it was darn close and I was embarrassed horribly when the guy's wife … his pregnant seventeen year old wife … tracked me down and had a huge scene in front of Daddy and the neighbors. I cried myself into a barfing spell every day for a week and then Daddy forced me to crawl out of my bed and talk it out, some of it embarrassing, and afterwards it became something that we never discussed again. Oh I thought about it all right, to the point that I decided to skip dating for a good long while, but no one ever mentioned it although when Micah was at his most hateful he would allude to it so long as Daddy wasn't around to hear him.
All of this was running through my head, ticking off all of the changes I'd experienced over the years, as I packed up the last few items that were worth taking. Most of the furniture, a bizarre hodge podge of yard sale and free cycle items, was staying since we wouldn't need it where we were going. I went from room to room until I came to Micah's. I had wondered why Micah wouldn't let me help pack up his room; or I did until and found the back page of a girly magazine when I lifted the mattress that Daddy had told us to just leave. I hid it real quick when Daddy walked in and asked me if we'd missed anything.
"I don't think so. Did y'all get the camping gear out of …"
"Yes. Did you check under the …"
"Well, then let's hit the road. It's nearly four and I want to be on the road and down a ways before daylight hits. I'm not supposed to be at work until the late shift but they might try and call …"
"Daddy?" I asked as his voice trailed off and he began to absently rub his gut.
"What?" he asked, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. "No, I told you I want to get on the road. We'll talk later. Hopefully your brother will ask if he can sack out in the camper shell for a while and he'll have those infernal earplugs in and we can talk then."
Sure enough, two hours later when we stopped for fuel and a bathroom break, Micah took the cereal bar I gave him for his breakfast and asked if he could get in the camper shell. We got back on the road - this time I was driving - and had been going thirty minutes before Daddy would even stop looking through the back window to make sure that Micah was asleep with the plugs in his ears.
"Daddy, I don't mean to be push but this looks a lot crazy. Packing up in the middle of the night to disappear down the road like the hounds of hell are after us? Come on, don't you think I deserve some kind of explanation?"
Another five minutes with Daddy staring out the passenger window and he finally started to talk. "Baby Girl, when I say it aloud it isn't going to sound like much. It's more feelings than facts."
He rubbed his face and I glanced over and saw how ashen he looked. I didn't know whether he was feeling sick or just what. And I'll admit that I was also beginning to wonder if maybe the cancer wasn't causing him to have some kind of paranoid episode; one of the medicines he'd been on had done that before. He finally started talking again.
"Harmon misplaced another of those large diameter pipe wrenches. How he manages it I don't know, big thing like that. He's already had to pay for three of 'em and they aren't cheap. He was panicking because he couldn't afford to have his pay docked again especially after they forced him to start paying more of his insurance premium. I agreed to get one out of the tool shed but told him that it was the last time. I didn't want my pay docked for his stupidity and I was getting tired of covering for him. I snuck over in there and was being real quiet. They must have come in the back gate to avoid having to explain to everyone why they were there."
"Who?" I asked wondering where Daddy's explanation was going.
"Those DHS guys. They come around every couple of months to give us a hard time and make our lives a misery and I thought they were just pulling a surprise inspection or an unscheduled emergency drill to see how we responded. Then I heard Grossman's voice."
"Mr. Grossman, the big boss?"
"Yeah, and Honey, that man ain't scared of nothing. I saw him jump into a holding tank when a man got pulled under by a gator that somehow got in without nothing but a box cutter. I saw him put his hands in … things … that was pulled up out of the screens. I saw him pick up human body parts when some kids dumped a cadaver into the blades as a joke. Nothing fazes the man. But this time he sounded like he was about to cry. When a grown man sounds like that, especially a man like Grossman, it just makes your ears perk up."
And my ears were perked up now as well. I'd met Mr. Grossman a couple of times at company events and I knew exactly what Daddy meant. Mr. Grossman was over six feet tall and seemed to be nearly as wide, and all of it muscle. His hands looked like sledgehammers and he scared me more than a little even though Daddy said he was a sucker for the ladies.
"Well … what was it? What scared Mr. Grossman? Or was he mad or something? "
"Honey, I wish I knew exactly what to tell you. I said it's more feeling than facts. I heard a few things that lead me to believe this country is just about to experience some really bad things."
Flabbergasted as he stopped talking as if that was enough of an explanation for me to understand I said, "That's it?! That's why we packed up and ran out into the night like we were skipping on our bills?! There has to be more to it than that!"
"Don't sass me none girl. It isn't your place to talk to me like that."
Knowing I'd hurt his feelings more than made him mad I apologized. "Look Daddy, I'm sorry but … but … are you sure that you heard … whatever it is you think you heard?"
Exasperated, my father flipped his cap on and off his head twice before replying, "I'd be just as happy to be proven a fool on this Del. But … but it goes along too much with what has been on the news … and what hasn't been on the news … lately. You know things have been heating up again over there."
And "over there" always meant the Middle East to Daddy.
"And now this stuff with Israel and the crap with the border getting worse and worse because of all the less than half measures used to deal with it. And I'd be happy if it was all a big joke but these DHS types wouldn't know what a sense of humor was if it reached up and bit them on the a … uh … on the backside.
"Daddy … look, I'm not being sassy but I still don't understand what has set you off like this."
"I can't explain it either Del, not exactly. Look … DHS … normally I'd chuck it all to some weird hair they've got up their … uh … but it wasn't just DHS. As soon as I saw the transports full of troops I got out of there by ducking through the shrubs on the opposite side. Grossman was asking one of the DHS goons 'when' and the other guy said something to the effect 'we don't know for certain but we're going red on all facilities at least until the end of the month and some personnel are going into protected status.' "
"And? What is that supposed to mean?"
"What I think it means is that there is a credible threat of some magnitude. I don't know what it is or how large a threat but for them to go red on all facilities it means that the threat is a big one."
Before I could ask another question he continued. "What's more, as I was high tailing it out of there I saw the DHS guys get rough with some of the guys that had wandered over to see what was going on and take them off to the administrative offices. I think I got lucky because not too many vehicles left the plant after me even though it was end of shift. I hit your Wallyworld and the Super Target across the street as well before coming home. No trouble at Wallyworld but by the time I got to Target I saw them starting to limit transaction amounts. But, what's weird is I spent more than the woman on the other register that reached the 'computer limit.' The only difference is that she had some food items on her ticket and I didn't. I don't know what that means."
I was beginning to catch my Dad's paranoia. "Is that why you were so worried at the truck stop and paid in cash?"
"Yeah. Luckily they are used to selling fuel in large quantities and didn't blink. And I paid in cash to make it quicker and to not make a paper trail. That fill up should let us drive the rest of the way straight through. We'll take the back roads and go straight to the hunting camp, should get there a little after lunch if we can get off the interstate before things come undone."
"Daddy … come undone … uh …"
"Pay attention to that guy, he's weaving all over the road. Pass the jerk if you can." After I did as he bid he continued, "People are going to notice if DHS starts doing things too overtly. I'm sure I can't be the only one that has got wind of something in the air. Too many people out in the world smarter than I am that are watching what is playing out. I just don't want to take anything for granted or make any assumptions. As soon as we can I want off the interstate and onto back roads. I know it will mean a longer travel time but this silver bullet we are pulling isn't exactly camouflaged and we haven't exactly taken any pains to cover our tracks. I had to make the choice fast or stealthy and for now fast is what we need. But that may change. I'm … I'm tired Del. I've got to close my eyes. Just let me rest for an hour and I'll take back over."
He didn't even wake up when I left the interstate, nor when I left the highways for the county roads. It wasn't until I hit the old forestry road that would take us around to the back of the old home place that he startled awake.
Grumpy he started, "I thought I told you …"
"Daddy, I'm fine and you weren't. You look better now; at least your color has come back. And besides, stopping would have meant waking Micah and he'd have been pestering you to let him drive. I can't believe you actually hitched that old thing of his to the trailer. I hate driving piggy back like that."
"Don't start Del. The Jeep might come in handy. He's going to lose a lot more than he gains even if he doesn't know it yet. I'd like for him to have something to call his own."
"You're really sure about this Daddy? That something bad is in the wind?"
A sigh and then, "Yeah Baby Girl … yeah, I am. What it is I'm not sure but I'm worried it could be a bio-terror event or a dirty bomb."
"Do they make clean bombs?" I asked, slightly stupid from lack of sleep.
"Don't quit your day job; this isn't near as funny as you seem to think."
"Daddy, I'm not making fun of you … or your worries … I just … just … to be honest Daddy I'm still not sure what to think. It's a horrible risk we are taking, dropping everything, and running away like this."
"In my estimation we would have taken a greater risk had we not run away. I'm not willing to risk my kids just to hold onto some job or my pride. I'm getting to the point where pride is meaningless. The only thing I have left is you two, if I have to start over fine, but it'll be knowing I've done my job as a father to protect my greatest assets and leave them something, even if it isn't much."
It had started to bother me when he would get so fatalistic. The doctor warned me that Daddy's attitude could change daily, even multiple times a day, as he went through all the adjustment reactions that terminally ill patients go through. But he wasn't terminal yet and I wasn't giving up without a fight … and I wasn't going to let him give up either.
Lord have mercy, I'm almost glad I didn't know what we'd be fighting right then. Innocence is bliss, at least for a while. After a certain point though it is too expensive a commodity to keep on hand.