By Michael Morgan
Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
— 5 —
“Mama, my arm hurts,” Caroline sobbed.
Emma pushed her away to see that her own shirt was soaked in blood, and Caroline was holding her hand to her other arm, and blood was dripping from under her palm. Setting Caroline on the floor, Emma quickly looked around, and found some scattered clothing. She hurriedly wrapped Caroline’s arm, picked her up, and went to find Tom and Jeremiah.
Sharp pain in his nose was only slightly less than the harsh light of the sun streaming through the kitchen window, and neither of them were as bad as the headache Jeremiah was feeling. “What happened?” he croaked.
“Looks like Jimmy slammed you into that door frame pretty hard,“ said Tom as he moved the open bottle cap of ammonia away from Jeremiah’s face.
Jeremiah reached up, and Tom stopped him, “Don’t poke at it. You have a big knot on your noggin’, and the skin got split. Nothing to worry about. Now look at my finger,” Tom moved his hand back and forth watching Jeremiah’s eyes track the finger.
“How is he?” Emma interrupted the examination, and gasped at the gauze wrapped around her son’s head.
“I don’t think we have to worry,” Tom said. “Just a hard knock on the head. How’s Caroline?” when he looked at Emma’s shirt, he patted Jeremiah’s shoulder, “You just set there for a few minutes while I look after your sister.” When Jeremiah raised his hand, “And leave them bandages alone. You don’t want your brain to fall out do ya?” Tom stood and took Caroline from Emma. Stepping into the kitchen, “Ok young lady. Let’s see what you’ve got under there.”
Tom settled the kids at the dinette table and looked at them seriously, “How long since you two have been to school?”
“School?” The children looked shocked to hear the word.
“Yes, school. The place you go to learn things,” Tom insisted.
“It was when the lights went out,” Emma interrupted.
Tom looked at her with a raised eyebrow, “We’re having a conversation here.” He gestured at her bloody shirt, “Why don’t you go get cleaned up? You’ll find some of my wife’s clothes in the Master. Take what you need.” His head was turned to face her, so the kids didn’t see him wink. Then he turned back to the kids, “So what was the last thing you learned?”
Emma turned back down the hall leaving them to their conversation. She found the clothes carefully packed away. Sealed in plastic bags. Tom’s wife must have been on the skinny side, and even after two hungry weeks on the road and a lot of miles underfoot, most of the things were too tight. She finally settled on a peasant blouse and knee-length skirt. The clean cotton felt luxurious. Bundling her dirty clothes, she returned to the kitchen.
“Well, since you both can read you’ll take turns reading to each other.” Tom said as he fished through a bookcase that survived the destruction that had claimed the rest of the room. Selecting a book with a red leather cover he walked back and presented it to the kids, “Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.”
“Mr. Lewis,” Emma started.
“Tom, please.” He corrected her. “I think we’re past formalities at this point.”
“Tom. I don’t think that book is appropriate.” Emma stated flatly.
“Why? You afraid of a little word?” Tom raised his eyebrow in challenge.
Emma felt the minefield from earlier, “It’s just that they don’t teach that book…”
“They haven’t taught much of anything in years,” snarled Tom. “Do you know what’s in this book?” he demanded. “Love and respect is what. Twain was challenging the racism of his time by showing two people in desperate circumstances working together to survive. It’s a damned fine story until that manipulatin’ idiot Sawyer shows up at the end and doesn’t tell anyone Jim is free.” He turned to Caroline, and opened the book on the table, “You start first. Read three pages and then Jeremiah will read three, then back to you. I need to talk to your Mama in the other room.”
With that, Emma made another trip to the bedroom this time following Tom. When they entered he turned around, and his face was concerned, “It’s not my place to say what your kids learn or don’t learn, but that’s the first book I could find that I thought they could handle.”
“It’s OK I guess,” Emma started.
Tom cut her off, “Jeremiah has a concussion, and he needs to stay awake so I can watch him. By giving them school work, I have an excuse, and if it gives them a sense of normal then no harm done.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize what you were doing,” she relaxed slightly, but then, “Is the concussion bad?”
“I don’t know,” Tom admitted. “I’m mostly watching to see if he develops any other symptoms of a bigger injury. Doctors are mighty scarce around here even in good times, so I want as much warning as I can get if we have to find one.”
“How long do we have to watch him?” Emma asked.
“Ten or twelve hours should be plenty. Look for loss of balance, slurred speech, or if he faints.” Emma nodded. “Now I need your help with another problem?” Tom said.
“What’s that?” Emma asked.
Tom pointed down, and Emma noticed the corpse next to her feet. She jumped sidewise in surprise, “I forgot.”
“You’d remember by tomorrow in this heat,” said Tom. “We’ll take him out the front door. You want heads or tails?”
The reading was still going strong when they returned to the house. Tom paused long enough to reseat the front door in its frame and propped a board at an angle so it would stay in place, “That’ll hold as long as we don’t get a breeze.”
Emma looked at Tom, “You called him Jimmy. You knew him?”
“Yep,” Tom nodded. “Used to be a nice fella until he discovered meth. Been useless ever since. Figured he would be dead pretty soon, but I never thought I’d be the one to do it.” He settled into his recliner.
Returning to her place on the sofa, Emma said, “It’s sad.”
“Mrs. Pitts have you been paying attention to anything that’s been going on in the past twenty years?” Tom asked.
The sudden return to formality surprised her, “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You were a school teacher, right?” Tom asked.
Emma nodded, “Fifth grade.”
“How many kids in your class were on medication for ADD or ADD/HD?” Tom leaned forward as he asked the question.
“I don’t know, maybe a third,” she replied.
Tom leaned back, “About a fifth of the US population are on some kind of psychoactive medication for mental illness.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with this situation,” Emma said flatly.
“You met Jimmy because he needed his fix. He couldn’t get his meth, so he came looking for anything he could find to get high with,” Tom explained. “No gas, no transport, empty grocery stores and empty pharmacies. All those folks out there on dope, and no way to resupply. They’re coming off their meds cold turkey in a high stress situation.”
Emma realized what Tom was saying, “They’ll be going nuts.”
“Street junkies and prescription junkies all howling at the moon at the same time,” Tom continued. “And most of them live in cities. Where does your family live?”