“I’m cold Jack. Can we put more wood on the …”
“No!” Jack regretted the tone as soon as she saw the young girl’s bottom lip quiver. Backtracking and apologizing Jack told her little sister, “I’m sorry Lena, I shouldn’t have yelled like that. The thing is I don’t know how long this storm is going to last. There’s snow coming down out there.”
“Can I see?!”
Trying to hold in her irritation at having to explain things over and over she said, “No Lena. You know the rules. And every time we go in and out or move the blankets off the windows we let more cold into the house and we don’t have enough wood to keep doing that. We need to … we need to be careful with what we have. I don’t want to burn anything from here in the house because most of the stuff has chemicals in it that could make us sick.”
The young girl tilted her head to the side and then asked, “Like the Donovans?”
Jack nodded and sighed. “Yeah, like the Donovans. We could choke on the fumes.”
“And never wake up.”
“And never wake up,” Jack confirmed.
The young girl shook her head saying, “I don’t want that to happen to us.”
Jack shook her head wearily. “I don’t either so that’s why we need to save the wood we have and use it smart and careful. If you’re cold why don’t you crawl back in the tent and cover up.”
“I get lonely in there.”
“I need to think Lena and … and if I lay down I’m going to go to sleep and won’t do the thinking I need to do.”
Quietly the young girl asked, “Are you thinking about Momma and Daddy?”
Jack sighed. “Some. But …” Jack worried that Lena still hadn’t grasped the full import of what had occurred and what it meant for them.
Quietly the young girl said, “I know they aren’t coming back. I know they are in Heaven watching over us and all that. Just … just if we don’t think about them at all we’ll forget them. I … I …”
Jack reached up to the fireplace mantel, plucked down a picture and tossed it to Lena to hold. “Don’t worry Squirt, I won’t let you forget them.”
“But if we have to leave …”
“We’ll take what we can. That’s what I’m trying to think about. Definitely take the pictures and stuff like that … and the important papers … and what food we have left … and lots of blankets, especially the quilts Mom made.”
“And Daddy’s stuff too?”
“Yeah, that too … especially some of that,” Jack said referring to the guns and knives her father had collected and then had to hide from a bureaucracy that had attempted to confiscate what was his by right. “And even if for some reason we didn’t have any of that you have me and I’ve got lots of stories and pictures in my head that I’ll share with you. Now do what I asked please, get in the tent, cover up and get warm, and get some sleep. I’ll be in as soon as I can.”
“Okay Jack. Just don’t leave without telling me like you did yesterday. It was scary not knowing where you were.”
“Sorry Squirt. I didn’t think I would be so long that you would wake up and I wouldn’t be here. But I brought back food and wood didn’t I?”
“Yes. Just … just don’t do it again. You might not come back. Like Momma and Daddy.”
Jack looked at Lena, trying to imitate how their mother had dealt with her, and she finally crawled into the tent and did as she was asked to do. In no time Jack heard the young girl’s breathing settle into the deep rhythms of sleep and it was with some relief that Jack could finally lean over and have the silent cry that had been pent up all day. It had been a little over a week since the cop and social worker had come by to tell them that their parents’ bodies had finally been officially identified among the dead of the multi-vehicle pile-up on the interstate. There had been a backlog in the coroner’s office and it had taken longer than it should have.
This was the Deep South; ice wasn’t supposed to be on the road but it was and people seemed to lose all commonsense on top of everything else going on. Someone driving an SUV had hit a patch of ice doing 65 miles an hour. Careening out of control they banged into several cars and a semi, creating a chain reaction where those cars lost control and ran into still others. A total of forty-two vehicles had been involved resulting in multiple fatalities. Their parents had been driving Jack’s mini cooper to save on gas. The mini cooper had been something her dad had found at an auction and they had spent a couple of months making it road worthy right before Jack graduated from high school.
Because of spikes in fuel prices that had started after the nuts in South America had nationalized their oil fields and dramatically cut US supplies to show solidarity with their Russian overlords after Russia had backed an anti-US dollar regime taking over things in the Middle East, the mini cooper became the family’s go to car for most of the traveling they did … especially long distance travel which is what their parents had been doing. They’d had no choice but to travel almost two hours to get to a private practice that would accept their family insurance so that their Mom could see a doctor. State Troopers had found the mini cooper’s license plate amongst the debris littering the highway. The mini itself had apparently disintegrated during the impact so it had taken a while to confirm what Jack had known in her heart as soon as her parents had never shown up that night or called to let her know they were safe. She had then been forced to deal with lots of official paperwork and during that discovered that Mom was a lot worse off than her parents had been letting on.
“Am I supposed to find comfort in the fact they went together?” Jack wondered for the eleventy-dozenth time. “Because if I am … I don’t.” But the cause for her tears that night wasn’t the loss of her parents but a different straw in the load Jack was carrying.
Jack was about to start crying again when there was a loud knock on the backdoor.