Forty: Grouchy Adults
The sky was barely lightening to the east when I woke to see Kelsa sitting on the hearth, her sleeping bag around her, trying to work her frizzy hair into a braid, pulling twigs out of it.
I still felt tired, but was pleasantly surprised to feel no soreness in my muscles. I moved a little -- I was going to be okay. "How you doing?" I whispered to my little sister.
"You looked pretty tired last night."
"I was so tired I wanted to puke, only I couldn't stay awake long enough to start gagging."
"Yeah, I can identify with that. If I could figure out where Rachel lived, I'd have stolen Mackerel and rode over there and asked her to marry me, just so I didn't have to cut more branches."
"Was it that bad?" she asked, and I could tell by her voice she was smiling, though all I saw was her silhouette.
"Bad? Why, now that I think about it, yes, it was. Very itchy and cold and wet and wearying. Once we get a little more light you should be able to see the scrapes on our faces. Had we gone to church yesterday, the congregation would have thought we'd all been in a major catfight." I sat up and hunched the sleeping bag around me.
"Church? That's it, I should have ditched Morton and run to the church for sanctuary. I knew I was missing some kind of rescue."
"My turn to ask: was it that bad? Because I was envying you all day."
"Puh!" she made a spitting sound. "Don't.
"You know how we ride out for a couple of hours at a time now and then, and it's not so bad. We come back, have a hot shower or bath, staff brings us snacks, and we relax in front of the fire or on a couch for a little while. Well, I didn't realize just how much exercise sitting in a saddle is when it goes on for hour after hour, Owen. It took us four hours to get into town, and that was with Morton making us trot every time we came to a clear stretch. There weren't many of those, either!"
"That I know. I couldn't believe how many trees were down, or how they cunningly managed to fall across the damned road."
"Really!" she whispered harshly. "Why couldn't they fall back against the other trees? Anyway, we got to town and went through the streets like a rodeo parade to the police station so Morton could let them know we were cut off without power or telephones. The police officer called Uncle John's job to let them know he was stranded with us, and then they called the University to let them know Mom was okay but unable to get to work. They said they'd call the City and let them know to start clearing the fire road, but he didn't know when they could because town is a mess, too.
"But they have power! Lights, heat, the works! The police said that the wind had knocked down the poles into that flooded area, so we'll have to wait until the water goes down before we get electricity again.
"The hardware store in town had some propane, but not enough, so we had to ride out to the one up on the rise on Route 3 to get more, with the horses fussing about riding along the main road, and dipshit drivers honking at us as they went past, as though we couldn't hear them coming. They wouldn't even slow down. Thank God we have good horses or we'd all have been dead.
"We hit the supermarket there once we crossed the road and got Bonita's canned stuff and headed back. We were wet and cold and the horses were absolute shits all the way back, wanting to go fast, and with the packs we couldn't go faster than a walk. I fought Freddie all the damn way home, hoping he wouldn't slip on a rock when we had to detour around the trees, Morton yelling at me to get control of my horse. Freddie took me into so many branches that my face feels like I got beat up. Wouldn't listen to my leg cues worth crap. I'm still mad at him and ready to eat him if we run out of food."
"You had a big pack on him as well as your saddle," I pointed out. "That alone probably weirded him out."
"Well, he was a bastard."
"What kind of food did you get?" That was as important to me as the propane for the stoves.
"A ton of canned tomato sauce, and about ten loaves of that French bread they bake at the store; two huge sacks of oranges ... "
"Good, then we won't get scurvy -- "
"Six heads of lettuce and four bottles of ibuprofen. I forget what else."
Michel opened his eyes a little and groused, "Why don't you two just shut the hell up and let me sleep?"
"Because you're my twin and you should share my pain," Kelsa told him. "Get up and get with the program."
He did sit up. "What's the program today? Fluffy flannel pajamas and meals in bed?"
There was a flashlight at the top of the stairs. Marca came slinking down, clicking the light off halfway down the steps. "Psst," she said, conspiratorily. "Uncle John is sleeping with Aunt Sully!"
Yes, I had a pang in my heart at that news; I had been in love with my aunt as long as I could remember. But John was her destiny; I was simply the favored nephew. ... and besides, there was Rachel, whose shiny black hair and electric blue eyes I had been missing daily ...
"You know this how?" I asked her, as an exercise in torment.
"He's not in his room, dummy," she replied, joining Kelsa on the hearth.
"Are you sure he's not sleeping with Andersol?"
"Why would he sleep with her?"
Michel caught on. "I'll bet he's sacked out with Philomena."
Kelsa cackled, a sound I was glad to hear. "Yes, that's it! She's so tall, so dark, so I-can't-crack-a-smile-even-for-the-Three-Stooges ... "
"Drives me crazy," I said.
"Oh, piss on you all. Are we doing more trees today?"
I looked at her in amazement. She seemed actually eager for more work. My sister, even off the soccer field, was superhumanly energetic.
"It's likely. Kelsa said that the police don't know when the city can spare man power to work on the fire road. You know, that's through the State Park after our property, and then to the city, so they may not bother with it at all, expecting the State to pick up on the work. Since we're the ones who need access, I think we're the ones who will end up doing the clearing."
"You're right," said Aunt Sully, appearing suddenly behind us, startling us all.
"How do you feel this morning?" I asked, wondering what all she had heard.
"Tired. But ready to continue. Tomorrow I'll feel like I should die, but that's how it goes. It's the second day that the pain sets in. Kelsa, how bad is it past the estate property?"
"Not as bad. About half as many trees knocked across the road. I guess it was worse on the top of the ridge."
"That's good news. I wonder if there's anything left of that soup they made last night?" She turned her back on us and walked away towards the kitchen.
The hiking boots and work gloves we had worn the day before had been set near the fire to dry them out.
Kelsa draped her sleeping bag around her and trundled upstairs to find clean and dry sweats, as she was still in underwear.
The rest of us followed Aunt Sully to the kitchen, forgetting about the scandalous allegations in the attractive corona of possible food.
"Aunt Sully, how's our mother doing? I didn't see her or Aunt Andersol at all yesterday."
"She's fine, but the cold is starting to bother her. She and Andersol spent the day with your grandmother yesterday, with Oesha as their liaison with the kitchen staff."
"You're kidding! The whole day?"
She nodded, as bemused as I was. When Kelsa joined us, carrying her own bowl of oatmeal, she said, "Kelsa, you had a rough day yesterday. You can certainly stay here at the house and keep warm today."
"Oh, sure, that's right," Michel sniped testily. "Nothing like a sore saddle-butt to gain the maximum amount of sympathy and coddling."
"You can stay, too," my aunt said slyly. "I'm going to help to help clear that road, myself, as once it's open, at least some of us are going to move in to town where there's hot water and heat."
"I'm helping, I'm helping! When do we start?"
"When we see Maida and Gary head up there with the horses. I don't know if they have a third harness or not for one of the other horses."
"I hope they take Freddie up there and work him until his shaggy white legs fall off on the ground. He was horrible yesterday."
"That's means either you need to ride more often, get firmer with him, or sell him. You could ride that fat old mare instead, you know."
"I could put my saddle on the back of the downstairs sofa and have a better ride than on her. She's a hog." Kelsa was nettled at the thought of riding Bess.
"Today we're going to work on the State Park part of the road. Harder work for the horses, because we're not going to be cutting up the wood for estate use, seeing as it isn't our property, but easier work for the trimming crew as we'll just be trimming to let the horses drag with as little effort as possible. As soon as we can clear our way, we're sending a truck into town for a new generator and lots of gasoline."
"Do we really need that if we're moving into town?"
"Not all will be moving," my aunt said. "You kids will be, so you can get back to school, and your mom and Andersol so that they can be near a hospital. John has to get himself back East to his job, and I have to get back to mine, too. Until they get that flooded road open, the estate is going to have to function with a skeleton staff."
"So we're clearing the fire road for escape, not really functionality."
"That's right, Owen. I really think we ... you ... should be looking at this place in terms of what you need to weather a storm like this one. Granted, I've never seen anything like this before, but all it takes is this one experience and you see where the holes in your ramparts are."
"No kidding. We're worse off than when this place was first built."
"Yeah, go figure. However, I don't think you'd find Staff that would be willing to empty chamber pots into an outdoor toilet, so just be glad that the plumbing works."
"The toilet seats are so cold, I'm ready to go poop in the woods," Michel offered.
"You've never had a rash from poison ivy, have you?" my aunt asked.
"No. What is it? I've heard of it, but never had it."
"You at least know what the leaves look like."
"Not really. Isn't it anything with three leaves?"
My aunt brushed her hair (which was looking a little stringy after a couple days of sweat and no baths) away from her forehead. "You guys are so ignorant. Let's get that road open before you all die of mildew and rashes."
She left to find her work boots, with Marca and Michel and Kelsa on her heels, to look for coats. John came into the dining room, wearing some of Uncle Bodie's sweats, huge on his smaller frame.
While he ate his bowl of honeyed oatmeal, I asked conversationally, with a bit of a sly tone, "Did you sleep well?"
He stopped eating and looked at me square in the eyes. "Yeah, I did. Did you sleep well the last time Bodie and Andersol and Sully and you kids went camping?"
"Yes," I said, reddening.
"Did anyone have sex?"
"Then you ought to know that just because people sleep in the same room, it doesn't mean they're boinking. We were cold. We were exhausted. We weren't doing the Big Boff to end out a day of hard work. We needed to be warm. I'm going to marry her. We wanted to finish out a day of crap labor together. Get your mind out of the gutter, Owen, we're trying to do what is the right thing for us, and the right things for you, and the right things for all of the family. Got it?"
I was horribly embarrassed. While I might have sparred with my aunts, verbally, John was in my confidence, and I felt ashamed that I had questioned him, doubted him, thought him to have feet of clay.
Well, maybe he did have clay feet, but not when we were all so tired.