Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: Blue Jean Regime - Part Three
The skeletal fingers of daybreak pried his eyelids open. Best sleep he'd had since the world went to hell. Maybe because of the secure room. Maybe due to having his girls within arm's reach. Maybe thanks to the celebratory champagne. Whatever the reason, sleep was precious and he was mighty thankful for it.
Over on the bed, Haley and Eden were snuggled up and snoring. Cute. Noisy, but cute. Hadn't had time last night for chit-chat or goodnight kisses. Soon as he'd secured the room and the baby had nursed, they'd popped the champagne, taken a swig right from the bottle, and collapsed in a tired heap - Haley on the bed and him in the reclining chair, because he'd had this strange, maybe misguided, notion that it was a grand gesture.
Lots to do today, so he hustled through the shower, packed the baby supplies in mesh laundry bags he'd found in the closet, and did a quick inventory of his gear. He was putting a fresh clip in the little bully when he heard the baby stirring.
He scooped her up, popped her on his shoulder, and carried her to the window. "See that out there, darlin'? That's the world. It's got a great big warm sun, fluffy floating clouds, and flowers almost as pretty as you. Now, there's some bad stuff out there too, but don't you worry none. Me and your Uncle Donovan are making a nice safe place for you."
"Uncle Donovan, is he?" Haley's sleepy voice drifted across the room.
He turned and grinned at her. "Yeah, I figure he deserves an honorary title for putting up with me all these years. Plus, he really put his shoulder to the plow when all this crap went down."
"Well then, I guess 'Uncle Donovan' it is. Come on you two," she said, patting the bed. "Time for a fresh diaper. Here. I'll show you how to --"
"I got this, girl! My sis had me running diaper drills and practicing infant cpr."
Her forehead wrinkled. "Did she think I was going to be totally incompetent?"
He unwrapped Eden's blanket and unfastened her pjs. "No. She just wanted me to have some practical knowledge in case we had to prove my competence in court. You know, if I ended up having to fight for custody and visitation rights. I'm trying real hard not to say anything hurtful or disrespectful about your mom but I want you to know the kind of stuff I've been dealing with the last few months."
Without responding, she got up and headed for the restroom, closing the door behind her.
He looked down at Eden. "Okay, kiddo. Let's do this. Wet diaper off. Wipe you down. Clean diaper on. Tape you up. Snap you up. And 'tada' we are back in business! Soon as mama gets dressed, we're gonna go check out the great outdoors."
Took some patience to wait for her, feeling anxious because of what he'd said and restless because the day was getting away from them. Anytime her mama came up in conversation, things were gonna get dicey. He'd have to find a way to be honest about his experiences and yet conscious and respectful of hers too.
Soon as she came back into the room, wet hair coiled up on her head, dressed in fresh clothes and smelling of peaches, he smiled at her, mouth gentle, anxiety in check, and temper tamped down. "Come on. Help me get Eden taped to my chest and we'll head out. Want to do a bit of shopping before we land at base camp."
She moved past him and lifted Eden off the bed. "So, stores are still operating?"
The question echoed inside his head but he didn't answer. He was somewhere else at the moment. All those months missing her, not knowing whether he'd ever see her or their child. And here she was, sweet and hesitant as ever, smelling like she had that night. Damn it. He wanted her beneath him, beside him, astride him. Now.
Her hand brushed his arm. "Jonas? Are you okay?"
He shook off the memory and ache. She'd just had a baby and the world they'd known was shattered. Now was not the time to remember those lean thighs and throaty sighs."Yeah. Sure. About the stores, we don't shop so much as loot. Go in, take what we need."
She handed him Eden and made the first pass of duct tape around his ribs. "Maybe we could leave an IOU. Like that time we took apples from Mr. Frazier's fruit stand."
Her proximity was intoxicating. Made it hard to think. With the right head, anyway. "No. See, things are different now. Stores aren't going to be back in business anytime soon. Life isn't going back to normal. Hell, there is no more normal. We need to think about Eden, about what she needs now and in the coming months, and get it while we can."
She paused, hands resting just above his waistline. "I wasn't sure whether or not I should call you, whether you'd want to come down here to help, whether you'd want to see our baby. But I was wrong, wasn't I? All this, being apart, feeling lost and alone, it was my fault wasn't it? For listening to my mom, for letting her control the situation."
"She's your mama," he said, belly clenched but voice calm. "It's only natural that you -"
She interrupted him, eyes narrowed, hands biting into his torso. "Why do you keep making excuses for me?"
How could she ask that? He hauled her close, hipbone to hipbone, and kissed her. Not sloppy like a dime store romeo but not tender like a gentleman either. When he drew back, her mouth was plump and plum colored.
He stepped back, took the roll of duct tape out her hand and said, "We better get going."
He shrugged into his coat, buttoned it up over Eden, and reached for his gear. A few moments later, they were moving down the empty hall, slow and quiet. Made it down the stairwell, through the door into the foyer. Area was clear but in the next breath, a zombie was coming across the tile, heading for them and closing fast.
Not enough time or room for the rifle. Just as he raised the bully, the rotting skull struck the metal barrel. He pulled the trigger and pushed against the body with his elbow, trying to shift the dead weight to one side so it wouldn't pin him as it fell.
Haley was sandwiched between him and the stairwell door. "Why was it moving so fast? That was fast right?"
He was trying to catch his breath and scanning the area for more hostiles. "Must have just eaten. They're faster and stronger right after they eat."
She pushed him out of her way, roughly. "Okay, for reference, that's one of those things that should be at the top of the 'Need To Know' list!"
He eyed her."You're pissed at me?"
"No. Well, yeah. I hate not knowing how to take care of myself. And what if that thing had bitten you? I'd have had to kill it and you. Do you know what that would do to me? Don't you dare get bit, Jonas!"
"And we're right back to rule number one. Don't get bit. And immediately following that, I should have mentioned the cautionary 'beware the freshly fed zed.' My apologies."
Her scowl relaxed and she turned to observe the foyer and beyond, to the sidewalk and his truck. "You got your grandpa's truck running?"
He smiled and his pulse sped up for a moment. "Yep. Good thing too. Been pretty handy having a beast like that this week. See how Bobby welded screens over the windows? Saved me and Donvan a dozen times already. Still looking for a new fuel cell, but otherwise, it's a champ. Let's get inside while the coast is clear."
Outside, it was one of those early fall days where the sun was high and the breeze playing hide-and-seek. Hot and a little humid. It was quiet though, that kind of strange still silence that rings in your ears.
They got the truck loaded up and headed out of the parking lot without any hindrances and a short time later, they were crossing town, headed for Bradleys, the local department store.
With the exception of her surprise over the babyseat he'd had waiting in the truck, Haley didn't say much. He let her take it in the horror of seeing the devastation without coloring her observations with his opinions.
Only time she made mention of something was when they passed the ornate church where her father's funeral had been held nearly a year ago.
When they arrived at the shopping center and found the front doors smashed through, his belly knotted up. No telling how many zeds were inside. Add that to the danger of other looters and they could be in real trouble.
He didn't like the idea of getting trapped somewhere. Still, they needed some things the girls couldn't do without right now. Damn it. Rock or hard place.
He'd have to take the hard place. Who knew if this building would be standing tomorrow, or next week? And nobody was going to be restocking the shelves any time soon so there really wasn't any choice.
He said, "Remember how you had to opt out of driver's ed?"
She nodded, mouth turned down. "Yes. Another fine memory of senior year."
"Well, you're about to get your first lesson. We need to get inside the store, get what we need, and get back out, quick and easy. Only way to do it with any hope of being successful and safe as possible, is if you drive and I play stock boy."
"No," she said, voice high and tight, mouth a grim line. "I don't know how to - "
"Stop right there. Aren't you the girl who just bitched me out because she didn't know how to take care of herself? Well this is where we start changing that. It's simple as mud pies, sugar. Big pedal means go. Little pedal means stop."
Her hand absently patted Eden's cheek. "Okay. Let me go around the parking lot once and then we'll go inside."
He considered it. Might be good to let her get a feel for things. Course, the noise and motion might attract zeds. "Once around the parking lot, then we'll make a go of Operation Diaper Swipe."
They traded seats and took two turns around the lot because her confidence might mean the difference between getting away and getting dead or worse.
When they were lined up at the far end of the lot, he got out of the truck, came round to her side and said, "Leave this window rolled down just enough that you can hear me. You drive through the big outer square of the store and I'll ride on the bed, grab what's on the list, and pitch stuff in as we go past it. Don't honk unless you see something serious. Got it."
"We can do this, right? I mean, we're going to be okay, aren't we?"
He put his fingers through the small squares of the window's protective screen to meet hers. "You bet. But if something happens, Haley, you need to know two things. First of all, anything happens to me, you go right to the gym. Donovan is waiting for us there. You show up alone, he knows what to do. Trust him, okay?"
She blinked away tears. "Okay. What's the second thing?"
He swung up into the truck bed, heart racing. "You know what it is."
She caught his gaze in the side mirror, held it a long moment, and then headed down the blacktop toward the store.
Somebody must have come in the same way, because the opening was large enough for them to fit through easily, the two checkout lanes directly ahead of them were mowed down, and the center aisles were fairly clear.
He didn't need to look at his list. Knew the items by heart. Knew where they were located. Felt optimistic they could get in and out in under ten minutes. Had a rifle on his back and a pair of guns on his hip.
She took the first turn a little wide, shoving a shelf about three feet over but the noise wasn't too bad and he signaled her to keep going. First location was just ahead. Personal supplies.
He hopped off the truck and began tossing stuff into the truck bed. Feminine supplies. Soap. Deodorant. Toothpaste. Condoms.
Next turn and he was scooping up what dried foods and fresh water were left on the shelves. Felt bad about taking the last of the water but better to feel that regret now than later when Eden might need it.
Third turn and he headed for infant items. Diapers. Wipes. Formula. Baby food. Clothes. Blankets. This was less organized. Couldn't take the time to consult with Haley so went by mental braille.
Baby swing? Yes. Potty Chair? No. Wait, yes. Stroller? No. Yes? Damn it. Teething rings? Probably yes.
Finally decided to call it good when he checked his watch and saw they'd been inside fifteen minutes. Five longer than he'd wanted to be.
He hopped in the bed and told her to head to the front. As they took that last corner, his eye caught the 'women's apparel' sign. He thumped on the back window. "Hold up a minute."
He swung over the tailgate, hit the floor, and went to the back wall of the dressing room. His hand was on the item he wanted when he heard the truck backing up, knocking down clothing racks and then, to his horror, hitting the dressing room wall.
He came around the corner at a full run, worried that looters had overtaken Haley and the truck, and nearly collided with a group of zeds. His feet hit the bumper, skidded across the contents of the truckbed, and landed on the floor opposite the zeds.
Hopping up into the truck, he slammed the door and shouted, "Let's go!"
She hit the gas and they shot through a display of underwear and pajamas. "I can't do this! You need to get over here and drive!"
Much as he wanted to, he couldn't let her off that easy. She had to know, by experience, that she could hold her own. That's what she'd asked for and he wasn't going to let her down. "Those zeds are still close enough to be a threat. Specially if another group comes stumbling over. You're about lined up with the front door now so hit the gas and go! You got this!"
She floored it and the truck lurched forward, slamming through a row of jeans and a rack of candy before hurtling through the front door opening and across the parking lot to the street. Once there, she put it in park, leaned over the steering wheel, and burst into tears.
Gut in knots, he got out and went around to her door. "Hey. Baby. We're okay. Look at us! Looting Barleys in the broad daylight. But why the hell did you back up in there?"
She opened the door, dropped from the seat, and stepped into his open arms. "Got scared. You disappeared around that corner and I couldn't see you."
As he pulled her close, something fell out of his pocket. The noise caught her attention and she looked down.
Next thing he knew, she was swinging at him, her fist glancing off his jaw, eyes wild and mouth full of swear words. "You bastard!"
He backed up out of range of her arms. "What the hell are you talking about?"
She bent, snatched up the fallen item and held it up. "Condoms?! You risked our lives, and the life of our child, for condoms?! Stupid son-of-a-bitch!"
Heart hammering like a freight train going uphill, he ran for her, pinned her hands behind her back and shoved her up against the side of the truck, holding her there with one hand and reaching into his coat with the other.
"No, babydoll," he said, mouth close to her ear. "Those condoms were the first thing I put in the truck. I'm eighteen. I'm in love. There's not a moment of the day I'm not thinking about sex. With you. Only you. Always you. And that's why I went back for these ..."
He stepped back, freeing her and holding up a pair of bunny slippers, as white and clean as new fallen snow.
There wasn't much in this screwed up world he could do to make life feel good or safe. The best he could do was try his damndest to make his girls feel loved and secure in his arms and in his heart. And if that meant getting his hands on a pair of furry animal slippers, then zeds be damned, that’s was what he was going to do.
As he stood there under the sweltering autumn sun, the girl he loved hugging him as though life was an ocean and he was a life preserver, he knew that as long as he drew breath, he would chase down every last pair of bunny slippers, pink satin ballet shoes, and whatever-the-hell-else the strong beautiful vexing women in his life needed.
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