“I guess so,” said Caitlin, still a little wary.
“Are you okay?” Ashley looked at him.
He scratched his head a moment. “I ain’t been okay for a long time. But right now… I kinda feel okay. So what’cher names? I’m Stevie. Stevie Bolighter.” He let the girls introduce themselves, then said, “Pleased to meet’cha. I’m a little messed up in the head, so if I say stuff I shouldn’t, I’m sorry. But I think I’ll be good for a while.”
“What happened to you?” Lily asked.
“A lot of stuff. But you could boil it down to one thing: Vietnam.” He pronounced it to rhyme with ma’am. “You know what that is?”
“A war,” Caitlin said. “My great-uncle had to go there, but he didn’t talk about it much.”
“He probably didn’t want to scare you. It was a scary place. You never knew just who was your friend and who wasn’t. Then the things you see…” he closed his eyes for a moment. “Stuff little kids should never have to know about. But the kids there had to live in it. Or not…” He wiped away tears. “Sorry. It’s tough.”
“You don’t have to talk about it,” Lily said. “If it makes you sad.”
“I dunno. If I’d talked about it when I got home, maybe I wouldn’t be so messed up now. The preacher there says stuff like that, if you keep it bottled up… Anyway. It’s the old story. Couldn’t keep a job, couldn’t stay married, couldn’t run away from the memories. I started doin’ drugs in ’Nam, and kept doin’ ’em when I got home, until I couldn’t afford ’em. Then I took to drinkin’.”
“So how did you stay away from the trucks?”
“Yeah, the trucks. I started seein’ ’em before most people did, I think. I guess they talk to everyone — they talked to me for sure, but it was just one more voice in my head. They said I could forget all the things I’d seen, but the drugs were supposed to do that for me and they didn’t… so I guess I didn’t trust ’em.
“Somewhere in there, I met the preacher-man. He already had this crew with him, and he said he could help me get one more chance to get my life straight. I hope so — if the world’s already ended, I guess we’re… nah.”
“What?” Lily prompted, but Patterson stepped over. “Hey Stevie,” he said. “Can I borrow the kids for a minute?”
“Sure,” Stevie said, waving a hand. “C’mon back in a few, girlies… there were some good times too. I’ll tell ya about them, okay?”
“Sure,” Ashley replied; Patterson ushered them into the kitchen where Delphinia and a black woman stood at the counters.
“Hey kids!” the black woman greeted them a little louder than was strictly necessary, especially in the kitchen. “I’m Elinaeya Gowans, y’all can call me Elly if you want. So y’all ready to help us make some Christmas cookies?”
“Yeah!” Caitlin grinned, stepping up to the counter. “What do we gotta do?”
“Well —” Delphinia suddenly departed with a smile for the girls. “One or two of ya can take over for Butterfly Lady there. She just keeps flitterin’ in and out, in and out, like she can’t stand still for a minute, it’s about drivin’ me crazy! And that’s a short trip!”
“We can do her stuff,” Ashley said, “I guess. What was she doing?”
Elinaeya laughed. “Confident, ain’cha? But you’re right. She was rollin’ the cookies in the powdered sugar. You two can manage that, right?”
“Okay. Me and this little redhead are gonna make you some more while while you’re working on those.”
“Where do they go in the oven?” Caitlin asked.
“They don’t. It’s some kind of no-bake recipe that Butterfly Lady found in a cookbook. She got me to help, and now she left us to do the work. Yeah, it’s a little strange, but when the oven ain’t working you gotta do what’cha gotta do, right?”
“What are they for?”
“Supper tonight, of course! Some of these guys —” she jerked a head toward the two men playing checkers — “have a sweet tooth like you wouldn’t believe. They sure won’t last until Christmas!” She laughed her loud laugh and opened a drawer, handing Caitlin a spoon. “We just scoop out a spoonful and roll ’em, then put ’em on this here plate. When your friends are ready you can carry the plate over to them and bring back the empty one.”
Caitlin nodded and they got to work. It was easy, and her mind started wandering. Had the strange lady touched the side of Stevie’s grey head as she floated by? It happened so quick, Caitlin wasn’t sure if she’d seen that or not. I think she’s a witch… she looked over her shoulder at the others, as Lily giggled at something Ashley said. Was Ashley right?
“Hey,” Elinaeya gave Caitlin a gentle poke. “You awake?”
“Sorry. Just thinking.”
“’Bout what? You gotta boyfriend?”
Caitlin blushed as Lily giggled across the kitchen, “She wishes she did!”
“Hey, redhead. Nothin’ wrong with that,” Elinaeya patted her shoulder and lowered her voice. “I can relate. You just lookin’, or you got your eye on one on particular?”
“Yeah. But he’s married.” Caitlin rolled another cookie, smashing it a little.
“Oooo. Yeah, that’s somethin’ you don’t want to get in the middle of. At least the man I’m lookin’ at ain’t attached.”
“Who is it?” She looked at her flat cookie, rounded it up and scooped another.
“That fine cop who busted me back before all this truck voodoo came down.” She laughed. “Hey, at least he treated me well enough after he busted me. Didn’t rough me up or talk nasty or nothin’. Y’know, I wouldn’t mind just movin’ right out of this house and right in with him!”
For the first time, Caitlin smiled. “Well, why don’t you ask him?”
“Ha! It ain’t that easy. If it was, you and me, we’d already have our catches. I’m sure when he looks at me, he sees a dirty smelly homeless woman. I ain’t exactly a prize.”
“So? Everybody’s dirty now. There’s no water for the showers, and it would be freezing cold even if there was, so everybody’s a little smelly. You’re not that different from anyone else, anymore. You talk a little loud, but my mom said I talk too much too.”
Elinaeya laughed loud and long. “You know what? You’re right! Maybe I could do somethin’ with this hair, put a leash on my loud mouth, and catch me a man!”
Caitlin giggled. “Your hair isn’t so bad. It sticks up some, but you should see Miss Jennifer’s hair in the morning sometimes!” She turned. “Hey, you guys want to help me fix Miss Elly’s hair when we’re done with the cookies?”