Inside smelled like a blend of herbs and fresh baked bread and smoky bacon. The front door led right into a kitchen where there was a giant old wood-fired stove with a kettle resting on it, a deep cast-iron sink with a pump handle instead of a faucet, a big table covered with a checkered oilcloth, and some kerosene lamps. Bunches of herbs hung from the ceiling. I nearly tripped over a wooden crate near the stove that had a chicken in it. She ruffled her feathers and clucked at me. Two dogs made the rounds, sniffing each of us. One growled but Jane Shandy said “hush” and he did. A cat had taken one disgusted look and stalked out of the room.
It looked like an old-timey museum, except museums usually are full of knick-knacks and the walls are crowded with framed samplers and old paintings of scary-looking men with beards and eyes that follow you. There wasn’t anything like that here. Instead, there was a laptop and a toolbox on the kitchen table.
Jane Shandy got Wheeze into a cushiony chair beside the stove. Stuffing leaked through through the worn places on the arms. She sat on a matching ottoman and took his ankle in her lap and unwrapped the stretchy bandage. After she examined it and Wheeze made some noise she said “It’s not broken. Don’t touch that gun.”
Bree had been eying it, propped in a corner next to a broom and an umbrella. She took a step away from it. “I won’t.”
“It’s not loaded, but it’s old. The bolt assembly comes apart if you handle it wrong. Bad sprain you got there. Be a couple of weeks before you can get around. You can stay here for now. You know much about computers?”
“You know chickens? I got a sick chicken and a sick laptop.”
“Zen can fix it.”
She turned to me. “You fix chickens?”
“Computers. I can try, anyway,” I said.
“Any of you fix chickens?” Bree and Nikko shook their heads. “I didn’t think so. Whyn’t you go out to the barn, then. There’s a big sack of nuts in a burlap bag and a mallet just inside the lean-to door. Take one of the empty jars from the pantry and fill it up with nutmeats. Might as well be useful.”
As it turned out, the computer didn’t take long to fix. The insert key was jammed and some of the others were sticky. I just needed to blow out the gunk that had accumulated under the keys. Canned air is nice for this, but I didn’t have any, so I used my breath instead, which made me dizzy and made Wheeze laugh at me. Jane Shandy didn’t laugh, but her mouth showed a slight downward trend at the edges which I was beginning to recognize was the only indicator in her stony expression that she was amused. I wondered about that later, why she never smiled, but that was her business and she had a right to keep it private.
“Is that all it was?” she asked me.
“Probably. I’ll see if you need any software updates. I have a secure phone that I could use to connect—“
“No need. I’m on a mesh network.”
“Seriously? I would have thought this place was too rural for that.”
“Might not work in Wyoming or Alaska, but there’s just enough of us living close by to keep a wireless party line going. I’m not all that smart about this stuff.” She nodded at the gear on the table. “But I’m learning.”
“You have a nice setup here. It’s a lot more secure than most laptops.”
“Our mutual friend helped get me connected a few years ago. He comes back through here now and then to see how things are going. I’m chookchaser, by the way.”
“What? No way.” I couldn’t close my mouth for a minute, I was so surprised. I knew her from the Group. Only until now I thought I knew him. And he was a lot younger. And not living on a farm in Wisconsin.
The corners of her mouth tugged down further than I’d seen them go. I almost thought she’d crack a real smile that showed teeth and everything. “Surprise.”
“I always thought . . . I mean. Wow.”
“You weren’t exactly my idea of Shad either.”
I looked over at Wheeze. He had dozed off in the raggedy-armed chair by the stove. I wouldn’t have minded too much if he found out about the Group. But it was mine, in a way that I couldn’t explain. All of these overlapping parts of my life were getting confusing.
“Good to know that problem I was having with the computer was just mechanical. I was afraid it was the government messing with me.”
“They wouldn’t want to stop you from using your computer. They’d install a keylogger or a Trojan so they could watch everything you did.” She frowned. Smiles might not be her style, but frowns were. “I doubt they could, though. This is a pretty tight system you got here.”
“That’s the only way I’d ever use the internet. I could live without it, but there’s some old books out there on animal husbandry that I’ve been going through for ideas. Lot of what you find in them is cockamamie, but sometimes they have home remedies that really work. Trying one on that chicken over there.”
I updated the OS and the Tor bundle and some other stuff, and then she sat next to me and asked questions and wrote down how to do it herself. Then she sent me out back to round up Nikko and Bree, who had just about filled up the jar with nuts. They had also had explored the old barn, which had a hayloft with a rope you could swing on, and a pen where chickens were milling around bales of hay. I figured out why she called herself “chookchaser” – it sounded as if they were all saying “chook, chook, chook” and they would peck right around your feet if you stood still, but acted all freaked out if you tried to pet them, flapping off in a flurry of feathers and outrage.
Bree showed me the goats. They had a big pasture to wander in, but they were curious about the new people and were all bunched up by the door into the barn, jostling each other to get the best view. When I stepped into their pasture, they crowded up to check me out and whiffle their soft lips against my palm. They tried to eat my coat, too, but they didn’t seem upset when I pushed them away. The sheep were more wary and moved away in a nervous gang when all I did was look at them.
When we went back to the kitchen, we found Jane Shandy had spread food on the table: crusty bread and crumbly white cheese, apples and jars of pickled mushrooms and beets and string beans.
“This looks great,” Nikko said, adding the jar of shelled nuts to the abundance.
“I love your chickens, and those goats! They’re so darling!” Bree said.
“Did you take pictures with your phone?” Our host seemed suddenly like the person standing on the porch with a gun. “Post them to Facebook? Did all your ‘friends’ like them?” She waggled her fingers to make scare quotes in the air.
“No. I don’t even have a Facebook account.” Bree looked confused and offended.
“Our phones are switched off and in a Faraday pouch,” I said. “That’s not for your sake. It’s for Wheeze. He—”
“Yeah, I know.” She help up her palms in surrender. “Sorry. I just don’t like all this new stuff. Everyone sharing everything. It’s not good.”
“It’s not the sharing that’s bad,” Bree said, still prickly. “It’s the data mining. It’s the way we give up privacy without realizing what’s going on. There’s nothing wrong with sharing stuff with your friends.”
“It’s the wrong kind of sharing,” Jane Shandy muttered grumpily. “Just showing off.”
The food was much better than the gas station snacks in the car (except for the pickled vegetables and mushrooms – they looked like those deformed creatures floating in formaldehyde that scientists have in their labs in old movies, so I didn’t try them). Nikko managed to use charm and small talk to get everyone back in a better mood. He even got Jane talking about what she thought the good kind of sharing was. The apples we were eating came from a neighbor’s orchard and had been traded for goat cheese she made. The flour used to bake the bread was from a neighbor who needed someone to watch his chickens when he was in the hospital. Half the furniture had come with the farmhouse when Jane moved in, but she only kept what she needed. The rest was bartered for tools and help fencing the pasture. “Then you don’t have to mess with money. You just trade.”
“You’re pretty much self-sufficient, then?” Nikko asked.
Jane glared at him. “Weren’t you paying attention? I need flour. I need oats. I only have one apple tree and the apples aren’t any damn good. There are jobs that need doing that I can’t do all by myself. I’m not some crazy survivalist or a hermit or anything. I just try to even things out, is all, using what I can grow or make. There’s too much crap in the world already.” Bree nodded hard. Amen.
“You must need money for some things,” Nikko said.
“I have a friend who takes my cheese and eggs to a farmer’s market and takes a cut. I have another one who sells handmade furniture to folks in Madison. I make little tables for people who want to spend a lot of money on something pretty when a sturdy cardboard box would do just as well, but at least I don’t go cutting down rainforest trees for the wood. Those darling goats? There’s a halal butcher who pays good money for them. I don’t eat a lot of meat myself, but I have nothing against people who do.” Jane Shandy waited to see if Bree would react, but she just forked another pickled beet out of a jar and ate it calmly.
“These are really good,” she said between bites. ”I’ve never tried pickling. Have you ever made kombucha? I can’t get it to come out right.”
“Fermentation’s tricky. Haven’t had much luck with it.”
Nikko snagged the last piece of cheese. “Thanks for lunch. We’d better hit the road.”
“Thanks for taking care of Wheeze,” I said. “I don’t know how to repay you.”
“You already did. Got my computer working.”
“I can do something useful while I’m here,” Wheeze said. Jane studied him. His breath rattled in his chest, but he sat up a little straighter and tried to look competent.
“He’s good at fixing things,” I said.
“I have an old pedal sewing machine that isn’t working right. Can you repair it?” He nodded. “What else are you good at?”
“Screen printing. Making soup.”
“Reading incredibly long books about the history of debt,” I added.
“It’s more interesting than it sounds,” Wheeze said.
“Well, I got a lot of old books and no time to read them. If you record them for me, I can listen while I do the chores.”
“Deal.” He held out a hand and she slapped her palm into it, sealing the arrangement with a shake that made him wince. “You guys? Thanks,” he added, looking at Nikko and Bree, then at me. We looked at each other for a minute.
“Stay safe,” I said, feeling a falling sensation inside, as sudden and shocking as plunging deep into a cold pool. I suddenly realized how much I would miss messing around with Wheeze. Given that he was wanted by the FBI, just like my brother, and probably faced years and years of prison if they caught him, I wasn’t sure if we’d ever hang out together again. It had been such a relief to find him that I‘d forgotten how much trouble he still faced. One thought formed and rose through that icy feeling like a bubble that hit the surface and popped. “Wait, is it okay if I install another program on your machine?” I asked Jane Shandy.
“Go for it,” she said, so I downloaded the desktop version of Convo.
“Wheeze, this is the same messaging program we used before your phone got busted.” Jane Shandy frowned at me. “It’s secure. It was written by . . . our mutual friend.” Since she trusted Zeke, she nodded. Safe enough.
As soon as I finished setting it up, we said our goodbyes and headed down the gravel road, away from the old farmhouse, the chickens and goats, the gnarled oak tree with coppery leaves that clung to its branches through the winter and whispered to each other until spring came around again. It felt as if we were leaving a safe zone where things made sense to reenter a world where anything could happen.
It suddenly felt as if I was part of an invisible web of fragile connections, thin filaments that carried ones and zeros, forming messages, signaling to each other, a web that the authorities would barely notice as they crashed through it, flattening everything with their tanks. It was a web that we had to keep rebuilding and repairing, busy little spiders working in the grass, linking one blade to the next, shooting out a thread here and another one there, working as fast as we could before getting squashed.
With that image in my head, hearing in the humming of the car’s engine the sound of tanks massing for battle, I fell asleep.