I knew the possibility had existed. I’d seen it time and time again as we’d cross the country. It’s not like I had expected to cross some invisible barrier and step into an untouched zone of normalcy. There was no reason for me to be so surprised and hurt. Yet I was.
The dreary day only highlighted my dawning horror and pain. “Let’s go,” I said, wiping my eyes and scrubbing my nose on my sleeve. “We still have some miles to go.”
“I think it would be better if we looked around first.” Thor wasn’t trying to torture me. I knew it in my head … and my heart … but the idea still felt like fingernails slicing my spine open.
A high pitched laugh escaped me before I could stop it. “Look around? At what?! Let’s see … there’s city hall, or what’s left of it; all its insides seems to have been thrown outside. And right there is the building that got used to hold onto people until the state police could come pick them up. I know it doesn’t look like much but trust me, it used to have a roof. That mess right there used to be the beauty salon; the dump truck stuck in the front wall is a new addition to the décor. And see that place that looks like it’s been peeled open like a banana? That was the Cowbowy General Store, about the only place to get groceries unless you wanted to go all the way to Abingdon and you saw what that city looked like. Want me to continue?”
I was angry; at what or who I didn’t know. Thor dismounted and tied his horse off to the wagon then slowly pulled me off the wagon seat and into his arms. I cried. Oh how I cried. By the time I was finished I was weak in the knees and barely able to keep myself upright.
Trying to pull myself together I told him, “It’s the shock of it is all. I shouldn’t have expected anything else but I did. And this gives me even less confidence in the farm being untouched.”
“Don’t lose hope,” Thor rumbled. “We won’t know for sure until we see it with our own eyes.”
I was resigned to what his tone was saying. “You still want to look around.”
“We need to see if there is any clue to what happened,” he said trying to coax me to understand.
“People went nuts is what happened. This is the kind of damage we saw in the bigger cities. That it happened here is just crazy. Damascus may qualify for being a dot on the map for some folks but we saw plenty of smaller towns. There weren’t quite a thousand people here in the off season but we do know how to handle large crowds. When Trails Days come around the population explodes and can get kind of crazy … but it is an organized kind of crazy. No way would the townspeople just sit back and let something like this happen.”
Thor, calm like I needed him to be said, “OK, then try and figure out what … or why. It could be important.”
I did as he said and tried to focus. After a moment of thought I said, “The highway, they closed the Jeb Stuart; maybe there was an accident further into the rec area and they were trying to prevent more people clogging up the road.”
“Or,” Thor said. “They were trying to contain something that was in the town or rec area.”
“I don’t know Hon. I’m just thinking aloud. An illness? We’ve seen that in our travels.”
“Sick people … physically sick I mean … wouldn’t do this. They wouldn’t have the energy to. And if there was a bad sickness where are the bodies?” I didn’t want to have to contemplate that part of it but I had to. “Maybe people from the Richmond and Roanoke areas headed into the mountains. No. That would have come after the EMP.”
“Not necessarily. Remember what you drove through before the EMP? Rumors could have sent people looking for shelter … or at least running from the cities like rats from a sinking ship. Many people would have thought the rec areas, national forests, and relatives that lived back in the sticks would be perfect places to hide out for a while. Just like we’ve seen all along, the EMP would have put all of those people still traveling out on their feet. Damascus would have been the first ‘civilization’ some of them would have seen for who knows how long. If they couldn’t get the help they thought they deserved … who knows?”
“Plausible,” I admitted. “But it doesn’t explain the lack of cars on the roads. The Jeb Stuart, at least the parts we seen, have been pretty clean. And it sure doesn’t explain the dump truck trying to get a hair do.”
My sarcasm brought a momentary and unexpected smile to both of us. Thor nodded and kissed the top of my bandana covered head before saying, “Hon, this doesn’t all have to have happened in a single day. It could have been like a car crash derby before the EMP and then afterwards people could have come in on foot … en mass or in dribs and drabs … and then rioted then as well. The domino effect. We may never know for sure but we should still look around. Thirty minutes … if we don’t see anything we’ll leave.”
Once we started looking I was amazed at what was gone … and what wasn’t. The bike shops made sense. But it was how they were looted that was stupid. All of the whole bikes were gone but the back was full of expensive spare parts and tires, cans of air to refill the tires and shelves of other things like bike trail gear. The food was gone from all of the obvious places like Mojoe’s Trailside Coffeehouse and the Whistlepig Bistro but if you went looking in the back there were paper products, staples, cleaning supplies, a few commercial sized cans of things and other stuff that shouldn’t have been overlooked if anyone had been using commonsense. Another oddity was when I went to grab some plastic bags from the convenience mart … or any other place for that matter … to carry off some of the booty there were absolutely none to be found. You could see the boxes they normally came in thrown to the side but the bag themselves were gone.
In the storage rooms of the salon and barber shop there were still a decent number of unopened bottles of their hygiene products yet there were obvious and specific gaps in the inventory like someone had focused on their favorite brands to the exclusion of everything else. Even stranger were the stores that my dad used to say catered to the hippie tourists. There were only a couple and they were down by Sundog Outfitters but when we looked in we saw that they were somehow more empty than any other place around and had been emptied in such a way to set them apart.
I did grab some things out of Sundog’s and out of the Mount Roger’s outfitter store. When I noticed that I was starting to take things to just take them I stopped and looked in the wagon. I shook my head and realized I was starting to get the heebies and really did need to get out of the area. “Thor, let’s get out of here. Please. We can come back later and I want to check on Uncle Bentley. If he believed I was alive maybe he left me a message.”
I shook my head and then got back onto the wagon seat. “I know Thor. The likelihood of him being there is slim. But you don’t know him. Even if he isn’t at his house he could be out in the mountains. Uncle Bentley was like that. In a way he is like Mr. Dinks, he prefers the backcountry; he calls it communing with God. Not even Aunt Bettie Sue could keep him still for long. Sometimes he is gone for weeks on end, only getting near civilization long enough to pick up the next crew that he was shepherding along the deep country trails.”
When Thor looked like he would object I said, “And the cemetery is right there by his place too. At least the one where Mom’s people are all buried. The Charbonneau’s were buried in the family plot on the farm. I’m not sure if he would have … uh … taken them all the way out there.”
Thor looked at me and then sighed. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed and hurt again … at least not so soon. We don’t even know if he made it back at all. Or that he was even able … er …”
“Able to get my parents’ bodies back?” At his nod I said, “Those bodies weren’t my parents. They were just … just husks leftover that my parents used to use. My parents are in Heaven and I will see them again one day. If Uncle Bentley … well, if he couldn’t, I forgive him if he needs it. It isn’t anything I could have done myself. But I still want to know. I still need to know.”
“All right Hon. But we go in slow and easy. We still don’t know what happened around here and until we do, or at least have a better handle on who, if anyone, is left we take as many precautions as I feel are needed. Understand?”
I agreed that made sense and we set off. Uncle Bentley’s place was just outside of town between the highway and Laurel Creek; the cemetery was across the other side of the highway. We drove right up to his place. Thor and I went and knocked … and knocked several more times. We went inside the unlocked door … unlocked … to find a tidy place that hadn’t been ransacked at all.
Thor canvassed the other rooms and I went into the kitchen. The ashes in the stove were fresh and the coffee on the now cold burner had to have been from the morning. Excitement poured through me. I turned to run through the house and call for Thor but he was already there and putting his hand over my mouth.
At my alarm he whispered in my ear, “No one here but there looks to be about three people in addition to whoever is in the master bedroom. Could be even more if they have sleeping buddies. I think I found your beauty hog in the back bedroom, there are boxes of hair crap stacked in there. Another … guy I’m pretty sure … is a drinker; the room reeks of old wine and there’s empty bottles piled in recycling boxes.”
I nodded then followed him back out onto the porch. We looked all around the place but found not a single person. There were two kayaks on Uncle Bentley’s boat ramp but they both had holes in them. One looked like the hole was from a bad rock impact on the rapids but the other was either drilled with a hand tool or more than likely drilled with a bullet the way the fiberglass was shattered around hole.
Suddenly a shot rang out and then another. “Rocky!!” The pain-filled yell came from the cemetery. I knew Uncle Bentley’s voice. He’d been like a second father to me and I couldn’t help but respond.
I ripped the shotgun down from my shoulder and took off for the nearest stand of graves using the trees and bushes as cover. Thor was right behind me and then there was another shot and I was going down. But not from being shot.
I rolled over and tried to ask Thor why he’d thought the middle of the highway was a good place to push me down. Only Thor wasn’t answering me and there was a spreading read stain on the front of his shirt.
“No! No, no, no, no,” I panted in disbelief.
More shots were fired but they weren’t coming our direction. I got up and dragged Thor over behind tall, old headstones in the oldest part of the cemetery. “Thor!” I whispered. “Thor!! Don’t do this to me. Don’t you dare die. I’ll kill you if you do, I swear I will.”
I felt for a pulse and found one and then shook the crazy out of my head and went to work using the first aid that I’d learned as a scout and as a rescuer going after lost hikers. The shot had gone in and out through his right shoulder. It didn’t look like it hit anything vital. There was blood but it wasn’t arterial. My biggest worry was shock. I put my own jacket over him and prayed hard.
When I had done what I could for Thor I turned back to the fight. I could see three bodies … two women and a man … sprawled not too far away. They were obviously dead or so close to it as made no difference.
“Rocky girl,” came a pain filled whisper.
I jerked my head toward the source and Uncle Bentley leaned around a headstone about twelve feet away. He held up four bloody fingers and then pointed towards another grouping of old headstones. I’m no stone cold killer but I was not going to let those people get away with shooting Thor nor whatever it was that they’d done to Uncle Bentley.
During my time with them the men had taught me a lot and my experience on the road had taught me how to implement it and take advantage of my size and strength. When Uncle Bentley acted like he was going to protect me I shook my head and something in my face stopped him and he just stared at me. I’d seen the look before, just never on his face, but I didn’t have time to worry about it.
I don’t need to write the details. Suffice it to say that three of the four never even knew what hit them. The fourth was a woman, once extremely pretty but now more haglike than anything else, and right before I got to her she jumped up and headed straight for Uncle Bentley’s hiding place. She was whacked out on something if her eyes were any indication. Her screaming, “Balance must be re-established!!” didn’t make me give her much credit for sanity either.
I shot her but not before she got off a good shot that took Uncle Bentley down. I stood and then quickly made sure no one was left alive from the other side and then ran over only to find Uncle Bentley and a now conscious Thor aiming their weapons at each other. I was closer to Uncle Bentley and kicked his gun out of his hand.
“No! Uncle B, that’s my husband!!”
He wasn’t long for wakefulness and said, “Your … husband?” as he fell over sideways.
I ran to Thor who had fallen back as well.
“Hon, find a hole, crawl in … stay … safe ……… love ………….” He was unconscious again but if he thought I was going to leave him – or Uncle Bentley – he must have banged his head on that concrete harder than I thought he had.