“Hush Sarah Ann. Get low and stay out of my line of sight.” I did a three-sixty trying to figure out what the threat was. Then my nose started singing; I thought “oh crud” as I smelled a dead funky odor kind that was kind of fishy, musky, and just generally nasty all at the same time. It wasn’t the outhouses though the smell wasn’t too far different. We weren’t too far from the river and I thought maybe it was something from that direction. Then I thought maybe it was some sick critter or a bear but bears are part of nature, living with it rather than against it The quiet just didn’t make sense; I’d never known a bear to scare the woods quiet.
“Rocky …” Sarah suddenly hissed, terrified.
Sarah, for all of her frou-frou ways wasn’t one to just sound terrified for no reason. I turned at her call to see off in the bushes something coming our way. It was people … sorta. And no I’m not talking about zombies though I will admit that it flashed through my mind for a half a second but that is about all that it did. Things were bad, but they weren’t B Horror Movie bad.
“Rocky … they’re infected,” Sarah whispered. “You can’t let them get near us! They’ll do it on purpose … the virus does something to their brains and makes them crazy … angry. It is spread by body fluids; Doc Sims said that it is even in their sweat. Please … please … ”
“O – kay. Don’t fall to pieces on me Sarah, not yet. Infected with what and why are they …”
I never got to get my answers, at least not then. The crazies charged even though they could see I had a bead on one of them with my rifle. I was able to shoot one but the other dodged and went straight for Sarah. There wasn’t room to take another shot as fast as the guy was moving … diving at Sarah; totally crazy stuff like he was itching to die at my hands. One step and then I was using my rifle like a baseball bat. I’m fast but the guy was desperate to take someone to hell with him. I missed his head but caught him solidly in the ribs knocking him tip over tail. Sarah had been half way into the outhouse and my move gave her time to get all the way in and slam the door shut.
“Rocky, come on, get in here with me!!” she screamed.
I didn’t have time to tell her to save her breath because the one that I had knocked the wind out of had gotten back up and a third and fourth person had joined him. I brought my gun up and prayed that even if I didn’t hit anything the shots would scare them enough that I’d have a little more time.
I think I did hit one of them but by the time the noise was over with … and I realized that I had seen the two new arrivals in front of me but had missed the other five that had been sneaking up from behind … all of the infected people lay twitching on the ground if they had a brain left to twitch with.
Sand yelled, “Sarah!” I pointed to the outhouse while staring at the dead eyes of the face that lay on the top of my boot. And at the large knife that protruded from the woman’s throat.
I looked up to see the ghost white face of my husband searching mine and I said, “I am soooo glad you are as good as you are.”
“Me too.” And then he grabbed me in a bruising embrace while the boys surrounded us facing out in case there were any more crazies in the area.
Sand told us not to touch the bodies, just to leave them lie and when they froze they’d come back and stack them like cord wood and burn them … assuming the animals left anything; the disease did not affect any non-human species, not even the scavengers that fed on the dead, and the animals didn’t have any qualms about taking advantage of an additional food source. We went back to the clearing to get away from the smell.
“Every once in a while we still find an enclave of infected travelers but I think it is finally dying out. This is the first one we’ve seen in … what … nearly a month?” Sand asked the boys. Most of them nodded. As an afterthought Sand added, “Although, for some reason a couple of them look familiar.”
Thor asked, mostly because I was still shook up enough that my mouth and brain were on the disconnected side of things, “This is what the greenies released? This is the sickness that took so many off?”
“Yeah. Sick ain’t it? And no, I didn’t mean to make a pun. Now you begin to see why folks around here have a real hatred of anything that might be connected to those eco-freaks. That’s why we keep telling you to be careful of bringing Griffey up.” Thor nodded.
One of the boys that went by the name of Jimmy Ray said, “Relax Sarah, this still ain’t as bad as that time we came up on those hyenas terrorizing that camp full of sick folks. Dang those things stunk. The varmints and the sick people.” He sighed mournfully. “I still wonder if those hyenas would have made good eatin’.”
Thor, for all he was shook up, smiled involuntarily into my hair when I grouched, “Talk about sick. Jimmy Ray I swear you’ll eat anything that doesn’t move faster than you do!”
Jimmy Ray, used to the fact that people were constantly calling him on being a bottomless pit and not caring the slightest, answered, “Well, you try working the fields on only grits and green beans. Even those stink bombs would start looking good.”
Sand said, “Shut up Jimmy Ray, you know you’ve been fed just fine at your uncle’s place. You need to stop eating with your eyes and use some sense. You eat to get full, not to empty a container a freight container.”
“Yeah, yeah. So say’s you now. But the shelves are getting pretty bare at my uncle’s place and there ain’t nothing much left to hunt. And he won’t slaughter the cows or pigs ‘cause he says we need them for breed stock. So’s anyway, can you eat ‘em?”
Thor said, “Hyenas? I’ve eaten some nasty stuff during my travels but I’d have to be really bad off to eat hyena. They’re scavengers and carrion eaters. I’ve heard that you can eat ‘em but they’re like vultures, or they pick off the old or sick animals to cull the herds naturally. I just wouldn’t take the chance. I’ll eat rat before I’ll eat an animal like this.”
Outraged I blurted out, “Not in my kitchen you won’t!”
Sarah snorted a wet chuckle from where she was sitting and I pulled out of Thor’s arms and went over to her. “You OK?”
“Oh I’m fine now. I think though that I would like to go home and lay down; too much excitement isn’t good for Junior.”
It didn’t take long for things to break up after that but when we separated from the others, takin a different road than the main group, Stro and Lawson worked their way around and met us on our way to the farm. Thor didn’t know what to make of it but I figured they had something on their minds … something that they didn’t want to say in front of the others.
It was Stro that started things off, “Thor … look, about our Dad … you seem like you was military or something.”
“Something,” he confirmed.
“Yeah, thought so. And look, sorry for starting off on the wrong foot.” Thor nodded and Stro continued. “Dad … Dad does have PTSD. It …” he looked around carefully before lowering his voice. “He just isn’t as bad off as he was back at the massacre but he says to leave people thinking he is. His leg ain’t racked up either. He’s doing recon on Kemper and his people.”
Lawson was nervous and worried. I could tell he wasn’t real sure about telling us but Stro seemed to have strong armed him into it. “Lawson?” I asked.
“Look, if Stro says it’s the right thing to tell you then I trust him. He’s like Dad and Grandad with stuff like that. But man, you can’t tell anybody Rocky; not even Sand knows. But with what happened today … what if someone is trying to set Dad up? And them sick people? Where’d another group come from after so much time has passed?”
Stro nodded, “Yeah. We just want someone else to know Dad isn’t crazy. And also, wanted to tell you that Dad has been thinking the same thing you are … that Kemper is running out of supplies and things that will keep his people happy. We think at first he was feeding ‘em from some kind of stockpile he had … or stuff he stole from someplace … because they never put in any big fields or nothing. They stole a big fuel truck from some place because he had enough … at least until recently … to keep those big generators he salvaged from the quarry up and running. It was like they were all just waiting for the government or them FEMA ijits to show up and fix things … make him mayor or something. I think he thought someone was going to appoint him to some kind of public office … like the ones he never won when he ran in town. It obviously ain’t turning out that way so now he’s having to change his plans only I ain’t sure if he can pull it off.”
“Yeah, and Dad says that it might be a bigger mess for the rest of us if it turns out he can’t.”
Thor nodded, “I’ll agree with that. It could mean people desperate enough to turn into bandits or groups turning into raiders, something that would be a severe hardship here in the winter. There may be some of that anyway but you don’t want your own community turning on you.”
Lawson was still nervous and Stro still had that determined look on his face which told me the revelations weren’t finished. I prompted them to finish by saying, “Stro …”
“Yeah Rocky, I know you know me same as out on the field. Wish I could find a real girl that understood me like that.” I nearly kicked him for the “real girl” comment but I let it slide when he took a deep breath. “Dad has a working radio.”
Thor perked up at that but let Stro decide when he was going to continue. “Anyway, I just thought … Dad said he saw Mr. Griffey carting off some radios that those eco-freaks had stashed. I mean, say if you found them and you like could talk to Dad and set something up, it might be worth everyone’s while. We’ve listened to the one we have … Dad was a local dispatcher for emergency services but before that he was the tech guy for the local radio station went belly up and he knows his stuff. There isn’t a bunch of talking going on but there is some. And late at night he can sometimes pick up some that are talking all foreign.”
Finally Lawson was looking at Thor expectantly and to be honest so was I. “I’m not getting in the middle of things. I’m a stranger around here and even with Rocky vouching for me I’ll be the first neck on the chopping block if something blows up. You get with your dad, see if he wants to meet me, we’ll go from there.”
“That’s cool,” Lawson said, relief obvious on his face to have this part over. But Stro was starting to look nervous because I expect he knew that it was going to be up to him to explain to his dad why he let the cat out of the bag. “We are going to be back in town tomorrow. I know it is short notice but maybe you could come then. Just for a minute to see if Dad agreed to meet you. We’ll be up here early in the day because we got a list of stuff that Dad wants to hunt up over at the electrical supply and the earlier we are up the fewer people that might see him acting normal. We get power for the radio using solar panels he swiped off the highway signs and off some of them real expensive cabinets up along the ridge. Maybe he can set you up too.”
Thor sent the guys home before it got any later and we needed to get home for chores as well. We were both quiet for a while and then I asked, “Thor?”
“You’re fine Rochelle.”
“Maybe I should sleep …”
“No. I said you’re fine. You didn’t touch that woman, she didn’t spit on you, we left the area asap. And you were wearing gloves.”
Still scared despite his determined answer I said, “I just hope that the infected people didn’t sabotage the outhouse.”
Thor’s eyes bored into mine, “Did you …?”
“No. Didn’t need to. Public bathrooms gross me out; I’d rather go in the woods. But Sarah did.”
“She was wearing gloves too,” he reminded me.
“Yeah, I know. But it has to be going through her and Sand’s head. And it makes me wonder even more if we should discontinue salvaging until winter has a chance to finish the job that the greenies started.”
Thor nodded, “We’ll certainly take more precautions. I haven’t a clue what that infection started out as. It looks like plague but plague is a bacteria. It could be small pox but the sores are too big for that maybe. The sores around their mouths look like herpes … like giant cold sores.”
I struggled to swallow the spit in my mouth imagining “death by herpes.” I nudged my horse over to the side of the road where the foliage and weeds had started to close in before the ice storm had killed everything back to give myself time to stop being grossed out. “What about leprosy?”
Thor nodded, “Yeah, that’s a possibility but it is a bacteria also. I’m wondering if Griffey wasn’t wrong about it being a virus on top of the other things he has been wrong about. What are you doing?”
I shrugged, still uncomfortable with talking about Uncle Bentley. I still wasn’t sure just how to feel about the man beyond have pity for someone who obviously had led a hard life as a child and let it warp his brain his whole life. Then I had another thought.
“I’m picking some sumac berries. The next bad storm will likely knock the rest of them off and to the ground.” As I used my pocket knife to take the berry cluster and then put them into a rucksack that I had brought for just-in-case I asked, “What if it was a virus that played heck with someone’s metabolism or their immune system? That would be right up the alley of those quacks that helped create us GWBs.”
Thor’s expression was concerned as he told me, “Hon … let it go for now. You are upsetting yourself worse for nothing. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
I wasn’t going to let him get away with it. “Thor I’m not a child. We need to talk about it so that we can … operative word here is we … can plan some kind of defense against it in case it does become a problem.”
We had reached the gate and when I went to get down Thor motioned me to let him do it. I could tell his arm was a little sore but he stood there just looking at the gate for a while. “One thing is for sure, we need to figure out some way to tell if the gate has been messed with when we aren’t around.”
We finally entered, locking the gate behind us, and then went off to do our chores. The weather became brisk enough that we were both glad to lock down the house for the night and fritter some time away working on projects around the house. I was going to help Thor with the stuff down in the basement closet but the space was too limited for both of us to be in the little room at the same time. I was also at the point of being very frustrated with it and Thor said just to let him have some quiet time to see if he couldn’t figure it out. That was just a polite way of say, “Go away kid, you’re making me nervous.”
For my part, I had decided it was time that I took a more active approach to our food supplies and started planning what to do come spring and how to make the best use of what we hade so that it would last through the winter and feed us up right. First I set some of the dried sumac berries to making syrup. The rest I hung near the stove to make sure they finished drying the rest of the way before I popped them in some airtight jars for later use. After that I played let’s-run-face-first-into-the-next-memory by going over to the room Mom used as her craft room and office. Once there I started pulling out her recipe files.
Dad had carved these very pretty recipe boxes which fit three-by-five index cards like normal recipe file boxes only there were really long like those draws in the old paper index catalogs the library had before they went online. I nearly knocked myself out when I slapped my forehead and hastily made a note to check the school and public libraries the next day if there was time. I skipped over the boxes marked “Church Suppers & Potlucks,” “Canning & Preserving,” and “Brews & Liquors” though I knew I’d be coming back to them sooner rather than later and went straight to the three file boxes marked “Herbs & Forage.” One of those boxes was marked Spring & Summer and the second one was marked Autumn & Winter.
Mom was slick, each season had its own section and within each section it was broken down into the different types of recipes – appetizers, beverages, breads, cakes, desserts, fish, meats, salads, soups, and on and on. Now the third recipe box was not broken down into the type of recipe but by the main ingredient – cress, wild roses, dandelions, acorns, plantain, sumac, etc., etc., etc. Mom would never have made these up for herself because she grew up this way; it was just natural to her. She made these for me and I suppose I would need to share them with Sarah as well in some way. I added index cards to my list of “wants.” Or I thought maybe a typewriter as I saw a light flicker to life in the stairwell that led to the basement.