Updated: Feb 23
Below is the entirety of the Scab serial as it was on my last blog. After this any serial sections will be posted by themselves. Each original serialized section will have its title bolded and underlined. Enjoy.
With a Whimper and some Clumps of Hair.
The first sign's of Scab was rapid hair-loss. You could scratch your nuts, and have a fist full of pubes, or take off your hat and have a new bald spot. What was worse- once that happened, death usually occurred within seventy two hours. This was followed by finger and toe nails falling off, teeth falling out, and bloody stools as the internal organs began to dissolve. At the end, those who had it were literally crapping their guts out as they rotted away. Literally. Rotted. Away. The worst part was that the contagious phase of the disease was the seven days when signs weren't showing, and it gestated for over a week in most cases. By the time the disease started showing up, literally millions of people were losing their hair, and within a few weeks, tens of millions were dead. Those who were immune- they could carry it for that seven days, but then it just died as their bodies destroyed the virus.
Scientists couldn't pin it down. The disease was so contagious that simply being in the same room as someone who had it was enough to get fully infected. Nine out of ten who were infected died. The other one... No one could explain how it happened, but those who survived found that their immune systems were super charged. This really paid dividends when someone decided that if their country couldn't survive, no country would survive. Some think it was China that launched first. Others think Russia decided to pull the trigger. I know it was the United States. Maybe not at an official level, but before the news was out that missiles were headed our way, I watched the silos four miles from my house shoot their wad.
At the time, I didn't really care. I had literally just finished burying my wife and kids in the front yard. Morgues had been swamped right at the onset of the Scrab, and never really caught up. Funerals happened so fast that many were just left to rot in their homes. Some survivors, like myself, took it upon themselves to bury their dead. Plots were dug in back yards, or vacant lots, or even parks and the bodies were dumped, rather unceremoniously, into the earth. I tried to make the burial of my family special- even said a prayer- but in ninety five degree weather with seventy percent humidity, there is no real ceremony to as laborious a task as digging five graves- even as shallow as I managed.
So when the nukes started falling, I was actually kind of relieved. Death would be mine. The silos near my home would surely elicit a nuke or twelve of their own. So I sat on my front porch, watching the skies for what I figured would be the streaks of MIRVs reentering the earths atmosphere, content to be vaporized by the impending nuclear fire. I saw clouds appear over Wichita some fifty miles distant. Drank three pitchers of lemonade. Ate a whole loafs worth of PB&J sandwiches. Then I drank a case of Miller. No nuke erased me from existence.
"Shit," I said to the graves in the front yard. "Looks like I get to wait to see you all again."
I went upstairs, and grabbed my Glock. Chambered a round, and put the muzzle to my temple. I closed my eyes, squeezed the trigger to the point where it normally broke- then stopped. I squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to will my finger to finish its backward march toward the grip and end my life, but my survival instinct, even as depressed and inebriated as I was, prevented me from taking my life. I threw the pistol across the room in disgust and fell to onto my bed weeping- ashamed that I couldn't even take my own life.
I can't recall what exactly went through my mind in that moment of realization that I couldn't kill myself. I'm not sure if it was depression, or rage, or fear. All I can recall is the effect- I needed to eat. I was a voracious stress eater (still am) and the stress was almost physical. I would doubtless go to all ends of the earth to find snack foods. And that is what I decided to do in that moment. I needed some Skittles. Bad. A big bag of Skittles. And a Ginger ale. I didn't see a reason not to take some weapons with- I always wanted to walk around the town strapped like a warrior. So I grabbed my AR, slung it, got the car keys, and walked to the car. Town was five minutes away. Skittles seven minutes.
Oddly- I was excited.
When my family got the Scab, we stayed home. I tried like hell to be a good nurse, but when the people you are trying to help are literally wasting away, and there is nothing you can do to ease the pain, or help them to heal... I spent a lot of time moving between bedrooms, cleaning up bloody stools and hair and finger nails. By day two, my family could barely talk. They were comatose six hours before they died. It was then that I had known that I would be a widower, though I felt like an orphan. My family had been my life. I had taken a job editing technical manuals from home just so I could be there with them. The walls of the house were plastered in pictures. Memories that I decided would be buried with the ones I made them with.
It was the hardest thing I had ever done. The pictures had to come out of the frames- so they could fit into the box I had set aside for them. I piled them into the box at random, trying hard not to look and reflect. The last picture I dropped on the pile was of all of us. Sandra, Megan, Kyle, Linda, me. We were in front of our home, smiling like the perfect American family at the camera I had put on a tripod. The picture was the most recent- only twelve days old. We had printed it off after we had it and hung it in the foyer.
I picked it up, and without thinking, folded it and stuck it in my pocket. Closed the box, and took it outside. I started digging the graves. I dug the grave for the box first. Then I dug the graves for the rest. Five graves in total, each about three feet deep. I went inside to check on my family. When I came to the door to my bedroom, I stopped. My hand was on the door knob. The only sound coming from inside was the raspy breaths of my wife, and the sounds of the ceiling fan. I stood there for what seemed like an hour just listening to the death rattle of my wife's final agonizing breaths. Eventually, the room was silent save the fan. I opened the door, and walked to the bed. I had seen the sight nearly a hundred times in the three days prior, but it still shocked me to the core to see here lying dead on our marital bed.
As I had figured, it took about five minutes to get to town. The roads were clear of traffic- not unusual for this time of week- and the CD player in my car blared out one of my wife's favorite bands. I couldn't stand them, but I let it play, soaking in the last vestige of the woman who had stolen my heart. She had adored this band when she was alive, and was going to try and figure out why. The guitar riffs sucked, the words were cliched, and the drummer seemed like he was on acid or Speed. But she liked it. Why?
It had been four days since I had been to town. The last time I had gotten a pizza from the local C-store. Now, I was parked again before that same store, the music blaring, looking at a building that should be alive with people at that time of day, but was devoid of all signs of life. I got out, slung the rifle, and walked to the door. It was locked.
"World's ending, might as well break the glass, right?"
I unslung the rifle, charged it, and put a round through the glass. It was safety glass. Within seconds the whole door was free of the offending shards and I unlocked the door. I never re-slung the rifle, just walked in carrying it. I pointed it at corners, checked danger areas. Went back to the good ole days when I was 19 in Iraq. The C-store was amazingly well off. No one had seemed to even try and loot it before I got there. I looked back at my car, then at the C-store. Shrugged, and re-slung the rifle. Shame for all the food to go to waste.
It took me about an hour to get the car stuffed with all the food I figured would be worth taking. Jerky, chips, soda, candy, and anything else that didn't need refrigeration and had an expiration date. I cleaned the place out. While I was there, I ate my fair share of Ice Cream sandwiches and meat sticks. Shortly after the nukes, power had gone out. I had a generator at the house, but I wanted to save the gas. I was beginning to get the feelings that I would be leaving sooner rather than later. More importantly though, I wanted to see if anyone else in town was alive. Three hundred people called this place home. How many were still kicking. I got in my car, and started driving down the main drag.
I honked the horn, screamed out the window, did everything I could to get someones attention. I figured someone had to be alive. I gave up when I saw a whole family, sitting on their porch. The dad and two children were husks sitting on the porch swing. Mom was missing half her head. She evidently had the balls to go through with it.
A New Home
For being the end of the world (and just having experienced a nuclear war) things were rather calm. The drive home was perfect. Calm, sunny, about seventy degrees, the sun slowly fading into the horizon. It was majestic. The only bad parts were that everyone I knew was dead, the grid was down, many cities lay in ruins, doubtless radiation was beginning to sweep over the countryside, I had just buried my family. But at least the weather was turning around. I decided to leave the car's sound system off for the drive. The sun slowly sinking into the west cast shadows in the orange light of the dying day. Most animals, save dogs for some reason, were immune to the Scrab, and while mankind slowly died off and vaporized themselves, the birds and the bees did what birds and bees do.
The drive gave me time to think about what I was going to do. My family was gone, the people I knew were gone, I had a car load of food, lots of ammo. I could just stay at home and shoot shit, but somehow that seemed rather mundane. I knew I'd never kill myself- that incident with the Glock had proved that. But I also knew that sitting around waiting to die from radiation poisoning or starvation wasn't in any way shape or form a possibility. I needed to leave if for no other reason than to try and find something worth doing. The food in my car would fill about half the back of my truck, and could fuel my adventures for at least a couple weeks. More if I rationed effectively. And I had always wanted to see places like the Grand Canyon and Tuson and Las Vegas. Maybe Yellow Stone. There would doubtless be stores with food still around that I could take advantage of. Maybe even some people I could team up with. Maybe spend my time with someone new before the end came.
As I pulled into the driveway, the plan took shape. I would go west first, toward the Grand Canyon and check out the sites. I had an almanac in the truck, lots of overlay paper, about ten full gas cans, food for weeks, a couple camping water filters, arms for hunting and defending myself, and a a full set of tactical gear (plates, carrier, ammo pouches, survival knife, water carriers, and a fully stocked ruck- what can I say, I'm a prepper by nature...). The only issue was the effective range of my truck. At best, without gunning it, I could get around 400 miles to the tank. With fifty spare gallons of gas, that range nearly tripled. It was going to be interesting getting gas from gas stations with no power, but I would cross that road when I came to it.
I parked the car in the garage, and transferred the food to the truck. I then gathered the other assorted gear I would need and stored it in the bed. My pack and other gear went into the cab behind the drivers seat. If I had to bail, I wanted my kit easily accessible. It took two hours to collect what I needed. I even took the time to gather three five gallon pails with water in them. Treated it with bleach, put the lids on, and stored them near the cab. There was no easy way to get the water out, but having it around was better than not. I then grabbed my almanac, and headed inside with it and my rifle.
As I charted my course on overlay sheets placed in the pages of the book, I contemplated what other things I might want. I knew I wanted a good deer rifle and the ammo for it. I also wanted some comfort items- my book of CD's and my MP3 player. Computer. Some DVD's. I had an inverter for charging the electronics in the truck, and I knew I would want to watch movies. Hell- I would doubtless find new movies in my travels, same with music. The internet was out (literally. I tried to get some imagery of the various places I would have to go, and found that Google Earth was down. My GPS still worked though.) so anything I wanted to watch would have to come along. It took another two and a half hours to get my route planned and pack the last items in the truck. The CD and DVD cases along with my laptop onto the floor in front of the passenger seat. The pack was moved to the passenger seat where I could grab it faster if I had to bail. My rifle I decided would stay strapped to me as well as my pistol. I set it all up so it was easy and comfortable for me to be in the truck. Comfort and accessibility were the keys to success.
Happy with the situation as much as I could be, I visited the graves of my family, said good night, set some simple alarms on the doors and windows, an went to sleep. It was midnight when I finally conked out. I decided to wear my clothes, and have my rifle leaning against my nightstand. Even with my family freshly buried, no power (I had done my final preps by candle light to save my batteries), and the level of uncertainty in my future, I was in good spirits. I had a goal- a mission. See the sights before I died. Maybe find some new friends. I slept light that night- I was woken by the sounds of Owls hooting, some coyotes calling, and a gentle rain at four in the morning. When I woke, at seven thirty, I felt even better than I had before I went to sleep.
I pulled the truck out into the driveway, and walked through my house for the last time. I passed the trophy my son had won for selling popcorn for his troop. I ran my hands over the tapestry my wife had bought during our trip to Germany. I stared at the picture of my great great great grandfather from just after his time in the Union Army during the Civil War. Sat on the couch where my wife and I had made our first born child together. I set a pile of newspapers in the basement amidst a stack of boxes full of old letters, books, wrapping paper, and other assorted knickknacks collected over the course of our shared lives. I brought more things down to the pile- pillows and blankets and old clothes. Anything that could burn. Once I had a large enough pile, I struck a match, and dropped it onto the paper. I stayed only long enough to ensure that it had caught, and then retreated to the driveway where my truck waited.
I leaned against the truck, and watched as my old home caught fire. My entire life up to that point was going up in smoke in a very literal sense. My new life as a nomad was about to begin. My heart and my emotions didn't know what to do. I was equal parts excited and sad. The heat of the fire grew more intense- glass shattered and the steal siding of the house began to warp under the heat. Black smoke poured out of the windows and rose into the sky mixing with the low hanging clouds of the overcast morning. I clambered into my new home, and turned the key to my new life. The engine roared, and I put the truck in drive. Pulling away, I kept glancing in the rear view mirror at the burning house as I drove away. The markers of my families graves were the last thing I saw of my former life as I followed the curve of the road toward the interstate. I pulled the picture of my family out of my pocket, and placed it over the speedometer. One thing I hadn't packed was a camera, and my phone had been left on the dining room table. I had no use for either. There as only one picture I needed, and it hung now in my new gallery- a lone reminder of a past lost to time.
Oddly, I never started to cry. I didn't feel the need to eat. All I wanted was to drive away and put as much distance as I could between me and my former life. A new adventure awaited, and I was intent to see it through.
I didn't make it very far, maybe five miles down the road, before the realization of what I had done washed over me. The column of smoke was no longer visible in the rear view mirror. The music that was playing faded away as my ear drums began to resonate each beat of my heart. I stopped the truck- my vision blurring as tears flooded my eyes. I put my forehead to the wheel between my hands, and started to sob. First, an almost gentle sobbing. Soon it turned into a wail as I started screaming profanities at the world, at God, at the truck, at my computer, rifle, pistol, pack, the bird that landed on the hood of my truck, my hands, and eventually myself.
I turned the mirror so I could look myself in the eyes. "YOU COWARD! You fucking coward!"
My eyes were red, snot hung from my upper lip which quivered in rage. Rage that I had destroyed my families memory. Rage that I had run away. Rage that I hadn't been man enough to kill myself and join them. I pulled the Glock out again, and put it in my mouth, my finger taking the slack out of the trigger. All that stood between me and salvation was the seer. I sat that way, my Glock resting uncomfortably between my teeth in my quaking jaws, tears running down my cheeks, looking at myself in the mirror. My mind's eye played my last vision over and over again- my brains flashing back over the seat as blackness overcame me.
But it never happened. Eventually, my finger relaxed, and the gun fell unused into my lap. My crying ebbed. I wiped the snot from my face with my gun free hand. Re-holstered, and looked down at the picture in front of the speedometer.
"I can't do it, babe," I said. I sounded pathetic. Lost. Cracked. Not the man my wife had fallen in love with. No confidence. No drive. "I can't end myself."
I could hear her saying through a smile that could melt a lead heart, "I don't want you to. Find something worth living for- be the man I loved."
"I can't. I need you."
"You can. I know you can. You're so much stronger than you think. You're still here, aren't you?"
I smiled at that, and closed my eyes. She always had a way of calming the horrors in my mind. I knew she was gone, knew that the conversation I had just been a party to wasn't real- it was in my head- but I also knew that I needed it. I needed her, even if it was just me playing tricks on myself. I didn't know how long I had left, or what would eventually take me, but I knew that in order to make her proud, I couldn't end myself. I couldn't ever give up. It wasn't the man she loved, the man I tried to be for her. I had messed up big time. All that my wife and kids had even been was turning to ash behind me, the only item that told anything of who they had been was wedged in front of my speedometer.
The picture was all I had of them aside from the memories. Watching my children grow from babies to adolescents. My wedding. My honeymoon. The vacations, conversations, games, arguments, troubles. Her drinking, rehab. The miscarriage. All that remained was the picture of my family sitting on the porch, smiling for the camera that had been on a tripod. I couldn't let that go to waste. I set it back in it's place, and changed the music. I needed something that was me to play through the speakers. She could wait for now. I needed to find myself for a moment. I needed music to push through difficulty to.
Heavy metal was always that for me.
The end of the world was, well, kinda boring. After picking myself back up, putting my family’s picture back over the speedometer, and starting the drive, nothing happened. Clouds rolled in, and a light rain fell. Then they cleared off, and the sun shown brightly in the sky. I drove slower than the speed limit (I think) and just looked around. Trees passed by, and the birds in them, oblivious or uncaring of the events that had occurred in the last few days, kept chirping away. I saw some stray dogs, a dead cat in the road, a skunk. Some deer. But nothing else. It was totally uneventful and boring.
I felt suddenly strange with my left hand resting on the buttstock of my inverted rifle. Conscious that I may never need it. Part of me- the piece that had started to truly enter the civilian mindset- laughed at the other half of me.
“Shut up you civvy puke. You never know when a rifle will be needed. Better to have and not need than need and not have,” I said quietly to myself. I patted the buttstock for good measure.
Two days passed this way, taking the winding back roads constantly heading west toward what I decided was my destination, the Grand Canyon. My mind was wondering. The music droned in the speakers, lulling my conscious mind into deeper thought as my animal mind paid attention to the road.
Why go anywhere? What was the point if not to run away? So far as I knew, there was no one left. And even if there were, the Scab had a 90+% fatality rate not to include what the little nuclear war had to have done. Likely, there weren’t many people left. What was 99% of 300,000,000? Three million or so? Minus those killed by the nukes- maybe, on the outside, one million people left. Of those, how many could survive in a situation like this? Not many, maybe a fraction of a percent of those. The number kept getting smaller and smaller in my head. Who knew how to survive a nuke attack (I did, but I didn’t give a rats ass anymore)? How many would care? How many could and would kill themselves knowing what they faced? How many of those who survived were handicapped? Elderly? Children? Violent?
The last group made me reach down and ensure that a mag was in the well of the rifle and subconsciously scan the area I was passing through. A small ravine was to my left, the trees close to the road, some houses slightly elevated to the left caught my eye. An opening in the trees to the right. My eyes followed it- and locked on a child swinging on a play set.
The child was lit like an angel by the sun. I couldn’t tell from where I was what the age or sex of the child was. I couldn’t tell the color of their skin, or hair. I only saw them for a split second through the gap in the treeline before more trees obscured my view, but seeing that child swinging on the swing set filled my heart with hope, and sent my mind into overdrive. Another person- maybe even more people. I hadn’t realized until that moment how lonely I really was.
I took the first turn toward the right I could, and very quickly found the home where the child lived. As I drove up the driveway, my heart began to sink. No one came forward to see who had arrived. The child stopped swinging, and sat motionless on the swing. As I neared, the details of the child became more apparent. A little girl, by the size of her, maybe three or four years old. Black hair, a cruddy dress. Her shoulders slumped when she let go of the chains supporting the swing, and she tucked her chin to her chest, and looked at me from behind her brow.
I stopped the truck, turned off the engine, and moved the rifle to the passenger seat, being careful not to let her see it. I didn’t want her to take off running. Getting out, I kept my hands where she could see them, and showed her an all too real smile.
“Hi,” I said in as kind of a voice as I could. “Are your parents home?”
I had asked the question out of habit, not truly thinking of what it could mean to the little girl. I kept the smile on my face, and mentally chided myself. Her parents could be dead, or maybe they had left her with a babysitter and never returned. No way to tell just then. I didn’t let it slow me down.
“I’m Daniel. What’s your name?”
The little girl played with her hands in her lap. I didn’t know if she was trying to decide if she should talk to me, or if she was just being shy. I took the moment to take a quick look around. The house seemed deserted. No adult was coming out to say hi, or shoot me. I’d be perfectly fine with a salutation or even a “Who the hell are you- get away from her!” But a shot to the chest wasn’t on my list of things to acquire any time soon.
There are some things that make themselves apparent given time, and in the minute that followed, I began to see that the little girl was lost. No literally lost, but figuratively lost. She was alone, or at least thought she was, and her mind was trying to figure out what to do. Could I be trusted? Was I a bad guy? I needed to break the impasse, and get her talking. I reached into my pocket, and pulled out a meat stick. I squatted down and held it out to her at arms length.
“Here, are you hungry?”
That seemed to do it. She slid off the swing, and walked slowly toward me. She took the offered stick in her hand, and took a small bite.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
“You’re welcome,” I replied. “Are your parents home?”
She nodded. It was the smallest nod I had ever seen. Shy and uncertain. I looked at her more closely. Her skin was light brown, her eyes blue and bloodshot. She was definitely around three years old. She had no shoes on, and her feet, hair, hands, and face were dirty.
“Can you take me to them, please?”
She nodded again, and surprisingly reached out and took my hand, pulling me forward. I stood and followed her, my hand in hers, toward the house. She opened the door, and we walked in.
“Hello,” I called.
No one replied. The inside of the house was hot and sticky. The faint odor of rotten meat was in the air. We had entered the house through the kitchen. Dirty dishes sat on the counter molding in the intense summer heat, and the fridge stood half open. A box of cereal lay on the floor, the remains of its contents spread before it. More boxes lay beyond- noodles, more cereal, crackers. It looked to me that the child holding my hand had been fending for herself.
“Mommy’s sick,” said the little girl as she pulled me forward.
I followed her lead deeper into the house. The smell grew stronger as she led me toward the living room. In a recliner sat a woman, heavyset and Latina, covered from the waist down with a blanket. The light in the living room was terrible. The curtains were drawn and what little light there was seeped through the cracks and threw strange shadows every which way. The little girl stopped cold, unable to move beyond some imaginary point on the floor. I looked down at her, smiled, and squeezed her hand in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. I let go and walked quietly toward the sleeping woman.
“Ma’am,” I said as I knelt. “Ma’am.”
The smell was intense kneeling next to her. I wondered if the smell was what was keeping the little girl away. I gently nudged her shoulder, and instantly pulled my hand away from her ice cold skin. My mind recoiled, and I put my hand back on her shoulder, trying to act as calm as I could for the little girl behind me.
"Mommy has been sleep for long time."
"Yeah," I replied. "Why is she in the chair?"
"Mommy cut her leg with the axe."
I lifted the blanket from her feet, and was greeted by the source of the smell. Just above her ankle there was a gash about six inches long that went not to the bone, but into the bone. The skin had already pulled away as maggots ate the dead putrefying flesh. I grabbed the dead woman's hand, and lifted it. Her body was stiff with rigor mortis. Her daughter didn't know what was going on.
"Can you get your dad for me, hun?" I already knew the coming answer, but I hoped beyond any reasonable hope that I was wrong.
"Daddy's in the bedroom. He's sleeping."
I stood up, and followed the little girl to the bedroom. When I opened the door, I knew instantly that he wasn't asleep. Hollowed out eye sockets was generally a good indication that you were looking at a corpse.
My mind was still- empty even. Two dead parents, and a three year old child that somehow managed not to starve to death and not hurt herself. I was actually kind of impressed and suddenly supremely depressed. And maybe a little angry. The world had a nasty habit of being a stone cold bitch, and in this instance, she had really taken the cake. I looked down at the little girl, her big eyes looked back at me- worry permeated her expression and mixed with hope. The two emotions seemed to swirl beneath her gaze, and the mixture of the two caused any hardness within me to melt.
I started feeling sick to my stomach. She wasn’t my daughter- but she was right there and then my responsibility. I looked back into the bedroom where her dad lay rotting, and gently closed the door. I didn’t want this. To be an adopted father to an orphan of a world ending catastrophe. I just wanted to see the Grand Canyon, and slowly wither away. I knew that there was nothing left to live for, so I was making it up as I went, because damnit- I couldn’t end myself. But this little girl represented something that I hadn’t had since my own family had died, and to be honest, it terrified me.
Unfortunately, fate doesn’t hand good men easy decisions. The right choice- the one I already knew I was going to make- was to adopt her as if she were my own. Take care of her. Provide for her. So far as the world was concerned, she was my daughter now. I took a deep breath, and knelt down, bringing my eyes to her level. How to tell a small child that her parents were dead- that there was nothing left in the only place she had ever known, and that she had to leave.
“What’s your name?”
“Isabella,” she said, choking back tears. Somehow, she knew what I was going to say.
I closed my eyes, and swallowed. Opening my eyes, I took her hands in mine, and looked into her tear filled face. “Isabella, I’m sorry. But your mom and dad are dead.”
“Mommy’s sick,” she said with the assurance of a three year old.
“No, sweetie. She hurt her leg, and she died as a result.”
Isabella looked back at me, confusion mixing with the worry and hope. I could only guess at what was going through her child mind. Losing my family had been obnoxiously tough on me- I could only wonder at the pain starting to build within her. Knowing what had almost happened to me, I knew that she needed to get her mind elsewhere.
“Can you show me your room,” I asked seeking to take my mind off its most recent train of thought.
She nodded. I stood, and she led me to her bedroom. It was small, and very little girl. A "My Little Ponies" poster hung on the wall next to her closet which was filled with more dresses than I had ever seen in my life. My own daughters had been tomboys, and had preferred jeans and t-shirts. The few times my wife and I had made them wear dresses they had looked like cats stuck in a tub full of water. She helped me, with a little guidance, find her "play" clothes. Shorts, some pants, and t-shirts. I figured those would be best for our trip. Socks, underwear, and "sleep panties" (read Pullups) rounded out her wardrobe. Not much considering, but I knew that we would be able to get more later. I hauled the suitcase out to the truck, and made room for it in the back seat. Isabella sat on the swing set.
For some reason, while I was packing her things into the truck, I thought of what was going through her mind again. I was trying to remember what I could remember from when I was three and the short answer was nothing. Not even root emotions or large events. And from what my mom told me as a kid, the house we were living in had burned to the ground- I had almost died. And this idea that I couldn’t remember my childhood home burning to the ground filled me with a deeply seated dread. Isabella would never remember her parents if she grew old. The thought moved to my own memories of my own family, and went back again to the pillar of smoke in the rear view mirror that was all of our shared memories. My eyes watered.
"Damnit, don't do this man. Stay focused."
I closed my eyes, and drove my feelings away. A few breaths, and my mind was clearing. I had a new family now, for as long as we were around. Isabella was my new daughter and I was her dad. If we lived more than a few months- if we went on for years- I would be all she knew. I would be her dad. And that led to a different sort of question. Did I take pictures of her parents with me,and try and keep their memory alive? Or did I let them pass into the past and fully adopt this little girl as my own? No one would know except me- she might remember a little, but not enough... Maybe?
I looked over my shoulder at my new companion swinging through her sorrow. A gentle breeze had picked up her hair and tossed it into her face. Even with her face obscured, her pain was evident. Shoulders slumped, feet dragging through the dirt, only moving to nudge the swing on. No pumping that a happy child would do- just the gentle glide of one that was sad.
What to do?
I looked back at the house, the orange glow of evening starting to settle onto its western face. I didn't want to leave at night, and there were some things that had to be done- not because they were fun or truly necessary in these circumstance, but the right things to do. I closed and locked the truck, and went back into the house. I wrapped the bodies of Isabella's parents in some sheets from the bedroom, and dragged them outside. I set to work digging graves yet again. Th earth here was softer than at my own house. The graves were correct- properly proportioned and deep.
"Isabella, come here."
She looked over at me for the first time during the whole endeavor- the sun was nearly set by then. The shadows long and leering. She turned back to what she had been doing. I bit my lip, looked at the bodies wrapped in sheets on the ground. I pulled them into the holes. Mom fell in with a dull thud echoed by a crack as something broke. Maybe getting her parents into the graves before she came over would be best. I did the same with her dad. He was lighter than her mom- doubtless because he was farther along. Again, dull thud with a crack. I was bad at this burial thing.
I walked over to the swing set, and knelt beside Isabella. She swung and I waited patiently for her to acknowledge me. Eventually, she looked at me. Tears were streaming down her face. I reached out my hand. She looked at it. I could see the gears turning in her head, trying to decide what to do next. Did she understand at some level that in order for her to live, she needed to leave her home and come with me? Did she realize just how much things were changing? I wondered silently to myself what I would do if she refused to come with me. I couldn't just leave her to fend for herself, but would it be moral to take her against her will away from the only place she knew? I smiled at her as warmly as I could. She wiped the tears from her face.
"Come on. You should say goodbye to your parents."
She nodded, and looked at the ground.
"I'm scared," she said. Her voice sounded smaller than she looked.
She looked at me. I smiled again. She smiled back. My arm still outstretched, she took it, and I led her to the graves so she could say goodbye.
We stood there for something like thirty minutes looking at the mounds of earth that covered her parents. I tried a couple times to say something, but nothing worth saying would come to mind. "I didn't know them- they must have been nice," just wouldn't cut it. It was a time for real reflection and deep introspection, but the three year old it would be for wouldn't understand in the slightest. So we stood there, looking at the ground, both of us in our own little worlds. I can't say for sure what she was thinking, but I knew what I was thinking. I had another mouth to feed. Another person to clothe- one that would grow if we didn't die of radiation poisoning or an accident. I had a little girl suddenly in my life that was one hundred percent dependent on me for just about everything.
I reached into my pocket, and dug out what was there. A 3 Musketeers. Not a Snickers, but enough. I opened it up and began munching as I thought about the problem.
The issue wasn't really that I had another person- that was actually a good thing. Loneliness could be a killer- literally. No, the issue was more of logistics. I had a truck with a bench seat, and a crappy backseat that had no space due to all the crap I had stuffed inside it. The bed was full, the backseat was full, the passenger seat was almost full. When I had packed it, I had never thought that I'd have anyone- let alone a three year old girl- with me on my adventure to oblivion. I looked at her. She was looking up at me as I munched on my candy bar.
I reached into my pocket, and pulled out another. Snickers. Figured. I handed it to her. She opened it, and took a big bite. We stood there, watching each other eat a candy bar, a gentle breeze blowing the scent of freshly dug earth past us.
"We need a new vehicle, little lady," I said between bites.
She cocked her head to one side, and looked at my truck, seeming to grasp finally what was going on. She looked back at the graves, then to me.
"Daddy's car," she replied, pointing to the four seat hatchback in the driveway.
I smiled. "No, we need something bigger. Like an RV."
"RV Campaway- no over like um."
I looked at her funny.
"I heared it on the TV."
"Remember anything else?"
"There was a doggy. He was cute." She smiled at that. "I want a doggy."
An idea formed in my head. I looked at the little four banger in the driveway, could see the child's seat in the back.
"Come on." I grabbed her hand, and we walked to the garage. I opened the door and to my delight, the inside was empty. "Go sit on the steps."
She sat watching while I moved the hatchback out of the way, and put the truck in the garage. I pulled out my rifle and pack, closed the garage, and put the hatchback behind the house out of sight of the road. I didn't know why I was so paranoid all of a sudden, but keeping my truck hidden, and making the place look abandoned seemed important.
I took her back inside, and we settled in the kitchen. I started digging through the cupboards pulling anything that I thought was worth having. Boxes of food that Izzy (I couldn't help but think of her as an Izzy) hadn't yet raided, and put them into bigger boxes. Eventually she rubbed her eyes and yawned. I took her to her bedroom, and tucked her in. To my surprise, she was out in a couple minutes.
I explored the house some more, finding a safe in the basement that was unlocked. Inside was a rather eclectic assortment of firearms and ammunition. Most were simple arms- pump shotguns, a revolver, a semi auto that I couldn't place. Nothing really that we needed aside from ammunition. I already had a shotgun and long gun for hunting. I had no need for a revolver- especially a snub nosed .38. I pulled them out as I went through. The pile wasn't too bad. This guy and I could have gotten along if he were alive. I disabled the ones I could- removed firing pins or bent op rods, and moved on. I looked around the basement some more, and found some stored food in the freezer (starting to rot) and some dry goods in the pantry (still good). I hauled all I decided to keep upstairs into the garage.
I went next to the master bedroom. I felt awkward rifling through Izzy's parents things, but given the circumstances, I felt it was alright. I went to the closet first, pulling out boxes. I found a photo album in the first box. I opened it up, and couldn't help but smile. Wedding pictures. A little newborn held by a blushing bride and her- I'll be honest- handsome groom. Cake cutting. Dancing. Then home life. Izzy growing before my eyes as the pages turned. Her first birthday. An anniversary. Christmas. Thanksgiving with family. Before I knew it, my eye's were watering. Must have been the air. I dug in my pocket for another snack. It was empty. I took a deep breath, and pulled one picture from the album- it was of a three year old Izzy and her parents in front of a waterfall. Mom and dad were smiling- Izzy seemed distracted but happy. I found nothing else in the bedroom of note aside from the album. I took out another picture of the family together in front of the house. I put them both in my pocket, walked out carrying the album, and closed the door for the last time.
I didn't sleep well that night, waking every hour or so to every sound I heard. Coyotes. Crickets. The house contracting in the cool of the night. I slept on the floor outside Izzy's door. She was my life now, and I would be damned if anything or anyone hurt her. I probably ate twelve candy bars. Stress eating was going to kill me.
Early the next morning, after getting breakfast, I dug out a phone book and map and located RV Campaway. It was closer than I had originally thought. Only about ten minutes if my map recon was worth a damn. I grabbed us a snack (pockets full of jerky and Skittles counts, right?) some water and loaded Izzy into the hatchback. Map on the passenger seat, and rifle between me and the door, we set off. I turned on the tape player, and some kids songs started playing through the speakers. Izzy smiled, and started to sing along at the top of her lungs.
"Down by the BAAAYYYY!!! Where the watermelon GRRROOOOWWWSSS!!"
Whatever- she was content. I'd let it slide. Just so long as she wasn't sad. As I thought, it took about ten minutes to get to the RV site. There were nearly thirty models sitting there waiting to be bought- or in this case stolen. Izzy and I broke into the main lobby, and I located the key box. It was unlocked. I realized I had no idea what I was looking at RV-wise. So we went out to the lot and poked around. I found the biggest one I could, we got the keys to it, and clambered aboard. Looking about, there was more than enough room for everything we had in the truck, and then some. Two beds, a small kitchenette, TV with DVD player- even a washer and dryer though they were nice and small. Everything a budding family of two needed to be happy. There were compartments everywhere for whatever you could want- perfect for storing the small arsenal that I had in my truck. A small closet with a fold out ironing board for clothes.
I moved the car seat from the hatchback to the front seat of the RV, grabbed any and all kids tapes that were there, and strapped my little companion in. Ready to leave, she looked at me, a huge smile on her face. I smiled back. It was really exciting. I turned the key in the ignition, and the RV started right up. It even had a full tank of gas. I carefully pulled it out, and made my way to the lots entrance, then stopped when I saw a dust cloud coming down a gravel road out toward the left. A small car was barreling down the road at reckless speeds. A few seconds later, another car appeared seeming to chase the first.
"Shit," I said without thinking.
"Shit," replied my co-pilot.
In the back of my mind, I knew that I should correct her, but more important things were going on. My blinker was on (old habits, you know?) and the cars were close enough for me to make out models. I knew they could see the blinking light.
"Stay here," I told Izzy. I opened the drivers door and slid out pulling my rifle behind me.
I moved forward of the RV, and took a kneeling position bringing my rifle up to look through my ACOG. The first car hit the main road into town, and turned toward me. I could only see one person in it.I panned back toward the other vehicle, and saw what looked like two or three. I could just make out what appeared to be a rifle sticking out the back window.
"Shit," I said.
"Shit," said a little voice beside me.
I looked at Izzy. "I told you to stay in the RV."
"I'm scared," she said.
Too late, the first car turned on it's blinker signaling a right hand turn into the RV park. It was close enough now that I could make out a pony tail.
"Go hide in the RV," I nearly yelled.
Crying, Izzy ran back to the RV. I gave a quick glance backwards to ensure she had gone, then returned my attention to the vehicles moving on my position. The first came to a stop, the person inside putting her hands out the windows. I moved quickly to the vehicles side, my weapon never leaving the person's face though my eyes were darting from car one to car two almost spaztically.
"Get out, hands where I can see them," I commanded.
"Those guys, they're chasing me," came a female voice from inside the car. "They shot at me. Please, help!"
I looked at car two. It had made the turn and was moving toward the RV park. With only a split second to make a decision I turned the gun toward the second vehicle and thumbed the safety off.
"Get in the RV, now!"
The young lady didn't argue. She got out and ran as fast as she could toward the RV. The second car was no more than seventy yards away when I pulled the trigger. The first round hit the hood, sparking off into the windshield. The car came to an abrupt stop and began to back up. I could just make out the driver's face- his eyes wide with fear and excitement. The guy in the back with the rifle tried shooting at me but missed wide. I led him as the car moved backwards, and let round number two loose. I saw his head snap to the side and the rear window shatter. The car turned about, and sped off the direction it had come.I watched it make the turn again onto the dirt road, and speed away. Situation almost returned to normal, I went back into the RV to see who it was that I had let into my life.
The young woman- maybe twenty five- was curled up with Izzy, trying to calm the crying little girl. The young woman looked at me with a mixture of hope fear and thanks. I didn't know what was going on. I wasn't even sure I had made the right call. Maybe I should force the woman to leave. Protect Izzy from potential danger. Then again- having another person around, especially a woman, would be a good thing. Single dad's aren't' the best thing for adopted daughters. I pulled a bag of Skittles from my pocket, ripped it open, dumped half the contents into my mouth, and handed the remainder to Izzy. I chewed as I thought, my little accomplice chewing with me, the action calming her down more than being held by a stranger ever could.
"Do you have anything you need in the car," I asked after I swallowed my multi colored sugar rush.
She shook her head.
"Buckle up, then. Izzy,," I said reaching out my hand, "come forward with me, we'll get you buckled up and then we're out of here."
The young woman let Izzy go, and buckled herself in. I got Izzy strapped in, and we were moving within a minute. I watched the young woman's car recede in the mirror and for the first time, found myself not lost sad or angry, but deeply afraid. I had a young kid worth killing and dying for- and a new set of problems to contend with. The entire drive back to the house, my eyes never stopped scanning- and Izzy and I ate two packs of jerky and three bags of Skittles. I didn't let the young woman go hungry- I had big pockets. She got a bag of each herself.
When we got back to the farm, I was able to more fully take in our new acquaintance. She looked alright- physically healthy, young, athletic- but there was something wrong with her eyes. Wild, crazy. Not 100% there. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Her demeanor too left something to be desired. I knew Izzy and I would need help later. I knew I would need to find someone should we end up surviving longer than a few weeks. But my first look at this young woman who had landed in our new home caused me a great deal of consternation.
“What’s your name,” I asked.
She looked at me, her eyes seeming to clear for a few seconds as she thought.
“Maybel,” she replied, “with one ‘L.’”
“Maybel, with on ‘L’, huh.”
“Yeah... With one ‘L’.”
She seemed uncomfortable. Fidgety even. I began to wish I had a candy bar handy. Something wasn’t right, and the first thing that came to my mind was drugs. I didn’t have much experience with drugs (one time, an associate of mine was high on Meth, but outside of that- nothing) but she seemed to be exhibiting signs of being on something.
“You alright? No injuries?”
She shook her head. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to say she was hurt, or if she was trying to communicate that she was fine. She scratched her arm. Looked toward the door of the RV.
“So,” I trailed off. “Why were those guys chasing you?”
She looked at the ground, as if contemplating what she was going to say.
“Look, I don’t really care why, I just need to know. I have this little girl I have to take care of, and any information about what I might have stepped into will help me keep her, and you, safe.”
Seemed reasonable. Maybel looked at me, trying to decide if I could be trusted while I tried to figure out if I could trust her. I didn’t want to be the bad guy, and casting a young woman out on her own in what amounted to the end of the world could be a death sentence. Not that a woman couldn’t do it, but this one seemed lost and confused more than normal. I didn’t see her surviving very long on her own. Well, at least not comfortably.
“You promise you won’t care,” she asked.
“Whatever you DID is forgiven by me, what you do- that matters a ton right now,” I said. It was the truth. The last week had been rough on anyone still alive. I couldn’t blame a college aged girl for doing something dumb. I almost ate a bullet… TWICE. Not that I was going to tell her that.
I could tell she still wasn’t one hundred percent sure. I dug in my pocket. Empty. Food was a good lubricant for discussion. It was also a good stress reliever. And my stomach was rumbling. Action always made me hungry.
“You want something to eat?”
She nodded. I felt a tug on my pocket. Looking down I saw Izzy looking back up, her mouth open, her finger pointing at it. She was hungry too.
“Ok, let’s get something to eat, and we can talk about it. Sound good?”
Izzy nodded. Maybel did too. Food, the great equalizer.
I parked the RV in a less visible spot. There was no building on the site that would house it, so I put it in a stand of trees between the house’s garage and the back yard. To get a reasonable supper, we had to move some stuff anyway, so we loaded some important items into the RV. Food, weapons, water. Then I prepared a veritable feast of jerky, juice, and some canned veggies with M&Ms for desert at the little table in the RV. It was quick eating if the conversation hadn’t been slowing it down.
“I was in college when everything went to shit,” said Maybel as she chewed on her Slim Jim. “My mom wanted me to come home, she said dad was sick. Like, he had the scab kinda sick. You know? It took forever to get out of town. Everyone was, like, trying to leave at the same time. When I got home, my dad was, like, already dead. He had seen on the news what Scab did, and killed himself. The ambulance was busy, so a cop came by and recorded the death, but nobody came to take him away. Mom and I, like, buried him in the back yard.”
Maybel stopped here, letting it all sink in, or wash over, or something. Having put my own family in the ground, I knew how tough that must have been for a college aged kid to deal with. Having dealt with my fair share of bodies, that aspect hadn’t been that difficult. Being there as my family had suffered. I almost wished they had died while I was away, and all I had to do was come home and bury them. Almost seemed easier.
“Then mom got sick. She started losing her hair, then she got weird. Started yelling at me.”
Maybel’s demeanor changed. I could tell that she had taken it personal. My wife had yelled at me- called me all kinds of names before I got her into bed where she had died. I knew it had been the Scab talking, but would I have been able to handle the same thing if it were my mom and I was nineteen?
“She started coughing up blood. It seemed every time I walked into her room to take care of her, like, she was worse. Her teeth fell out. Finger nails. She seemed to hollow out,” the last part of hat she said was cried more than said. She regained her composure and continued. “The smell was the worst, like, it permeated everything. She shit her bed, couldn’t get up to leave. I don’t know if she even knew what was going on. Like, she didn’t recognize me by the next day. Stopped talking. Just breathed slower and slower and slower. Then she stopped.”
There was nothing to say about that. I knew what it was like, even Izzy had an idea. I looked at the little girl for the first time since we had sat down, and she was poking her jerky around on the table. I squeezed her shoulder, and she looked up. I gave her the best reassuring smile I could. She put the jerky in her mouth, and the put her thumbs in her ears with her fingers splayed out and made a silly face at me. I couldn’t help it- I laughed at her unexpected response.
Maybel laughed, too. She actually had a rather nice laugh. Soft and filled with something that we all needed. I looked at her, and saw her shudder softly. She regained herself, and moved on.
“I couldn’t bury my mom. She was, like, too heavy to move. So I did my best to wrap her in her sheet, and just left her there. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to bed. When I woke up, I was outside. I mean, like, the top of my house was gone.
“I was kinda scared. I didn’t know what had happened. It was raining. I got in my car- it wouldn’t start. So I walked away. Walked, like, two days. Then some guys picked me up. Said I could hang with them if I…” She looked at Izzy, shook her head, and continued. “I rode with them for a while. They gave me food. And other things. Yesterday, I decided to leave. I grabbed one of their cars, and I left. I guess they found me.”
As she concluded her short, brutal story, the situation for me and Izzy became more disconcerting. What I figured would be a nice drive in an RV to the Grand Canyon was suddenly looking like it would be more like a tactical withdrawal under fire. And I knew nothing about these guys outside of one was dead.
“How many are there in the group,” I asked after a moment.
She shrugged. “I didn’t count them. But at least ten.”
“Are they armed,” I realized it was kind of a dumb question- one had been shooting at us.
“Yeah. They got those assault rifles, like the one you got,” she indicated the AR laying against the wall next to me. “Some longer ones with big bullets, and pistols.”
Great. “Longer ones with big bullets” could mean anything from a .50 caliber bolt gun to a 12ga duck gun. One was a serious problem if they knew what they were doing, the other- not as bad. AR pattern rifles, handguns, potential anti-material rifles. I was most definitely outgunned. Standing and fighting was a losing proposition- especially with a three year old and a potential drug addict. If we were going to survive, we needed to run. I grabbed the M&Ms from the table, opened the bag, and dumped them into a bowl. Izzy grabbed a handful, and stuffed her mouth until her face resembled a chipmunk. She looked up a me beaming with delight. I was beginning to wonder if she was developing a sugar addiction. Maybel grabbed a handful, and ate them one at a time from the palm of her hand. I grabbed a handful, and dumped them into my mouth, and munched while I thought.
For the first time since everything fell apart, I was eating to think rather than eating to de-stress. Maybe a shituation like this was what I needed.
A fight was out of the question, of that I was sure. One man, hampered by a recovering college drug addict (even if it wasn't her fault) and a three year old girl (even if it wasn't her fault) driving around in a camper wouldn't last long against even a disorganized and untrained though heavily armed group of college wankers. We'd all end up dead or worse- for Izzy, I figured worse. Better in this instance to slink away and live to fight another day. I felt dirty thinking it, but my mission was preservation of the lives near me (including my own). Running in like Rambo- even if well intentioned- was a stupid idea. "A true warrior knows when to fight, and most importantly, when not to fight," had been the motto of my company commander. I never really understood it at the time- I was young and ready to kill. Now, looking back through the years, I finally understood what he meant.
This was a time not to fight.
I pulled out the map, and lay it on the table. Maybel was eating some cookies she had dug up, and lifted her glass of red pop off the table. Izzy had to take her food off as well.
"Maybel, do you know where these guys were? You said you left, and they found you- where'd they find you? Here's the town where we met, and here's the road you came down into town. Where did you come from?"
She looked at the map, scratched her arm, and with her finger traced the road backwards. She stopped, then did it again with a turn. then stopped and did it again with another turn, at a different spot in the same direction. She looked frustrated, and eventually she threw her arms down in exasperation.
"We were in a town- I don't remember the name. All I remember is making a left out of town, and then a right, but there's no town anywhere near there."
"A left followed by a right?"
"Yeah- a left followed by a right."
I followed the road up with my finger, watching ahead on the map to see what was there. I backtracked the opposite direction she had, accounting for going in reverse, and eventually landed on a small town ten miles away.
"How long had you been driving," I asked.
"Maybe twenty minutes," she replied looking at the map. "Stallsberg," she read from the map. "Yeah, Stallsberg. That's it. I remember now. Cody made a joke about stalling in Stallsberg."
They had come from northwest of the town where we'd picked up Maybel and the RV. We were just east of the town. They were more or less directly in line with where I wanted to go, just north of my original path. That would mean a large jaunt either north to go around them, or south. There was a lot of terrain between where they were, where we met, and where we currently were, but hat wasn't so say they might not get lucky. I put down my snack, and looked at possible routes. Big roads might be dangerous- the kids in those cars would be more likely to take main roads. Bigger, safer, more chance of hitting a town. I figured they had maps, but even so, short routes to towns would be there goal- at least I figured that would be there goal. I truly had no idea. But they weren't going to be thinking like me, that much I was sure of. They'd want to conserve gas, and go from food store to food store to survive.
Back roads then.
"Did you guys travel at night?"
She shook her head. "No. They'd stop and then make me-" She looked at Izzy. "We slept," she said.
I nodded. "Any other girls?"
Two more girls. I wanted to rage punch something. "They treated the same way you were treated?"
She nodded again, her eyes closed, trying to fight the withdraw and be strong at the same time.
"Ok," I said.
I returned my attention to the map. Skirt south using dirt roads at night when the boys decided to make a pit stop for food, sleep, and entertainment. Drive as far as we could until morning, hide the RV- then I could rest up until the next night. They'd be forced to search (if they even cared) which would slow their overall progress down. They didn't know where I was, where I wanted to go, or my rate of march. They knew nothing other than I had an RV. Even then- would they remember what kind? I couldn't' hide the RV where RVs would be. That was for sure. Anywhere else would be ok, but camp sites and RV stores were out. We'd have to park the RV places that wouldn't be obvious. I was suddenly glad for farmers and their big assed sheds.
I looked at my companions. Izzy was happily eating her jerky, it's tough texture slowly giving way to her determined desire to eat it. Maybel was looking at me, as if wanting to say something. I figured it was as good atime as any to start getting to know the young woman under my charge better, and figure out what we were looking at. I didn't want Izzy to hear any of this just yet- she had enough on her plate (though she was quickly polishing that off). I took the map off the table, and folded it up. I replaced it in the mapbox in the front of the RV.
"Izzy, stay here and finsh eating. Me and Maybel are going to go talk for a moment, ok?"
Izzy gave me a thumbs up and a big jerky filled smile. "Will do, buckaroo."
I smiled at that. Where did these learn all this stuff? I signaled for Maybel to follow me out of the RV. I grabbed my rifle, and clambered out into the noon sun. What little clouds had been present earlier in the day were gone, replaced by an expansive blue sky. The sun beat down, bringing the temperature up rapidly. My guess was at least the nineties- maybe more. My mind cataloged how much water we had in store, and I made a mental note to stop and get more, or find a filter system of some kind. I returned to my previous thoughts.
"So, now that the girl child is occupied, what happened with you during your time with this little gang I find myself in opposition to?"
I knew it was going to be a hard thing to ask- maybe even too hard. BUt I also knew that getting it out in the open was better than having it a mystery for me and Izzy to find out later. Times were tough, and I needed the only other adult with me to be equally as tough. Actually- tougher. That meant facing the hard cold reality of life, and analyzing the things that happened as objectively as possible. We walked out past the house to where a picnic table sat, and we sat down. Her facing the field behind me, and me facing the resting place of the RV and the road. She twiddled her thumbs, shook a little, and looked up at me.
"Promise you won't judge?"
I bit my lip, contemplating where to take the conversation. How to get her to trust me- I suddenly knew what I had to do. It sucked, but I knew it was what she needed to start healing and get through.
"I had a family," I said, my voice low, ashamed. "Before the Scab. A wife and three kids. They all died."
I lay the rifle on the table, and rubbed my hand on it, taking solace in the cool plastic and aluminum and the security it offered. I took a few deep breaths, my heart racing at the thought of reliving my tragedy, and continued.
"I couldn't watch. I had seen enough people die of Scab, I knew what was coming, how to make it less painful- I couldn't. I couldn't."
I closed my eyes, and the sight of my wife's pale collapsed face filled my thoughts. Her sunken eyes, distended tongue. Her mounded grave, then the pillar of smoke from our burning home filled my mind's eye, once again, my heart sank and my mind turned to ending it all.
I felt a hand on mine, and opened my eyes to see Maybel looking at me, tears in her eyes. I had told her everything. My fall from being a family man. the collapse of my dignity and worth. Everything that losing the people you loved most entailed.
"You were stronger than me," I said. "You were with your mom until the end."
"Maybe," she said. She shuddered, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "But you're not alone in making bad decisions. I could have left them sooner, but I thought..."
I squeezed her hand back.
"I thought they would protect me," she finished. "But I was just an easy, drugged up lay."
She opened her eyes- they were blood shot. Tired. Puffy. Scared. Hopeful. Beautiful.
We both looked at Izzy standing in the RV's door. Her small figure seeming to fill it with a commanding presence despite her obvious need to pee.
"I gotta go potty!"
After the items from the truck were done being loaded into the RV, and the weapons were secure, I worked out a sleeping schedule for Maybel and myself. We were going to attempt to drive all night, and we needed the rest. I could tell that she needed sleep as well- her jitters were getting a little worse, though she muscled through it rather well. I had her take a nap first. She slept on one of the two beds in the RV- the larger of the two. I convinced Izzy to take a short nap as well- I figured having her awake would help us stay awake. At the very least, her being asleep allowed me to get the last of the items int eh truck stowed in the RV and secured without interruption.
It also allowed me to think on the issues at hand. The previous night had been nearly a full moon. It was waning, so it would provide less illumination for the drive, but still enough- I hoped. I was starting to wish I had a set of night vision. The advantages they would give in a situation like the one I was looking at were immeasurable. Other sets of eyes watching for followers or other vehicles would be a boon, but safety would go up with even simple night vision. I also wanted the RV in a different color. The relatively bright cream color that it was wouldn’t be easy to conceal. I made a mental note to find as much camo spray paint as I could as soon as possible to make it harder to find. I was beginning to think that there would be a time when I’d meet people that I wanted to deal with, but if so- I’d figure it out. Right then- I wanted to stay hidden.
Once all the truck items were stored in the RV, and the weapons locked, I rooted around the house and garage for any last minute things that might be worthwhile. I did manage to find a couple cans of spray paint- black and John Deer green. Not ideal, but better than nothing. I also found duct tape, and a few set of hunting gear- coats, boots, pants- in a size I thought was close to Maybel's. There were also a couple sets of shoes. That got me thinking- I went to the master bedroom and grabbed some of Izzy’s moms clothes- mostly socks, and a fresh pack of underpants. I didn’t know if the latter would fit, but a change of underwear and socks could go a long way toward making someone feel refreshed. I also stumbled across some meat processing equipment- an electric grinder and sausage stuffer. I packed them as well.
I was very glad we grabbed the RV we did. There were storage compartments under the living space that were accessible from the outside- most of the goods we needed for a long trip were stored there. Water, some empty fuel cans I found in the garage, food items that didn’t require special storage, extra clothes, and the various items that I found scavenging Izzy’s folk’s house filled them about half full. I felt good knowing we had the room we needed to expand our capabilities, but I was nervous about how well what we had would get us through.
I woke Maybel, gave her specific instructions of where to go and what to watch for. I gave her a hand battery operated radio and sent her on her way. I let Izzy sleep. It was going to be a long stressful night for us all and potentially doubly so for her- she’d be leaving her home for the last time and making a new future with what amounted to two strangers. As Maybel walked off toward the house to watch the road and driveway, I wondered how reliable she’d be. It seemed logical to me that she’d be reliable enough given the danger, but when that ebbed- when there wasn’t the danger anymore- would she be someone to stick with? I put the rifle in condition three, and laid it next to me in the still warm bed, the muzzle oriented away from anyone and anything important. I set a small bettery operated alarm clock and snuggled in just as Maybel keyed the mic.
“Dan, it’s Maybel. Can you hear me?”
I chuckled inside some. So much I needed to teach her. We had a while. “Maybel, this is Dan, I read you lima charlie. How me, over?”
“Um, I guess I hear you ok. Over?”
“Ok- I’m going to sleep. I’ll turn up the volume, but don’t send any traffic unless it’s an emergency. Ok? Over.”
I turned up the volume to max and set it next to my head, snuggled the rifle close to my body, putting the sling around my arm, and did my best to fall asleep.
The alarm going off startled me awake, leaving that shaky feeling one gets when they haven't gotten enough sleep. I silenced it, and reached for the radio.
“Maybel, this is Dan, over.”
After a few seconds, she replied “This is Maybel, over.”
Her voice was startlingly loud in my ear. I turned it down remembering how I had turned it up and continued.
“We still alive?”
“You forgot over, over.”
I smiled. She was catching on to the radio thing fast. “Yup, just seeing what you’re picking up. Come on back, over.”
“Ok. Ten four. Over.”
Radio etiquette. She needed some training. I rolled out of bed, and saw that Izzy was still asleep. I was surprised by that. I had assumed she’d have woke up long before my four hours were up. I looked out the window, the sun was beginning to wane and sink into the horizon. I surmised correctly that the moon should have already risen, and walked out of the RV just in time meet Maybel.
“Did you see anything?”
“No, nothing at all.”
“Did you walk around like I said- be honest, I won’t be mad.”
There was a pause. “No, I sat in the living room and watched the driveway.”
“Ok,” I said nodding. “We’ll do a quick recon of the roads via bino and then get ready to leave. I’m going to need you to help navigate and keep an eye out for potential tails. Think you can handle that?
She shuddered a little. “Yeah, I should be able to do that.”
“Ok. I grabbed some stuff from Izzy’s mom’s dresser for you- socks and a new pack of underwear. I don’t know if they fit-“
“They’ll fit. I already took some of them. I did look through the house… I should have told you that…”
I smiled. “It’s ok. I got a little lax as well. I also found some hunting stuff that looks like it belonged to Izz's mom. They might fit as well.”
I could tell that she still felt a little awkward talking to me- probably due to the subject matter- it could also have been the newness of me wasn’t yet through, and to be honest, I still felt a little awkward as well. I still didn’t know if I could trust her, and yet I had to thanks to the situation. Nothing was perfect at all, yet, everything was still better than it had be. In one day I had found two people to take care of and that in and of itself had changed my mindset and mood dramatically.
“Let’s get something to eat, wake up Izzy, and get ready to leave.”
She nodded. “Ok.”
“You gonna be alright?”
She shrugged and curled her lip. A slight shudder coursed through her body. I nodded. And noticed something over her shoulder in the distance- vehicles moving on the highway to the north. Maybel gave me a confused look as I went into the RV and grabbed the binos. Once I had returned, I took a quick look at the vehicles. Maybel squinted trying to see them herself.
"You see them?"
"Kinda- I lost my glasses a while ago."
I nodded, putting that information in the back of my head for later. “What types of cars did those idiots have?”
“I don’t know- a couple trucks, a couple cars. I think there was a van.”
“Shit,” I said.
“Shit,” came a little voice from behind me.
I looked down at my little accomplice and shook my head. “How do you do that?”
“Do what,” Izzy replied.
“Never mind.” I looked at Maybel. “Your former acquaintances are on the road to the north. I don’t think they spotted us, yet. Both of you in the RV, get it ready to move. Get a snack in your stomachs. We’re oscar mike in ten minutes.”
Maybel’s look told me everything I needed to know- she was scared. The proximity of her former entourage would keep her helpful for the time being. But their proximity also created the problem that they could theoretically find us before we could leave. We needed to move ASAP. I had wanted the cover of darkness to make my move, now it appeared that they were making me react. Izzy and Maybel disappeared into the RV. I followed them a couple minutes later after I discerned which direction the convoy had gone. They were driving around us. I anticipated that they would start toward us sooner rather than later. Once inside, I consulted the map. The nearest town was the one where Izzy and I had gotten the RV. That town was in the direction I had originally intended to go. Not anymore. I fleshed out a quick route, traced it on the map for Maybel to follow, and five minutes later, started the RV’s engine.
“We’re going to be ok,” I said with as much of an upbeat tone as I could manage.
I hoped that it wasn’t a lie.